Camden Yards will host playoff baseball for the first time in nine years after the AL East champion and top-seeded Orioles went a remarkable 101-61, their best regular-season record since 1979.
With the Orioles set to begin a postseason run they hope will culminate with Baltimore’s first World Series in 40 years, below are five questions for October as well as my prediction for the ALDS:
1. How critical is playoff experience?
Brandon Hyde’s young club doesn’t have much with veterans like Adam Frazier, Kyle Gibson, and James McCann having only limited postseason experience. Ex-Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks has played in 30 playoff games over his career, but two home runs and a .216 average are hardly something on which the Orioles will be leaning heavily.
Recent World Series winners such as Houston, Atlanta, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington, and the Chicago Cubs didn’t reach the top of the mountain on their first try, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore can’t buck the trend. None of those teams went from 110 losses to 101 wins in two years or navigated an entire season without being swept, reminding us just how unique this group has been.
“It’s different, but it’s all about handling emotions,” said Gibson about the postseason. “It’s all about how you handle that stage and that atmosphere. We’ve got a lot of guys who have played on big stages. Maybe not this stage, but they’ve played on a [big] stage, and mentally, they’re ready.”
Winning Game 1 against Texas on Saturday would go a long way toward calming those nerves.
2. How will a Felix Bautista-less bullpen fare after some rest?
Other contenders have strong rotations with more name recognition, but the Orioles definitely like their chances with Game 1 starter Kyle Bradish being among the league’s best pitchers in 2023, Game 2 starter Grayson Rodriguez posting a 2.58 ERA since the All-Star break, and John Means looking like his old self returning from Tommy John surgery in September.
But there’s no replacing a dominant All-Star closer who finished third in the majors in win probability added and struck out a whopping 16.2 batters per nine innings before suffering an elbow injury in late August that required Tommy John surgery. That the Orioles went 21-13 without the flame-throwing Bautista down the stretch is a credit to a staff that still has All-Star reliever Yennier Cano and ranked eighth in the majors in bullpen ERA and 12th in wins above replacement from Aug. 26 through the end of the season.
But the ability to miss bats late in close October games is critical, and it’s unclear where that ability will consistently come from, something we witnessed down the stretch. Of the top six Baltimore relievers projected to be on the postseason roster, only DL Hall, Jacob Webb, and Danny Coulombe averaged more than a strikeout per inning this season.
A bullpen without clearly defined roles does afford Hyde the ability to play matchups even more than usual, so it’ll be fascinating to see how this group might evolve over the course of a playoff run, especially with Tyler Wells and another starter such as Dean Kremer potentially added to the relief mix.
3. Does a balanced lineup have enough upside for a deep run?
Gunnar Henderson was voted Most Valuable Oriole and is going to be the AL Rookie of the Year while Adley Rutschman is already an All-Star catcher and finished sixth in the AL in on-base percentage.
The Orioles routinely field lineups with eight or nine regulars sporting at least a .700 on-base plus slugging percentage, demonstrating their balance and a high floor offensively. But they also don’t have anyone who finished with an OPS higher than .814 or hit more than 28 home runs, meaning they lack “The Man” — “That Guy,” if you prefer — who strikes fear in every opposing pitcher’s heart and is capable of carrying his club to a championship. Just think of Corey Seager for Texas or Yordan Alvarez for the Astros as examples among other AL contenders.
While I’m betting on Henderson being “The Man” for the Orioles sooner than later, that’s still a lot to ask from a 22-year-old winding down his rookie campaign. The Baltimore lineup also wasn’t mashing the baseball over the last couple weeks of the season, so you hope the five-day respite pumped some juice into the bats for October.
4. Who are the candidates to be a breakout hero?
Few Orioles players are household names to a national audience, so anyone would fit the “breakout” description if we’re being honest. However, rookie Evan Carter — and his 75 career plate appearances entering October — was one of the opening-round heroes for the Rangers, and former first overall pick Royce Lewis homered twice to help Minnesota advance past Toronto.
Few in a national audience would have predicted that at the start of the week.
“Baseball is always a funny game because anyone can be the hero at any given point,” Wells said. “It doesn’t matter how much service time you have. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there, how many situations you’ve been in. The cool part about baseball is that anyone can be the hero. I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of us young guys.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can step up in big moments. I think that’s kind of been the M.O. for us this year.”
Wells is definitely a name to watch in high-leverage relief situations despite only returning to the majors in late September. Heston Kjerstad is an intriguing pinch-hitting option, but he’s no sure thing to even be on the postseason roster.
Cedric Mullins is far from an unknown after an All-Star season two years ago, but groin injuries took their toll this season with the center fielder batting just .190 with a .585 OPS since returning from the injured list on Aug. 11. This lineup would become even more dangerous if the center fielder gets going at the plate like he did over the first two months of the season when he was arguably Baltimore’s most valuable player.
And despite dealing with a late-season shoulder injury, Ryan Mountcastle has also shown the ability to carry the Orioles lineup for a couple weeks at a time.
5. Is this the start of something special?
This season will always be remembered fondly by Orioles fans no matter what happens, but we’re talking about the big picture and the context of baseball history here.
The moments of relevancy for this franchise have been few and far between since its last World Series title in 1983, but Baltimore hasn’t enjoyed a collection of young talent like this since its golden years from the 1960s through the early 1980s. In other words, these next several years could be more fun than Orioles fans have experienced in four decades if general manager Mike Elias continues to make savvy moves and ownership provides the necessary financial commitment to sustain success.
The Orioles are about to embark on an October run that could be as long as 19 games or as brief as three with the best-of-five format of the ALDS being unforgiving and the Rangers serving as a formidable opponent. Baltimore doesn’t need to win the World Series for 2023 to be deemed a success, but there are no long-term guarantees for even the most talented young cores in any major team sport.
Ask John Harbaugh, Lamar Jackson, and the Ravens how easy it’s been to get back to where they were in 2019 when they had the NFL’s best record at 14-2 and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before being shocked in the divisional round by Tennessee.
Seize this moment.
ALDS Prediction: Orioles win in five games.