How the Baltimore Orioles rode their talent to the AL's best record

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Aug. 9, 2023; The Baltimore Orioles won their 100th game and clinched the American League East title on Sept. 28, 2023.

BALTIMORE -- A WEEK into the 2023 season, the New York Yankees came to Baltimore. It was far too early to tell in which direction the Orioles might go, whether they would build on their 83-79 season in 2022, their first year with a winning record since 2016. Ahead of the series, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was typically reposed, never agitated, never flustered. He flashed his signature smile to an approaching writer.

"Team is good," the writer said.

"Team is talented," Hyde said.

There is a difference, especially in baseball, between talented and good. Just ask the 2023 San Diego Padres, who have tremendous talent yet remain under .500. The Orioles have great young talent, and over the past four months, a relatively short time, they have gone from talented to really good. They have the best record in the American League, only two years removed from finishing 39 games out of fourth place in the AL East. From 2018 through 2021, the Orioles had the worst winning percentage (.326) of any team over a four-year period since the 1962-65 Mets (.300). Now, the Orioles have a chance to join the 1969 Mets as the only teams in baseball history to go from 100 losses to 100 wins in a three-year span.

"It has been an awesome season, but we haven't won anything yet," Orioles general manager Mike Elias said. "The process is still on the way up, but the rebuild is over. There is a sense of relief that it worked. It has rejuvenated baseball in this city. That is so cool to see."

This, after all, is a franchise that, from 1966 to 1983, was the model in baseball. The Orioles posted a .588 winning percentage (the best in baseball) and won world championships in 1966, 1970 and 1983. They were so good for so long that, in 1969, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver growled to no one on the team bus after losing a game late in the season, "Damn, it's hard to stay 50 games over .500!"

Highs and lows, mostly lows, followed the 1983 championship season, which was celebrated last weekend at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The 1988 Orioles lost their first 21 games, demolishing the major league record for most consecutive losses to start a season. After American League Championship Series appearances in 1996 and 1997, more struggles ensued before the team made the playoffs three times from 2012 to '16. But in 2018, the Orioles finished 61 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, the furthest from first place that any team has finished since the 1942 Phillies finished 62½ out.

After that season, Elias, 40, one of the architects of the championship rebuild of the Houston Astros (in town this week in a possible AL playoff preview), was named the general manager. From Houston, he brought Sig Mejdal, a statistical wizard for multiple teams, a former NASA engineer, a former blackjack dealer, and made him his assistant general manager. Elias and Mejdal promised, like in Houston, a similarly slow, methodical rebuild. Elias was questioned many times along the way by impatient fans. More severe critics claimed the Orioles were tanking in order to build a better farm system.

And then the 2022 season happened.

THE TRANSFORMATION FROM terrible to talented to good began quietly, on April 24 of that year. The Orioles were 6-10, with no sign of escaping last place, or even getting better, anytime soon. They had clawed back from a 6-0 deficit against the Los Angeles Angels only to lose 7-6 on a run scored after two walks and a hit batter in the next inning. Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander was hit by a pitch for a second straight game, and, Hyde said, "we decided right then that we're not going to take it anymore. We're coming."

It took another month before the transformation began publicly, when catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Oregon State, made his major league debut on May 21. Since that day, the Orioles have the fourth-best record in baseball; they have not been swept in a series. That is not a coincidence. Rutschman has been that good. He is a switch-hitter with power and born leader whose defense is so advanced that some talent evaluators insist that he was ready to catch in the major leagues when he was a freshman in college.

"I can't believe how short a time it took for him to take control of the staff," said former Orioles pitcher Jordan Lyles. "Within a week, whatever finger he put down, that's what I threw."

It wasn't that any of this came as a surprise, exactly. Rutschman won the 2019 Golden Spikes Award for the best college baseball player in the country. He has caught since Little League, even though he didn't become a full-time catcher until his senior year in high school. Until then, he also played third base, second base and was the team's closer.

"I was just trying to be as athletic as possible," he said.

He also was a terrific high school football player in Oregon, a star running back, linebacker and place-kicker. He went to Oregon State on a baseball scholarship but also was the kicker on the football team. His longest field goal was 63 yards. Famously, in a game against Stanford, he tackled star running back Christian McCaffrey on a kickoff return.

Does McCaffrey know he was tackled that day by the Orioles catcher?

"I'm sure he has no idea who I am," Rutschman said humbly. Has Rutschman ever met McCaffrey?

"No, the only time was that day," Rutschman said humbly, with a smile.

Rutschman smiles a lot these days. His team is winning, Orioles fans are jazzed about the present and the future, and Rutschman made the All-Star team for the first time this year. At the All-Star Game, he competed in the Home Run Derby. With his father as his BP pitcher, Rutschman hit 27 homers in the first round. Though he lost to Derby winner Vlad Guerrero, he had one of the event's signature moments when, in the middle of the round, he switched to right-handed and hit six straight homers.

"My dad has thrown BP to me my whole life," Rutschman said. "Sometimes, we'd finish a round saying, 'OK, these last five are for the Home Run Derby.' Life is full for all of us right now."

With just over a year in the major leagues, some have called Rutschman the best catcher in the game and a future Hall of Famer. His marvelous smile disappears when that is mentioned.

"I tune all that out," he said. "I just want to play and win with these guys. We just show up to the field with a common purpose. It has been awesome for me to be part of their journey."

ANOTHER ORIOLE WHOSE talent has never been in question is infielder Gunnar Henderson, 22, a second-round pick in the 2021 draft. After he was called up on Aug. 31, 2022, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said: "He's going to be a problem."

Even considering a slow start at the plate this season, he already has been. Because, in part, like Rutschman, Henderson is a great athlete: 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. Fast. Powerful. He was also a great basketball player in high school in Selma, Alabama.

"If I had concentrated as much on basketball as much as I did on baseball as a kid," Henderson said, shyly, "I probably could have played basketball in college. Maybe the NBA."

That athleticism allows him to play multiple infield positions although now he is their primary shortstop, with an exceptional throwing arm. He has run the bases with daring aggression: When the Orioles seized first place in the AL East in a stirring series against the Rays after the All-Star break, Henderson doubled to left field, and when Tampa Bay left fielder Randy Arozarena lazily returned the ball to the infield, Henderson took a vacated third base for a triple. It was a signature moment for Henderson and a play that personified this young, hungry team: A great athlete created an advantage by pushing the action. Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez has a nickname for Henderson: Clifford the Big Red Dog, because "all you have to do is throw a ball in the air, and he'll run after it. That's Clifford."

A line of .189/.348/.311 in March and April has climbed to .243/.331/.477 on the year, including an impressive .994 OPS in June.

"We told him not to be afraid to swing earlier in the count," Hyde said. "He has taken off." Since the start of June, Henderson has hit 14 home runs and driven in 37 runs, making him a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. He has also become a hero in his hometown.

"It's been awesome how great it has been, everyone in our small town knows each other," Henderson said. "It's not that small, there are 20,000 people there. But from our high school, I know everyone's parents and grandparents."

They all know Gunnar, such a unique name.

"I get asked enough about my name, I finally asked my parents why they named me that," Henderson said. "They were in the [birthing] room. They just decided on Gunnar. That's it."

THE TRANSFORMATION FROM talented to good also included the development of closer Felix Bautista, 28, who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles from the Marlins at age 19 and spent the first five years of his career in rookie ball trying to figure out how to throw strikes.

"I wouldn't have known his name [in 2020] if you said it, but he kept throwing 100 [mph]," Elias said.

In April 2022, Bautista made his major league debut as a middle reliever. He was already throwing 100, but then he began to throw more strikes, and he became the closer when Jorge Lopez was traded to the Twins in late July. Then, Elias was criticized for trading his closer in the middle of a pennant race. But this year, Bautista made the All-Star team, has a league-leading 30 saves, an 0.85 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings (he blew a rare save against the Astros on Tuesday when Kyle Tucker hit a grand slam off Bautista's 100 mph fastball). At 6-8, 285, he is as big as a doorway, and he has become one of the dominant, intimidating pitchers in baseball.

"And," Elias said, "he is as emotionally stable as any closer I've ever seen."

The pitcher whom Elias acquired in the Lopez trade with the Twins was Yennier Cano, 28, who posted an 11.25 ERA in 18 innings in 2022, his first year in the major leagues. He had great stuff but also couldn't throw enough strikes. So, in spring training, the Orioles told Cano to stay with one arm slot, stop varying it, and suddenly, the strikes arrived. He didn't allow a run in his first 17 appearances, made the All-Star team and now has a 1.86 ERA.

In 2021, the Orioles' bullpen ERA was 5.70, the highest in baseball. In 2023, it is 3.60, fifth lowest in baseball.

And everyone in Baltimore is so relieved.

PLENTY OF OTHER talents have emerged during the Orioles' transformation. Kyle Bradish, Cionel Perez, Mike Baumann and Bryan Baker have blossomed since 2021. Dean Kremer's ERA dropped from 7.55 in 2021 to 3.23. Dillon Tate (who has missed all of this season) posted a 3.05 ERA.

"In spring training," Hyde said, "I had no idea what our pitching staff was going to look like. And then about eight pitchers stepped forward during the season."

Position players bloomed alongside holdover outfielders Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Santander, a Rule V acquisition in 2016. Ramon Urias, claimed off waivers from the Cardinals in 2021, won a Gold Glove at third base in 2022. Shortstop Jorge Mateo, who led the AL with 35 stolen bases in 2022, was claimed off waivers from the Padres in 2021. In January 2023, the Orioles grabbed first baseman Ryan O'Hearn from the Royals. His OPS has jumped from .611 to .860.

This year, more kids from the game's best farm system have debuted, starting with Grayson Rodriguez, one of the top young pitching prospects in baseball and the future ace of the Orioles' staff. Infielder Jordan Westburg followed, a player Hyde describes as "just another 6-2, 220-pounder who can run." Then came outfielder Colton Cowser.

And more are on the way. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad could be a star in the major leagues someday. And the best of the group, if not the best player in the minor leagues, is shortstop Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. He was recently promoted to Double-A, where he is tearing it up. It's possible that he will start next season with the Orioles. He will be the Orioles' shortstop of the future -- unless it's Henderson. The other will be the third baseman of the future. Imagine the next five years in Baltimore, Holliday and Henderson playing next to each other on the left side of the infield, two of the best young players in baseball.

For this pennant race, under intense pressure to make a trade for a veteran starting pitcher at the deadline, Elias dealt for Jack Flaherty, 27, the former ace of the Cardinals. In his Orioles debut Aug. 3 against Toronto, Flaherty pitched six solid innings and became the first Oriole to strike out eight and walk one in his major league debut since Tom Phoebus in 1966.

"I just got here, it was fun, but I'm glad it's over," Flaherty said the next day. "I barely had time to introduce myself to everyone, then I was out there. It was like ...'Hi ... and bye."'

So now the Orioles have the best record in the AL and have perhaps the league's most exciting team, with a great set of baseball names: Gunnar, Grayson, Adley, King Felix, the lyrical Anthony Santander and the regal Ryan Mountcastle. This is a team set up to win for years to come.

"We now have flexibility on the roster, every player we have can play three positions, we have great balance between left-handed and right-handed hitters," Elias said. "And we haven't had a moment of drama in the clubhouse. I'll say that I object to people saying that we were tanking it. When we got to Houston and rebuilt it, and then to Baltimore, when we got to each place, things were bad. We had to tear it down to make it as good as possible."

The Orioles, now, are very good. From talented to very good.