The Texas Rangers made quick work of the previously unstoppable Tampa Bay Rays, eliminating them in the Wild Card Round by outscoring them, 11-1 in a two-game sweep. The Rangers continue their tour of the American League East by heading to Camden Yards to begin the best-of-five American League Division Series, which starts Saturday, October 7 at 1 P.M.
While the Rangers had a bit of an uneven season - they mixed separate 1-7 and 0-8 runs into their 90-win season - they unquestionably provide a legitimate challenge to the Orioles. Home field advantage might not help much: the Orioles were a better road team than home team this season, and each team won 2 out of 3 at the other team's park. Texas' roster is stacked, and the Orioles are in for the fight of their lives.
How do the Orioles and Rangers stack up at each position?
1. C: Adley Rutschman (BAL) vs. Jonah Heim (TEX)
If a comparison between these two talented catchers seems familiar, it's because we analyzed this earlier in the year, when Rutschman and Heim were battling for the starting gig in the All-Star Game. As it turned out, Heim rallied from thousands of votes behind Rutschman to win the job, with Rutschman settling for the backup role (and an exciting appearance in the Home Run Derby).
Rutschman had a solid season, batting .277 with 20 home runs, 80 RBIs, and an .809 OPS. He was worth 4.3 WAR which, surprisingly, was nearly a full win less than his 2022 WAR of 5.2. Regardless of the numbers, there was no doubting that Rutschman was the heartbeat of the team and a consistent leader. He will likely bat second in every ALDS game for the Orioles and, hopefully, begin building his legend.
Despite starting in the All-Star Game and having a good season by most accounts, Heim was not as good as Rutschman. The 28-year-old catcher (and former Orioles' farmhand) hit .258 with 18 home runs, 95 RBIs, and a .755 OPS, en route to a 2.9 WAR season. Texas is happy to have him, but he's simply not on Rutschman's level.
2. 1B: Ryan O'Hearn (BAL) v. Nathaniel Lowe (TEX)
Ryan O'Hearn was a terrific story for the Orioles this year. He went from minor off-season acquisition to a key cog in the Orioles' lineup, batting almost exclusively in the 3, 4, or 5 spot in the lineup against right-handed pitching.
In 2023, he hit .289 with a career-high-tying 14 home runs and a career-high 60 RBIs, good enough for an .801 OPS. O'Hearn had countless clutch hits, including a game-tying three-run home run off of Toronto closer Jordan Romano as part of an Orioles' sweep in Toronto.
However, Texas has at least two left-handers who are likely to start in the ALDS - Jordan Montgomery and Andrew Heaney - and it is unclear how big of a role, if any, O'Hearn will have this series.
Lowe, 28, hit .262 with 17 home runs, 82 RBIs, and a .775 OPS. He is one year removed from an outstanding 2022 season, where he hit .302 with 27 home runs, 76 RBIs, and an .851 OPS. Lowe was worth 2.6 WAR this season, compared to O'Hearn's 1.2. One or more home runs onto the flag court this weekend is a distinct possibility for the Rangers' slugging first baseman.
3. 2B: Adam Frazier (BAL) v. Marcus Semien (TEX)
The Orioles do not have a clear starter at second base in this round, as Frazier is likely to start against right-handed starters, while Jordan Westburg or Ramon Urias are likely to start against left-handers. Texas has plenty of both. Because Frazier was the Orioles' primary second baseman this year, however, I am including him here. After signing with the Orioles on a one-year, $8M contract this winter, Frazier was a bit enigmatic.
He seemed to come up with big hits and key defensive plays, but his overall numbers were not great. He hit .240 with 13 home runs, 60 RBIs, and a .696 OPS, and was worth 1.7 WAR this year. Frazier is a likable guy and a good clubhouse presence, but the Orioles should not count on him significantly in the ALDS.
Marcus Semien, on the other hand, is likely to be in the center of any run-scoring barrage Texas has this series. In the second year of the 7-year, $175M mega-contract he signed with the Rangers two winters ago, Semien was outstanding in 2023, batting .276 with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs, and an .826 OPS out of the leadoff spot. He was worth an eye-popping 7.4 WAR and, along with teammate Corey Seager, should get some consideration for the American League MVP. Texas wins second base by a landslide.
4. SS: Gunnar Henderson (BAL) v. Corey Seager (TEX)
At the beginning of the season, I wrote that Gunnar Henderson needed to play at a Rooke-of-the-Year level for the Orioles to have a chance to win the AL East. Henderson did all that and more, and is the betting favorite to take home the American League honor.
In his first full season in Baltimore, Henderson hit .255 with 28 home runs, 82 RBIs, and an .814 OPS. He easily led the Orioles in WAR with an outstanding 6.3 WAR over 150 games. He won Most Valuable Oriole and likely was the best player on the division-champion Orioles this year.
But then there's Corey Seager. At the risk of ostracizing myself from Birdland, friends and family, Seager was just better than Henderson this year. In the second year of a monster 10 year, $325M contract with the Rangers, Seager put up MVP-like numbers in only 119 games: a .327 batting average, 33 home runs, 96 RBIs, 42 doubles, a 1.013 OPS, and 6.9 WAR.
As good as Henderson was, Seager was better. Watching these two start shortstops battle it out in the ALDS is one of many reasons why this 5-game series is must-see TV for any sports fan.
5. 3B: Ramon Urias/Jordan Westburg (BAL) v. Josh Jung (TEX)
For much of the season, the Orioles followed the famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine with respect to third base. "Who's on Third?" "I don't know!" The Orioles rotated through Ramon Urias, Gunnar Henderson, and Jordan Westburg at the hot corner this year. While Urias and Westburg held their own for most of the season, they did not have a season comparable to that of Rangers' rookie Josh Jung (pronounced "young").
Indeed, if not for an August 7 thumb fracture, Jung likely would have competed with Gunnar Henderson for rookie of the year, batting a strong .266 with 23 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .781 OPS, and earning 2.4 WAR on the season.
6. LF: Austin Hays (BAL) v. Evan Carter (TEX)
At long last, Austin Hays will make his playoff debut with the Orioles this weekend against the Rangers. A September callup in 2017, Hays has played parts of six seasons with the Orioles and has endured his share of losing. In 2023, he earned his first All-Star nod and put up a solid .275 average with 16 home runs, 67 RBIs, and a .769 OPS.
Texas left fielder Evan Carter has shown flashes of brilliance, including his two-run home run against the Rays in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series that essentially put Tampa Bay away. The former second-round pick impressed over 62 at bats with Texas, batting .306 with 5 home runs and a 1.058 OPS. As solid as Carter was, this was a small sample size and it's unclear whether Carter's bat will stay hot against the Orioles aces Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez. I am going with experience here.
7. CF: Cedric Mullins (BAL) v. Leody Taveras (TEX)
Like Hays, Mullins has endured his share of losing with the Orioles before reaching his first post-season this year. But that has not stopped Mullins, who posted the Orioles' only 30-30 season in history in 2021, from becoming a top centerfielder in the American League.
This year, Mullins battled through injuries to post a somewhat disappointing .233 average with 15 home runs and 74 RBIs. However, over just 112 games, Mullins was worth a solid 2.8 WAR, driven largely by his outstanding defense in center.
Like Mullins, Taveras has toiled with the Rangers for a while, making the playoffs for the first time in his four year career. Taveras had very similar numbers to Mullins this year: a better batting average, but less home runs and RBIs. He was worth 2.7 WAR, Mullins was worth 2.8. This is largely a toss up, but due to Mullins' sustained success in the big leagues (Taveras' .733 OPS this year was his career high; Mullins OPS'ed nearly .900 in 2021), I am going with the more proven player.
8. RF: Anthony Santander (BAL) v. Adolis Garcia (TX)
Anthony Santander followed a superb 2022 season with an equally strong 2023 year, batting .257 with 28 home runs, 95 RBIS, a .797 OPS, and a career-best 3.0 WAR. Tony Taters regularly hit third in the Orioles' lineup and had a knack for extending at bats, working the starting pitcher, and collecting clutch hits. The Orioles will undoubtedly count on him as a key contributor in the ALDS.
As good as Santander was, Rangers All-Star right fielder Adolis Garcia was just a bit better. Garcia, 30, socked 39 home runs, drove in 107 runs, and registered a terrific .836 OPS for the Rangers this season. Garcia had several chances to drive in Semien, Seager, and Lowe all season as the Rangers' clean-up hitter, and did not disappoint. The fact that his 4.2 WAR ranked him a distant third in the Texas Rangers' lineup indicates just how dangerous that lineup is.
9. DH: Ryan Mountcastle (BAL) v. Robbie Grossman (TEX)
Despite battling issues with vertigo and his left shoulder this year, Ryan Mountcastle had a productive 2023 season. In only 115 games, Mountcastle hit .270 with 18 home runs, 68 RBIs, and a .779 OPS. Mountcastle could be a key X factor for the Orioles in the ALDS, as the Orioles are likely to face at least two left-handed starters in Montgomery and Heaney.
It is no secret that Mountcastle prefers hitting against lefties, as he mashed to the tune of a 1.052 OPS in 142 at-bats against left handers this year (credit to long-time friend Henry Sheller for raising this point in our group thread). If Mountcastle can get hot in the ALDS - and we all know how incredible he can be when he's hot - the Orioles bats should be able to keep up with Texas.
Robbie Grossman is a left-handed hitting journeyman known for taking walks and occasional power. He had a slightly below average season with the Rangers, batting .238 with 10 home runs and 49 RBIs over 114 games.
What works about the Orioles' rotating wheel of players at second and third base is that their bench, on any given day, will have starting caliber playoffs. While the Orioles have not announced the playoff roster yet, the bench figures to include James McCann, Jorge Mateo, Jordan Westburg/Ramon Urias, Aaron Hicks, and perhaps Ryan McKenna. Mateo, Westburg, Urias, and Hicks started several games for the Orioles this year, and do not represent as big a drop off as other teams face when they start a bench player.
In the Wild Card Round, Texas carried Mitch Garver, Austin Hedges, Travis Jankowski, and Josh Smith on their bench. Garver and Hedges are both catchers, with the former better known for his bat and the latter for his glove.
Smith can play all over the diamond but struggled to a .185 batting average and .633 OPS this season. Jankowski is a solid fourth outfielder, but his one home run and .689 OPS pales in comparison to Hicks' 8 home runs and .735 OPS. The Rangers' bench isn't bad; the Orioles bench is just better.
11. Starting Pitching
On paper, the Texas Rangers should have the better rotation than the Orioles. If only their top two pitchers - Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer (hello former Mets!) - were healthy enough to pitch in this series. The Rangers are still solid in the starting pitching department, though. Jordan Montgomery, who Brian Cashman senselessly traded away last season, shut out Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, and Nathan Eovaldi (who the Orioles should have made a greater effort to sign) was terrific in Game 2.
Jon Gray, who got off to a great start before struggling down the stretch for Texas, is currently on the IL. After Montgomery and Eovaldi, solid but unspectacular Andrew Heaney and right-hander Dane Dunning figure to draw starts before Eovaldi/Montgomery get a game 5 start.
The Orioles' rotation is anchored by the red hot Grayson Rodriguez and Kyle Bradish. While pitchers like Eovaldi started hot and pitched solidly, but not spectacularly, down the stretch, Rodriguez and Bradish have only gotten better as the season has worn on.
Rodriguez and Bradish are flanked by the former ace John Means, and either Dean Kremer or Kyle Gibson. Like Bradish and Rodriguez, Means has been hot since his return, including a sparkling start in Cleveland where he no-hit the Guardians until Andres Gimenez's solo homer in the bottom of the seventh.
The rotation battle is incredibly close. Montgomery and Eovaldi proved they can pitch in big games by shutting down the Rays, and Heaney and Dunning are very solid. But as stated above, Bradish and Rodriguez have been pitching their best baseball of late, while Eovaldi, for example, struggled to a 9.30 ERA over 6 September starts. The Orioles' rotation gets the slightest of edges.
The Texas bullpen contains some veterans you've probably heard of (Will Smith, Martin Perez, Aroldis Chapman) and some names you may not know (Josh Sborz, Jose Leclerc, Brock Burke, Grant Anderson). But overall, aside from Chapman (3.72 ERA with Texas) and Leclerc (2.68 ERA), the Rangers' bullpen is nothing to write home about.
Most of the ERAs in the Texas bullpen are in the 4s and 5s, which is considered below average in Major League baseball. It is telling that Sborz, for instance, pitched in 44 games but had a 5.50 ERA. Similarly, Bruke pitched in 53 games with a pedestrian 4.37 ERA.
For the Orioles, the loss of Felix Bautista, who will be out until 2025 due to Tommy John Surgery, hurts. But fortunately for the Orioles, the bullpen had enough depth to fill the huge hole left by Bautista's absence. Yennier Cano, who was arguably baseball's best reliever through the first month and a half of the year, has remained solid in the closer role, pitching to a 2.11 ERA overall in 72 games.
The Orioles also welcomed former starter Tyler Wells, who has excelled as a reliever during the last week plus of the season, and figures to be a trusted arm in Brandon Hyde's pen against Texas. Cano and Wells are joined by a set of three solid lefties: the hard-throwing DL Hall and Cionel Perez (3.54 ERA), and the crafty veteran Danny Coulombe (2.81 ERA).
Jacob Webb pitched well in 25 games for the Orioles, registering a 3.27 ERA. Whoever does not start between Gibson and Kremer should be available in relief out of the Orioles' bullpen as another solid arm.
13. Manager: Brandon Hyde (BAL) v. Bruce Bochy (TEX)
Two outstanding baseball minds and baseball managers will come to blows in the ALDS between Brandon Hyde and Bruce Bochy. Bochy has been a successful big-league skipper for several years, having managed the Padres, Giants, and Rangers over 26 combined years. In his first year with a talented Texas squad, he won 90 games. He is an old-school manager with the instincts and brain to outsmart even the boldest of new-school managers.
On the other side of the field is Brandon Hyde, the odds-on favorite to win the American League manager of the year. Hyde has survived some lean years in Baltimore to come out the other side with a 101-win season. While the Rangers may have a bit more talent on paper, Brandon Hyde squeezed every last ounce of positivity out of this 2023 Orioles team.
He did the same in 2022 as well, without Grayson Rodriguez and Gunnar Henderson for most of the year. This will be a great matchup between two great managers. At the end of the day, this series will be decided by the players.
The Rangers and Orioles are extremely evenly matched. While the Rangers may have the edge on offense, the "losing" players on the Orioles' end will still be solid contributors: Gunnar Henderson, Ryan O'Hearn, and Anthony Santander, to name a few.
The Orioles also have the edge on the bench, which should help for late inning defensive replacements (Jorge Mateo), pinch running (Mateo), or starts against tough lefties (Urias or Westburg over Frazier).
Both teams have good pitching, with the rotations an extremely close call. But the Orioles have a clear edge in the bullpen, even with the Mountain, Felix Bautista, relegated to watching from the dugout.
Perhaps it's intangibles. Perhaps it's having watched this incredible Orioles' team for a whole summer and not seeing anything greater than a few four-game losing streaks, while Texas had an 0-8 and 1-7 spell. Perhaps it's the fact that these incredible Orioles have not been swept since Adley Rutschman has been a big leaguer.
Call it what you want, but the magic will continue. Orioles in five.