Today's Free Picks for
Posted on March 10 -- are subject to change.
Season Win Total
Baltimore o76½ -140
Sportsbooks project the Orioles—a team putatively on the rise who won 83 games last year—to fall back into the AL East’s cellar or damn near it with with just 76 wins (and that’s rounding up).
The Orioles have a few things going for them that projections cannot pick up well. They’re projected to be below-average at more positions than not, mostly because the analytics project the median outcome for most of their young players to be in the meh-to-mediocre range. That includes a lot of real talent, some on the Top 100 Prospects, some just graduated or just below that level, all of whom have significant near-term upside not picked up in a median projection.
The Cardinals keep beating projections. In short, it’s that their player development—specifically their hitting development—is at the top of the league, and they consistently get above-median outcomes from young players. It’s too early to say for sure, but Baltimore has shown a lot of signs they’re getting that good at hitting dev too (and it’s probably worth mentioning that Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal are both off the Cardinals staff tree if you go back far enough in their careers). If the Orioles get three or four of their young players to blossom again, the win projection is going to be low.
The Orioles have a lot of options at some of these positions. It’s impossible to predict precisely who of Connor Norby, Jordan Westburg, or Joey Ortiz is going to break out and displace Adam Frazier if he repeats his awful 2022, or which of Colton Cowser or Kyle Stowers is going to suddenly be a 115 Deserved Runs Created (DRC+) slugger. But it’s likely given the breadth and depth of talent that a few guys will blow past the projections, and if the Orioles can sort that out quickly, their upside is closer to the top of the division, not the bottom.
All that said, Baltimore didn’t meaningfully participate in the hot stove this offseason, certainly not like you would’ve expected a rising first-division contender who is currently way underspending their market. It’s hard to know whether to blame the embattled Angelos family or a market misread or something else, but a couple big moves—especially in the pitching department—could’ve made this discussion very different. And if Baltimore falls a bit short of the playoffs instead of way short, they’re probably going to regret not shooting higher than Frazier and Kyle Gibson.
Adley Rutschman is one of baseball’s brightest young stars. He was perhaps the best collegiate hitting prospect of the last decade, was a consensus top five global prospect for the three list cycles he was eligible for, and got MVP votes as a rookie. He’s been one of the best defensive catchers in the sport since he was at Oregon State, and he’s a disciplined, consistent hitter. He’s probably never going to win a batting title or a home run crown, but expect the switch-hitter to be one of the sport’s premiere backstops for the next decade-plus.
The only weakness Rutschman showed in 2022 was difficulty hitting lefties. That may not be real; it wasn’t a noticeable part of his scouting profile and his splits were reversed in the minors in 2021. But assuming it is, the Orioles might be wise to structure his off days around lefty starters. Backup James McCann completely flopped in two years with the Mets, giving back most of his gains with the White Sox, but he does crush lefties. Baltimore picked him up for a song with the Mets paying the vast majority of the two years remaining on his contract, and at worst he’s a usable veteran caddy for their superstar starter.
Ryan Mountcastle is going to be Baltimore’s first baseman. Mountcastle’s hit tool hasn’t held up as well as the O’s once hoped in the majors, as he’s never really improved his swing decisions and whiffs at an alarmingly high rate, and his adventures in the outfield seem over, so the bat does need to carry things now. He has huge power and he’s still only 26 years old, so even tiny improvements on the margins could vault him from a player you might be thinking about replacing sooner than expected to a clear first-division starter.
Only one other player in this group—Gunnar Henderson, the top prospect in all of baseball—is going to start almost every game he’s healthy for. He’s coming off a sublime 2022 where he hit .297/.416/.531 in the high minors and .259/.349/.440 in the majors in August and September. His power and patience makes him the preseason favorite for AL Rookie of the Year. The main uncertainty at the moment is whether he’s going to play his natural shortstop position or get bumped all around the infield; we’re betting he plays more at third than anywhere else, but that might depend as much on what happens around him as Henderson himself
Jorge Mateo started 142 games at short last year for the Orioles. Once a top prospect for the Yankees, Mateo cycled through stints as an up-and-down speed demon utility player in Oakland and San Diego before an August 2021 waiver claim brought him to Baltimore. He showed surprising defensive acumen in what looked like a placeholder spot in 2022. He’s clearly the best defender on the roster, but he probably can’t hit, and if Henderson (or Jordan Westburg or Joey Ortiz) is going to play shortstop in the medium-term it might not be worth letting Mateo block them.
Adam Frazier, a 2021 All-Star, is here hoping for a bounceback. He was traded to San Diego at the deadline that year—ironically causing the chain reaction that landed Mateo on waivers—and simply has not hit even a little bit in the last year and a half. At his best he makes a boatload of contact and a bunch of singles fall in, but players who hit the ball this softly and are this reliant on batting average are prone to a lot of variation, and there’s a whole host of young talent behind him.
Westburg is the closest—but by no means only—threat to veteran playing time here. The No. 74 prospect spent most of last season rotating around the upper-minors infield with Henderson, and only hit a little bit worse (.265/.355/.496). No. 82 prospect Connor Norby also made Triple-A, basically taking Henderson’s spot after promotion. His arm limits him to the right side of the dirt and the outfield, but he hits the ball hard in the air and could displace Frazier by midseason. Ortiz is a major-league ready defender but it’s less clear if he’s going to hit. No. 69 prospect Coby Mayo isn’t going to be an immediate factor, but could be in the third base/outfield mix by the second half. It’s muddled to be sure.
The outfield is a lot less muddled. At least there’s an obvious starting group here. Cedric Mullins has turned into a heck of a player in the two seasons since he stopped switch-hitting. He’s a splendid defender in center and a significant speed/power threat, although the 30/30 season from 2021 might be a stretch to repeat on the power side. He’s also been mentioned far too much in trade rumors because his timetable is ahead of the rest of the team’s. Austin Hays is a nice solid-average regular about whom there is not much interesting to say. Anthony Santander had his best full season last year (121 DRC+). He’s a pretty lousy defender, so finding another outfielder to consign him more to DH work might not be the worst idea.
There’s young talent here as well. Norby is already moonlighting in the outfield, and it’s possible Mayo and Westburg will soon too. Kyle Stowers graduated out of the prospect universe on service time by a week after slugging .527 at Triple-A last year; he’s ready to contribute and should be the 4th guy in the OF/DH mix out of the gates. No. 38 prospect Colton Cowser is knocking on the door already too. His swing decisions and power were just as good as advertised coming out of Sam Houston State, and his defense is actually probably even better; he has a real shot to stick in center now. But he’s developed some concerning in-zone swing-and-miss tendencies, so his hit tool is more of an open question than expected coming out of the 2021 Draft.
The Orioles made Kyle Gibson the crown jewel of their offseason, signing him to a one year, $10 million contract. He’s a perfectly adequate, extremely consistent fourth starter whose DRA- has hovered between 100 and 103 for five consecutive seasons. He also shouldn’t be anywhere near the front of the rotation for a team with pennant aspirations.
Directly behind him is Baltimore’s top offseason trade acquisition, former Oakland “ace” Cole Irvin. DRA-, like most advanced stats, thinks the crafty lefty is a true talent fringe fifth starter because he induces little swing-and-miss and isn’t particularly good at suppressing damage on contact. But he walks nobody and in Oakland’s big park he’s thrown 359.1 innings over the past two seasons with above-average ERAs. Given the extreme suppression of right-handed power from the new left field dimensions at Camden Yards, this team might not be a bad fit for him either.
The top incumbent starter, John Means, had Tommy John surgery 11 months ago and likely won’t pitch until the second half, if at all. Dean Kremer is set to pitch for Team Israel in the WBC and should have a rotation spot on hold for him when he comes back; like Irvin, he doesn’t really induce swing-and-miss and put up a shiny 2022 ERA by managing his walks carefully. Kyle Bradish…well, batters do miss his slider occasionally, and his 99 DRA- last year outstrips most of the lot, but he’s broadly the same as the rest of the crew. Tyler Wells pitched serviceably in 23 starts after transitioning from the bullpen; all of this begs the question why Baltimore’s big free agent signing was Gibson, who isn’t a clear upgrade on the huge glut of fourth and fifth starters already present.
If there’s an actual ace here, it’s obviously Grayson Rodriguez, still the top pitching prospect in baseball. Rodriguez missed much of 2022 with a lat injury and didn’t quite look at his best in what amounted to a few rehab starts in September. His velocity has rebounded back into his standard upper-90s range this spring, so hopefully everything is back on track. When healthy, Rodriguez throws four pitches which project with plus-or-better potential; he has a long history of striking out the world and walking nobody. He probably should’ve been up years ago at this point, but the Orioles have remained extremely service-time conscious, and in that vein he’s having to fight for a rotation spot; we wouldn’t be shocked if he spends three weeks in Triple-A “working on his command” or some such. Also in the mix is No. 95 prospect DL Hall, whose stuff is almost as good as Rodriguez’s and comes from the left side, but who is at risk of moving to the bullpen for a variety of reasons ranging from command/control to injuries (he’s already behind this spring with back issues).
Félix Bautista rose out of obscurity last year to become one of the best relievers in the American League. Armed with triple-digit velocity and a completely unhittable splitter (.087 batting average against and 53% whiff rate), this level of dominance looks as sustainable as any reliever can be.
The rest of this is a traditional decent–but-not-great, low-investment bullpen. The headliners are typical types of “smart team” bullpen arms: a bunch of shrewd waiver claims (Bryan Baker, Cionel Pérez, Austin Voth) and some formerly notable prospects who didn’t make it in the rotation (Dillon Tate, Keegan Akin). For some reason, the Orioles spent a bunch of money on bringing Mychal Givens back in free agency; if you aggregate the $23 million outlaid to him, Gibson, and Frazier—all of whom don’t really project to be better than options already on hand, only steadier—and spent it on one good player…well, maybe things would be better or maybe the O’s know what they’re doing.
This is an interesting number. Baltimore destroyed the projections last year so there could be an opposite reaction this year. The other possibility is that they didn’t overachieve at all and may be even better this year. It’s a tough call but hold a gun to our head and we’d be playing the O’s to go over the number because of the plethora of young and real talent combined with a nice mix of vets. Still at o76½ -120 to -140, there is too much risk and not enough value so it’s a pass.
Baltimore o76½ -128 (Risking 0 units - To Win: 0.00)