Starting Thursday, all of the Orioles’ minor league affiliates will be in action, and a day later the major league team will return to town. Nearly everyone who matters to their present and future will be in uniform somewhere, and a season of high expectations at every level of the organization will be broadly underway.

For every last one of them, it’s pretty clear what the best-case scenario is. No one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, but those exist, too. And in a time of such possibility with the season kicking off all around the Orioles’ organization, here’s a breakdown of each side of the coin and what both extremes might loo like.

The Elias-era players: Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Stowers, Terrin Vavra

Gunnar Henderson (2) swings for a pitch at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in the first inning of a game against the Tigers on March 2, 2023. The Baltimore Orioles lost to the Detroit Tigers, 10-3, in the Florida Grapefruit League matchup. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Best case: Rutschman and Henderson will each be in the lineup every day, and Stowers and Vavra are trying to get to that point, but all four have something in common: they all had an OPS in the 800s in the minors. Rutschman was at .877, Henderson .866, Vavra .878, and Stowers .847. If all of them have an OPS in the majors this season that starts with an eight, that would make an incredible difference in the Orioles’ lineup just based on how they’d get there: swing decisions. Each can work a walk and crush mistakes. If they do that, they can reach this threshold and the Orioles will be in good shape.

Worst case: Given their talents and what’s in front of them, the worst case for any of these players is if they spend even one day in the minors this year. Whether that’s just on a rehab assignment for any of them or, for Stowers and Vavra, because they’re either not playing enough to justify being in the majors or not playing well enough, even the slightest step back would be bad news for the player and team.

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The holdovers: Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle

Jorge Mateo, #3 of the Baltimore Orioles, reacts with Austin Hays, #21 of the Baltimore Orioles, during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 1, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Nick Grace/Getty Images)

Best case: Quite simply, they play well enough to either stick around or ensure someone else might want them if they don’t. These four players endured plenty as the Orioles toiled in 100-loss territory for the majority of their careers up until last season, but having been through all those losing seasons, they’re starting to make real money as their time until free agency wanes. That has never meant one’s time in an Orioles uniform is set to last long. So, these players all have the opportunity to either play well enough to make themselves indispensable — and each has been just that at some point in the last few years — or at least make themselves attractive to another club that won’t balk at an experienced major league player making $6 million in the next year or two.

Worst case: It was probably weird when these players were in the majors during the early stages of the rebuild hearing how good the prospects were, and is probably still a bit strange to know they’re the focus now. That being said, this group can’t have the prolonged slumps they’ve had in the past, because the excitement over the young players already in the lineup and the fact that each could be blocking a younger player will make it pretty uncomfortable if they don’t at least put up average numbers at the plate.

The rotation: Kyle Gibson, Dean Kremer, Cole Irvin, Kyle Bradish, Tyler Wells, Grayson Rodriguez

Tyler Wells, #68 of the Baltimore Orioles, pitches in the fourth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on April 3, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Best case: No one really notices them. Now that Rodriguez is part of it, that changes a little, because his starts are going to be worth paying attention to. Otherwise, this is a group that can on its best day go out and carve an opponent up, on its worst day not get out of the third inning, and overall will have the vast majority of its days somewhere in between there. Quality starts are a low bar, and one that is somehow lowered considering how infrequently pitchers even get to six innings these days, but getting efforts that simply don’t lose the game from the Orioles’ starters is probably going to be a fine outcome as the season progresses.

Worst case: Every start is a referendum on who the Orioles could have or should have brought in this winter. To be fair, it might be anyway, but there’s a difference between muddling through the season with ERAs in the fours and doing so in the fives. If this group is in the latter category, it’s not going to be pleasant for them — and the fact that upgrades were seemingly on the table and weren’t made this winter would be a source of frustration even with the most understanding of fans.

The next wave: DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz

Jordan Westburg (82) gets caught between first and second base before getting tagged out by the Pirates’ Chris Owings (79) at LECOM Park during the fifth inning of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Feb. 28, 2023. The Baltimore Orioles lost to the Pirates, 7-4, in their Florida Grapefruit League matchup. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Best case: They save the season. Over the course of a long summer of baseball, there are going to be down times, injuries, and opportunities for a player to make his mark from Norfolk. Odds are, one of these players is going to make a meaningful contribution to the Orioles this year — and maybe multiple will, provided they are healthy and productive in Norfolk when their chance hits. Westburg and Hall will be first on that list, one would assume. It might be later in the year for the rest. But if anyone from this group is a two-win player for the Orioles, something will have gone right.

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Worst case: It will be a bit of a bummer if any of these players are still prospect-eligible at the end of the season. That means fewer than 130 plate appearances or 50 innings in the majors, which is kind of a high bar for some but less so for others. They’ll need opportunities to open up in the majors, and can’t control that, but these players all have the talent to force the Orioles’ hand and make themselves available to help a playoff push in the second half, and maybe earlier. If they’re part of my research calls for next year’s top prospect list in October, it’s going to mean this year didn’t go as well as it could have.

The wild cards: Heston Kjerstad, Coby Mayo, Dylan Beavers, Jackson Holliday

Jackson Holliday (87) jogs off the field at Ed Smith Stadium midway through sixth inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins on Feb. 25, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Best case: While this is a weird list, there’s a common thread here: each has the talent to explode and become the organization’s top prospect by the end of the year, and maybe even ascend to the top half of national lists. Holliday being in this group is kind of cheating, but he’ll be 19 all year and is liable to start at Low-A Delmarva and end in Double-A Bowie. The other three are pretty high-variance, but also high-impact if they click. The Orioles have the structures in place to help these kinds of players, and if these players thrive this season, their hitting program is going to be one of the envies of the league.

Worst case: If this doesn’t happen, we’re basically going to be left with a top prospect list full of players who couldn’t break into the majors or otherwise have red flags (again, save for Holliday). That would bode poorly for the next next wave of Orioles prospects, and this group in particular holds a lot of responsibility in ensuring the farm system rankings don’t fall off too badly as the Orioles look to tout a sustainable, never-ending talent pipeline in the minors.

jon.meoli@thebaltimorebanner.com

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