The Washington Post

As young players grow up, how far can Orioles fly?

Mostly quiet this offseason, Baltimore is betting on its homegrown talent following a surprising 2022


SARASOTA, FLA. — Few people in 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 having his own model. Most spring training clubhouses have plenty of players with their own bat models; they get huge shipments of them daily.

So no one seemed to think it strange when Lester and Kjerstad mused excitedly about the swagger of the black-and-orange custom paint job, even though most establishe­d major leaguers have their pick of colors and finishes.

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

The 2023 Orioles are not built around establishe­d major leaguers. Their fate relies, in large part,

on young players who could not possibly be expected to act as though they’ve been here before.

Many of the players who will determine their playoff chances — Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, Gunnar Henderson, DL Hall and so on — have barely been here before, if they’ve played in the majors at all. The Orioles who did play in the majors last year outplayed expectatio­ns, leaving questions about whether those expectatio­ns were too low or whether their 2022 output was unreliably high.

“I guess people think they overachiev­ed last year, so this is about proving everybody wrong,” Frazier said. “The talent is obviously there. If we can keep everybody engaged for 162, we’re going to win just as many or more.”

The talent, everyone around Major League Baseball agrees, is obviously there when it comes to the Orioles. General Manager Mike Elias spent three whole years stockpilin­g it, rebuilt the franchise’s entire infrastruc­ture for developing it and even got a glimpse last year of the winning that could come with it.

And it will be that talent, Elias and the Orioles ensured with a deliberate but measured offseason, that will determine where the franchise goes from here. Other than a few veterans such as Frazier, catcher James Mccann and nearly ancient starter Kyle Gibson — he’s 35 — the Orioles did not spend to turn last year’s success into a winner. They bet on their young players to transform before their eyes.

They will bet on Rutschman to transform from surprising­ly steady rookie to grizzled leader without slowing from the .806 OPS pace he kept at the plate last season. They could see Henderson leap from Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect into a bona fide star. They could watch Kjerstad reemerge: After missing the 2021 season because of injury, the second overall pick in 2020 finished last year in high Class A, then hit .357 with a 1.007 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. He is 9 for 20 with a 1.376 OPS this spring.

They could see Rodriguez establish himself as the front-ofthe-rotation staple that prospect rankings always said he would be, or watch Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer or even Hall continue growing into their stalwart potential. Ryan Mountcastl­e’s talent suggests he might be ready to take his star turn. The location of the Orioles’ 2023 ceiling is a mystery, but so is the location of their floor.

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

Gibson, a first-round pick all the way back in 2009 and a veteran of 10 major league seasons, said his first spring training with the Orioles has had more similar rhythms to those of more veteran camps than he expected. He knows at some places, with younger teams, coaching staffs build more of a minor league camp — more time on the field, longer days, a tougher grind.

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

Baltimore Manager Brandon Hyde said that during his days as a coach under Joe Maddon with the Chicago Cubs, they could plan for the team’s best players and pitchers to do work on the back fields, to customize forgiving schedules by mixing at-bats on the back fields with at-bats in games.

“But here, there are a lot of players we want to look at,” Hyde said, noting that in years past the Orioles were using spring training at-bats to give players an opportunit­y to face top competitio­n. “Now, they’re competing with each other to make the club.”

One who is still in the opportunit­y phase is 19-year-old Jackson Holliday. Most major league teams do not invite the first overall pick to spring training a year after drafting him, especially if they drafted him as a high school senior. Not since the Arizona Diamondbac­ks invited 2005 No. 1 pick Justin Upton to spring training in 2006 had a team picked a high-schooler first and then invited him to major league spring training a year later.

Holliday looks out of place at times, even in that clubhouse. In size and appearance, he looks more like a batboy than a full 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 handle being around right away. He is hitting .333 with a .884 OPS in 12 at-bats.

“Oh yeah, looking at him makes me feel old,” Rutschman said. “But he’s mature for his age.

He’s mature for any age.”

Holliday is one of several Orioles infield prospects, some of whom are pushing to play regularly in the big leagues at some point this year. Henderson seems likely to start at third base. But slick-fielding Joey Ortiz does not seem far from pushing Jorge Mateo at shortstop. Jordan Westburg might soon push Frazier for a chance at second base. Any of those players could elbow away time from 2022 Gold Glover Ramón Urías, who at 28 is not exactly obsolete.

Many of them played with one another in the minors, moving through the levels with them, step by step — jockeying for positions year to year. Now they are all here at once, a potent spring showing away from being big leaguers.

“[Our collective progress] goes basically unnoticed because we’ve been with each other so long. But there is that competitiv­e push among us,” Westburg said. “I know if I’m out there taking groundball­s early, Gunnar, Joey, Jackson, they’re not going to be far behind. Same thing goes in the cage. You might not say it out loud, but you’re trying to one-up each other.”

Westburg said he has spent much of spring training asking Orioles with more experience (calling them veterans seems too generous) what helped them progress. He asked Urías what changed from the year he didn’t win a Gold Glove to the year he did. For Baltimore to continue its long-promised rise to annual contender, it needs a handful of players to take similar leaps — or to slide seamlessly into stardom as Rutschman did after debuting last year.

“The thing about it is, you’re making steps every time you move up a level,” Rutschman said. “I always thought it was going to be this crazy big difference in the big leagues. By the time you hit the big leagues, you’re so stressed out of the unexpected and what it may or may not be. I felt like I built it up way more in my mind.”

One could be forgiven for thinking the Orioles’ playoff expectatio­ns are similarly inflated, for seeing young players doing things they had never done in 2022 and wondering if they can duplicate them — for thinking Elias and company should have spent more this offseason if they really expect to win.

But one could also be forgiven for wondering whether the Orioles’ time really has arrived. 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) have seen spring training injuries poke holes in their regular season plans. The new balanced schedule means fewer games against those bruising and familiar teams and more against teams that won’t know Baltimore’s young roster nearly as well.

Few people in the Orioles’ clubhouse know how hard it can be to play well for 162 games, let alone into October. But few people in that clubhouse have evidence they cannot do it, either. After all, big league stars all begin their careers as unproven.

“I say this in life, too,” Gibson said. “Only the lucky ones get old.”

 ?? Gerald HERBERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Ryan Mountcastl­e, left, is one of several players who might be ready to become stars for the Orioles.
Gerald HERBERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS Ryan Mountcastl­e, left, is one of several players who might be ready to become stars for the Orioles.
 ?? Brynn Anderson/associated Press ?? Gunnar Henderson, Baseball America’s top prospect, seems likely to start at third base, where Ramón Urías won the Gold Glove last year.
Brynn Anderson/associated Press Gunnar Henderson, Baseball America’s top prospect, seems likely to start at third base, where Ramón Urías won the Gold Glove last year.

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