A little under four weeks ago, I looked ahead at the Baltimore Orioles’ schedule throughout April into early May and liked what I saw. The team was 4-5 after an inconsistent start to the season, coming off two losses against the American League East favorites, the New York Yankees.
The plucky young Orioles, who surprised everyone in baseball with 83 wins last season, were about to embark on a 22-game stretch against the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers (twice), Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals. On paper, all of these teams except perhaps the Red Sox are weak and expected to have losing seasons. This was as good an opportunity as ever to set the tone for the new season.
Early wins are incredibly important. While seasons can’t be won in the first month of the season, they most certainly can be lost – just ask the slumping St. Louis Cardinals who are already 10 games off the pace despite a weak National League Central division and in danger of recording their first losing season since 2007.
Having suffered through an astonishingly painful 2018-2021 watching a once proud Orioles franchise implode, I’m well aware success is to be taken with an abundance of caution. This team – no, these owners, have been all-too-willing to disappoint the fan base since taking charge of the Orioles back in 1993. While the playoff eras of 1996-1997 and 2012-2016 were full of excitement, the years in between have been nothing short of dreadful, plagued by cheapness and conflict.
The 2022 season was magical. While playoffs ultimately eluded the team, a 10-game winning streak in July, the arrival of Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Stowers, the emergence of Felix Bautista, and a winning record filled fans with hope – something which has been missing in Baltimore for far too long. Perhaps the years of pain will indeed pay dividends? Perhaps the draft picks, lead by Mike Elias and his brains-trust, will indeed bring a new era of success? While optimistic, the inevitable caution that lives constantly with any Orioles fans remained – how will this translate into 2023?
Well, 31 games into the season the Orioles have a 21-10 record, good enough for third best of all 30 teams in the major leagues. Of that previously mentioned 22-game stretch, the Orioles won 17. To say I am pleased with this outcome is an understatement, however something just doesn’t feel right. I, unfortunately, still don’t feel all that confident. By nature, I know I am a bit of a pessimist. While I live a truly blessed and wonderful life, I have always tended to ‘plan for the worst’ and apply caution. Perhaps this is the result of covering (and rooting for) the Orioles so closely for so long? Perhaps its just a part of my inherent personality. Either way, I cannot help but feel a tad worried about what awaits this young Orioles team…
The offense has, collectively, been outstanding. The team ranks sixth in runs scored, seventh in OPS, second in walks drawn, fifth in strikeouts (love the disciplined approach!) and third in stolen bases. Jorge Mateo has been incredible, oozing consistency and excitement (especially on the base paths), while Rutschman and Austin Hays continue to put up All-Star caliber numbers. Ryan Mountcastle, Ramon Urias and Cedric Mullins round out an impressive bunch that consistently find ways to manufacture runs. There is no doubt this offense is playoff-capable and importantly, there is depth in the dugout and down at Triple-A Norfolk should it be required.
This leads me to the cause of my nervousness – the pitching. Overall, the team’s collective 4.57 ERA doesn’t appear to be that bad, ranking 18th in the major leagues. However it’s the inconsistency that keeps me awake at night. The Orioles have allowed 6+ runs in 13 of 31 games and are somewhat fortunate the offense has bailed them out almost 50% of the time, winning six of those games including a 10-9 Opening Day win over the Red Sox, a 12-8 win over the Athletics, and a 13-10 win last night over the Royals. The rotation had a fantastic 5-game stretch against the lowly Nationals and Tigers two weeks ago (allowing just three runs total), however those two teams rank 28th and 30th respectively in offense across the major leagues and, quite frankly, the lineups suck.
The Orioles are desperately craving some consistency and length from the rotation. Kyle Gibson (4.61 ERA) and Tyler Wells (3.34 ERA) have been solid more often than not, however the rest of the rotation thus far – Dean Kremer (6.67 ERA), Kyle Bradish (6.14 ERA) and Cole Irvin (10.66 ERA) – simply aren’t deserving of a roster spot on a 21-10 team that is looking to compete in a stacked American League East. I’ll reserve my judgement of 23-year-old Grayson Rodriguez (5.46 ERA) for now, although his ERA is horrid beyond his pair of great outings against the Tigers.
This inconsistency from the rotation has impacted the bullpen which although largely successful, is severely overworked and has a number of weaknesses which need to be addressed. Austin Voth (5.52) and Keegan Akin (6.75 ERA) should never be used in high-leverage situations ever again, and I’m not quite sure what’s happened to Cionel Perez (5.25 ERA) who was phenomenal last season. Let’s hope he can figure it out soon. Although Felix Bautista continues to escape disaster, it’s hard to ignore the warning signs, having consistently struggled to find the strike zone in recent weeks. Danny Coulombe has been a master at stranding inherited base runners (10 from 10 retired) and Yennier Cano has only allowed two hits in 14 scoreless innings. There is obviously a lot to be encouraged by, however the workloads are mounting up quickly and fatigue will set in sooner than planned if the starters can’t find some length.
As I currently see it, there are at least four pitchers on the current roster skating on thin ice – Kremer, Bradish, Voth and Akin. Thankfully, genuine ace John Means will return to the rotation in the second half of the season, while Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens will bolster the bullpen sooner than that. Until then though, some big challenges await with all seven of the Orioles’ opponents over the next 22 games currently having winning records. Against much stronger opponents, the team will no longer be able to rely on the offense putting up football scores every second night, and continued taxing of an already tiring bullpen will lead to disaster sooner rather than later.
While I’m obviously stoked to see the Orioles sitting pretty at 21-10, don’t be fooled by the impressive win-loss record. There are many warning signs when you look a little deeper, and that, coupled with a really challenging stretch over the next four weeks, may see the team in a very different position come the end of May. I’d love to see the team go .500 during this stretch, entering June 10 games over .500. If they can, it will give me the confidence to invest even more emotion and hope into this team, daring to dream of a return to postseason action.
Let’s check in again soon. I hope I can avoid saying, “I told you…”