Considering how many in his position are defending poor starts around the league and urging patience as baseball’s quarter pole approaches, Orioles executive vice president Mike Elias’ assessment that his club’s start has been good with the potential for better says plenty about the progress they’ve made under him.
That progress, however, is at once both influenced by, and viewed through, the methods they employed to get here: a significant player development emphasis and the promise that more talented players are on the horizon.
No better proof of that exists than a dominant Norfolk Tides team, with five prospects in Baseball America’s recently updated Top 100 as part of the league’s top farm system.
Yet when Elias envisions improvement as 2023 progresses, those aren’t the players he sees helping this team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
“I think a lot of that, most of that, is going to come from the guys who are here,” Elias said. “Most of this team is really young. Most of this team is not in their prime. Most of this team does not have a lot of major league experience. You look at a lot of those guys, the odds are if they’re as talented as we think they are, they should get better with time. And so, with our young group up here on the Orioles 26-man roster, I see a lot of these guys getting better as the year goes on, and that’s going to be a big boost.”
That’s not a welcome line of thinking to those hoping to see Jordan Westburg or Joey Ortiz summoned after Ramón Urías’ hamstring injury, who want an extended rotation opportunity to materialize for DL Hall, or who are envisioning Colton Cowser or Heston Kjerstad adding another prominent left-handed bat to the lineup.
But it’s profoundly meaningful for Elias, who last year discounted his surging team’s chances of making the playoffs, to come out and say “we’ve got a pretty good chance of making the playoffs” and pin that on the players currently in his clubhouse.
The team’s bullpen, while taxed, has been a strength yet again, and he said the rotation “seems to be stabilizing and improving.” Kyle Gibson’s effort Monday night made four strong starts in a row for the Orioles, even if they lost three of those games. And Elias acknowledged this season is a valuable learning experience on Grayson Rodriguez’s path to being a frontline starting pitcher — only to see Rodriguez go out and have his best showing yet.
Based on expected statistics, there’s validity to the idea that this rotation will get better. Kyle Gibson is broadly performing in line with his peripherals. Using fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which ascribes an ERA to pitchers based on the controllable aspects of strikeouts, walks and home runs, and xFIP, which substitutes the league-average home run rate, Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer are due for positive regressions. Kremer has a 5.80 ERA with a 5.42 FIP and 4.83 xFIP, while Braidsh has a 5.95 ERA, 5.18 FIP, and 4.48 xFIP.
Tyler Wells’ particular brand of pitching to contact means his 3.15 ERA isn’t supported by those numbers, while Rodriguez has a significant gulf in expected stats and his actual ones. After Tuesday’s strong start, his ERA is 5.08, his FIP is 4.86, and his xFIP is 3.57.
Collectively, there’s reason to be bullish on the offense as well. As a group, they have a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .331, 10th-best in baseball. Their xwOBA, which uses expected outcomes on batted balls, is a shade higher at .339 and ranks fourth-best in baseball. On an individual basis, many of those whose actual performance doesn’t match the expected performance are those from whom expectations are highest: Ryan Mountcastle (.317 wOBA versus a .390 xwOBA), Adley Rutschman (.355 vs .386) and Gunnar Henderson (.304 vs .329).
“We definitely don’t have all of our starting hitters firing on all cylinders,” Elias said. “We’ve got guys that haven’t gotten to the level that they’ve performed at in the past or last year or what we know that they’re capable of. I don’t think you’re ever going to get all nine guys hot at one time, but I think there’s still room for this young team to keep getting sharper as the season goes along.”
Beyond that group, Elias clearly counts Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Jorge Mateo among those who can continue to improve.
This group, by and large, is the one the Orioles have gone 90-68 with in the nearly full season since Adley Rutschman’s debut last May. That’s a 92-win pace, and at a certain point, whether the projections back that up or not, a continuation of that kind of performance warrants the full support of the front office to try and win with that group.
The reality, though, is this team’s potential for improvement isn’t actually contained to the clubhouse at Camden Yards. Westburg has little left to prove at Norfolk. Ortiz and Cowser won’t likely need a full season there. Eventually, Hall will need to be in the major league rotation to see what it looks like, even if depth options like Cole Irvin, Bruce Zimmermann and Spenser Watkins might provide lower-upside stability.
“It’s awfully nice having so much of our very good farm system in Triple-A, knowing some of those guys are going to break through, too, and come back,” Elias said, noting that he sees “more of an upward trend for this team because of all that growth and some of the talent that can be coming up off the IL or from Triple-A.”
A strategy of using prospect types in smaller major league roles is a departure from the rather binary nature of call-ups in the past, when well-regarded prospects would go from being not ready in the front office’s eyes to ready and then given a starting role.
All these prospects are clearly on Elias’ and the front office’s mind. He said Cowser and Westburg are constant topics of internal discussions about how they can help the team. That might be, at this point, as part of a trade package. Every Orioles win increases the value of them making deals so that this team can continue its playoff chase.
That would require the current roster to make good on Elias’ faith, and create what will be a fascinating inflection point of this competitive process for the Orioles.
Elias said: “Anything can happen from here, but we’re increasingly encouraged about where we’re at for 2023, and as we think about balancing short-term and long-term considerations and 2023 is increasingly going well, we’re going to keep leaning into that.”