It’s almost become canon that the Orioles need starting pitching. It was true for so long, across so many iterations of Orioles baseball, that it’s been hard to shake — even as they’re set to hand the ball to two of the second half’s most impressive starting pitchers this weekend in the playoffs.
Postseason success may be the only way to fully scrub off that stigma. It might also be a determinant of the club’s future on the mound.
The Orioles’ starting pitchers will have an outsize role in the team’s fate this postseason, yes. But the ramifications will extend far beyond just this next month. Any potential additions of starting pitching this winter — front line or depth, through trade or free agency — and the extent that the Orioles need to make them may ultimately be informed by how this emergent group of young arms fares in October.
“I think it’s another way for us to showcase our talents,” Game 1 starter Kyle Bradish said. “There’s a lot of talk that our pitching staff, particularly the starting pitchers, haven’t been the strong suit to the team. So I think it’s another opportunity to show what we are actually capable of.”
To this point, their talent has been a driving force behind these 101-win Orioles and their success. Bradish just completed one of the best seasons an Orioles pitcher has had in generations. Grayson Rodriguez, long the club’s top pitching prospect, came back from Triple-A Norfolk after a rough debut early in the season and has dominated. Dean Kremer won two playoff-clinching games and after a tough April had a 3.59 ERA the rest of the way.
“It’s been very cool to see their journey,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “They’ve gotten a lot better since the beginning of the year. And it’s just a testament of who they are as people and as players, continuing to try to get better. They’ve always had pretty good success. But to see them just continue to want to learn more and just not be satisfied with where they’re at says a lot about them as people. And it’s cool to see how far they’ve come.”
On the more experienced side, Kyle Gibson’s steadying presence has been valuable throughout, as has the return of John Means in September.
By both actual and expected stats, those five have combined as a second-half rotation to be one of the best in baseball. They’ve also covered the second-most innings of any starting corps in that time. Based on how Bradish has pitched throughout the season, and Rodriguez in the second half, there’s the potential for a pair of top-half starters in their rotation for the next five years. Kremer, at his best, can push into that conversation, but if he and Means are considered midrotation starters, said rotation can be considered a strong one.
And that’s all without mentioning Tyler Wells, who was nearly an All-Star based on his first-half success in the rotation and will be back there competing for a spot next spring. Behind them, they can count DL Hall and Cole Irvin as rotation contenders in camp next year, with their top pitching prospects — Chayce McDermott, Cade Povich, Seth Johnson and Justin Armbruester — all in the high minors.
Depth is nice to have. Although the Orioles have rightly been proud of how they’ve coaxed so many of their pitchers through this season beyond prior-year workload ceilings, there could be implications to all the innings their starters are throwing come next summer.
But the looming question in roster building isn’t about the rotation depth. It’s about those pitchers at the top of it. The Orioles have considerable prospect depth to trade from, what with the game’s top-rated farm system in many estimations and an accumulation of talent in Triple-A that won every championship possible. It remains true that there probably won’t be spots for all of them at Camden Yards going forward, but if the Orioles don’t feel the need to trade them for a front-end starting pitcher, what else would they use that capital for?
After all, they’re at least two-deep in either established major league talent or high-caliber prospects at every position. If the bats don’t post this week, there’s at least a line of sight to how that group can be better in 2024.
With the rotation, there’s much more at stake. If Bradish, Rodriguez and whoever else gets a start for the Orioles in these playoffs show they can handle the pressure of October and dominate as they did in the regular season, there’s going to be far less incentive for a front office that already has proven to be cautious when it comes to parting with the prospect capital required to land a top starting pitcher to do so this winter.
That may not be a very satisfying outcome, no matter how the Orioles fare these playoffs, even if it’s the right one. It has long been accepted that, eventually, general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias would have to package some of the highly drafted and highly touted hitters he’s accumulated on the Orioles’ farm for a top starter.
It doesn’t feel like a full season’s worth of evidence has been enough for anyone to check their priors on that front so far. Maybe a week, or even a month of postseason success won’t be either. The Orioles, however, will be watching how this plays out closely.
The starters may not just be a weather vane for the direction of the Orioles’ playoff run but the trajectory of their entire organization.