How the Orioles Can Join the Top Contenders

The Orioles have continued to exceed expectations. Now it's time for them to take the next step and become a top contender.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - APRIL 11: Ryan Mountcastle #6 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrates with teammates after hitting a Grand Slam in the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 11, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

So far this season, the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays have established themselves as the front-runners in either league. Behind them is a hodgepodge of teams that are exceeding expectations and talented teams that are underperforming. Along with teams like the Twins, Mariners, and Blue Jays, the Orioles find themselves at the top of that second tier. It is time they separate themselves and join the elite.

The Orioles have once again exceeded the expectations that were placed upon them. I would dare to say that they have exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic fans. Yet despite their hot start, if the Orioles wish to move up the totem pole, they must take the steps that elite teams take to separate themselves. Here are three things that the Orioles can do to join the top contenders.

1. Trade for an Elite Starting Pitcher

If you are at all familiar with the Orioles, then you know well that they do not have a great rotation. The addition of Kyle Gibson this offseason has worked out better than I had predicted. I admittedly was a big fan of the Cole Irvin trade because I thought he would bring some consistency. I couldn’t have been more wrong on Irvin. With him now in Triple-A, this rotation is in desperate need of a bulldog to lead the way.

Current Orioles Rotation

Starting RotationStarting Pitching Depth
1. Kyle Gibson – 52 IP, 4.67 ERA1. Cole Irvin (AAA) – 31 IP, 3.19 ERA
2. Grayson Rodriguez – 33.2 IP, 5.08 ERA2. Bruce Zimmerman (AAA) – 37.2 IP, 4.06 ERA
3. Tyler Wells – 47 IP, 2.68 ERA3. DL Hall (AAA) – 27.1 IP, 3.29 ERA
4. Kyle Bradish – 25.2 IP, 4.56 ERA4. John Means* (IL)
5. Dean Kremer – 41.2 IP, 4.97 ERA
Stats as of May 14, 2023 – *Coming back from Tommy John Surgery later this season

Gibson has been decent his whole career, but this is a pitching staff that currently has a lot of mediocrity in it. So far this season, there is no telling what you might get from Dean Kremer, who currently has a 6.95 xERA. Having to send Irvin down to Triple-A so soon after trading for him was less than ideal.

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The two bright spots in the rotation to this point have been Tyler Wells and Grayson Rodriguez. You can see that Rodriguez has a 5.08 ERA, but that is inflated due to a particularly bad start against the Royals. If you take away his start against the Royals, where he gave up six runs, he would have an ERA under four.

Tyler Wells, on the other hand, has been the best arm in the rotation for the Orioles this year. The 2021 Rule 5 draftee has taken steps to get better each year. He throws a lot of strikes and avoids walks. So far, he has found success using that formula.

Currently, there are three more guys in Triple-A who could come up and make starts. If Kremer or Bradish fail to turn things around, DL Hall could come up and give the team a boost. He is coming off a start where he threw six innings while giving up only two runs and striking out nine. Irvin also seems to slowly be getting back to being his old self and could come back up into the rotation soon.

John Means is recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the Orioles are eying a return for him around mid-July. With a career 3.81 ERA, Means will be welcomed back with open arms and should slot right in as the best starter in the rotation.

Playoff Rotations

In baseball, it is well known that it is very difficult to win in the postseason without a strong rotation. Right now, I think most people view the Orioles as a potential playoff team but not a real threat to win the American League. The Orioles’ current starting rotation ranks 18th in baseball with an ERA just under five, and that is not going to get the job done.

For the Orioles fans that are in the camp of leaving the team as is and are against trading for pitching, let’s run through some recent World Series rotations. Last season, Houston’s rotation had the lowest ERA in baseball, and the Phillies were 14th with an ERA under four. In 2021, Houston was ranked fifth in ERA, and the Braves were seventh. Ignoring the shortened 2020 season, in 2019 Houston ranked third, and the World Champion Nationals were second in ERA. Finally, in 2018 the Dodgers ranked second, and the Red Sox were eighth. I think you can see what I am getting at.

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Since 2018, every team that has made the World Series has had an ERA that ranked in the top half of baseball. The Phillies last year were the only team that ranked outside the top ten, but they had Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, and Ranger Suárez at the top. The trend of top ten rotations in the World Series goes back to 2016, with the Phillies being the only outlier.

In today’s game, you need a great rotation to compete in the postseason. Right now, the Orioles do not have that, but trading for an arm this season could change things.

Orioles Trade Chips

I am not in the Orioles front office. I have no clue if they will end up trading for a starting pitcher. With that said, the beauty of the situation and where the Orioles are at is that they could have any available pitcher they want.

If the Orioles are hellbent on adding a starting pitcher (which they should be), they can outbid anyone. With a loaded farm, the Orioles can come to the table with offers that no team in baseball can match. Obviously, it isn’t smart business to overpay for someone, but my point is that they can play with anyone at the trade deadline.

The Orioles have logjams in both the outfield and infield that will allow them to part with some prospects. The only truly untouchable prospects at this point for the Orioles should be Jackson Holliday and Grayson Rodriguez, but they can get a deal done without trading either of them.

Potential Trade Candidates

Here is a list of potential players that the Orioles could move, alongside their notable statistics from 2023. This includes both prospects as well as some major league players that could be part of a deal as well:

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Potential Trade PiecesNotable 2023 Stats
Jordan Westburg – INF (Triple-A), JBB No. 74.321 AVG, 1.021 OPS, 11 HR
Joey Ortiz – SS (Triple-A), JBB No. 65.895 OPS, 8 2B, 3 HR
Colton Cowser – OF (Triple-A), JBB No. 45.477 OBP, 1.044 OPS, 8 2B, 7 HR
Connor Norby – 2B/RF (Triple-A), JBB No. 77.710 OPS, 10 2B, 3 HR
DL Hall – SP/RP (Triple-A)27.1 IP, 3.29 ERA, 37 K
Coby Mayo – 3B (Double-A).898 OPS, 10 2B, 4 HR, 19 BB
Heston Kjerstad – OF (Double-A)1.029 OPS, 9 HR, 3 SB
Jud Fabian – OF (High-A).727 OPS, 5 HR, 7 SB
Kyle Stowers – OF (MLB).427 OBP, .996 OPS, 5 HR (AAA)
Ramon Urias – INF (MLB).756 OPS, 7 2B, 16 RBI
Jorge Mateo – SS (MLB).790 OPS, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 12 SB
Stats as of May 14, 2023

Pitchers Who Could Be Available

There is really no telling who could all of a sudden become available at the trade deadline. However, the Orioles are not a team that needs a middle-of-the-rotation arm to shore up an already strong rotation. They need a front-of-the-rotation starter to make a mediocre rotation a good one. Here are some potential trade targets for the Orioles.

Dylan Cease – CWS

Cease could be the biggest name available at the deadline this year. There is not doubt in my mind that teams like the Dodgers, Padres, and Cardinals, among others, will be calling the White Sox about him. As I stated earlier, the Orioles can outbid anyone at the table if they want to.

Cease will likely be the most expensive arm on the market. However, unless he turns around his performance this year, his trade value could be diminishing. The 27-year-old currently has a 4.86 ERA and has been giving up a lot of hard contact. Cease is still incredibly talented, but his slow start could reduce the return for the White Sox.

Cease will not be a free agent until 2026. If the Orioles were to trade for Cease, they would get him for the rest of this season, plus two more years of arbitration eligibility. The Orioles championship window appears to be opening this season. Trading for Cease is more than just a one-year rental, he is going to factor in for numerous seasons. That provides some added value for the Orioles.

Any Brewers Starter

I apologize for the vagueness, but I think you get the idea. I know the Brewers are in first place and have a good chance of winning the NL Central. However, being in the middle of a playoff race didn’t stop them from trading their star closer last season. The Brewers have four starters that would make good trade targets for the Orioles, and the Orioles have bats that could help the mediocre Brewers offense.

Corbin Burnes, Freddie Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff are all free agents come 2025. Then you have Wade Miley, who will be a free agent at the end of the year. Woodruff can be eliminated as a potential target due to the fact it looks like he will not be off the injured list for a month or two. Burnes and Peralta will no doubt be expensive, but they could also be worth it. Miley would be a one-year rental and a relatively cheap one. Still, the 36-year-old currently has a 3.60 ERA and would be an upgrade.

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I can’t imagine Miley costing more than a middle-tier prospect and a throw-in, but Burnes and Peralta will demand more. If Connor Norby, Coby Mayo, and a couple of throw-ins get the job done, the Orioles would be fools not to pull the trigger. I would be hesitant to move off Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, or Heston Kjerstad unless it was for Burnes.

Eduardo Rodriguez – DET

Eduardo Rodriguez has been one of the more polarizing pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. After a rocky start to his first year in Detroit, he is now one of the best pitchers in the league so far this season.

Rodriguez is unique to other trade targets due to the fact that he is on a large contract rather than going through arbitration. In November 2021, Rodriguez signed a five-year contract worth $77 million. Trading for Rodriguez could become tricky, however, as he has an opt-out after this season with three years and $49 million remaining on the contract. Last year, there was little to no doubt that Rodriguez would opt in, but now with him pitching like this, he could opt out and chase another contract with a higher annual value.

With the Tigers rebuilding, capitalizing on what is turning into the best year of Rodriguez’s career seems inevitable. A strong left-handed pitcher who is particularly tough on left-handed hitters will play exceptionally well in Camden Yards.

2. Find Playing Time for Joey Ortiz/Jordan Westburg

Joey Ortiz and Jordan Westburg have done everything they can to show the Orioles that they are ready for a real shot at the big leagues. Both have been two of the best hitters in the Orioles system and have crushed Triple-A pitching this year.

Joey Ortiz was, at one point, a glove-first prospect. He provides strong defense in the middle infield with an above-average glove and a strong arm. He has since come into his own at the plate. This year in Triple-A, he is hitting .320/.371/.524 with a 121 wRC+. His offensive production also includes eight doubles, two triples, and three home runs. Ortiz does not walk a lot, but he is also going to limit the strikeouts. He was recalled from Triple-A on Sunday.

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Westburg is not the defender that Ortiz is, but he has been a menace at the plate this year. In 31 Triple-A games, he is hitting .313/.385/.602 with a 144 wRC+. That includes 10 home runs so far this season. Westburg is a bat that needs to be in Baltimore. He has recently played a couple of games in the outfield, so it looks like the Orioles could be trying to find room for him soon.

Why Is This Necessary?

The Orioles have certainly been no slouches on offense this season. Cedric Mullins is off to a great start, as is Ryan Mountcastle. Jorge Mateo has been good but has cooled off recently, and Austin Hays has surprised me. The offense currently ranks seventh in wRC+. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, not exactly.

When you have a team that is going to contend, you need to put the best team possible on the field. The Orioles are not currently doing that. For one, Ortiz and Westburg look like they would be immediate offensive upgrades over a couple of starters. On the other hand, in order for Ortiz and Westburg to play a role in a potential playoff run, they need to get at-bats in the big leagues now.

How Do the Orioles Make Room?

I should start by mentioning that Westburg is not currently on the 40-man roster. With that said, there are currently only 39 players on the 40-man roster, which should theoretically make adding Westburg to the team easy.

As I stated, there are a number of players that Ortiz and Westburg could start over immediately. For one, Kyle Stowers looks completely outmatched this year against major league pitching. I think part of the blame should fall on the Orioles and how they have used him, but regardless, he has been dreadful. A -26 wRC+ just isn’t going to work. Send him back to Triple-A, where he was raking with a .996 OPS.

The other change that needs to be made is relegating Adam Frazier to the bench. I am aware that the Orioles are paying him $8 million, and he is a fine player, but he should not start. Ortiz and Westburg offer so much more upside. Frazier doesn’t strike out and he walks a fair bit, but he doesn’t hit the ball hard at all. A .225 batting average for a contact-oriented hitter leaves a lot to be desired. Frazier can play second base and corner outfield, making him a fine piece on the bench.

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Where Do Ortiz and Westburg Fit In?

The first step would be to make Ortiz the everyday second baseman. With Frazier on the bench, it frees up a spot in the lineup that Ortiz could fill immediately. He will provide strong defense at second and a solid bat in the lineup.

Westburg should slot in as the designated hitter. That spot has been a platoon of primarily Anthony Santander, Ryan O’Hearn, and Adley Rutschman. Westburg should be the regular designated hitter and fill in at shortstop, second base, third base, and right field when players need rest. Westburg is a more versatile defender than Ortiz and should take well to moving around the diamond. This gets Westburg’s bat in the lineup on a regular basis.

Potential Lineup (wRC+)Bench
1. Cedric Mullins – CF (129)1. Ryan McKenna – OF
2. Adley Rutschman – C (146)2. James McCann – C
3. Anthony Santander – RF (111)3. Adam Frazier – 2B/OF
4. Ryan Mountcastle – 1B (104)4. Terrin Vavra – UTL
5. Austin Hays – LF (132)5. Ramon Urias – INF
6. Gunnar Henderson – 3B (97)
7. Jordan Westburg – DH (144)*
8. Jorge Mateo – SS (115)
9. Joey Ortiz – 2B (121)*
*Triple-A Numbers – Currently On Injured List

By adding Ortiz and Westburg, the Orioles can create one of the strongest lineups in baseball. This is a lineup where every player could finish the season with a wRC+ above 100, taking the offense from top ten to top five.

3. Get More Production from Gunnar Henderson

Gunnar Henderson entered the year as the favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year. Through 35 games, he has been thoroughly underwhelming. I know that batting average does not tell the full story, but Henderson is hitting just .175 this season.

The Orioles have managed to get by despite the offensive struggles from Henderson. If Henderson can get back to where he was during his call-up last season, this offense is going to be a force. He was excellent in 34 games last season. He managed a 125 wRC+ and looked like he was going to be one of the better young hitters in baseball. That has not been the case this season.

The Approach

Henderson’s struggles at the plate are unexpected. In roughly the same number of plate appearances as in his debut last season, we have seen drastically different results in 2023. In 34 games last year, Henderson hit .259 with a 125 wRC+. So far, through 34 games this year, he is hitting .175 with a 97 wRC+.

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From a deep dive into his stats and tendencies, there appear to be two problems. The first is that his approach could be tweaked a little. Henderson has been very selective at the plate this season. The good news is that he isn’t chasing, which has led to a lot of walks. The bad news is he is also watching a lot of strikes go by.

Gunnar vs. Adley

Let’s compare Henderson to another young prolific hitter on the same team, Adley Rutschman. Henderson and Rutschman have very similar swing tendencies. They swing about the same amount, Rutschman the second least and Henderson the 11th least among qualified hitters. They rank 11th and 30th from the bottom in zone swing percentage. On top of that, they are 15th and 14th from the bottom when it comes to out-of-zone swing percentage. They even have a similar average launch angle, with Henderson having a slightly higher average exit velocity.

When it comes to swing decisions, Rutschman and Henderson have very similar profiles. So why is Rutschman so much more productive than Henderson? There are two glaring differences when it comes to making contact. Rutschman has one of the lowest whiff rates in baseball, while Henderson has one of the highest. The second difference is with making contact in the zone. Once again, Rutschman has one of the best in-zone contact rates in the league, while Henderson has one of the worst.

Henderson needs to realize that he isn’t Rutschman and swing more. If the walks go down, then so be it. No Orioles fan should want him walking all the time; he is most valuable when he is putting balls in play. The walks are great and have helped his wRC+ and OPS numbers. However, he has to be more productive, and that can happen if he swings more often.

Bad Luck

I hate to just say that Gunnar has been unlucky, but the truth is it looks like he has. Just on the surface, he has an expected batting average and slugging percentage of .210 and .399, respectively. His actual batting average and slugging percentage are .178 and .338.

You can also look at the same stats by pitch. Against four-seam fastballs, his expected numbers are .237 and .588, compared to an actual .179 and .393. He is underperforming his expected stats against almost every pitch.

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A good way to calculate luck is the difference between a player’s actual weighted on-base average (wOBA) and their expected (xwOBA). Henderson’s teammate Ryan Mountcastle was one of baseball’s unluckiest hitters last season with a difference of 46 points. Right now, Henderson has a difference of 32 points between the two statistics.

A hitter that has a similar batted ball profile to Henderson is the Astros’ Kyle Tucker. They are within a mile per hour of each other in average exit velocity, half a degree in average launch angle, and a little more than one percent difference in hard-hit percentage. Henderson has a .681 OPS and a .226 batting average on balls in play. Tucker, on the other hand, has a .785 OPS and is hitting .275 on balls in play.

Long story short, Henderson is underperforming a lot of his expected numbers. While some of those expected numbers are not great, he should be better than he has been. He is hitting the ball hard, he just needs to put more balls in play. The luck will come around.

Can the Orioles Make the Jump?

It has all been laid out for Baltimore. Other teams have made the blueprint, and now the Orioles have an opportunity to execute it. The rotation has stepped up recently for the Orioles, but it is asking a lot for them to keep this up. With a number of unproven arms, adding a proven front-line starter will provide a much-needed boost.

You can look back at a number of teams that achieved success in the postseason and the contributions from their young players – the 2022 Astros and Jeremy Peña, the 2021 Braves and Ian Anderson, the 2020 Rays and Randy Arozarena, among others. The Orioles have the chance to capitalize on production from Joey Ortiz and Jordan Westburg.

Gunnar Henderson was supposed to be one of the better hitters in this lineup. Despite his underperforming, the Orioles offense is rolling. If he can get to where he was supposed to be this season, it would turn an already great offense into an elite one.

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The Orioles are knocking on the door of baseball’s elite and are looking to join. There is an open seat at the table, and the Orioles have the opportunity to claim it. It is up to them to not remain content with their current success. Great teams are constantly looking for ways to improve. If the Orioles want to be in the upper echelon of baseball, they need to take every chance to get better and be the best team they can be.