When Cedric Mullins first found himself among baseball’s best players at the 2021 All-Star Game, hardly any of them wanted to talk with him about the Orioles.
But as Mullins played for the United States in last month’s World Baseball Classic, he noticed a change in tone from the country’s stars, with a fascination and curiosity around what’s brewing in Baltimore.
“We’re confident in this group of guys,” the Orioles’ center fielder said, “and people are aware of that.”
In Mullins’ breakout 2021 season, the Orioles tied for baseball’s worst record, their fourth straight bottom-five finish. But a 31-game improvement propelled the team to the cusp of last year’s postseason, and as the Orioles return to Baltimore for their first homestand of 2023 — set to begin Friday against the New York Yankees — their expectation is to break into this season’s playoff field.
“This year, when you’re looking ahead, you’re expecting to see a lot more wins,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “You embrace that your team should be better than what you’ve been in the past and just go kick [butt].”
The Orioles are viewed as a team capable of securing one of the American League’s six playoff spots but also one expected to regress. Public projection systems and sportsbooks universally forecast the Orioles to take a slight step back in 2023, especially as they brace for the challenge of playing in an AL East division featuring four other playoff hopefuls. To open the year, FanGraphs gave Baltimore a 10.4% chance to make the postseason, a figure that nearly matches the club’s peak in 2022 while still ranking as the fourth lowest in the AL.
Still, members of the team are clear the only expectations that matter are their own.
“The nature of a lot of these guys in this room is they want to compete,” utility player Terrin Vavra said. “They don’t want to settle for mediocre.”
Vavra is one of six players Baseball America listed among the organization’s top 14 prospects entering 2022 who made this year’s opening day roster. That group also includes catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, both of whom have been the publication’s top overall prospect. The Orioles started slowly last season, first playing without Rutschman as the 2019 first overall draft pick recovered from a right tricep strain, then dealing with his early struggles as he settled into the majors. But as he took off, so did they. From June 11 on, the Orioles won the fourth-most games in the AL, and only AL Most Valuable Player Aaron Judge was more valuable among position players than Rutschman based on wins above replacement.
“I’m just very excited to see what this team can do and to go to battle with these guys,” Rutschman said. “There’s no other group I’d rather do it with.”
He was behind the plate Wednesday as right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, regarded as one of baseball’s best young arms, became the latest player to debut from a minor league system almost unanimously deemed the top in the sport. Young talent and a collection of second-chancers fueled Baltimore’s breakout last year, when it went 83-79 as the top AL team to miss the playoffs. Coming off a modest offseason, the Orioles are largely depending on that youth for the team to take its next step.
“A lot of people didn’t think that we’d be where we were last year, more so thought it was a fluke,” left-hander Keegan Akin said. “We knew what we were capable of. … It gave us hope coming into this year, like, ‘Holy [crap], we’re young, but we can do this.’
“It’s exciting to realize we’re not far from where we want to be.”
The Orioles’ roster is mainly built on players who endured the organization’s rebuild and others who were byproducts of it. To add to that group this winter, Baltimore signed veteran starting pitcher Kyle Gibson for $10 million, second baseman Adam Frazier for $8 million and right-hander Mychal Givens for $5 million, the largest guarantees they have given to a starter, position player and reliever since Mike Elias was hired as executive vice president and general manager in November 2018. For the first time in Elias’ tenure, they pulled from their minor league stockpile in trades to add James McCann as a backup catcher and Cole Irvin as a left-hander for their starting rotation.
The result of those moves and arbitration raises for some returning players was a 40% increase in payroll from last opening day to this one, though the overall figure of $60.9 million still ranks as the second lowest in baseball, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The Orioles’ payroll is more than $120 million beneath every other team in the division but the Tampa Bay Rays, a consistent low-spender who Orioles CEO and Chairman John Angelos has pointed to as a model organization for his own.
FanGraphs gave the Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Rays three of the AL’s four highest playoff odds entering the season. The Boston Red Sox, who finished five games behind Baltimore in 2022 but took a season-opening series from the Orioles, opened with a better than 1-in-3 chance. But relative to the 0.1% odds it received at the start of last season, Baltimore is an immaculate position.
“We hold ourselves to a very high standard,” right-hander Tyler Wells said. “I would say that that’s kind of just outside noise, but internally, we’re trying to win a championship every day.”
After trading fan favorite Trey Mancini ahead of last year’s deadline, Elias loosely cited projections of the Orioles’ postseason hopes as a cause for a move that pulled from the major league team while it was in contention. Days later, after also dealing away All-Star closer Jorge López, Elias declared “it’s liftoff from here” for the organization, meaning it would enjoy an upward trend from that point on.
“We know that we cannot go backward,” infielder Ramón Urías said.
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But even slight improvement might not be enough to reach the postseason. Brandon Hyde, the runner-up for AL Manager of the Year, and his players weren’t interested in offering record predictions or proclamations of where their season will end. They simply want — and expect — to win as many games as possible.
“The only thing that matters expectations-wise is, honestly, what our guys feel about the team and how we’re playing,” Hyde said. “I think anything can happen. It’s a long season. I don’t want to set any sort of certain expectations except I want us to play well, and if we play well, good things are gonna be at the end.”
Yankees at Orioles
Friday, 3:05 p.m.
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