Tuesday night, in the same building Mike Elias declared “it’s liftoff from here” for the Orioles 14 months ago, their 2023 season came crashing down.
Yet, amid the jarring disappointment of a team that hadn’t been swept in 91 straight series suffering one in the American League Division Series at the hands of the Texas Rangers, it’s hard not to believe Baltimore’s executive vice president and general manager was right about “liftoff.”
The Orioles have taken flight, and they are only getting started.
That’s perhaps difficult to accept after a team that finished with 101 wins in the regular season came away with zero in the playoffs. The Rangers exposed their few weaknesses: an inexperienced rotation, a cushy middle portion of the bullpen, a lineup sporadically prone to stretches of collective futility. Few teams, though, managed to corral them during the 162-game grind of the regular season, one that ended with the Orioles as the sport’s greatest overachiever based on outsiders’ expectations for the second straight season.
They were fun and chaotic and unbelievable. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Kyle Bradish were among the young Orioles who went from phenoms to stars, reaffirming the successes of the rebuild Elias orchestrated. After enduring a string of losing seasons, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander basked in the winning on the other side. The likes of Yennier Cano, Ryan O’Hearn and Danny Coulombe went from being cast aside by other teams to depended on in Baltimore.
The Orioles had the best record in the AL, winning its East division when almost every projection saw them coming in last. Those forecasts looked down upon both their youth and the veterans brought in to counteract it.
The former is what prompted “liftoff.” The 2022 Orioles had similar charm to this year’s group but fewer wins, and even with Baltimore in the wild-card hunt, Elias sold at the August trade deadline, moving fan favorite slugger Trey Mancini and All-Star reliever Jorge López for six pitching prospects, Cano among them. In the moment, the trades soured an Orioles clubhouse that believed it had moved past seeing teammates go at that time of year, causing Elias to fly to Dallas and trek to Globe Life Field to meet with players, then with media. To both, he spoke of his belief in what was to come.
“We’re going to continue with the plan of building for a bright, long future in the American League East, and I think we’re right there,” Elias said last year in the venue’s visiting dugout. “I think that it’s liftoff from here for this team, and I think the decisions that we made the last couple of days were difficult in that regard.
“But I see a homegrown team that we want to build around and supplement, and I think that that’s going to start this year. There’s a lot of help coming from the minor leagues, and it’s going to start this year, and we’re just going to keep adding from this point forward.”
Minutes later, Elias noted Baltimore would seek external upgrades the next offseason, and that idea and “liftoff” got tangled together when it came to the level of aggression the Orioles would show. When they brought in complementary — and relatively inexpensive — experience, it was a letdown. But those efforts produced not only O’Hearn and Coulombe but also Kyle Gibson, Adam Frazier, James McCann and Cole Irvin, a group without whom it’s difficult to imagine Baltimore performing at the level it did. Still, the season’s outcome invites questions of whether more could have been done.
With talent still bubbling in their minor league system despite a bevy of major league promotions, it seemed this year’s deadline could be when the Orioles made their splash. But Elias again took a modest route, echoing the offseason by not wanting to detract from the future to sell out for 2023. This season, both internally and externally, is viewed as only the beginning.
“Now, we have experience,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “This team going forward, heads up, it’s going to be a really good club.”
There are, though, no guarantees of repeating this season’s successes. The AL East is baseball’s toughest division, and the Orioles won it in a down season from its typical powers of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Finishing atop the East gave Baltimore a bye of the wild-card round as well as home-field advantage up to at least the World Series. The Orioles could not capitalize on that path, their pennant drought stretching to 40 seasons with Tuesday’s defeat. They likely will have to manage all of next season without All-Star closer Félix Bautista, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction Monday.
But this is an organization primed for an extended run. All but six members of the Orioles’ ALDS roster hadn’t played in a postseason before, with these three losses serving as experience toward their pursuit of an eventual victory. The franchise’s first 100-win season since 1980 came even as Baltimore used more first- or second-year players than 28 of the majors’ 29 other teams. That influx of youth hasn’t stopped the Orioles from retaining their status as holders of the sport’s top-ranked farm system, with more reinforcements — including top overall prospect Jackson Holliday — expected to boost the club in 2024 and beyond.
“Definitely not how you want to end a season,” Henderson said, “but we’ll take this as motivation for next year.”
There are questions about how long this group will get to play together, especially given Orioles CEO and Chairman John Angelos’ comments about the organization’s financial inability to retain all of its stars long-term. In the immediate future, the only members of the team not under control for next season are, for the most part, among the players whose acquisitions ran counter to the perceived meaning of “liftoff.” Gibson and Frazier signed one-year contracts in the offseason. Ahead of the trade deadline, Baltimore added rentals right-handers Jack Flaherty and Shintaro Fujinami, both of whom were inconsistent. Aaron Hicks, a midseason signee who thrived after the Yankees released him, joins those four as the lone Orioles heading toward free agency this offseason.
“You try to enjoy every moment you can,” Gibson said. “I think we did a really good job of maximizing the fun and the relationships we have. But these guys will be friends for a long time, whether I’m on their team or not.
“There’s going to be however many guys here next year that have this feeling in their mind whenever they get to Sept. 30 and they get ready to go in October. This is a group that’s gonna be good for a while.”
The Orioles seemingly have internal options to replace each of the five, meaning Elias’ approach to the winter might once again center on supplements rather than superstars. But Baltimore already has a handful of the latter blossoming, even if the quick playoff exit kept the club from putting that on full display.
Regardless of the disappointing finish, the Orioles have, indeed, lifted off. They will soon get another chance to show just how high they can soar.