The Orioles bet on their young players. How far can they fly?



SARASOTA, Fla. — Few people in the Baltimore Orioles clubhouse have played long enough to know how unusual it was when infielder Josh Lester picked up one of Heston Kjerstad’s bats one morning in early March and congratulated him on having his own model. Most spring training clubhouses have plenty of players with their own bat models; they get huge shipments of them daily.

So no one seemed to think it strange when Lester and Kjerstad mused excitedly about the swagger of the black and orange custom paint job, even though most established big leaguers have their pick of colors and finishes.

“Maybe I wouldn’t feel so old in a different locker room,” 31-year-old elder Adam Frazier said with a hopeful laugh. “You go to dinner with some of the guys and realize where they are in their lives and you are in your life — it’s pretty different.”

The 2023 Orioles are not built around established big leaguers. Their fate relies, in large part, on young players who could not possibly be expected to act like they’ve been here before.

Many of the players who will determine their playoff chances — Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Gunnar Henderson, DL Hall, and so on — have only barely been here before, if played in the majors at all. Orioles who did play in the majors last year outplayed expectations, leaving questions about whether those expectations were too low, or their 2022 numbers were unreliably high.

“I guess people think they overachieved last year, so this is about proving everybody wrong,” Frazier said. “The talent is obviously there. If we can keep everybody engaged for 162, we’re going to win just as many or more.”

The talent, everyone around Major League Baseball agrees, is obviously there when it comes to the Orioles. General Manager Mike Elias spent three whole years stockpiling it, rebuilt the franchise’s entire infrastructure for developing it and even got a glimpse last year of the winning that could come with it.

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And it will be that talent, Elias and the Orioles ensured with a deliberate but measured offseason, that will determine where the franchise goes from here, too. Other than a few veterans like Frazier, catcher James McCann and nearly ancient starter Kyle Gibson, the Orioles did not spend to turn last year’s success into a winner. They bet on young players to transform before their eyes.

They will bet on Rutschman to transform from surprisingly steady rookie to grizzled leader without slowing from the .806 OPS pace he kept at the plate last season. They could see Henderson leap from Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect into a bona fide star. They could watch Kjerstad reemerge: After missing the 2021 season because of injury, the second overall pick in 2020 finished last year in high Class A, then hit .357 with a 1.007 OPS in the Arizona Fall League.

They could see Rodriguez establish himself as the front-of-the-rotation staple prospect rankings always said he would be, or watch Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, or even Hall continue growing into their stalwart potential. Ryan Mountcastle’s talent suggests he might be ready to take his star turn. The location of the Orioles’ 2023 ceiling is a mystery. But so is the location of their floor.

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“I think these young guys understand how good they can be, but they also understand they’re not there yet,” Gibson said, unsuccessfully scanning the clubhouse for a teammate born in the 1980s. “That’s a good combination to have. If you know how good you can be and you think you’re there and you think you’ve made it, you can stall that development.”

Gibson, a former first-round pick and veteran of 10 major league seasons, said his first spring training with the Orioles has had more similar rhythms to those of more veteran camps than he expected. He knows at some places, with younger teams, coaching staffs build more of a minor league camp — more time on the field, longer days, a tougher grind.

“But these guys just don’t need it,” Gibson said. “I didn’t know what to expect walking into a locker room with a lot of young guys, but these guys are ready.”

Baltimore Manager Brandon Hyde said that during his days as a coach under Joe Maddon in Chicago, they could plan for the team’s best players and pitchers to do work on the back fields, to customize forgiving schedules by mixing at-bats on the back fields with at-bats in games.

“But here, there are a lot of players we want to look at,” Hyde said, noting that in years past, the Orioles were using spring training at-bats to give people an opportunity against top-tier competition. “Now, they’re competing with each other to make the club.”

One who is still in the opportunity phase is 19-year-old Jackson Holliday. Most major league teams do not invite their first overall pick to spring training a year after drafting him, especially if they drafted him as a high school senior. In fact, not since the Arizona Diamondbacks invited 2005 No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton to spring training 2006 had a team picked a high-schooler first and invited him to major league spring training a year later.

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Holliday looks out of place at times, even in that clubhouse. In size and appearance, he looks more like a batboy than a full and promising participant in major league camp. But the Orioles thought Holliday, who spent his childhood in major league clubhouses with his father Matt, was mature enough to handle being around right away.

“Oh yeah, looking at him makes me feel old,” Rutschman said. “But he’s mature for his age. He’s mature for any age.”

Holliday is one of several Orioles infield prospects, some of whom are pushing to play regularly in the big leagues at some point this year. Henderson seems likely to start at third base. But slick-fielding Joey Ortiz does not seem far from pushing Jorge Mateo at shortstop. Jordan Westburg might soon push Frazier for a chance at second base. Any of those players could elbow away time from 2022 Gold Glover Ramon Urías, who at 28 years old, is not exactly obsolete.

Many of them played with each other in the minors, moving through the levels with them, step by step — jockeying for positions year to year. Now they are all here at once, a potent spring showing away from being big leaguers.

“[Our collective progress] goes basically unnoticed because we’ve been with each other so long. But there is that competitive push among us,” Westburg said. “I know if I’m out there taking groundballs early, Gunnar, Joey, Jackson, they’re not going to be far behind. Same thing goes in the cage. You might not say it out loud, but you’re trying to one-up each other.”

Westburg said he spent much of spring training asking Orioles with more experience (veterans, here, seems too generous) what helped them make progress. He asked Urías what changed from the year he didn’t win a Gold Glove to the year he did. For the Orioles to continue their long-promised rise to annual contender, they need a handful of players to take similar leaps, or to slide seamlessly into stardom like Rutschman did after debuting last year.

“The thing about it is, you’re making steps every time you move up a level,” Rutschman said. “I always thought it was going to be this crazy big difference in the big leagues. By the time you hit the big leagues you’re so stressed out of the unexpected and what it may or may not be. I felt like I built it up way more in my mind.”

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One could be forgiven for thinking the Orioles playoff expectations are similarly inflated, for seeing young players doing things they had never done in 2022 and wondering if they can duplicate them — for thinking Elias and company should have spent more this winter if they really expected to win.

But one could also be forgiven for wondering whether the Orioles’ time really has arrived. The Tampa Bay Rays (Tyler Glasnow), New York Yankees (Carlos Rodón, Harrison Bader, Lou Trivino) and Boston Red Sox (Trevor Story, Justin Turner, James Paxton, Garrett Whitlock, et. al.) have already watched spring training injuries poke holes in regular season plans. The new balanced schedule means fewer games against those bruising and familiar teams and more against teams that won’t know their young roster nearly as well.

Few people in the Orioles clubhouse know how hard it can be to play well for 162 games, let alone into October. But few people in that clubhouse have evidence they cannot do it, either. After all, big league stars all begin their careers as unproven.

“I say this in life, too,” Gibson said. “Only the lucky ones get old.”


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