From 2018–21, the Baltimore Orioles had a combined winning percentage of 34.6%. But after being ranked dead last in the 2022 preseason power rankings by ESPN, Baltimore posted a winning record of 83–79 last season. The Orioles have taken another huge step forward in 2023, as they currently hold the best record in the American League and have already clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2016. But how did the Orioles climb their way out of what seemed to be a bottomless pit in just two seasons, without the resources of a big-market club like the Yankees or the Dodgers?
2018 wasn’t the best time to be an Orioles fan. Baltimore bid farewell to homegrown superstar Manny Machado at the trade deadline, effectively committing to a rebuild, and finished with a woeful 115–47 record. They allowed a league-worst 5.51 runs per game and paid Chris Davis $23 million to hit .168 with a .539 on-base plus slugging. They would pay Davis the same salary to hit .179 in 2019, and again had the worst pitching staff in the league, allowing 6.06 runs per game.
Thankfully for Baltimore, something good did happen in 2019 — they struck gold with their first two draft picks, taking Oregon State University catcher Adley Rutschman and first overall and high school prospect Gunnar Henderson in the second round. Rutschman was rated the No. 2 prospect in baseball prior to last season, and debuted on May 22 of that year, while Henderson was the top prospect heading into this season. Both have made instant impacts for the Orioles — Rutschman was an All-Star this year and has an elite .364 on-base percentage in his young career, while Henderson is currently a favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year.
Rutschman and Henderson were just the beginning. The Orioles’ farm system has become an absolute machine, producing five preseason top 100 prospects in both 2021 and 2022. They currently boast six top 100 talents, including the No. 1 ranked prospect in baseball — 2022 first overall selection Jackson Holliday. It all adds up to the top-ranked farm system in MLB as ranked by Pipeline. Years of first-rate drafting and player development have produced a litany of top prospects, two of whom have already shown major promise in the big leagues.
Thanks to this, the Orioles are one of the younger teams in baseball, which allows them to be so successful on the third-lowest payroll in the league. As in other sports, young MLB players have very little bargaining power. They must reach three years of service time to qualify for salary arbitration and six years for free agency. As a result, Rutschman and Henderson are each earning around $700,000 for their services this season.
This club-friendly structure allows smaller-market teams like the Orioles to compete, giving them the ability to pay talented young players little to no money due to their lack of service time. Baltimore has taken advantage of this thanks to their outstanding player development, as they have, for the past two years, churned out elite and big league-ready prospects in their farm system. Because they lack the capital to compete with the big boys in the free agent market, the Orioles have focused instead on drafting and building a young team that they can afford. And it’s working.
The Orioles are showing no signs of slowing down, either. They’re expected to call up three more top 100 prospects next year, including Holliday, who was recently promoted to Triple-A Norfolk. He’s hammered minor league pitching at four different levels this year to the tune of a .942 OPS, and he’s still just 19. Watch out for this team.