The 2022 Baltimore Orioles surprised many with a winning record of 83-79, which is one fewer win than a Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the postseason. The Philadelphia Phillies managed just four more wins than the Orioles, only to lose to the Houston Astros in the World Series.
The Astros figure predominantly in the Orioles’ organizational subconscious. GM Mike Elias came over from Houston in 2018 with promises of building a worst-to-first mentality, which he helped Jeff Luhnow accomplish with the Astros. However, Baltimore ownership wants lower expectations after what has been described as an over-performance in 2022.
Amid rumors the team may move from Baltimore, CEO John Angelos points to the mid-market situation as a reason why ownership plans little forthcoming expansion of expenditures.
For the sake of comparison, San Diego has a similar market placement and the fourth-highest payroll in baseball.
This apparent wish-casting of the team as the IRL version of the Cleveland underdogs from the Major League movie franchise is backed up by Baltimore’s dubious honor as the second-lowest payroll in baseball.
However, the Baltimore Orioles boast several elements, including one of the richest minor-league farm systems in recent memory, which could factor into a surprising Cinderella story unfolding in October.
3 Reasons Why The Baltimore Orioles Could Be A Cinderella Story
Since his arrival from the Astros in 2019, pitching coach Chris Holt has been an integral part of the club’s minor league pitching development, as well as being responsible for introducing data-driven analytics into the Baltimore Orioles’ organizational ethos.
It would appear, if one squints closely enough, that the Orioles do, in fact, regard a pitching ethos. At the very least in recent times, the Orioles seem to prefer a pitcher of a certain mold: that of both low walk and strikeout rates.
If one squints too closely, double vision is almost guaranteed. The Orioles traded for Oakland A’s Cole Irvin, who himself is a clone of Bruce Zimmermann, and both might register as poor man’s John Means.
Means, who maximizes his repertoire by emphasizing a changeup as his key offering, should boost the club’s depth in his return from Tommy John rehab around the All-Star break.
The off-season signing of the serviceable if unspectacular Kyle Gibson furthers this paradigm of control and command over “stuff.” That being said, prospects equipped with plenty of stuff can be heard knocking at the door of Camden Yards.
Leading this charge of potential studs is Grayson Rodriguez, who likely won’t be held back by the likes of Irvin or any other warm body whom the Orioles might utilize to stall Rodriguez’s MLB debut. If he makes the Opening Day roster, Orioles fans can look forward to an upper 90s fastball with a plus-changeup and developing slider.
These offerings along with improving command should help young Grayson break the mold of the team’s reliance on one-year contracts for Kyle Gibson to serve as placeholders for the future.
The Orioles have their own internal Gibson doppelgänger in Tyler Wells, who utilizes sharp command of four average pitches to limit baserunners and try to coax weak contact.
Like Wells, Kyle Bradish also couples a below-average fastball with three decent off-speed offerings. With rumors of a spring uptick in velocity, Bradish may have more K upside than Wells, if he can optimize the natural cut action of his fastball to improve an unremarkable 10% swinging strike rate.
Throwing an above-average fastball-cutter combination 60% of the time, Dean Kremer is also bidding for a rotation spot.
One of these three may be simply a placeholder for someone like former top prospect D.L. Hall.
In 2022, Hall debuted in a bullpen role, and a pre-season injury might have him pegged for a repeat performance, though the club has expressed a desire to stretch him and his deep arsenal out to start.
A promising bullpen should also strengthen the Orioles’ chances to build on 2022’s success. Felix Bautista can be dominating as the closer, pumping 100-mph fastballs, with movement, to the tune of a 15.1% swinging strike rate.
Major league teams often have success employing prospects in bullpen roles so that the players might focus in short bursts on commanding their potentially superior stuff.
Returning to pitching coach Chris Holt, his role in the Orioles’ minor league development positions him to engage data analytics, in addition to his relationship with the players, in order to maximize their talent pool. Baltimore possesses the luxury of utilizing this strategy to balance and deploy their young pitchers at the beginning and in, arguably, the more crucial middle innings of a game.
High Floor Veterans
After garnering MVP votes in 2021 Cedric Mullins saw his production significantly fall in 2022. Mullins perhaps overplayed his hand as a power threat, but he also may have been victimized by the wall change in Camden Yards.
A look at Mullins’ 71.7% zone-swing (Z-swing) and 34.2% outside-swing (O-swing) would indicate a player pressing for hits, as these percentages were worse than his career averages 67.4% Z-swing and 31.1% O-swing.
Still only 28, speedy Mullins should be able to get on base and improve his batting average coming off a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio of 18:7%.
Another 28-year-old veteran in his prime, Anthony Santander, may qualify as a candidate for the most underrated hitter in baseball.
Flashing a video game .ISO of .314 in the shortened 2020 season, the outfielder crashed back to a painful reality in 2021, while his power went down, and strikeout rate went up.
What’s most exciting about Santander is an excellent combination of a near 80% career contact rate and 2022 exit velocities placing him in the top 45 players. His X-stats confirm he not only has a high floor coming off a 33-homer 2022 campaign but a high ceiling as well – with an xwOBA of .352 versus his actual .336.
A similar case could be made for fellow X-stat poster child Ryan Mountcastle. Flexing Santander-ian exit velos, the Orioles’ first baseman outshines his teammate with a huge differentiation in his actual .423 SLG %, as compared to his .509 xSLG %. This serves as a strong portent of 30+ homers for Mountcastle.
If Mountcastle and Santander can simply meet the floor of their expected statistical indicators, the ceiling for the Baltimore Orioles’ winning potential rises exponentially.
The consensus around major league baseball casts the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system as the envy of the sport.
While the aforementioned Rodriguez stands ready to graduate from that system in 2023, the youth movement actually started in 2022 with the debuts of catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson.
Former number one overall prospect Adley Rutschman announced his presence with authority in 2022, posting a slash line of .254/.362/.445, with a 133 RC+ and elite plate discipline over 113 games.
2023 finds another Oriole in the top overall prospect galley with third baseman Gunnar Henderson, even though he also debuted in 2022. Scouting reports on Henderson point to exceptional plate discipline and power, which he displayed with a solid .348 OBP and elite 92.4 exit velocity.
Contending major league teams crave depth both at the major league level and the minor leagues. The true power of a farm system as stacked as the Baltimore Orioles lies not so much in the ability to produce immediate results from those players, but rather as leverage for the trade deadline.
Just as crafty southpaw John Means nears his return to major league action, the Orioles should have a clear vantage on their playoff potential. If the AL East shows a path to contention for Baltimore, while injury and attrition mount around the league, the Orioles might find themselves buyers at the trade deadline.
With coffers that overflow like they do for this team, a blockbuster trade could set up fireworks for the underdog to have its day in the postseason.
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