Re-examining Orioles' 5 preseason keys to success after team's first 71 games

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays
Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

Here's a riddle: when is a 47-24 record through 71 games not quite good enough? When you play in the same division as the New York Yankees.

The Baltimore Orioles reached the halfway point of the 2024 season on a high note on Sunday, defeating the Phillies 8-3. And while the first 71 games of the season have delivered mostly positive returns, one cannot help but acknowledge that things certainly could be better.

The Orioles are 47-24. Yet, somehow, they find themselves 1.5 games behind the Yankees who, as feared, have been otherworldly with the offseason acquisition of superstar Juan Soto. And while O's regulars have performed at or above expectations, some have mysteriously — yet immensely — struggled. Perhaps most concerning is the Orioles starting rotation, which has dealt with a bevy of devastating injuries despite good results overall.

During the offseason, we identified five keys to the Orioles repeating as champions of the American League East in 2024. How have those have played out through 71 games? And how can they be built upon for the second half?

Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez cemented as top pitchers in the AL

Although the first key mentions Bradish and Rodriguez, it could just as easily be applied to the entire rotation.

Indeed, the article was written before the Orioles acquired Corbin Burnes in a stunning February trade, and Baltimore was depending on Bradish and Rodriguez to be their aces. And statistically, by all accounts, the Orioles' starting rotation has been really good. Burnes has emerged as the Orioles bonafide ace, a bulldog gamer who will give them a chance to win every time he pitches; this was apparent as ever on Fathers' Day, when he beat the Phillies. At 8-2 with a 2.14 ERA, Burnes has seemingly locked up a spot on the AL All-Star Team and is in the running for the Cy Young.

But while the numbers for the Orioles' other starters are very solid, they have all struggled with injuries. Rodriguez has been the least affected by the injury bug, and his seven-inning, two-run performance in beating the Phillies Saturday night raised his season stats to 8-2 with a 3.20 ERA.

Bradish, the Orioles' best starter in 2023, missed all of Spring Training and about a month with a UCL injury, returned and pitched well, only to devastatingly go down again with a UCL injury on Friday against Philadelphia. John Means and Tyler Wells, both of whom were expected to be mainstays in the rotation in 2024, are out for the season with elbow injuries. And Dean Kremer, who pitched well in nine starts for the Orioles, is currently on the IL with a right triceps strain.

With a critical three-game series in the Bronx coming up this week, the Orioles will be sending Albert Suarez, rookie Cade Povich, and Cole Irvin to the mound — not what you would expect from a team with so much talent in the rotation. To their credit, these three pitchers have been great.

So have Rodriguez and Burnes emerged as top-tier pitchers in the AL? At 8-2 with a 3.20 ERA, Rodriguez may be on his way. As for Bradish, who pitched so well before going down yet again with a right elbow injury, it is TBD. Even still, the Orioles' starting pitching has been good enough to keep them within shouting distance of the incredible Yankees.

However, if they want their success to continue through October, they must add at least one more starter before the trade deadline.

The Orioles' bullpen remains elite despite the loss of Felix Bautista

The Orioles bullpen remained a huge weapon for Brandon Hyde in the first half of the 2024 season, despite missing All-Star closer Felix Bautista. Bautista's replacement Craig Kimbrel has pitched admirably, aside from a brief hiccup in mid-May when he blew two saves against the Athletics.

Yennier Cano and Danny Coulombe have been as good as they were in 2023, though the recent loss of Coulombe could loom large if he is forced to miss significant time. Jacob Webb and Keegan Akin, two pitchers who were on the roster bubble this spring, have pitched well. In fact, the Orioles' bullpen has been so good that there wasn't enough room for Mike Baumann, who won 10 games in 2023 and pitched well before being dealt to Seattle in May. As with the rotation, the Orioles' bullpen has gotten the job done to help them keep pace with their 2023 success.

Orioles star Gunnar Henderson contends for AL MVP


Gunnar Henderson has not only contended for the AL MVP during the first 71 games of the season, but he appears to be in a clear top-three battle alongside the Yankees' Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. On Sunday, Henderson hit is league-leading eighth leadoff home run off of one of the best pitchers in the National League, Zack Wheeler.

It was a first half of superlatives for the Orioles' superstar shortstop, who is second in the AL in home runs (to Judge), second in WAR (to Judge), third in runs scored (behind Soto and Bobby Witt Jr.), and fourth in OPS (behind Judge, Soto, and Kyle Tucker). Unfortunately for Henderson, Judge and Soto appear on just about all of the top lists alongside him, and at this time one of the Yankees is probably the frontrunner.

But he has certainly been in contention for MVP and has undoubtedly been a driving force behind the Orioles' 47-24 start.

How's the Orioles' health in 2024?

This one may be the Orioles' undoing.

While the Orioles have successfully employed a "next man up" mentality this year, the losses are truly starting to pile up. The O's have already lost key guys in Means and Wells for the season, and Bradish may not be far behind them. Coulombe is out in definitely with an elbow injury, and Kremer is still on the mend from a triceps strain. And of course, last year's bullpen ace in Bautista is still on the shelf recovering from Tommy John surgery. Grayson Rodriguez, Cionel Perez, Austin Hays, and Jorge Mateo have missed time as well.

With that said, the Orioles' offense has (knock on wood) remained mostly healthy throughout the year. The Orioles have taken their lumps in the first half with injuries, but if they can avoid any additional major injuries, get Kremer and Coulombe back soon, and supplement the rotation with another arm at the deadline, they may still be alright.

Mike Elias supplementing the current Orioles' group

Shortly after identifying the five keys to the Orioles repeating as AL East Champs, Mike Elias did, indeed, supplement the current group by acquiring Burnes. His effect on the entire team has been tremendous. While it was tough to trade away prospects Joey Ortiz and DL Hall, Burnes has been worth every penny.

Now, the Orioles need Elias to strike again. The current rotation at the halfway mark consists of Burnes, Rodriguez, Cole Irvin, Cade Povich, and Albert Suarez — perhaps not horrible if this was the Orioles of 2022. But with the all-in trade for Burnes (who is not guaranteed to be back next year) and last year's disappointing early playoff exit against the Rangers, this is not 2022 or any other year. This is a year the Orioles will need to make a splash (or two) at the trade deadline to give themselves a chance at a deep playoff run.

Garrett Crochet of the White Sox may be available, but he will not come cheap. The lefty starter has gone 6-5 this year, but has a 3.16 ERA and an amazing 116 strikeouts over 82.2 innings to lead the American League. With two years of control left after this season, the White Sox will hold out to get a king's ransom for Crochet. But if the Orioles are convinced he is the piece to put them over the top, they have the assets to get a deal done.

The Orioles could also return to the well and check in on Miami Marlins' starter Jesus Luzardo, though he will also be expensive. Perhaps Angels starter Tyler Anderson, who is 6-6 with a 2.58 ERA (but a poor strikeouts per nine innings total) could be an option. It's clear that Elias will need to supplement the current starting staff before the deadline. Unfortunately for the Orioles, the league is well aware and will set their sights on a significant return from Baltimore.

So, what now for the Orioles as we propel toward the second half?

The Orioles' performance, with respect to the above five keys, will certainly be telling in whether they repeat as AL East Champs. But new keys have emerged that may ultimately decide this team's fate.

It starts with players who, for one reason or another, have surprisingly not performed.

Jackson Holliday came up to Baltimore in April was supposed to stick for good. He only managed two hits and now finds himself on the Norfolk IL.

Can Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays, two longtime, trusted Orioles, return to their career averages? After Sunday's game, Mullins' OPS stands at a cringe-worthy .563, well below league average and frankly not good enough for an MLB starter. While Hays has turned it up lately, his OPS still stands at .663, and he has ceded playing time to Colton Cowser.

Ay yes. Cowser. Can the Milk Man rediscover the stroke that won him AL Rookie of the Month in April and help offset the struggles of Mullins and Hays? Will we see the Cowser who slugged a 443-foot blast off of Zack Wheeler, or the Cowser who so frequently struggles to connect with breaking balls and off-speed pitches down in the zone?

Can Jordan Westburg continue his magnificent rookie season, that has seen him slug 11 home runs and put up an .836 OPS? Or will he hit a wall in the second half of the season?

Can Ryan O'Hearn's bat stay hot for the remainder of the year? His .809 OPS at the halfway point is great, but he infamously face-planted at the end of 2023, closing the season on a 0-23 streak.

And finally, can the Yankees keep up this white-hot start to the season, that has seen them go 50-24? To be sure, Judge and Soto really are that good, so expecting them to slow down may be a fool's errand. And with Gerrit Cole's imminent return to the mound, there is no reason to expect the Yankees to slow down anytime soon.

No, for the Orioles to repeat as AL East champs in 2024, perhaps the biggest "key" will be their head-to-head matchups with the Yankees, the only team standing in their way of a second division crown. The teams have nine games remaining, starting Tuesday in the Bronx. If the Orioles cannot handle their business, it may not matter.

Buckle up and enjoy the final 91 games of what should be a fun ride to the finish.