Baltimore Orioles are banking on young players for the 2023 season


SARASOTA, Fla. — Few people at the Baltimore Orioles clubhouse have played long enough to know how unusual it was when infielder Josh Lester picked up one of Heston Kjerstad’s bats one morning in early March and congratulated him on his own model. Most spring training clubhouses have many players with their own model racquets and receive huge shipments of them every day.

So no one seemed to find it odd when Lester and Kjerstad excitedly contemplated the boast of the black and orange custom livery, despite most established major leagues having their choice of colors and finishes.

“Maybe I wouldn’t feel so old in another locker room,” senior Adam Frazier, 31, said with a hopeful laugh. “You go to dinner with some of the guys and you realize where they are in their life and where you are in your life, it’s quite different.”

The 2023 Orioles are not built around established big leagues. Their fate depends to a large extent on young players who cannot possibly be expected to behave as they once did.

Many of the players who will decide their playoff chances — Adleyrutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Gunnar Henderson, DL Hall and so on — have rarely been here before, if they’ve played in the majors at all. Orioles, who played in the majors last year, surpassed expectations, leaving questions about whether those expectations were too low or their 2022 numbers unreliably high.

“I think people think they topped last year, so it’s about proving everyone wrong,” Frazier said. “The talent is obviously there. If we can employ everyone for 162 years, we will attract as many or more.”

The talent, everyone in Major League Baseball agrees, is obviously there when it comes to the Orioles. General manager Mike Elias spent a full three years hoarding it, rebuilding the franchise’s entire infrastructure for development and even getting a glimpse of the profits that could come with it last year.

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And it will be that talent that Elias and the Orioles have ensured with a deliberate but measured off-season that will also dictate where the franchise goes from here. Aside from a few veterans like Frazier, catcher James McCann, and aging starter Kyle Gibson, the Orioles spent nothing to turn last year’s success into a winner. They bet on young players transforming before their eyes.

They’ll bet onrutschman going from a surprisingly stable rookie to a grizzled leader without slowing the .806 OPS pace he’s held on the plate over the last season. You could see Henderson rise from Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect to a real star. You could watch Kjerstad resurface: After missing the 2021 season through injury, the runner-up overall in 2020 finished last year with a High-A and then hit .357 with 1.007 OPS in the Arizona Fall League.

You could watch Rodriguez establish himself at the top of the rotation in the prospect rankings, or watch Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer or even Hall grow further into their unwavering potential. Ryan Mountcastle’s talent suggests he may be ready to take on his role as a star. The location of the 2023 Orioles ceiling is a mystery. But such is the condition of their soil.

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“I think these young guys understand how good they can be, but they also understand that they’re not there yet,” said Gibson, who unsuccessfully searched the clubhouse for a teammate who was born in the 1980s. “It’s a good combination. If you know how good you can be and you think you’re there and you think you’ve made it, you can stop that development.”

Gibson, a former first-round pick and 10-season major league veteran, said his first spring practice session with the Orioles had rhythms more similar to those of more veteran camps than he anticipated. He knows that in some places the coaching staff is building more of a minor-league camp with younger teams — more time on the field, longer days, a harder grind.

“But these guys just don’t need that,” Gibson said. “I didn’t know what to expect walking into a dressing room with a lot of young guys, but these guys are ready.”

Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde said that during his days coaching under Joe Maddon in Chicago, they could plan to have the team’s best players and pitchers work backfields to adjust forgiving schedules by mixing in bats on backfields Bats in games.

“But there are a lot of players here that we want to look at,” Hyde said, noting that in years past the Orioles have used spring training at-bats to give people a chance against the high-profile competition. “Now they are competing with each other to create the club.”

One who is still in the opportunity phase is 19-year-old Jackson Holliday. Most major league teams don’t invite their first overall winner to spring training a year after they’re called up, especially if they drafted them as a high school senior. Since the Arizona Diamondbacks invited No. 1 overall Justin Upton to 2006 spring training in 2005, no team had picked a high schooler and invited him to major league spring training a year later.

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Holliday sometimes looks out of place, even in this clubhouse. In size and appearance, he is more like a Batboy than a full-fledged and promising participant in major league camp. But the Orioles thought Holliday, who spent his childhood in major league clubhouses with his father Matt, was mature enough to immediately cope with being around.

“Oh yeah, just looking at him makes me feel old,”rutschman said. “But he’s mature for his age. He is mature for any age.”

Holliday is one of several Orioles infield prospects, some of whom are pushing to play regularly in the big leagues sometime this year. Henderson seems likely to start at third base. But slick-field Joey Ortiz doesn’t seem far from pushing Jorge Mateo at shortstop. Jordan Westburg could soon be pushing Frazier for a chance at second base. Any of these players could take the time off 2022 Gold Glover Ramon Urías, who at 28 is not exactly out of date.

Many of them played together in the lower grades, moving through the levels with them step by step and fighting for positions year after year. Now they’re all here at once, a powerful source that stands out from being big league.

“[Our collective progress] practically goes unnoticed because we’ve been together for so long. But there’s this competitive pressure among us,” Westburg said. “I know if I get out there early and take groundballs, Gunnar, Joey, Jackson, they won’t be far behind. The same goes for the cage. You may not say it out loud, but you try to outdo each other.”

Westburg said he spent much of spring training asking more experienced Orioles (veterans seem too generous here) what helped them progress. He asked Urías what had changed from the year he hadn’t won the Gold Glove to the year he did. For the Orioles to continue their long-promised rise to annual contenders, they need a handful of players to make similar leaps or slide seamlessly to glory as Rustchman did after his debut last year.

“The thing is, every time you level up, you take steps,” Rustchman said. “I always thought it was going to be this crazy big difference in the big leagues. When you reach the big leagues you get so stressed out about the unexpected and what it may or may not be. I felt like I built it up in my head a lot more.”

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One could forgive oneself for thinking Orioles playoff expectations are similarly inflated, seeing young players doing things they’ve never done in 2022 and wondering if they can repeat them — if one thinks Elias and his cronies should have spent more this winter if they really expected to win.

But one might also wonder if the time of the Orioles has really come. The Tampa Bay Rays (Tyler Glasnow), New York Yankees (Carlos Rodón, Harrison Bader, Lou Trivino), and Boston Red Sox (Trevor Story, Justin Turner, James Paxton, Garrett Whitlock, among others) have already watched spring practice for stabbing injuries Holes in regular season schedules. The new balanced schedule means fewer games against these battered and familiar teams and more against teams that don’t know their young roster nearly as well.

Few people in the Orioles clubhouse know how hard it can be to play well through 162 games, let alone into October. But few people in this clubhouse have proof they can’t either. After all, all big league stars start their careers as unproven.

“I say that in life too,” Gibson said. “Only the lucky get old.” Baltimore Orioles are banking on young players for the 2023 season

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