Even with some fair questions, Orioles still look like head of AL East in 2024 

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The Orioles can make history once again in 2024. 

October will mark 50 years since they last won back-to-back American League East championships.

The last time Baltimore won 100 games in consecutive seasons was 1979 and 1980, which coincided with the club’s last two AL Cy Young Awards (Mike Flanagan and Steve Stone respectively). Heck, the Orioles haven’t recorded as much as back-to-back 90-victory campaigns since 1982 and 1983. 

At a minimum, Brandon Hyde will look to become the first manager since Davey Johnson (1996 and 1997) to guide the Orioles to two straight playoff appearances.  

Of course, the ultimate goal is something Baltimore hasn’t done in 41 years. To suggest it’s World Series or bust would be too hasty, but let’s just say another winless October wouldn’t go over well, regardless of how many games the Orioles win or where they finish in the AL East.

Being eliminated by the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers wasn’t the end of the world, but you hope that serves as a valuable learning experience six months from now. 

“We’re not in the playoffs yet. That’s our goal to get there,” 2023 All-Star outfielder Austin Hays said. “But we just have to be that team that outperforms the other one this year. There’s a lot of different ways you can do that. We’ve just got to get to that point again this season and prove it to ourselves that we can be that team.” 

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The 2024 Orioles have so much going for them, beginning with two MVP candidates in Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson and now a legitimate ace in 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes. They have a dark-horse Cy Young candidate in the 24-year-old Grayson Rodriguez as well as a few Rookie of the Year contenders either on the current roster or a phone call away at Triple-A Norfolk. The talent logjams in the infield and outfield are also growing more and more challenging for general manager Mike Elias to manage, a good problem to have. 

But there are questions. 

The kind of questions that could stunt the Orioles’ chances in a division that will be tough to navigate with the AL East having sent three teams to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. 

The acquisition of Burnes left Orioles fans salivating about the potential of the starting rotation until the mid-February announcement that 2023 ace Kyle Bradish would begin the season on the injured list with a right elbow sprain and lefty John Means (elbow) wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day after being shut down for an extended stretch of the offseason. Elias again expressed optimism about Bradish and Means last week, but the rotation depth remains shaky until at least one of the aforementioned names returns and looks the part of a top-half-of-the-rotation starter. Limited to four starts in his return from 2022 Tommy John surgery last September, Means is expected to begin a rehab assignment at Norfolk soon.

The bullpen is a concern with All-Star closer Felix Bautista set to miss the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery. To their credit, the Orioles survived the final month of 2023 without the hard-throwing right-hander who finished third in win probability added among major league pitchers — reflecting how valuable he was to a team that led the AL in one-run victories last year — but navigating an entire season without him is another story. It doesn’t help that hard-throwing lefty DL Hall was sent to Milwaukee in the Burnes trade and the starter injuries have pushed right-hander Tyler Wells back into the rotation, further denting the Orioles’ late-inning potential. 

Elias signed nine-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $13 million contract in December, but his last few seasons have been a mixed bag and Philadelphia didn’t have much interest in retaining him after a rough NL Championship Series last October. Even if the 35-year-old pitches as well as the Orioles can reasonably project, Kimbrel isn’t going to be what Bautista was last season. No one could be.

Is setup man Yennier Cano going to look more like the spectacular All-Star reliever we saw over the first three months last season or the still-good but more run-of-the-mill bullpen arm he was over the second half? Will 34-year-old lefty Danny Coulombe duplicate what he did as Baltimore’s third-best reliever last season? Are Dillon Tate’s 2023 elbow problems behind him? Is someone poised to come out of nowhere like Bautista a couple years ago or Cano last season? 

Even the best bullpens can be mercurial, but it does feel like the Orioles need a lot to go well to not have late-inning issues, especially if the starters aren’t going to pitch all that deep into games. 

The good news is that the Orioles have the talent in the farm system to promote to the majors as reinforcements or include in a package or two for upgrades before the trade deadline. They also have a new owner who will hopefully be willing to add payroll if the right opportunity presents itself to address a need. 

Yes, the Opening Day roster is bound to change and change often, and that figures to include the eventual debut of top overall prospect Jackson Holliday after the 20-year-old phenom was sent to the minors last week.  

“When we set an end-of-camp roster, this isn’t something that we view through an indefinite, permanent lens,” Elias said in Sarasota last week. “This is, ‘How do we best deploy the players in our organization for those upcoming first series? How do we retain talent?’ There’s a lot that goes into it. If you’re a player, it can be hard because management and the coaching staff and front office are looking at the big picture, the whole organization, and the long season ahead.

“Everybody’s been here working their tails off all camp to try to make the team, but this is not the end-all, be-all of the season.”

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Given the pitching questions and how challenging it will be to duplicate a .652 winning percentage in one-run games, another 100-win season might be a tall order, but that doesn’t mean the Orioles shouldn’t be regarded as the AL East favorite or included on the short list of serious AL pennant contenders. This should be a very good club again with room for talented young players to get even better. 

And it’s not as though the rest of the division is devoid of concerns. 

The arrivals of three-time All-Star outfielder Juan Soto and two-time All-Star starting pitcher Marcus Stroman have prompted some to anoint the Yankees as the division favorite, but defending Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole is on the shelf with elbow problems and New York is counting on several aging veterans to stay healthy and bounce back from disappointing seasons. That usually doesn’t work out as well as one hopes. 

We should know by now to never count out Tampa Bay, but the Rays traded away starter Tyler Glasnow and are still feeling the effects of the arm injuries that devastated their 2023 starting rotation. There’s also no indication that disgraced All-Star shortstop Wander Franco will be permitted to return anytime soon — if at all. 

Toronto still has a lot of talent and arguably the division’s best starting rotation, but the Blue Jays’ offseason being defined by unsuccessfully trying to sign Shohei Ohtani isn’t what they had in mind. Veteran newcomer Justin Turner should remain a productive hitter at least. 

Even the most optimistic Boston fans aren’t giving Alex Cora’s club much of a chance to avoid another last-place finish after the Red Sox traded Chris Sale and Alex Verdugo. Making matters even worse, they lost right-hander Lucas Giolito to season-ending elbow surgery after signing him to a one-year, $19 million contract that includes a player option. Ouch.

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Suddenly, those concerns about the Orioles sound pretty relative, don’t they? 

That’s why I’m betting on Baltimore to repeat as division champions. The Orioles won’t win 100 games again — my official prediction for entertainment purposes only is 94-68 — or run away from the rest of the pack, but they’ll again be the best of the AL East. 

And with expectations higher than they were a year ago, we won’t find out how much the Orioles have truly grown until October.  

In the meantime, enjoy another exciting ride. 

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