O's fans can be thankful for a team that got to the top of the AL East

jackson holliday

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers and fans of this blog today and I hope everyone has a great time with family and friends. Hope everything on your plate is hot and delicious.

But the topic here is always baseball and the Orioles and O’s fans have a lot to be thankful for this year.

How about a playoff team, 101 wins and an AL East championship. The 2023 season was an amazing ride, one that started with the Tampa Bay Rays lapping the field and winning all the time. But they struggled badly in July and the Orioles gained about six games or so in the standings pretty quickly to pass them.

The club took the Rays’ best shots and stayed on top. Even when Tampa Bay came to town in mid September and took the first two games of a four-game series. That moved the Rays into a first-place tie with the Orioles. But on a Saturday night at Camden Yards, with first-place riding, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez pitched eight scoreless in an 8-0 win. The next day the O’s won a wild one in 11 innings to clinch a playoff berth and touch off a wild celebration.

They went 9-5 down the stretch after the Rays tied them atop the division and they answered the Rays’ first two wins in that series in Baltimore with four straight wins – two over Tampa Bay and two at Houston. It was their greatest chance to crack under the pressure on the year and they did not. Four straight wins against playoff clubs.

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Hard name to spell, tough guy to hit

Danny Coulombe city connect jersey

When spring training 2023 began we didn’t know how big a factor he would be on the Orioles last season. Okay, that was because he wasn’t even on the team yet.

Later we struggled to pronounce his name and those of us that had to write it may have taken a while to spell it without looking it up. But lefty reliever Danny Coulombe (say it KOO-lohm) sure was big for the Baltimore bullpen. And without Félix Bautista, he figures to be very important to the 2024 ‘pen.

Coulombe is yet another Mike Elias acquisition added for a low price that produced big results. He was acquired via a trade on March 27 from Minnesota for cash considerations. Coulombe had been signed by the Twins to a minor league deal and had an opt-out. If the Twins were not ready to give him a roster spot, but another team was, he could use the opt out. That led to the cash considerations deal that got him to Baltimore.

Once he got there his impact was vast.

He went 5-3 with a 2.81 ERA. In 51 1/3 innings he posted a 1.110 WHIP with a 2.1 walk and 10.2 strikeout rate. He allowed a .231 batting average and .605 OPS and was good against both left and righty batters. His 5.7 walk percentage and 27.6 K percentage were both the second-best of his career.

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O's could potentially be a good trade partner for this pitcher

Dylan Cease white sox jersey

If the Orioles are going to add a pitcher that can work in the top half of their rotation and do it without spending a massive amount of dollars, then right-hander Dylan Cease may be a good target.

Cease, who turns 28 on Dec. 28, has two years of team control remaining before free agency and the Chicago White Sox have him on the market. A recent report said the Los Angeles Dodgers and White Sox had talks on Cease.

Cease has had an interesting three-year run of pitching. His ERA+ was 112 in 2021, soared to 180 as he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting in 2022 and was slightly below average at 97 last year.

After going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 2022, he was 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA last year. Over 177 innings he had a 1.418 WHIP, allowing 1.0 homers per nine with 4.0 walks and 10.9 strikeouts.

It has been pointed out that Cease had a better than average .260 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in ’22 but that elevated to .330 last season when he played on a 101-loss team.

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Maybe MLB free agent floodgates will open after a key signing on Sunday

Aaron Nola white jersey

Former Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail used to say pitching is “expensive and fragile.” Two cautionary words about spending big for a hurler.

That didn’t keep the Philadelphia Phillies from keeping one of their homegrown pitchers on Sunday and the expensive part was definitely on display. Over the last three years, right-hander Aaron Nola is 32-31 with a 4.09 ERA. But the Phillies, who drafted him seventh overall out of LSU in 2014, retained him Sunday for $172 million over seven years. Reporters said the deal does not include any option years or opt-outs.

National reporters like Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan reported that Nola could have gotten more money elsewhere and also that the Braves were in hot pursuit. And having a division rival chasing your player obviously helped pushed the Phillies to get that deal to the finish line.

And while Nola was not at the very top of this free agent pitching class, he was ranked as the No. 5 free agent by MLBTradeRumors.com and projected to get a six-year deal for $150 million. He exceeded that projection.

While Nola’s ERA was 4.46 last season, teams are clearly digging deeper than ERA numbers here and liking what they see with this pitcher. Durability is a real Nola strength. In the last six full seasons – not counting the shortened 2020 season – he has averaged a robust 194 innings, three times topping 200.

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Revisiting a potential free agent pitcher pursuit and other offseason questions

Austin Hays running gray

While we wait for something to happen in baseball free agency (it's been pretty quiet thus far), today I take a quick look back at some recent stories written and discussed here.

If the Orioles, as stated, seek a pitcher they can place in the top half of their rotation, they could do worse than free agent right-hander Sonny Gray.

A recent New York post article projected he could get a three-year deal worth $65 million. 

Gray is coming off a fantastic year with the Twins, during which he went 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA and 1.147 WHIP in 184 innings over 32 starts. He ranked second in the American League and third in the majors in ERA, and was fourth in the AL in average against (.226), third in OPS (.607 behind Kyle Bradish at .605) and fifth in groundball rate.

Gray just turned 34, a number that worries some when thinking about signing him to a multi-year deal. 

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A blockbuster Ohtani deal will highlight this year's free agent class

Shohei Ohtani

Barring the stunner of all stunners, his free agency won’t impact the Orioles in any way. And he won’t even likely be linked to the club in any way. We’re talking about the $500 million man, Shohei Ohtani.

Even after a Tommy John surgery, his first procedure in the fall of 2018, he is about to get the biggest free agent contract in baseball history. If he doesn’t, that would be another stunner.

Ohtani should be able to pitch again, but that would be for the 2025 season. Whichever big dollar team signs him is getting someone that won’t be a two-way player next year.

If he returns to his top form on the mound later, a team could be getting a player that is the equivalent of signing both one of the best hitters and pitchers in the game.

During his major league career – his first year with the Angels was 2018 when he was voted American League Rookie of the Year – Ohtani ranks seventh in the majors in OPS+ and eighth in ERA+. An All-Star easily on the mound and at bat. The player he most compares to in history is Babe Ruth, who pitched just a few games after his age 24 season. Ohtani turned 29 in July.

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The A's are leaving Oakland and long-time Baltimore fans know how A's fans feel

Oakland Coliseum

There was some news around baseball on Thursday that had nothing to do with a free agent signing, a trade, or an award.

Major League Baseball's owners voted unanimously to approve the move of the Athletics from Oakland to Las Vegas.

The team currently known as the Oakland A's will someday play in a ballpark along the Las Vegas strip that has not even begun to be built yet. And apparently the financing for this park is not finalized. We don't even know when the A's will stop playing in Oakland. They have a lease at Oakland Coliseum for the 2024 season. Yep, the fans of this team in Oakland could attend games of a team they know that will one day abandon them. They probably feel abandoned already.

It's sure not a great situation. The A's could play for several years in various locations, even possibly in the Triple-A stadium where the Las Vegas Aviators now play, about 15 miles or so from Las Vegas.

The last time an MLB team relocated was in 2005 when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C. to become the Nationals. 

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Mike Elias said O's upward path will "involve the major league payroll"

Mike Elias

With one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball, the Orioles were still able to pull off a 101-win season that led them to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

There certainly seems to be room for that payroll to grow and get larger. How large no one knows and no one from the front office will tip their hand. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is the man that will need to manage that payroll with the knowledge that any big dollar mistakes could set back the team.

The margin for error is much less than for the big market, big spending teams.

No doubt some fans are skeptical that the O's could do some spending this winter and you won't get Elias to suggest that or promise that. But I still asked the question in our recent interview when I wondered what he could do to prove to fans that the club is willing to invest more dollars in the big league payroll?

“I think there is a point there I often neglect to mention – the ultimate goal here is wins and success and having a healthy organization. How much you are spending to do that – whether it is free agents or on infrastructure – it’s sort of secondary. To me, I care about that – I care about the wins and the organizational health, success and talent. But I think that if you’re a fan, you should see that we are on upward climb and an upward path and that has involved and will involve the major league payroll.

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For guiding O's from 108 losses to 101 wins, Brandon Hyde gets MOY award

Brandon Hyde

When asked about the attributes of Brandon Hyde as Orioles manager on MLB Network Tuesday morning and how he has had such an impact on the roster, O’s bench coach Fredi Gonzalez had an interesting answer.

“Well, he’s been given the opportunity to grow with the team,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in our sport.”

He noted how Hyde was that rare skipper to start with a team at the beginning of a rebuild and still be around when they were ready to win and when they did win. And in this case, be a big reason that they won.

After seeing his Orioles win 52 games in 2021, 83 in 2022 and 101 and an AL East title in 2023, Hyde was named last night as the American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. 

Hyde and Earl Weaver are the only O’s skippers to manage 100-win teams in Baltimore. And Hyde joins Frank Robinson (1989), Davey Johnson (1997) and Buck Showalter (2014) as BBWAA Managers of the Year. The award was first handed out in 1983.

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When Gunnar Henderson got less selective, more aggressive, his season took off

Gunnar Henderson smiling

The beginnings of Gunnar Henderson truly starting to state his case to be the 2023 American League Rookie of the Year may have their origin around mid May to early June of the season.

The preseason favorite to win ROY, Henderson was batting just .170 with a .651 OPS on May 12 amid some of the fanbase wondering if a trip back to the minors was needed. It was not.

Around that time Henderson decided to become less selective and more aggressive at the plate. He stopped waiting for the perfect pitch and realized there are many pitches he could drive. If he started to become more aggressive early in counts, he could do that and keep pitchers from getting ahead of him in counts and getting to two-strike counts where they could more easily put him away.

“Yeah, there are times when I’ve been too passive,” Henderson told me during an early June interview. “Just, I’ve had times recently where I’ve been starting to swing earlier in counts if it’s in the area that I want to go and do damage with. That has helped me and if you get contact earlier in the counts, you also limit strikeouts. A big thing has been learning how to be aggressive, but not too aggressive.”

Let’s not underrate how savvy and smart this kid is beyond all the physical tools that he displays on offense, defense and the bases.

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A big decision for the Orioles: When will Jackson Holliday make the bigs?

Jackson Holliday futures jersey

One very important and also very interesting question facing the Orioles – and no doubt for fans a very exciting question – is when will the club bring baseball’s No. 1 ranked prospect, infielder Jackson Holliday, to the big leagues?

Will he have a real shot to make the Orioles out of spring training, or will he need more Triple-A time than the 18 regular-season games and four playoff games he played in for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides?

Holliday hit .267 with a .796 OPS for Norfolk to cap a remarkable year where he played at four levels and overall hit .323/.442/.499/.941 with 30 doubles, nine triples, 12 homers, 24 steals, 154 hits, 101 walks, 113 runs and 75 RBIs.

“Yeah, I’ve got no complaints," Holliday said via a Zoom call in late September on the day he was named the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year, winning the Brooks Robinson Award. He had earlier been named Baseball America’s Player of the Year for the entire minor leagues.

"This year has gone about as well as I could possibly imagine. My goal was Double-A, and to make it to Triple-A is quite something. It’s been quite a year," said Holliday and that might be understating it.

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A good week for Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson

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It is bound to happen a few more times, maybe many, many more times throughout their baseball careers. On the same night this past week, twice both Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson were honored.

On Wednesday they were two of six Orioles nominated for the all MLB team, which will be announced Dec. 16 on MLB Network. The team will be selected by a fan and media vote, each counting 50 percent. On Thursday night, Rutschman and Henderson both won Silver Slugger Awards. The first set of O’s teammates to take this honor since three O’s won Silver Sluggers (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy) in 2013.

Adley and Gunnar. Gunnar and Adley.

Linked since their draft day in 2019 when they became the first two MLB Draft selections Mike Elias made as O’s executive vice president and general manager.

Rutschman was the No. 1 overall pick in that draft with enormous expectations from the start. Henderson was the No. 42 pick in the draft, compared by some due to his position, size and style of play to Corey Seager. There were hopes for him but many fewer expectations with a pick at 42.

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O's Mike Elias on groundwork laid at GM meetings for what could be swift-moving market

elias cage

Back on the East Coast after a few days at the General Manager meetings in Arizona, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is ready to begin the work on making additions to his pitching staff, both in the rotation and bullpen.

During a phone interview Friday with MASNSports.com, Elias made it clear that a late-inning reliever is at or near the top of his wish list. Right-hander Felix Bautista, who posted a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves with a 16.2 K rate, is expected to miss the entire 2024 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery Oct. 9.

It leaves a big hole in the back end of the Baltimore bullpen.

“It is a top priority,” said Elias. “I’m characterizing it as a back-end reliever. I think if that guy has closer experience, that’s great. It would be nice. I am worried about Bautista’s absence and I don’t believe we felt that fully in September of 2023. We are going to try like hell to bring in some help from the outside for the back of our bullpen.”

And that help could come via free agency or a trade.

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Can a first-division team carry a struggling rookie on the roster?

Colton Cowser

Can a team that expects to be in the playoffs carry a struggling rookie on the roster? How about one in the everyday lineup?

This is sort of a natural follow up blog to yesterday when we pondered how the O’s will look to introduce some of their top prospects to regular player time. When is the right time for the Orioles to make that move?

Yes, it is easier for a losing team or a rebuilding team to carry a struggling rookie simply because they have less concern over daily wins and losses. But you still have to worry about the individual and when the struggles become too much or that player should be sent back to the minors. These are not easy calls for any club, no matter their place in the standings.

A young Orioles team with a manager with a strong player development background may be the near perfect spot for a young player like Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser or Jackson Holliday to break in. The clubhouse is filled with players who have been there and done that when it comes to rookies finding their way. Recent examples like Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson who had initial struggles and more established players like Cedric Mullins, not that far removed from them. Mullins can tell any young player about the time he fell all the way to Double-A before making it back to become a 30-30 talent and win a Silver Slugger award.

The other thing to keep in mind is that yes, the Orioles will be pushing to make the playoffs again. But any young player on the roster, even one as touted as Holliday, need only be complementary to the roster on a 101-win team and not the key guy. No one needs to be the straw stirring the drink here. No one needs to carry this club.

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Rutschman and Henderson win AL Silver Slugger Awards

rutschman v TB

With just two Silver Slugger winners since the 2014 season, the Orioles doubled that total tonight as Adley Rutschman won the Silver Slugger Award for catchers in the American League and Gunnar Henderson was the winner in the utility player category.

It’s the most Silver Slugger wins for the Orioles since Adam Jones, Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy won in 2013. It's the sixth time in team history the club had two or more winners.

Anthony Santander was an outfield finalist, but the winners were Kyle Tucker of Houston, Seattle's Julio Rodriguez and Luis Robert Jr. of the Chicago White Sox.

Rutschman, 25, hit .277/.374/.435/.809 this season with 31 doubles, one triple, 20 homers and 80 RBIs. Among the AL leaders he finished tied for third in walks, fifth in OBP and eighth in batting average. He joins Mickey Tettleton in 1989 as the only O’s to win a Silver Slugger for catcher.

"It's pretty cool," Rutschman said on the MLB Network telecast. "It's more a testament to my teammates and coaches that this has come to fruition, and it's a lot of hard work to get here. It means a lot and I'm very thankful."

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With some top prospects pushing for time, how and when do they impact roster?

Heston Kjerstad white jersey

One of the biggest questions facing the Orioles for next season is how and when to turn over significant playing time to some of their top prospects? When is the right time to not only call up a player but commit to that player as a regular?

The Orioles have more than three players that are on the verge of cracking the everyday lineup or pushing to do that, but the three that are right on the cusp include two we have already seen in the majors in outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad and one we have not. That’s the big one, MLB’s No. 1 prospect in shortstop Jackson Holliday.

We have here three players ranked by at least one major outlet as among the top 25 prospects in baseball. Holliday is No. 1 by both Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com while Cowser is No. 11 by Baseball America and No. 14 via MLB. Kjerstad is No. 24 via MLB and No. 43 by Baseball America.

Sometimes an injury will determine when this player gets in the lineup and then it’s up to the player to take the chance and run with it. Sometimes a prospect will make the roster but not have regular playing time. That is always a big decision to make. Is the prospect better suited to just play every day on the farm or learn on the job in the big leagues even if not playing a lot? How will the prospect handle not playing a lot?

Cowser got into 26 games with the 2023 Orioles and hit .115/.286/.148/.433. Known for a good batting eye and patient approach with nice gap-to-gap pop, he managed a 16.9 walk rate in that limited sample with a 28.6 K rate. There is some swing and miss in his game, but this is also a player that gets at least average grades on defense and is considered a plus runner.

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Mike Elias and O's get honored by MLB and now look to take the winning farther

Mike Elias

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was the latest from the organization to pick up an award yesterday. An award that really honors the entire organization for a rebuild that started with 115 losses and ended up this year with an AL East championship, the club’s first playoff berth in seven years and 101 wins.

But Elias is at the head of the club’s baseball operations department, and he put together the front office that yesterday got such deserved recognition.

And he was named MLB's Executive of the Year. 

“It’s been just really gratifying seeing Baltimore, the city of Baltimore and Maryland, back as a baseball capital, like it should be,” Elias said Tuesday morning in an interview on MLB Network. “Seeing Camden Yards back alive and our city, they love this group of players. It was a terrific regular season. We came up very short in the playoffs and I think it’s keeping us hungry as we start this offseason. But definitely a season to remember. And the recognition for our front office and our organization is really meaningful to me.”

The first two draft picks made by Elias and his regime in the 2019 MLB Draft were Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. They were such a huge part of the rebuild. To that he added much more homegrown talent, building what he said he would – an elite talent pipeline. One that now has the No. 1 ranked farm in the sport and a growing international program that this year in catcher Samuel Basallo, produced its first top 100 prospect.

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Bigger winter priority: Starting rotation or bullpen?

DL Hall black jersey

The question of do the Orioles more need a starting pitcher or a reliever may well be asked but isn’t the answer probably “both.” And can’t they get both?

Not only can they, they probably will. They surely can multi-task and it’s very unlikely that any one addition will keep them from making another. Even in the same spot on the roster, that spot being the pitching staff.

What is their biggest need is subjective to all of us pondering the question and whatever we come up with may or may not match the team’s thinking and that is the one that counts the most.

And unless they make a major expenditure here and sign someone to a larger than expected contract, adding someone as a starter or reliever is not likely to impact the addition of the other.

When it comes to the market, how that plays out may also determine in what order the Orioles proceed here. It takes two to tango and sometimes players and their agents want to wait to see others sign before as they say, “setting the market.”

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A look at Austin Hays' 2023 season

Austin Hays

For a time in June, Orioles left fielder Austin Hays was leading the American League in batting average. He was hitting as high as .327 on June 20. He didn’t finish above .300 but still wound up tied for 12th in the AL in average.

Over 144 games and 566 plate appearances, Hays batted .275/.325/.444/.769 with 36 doubles, two triples, 16 homers, 76 runs, five steals and 67 RBIs. His OPS+ of 114 ranked sixth among O’s everyday players and was his best mark in the three full seasons he has played, surpassing the 107 from 2021 and 105 from last year.

So Hays had an overall solid 2023 season, but it was another one where his stats fell off in the second half. That happened to him in 2022 also, but it was still a 2023 season where he produced career highs in doubles, runs, hits (143), extra-base hits (54) and multi-hit games (40). He tied for ninth in the AL in doubles and was 29th in OPS.

In the first half of this year, before he made his first All-Star game appearance and started in center field, Hays batted .314 with an .853 OPS. And that fell to 228/.667 in the second half. His OPS in 2022 dropped from .779 to .626 half to half.

During spring training this year Hays said he got pull happy at times late in the 2022 season and he needed to stay with an up-the-middle and gap-to-gap approach.

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A look at 2024 World Series odds and other notes

rutschman celebrates division clinch 2023

The Orioles are tied for the seventh-best betting favorite to win the 2024 World Series. That is a step up from last winter when they were tied for the 17th in odds from betonline.ag.

7/1: Atlanta

8/1: Los Angeles Dodgers

9/1: Houston, Texas

12/1: New York Yankees, Philadelphia

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