Orioles look to upgrade pitching this offseason, GM Mike Elias says

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One way of thinking about the 2023 American League East champion Baltimore Orioles, who entered the postseason as the league’s top seed and left it after a three-game sweep at the hands of the eventual World Series champions, would be as an unmitigated success. Conventional baseball wisdom, spewed proudly and often since favored teams such as the Orioles, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies succumbed this October, is that the whole month is a game of roulette. Whoever gets hot wins. Whoever didn’t was a victim of the flighty eccentricities of baseball timing, not necessarily some fatal strategic flaw. Baltimore, built around rookies who had never played seasons this long or experienced the nuances of the postseason, also had all those reasons to look at being swept out of the division series by the Texas Rangers.

But that way of thinking does not seem to be the one Orioles General Manager Mike Elias took after his team’s stunning regular season and sudden playoff exit.

“I think there’s people that would say don’t draw conclusions from it, but I do,” Elias said. “I think it’s healthy for us to take accountability. We got swept, badly and quickly. There were holes apparent. It’s my responsibility to put us in a better position next year.”

“Do I blame luck for us not advancing?” he added. “No, I do not.”

What he does believe is to blame, or at least to be fixed this winter, is pitching.

“We would really like to upgrade our rotation and then also the back end of the bullpen with [Félix] Bautista out,” Elias said. “Whether that comes in the form of a free agent signing or a trade, I don’t know yet. I’m taking note of the fact that there are a lot of teams that are going for it right now, so it seems like a very competitive market on both fronts.”

The highly competitive nature of this year’s starting pitching market, in particular, was the talk of the general managers meetings this week. Agent Scott Boras said at least seven teams told him they want to add at least two credible starters, and while he has a great financial interest in peddling that narrative, it seems the market would be plenty competitive without any public stoking. The top names available start with Shohei Ohtani, who cannot pitch until 2025, and move through 25-year-old Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto and National League Cy Young favorite Blake Snell, both of whom are expected to sign nine-figure contracts. Even less decorated options such as Jordan Montgomery and Sonny Gray seem likely to command massive deals.

Baltimore owner John Angelos has not exactly been prone to big spending in Elias’s tenure, but until now, he also didn’t have a team that looked like it was one expensive star away from legitimate World Series contention. Now, he might.

“I could rattle off a lot of clichés,” Elias said when asked if the team will play at the top of the free agent pitching market. “But we are going to do our best to make responsible investments.”

Shohei Ohtani’s future hangs over baseball’s unstoppable offseason

The Orioles did win the heavyweight-laden AL East with a rotation built largely on young starters. Kyle Bradish established himself as a legitimate ace. Rookie Grayson Rodriguez, just 23, looked like one at times. Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells and DL Hall, who impressed in the bullpen late in the season, have all flashed the ability to be middle-of-the-rotation staples or better if they can stay healthy. John Means, coming off Tommy John surgery, should be back at full strength next year, too. Baltimore could, if it wanted, try to add middle-of-the-rotation types and bank on Bradish and Rodriguez to continue to flourish. But Elias said he thinks adding around them is what will allow those two young starters to grow as much as relying on them might force it.

“I very much expect they will build off their good years. They’re both super talented and have good heads on their shoulders too, which is important,” Elias said. “I think any ways in which we can take pressure off them, we want to do that.”

The remarkable rise of Gunnar Henderson, Baltimore’s rookie wonder

One area that does not require much investment, if any, is the Orioles’ talented young cohort of position players. That group is so deep that people in the organization believe this year’s likely AL Rookie of the Year, Gunnar Henderson, isn’t even the best infielder in a system that will likely spit top teenage prospect Jackson Holliday into the big leagues before 2024 is over. They have so much position-playing depth that they could afford to, and perhaps might have to, deal key pieces of their AL championship team simply to clear space for the younger, cheaper, potentially higher-ceiling players to come.

Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urías, for example, are still arbitration eligible, but they probably won’t find regular at-bats with Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Ryan Mountcastle established in the infield and Holliday and other top prospects on the way. And one could argue Baltimore has outfield options as well. Anthony Santander, who has emerged as a regular 30-homer candidate as the Orioles emerged around him, is a free agent after 2024. Cedric Mullins, the quiet keystone of the franchise during its transition, is entering his second-to-last year of arbitration eligibility and will almost certainly become one of its highest paid players in 2024. Stalwart Austin Hays is in the same position. In Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad and others, Baltimore expects to have options to replace those veterans on the way, too.

It is a testament to Elias and his front office and the state of the Orioles minor league system that they have a logjam forming. It is now their burden to deal with the uncomfortable decisions coming their way, some of which could help them get the pitching they seek, difficult as parting with veterans or promising prospects might be.

“We like having all these good players. I’m not itching to get rid of any of them. But like any front office, we’re going to evaluate trades on their merits on a case-by-case basis,” Elias said. “There’s no one in the organization we want to just jettison right now. It’s just going to be dependent on the return.”

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