The Baltimore Orioles are the American League East champions thanks to Thursday night's win over the Red Sox (BAL 2, BOS 0). The Orioles are locked into the No. 1 seed in the American League playoff bracket and will have home-field advantage through the ALCS. Considering the depths to which the ballclub sank in 2018, 2019 and 2021, it's been a shocking turn of events for the O's, who have now hit the 100-win mark.
Remember, they lost 110 games just two seasons ago. No team has ever lost 110 games and then won 100 games within the next two years. Previously, the quickest turnaround was a tie between the Houston Astros, who lost 111 in 2013 and won 101 in 2017, and New York Mets, who lost 112 in 1965 and won 100 in 1969.
Now, with the eyes forward here, it's worth wondering if the Orioles can sustain this success. Or, more specifically, could they have the look of an AL East dynasty like in the first part of the 1970s?
The Orioles won the AL East in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1974, a six-year span that saw them grab three AL pennants and the 1970 World Series championship. The ballclub has seen a good number of highs since then, but not that level of sustained success. Since 1974, the Orioles -- until this season -- have only played in seven different postseasons and in only one instance (1996 and 1997) did any of those years come consecutively. Hell, this 2023 season marked only the Orioles' sixth winning record this millennium.
Things are lined up for another level of sustained success, though, under the architecture of executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. Let's examine why.
The position-player foundation
It all starts with Adley Rutschman. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick wasn't called up until May 21 last season, but he's already posted two seasons of at least 4.0 WAR. He's a catcher who performs as a well-above average hitter and is already flashing leadership skills. Oh, and the Orioles . He's as solid a foundational piece as players get.
So is Gunnar Henderson. He was the Orioles' second-round selection in 2019 out of high school and is only 22 years old. He's going to win AL Rookie of the Year and looks like a five-tool star.
Ryan Mountcastle (age 26, controlled through 2026), Austin Hays (28, 2025), Cedric Mullins (28, 2025), Anthony Santander (28, 2024) and Ryan McKenna (26, 2027) could also, to varying degrees, be part of the future foundation.
Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad all debuted this season and have high upside. Kjerstad and Cowser haven't seen much time and could follow Henderson with a Rookie of the Year win next season.
Whatever direction the Orioles go, Rutschman and Henderson are excellent players to build around and there are likely a handful of others who stick around with great success these next several seasons.
The pitching development program
First off, Grayson Rodríguez is a success story. He was drafted 11th overall in 2018, didn't pitch in 2020, had injury issues in 2022, struggled in his first foray into the majors this season but has since flashed his high-level ability. He'll be good to go as a possible frontline starter next season. At bare minimum, he's a mid-rotation starter.
John Means is a former All-Star who has made three starts coming off Tommy John surgery. He has a 2.60 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in his 17 1/3 innings. He's under team control through next year and is capable of a very good season, even if not as a frontline starter just yet.
Kyle Bradish, on the other hand, does look like a frontline starter and he came from a totally different direction than Rodríguez. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Angels and came to the Orioles in 2019 in the Dylan Bundy trade. He was never really considered a top prospect. This season, though, he has a 2.86 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 166 2/3 innings.
Bradish is a good example of the kinds of wins the Orioles can have in their rotation due to their internal development. There are several in the bullpen, too. Félix Bautista, Yennier Cano, Cionel Pérez (more last year than this year, but it still applies), Danny Coulombe are among the relief pitching examples of the several ways in which GM Mike Elias has shown himself outstanding in building a pitching staff.
That is, he's been able to draft and develop well, while also grabbing pitchers off the scrap heap or trading for less-than-hyped guys and has found success through nearly every avenue. That's a function of the systems that have been put in place in identifying the types of pitchers they can successfully acquire and develop.
There's every reason to believe that kind of success will continue here in the next few years.
Even with all the promotions, the Orioles are considered to have either the best farm system in baseball or one of the best.
Jackson Holliday tops the list and it's easy and fun to envision him alongside Westburg and Henderson long-term in the Orioles' infield (possibly with Westburg at second, Holliday at short and Henderson at third base, while not forgetting Rutschman behind the plate). Perhaps Cowser and Kjerstad are also long-term answers in the outfield.
Should these five players hit their upside or even just come close to it, that's a stellar group. We've already discussed the Orioles' ability and find and develop pitching.
Those are only the biggest guns, too. There are also the likes of infielders Coby Mayo, Mac Horvath and Joey Ortiz in addition to outfielders Enrique Bradfield Jr., Dylan Beavers, infielder/outfielder Connor Norby, catcher/first baseman Samuel Basallo and a stockpile of arms.
It's truly a system of insane upside and depth, a combination so rarely seen.
The task in front of Elias and his front office now is to strike that balance in continuing to develop top-notch prospects without high draft picks and figuring out exactly which ones to keep and which ones to trade. I know it's difficult for fans sometimes to flip that switch after years of just stockpiling prospects and holding onto them for dear life while planning for the future, but there's no more worries about that. The team is a team of the present.
They'll still have players that should be kept under every circumstance (hello, Holliday), but in other spots, the Orioles will end up with a top-flight prospect who is blocked by an established big leaguer. Those are the situations in which prospects are trade currency to shore up weaker areas of the ballclub. Just look at all those names I listed above and try to find consistent playing time for all of them. You just can't, so even if you wanted to keep every single name there, the roster isn't big enough.
Just to throw a hypothetical out there, if an established, bona fide ace becomes available via trade, the Orioles could blow other teams' offers out of the water to land said ace and still have a top-flight minor-league system. These are the types of decisions now in front of Elias and he hasn't yet dealt with this.
How adept he proves in operating a sustained contender with a stacked farm system as opposed to building a farm system and stellar MLB foundation is the next step in his evaluation as an executive. To this point, he's been an exemplary performer, but now it's time to build that sustained winner. Part of being a sustained winner is bringing home a World Series championship. The Orioles haven't had one of those since 1983. The best way to ensure at least one title is to make sure there are as many chances in that window of contention as possible.
They can start working on that title here in the next week. They can continue to work on sustained success in the coming months and years.
For now, the Orioles are the 2023 American League East champions. Not many believed even two years ago that statement would come to fruition. That's a huge win for the franchise. Elias and company are now looking to make it one of many, many wins for the franchise here in the 2020s.