A week out from the Orioles’ swift elimination in the playoffs, one of the most significant challenges is reconciling the issues that caused their stunning exit with the strengths that helped the team win 101 games and the American League East.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the starting rotation, which for large parts of the season was the team’s strength. But with two short starts in October, a lot of that progress was forgotten, if not dismissed.
It shouldn’t be. So many in the rotation made gains this year, from Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez and even through Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells.
Finding a balance of respecting that progress and understanding where the group fell short will be the singular challenge of the team’s front office in the coming months. Their assessment of what was real, what was just playoff noise, and most importantly, what can be counted on in 2024, will inform how they go about bolstering the rotation for a deeper playoff push. And it will be the foremost thing they’re judged on between now and spring training.
It’s not going to be easy.
“I think that we want to overweight our failures when we go and self-reflect over the winter and try to push ourselves to get better,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last week. “That said, if we’re evaluating players or things like that, I don’t want to get caught up in what they did in a three-game sample. We’re going to weigh it heavily as an organization, but in terms of finite events on the field, there’s much larger samples to draw from.”
On the evidence of the regular season, they can easily focus on adding depth the same way they did last offseason, with low-cost, low-risk acquisitions like Kyle Gibson or Cole Irvin, given the potential for Bradish and Rodriguez to sustain their front-end starter status into 2024 and beyond.
Based on the evidence of the postseason, one in which the Orioles had two starters — Rodriguez and Kremer — not make it out of the second inning while well-paid veterans and experienced starters have fueled deep playoff runs for the teams remaining in contention, they should prioritize adding one or two such arms of their own.
There are many things Elias and his team need to consider.
Players at the top of the market, such as Blake Snell and Aaron Nola, will be prizes for any team, and the Orioles haven’t shown a willingness in recent years to win any bidding wars for costly free agents. There’s not as broad a mid-tier as there was last year when the likes of Nathan Eovaldi and Taijuan Walker were available, but this year’s second-tier could include attractive names like Eduardo Rodriguez, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Lucas Giolito.
The Orioles were in on pitchers last winter who ended up making more than Kyle Gibson’s $10 million in free agency, and Elias said their pursuit of pitchers earning in the upper-teens extended from the last offseason to the trade deadline, suggesting at least that capacity is there to add higher-priced arms.
Their willingness to pay market value for one of those pitchers might well come down to what they view as their needs. If they feel like they need a true, top-end starter, they could use free agency or the trade market to aggressively pursue one. Manager Brandon Hyde said only a few such pitchers exist.
“A true No. 1 is a guy that is going to stop any sort of losing streak, a guy that’s going to go dominate a team in postseason, those type of guys,” Hyde said. “Those are hard to find.”
He did, however, add that Bradish and Rodriguez have “the stuff and ability to be that type of guy.” If the Orioles are willing to view them as such this winter, they can be more selective about how they add to the rotation. They may still seek one of the starters the market deems worthy of a multiyear deal who costs over $40 million, knowing that pitcher will ease the load on their young starters who are coming off career-highs in innings. Some on the market would also provide postseason experience.
As it stands now, only Gibson is set for free agency. Bradish, Rodriguez, Kremer, Irvin, Wells, John Means and DL Hall make a strong group of potential starting pitchers entering spring training. The depth behind them, though, is largely unproven and doesn’t feature the kind of top-end talent Rodriguez and Hall showed through their minor league careers. Minor league pitcher of the year Chayce McDermott, right-handers Justin Armbruester and Seth Johnson, and left-hander Cade Povich all represent potential midseason depth options from the farm system, but it will be difficult to put them in the rotation mix before then.
If the Orioles expect their luck from this year to carry over, they’ll likely feel comfortable with these players and not feel pressed to exceed their valuation structure to supplement them. A large part of that calculation will be whether they believe Bradish and Rodriguez will continue to pitch as well they did at their best in 2023, and whether they can count on full seasons of the best of Wells, Means, and Hall.
Teams can never have too much pitching, and no one will accuse the Orioles of that no matter how the front office assesses the arms returning next year. That assessment, however, will inform much of what the next four months for the Orioles look like. Upgrades are almost certain, but it will require vastly different investments to upgrade the top of the rotation versus the back end. And if these playoffs were any indication, those decisions might determine whether the Orioles spend longer than four days in next year’s postseason.