When the college football season ends in December and January, my inner sports fan struggles to keep up the enthusiasm.
The Detroit Pistons have been irrelevant for more than a decade and are not close to competing for a spot in the NBA playoffs. NASCAR is a fun sport to consume, but it’s not quite as enjoyable as it used to be when I was younger. And while I’m a huge baseball fan, my Baltimore Orioles have spent the last several seasons putting an embarrassing product on the beautiful diamond in Camden Yards.
Things changed in 2022.
The Orioles, who last made the playoffs in 2016 and haven’t won a playoff game since 2014, went five straight seasons with losing records. That includes an abysmal 47-win campaign in 2018 and a 52-win showing in 2021.
Last year, my Orioles shocked the sport and finished 83-79, lingering in playoff contention well into September. Given how bad the team has been over the course of the last several seasons, I expected the last relevant Orioles’ game to take place in May. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With an incredibly strong farm system and a young corps of major leaguers emerging, is now the time the Orioles return to the playoffs?
There’s reason to believe. Catcher Adley Rutschman’s arrival in the Charm City turned last season around. He posted a 128 OPS+ (100 is considered average) and flashed elite defense behind the plate. His fWAR of 5.3 placed 29th among all major leaguers, even though Rutschman played only 113 games.
Rutschman is not alone. Gunnar Henderson’s 123 OPS+ in just 34 games supports his place as the top prospect in the sport, per Baseball America. Whether Henderson plays third, second or shortstop, he’ll offer good defense with the chance to be an elite position player.
Rutschman and Henderson joined a cadre of players under team control for the next few seasons, including center fielder Cedric Mullins (104 OPS+ in 2022), first baseman Ryan Mountcastle (105 OPS+ in 2022) and outfielder Austin Hays (103 OPS+ in 2022). Outfielder Anthony Santander is still around too, and he led the Orioles in home runs last year with 33. There are other prospects on the way, ensuring that Baltimore’s lineup will be stacked with young hitters for the foreseeable future.
There’s hope on the mound, too. Baseball America’s second-best pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez, is expected to be on the Opening Day roster. DL Hall is returning from a spotty debut season but still has as high a ceiling as any pitcher in the Orioles’ organization.
Even though I’m surrounded by all these positive thoughts, nothing ever goes according to plan. Something always comes up, which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the Orioles’ 2023 campaign.
Baltimore’s bullpen arguably led the charge in 2022, sporting a collective 3.49 ERA, good enough for ninth in the majors. Felix Bautista is slated to close after earning 15 saves with a 2.19 ERA and a 0.929 WHIP. Cionel Perez was almost as good, finishing the season with a 2.80 ERA.
However, asking these young players to not take a step back in 2023 seems unrealistic. Neither pitcher is likely to match their 2022 output, even if they continue to remain effective.
The Orioles’ starting rotation is full of question marks. Can Kyle Gibson replace Jordan Lyles as the “innings eater” of the staff? Dean Kremer pitched well consistently for the first time in his career last year, while Kyle Bradish fluctuated between greatness and incompetence.
What made the Orioles good in 2022? They benefited from the top prospect in baseball, Rutschman, finally reaching the majors and a dominant bullpen constructed of mostly obscure names that had been passed over by other teams. While Rutschman, and in turn Henderson, might be reliable, the bullpen has more to prove.
Couple that with a scary combination of youth and inconsistency in the starting rotation, and you’ve created a wide range of scenarios for the 2023 Baltimore Orioles.
I believe the Orioles can make the playoffs this year. The talent is there and if last season is any indication, Baltimore has struck gold with several young players. But I’m going to avoid predicting a playoff appearance because of the numerous variables present. There’s a lot that needs to go right in 2023 for the O’s to participate in playoff baseball.
With that said, nobody predicted the Orioles’ magical and chaotic 2022 season. Baltimore put the sport on notice last year, but now they’ve got to keep it going.
If they do, my enthusiasm might once again last all summer long.
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