On Monday night, the Orioles beat the Mariners, turning an early 7–0 lead into a 9–2 win. In the annals of history, a last-place team beating a fourth-place team in a midseason game won’t exactly be one that old baseball historians recount in future documentaries. But it did cause the O’s to cross a symbolic threshold, guaranteeing that they’d have their first winning calendar month since 2017 (counting a 2–1 March 2019 would be a scurrilous case of loopholery). That’s not exactly cause to break out a Melchizedek of the bubbly stuff, but it’s progress for a team whose rebuilding efforts seemed to be lacking that characteristic.
One thing that bedeviled the Orioles was how little of a boost they received at the start of the rebuilding process. Mike Elias may have been hired after the 2018 season to oversee the reconstruction, but it was the old brain trust who got the ball rolling with major trades, dealing away Manny Machado, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop, and Darren O’Day and receiving 15 players in return. Until this season, it looked like the only one that would make any impact on the team’s future would be Dillon Tate, picked up from the Yankees in the Britton trade, who has made his home as a mid-tier reliever. You can make an argument that the best minor leaguer involved in an Orioles trade during the first year of the rebuild was a player who was traded from Charm City, not acquired, when the O’s sent minor league veteran Mike Yastrzemski to the Giants.
The lost 2020 minor league season was problematic for everyone on the planet, but in a pure baseball context, I’ve argued that it was especially so for a Baltimore team flooded with Triple-A tweener pitchers and not enough places to play them. Fast-forward to our second season of relative normalcy, and you start to see a real foundation start to come together. We were generally bullish around here about Baltimore’s farm system coming into the season; my colleagues Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein rated the team very highly, and ZiPS had the team with the best prospect in baseball both at catcher and on the mound. ZiPS is even more positive about the team’s future now as most of the top prospects have improved their stock, some massively, rather than see it slide. Let’s run down some of the projection changes since the start of the season.
Ranked the No. 2 prospect by ZiPS entering the season, a huge improvement for Rutschman would have been a difficult one. He hasn’t destroyed major league pitching, but after a slow initial couple of weeks in the bigs, he’s come on strong and is now roughly where the projections expected. That in itself is a win given the erratic nature of development for young catchers and Rutschman being an older prospect who missed a key season in 2020. He remains where ZiPS saw him coming into the season: a franchise catcher who the O’s should be trying to lock up at the earliest opportunity.
ZiPS Projection – Adley Rutschman
Henderson was a favorite of ZiPS, almost pushing him into its top 50 prospects. As you might expect, hitting .312/.452/.573 at Double-A and .329/.448/.629 at Triple-A is not something that ZiPS would digitally frown about. Two weeks ago, Henderson’s combined line translated to a monster .273/.380/.396, that on-base percentage being nearly 20 points higher than any translation for a player with at least 200 PA last year (Khalil Lee’s was .362). With a 1.131 OPS since I ran that translation, it’s now a .284/.385/.410 triple-slash line. Henderson’s long-term projection, if it had been the result back in February, would be enough to make him a top 10 prospect, according to ZiPS.
ZiPS Projection – Gunnar Henderson
The top three in Henderson’s offensive comp list are Adrián Beltré, Eric Chavez, and Troy Tulowitzki. The O’s would be happy with any of those! Despite quickly moving up the ladder, Henderson basically added 50% to his walk rate and nearly halved his strikeouts while also adding power. The above projection is as an above-average third baseman, but ZiPS also sees Henderson as an adequate shortstop, and the Orioles have kept playing him at shortstop rather than cutting bait on something that could make him a superstar. Oh yeah, he just turned 21.
Henderson isn’t the only O’s SS/3B crushing it in the high minors this year. Westburg just missed the top 100 last year, but ZiPS thought he’d get to the majors quickly, already projecting a .244/.312/.391, 1.7 WAR line for him entering the 2022 season. Promoted to Triple-A Norfolk a couple of weeks ago, Westburg has a combined minor league line this year of .275/.351/.535. A re-projected league would now see Westburg join other O’s in the ZiPS top 50; the biggest concern of the computer was just how little minor league experience he had as a 2020 draftee.
ZiPS Projection – Jordan Westburg
After losing his age-22 season in 2020, ZiPS was a bit on the fence with Stowers, even after a solid 2021. While he had a bit of a breakout year, he was also relatively old for those levels, so ZiPS wanted to see more from him in 2022. The computer got its wish as Stowers continued to hit in Norfolk, earning a promotion with a .261/.362/.551 line.
ZiPS Projection – Kyle Stowers
It’s rare for a pitcher to be knocked out for the season with an injury and still consider the year an overall positive, but this is an unusual case. Rodriguez being shut down isn’t because of Tommy John surgery or one of those exotic shoulder-related maladies, but a significant lat strain that the Orioles are taking very seriously. But before the injury, the team’s top pitching prospect made a very successful transition to Triple-A Norfolk, and his stuff was dominating minor league hitters.
ZiPS Projection – Grayson Rodriguez
Even with the injury, which ZiPS is aware of, Rodriguez leaves 2022 with a better computer projection than when he started it.
Kremer is a pitcher with a rather wide gulf between his full ZiPS projection and the simpler model that is used in-season for daily updates. The more robust version, with its use of zStats, sees a much better strikeout rate than the 6.1 whiffed by Kremer per nine innings. Now, the model isn’t going all-in based on a handful of impressive starts at the major league level, but his updated projection represents a significant bump from the pre-2021 one, which saw Kremer as basically a future fifth starter or swingman.
ZiPS Projection – Dean Kremer
Throwing another average pitcher into the mix deepens a rotation that still needs significant help. Add Rodriguez and Kremer to a hopefully recovering John Means, Drew Rom, and with a little luck in DL Hall’s development, Baltimore suddenly has a usable rotation, one close enough to supporting a wild card contender that it suddenly becomes a good time to look seriously at free-agent pitchers to fill it out.
A lot of things can happen between now and contention. You don’t have to travel far from Baltimore to see cautionary tales in the 2010s Phillies and Pirates. The former did a lot well during the rebuild, but a lot of the team’s prospects just didn’t work out, leaving it with a performance gap to fill in free agency that it has never quite closed. The latter rebuilt well, but when it came time for ownership to make good on their promises and invest in the team at the top of the success cycle, the wallet stayed shut. As for the O’s, the franchise is currently embroiled in a vicious custody battle between Peter Angelos’ sons John and Louis, and the long-running dispute between the Orioles and Nats over MASN profits is still not resolved. There are a lot of things that can prevent Baltimore from making the division a five-team race again. But for now, the Orioles are worth watching, and hope is not merely an ironic joke.