We’ll be back.
It’s the refrain every ballclub turns to in the moments after a season ends in abrupt, crushing disappointment.
The Orioles followed the script Tuesday night. In the wake of a 7-1 postseason bludgeoning at the hands of the Texas Rangers, they clung to the fact they had shocked the baseball world with 101 regular-season wins. More importantly, they said, the best is yet come.
Not since the franchise’s 1970s and 1980s heyday has an Orioles team won big in the present and had sound reason to believe it would win bigger in the future. The 2023 Orioles are not just spitting in the wind when they talk of next year, saying what they’re supposed to say as they process the close of a joyous run.
Their top two position players, catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, are 25 and 22, respectively. They have two young pitchers, Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, whom manager Brandon Hyde believes could join the sport’s rarefied club of true No. 1 starters. They have the No. 1 prospect and No. 1 farm system in baseball.
General manager Mike Elias said only brutal competition in the American League East tempers his optimism for what’s to come.
“Do we have the talent and the organization to have another regular season as successful as our regular season was? Absolutely, but there’s other organizations out there trying too, and we’re gonna have 162 games next year and a lot’s gonna happen,” Elias said Thursday. “But I am exceedingly confident we’re gonna have another very competitive, entertaining, excellent season next year.”
That doesn’t mean the losses to the Rangers hurt any less for the time being. “I’m still pissed,” Hyde said twice as he spoke with reporters Thursday.
When he huddled with players on the final team flight from Texas, however, he wanted them to cherish their accomplishments and to feel the pull of what’s next.
“The guys who are going to be back, there’s going to be a lot to look forward to,” he said. “Because they’re really good players.”
The wider baseball world sees much promise in Baltimore.
“They need to look at all possible options to boost the rotation next year, but everything else is pretty much in place,” said Keith Law, a former Toronto Blue Jays executive who writes about prospects and team building for The Athletic.
That knowledge has allowed Orioles fans to savor a sweet year despite the bitter taste left by a playoff sweep.
Tim Cooke, 41, lives a few blocks from Camden Yards and called the last six months the most satisfying in his lifelong love affair with the team.
“You go back to 2014, when we got swept by the Royals, that hurt so much because it felt like the one shot for that team,” he said. “Here, we’re still theoretically a year early in terms of things coming together. I was talking to [my brother], and I said this truly is only the beginning. The embarrassment of riches we have in the minor leagues, the flexibility we have payroll-wise … and I know I’m a little biased, but we have the best front office. It’s set up for so much success.”
There is a flip side to all this optimism, the cold truth that many teams come close and never make it back. Or they assume, incorrectly, that one triumphant season will carry over to the next. Sometimes, the horizon is closer than anyone thinks.
Just ask the most famous Orioles of all, Cal Ripken Jr. After the club won the World Series in 1983, Ripken assumed that would be the norm going forward, and why wouldn’t he? He was a 23-year-old Most Valuable Player. Eddie Murray was in his prime. Ripken had grown up around the organization, watching his father coach the next crop of stars, who always seemed to refresh as the Orioles kept winning.
But most of the key players around Ripken and Murray were veterans, and there was no next wave coming. Within five years, the Orioles were unrecognizable, the worst team in baseball.
When asked recently about the current team’s splendid future, Ripken cautioned that the Orioles should “enjoy the moment.”
A look at the most successful teams from more recent Orioles eras reveals the wisdom in his words.
The 2014 club also won the AL East, only to be swept from the playoffs, albeit a round later, by the Kansas City Royals. “I think we can be even better,” center fielder Adam Jones said after the final defeat.
In fact, they dropped from 96 wins to 81 in 2015. They were back in the playoffs as an 89-win team in 2016, but that run lasted one game, with manager Buck Showalter leaving closer Zach Britton to watch helplessly from the bullpen as Edwin Encarnación hit a season-ending home run off Ubaldo Jiménez. They lost 87 games the next year and 115 the year after that, with their offensive core fading more rapidly than hoped and their promising starting pitchers either suffering injuries or failing to develop.
In 1997, the Orioles won the division but lost the AL Championship Series to Cleveland when closer Armando Benítez surrendered the only run of Game 6 on a home run by Tony Fernández. A few weeks later, Davey Johnson resigned the same day he was named AL Manager of the Year. The Orioles went 79-83 with a similar roster in 1998, kicking off a run of 14 straight losing seasons.
The 1997 team was built largely around stars in their late 20s or 30s, many of whom had signed as free agents and would be gone two years later. There was no robust crop of prospects to replace them. They were made to peak that season, not to last.
Elias, by contrast, has tried to build a club resembling those from the Orioles’ golden age, when Earl Weaver insisted the “Oriole Way” be taught at all levels and general managers Harry Dalton, Frank Cashen and Hank Peters ensured an ever-replenishing flow of quality players from the farm.
“This is not the first time this place has been a state-of-the-art, top organization in baseball,” Elias said before the playoffs. “We have that again now. It took some work, took some pain, took some focus on infrastructure.”
That talent pipeline, fueled not just by astute draft choices but by fresh investment in Latin America, is the Orioles’ greatest hedge against falling off the pace they set this year.
It begins with No. 1 prospect Jackson Holliday and his .442 on-base percentage across four levels as a 19-year-old shortstop. He’ll have a chance to make the Orioles next spring as will outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser. For sheer power, look to 21-year-old corner infielder Coby Mayo, who hit 29 home runs between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this year. Samuel Basallo, who hit 20 home runs and reached Double-A as a 19-year-old catcher, is the first fruit from the Orioles’ bolstered efforts in Latin America. Infielder Joey Ortiz is one of the top 50 prospects in baseball, and he might not find a place to play.
The farm system is not perfect. With Rodriguez now in the major league rotation, none of the Orioles’ elite prospects are pitchers.
“They’re going to have to trade some of this position player surplus for pitching,” Law said. “You just look, and they can’t play all these shortstops; they can’t play all these outfielders. This is the winter. … I don’t say any of this as a negative. I just say this is the one thing that’s going to have to be different over the next five years versus the last five.”
Even on the pitching side, the Orioles made great strides in 2023, with Bradish stepping forward, Rodriguez maturing from prospect to rotation fixture and John Means returning successfully from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
“Our starting pitching is up and coming,” Hyde said, a terrifying thought for opponents if the Orioles’ hitting prospects are half as good as touted.
Las Vegas bookmakers will almost certainly set their over/under higher than 76 wins next spring. They’re done sneaking up on anyone, and that’s fine by them.
“I think we showed that we’re gonna be here for a long time, we’re gonna be here to stay,” said pitcher DL Hall, yet another top prospect who stepped forward late this season. “This organization isn’t a joke.”