Orioles counting on returnees and reinforcements to reach next level

Each interview or casual conversation with Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias offers further confirmation that he expects his club to stay engaged in the playoff chase after fading over the final week in 2022. The plaudits will be fewer if there’s a repeat, the pain palpable if there’s regression.

It's wild card or busted expectations.

“We’re in the mode now where we are very serious about getting into the playoffs despite the difficulties in our division,” Elias said during Sunday’s interview on MLB Network Radio.

“We think we’ve got a real good shot to get into the postseason this year. We almost got in last year, so the time is now to tap into the depth in our farm system.”

Let’s start here, with the latest indication that the Orioles are pleased with the upgrades made during an offseason that’s lacked any splashy moves, but also heavily reliant on their prospects influencing the team’s direction.

An offense that tended to sputter could, and must, squeeze more runs out of a lineup with Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Stowers available to it from Day 1, and players at Triple-A appearing in various top 100 lists waiting for a call-up.

Henderson is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus, and No. 2 by The Athletic. Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby and Joey Ortiz – all of them playing in Triple-A last year – appear on most or every list. Coby Mayo finished 2022 at Double-A Bowie, where Heston Kjerstad could begin 2023.

“We have the consensus No. 1 farm system in the game,” Elias said, “and a lot of those guys are going to come up and compete here in Baltimore.”

Elias rattled off the names of Cowser, Norby and Westburg and said, “We have a lot of reinforcements and I think will at least put themselves in a position to be noticed as the season goes along and could come up and help depending on the circumstances.”

Shortstop Darell Hernaiz, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 16 prospect in the system, was sent to the Athletics last week in the Cole Irvin trade. An example both of Elias’ willingness to part with some young talent to plug a hole and the depth that’s been created.

“You can’t keep everyone, and so, we needed some pitching,” Elias said.

“We were out in the free agent market, signed Kyle Gibson, and were in attempts to sign many other pitchers. The trade season seems to have picked up with free agency kind of winding down, a lot of the pitchers being off the market. Got into talks with the Oakland A’s. Cole Irvin fits us very well because we need innings. We also don’t have an established left-hander in the rotation right now with John Means being hurt until the middle of the summer.

“Cole can really cover innings, he can really pitch. He works fast, he goes deep in games, he throws a ton of strikes, he keeps hitters off balance, he’s got five pitches. And I also think he’s going to be a great fit in our ballpark now with the left field wall being back, because he is a bit of a fly ball pitcher. So, a really good fit from a number of angles. I think the trade made a lot of sense for both teams.”

Means is throwing down in Sarasota with members of the medical staff, and Elias estimated that the left-hander will be on the team “sometime July or so, maybe August.”

Guess June was a reach.

“It takes these guys a little longer than that typically to get back to their full selves,” Elias said, “but we expect him to come back and help down the stretch.”

The rotation is a riddle with more than five candidates. Gibson and Irvin are certainties, and Elias repeated how he thinks Grayson Rodriguez will break camp with the Orioles as a starter. The Irvin trade doesn’t appear to impact the former first-round draft pick.

“He’s going to get every shot to,” Elias said. “He hasn’t pitched in the majors yet, but he’s gotten through Triple-A with flying colors and got hurt right at the last minute, and I think he’s going to be able to pick up where he left off with a good camp.”

Elias also said the roster flexibility allows Henderson to move between third base and shortstop, another indication that his feet probably won’t touch the right side. Second base is covered with Ramón Urías, Adam Frazier and occasionally Jorge Mateo, who’s the main shortstop.

We’ll see if anything changes in camp, but that’s the current mindset.

The Orioles want Rutschman to catch “as much as possible,” Elias said, “but also within reason of keeping him fresh, healthy, not worn down.” It won’t be “a crazy amount,” and trading for backup James McCann relieves the pressure to push Rutschman out there “more than he should be.”

Rutschman will play first base in spring training to keep him comfortable at the position and give the club a possible alternative to catching and serving as the designated hitter.

Elias’ enthusiasm over the direction of his club doesn’t bump the ceiling in 2023. He stated again how he’s excited about “the next several years.”

“This is a baseball town, we’ve been down on our luck for the last several seasons while we’ve been rebuilding, and I really think we’ve put together a good roster and a bright future here, and it’s really starting now,” Elias said. “But we’ve gotten to this point because we’ve been very careful and very strategic and deliberate and we’ve got a lot of people from all over the industry and different organizations with a lot of experience, and we’ve gotten this team to this point and we’re continuing to ply this same type of methodology to get us to the next step. And we’ve been carefully building our roster and our payroll, and we’re going to continue to do that the next couple of years.

“I think this team that we put together now is poised to compete and get into the postseason. We’ve got a real flexible, athletic roster, a lot of lefties and righties and positional flexibility. The starting rotation has depth. The bullpen, which was great last year, is coming back with an addition (Mychal Givens).”

And speaking of bullpens, former Orioles left-hander Richard Bleier is joining the Red Sox after yesterday’s trade that sent Matt Barnes to the Marlins. And reliever Darren O’Day announced his retirement yesterday after 15 seasons in the majors, including seven with the Orioles.

O’Day was 28-14 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.994 WHIP while becoming one of the best relievers in club history. His lone All-Star selection came in 2015.

A brilliant waiver claim in November 2011 while the Orioles were in between general managers.

Notes on another prospects list, O'Day hangs it up...
The next No. 1 prospect?: Shortstop Jackson Hollid...

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