5 keys to the Orioles repeating as AL East Champs in 2024

If these five things come to fruition, the Orioles should once again win the American League East
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

Coming into the 2023 MLB season, the prospect of the Orioles winning the American League East seemed like a dream. The Orioles won only 52 games in 2021 and, despite posting their first record over .500 since 2016 in 2022, a division crown in 2023 seemed highly unlikely.

But the dream turned into reality. Behind sensational pitching from Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez in the rotation and Felix Bautista in the bullpen, and the emergence of Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson, the Orioles won 101 games. They edged out the feisty Tampa Bay Rays for first in the East.

In an unforgettable summer, the Orioles sent four players to Seattle for the All-Star game, embarked on a historic "sweep-free' streak, and earned the top seed in the American League Playoffs. We all know how that ended: the white-hot Texas Rangers ironically swept the O's and won their first World Series in team history, defeating Arizona four games to one.

So here we are again: on the precipice of another baseball season (I say this knowing full well that it is January 30 and I nearly froze bringing the trash cans in from the street). Last year, I identified seven things that needed to go the Orioles' way to win the division. With a division crown in hand, I identify the following five keys to another division title in 2024.

What are the 5 things the Orioles need to win the AL East again in 2024?

1. Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez cement themselves as top pitchers in the American League

Kyle Bradish
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game One / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

The Orioles' Game 1 and 2 starters of the American League Division Series, Bradish and Rodriguez followed up outstanding second halves with disappointing playoff debuts. However, there was little doubt that, especially with Bradish, the Orioles had found their aces of the future.

Although he missed a handful of starts at the start of the year after taking a line drive off his foot, Bradish rebounded, pitching to a 2.83 ERA, good enough for fourth in the Major Leagues. Bradish finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting in 2023, and if he can remain healthy, should continue to be on a roll in 2024.

Despite struggling during the first half of the season, Rodriguez more than righted the ship in the second half. The young right-hander pitched to a 3.18 ERA in July, 2.64 ERA in August, and 2.17 ERA in September, and was rolling heading into his start against the Rangers. Arguably baseball's top pitching prospect heading into 2023, the Orioles will depend heavily on Rodriguez taking another step and pitching more consistently in Year 2.

Perhaps the main reason this is so important is that for the second straight season, the Orioles have refused to seriously supplement the rotation in free agency or via trade. While Spring Training is still a few weeks away, it appears that trade talks for Chicago right-hander Dylan Cease have cooled, while talks for Milwaukee's Corbin Burnes or Jesus Luzardo of the Marlins never got off the ground.

Instead, the Orioles appear to be counting on John Means to pitch a complete season after recovering from Tommy John Surgery and some combination of Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin, and DL Hall occupying the final two spots. Especially if someone gets injured, the Orioles will have to test their limited rotation depth more. It is a roll of the dice and further underscores that consistency and continued growth from Bradish and Rodriguez as 1 and 1A in the Orioles' rotation will be critical.

2. The bullpen remains elite despite the loss of Felix Bautista

Yennier Cano
Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two / Greg Fiume/GettyImages

The Orioles received devastating news in September of 2023 when they learned that all-world closer Felix Bautista would require Tommy John surgery and would likely miss the entire 2024 season. To the Orioles' credit, Mike Elias reacted quickly, signing one of the top relievers on the market in Craig Kimbrel to help ease the blow. There is no question that it will take more than Kimbrel to offset the loss of Bautista.

Returning to the Orioles' pen are holdovers Yennier Cano and lefties Danny Coulombe and Cionel Perez, among others. The Orioles also expect to get righty Dillon Tate back after the relief pitcher acquired years ago for Zack Britton missed the entire 2023 season. Perhaps the best recipe for off-setting the loss of Bautista may come internally if the Orioles keep Tyler Wells and DL Hall in the bullpen.

While others may disagree, Wells and Hall have shown themselves to be better suited for the pen, as illustrated during their dominant playoff debuts against Texas. Both pitchers showed the ability to pitch high-leverage situations, record key strikeouts, and pitch multiple innings. With Bautista out for the season, the bullpen may need them now more than ever.

Of course, this calls back to the importance of Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez leading the starting staff: if Hall and Wells are in the bullpen, the Orioles will need Bradish and Rodriguez to anchor the rotation even more, barring any outside additions.

3. Gunnar Henderson contends for AL MVP

Gunnar Henderson
2024 BBWAA Dinner / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

Fresh off winning American League Rookie of the Year, Gunnar Henderson returns to the Orioles for his second full year with even greater expectations than last season. Henderson was arguably the team's best player during the regular season and even in the playoffs, where he went 6-12 with a home run.

Prognosticators predict Henderson will be worth somewhere between 4.1 and 5.5 WAR, with the latter likely necessary for Henderson to enter the MVP discussion. After a slow start to the 2023 season, Henderson was essentially in MVP form. On May 10, his OPS sat at .651; by the end of the season, he was up to .814.

In a division that now has Juan Soto to go along with stars Aaron Judge, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rafael Devers, and Bo Bichette, the Orioles need their offensive star (along with fellow star Adley Rustchman) to hold their own to keep the Orioles atop the AL East.

4. Health

Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays
Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

All things considered, the Orioles were a relatively healthy group during 2023. Sure, John Means was limited to 4 starts, Felix Bautista missed all of September and the playoffs, and Cedric Mullins missed time with various injuries. But the Orioles got full, healthy seasons from key players Adley Rustchman, Gunnar Henderson, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Ryan O'Hearn, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, and Yennier Cano, to name a few.

Other teams in the American League East were not so lucky. Yankees' star Aaron Judge played in only 106 games due to an ongoing issue with his toe. The Yankees' free-agent prize from last year, Carlos Rodon, as well as lefty Nestor Cortes and bullpen ace Jonathan Losaiga, missed large chunks of the season while position players Jose Trevino, Anthony Rizzo, and Giancarlo Stanton also missed time. Tampa Bay lost ace Shane McClanahan and were without talented starters Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs for large portions of the season.

The Orioles are already without Bautista for the entire season, and can ill afford to lose more key players as the season progresses. As it is every year, health will remain a key factor in whether the Orioles can repeat as AL East champions.

5. Mike Elias supplementing the current group

Mike Elias
Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

As we all witnessed last year, winning the American League East is hard. Really hard. Even though the Orioles won the division in 2023, each game, especially down the stretch with Tampa Bay breathing down their necks, was excruciating and exhausting.

It is even harder when the teams around you improve. The Yankees add one of the best hitters in baseball in Juan Soto, a solid starting pitcher in Marcus Stroman, and other veterans including Alex Verdugo. Boston added talented starter Lucas Giolito, young infielder Vaughn Grissom, and powerful outfielder Tyler O'Neill. Toronto added depth with Justin Turner and Isaiah Kiner-Falefa. Aside from signing Kimbrel, the Orioles have largely stood pat despite being linked to several starting pitchers as discussed above.

While the Orioles appear to have enough depth such that their failure to add a single offensive player to the 40-man roster this off-season likely won't hurt them, pitching is another story. Mike Elias' notorious strategy of predominantly drafting position players has left the Orioles with a dearth of starting pitching and relief depth. To his credit, Elias addressed the lack of depth last July, acquiring reliever Shintaro Fijunami and starter Jack Flaherty in separate trades.

Unfortunately, both were ineffective, both are off the 40-man roster, and the Orioles' bullpen seems a bit shallow outside of top options Kimbrel, Cano, Perez, Coulombe, Hall and Wells, to the extent the latter two are in the bullpen. Even if Dean Kremer can repeat his solid 2023 and John Means can pitch a full season after missing nearly all of 2022 and 2023, the Orioles still lack depth for their fifth starter, with Cole Irvin, Wells, and Hall as the options right now.

At this time, it is a classic rob Peter to pay Paul (to quote Buck Showalter) scenario with Wells and Hall: if they are in the bullpen, the fifth starter spot may be weaker. If one of them starts in the rotation, the bullpen suffers.

For the Orioles to win another division, supplementing the current pitching staff with another starter (such as Dylan Cease, or even less-heralded innings eaters Michael Lorenzon or Hyun Jin Riyu), will be necessary to allow Wells and Hall to provide the depth the pen needs. If Orioles fans had their druthers, Elias would deal from his plethora of position player depth to upgrade these spots. Without sufficient pitching depth, winning the AL East will only be harder.

So, can the Orioles win the AL East for a second straight year? They haven't done so since 1970 and 1971. For a team with the talent this group has and the leadership of Manager of the Year Brandon Hyde, back-to-back AL East crowns is far from an unrealistic dream. As with 2023, the Orioles need several things to go their way again, starting with these 5 keys to the season.