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Can O’s Stay Healthy Again in 2023?

Orioles minor league camp
photo: Eric Garfield
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Spring training is upon us and the two most glorious words in the English language are about to be said…play ball.

It’s an exciting time for Orioles fans. This offseason, 12 different Orioles appeared on the various national top 100 prospect lists and most of those players are an eyelash away from the majors. We have the best young catcher in the sport and one who should solidify himself as the best in the sport this year. We will have a full season with Adley Rutschman and the current #1 prospect in the sport, Gunnar Henderson.

We should have arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball, Grayson Rodriguez, for the entire season.  Just those three players alone will be worth the price of admission and yet, the Orioles didn’t do enough to capitalize on that excitement this offseason.

The Orioles will enter the season with a very low payroll at about $65 million. Most of that is due to fielding a team with guys very early in their salary cycles. As most of you know, a team has control of a player for six or seven years, depending on how or if they manipulate the service time. The first three years, usually speaking, are years where the player makes the league minimum, which is set to be around $725K, give or take.

By my count, the Orioles will have at least 15 players on the roster making the league minimum, and it’s not like these are players that don’t deserve to be here. Almost every MLB team would love to have these guys on their team.  They have another four players in their ARB1 season, which is a year where you will make the least amount of money in your service time years once you get out of that first three years’ worth of service time.

In other words, the roster is filled with good players, players you are happy to have on the team, who aren’t making any money. That means the payroll is going to be low, whether fans, the media or whoever else likes it.

Now, the question is, does it need to be this low? And as a follow up to that, did the team do what they needed to do to capitalize on the surprising 2022 season?

The first question there has some nuance to it. How you added talent, who you added, where they are in their service time, etc.. matters. For example, had they been able to trade with the Marlins and get Edward Cabrera. He is still very cheap and obviously isn’t upping the payroll. Would you rather have him or pay $22M for Chris Bassitt? I would rather have Cabrera but yet people would still be upset by the payroll number without looking at why the payroll is so low (not that I am giving John Angelos a pass there).

There are things they did this offseason that I liked. The Cole Irvin (another cheap player) trade was very solid. Adding James McCann, provided that they don’t actually play him 60-80 games, or at other positions than catcher, is a good move. Kyle Gibson, in a vacuum isn’t a bad move, even if it’s not one I would have made. Mychal Givens was fine. Outside of Adam Frazier, who I think was an awful signing and decision on every level imaginable (even if I do expect him to bring good defense), I don’t think any of their “big moves” were bad. The problem is, I don’t think this was good offseason in totality.

ESPN’s Dave Schoenfled recently wrote an article grading each team’s offseason. He gave the Orioles a D+. He mentioned how similar this offseason was to that of the 2016 Astros. They were coming off a surprising season but elected not to do much in the offseason and the next year, they took a step back (86 wins to 76 wins). He expects something similar for the Orioles and he felt that they didn’t make the moves they should have.

My hope for this past offseason was to elevate the top end of the roster, especially in the rotation. Now, everyone who was definitely available had big question marks. Many fans wanted Bassitt. I was in favor of Nathan Eovaldi, especially since he ended up signing a very reasonable contract. We had fans who wanted Carlos Rodon or one of the big shortstops that were available. All of them came with real risks, but at some point, you have to take some risks. They won’t all pan out. Guys will get hurt, guys won’t perform but you can’t sit back and just not play the game.

Many O’s fans saw an 83-win team last year that has Adley and Gunnar Henderson back for a full season and a potential ace in the making, Rodriguez, now playing a full year and are just assuming that means more wins.

Add to that the new schedule and fewer games against the AL East and I can see why people think that. There is some level of logic in that thinking.

The problem is, it assumes a few big things.  First of all, the team had a lot of guys come out of nowhere and perform at a high level last year, levels they had never achieved before. Will those players continue to do that or will they change back into pumpkins? My guess is some will build on 2022 while others fall off.

The second big thing in 2022 was health. Yes, they lost John Means and Rodriguez and obviously, they are important. However, outside of those guys, the O’s were a pretty healthy team in 2022. I have been saying it all offseason but I think O’s fans are really overlooking this. A big reason I wanted to improve the top of the roster and bring in better talent is because I feel the margin for error is very slim with this team. Yes, they can stand to lose some guys on offense (outside of Adley) because of the players in the minors but on the pitching side, it gets thin very quickly.

As it turns out, we are already seeing chinks in health armor. According to Mike Elias, Dillon Tate is out for most or all of April and hearing the nature of the injury he has (strained forearm) we all fear worse. Closer Felix Bautista is rehabbing shoulder (hate to hear that) and knee injuries. DL Hall, a player that should be in the AAA rotation (please stop talking about him in the pen anytime soon, that makes no sense) to start the year and could move fast if he shows improved control and command, has a back issue and will be slow played to start spring.

For me, the bullpen is going to have to be really good again and while Bautista and especially Tate (at least for me) are two guys you wonder if they “turn back into pumpkins,” still enter the year as vital pieces to that pen and the team can ill afford to lose them, especially Bautista.

Spring Training is exciting in that it means warmer weather is getting better and baseball is about to be played and while the daily updates provide some hope, it is largely a monotonous six-week period filled with over the top optimistic clichés and meaningless games filled with players you won’t see again. What you want the most out of spring training is health and on the first day, that didn’t happen. It’s not a good start for sure and it doesn’t figure to end here either.

If Felix ends up being ready for Opening Day or soon after and Tate is just out a month and doesn’t require Tommy John surgery down the line than this team should be able to sustain those short term losses. However, if these injuries linger and you see some guys regress, especially in the bullpen, it could get ugly.

For now, we can have hope. We can hope that the pipeline of talent starts to flow in a major way this year. We can hope that that players build on 2022. We can hope that if the team is doing well, that the team can add a major top-of-the-rotation starter at the deadline (Corbin Burnes?). We can hope that John Angelos will use a crowbar to open up his wallet or, even better, sell the team. We can hope for health and, most of all, we can revel in the thought that we get to see Adley, Gunnar and Grayson for 162 games.

I do not feel the floor for this team is all that low. Assuming they don’t have some major run of injuries, I think this is a 75-ish win team at worse. The question is, how much better than that are they? Are they better than 2022? On paper, they are but that doesn’t mean anything.

I think we can all agree that this is the most anticipated season since at least 2017 and our excitement levels are so high because of all of this young talent. It is a group of players that love playing together. They are a fun group (see some of the Birdland Caravan pics and moments for proof of this) loaded with talent and upside. They will compete, they will play hard and if things break right, they will be in it till the end, a la 2022.

Let’s just hope for health, continued development and that the front office and ownership gives them the players they need during the season to help put them over the top. O’s fans deserve something to cheer for in October besides whoever is playing the Yankees.

I enter Spring Training and the 2023 season with guarded optimism and I can’t wait to see how things play out.

Let’s “lift off’!

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