If the last month or so offered any indication, it is that Orioles fans have much to look forward to both this year as well as over the next few seasons. Several prospects that make up MLB's #1 ranked farm system made appearances in late February and throughout March. Most notably, Grayson Rodriguez, Jackson Holliday, Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg, etc.
Baltimore Orioles spring training recap
As the Opening Day roster was recently made official and the squad currently preparing to take on their AL East rival the New York Yankees at Camden Yards, here's a quick recap of Baltimore's 2023 spring training campaign.
The Orioles ultimately finished 4th out of 15 teams in the Grapefruit League with an overall record of 16-13 and a +2 run differential. They ended up winning 10 out of 14 games when playing at the beautiful Ed Smith Stadium while simultaneously going 6-9 when away from Sarasota.
Going into camp, the Opening Day lineup seemed to already be decided barring any unexpected hurdles. The most prevalent competition appeared to be who would earn the right to serve as Ryan Mountcastle's backup at 1B following the departure of Trey Mancini as well as the failed Tyler Nevin and Jesús Aguilar experiments. Three players would end up auditioning for this role and performed admirably at that. Their stats can be found on the table below.
In perhaps a surprising move, none of them would actually earn a spot the Opening Day roster. Terrin Vavra's spring training slash line of .348/.392/.565 as well as his defensive versatility likely played a factor in that decision. Anthony Santander has also been given some extended looks at 1B.
Both O'Hearn and Diaz would be reassigned and are likely to start out the season playing in Triple-A Norfolk. Cordero, on the other hand, was granted his release and quickly signed to a one-year contract with the New York Yankees. GM Mike Elias could very well regret letting the 28 year-old slip away. Franchy has the potential to produce very well offensively thanks to the short porch in RF at Yankee Stadium.
Additionally, there was still a question as to who would fill out the starting rotation, After a dominating performance in Norfolk last season, it was nearly expected that SP - Grayson Rodriguez would earn a spot on the major league roster. There was even some buzz that he could potentially be the #1 starter come March 30th. Unfortunately, the electrifying righty struggled across his five starts and will be starting 2023 in AAA (more on this later).
DL Hall was another potential candidate but he would also be optioned in an effort to build up his innings and further develop him as a starter rather than working out of the bullpen. In turn, the #5 spot would ultimately go to Tyler Wells.
With injuries to both Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens, there would also be opportunities for a number of pitchers to earn a spot in the major league bullpen. Logan Gillaspie, who would not allow a run over 7 IP's while striking out 10 batters ended up being one of those guys alongside of starting pitcher turned-reliever Mike Baumann and the newly acquired Danny Coulombe.
Despite Tate and Givens, the Orioles were able to remain relatively healthy going into the 2023 season. However, there were a few bumps and bruises along the way. It was unclear as to when exactly Félix Bautista would begin to ramp-up due to the continued rehabbing of his left knee as well as experiencing some fatigue in his right shoulder. He would eventually make his first appearance in a March 14th contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bautista immediately picked up right where he left off by not allowing a single run and striking out 10 batters in 4.2 innings pitched over the following two weeks.
Vavra and Rámon Urías also missed some time as the former was dealing with some shoulder soreness and the latter battling a bruised right thumb. Both would recover quickly and appear to be relatively unaffected. It was also announced that C - James McCann, whom the O's traded for in late December to solidify the position of backup catcher behind Adley Rutschman, would be placed on the 10-day injured list due to a left oblique strain. Until his return, Anthony Bemboom will serve as the replacement.
With that being said, I'd now like to take the time to individually highlight some standouts/surprises as well as some players who may not have quite performed up to expectations throughout the 2023 spring training season. For clarification, I opted to only include those who still remain within the Orioles organization (sorry Franchy).
1. Jackson Holliday
I can say with confidence that not many people expected this performance out of the 19 year-old shortstop. Baltimore's 3rd best prospect (#12 overall in MLB Pipeline's preseason Top 100 Prospects rankings) put on a show by slashing .429/.556/.500 in 14 games before being reassigned to minor league camp. During his brief stint in Sarasota, Holliday displayed an advanced approach at the plate by drawing a walk in 22% of his PA's. He also showcased a terrific sense of maturity as well as some phenomenal flow.
2. Heston Kjerstad
It has certainly not been an easy road for the #2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft out of Arkansas. Shortly after being drafted, Kjerstad was diagnosed with myocarditis, a rare heart condition that prevented him from beginning his professional baseball career for nearly two years. Upon finally being cleared to play, the slugger enjoyed a nice start to 2022 by mashing baseballs while playing for the Delmarva Shorebirds. Unfortunately, he would proceed to struggle at the plate following a promotion to High-A Aberdeen.
Heston would inevitably rediscover his stroke while participating in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn. He hit five home runs in 22 games while slashing .357/.385/.622 earning him the award for "Most Valuable Player".
Kjerstad would continue to flaunt his raw power as he tied with both Adley Rutschman, and Austin Hays for the team lead in home runs with four while simultaneously sporting the highest OPS at a mark of 1.219. He would also play 23 games which is impressive in and of itself considering he has never played above A-ball.
3. Ryan O'Hearn
O'Hearn was among the group of players competing for the final bench spot. The Orioles acquired the 29 year-old first baseman from the Kansas City Royals over the off-season in exchange for my main man cash considerations.
Despite the fact that he was ultimately reassigned to Norfolk, I still view this acquisition as a low-risk, potentially high-reward transaction. As you can see below, last season Ryan underperformed by a rather significant margin in comparison to his expected statistics.
By analyzing any discrepancies in actual vs expected statistics, we are effectively attempting to figure out what should have been happening as opposed to what actually happened. If interested, direct your attention to the following excerpts from a previous article of mine for a more in-depth explanation.
"Expected stats like xwOBA are useful due to the fact that they are more indicative of a player’s individual skillset. This is achieved by not accounting for things that a hitter does not control such as the opposing defense."
"xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA all calculate the probability that a ball off the bat becomes a hit solely based on its exit velocity and launch angle. The traditional concepts remain as xSLG sill assigns a weighted value to each hit type and xwOBA also still assigns a weighted value to each method associated with getting on base. On the other hand, xwOBAcon differs slightly from xwOBA by removing any information regarding strikeouts/walks and focusing solely on quality of contact."
With that firmly in mind, it can be determined that O'Hearn should have performed much better than he actually did. The three main elements that could potentially cause such disparity are park factors, defensive positioning, and just being plain unlucky.
This brings me to my next point; the defensive shift. Ryan posted a dreadful wOBA value of .251 when hitting against the shift throughout 2022. On the contrary, he produced a wOBA of .323 when not facing a non-tradional defensive alignment. (this value was .405 in 2021) The caveat? He was was shifted against in 74% of his plate appearances which ranked in the 84th percentile among all LHH's in major league baseball and significantly higher than the MLB average of 55%.
The fact that restrictions on the defensive shift are making their way to the highest level of professional baseball in 2023 could help O'Hearn tremendously in regards to his offensive production. Moving forward, he will be a valuable asset for the Orioles that can be stashed in the minors and called upon if needed.
4. Austin Hays
Hays came into the year looking to bounce back from a dreadful second half in 2022 that was marred by a nagging wrist injury as well as some inconsistencies at the plate in terms of his swing mechanics and plate discipline. Simply put, he bounced back in a BIG way. Austin rediscovered his offensive prowess by tying for the team lead in home runs with 4 as well as producing a slash line of .333/.381/.692 with an OPS of 1.073. He also made some strides in improving his approach at the plate by only striking out at a 16% clip (down from last year's rate of nearly 20%).
5. Kyle Gibson
Arguably Baltimore's biggest acquisition from this past off-season, starting pitcher Kyle Gibson arrived in Sarasota and exemplified everything that the Orioles were hoping to get when the team signed him to a 1-year, $10 million contract; a steady, veteran presence at the top of the rotation who can eat some innings as well as act as somewhat of a mentor for a younger pitching staff. The 35 year-old walked just one batter over 18.2 IP's with a 3.86 ERA and a WHIP of 1.23.
Honorable Mentions: Cole Irvin, Keegan Akin, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, Ryan Mountcastle.
1. Grayson Rodriguez
As previously mentioned, Grayson walked into spring with some high expectations. This was the direct result of a dominating season at AAA in which he posted a 2.20 ERA and .933 WHIP in 69.2 innings pitched as well as an incredible 35% strikeout rate and a 7% walk rate.
Sadly this trend would not continue as Grayson effectively pitched himself off the Opening Day roster. While in Sarasota, he appeared to struggle with his command by producing a 4.11 BB/9 and a WHIP of 1.57 alongside a 7.04 ERA across 15 and 1/3 innings pitched. Call if blatant service time manipulation if you want. However, the narrative that the Orioles front office seems to be pushing is that others pitchers (Tyler Wells) simply earned their spot in the rotation based on the following quote from Mike Elias.
2. Gunnar Henderson
Another highly touted prospect that made his major league debut in August of 2022. Gunnar was one of the main reasons why the Orioles were still in contention for an AL Wild Card spot late in the season. He slashed .259/.348/.440 across 34 games with four home runs and 0.9 WAR (4.2 pace over a full season). Because of this performance, Henderson entered camp as the favorite to win AL ROY in 2023. Unfortunately, he struggled at the plate through batting just .216 and striking out in nearly 27% of his plate appearances.
3. Joey Krehbiel
Krehbiel was just one of many stalwart's in a 2022 Orioles bullpen that ranked in the top 10 of all bullpens in major league baseball in terms of ERA and WAR. Prior to last year's All-Star Break, Joey was dominant as he pitched his way to a 2.18 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and just a 7% walk-rate in 33 IP's. Sadly, the second half would not go as smoothly for the 30 year-old righty. His ERA would balloon to 6.20 coupled with a five mph increase in average exit velocity.
This downward spiral continued in spring training. Similar to Rodriguez, Krehbiel pitched himself out of an Opening Day roster spot with a 9.82 ERA in 7.1 innings while surrendering four longballs. With his performance as well as the injuries to both Tate and Givens, Baltimore's bullpen depth will be tested early on in 2023.
4. Adam Frazier
Another free agent signing from this past offseason, Adam Frazier is expected to fill the void created by the departure of second baseman Rougned Odor who would end up agreeing to a minor league deal with the San Diego Padres. Frazier was a hot commodity during the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline as he was amidst a career year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Adam would be dealt to San Diego for a handful of prospects and proceed to spend the following year in Seattle where he struggled mightly at the plate with a .274 wOBA in 156 GP's.
While his defense has always remained steady, the Orioles are confident that he can have a bounce back year in terms of offensive production due to the fact that his BABIP as a Mariner was .268 which happened to be significantly lower than his career average of .304. Making this even more noteworthy is that Frazier can be classified as a contact hitter as evidenced by a zone contact % of 90.6 and a chase contact % of 71.8 which are bother higher than their respective MLB averages of 82% and 58.3%. It is typically abnormal for contact hitters such as Frazier to post low BABIP values.
Moving forward to ST, Adam certainly put the ball into play but just not in a way that generated many runs. He slashed .186/.271/.326 in 48 plate appearances while grounding into 3 doubles plays which was tied for the team lead with Ryan Mountcastle. Frazier hit one home run that also accounted for his lone RBI.
5. Rámon Urías
This almost certainly was not how Urías would have liked to start 2023 after coming off a Gold Glove Award winning season. He would bat .182 with nine strikeouts and just two extra-base hits in 14 games. Rámon's performance could very well be attributed to the aforementioned issue with his thumb that caused him to miss some additional games. It will definitely be worth keeping an eye on in the early going.