While baseball fans across the United States were fast asleep early Wednesday morning, the Dodgers and Padres kicked off the 2024 MLB season in front of a crowd of just under 18,000 fans at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea. Major League Baseball’s other 28 franchises will have to wait another week to get their regular seasons underway, but regardless of which team you support, it’s only a matter of time before baseball season will be in full swing.  

On Thursday afternoon, Baltimore natives will be treated to their first opening day at Camden Yards since 2018 in what is sure to be a day filled with energy and excitement. The Orioles’ hot start to spring training, which has seen the team go 20-5 thanks to the emergence of a number of top prospects, has done little to quell expectations as Birdland looks to build upon an excellent 2023 campaign. While it’s important to remember that the sample sizes are small and exhibition results are rarely indications of what is to come, the last few weeks have offered some interesting insights into the current state of the roster. Here are my three biggest takeaways from the last few weeks of spring training that could impact how the team performs during the 2024 season and beyond.  

You can never have too many starting pitchers 

During the first 24 hours of spring training, Orioles fans were greeted with a slew of concerning injury updates. Among the most notable players affected were John Means and Kyle Bradish, two starting pitchers who were expected to be significant members of the rotation this year. In his opening press conference, Mike Elias told the media that Means was a month behind in his throwing progression and Bradish had suffered a UCL sprain, raising questions about how much either would be able to contribute in 2024.  

Fortunately, both seem to be on the right track towards making a return this year. Means stated on the Foul Territory podcast that he should be ready to return to action by late April, and Brandon Hyde told the media that Bradish’s elbow is responding well to his rehab. Furthermore, the Orioles seem to have avoided any further health concerns during the ramp up for the regular season which means they should enter the season with a solid five man rotation that includes Corbin Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, and Cole Irvin.  

Of that group, Burnes offers the least in terms of any potential concerns. Despite some rough outings in the last few weeks, the 29-year old will head into the year as one the favorites to win the AL Cy Young Award thanks to his electric pitch arsenal and excellent command of the strike zone. Rodriguez should serve as a solid No. 2 as he looks to build upon an excellent second half of 2023. His fastball has already touched 100 MPH on multiple occasions this spring so there are few doubts about his health and level of preparation heading into the season.  

Moving further down the list, Kremer and Wells have both looked solid in limited action in Sarasota. Kremer remains one of the most consistent and steady arms on the roster, while Wells seems to have done enough to regain a starting role despite his struggles after the All-Star break last season. Irvin is the biggest question mark given his inconsistent form throughout 2023, but he raised eyebrows when he touched 96 MPH, the highest mark of his career, in his first outing of the spring. There seems to be optimism throughout the organization that this could be a bounceback year for the southpaw as he looks to regain the workhorse mentality he portrayed during his two years in Oakland. 

Still, the fact that the Orioles will be without two of their best arms for at least the first month of the season offers a crucial piece of advice: you can never have too many starting pitchers. In this era of major league baseball, arm injuries have become far too common for an organization to feel comfortable entering a season without a slew of insurance policies in place. Given that Baltimore’s list of potential fill-in starters is headlined by a 33-year old Julio Teheran and two prospects who have never pitched at the major league level in Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, the Orioles will almost certainly need to add outside help at some point this season.  

It’s also worth noting that Baltimore isn’t the only ball club facing health concerns. High profile names such as Gerrit Cole, Kevin Gausman, Eury Perez, Lucas Giolito, and Kodai Senga are all expected to miss time to start the year. Each of these cases is a symptom of the epidemic of arm injuries that has overtaken baseball in recent years, and the only way to avoid letting it derail your season is to bring as much depth into the organization as possible. The Rangers followed that model last year and it ended up helping them survive injuries to Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Nathan Eovaldi at various points. Their season ultimately concluded with a World Series title, so it’s hard to say the Orioles wouldn’t be wise to do the same.  

Maybe you can have too many outfielders? 

Throughout the offseason, there was much discussion in Birdland about which of the many promising outfield prospects would earn a spot on the opening roster. As we sit here today, the field seems to have narrowed down to three players: Heston Kjerstad, Kyle Stowers, and Colton Cowser. The problem is that all three have legitimate cases to start the year in Baltimore. Kjerstad produced at the highest level of the three during his stint with the major league club last year, Cowser offers the most defensive versatility and has slashed .342/.468/.763 while looking like one of the best hitters on the roster this spring, and Stowers has shown off tremendous power in both intersquad action and live games en route to leading baseball with seven long balls during spring training.  

It goes without saying that this isn’t really a problem as much as it is a luxury. Hyde will be able to pick and choose matchups to his heart’s delight and should have no trouble putting together lineups that are built for long-term success. However, given that there seems to be just one more outfield spot up for grabs, the front office is going to be forced to have some extremely difficult conversations in the next few days.  

Another potential complication is that there is data to back up the idea that players perform better when they see regular playing time. If Cowser, Stowers, and Kjerstad are kept off the field for multiple days in a row, it could prevent them from finding any sort of rhythm and ultimately hinder them from making positive contributions to the team. Following that logic, it might be better for their development to get regular at-bats in the minor leagues until more playing time becomes available in Baltimore. 

The most obvious solution would be to package one of the aforementioned left-handed hitters in a trade to acquire a veteran pitcher. As mentioned earlier, bringing in more starters is never a bad idea and, if they go the bullpen route, a dynamic relief arm could offer some much needed stability in the late innings in the wake of Felix Bautista’s injury. That being said, it doesn’t seem likely that Mike Elias will part with more young talent to bring in someone who may only stick around for a year or two. 

Another option would be to explore the rare “prospect for prospect” swap to try to deal from a position of strength and acquire depth in an area of weakness. Despite making significant strides in recent years when it comes to arm development, the Orioles’ farm system is still somewhat lacking when it comes to pitching. In fact, according to MLB Pipeline just three of Baltimore’s top 16 prospects are pitchers. Perhaps moving Stowers could net an intriguing young arm from a team in need of a powerful left-handed bat to help balance out the system.  

At the end of the day, the most likely outcome is that one of the three begins the year in Baltimore while the other two are sent back down to Norfolk to continue beating up on Triple-A pitching. Still, it’s worth considering what the long term plan is when it comes to the outfield as there is an abundance of talent but only so much playing time to go around. 

The young studs just might stick around 

2023 was an incredible year in Birdland as the team went from perennial bottom dweller to World Series contender over the course of a few months. Waiting at the end of it, however, was the realization that now that the championship window has opened, pressure to win a World Series will only grow as much of the team’s top talent may head elsewhere at the end of their rookie contracts. The front office had shown very little willingness to offer long-term contract extensions and this offseason seemed like it might be the last chance for the organization to lock up Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and the rest of the young core before they play themselves out of the Orioles’ price range. However, despite the fact that no new contracts were signed over the course of the winter, I am now more confident than ever that Baltimore’s young superstars will be sticking around for the long haul.  

The first and most obvious reason is the sale of the team to billionaire David Rubenstein (which technically took place before spring training but has remained an ongoing process over the past few weeks). The Angelos family had a long and complicated tenure as majority owners of the Orioles. Peter made a number of positive impacts on the organization during his first two decades in charge, but since control was passed to his sons, they have seemed disinterested in making any sort of financial investment. It is for that reason that Orioles fans have been pessimistic about the chances of keeping their young stars in town beyond the conclusion of their rookie contracts. 

However, now that Rubenstein and his $3.9 billion net worth have entered the scene, there’s no reason why any of the team’s top contributors should reach the open market. The new ownership group has the financial capability to compete with just about any team in the league, so a rise in payroll centered around keeping homegrown talent in the organization seems almost inevitable. Furthermore, the fact that Rubenstein is a Baltimore native bodes well for his willingness to invest in creating a winning culture. It’s hard to imagine a world in which he lets the players who turned the fate of the franchise around walk in free agency without giving it everything he has.  

It’s also worth noting that the way the free agent market unfolded this year could incentivize players to be more willing to accept long term extensions prior to hitting free agency. Scott Boras has become famous for pushing his clients to hit the open market to maximize their value, and many other top agents have followed suit in recent years. That being said, over the course of spring training it has become increasingly evident that playing the waiting game may not be the best strategy after all. Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, and Blake Snell all ended up settling for two year contracts after searching for mega-deals, and Jordan Montgomery remains unsigned with just days remaining until opening day.   

Whether or not this year’s free agent market was a fluke remains to be seen, but it’s difficult to imagine that it won’t have any effects on the approach young players and their agents take to future negotiations. Rutschman, who is represented by Dan Vertlieb, as well as Burnes, Henderson, and Jackson Holiday, who are represented by Boras, could be much more inclined to lock up an extension in the coming months or years. Rubenstein would still have to be willing to take on some risk, but the combination of his wealth and a potential shift in mindsets when it comes to free agency could create perfect conditions for contract negotiations in Baltimore.  

Finally, the Baltimore media coverage of what goes on off the field offers further reasons for optimism. Hearing stories about how the young core is spending their downtime in Sarasota and watching videos of them cracking jokes during interviews gives me hope that these guys will stick around for years to come. I understand that baseball is a business, but there’s something to be said for playing alongside the friends you have made throughout your minor league journey and representing the city that drafted you beyond your rookie deal. This Orioles’ team seems to genuinely love playing together, and that could pay dividends when it comes time to negotiate new contracts.  

Luke Rollfinke
Luke Rollfinke

Luke Rollfinke is a student at Vanderbilt where he is pursuing a career in sports journalism. A recent graduate from the Friends School of Baltimore, Luke has spent his entire childhood in Charm City and is a devoted Orioles fan. In the past, he has written for SB Nation and has worked closely with Ravens columnist John Eisenberg. From nights at Camden Yards to Sunday afternoons watching NFL Redzone, Luke eats, sleeps, and breathes sports. He is excited to bring his perspective to BSL.