ARLINGTON, Texas — Mike Elias and the Orioles’ brass may well give themselves a chance to cut through the disappointment of this playoff sweep and reflect on all the positives of the team’s 101-win season in the coming days, but before long they’ll turn their focus to 2024.
Even with so many of their most talented and important players under contract for next year and beyond, how they augment their roster in the coming months will have plenty of impact on their ability to replicate this success — let alone build on it.
As always, there are decisions to make. Here are the four most pressing questions the Orioles face as they begin planning for the 2024 season.
How different will the infield look?
If there’s one area that’s almost sure to look different next year, it will be the infield spots. Don’t worry, Gunnar Henderson won’t be going anywhere. He could share the dirt with some new faces, though.
As the season went on, Jordan Westburg took a larger and larger share of the playing time at second base and third base, cutting into the playing time of Adam Frazier and Ramón Urías. Frazier will be a free agent, while Urías will be eligible for a raise in salary arbitration for the first time. MLBTradeRumors.com projects him to make $2 million next year.
Jorge Mateo played mostly against lefties, rotating with Henderson at shortstop, and is eligible for another arbitration raise as well. He’s projected at $2.9 million. Mateo and Urías have given the Orioles a lot this year, but the relative redundancies might finally make it decision time as to which sticks around.
If the Orioles want strong defense with a little bit of offensive upside from the right side of the plate, Joey Ortiz can provide that. They also have Coby Mayo as a potential power-hitting third baseman who could be ready to contribute with a little more time in Triple-A.
Frazier’s left-handed presence may not be replaced by a true second baseman but by something a little better: Jackson Holliday. He reached Triple-A at age 19 in his first full professional season and the Orioles will probably say he needs a little more time there, but he should be in spring training with every chance to make the team. If there’s a left-handed-hitting infielder added through free agency, he certainly won’t be an expensive one, because the Orioles will want to move on the second they feel Holliday is ready.
The Orioles can probably get away with keeping Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn for first base, but beyond that plenty is unsettled as to how the infield looks come spring training.
Did the outfield just play its last game together?
The playoff future that Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander spoke wistfully about during those Bowie pitching changes back in the early days of the Orioles’ rebuild finally arrived. It’s worth wondering whether, after Tuesday, it will soon become the past.
The three have been exemplary Orioles in so many ways but, just as with the infield, the combination of rising salaries and rising talent behind them may cause some kind of reshuffling. Santander is projected to make $12.7 million in what will be his final season before free agency; the Orioles don’t often let players reach either of those stages before trading them for future value.
Hays, projected at $6.1 million after this All-Star campaign, and Mullins, projected at $6.4 million, have two years left before free agency. The math for the Orioles will be pretty simple: Will each player’s expected contribution to their AL East title defense be worth that?
Among many factors, that probably depends on whether they think Colton Cowser can be a full-time replacement for Mullins in center field, or how they rate Heston Kjerstad’s near-term potential to be a major league power bat.
There have been a lot of painful roster decisions over the last five years of Orioles baseball, some for emotional reasons and some for baseball reasons. Trading any of these players would rank highly on that list. It’s only possible, but not probable, that they do so. But as they continue to push talent to the majors, they eventually will be forced to either use their prospect depth to bolster other areas or trade from the big league roster in other moves they find accretive. The outfield is one of the places they can probably glean some value from if they go the latter route.
Can the rotation be trusted to sustain its improvements from 2023?
An Orioles rotation that went into this playoff series knowing it had a chance to quell the doubts about its quality didn’t take that chance, leaving the club in a weird position when it comes to offseason planning. Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez finished the year in Cy Young form in the second half, and Dean Kremer was a fine midrotation starter for most of the year. Tyler Wells was nearly an All-Star for his first-half success.
Each of their pitchers blew past his prior innings peak in helping the Orioles reach these playoffs. John Means didn’t, but he was injured for most of the season and him missing his playoff assignment with elbow soreness introduces some uncertainty about what 2024 could be like for him.
As for the rest, there’s the very real possibility for performance regression or the workload from this year catching up to them next summer. Even with DL Hall and Cole Irvin in the mix, there seems to be a need to replace Kyle Gibson’s veteran presence, and doing so with a pitcher who can do for them what Nathan Eovaldi did to them Wednesday would be a bonus.
Simply put, there are two routes. Either expect everyone who took a major step forward this year to remain at this level, or bolster the rotation. Another offseason in the middle ground probably won’t solve the Orioles’ issues in the rotation, as good as it was this year.
Who closes without Félix Bautista?
The Orioles’ season ended Wednesday at 10:52 p.m. Eastern, but the prospect of a long playoff run was significantly dimmed when their All-Star closer walked off the mound with an elbow injury on Aug. 25.
They largely managed in his absence by playing the matchups and getting deeper starts, but Yennier Canó and Danny Coulombe are probably best used in the manner they were when there was a set closer in Bautista. More crucially, Bautista’s absence weakened the middle innings, and the bullpen as a whole went from a clear strength to a back-heavy group pretty quickly.
The Orioles know Bautista won’t be available for all of 2024. They know their bullpen functions best with a set closer. So, how do they get one? Is paying market price to bring Josh Hader home the answer? What about trading from their position player stockpiles for a controllable, high-level reliever?
I’m not super concerned about the Orioles’ ability to manufacture solid major league relievers, be it through their farm system or off the waiver wire. I don’t see the sheer talent from either of those avenues to replace the Bautista-size hole his injury leaves in their 2024 ninth-inning plans. Filling it this winter will probably make everyone feel a lot better heading into the season.