Astonishingly, the Baltimore Orioles have the best record in the American League this year. In baseball’s hardest division, competing with powerhouse organizations such as the Yankees and Red Sox, the low-budget, small-market Orioles have found tremendous success and appear poised for a deep playoff run. Here’s how the Orioles have found themselves in this position:
A dreaded rebuild
Between 2012 and 2017, the Orioles enjoyed a period of moderate, yet consistent, success, making the playoffs three times in six years but failing to win a pennant in any of their playoff runs. However, the team failed to make the playoffs in the 2017 season, and by the trade deadline of the 2018 season, it was apparent that this Orioles team had no playoff aspirations. The team then had to make the painful decision to begin rebuilding — starting with trading away their star third baseman, Manny Machado.
The Orioles traded Manny Machado for five Minor League prospects, none of which have panned out. Yet this moment still marked a shift for the Orioles, further cemented with a change in management when the Orioles brought in Mike Elias as the new general manager following the 2018 season.
Four years of losing
Between 2018 and 2021, the Orioles were abysmal. They finished last in the division in three out of the four years and only managed to be fourth in the division during the shortened 2020 COVID-19 season. However, during this time the Orioles were stockpiling talented younger players that would lead them to their current success. The MLB draft has played the most vital role in the Orioles' success story. Their period of struggle translated into favorable early picks, allowing them to secure top-tier college and high school prospects, resulting in the construction of the robust young core that underpins the Orioles' 2023 success story.
A group of young stars coming together this season has propelled the 2023 Baltimore Orioles to an extraordinary year. The 13 best players on the Orioles by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are all under 30 years old. The most notable of these players are Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman and Félix Bautista. Only 22 years old, Gunnar Henderson has burst onto the scene in his first full MLB season. Henderson was drafted by the Orioles in 2019 and has emerged into an elite player, having already hit 22 home runs and being a standout defensive shortstop.
Adley Rutschman was the first overall pick of the 2019 draft by the Orioles and has not disappointed, earning his first All-Star nod in 2023. A unique player in the MLB, Rutschman is a switch-hitting catcher who is consistent both offensively and defensively.
Félix Bautista differs from the previous two players, as he followed a more tumultuous path to the majors. He was first signed internationally by the Marlins in 2012 when he was only 17, where he struggled before being released in 2015. After a year off, the Orioles gave him a second chance in 2016, and after a long run in the minor leagues, Bautista earned his way onto the big-league club in 2022 and hasn’t looked back. Since then, Bautista has been the best closer in baseball, making the All-Star team and pitching to a 1.48 Earned Run Average (ERA) in 2023.
Surprises, surprises, surprises
The Orioles have enjoyed breakout seasons from players who have previously struggled. Kyle Bradish had a pedestrian season in 2022 for the Orioles but this year has been a completely different pitcher with a 10–6 record and a much improved 3.03 ERA. He has cemented himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game and will be the Orioles’ ace going forward. Yennier Canó has also emerged from nowhere to become one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. His lamentable 2022 season feels like an afterthought compared to the 1.48 ERA and All-Star campaign he has posted this year.
A little luck
Injuries have been a significant factor in the American League East Division this season, and this has played in the Orioles' favor. Going into the 2023 season the Yankees and Rays were viewed by most as the favorites to win the division, but both these teams have struggled with the injury bug. The Yankees lost star outfielder Aaron Judge for half the year and have struggled to keep a healthy starting pitching rotation as the loss of 2022 All-Star Nestor Cortés Jr. has proved particularly damaging.
The Rays are still having a good season and are only 2.5 games back of the Orioles, but they have been potentially hit harder than any other team in the league. The Rays have lost five starting pitchers to season-ending injuries, including their ace Shane McClanahan. Not to mention the Rays’ superstar shortstop, Wander Franco, being placed on administrative leave after accusations of inappropriate relationships with minors. The Orioles, on the other hand, have mostly avoided season-altering injuries, giving them a leg up on their divisional competition.