Soaking In 101

Orioles look to build upon a 101-win season that ended a 9-year playoff drought
Soaking In 101

It is 6 a.m. on a misty Thursday morning at Bandito’s Tacos and Tequila in Columbia, Maryland. The sun has not even emerged yet, though Baltimore Orioles fans are making their way inside the restaurant to begin the celebration of the team’s yearly fanfest: the Birdland Caravan.

Mr. Splash, dressed in his Orioles jersey and snorkel hat, and the Oriole bird mascot mingle with the fans as 98 Rock begins the morning show from the back of the bar room. General manager Mike Elias and 2023 American League Manager of the Year Brandon Hyde enter to a roaring ovation as fans swarm them for a fist bump and a selfie. The cheers only get louder as shortly afterwards, fan favorite players such as Ryan Mountcastle, Grayson Rodriguez, and John Means emerge from their busses into the sea of orange inside Bandito’s.

As dreary as the morning may have been, that did not stop fans from pouring in to celebrate the new season.

Weeks later, the Orioles announce that John Angelos had sold the franchise for $1.725 billion to a group led by Baltimore billionaire David Rubenstein, ending Angelos’ heinous grip on the franchise and restoring hope in the fans. Not even 24 hours later, the Orioles plucked Corbin Burnes from the Brewers. Fans are then just left eagerly waiting for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training.

Now, we are here today. It is Opening Day. A new journey begins, the road to the 2024 World Series.

Birdland is ready, and why not? The Orioles are coming off a 101-win season that saw an American League East division championship, their first postseason appearance in nine years, and the official end to a dreadful 5-year rebuilding period. A new hope arises as the Angelos era fades and the Rubenstein ownership group takes over. The acquisition of Burnes shows the quick turnaround of events in the front office with all signs pointing towards the Orioles growing more aggressive and more willing to do the right things to end a 41-year World Series drought.

Fans have every right to be excited, and they already are.

Though they were swept out of the American League Division Series last year by the world champion Texas Rangers, the Orioles are determined to not let that happen again. With experience under their belt and with reinforcements on the way, here is a breakdown of the 2024 Baltimore Orioles and what the team will need to do in order to move past the ALDS this season.

Adley Rutschman is a big reason why the Orioles have reached stardom. Photo: Ulysses Munoz, The Baltimore Banner

The Young Guns Have Arrived: Gunnar and Adley

Ever since arriving in Birdland in 2018, Mike Elias has drafted and acquired his way to being in possession of baseball’s best farm system according to Baseball America. By now, a big portion of his draft picks have made it to the big leagues. However, two electrifying names from Elias’ draft scheme headline the wave of players that have graduated prospect level and broke into the league.

Enter Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson.

Rutschman was Elias’ first ever draft pick, selected first overall out of Oregon State University in 2019. He has now emerged as the centerpiece of the new Orioles, the prodigy many thought he would be. Rutschman batted .270 with an .809 OPS, 20 HRs, and 80 RBIs, helping him receive an AL Silver Slugger award for catchers.

He continues to excel defensively behind the dish, stealing strikes with his elite pitch framing and calling the right shots as the captain of the field. All he needs to work on is his throwing game but aside from that, he is the catching prodigy that continues to lead Baltimore to victory.

Henderson was Elias’ next pick and entered the 2023 season as baseball’s top prospect. Many predicted him to be the AL Rookie of the Year and after a rough first two months, he turned it on and put together a rookie season for the ages. He hit .255 with an .815 OPS, 28 HRs, and 84 RBIs, earning the exact award people predicted.

Rutschman and Henderson work together to supply a major chunk of the team’s new wave of youth energy and young talent. They alone have rejuvenated the fans, and it’s an infectious attitude that impacts the rest of the team. The Orioles are lucky to have the production and connection of the Henderson-Rutschman duo and as they grow older and mature overtime, the team will need their leadership and energy to help win ballgames.

Birdland Bashers (Offense)

The Orioles have always been able to hit. That has never changed, even from the last playoff push and throughout the dark years of the rebuild. However, this is an all-around all-skills offense that can do everything from walk their way on base, play small ball, steal bases, and execute situational hitting all while smashing home runs at an impressive pace.

Star centerfielder Cedric Mullins, the team’s lone member of the single-season 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases club, is a prime example of being a 5-tool Oriole hitter. He has the potential to reach 20 home runs and pop one over the fence in a big spot. However, his speed makes him lethal in other aspects of the game including base stealing, base running in general, and defense, where he can cover ground in centerfield and make plays that are generally tough to make.

Mullins’ 2023 was marred by injuries and inconsistency. However, if he remains healthy the entire 2024 season, he will rise again as one of the Orioles’ best all-around players in their everyday lineup.

Anthony Santander has 90 home runs since the new decade began. “Tony Taters” will be back in the middle of the Orioles’ lineup with imposing switch-hitting power. Power hitters Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn are an exciting offensive duo platooning at first base. The right-handed hitting Mountcastle hit .326 with an .898 OPS after returning from Vertigo in July, and the left-handed hitting O’Hearn hit .289 with 14 HR and 60 RBI as a waiver clam from the Kansas City Royals. Austin Hays, who got his first career All-Star nod last year, slugged .444 with 16 HR and a career-high 36 doubles. He completes the Orioles’ chaotic outfield trio.

Former top prospect infielder Jordan Westburg had a great sample of big league baseball last year, hitting .260 with a .715 OPS. Once seen as trade bait in a blockbuster move, he is still hanging around competing with other infield prospects to find an everyday role in Brandon Hyde’s lineup, something that he is capable of doing if he has not already earned it.

The bench is very deep and very diverse. Jorge Mateo and Ryan McKenna can steal bases and play small ball, while James McCann provides clutch power and strong defensive capabilities as Rutschman’s backup catcher.

Oh yeah, they still also have Rutschman and Henderson.

The offense that carried the Orioles the entire regular season failed to appear once the ALDS came. This team will need the offense to be consistently present and swinging, especially if they are to advance beyond the ALDS. The O’s have the guys to hit to victory, and all they lost was Aaron Hicks, who left for the Los Angeles Angels. Whatever Mike Elias decides to do with the lineup and the bench behind the starting nine, what does not change is that it is a very deep lineup with no wrong way to go with whoever is chosen to the Opening Day roster.

Starting Rotation

The Orioles’ new ace has arrived in the form of Corbin Burnes. Photo: Ulysses Munoz, The Baltimore Banner

For the longest time, fans begged the front office to make a move for a frontline leader in the starting rotation, a fairly young arm in his prime that they could trust every time Hyde handed him the ball. Fans called for a solidified ace.

Almost immediately after Rubenstein purchased the Orioles, the team completed one of the most significant moves of the offseason and landed 2021 National League Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes from the Brewers. They sacrificed lefty DL Hall and top prospect infielder Joey Ortiz to complete the trade.

Burnes, 29, brings the ace factor to Baltimore. He had been a top tier staple of the Brewers’ rotation for the past couple of seasons and holds stellar career numbers including a 1.055 career WHIP and a 3.26 ERA. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a late-breaking 90 MPH changeup, Burnes has a quick, short-arm delivery and has swing-and-miss material, racking up 200 plus strikeouts in each of the past 3 seasons.

Everything that Burnes has speaks “ace,” and the Orioles finally have the guy that they have longed for. If Burnes stays on top of things and takes the ace in him to Birdland, then Birdland will surely rejoice over the newly revamped pitching staff.

Grayson Rodriguez slides in as the second starter behind Burnes. The 2018 first rounder finally made his highly anticipated Major League debut last season. Unfortunately, his first taste of pro ball did not go his way and after posting a 7.35 ERA in his first 10 starts, he was optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk. Rodriguez says that being sent back down helped him.

“Nobody wants to get sent down, but ultimately that was the best thing for me,” Rodriguez told 98 Rock at the Birdland Caravan. “I was able to go down, work on some pitches, work on my delivery a little bit, and get everything zeroed back in. In the second half of the season, that was more of the pitcher that I wanted to be and expected out oy myself.”

Upon returning to the Orioles in July, “G-Rod” posted a 2.58 ERA, striking out 73 batters along the way. His most notable performance included 8 shutout innings on September 16 vs. Tampa Bay, helping the Orioles reclaim first place in the AL East. Though he came back armed with a 100 MPH fastball, Rodriguez learned to utilize his slider and changeup more often, thus helping him induce more outs and swings and misses. The real deal Grayson Rodriguez emerged in the second half of 2023 and after completing his rookie season, expect Rodriguez live up to his top prospect potential in 2024.

We have not talked about Kyle Bradish or John Means yet. That is because all we can say is that both will begin the season on the injured list.

Bradish’s injury is highly worrying, as he is dealing with a sprain in the Tommy John surgery ligament, the ulnar collateral ligament. Losing Bradish, whose 2.86 ERA ranked 4th best in baseball last year, is a big blow to a rising starting rotation that is beginning to take the baseball world by storm. The Orioles are putting him on a throwing program in hopes that he avoids going under the knife like All-Star closer Felix Bautista, who is gone for the entire 2024 season. Means, a 2019 All-Star who tossed a no-hitter in 2021, returned from his own Tommy John surgery recovery last September and put up a 2.66 ERA upon return. His season ended early due to elbow soreness and he is about a month behind the rest of the starting pitchers.

So that leaves Cole Irvin and Tyler Wells to hold down the fort until the other two return. Both of them historically pitch better out of the bullpen but given two new open opportunities, Chris Holt’s pitching development program could ramp things up with both of them as they yearn to return to the rotation.

Bullpen

Much like the surprise 2022 season, the Orioles bullpen once again dominated in 2023.

Closer Felix Bautista was a massive part of the bullpen’s success. The imposing 6’8” 285 lb. righty from the Dominican Republic became the most feared closer in the game. He used a 101 MPH fastball and a heavy splitter to strike out 110 batters in 61 innings, making for a ridiculous 46.4 strikeout percentage. Bautista was recognized with an All-Star selection and the 2023 Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year award. He will be sorely and dreadfully missed in 2024 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

In his place for this season is 9-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel, whom the Orioles snagged on a 1-year $13 million contract. This is just a single season rental, but Kimbrel comes to Baltimore with a successful track record including 417 career saves and a World Series championship under his belt (2018, Boston Red Sox).

There is your experienced leader in 2024, someone who has been to the World Series before and is hungry to take the Orioles there himself. He may impress still being 35 with 97 MPH in the tank, but what will impress the most is how he will teach the young Orioles how to become true contenders in the toughest division in baseball. This was a great signing by Elias.

Kimbrel has reliable options to set the stage for him in the ninth inning. Yeinner Cano, acquired for Jorge Lopez in 2022, came onto the scene early last season and began by not allowing either a hit, run, or walk in his first nine appearances. The 2023 All-Star quickly became a fan favorite and finished with a 2.11 ERA and a 1.005 WHIP. Even amidst late season struggles, it seems that Cano was meant for the late game adrenaline.

Many of last year’s relievers will be back in 2024. Danny Coulombe was claimed just hours before Opening Day, and he dominated with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.110 WHIP. Flame thrower Cionel Perez pitched to a 3.54 ERA, but an elevated 10.9% walk rate led to a high 1.556 WHIP. He’ll need to get his command on track if he wants to prove trustworthy in the late innings. Expect to see Mike Baumann and Jacob Webb mix in as well.

Prospects To Watch

The Orioles are once again ranked with the best Minor League system in the entire game. While many prospects have entered the big league scene in Baltimore, many other prospects are working their way to the show with many eyes on them this season.

Five Orioles prospects are listed on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects right now. They, with their 2023 Minor League stats, are:

  • IF Jackson Holliday (O’s No. 1, MLB No. 1, .323 BA, 12 HR, 75 RBI, .941 OPS)
  • C Samuel Basallo (O’s No. 2, MLB No. 17, .313, 20 HR, 84 RBI, .953 OPS)
  • OF Colton Cowser (O’s No. 3, MLB No. 19, .300 BA, 17 HR, 62 RBI, .937 OPS)
  • IF Coby Mayo (O’s No. 4, MLB No. 30, .290 BA, 29 HR, 99 RBI, .974 OPS)
  • OF Heston Kjerstad (O’s No. 5, MLB No. 32, .303, 21 HR, 55 RBI, .904 OPS)
Jackson Holliday, pictured with Double-A Bowie, enters the season as baseball’s top prospect. Photo: Grant DeVivo

All eyes are on Holliday, the prized 20-year-old whom Elias picked No. 1 overall in 2022. Holliday, the son of 7-time All-Star Matt, is currently ranked the Number 1 prospect in the entire game, and reasonably so after he breezed through all four levels of the Minor Leagues last season while batting .323 with a .941 OPS. A shortstop by trade with a swing that can put the ball to all fields, he was named the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year and the best hitting prospect in baseball.

Holliday did not make the Orioles’ Opening Day roster and will spend some extra time polishing his skillset at Triple-A Norfolk. However, when the day comes that he gets the call from Elias (and it won’t be long from now), get ready because this young, athletic, and mature young man named Jackson Holliday is the future face of the game.

Mayo, a corner infielder, destroyed both AA and AAA pitching last year. The 22-year-old Floridian stands at 6’5” and 230 lbs. with a short but massive swing that sends baseballs to orbit. After hitting .307 with 17 HR and a 1.026 OPS in Bowie, he earned a promotion to Triple-A where he added 12 more home runs and helped the Tides to a Triple-A championship. Like Holliday, Mayo will also start at Triple-A. However, in the near future, it makes sense to make him a designated hitter, though he could give Mountcastle and O’Hearn a run for their money at first base.

One name that should be in everyone’s mind is Chayce McDermott, the return piece of the 2022 trade for Trey Mancini. The O’s No. 9 prospect shoved all last season with a 3.10 ERA, a 1.151 WHIP, and 152 strikeouts split between Bowie and Norfolk. He is armed with a late-breaking overhand curveball that he uses to get tons of swings and misses. Do not sleep on this 25-year old righty if anything were happen to the current five starters because he could surprise many people if given the call. Read more about McDermott here.

Do not neglect other names in the Minor Leagues either. Pitchers Cade Povich (Orioles No. 10, 171 K, 1.358 WHIP) and Justin Armbruester (Orioles No. 18, 3.56 ERA, 1.302 WHIP) could get a chance for big league starts this year. Infielder Connor Norby (Orioles No. 6, .290 BA, 21 HR, 90 RBI) has been Major League ready for a while and is a great depth option in the infield. Other prospects like Basallo, Dylan Beavers, and 2023 first rounder Enrique Bradfield are still a ways away from their big league debuts but they are certainly names to keep an eye on.

Conclusion

Baseball is supposed to be fun, as Elias said to 98 Rock at the Birdland Caravan. He sees how much fun both the team and the fanbase is having with winning baseball.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys that love playing and they like one another,” Elias said at the caravan, “and we’ve got a fanbase here in Baltimore that is casual. It’s regular people showing up to games, individual fans. It’s a great atmosphere.”

There is new ownership that is dedicated to winning a World Series. There is a team of young and energized players that are hungry to do the same thing, there is an ace, there is baseball’s top prospect on the rise. There are a ton of good vibrations in Baltimore right now because the Orioles are headed in the best trajectory possible. The chaos came, and the chaos will become even more uncontrollable for the rest of the league to handle.

Yes. Orioles baseball is a lot of fun right now, and the party starts today.

The Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels do battle at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to open the season, which happens to be the Orioles’ 70th anniversary. First pitch is scheduled for 3:05 pm with Burnes starting against Patrick Sandoval.

 

*Cover Photo: Ulysses Munoz, Courtesy The Baltimore Banner

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About the Contributor
Grant DeVivo, Sports Editor
Grant is a senior from Westminster, Maryland. He has served as the Villager's sports editor since 2022-23 after being on staff in 2021-22. He attended Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore before coming to Stevenson. He has internship experience with both Glenn Clark Radio and the Baltimore Orioles. He also plays catcher and third base for the Stevenson Mustang club baseball team.
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