Considering how long it has been since Orioles fans have been able to file onto Eutaw Street for the home opener with the knowledge that they’re about to see a team worth watching, waiting one more day doesn’t seem so bad.
It’s a welcome change from past years. Even if the method they used to get here led to those miserable lean rebuild seasons, and the relative inactivity of this winter had the power to push attention elsewhere, all anyone has really wanted was a good team on the field that made showing up or tuning in every night worth it.
For better or worse, these Orioles in the first week of the season have proven to be just that. They are one of the league’s most productive offensive clubs, thanks to power up and down the lineup, pervasive attention to the team’s plate discipline directives and a willingness to steal a base at every opportunity. They also have a variety of warning signs on the mound that will mean they need to put that offense to use, because they’ll want as much cushion as possible.
It might not always go their way, and it will be frustrating when it doesn’t. But it’s not going to be boring very often. And as long as they keep themselves in the mix long enough to get their bullpen sorted out, this could still be the season many hope it will be.
One 3-3 week into it, those aspirations still exist because that first week wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The Orioles nearly coughed up a big lead in that season opener in Boston, then actually did at the next opportunity in the second game. When Kyle Bradish was drilled with a line drive Monday and had to leave in the second inning, the makings of a disastrous road trip and a sour taste to this home opener were pretty clear.
Tyler Wells was right to deem the task of saving their pitching staff worth putting on some clothes for, and he and Kyle Gibson both did well to do it. Add Grayson Rodriguez to the mix — mollifying some of the discontent around his initial exclusion from the rotation, even if he was only added out of necessity — and there’s some hope that the rotation is going to hold up at least well enough.
If you’re bullish on this team’s lineup, that will be plenty. If imminent peril comes for the Orioles every time the bullpen door swings up — as it has in recent years — they’ll need more from the rotation.
That’s one of the benefits of a consistent offense, though, the likes of which this Orioles team can grow into. They entered Thursday’s rainout day off in the top quarter of the league in on-base percentage (.343, seventh best in the majors) and slugging percentage (.478, fifth best), and of their lineup regulars only Anthony Santander has underperformed through the first week. By and large, they’re taking good at-bats as a group and are willing to embrace a patient, baton-passing offensive approach with the knowledge that everyone in the lineup can drive the ball when pitchers come back into the zone.
It’s also a diverse offensive attack. While there are the mashers in the middle of the lineup who can do damage, there’s a different incentive as the bottom of the lineup comes up. Simply getting on base for Adam Frazier and Jorge Mateo can lead to Cedric Mullins at the top of the lineup, and that means an opportunity to take advantage of the new rules that encourage stolen bases. The Orioles have proven particularly willing to do that in favorable game states when they can press their advantage.
Without Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens to help deepen a bullpen that has looked a touch thin so far, they might need to run and try to expand their lead when they’re ahead for insurance purposes. The relievers have a 4.15 ERA counting Wells’ five impromptu relief innings, but 5.14 without him, which feels like a more accurate reflection of what’s happened so far. Félix Bautista and Cionel Perez seem mostly like themselves on the back end. Mike Baumann and Logan Gillaspie seem primed to grow into larger roles with experience, while Austin Voth doesn’t seem to have found his footing in his new role yet and Keegan Akin hasn’t been the early 2022 version of himself for a while now.
Help is on the way, with Tate and Givens expected back and potentially a starter moving to the bullpen once Bradish is off the injured list. They need to hold as steady as they can in the meantime, and the rest of the team is going to have to pick up the slack.
There’s a parallel universe somewhere in which the Orioles accounted for their potential bullpen regression more thoroughly in the offseason. There’s a world where they did a lot of things differently. It’s just not this one, which means they’re simply an exciting team featuring Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and nearly a dozen players who — just like everyone in the stands Friday — endured all those bad seasons on the dream that there would be actual stakes for a team made up of top prospects earned through that pain.
This is that team, hopefully the first of many. They could probably be better. It’s a relief that they aren’t coming home looking much, much worse. But they’re worth watching, plain and simple. That will make Friday worth the wait.