This was the off-season the Orioles were expected to spend a bit. Eighty-three game winners last season and with a bunch of exciting rookies and still the game’s number one ranked farm system, the Orioles are a team on the rise. This was also a great class of free agents. The shortstop market especially lined up well with Baltimore’s needs at the major league level and so did the starting pitcher market. And, if the Orioles wanted to go nuts, Aaron Judge was right there. Additionally, this team on the rise sported a payroll of just $43 million in 2022, so presumably there was at least some money to spend.
With all of that pointing towards some spending, it was at minimum mildly surprising that the Orioles spent very little. They made three free agent signings, none longer than a single season. Adam Frazier was added to play second base (at least until Jordan Westburg or Connor Norby pushes him out of the way), Kyle Gibson was signed to function as a stabilizing force in the starting rotation, and reliever Mychal Givens returned to soak up middle innings out of Baltimore’s bullpen. That’s it for free agents. They also made made two trades, for backup catcher James McCann and for back-of-the-rotation starter Cole Irvin.
That’s an underwhelming off-season for a team with post-season aspirations. This brings up a topic that has been discussed elsewhere before, and that is, is this the way the Orioles are going to function going forward? In other words, are the Orioles intending to win through building an almost entirely homegrown team? And maybe more importantly, if so, can this style of team building succeed?
If winning in general is difficult, then sustained winning is even more so. But doing either without adding the occasional big piece from another organization is a whole other level of difficulty. The Orioles don’t have to be the Yankees or Dodgers, but how much better would this team look right now with Trea Turner at shortstop and Carlos Rodon in the starting rotation? Or Dansby Swanson at short and Chris Bassitt in the rotation? There were many options, but the Orioles never seriously engaged with any of them.
So, okay, fine. This is the way the Orioles are going to do it. No big free agents. Got it. Can that work? Is it possible to win like that?
Well, in a word, yes. Or put another way, it’s not impossible, but there’s a lot that has to go right and it’s far more than a team would typically need. So let’s get into it. How can the Orioles make this work?
Right now they’re on the right track. They have a bunch of high-end young players who are coming up right now. The first difficult part is having the timelines of your players match up. It’s great to have two great prospects but if one is in A-ball when the other is a rookie in the majors, they’re not likely to be productive at the same time unless the first guy stays with the club past his free agent years.
And that’s just an example with two players. The Orioles need to do that but with an entire major league roster. They are off to a pretty good start though. With Ryan Mountcastle, Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and Grayson Rodriguez already up and Norby, Mayo, DL Hall, Colton Cowser, Cade Povich, and Joey Ortiz all pretty close to joining them, the potential for a roster composed almost entirely of homegrown, Orioles-drafted players exists.
But that brings us to the next hurdle which is player development. All or most of those guys have to hit. If there’s a Jared Kelenic or Jeter Downs in the bunch, that makes things that much more difficult, but as anyone who follows prospects knows, good prospects not achieving major league success is just part of the deal.
Also, you need to develop players who fit onto your major league roster. It will do the Orioles less good to develop another starting catcher, and even less good to develop a third because they already have that position filled. So continuing to develop the right players who fill holes on the major league roster is difficult; it’s a lot easier when the entire roster is composed of placeholders, but now that that’s not the case in Baltimore, things get a bit harder.
Also, with success comes worse a draft position. Many of the above players were drafted at or near the top of the draft. Once the Orioles start winning they won’t get to pick up at the top of the draft any more, and they won’t benefit from the super large draft budgets that the teams with the top picks have, either. As you win, maintaining that pipeline of drafted talent becomes harder and harder. Meanwhile, the players you drafted, who are the core of your winning major league team have aged Into more expensive contracts.
At that point, to maintain your major league team, you either need to make some trades, or you need to sign players to longer deals, both of which have their own difficulties and pitfalls associated with them. Look, for example, at the 2018 Red Sox. They were built around Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, David Price, and JD Martinez. Three of those guys were home-grown, one was a trade, and two were free agents. The Red Sox chose to extend Sale and Bogaerts and that meant that they couldn’t afford to keep Betts. They traded Betts to the Dodgers, but the prospects they acquired in that deal haven’t panned out. Then Sale and Price got hurt, Benintendi took a downturn in performance, Bogaerts opted out of his deal, and this is where things stand. Why? You could say they extended the wrong players, and that might be true, but really the problem was they weren’t able to continue adding young talent to the core. After drafting (or signing on the international market) and developing Bogaerts, Betts, and Benintendi, they didn’t or couldn’t bring anyone up behind them.
Another example is the Rays. That’s probably the team the Orioles are looking to emulate more than any other, even the Astros. The Rays have made the playoffs four straight seasons and did it with payrolls around $80-to-$90 million, very much on the low side. They draft fine, but far from perfectly. They have made their share of draft mistakes. What the Rays do better than just about any team is bring in undervalued talent from other teams. Of the projected starting lineup, only two players were drafted or signed on the international market by the Rays: Brandon Lowe and Wander Franco. Toss in the bench and the starting rotation and you get just two more draft picks and two more international signings. The full projected 26 man roster for Tampa includes just three drafted players and three international players. That means 20 of the 26 came from other teams.
The Orioles don’t have to replicate that exactly of course, but they very likely are going to have to acquire impact players from outside the organization at some point. If you look at winning organizations, the Rays, the Dodgers, the Cardinals, the Padres, the Yankees, the Blue Jays, nobody has developed an entirely homegrown roster and won. It just hasn’t happened. So the Orioles are going to have to use other teams and/or the free agent market to supplement their roster, which is something we haven’t really seen this front office do yet, even if this past off-season might have been a good time to do so. Either that or they’ll have to reinvent the way teams draft and develop talent. They’ll have to be as good or better at it than the Dodgers, as fluid and intelligent as the Rays, as lucky as the Red Sox. It’s not an impossible formula, but it’s difficult to construct a tougher one.
Matthew Kory is a Orioles / MLB Analyst for BSL. He has covered baseball professionally for The Athletic, Vice Sports, Sports On Earth, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two boys, and his cats, Mini Squeaks and The President. Co-Host of The Warehouse.