BOSTON — Back in December, when “liftoff” was still a word fans hoped would define the Orioles’ offseason, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said it would be difficult to “chart a course” for the team to be division front-runners. The goal, he said then and has since repeated, was to reach the postseason.
The winter ended without Baltimore having done enough to even make that a likelihood, and thus, in an ideal scenario, the Orioles will spend this season somewhere on the margin of in and out of the postseason hunt. Their first series this weekend in Boston showed how thin that margin could be.
In dropping two out of three game against a Red Sox team projected to join them near the bottom of the American League East standings, the Orioles impressed offensively but struggled on the mound and in the field in each game. Given that Baltimore’s hopes of reaching the playoff could well come down to a one-game margin, each defeat could prove to sting. Baltimore scored 23 runs with numerous offensive highlights — five-hit games for catcher Adley Rutschman and outfielder Austin Hays, a stolen-bases record and impressive approaches throughout the lineup — but the defense repeatedly made miscues as the pitching staff became the first in 18 years to surrender nine runs in each of its first three games.
“We swung the bat well enough to [win the series], but we’ve got to pitch and play defense,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We didn’t have our best series on the mound or defensively, and those are two things we’ve got to do better to win series in this league.”
At the start of the season, FanGraphs gave the Orioles a 10.4% chance to reach the playoffs, a figure exponentially above their 0.1% odds at the beginning of last season and just beneath their 2022 peak of 10.9%. But it was still the fourth-lowest percentage in the AL.
With another year of experience for their core players, these Orioles are seemingly improved from last season’s team, though the direct player-to-player upgrades were modest, with Kyle Gibson in place of Jordan Lyles as the veteran in the rotation, James McCann over Robinson Chirinos as the backup catcher and Adam Frazier in place of Rougned Odor as a left-handed second base option; Baltimore also added Cole Irvin to its rotation and Mychal Givens to the bullpen.
Gibson and Irvin combined to allow 10 runs in nine innings in Boston, though Gibson’s line would have looked stronger without a pair of inherited runs scoring in his sixth inning Thursday. Frazier impressed with five hits, four of them for extra bases, in eight at-bats. McCann and Givens opened the year on the injured list.
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Without a blockbuster in the offseason, the Orioles instead chose to rely on its core of young, and thus inexpensive, players, believing that collection of talent will progress over the course of another season together. Baltimore’s projected payroll of $61.9 million is the second lowest of the majors’ 30 teams, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
That’s about a 40% increase from last year’s league-low mark, with the Orioles unexpectedly going 83-79 and finishing three games out of a wild card spot. Notably, Baltimore dropped its first three games of the season to the team that claimed the AL’s final playoff spot, the Tampa Bay Rays.
But their supplements to their rotation were two pitchers who, in 12 combined seasons as major league starters, have had three deemed above-average by ERA+. They added only one experienced reliever to a bullpen that seemed prime for regression. McCann and Frazier, both All-Stars in the past, struggled in 2022.
Elias was clear throughout the offseason he didn’t want to make any moves that could hurt the team’s chances of contending in future seasons or would block the talent the organization has coming, with the hopes that many of those pieces help this season. Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, the former and current top prospect in the sport, will have their first full major league season in 2023. Infielders Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby and outfielder Colton Cowser, all at Triple-A Norfolk, could join them in the Orioles’ lineup at some point this year.
Regarded as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, Grayson Rodriguez was seemingly primed to make the Orioles’ rotation out of spring training, but his struggles in camp prompted Baltimore to have him start the year at Triple-A. In Norfolk’s season opener Friday, he didn’t pitch past the fourth inning and walked four, issues Elias pointed to in explaining the team’s decision to option arguably its most talented arm.
Beginning at the end of last year, Elias said he hoped to see Rodriguez break camp as a starter with Baltimore. Around the same time, he declared a playoff berth as the team’s stated goal for 2023.
The former didn’t happen. This weekend, the path to the latter got off to a tough start.