Who is in first place in the American League East after winning a series against the Rays, the division rival who’s held the top spot in the American League for the entirety of the season?
It’s the Baltimore Orioles. The Baby Birds are here, for real, and relevant out of nowhere for the first time in almost a decade.
It’s not just that they’re here, though- it’s how they got here. They were brutally manhandled within their division of Titans, the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Rays, and they had some of the most utterly-embarrassing moments in baseball for a town that loves their team and has a fantastic ballpark. They bottomed out for years and didn’t invest in winning seasons, deciding that whenever they’d show any sort of life, they would flip it for youth and hope that those draft picks and talent development would pay off when they finally hit their prime. Just two years ago, they lost 110 games.
They’re now on pace to win OVER 100.
Last year was the first glimpse of hope- that highly-touted talent in Adley Rutschman and Cedric Mullins as they overperformed and were potentially going to be buyers and make a playoff push was there as they were one of the surprise teams! However, rather than spend, they flipped their veterans at the deadline in guys like Trey Mancini and said, “Give us one more year.”
It’s all paying off this year- Adley and Cedric with one more season under their belt as clubhouse leaders, calling up Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, and Grayson Rodriguez at various moments, and still having the best farm system in the majors. They’ve been patient, and it paid off. Since calling up Adley, they’ve yet to get swept in a season once.
This sort of emergence we could have seen coming, but everything had to go right, and it did. So, looking ahead to next year, who are some teams that could replicate this sort of success if they play their cards right? The Orioles had slight optimism last year that could be seen with a magnifying glass, but this sort of season came out of nowhere.
With the season transitioning into the trade deadline and some teams already beginning to plan for success in 2024, we will take out the crystal ball and try to foresee some candidates that could be next year’s Baltimore.
Candidate 1 // Boston Red Sox
The Sox are in last place in the division, but if you ask any of their fans, the vibes certainly don’t feel that way.
Coming off of a last-place finish in the AL East, there certainly was a lot of pessimism regarding the club’s direction and Chaim Bloom. They lost Xander Bogaerts to free agency, Chris Sale continues to be almost permanently on the injured list, the shortstop that they did decide to pay last year, Trevor Story, was a major disappointment in his first season at second base, and it was revealed that he would miss this entire year with arm surgery. The moves they
made to improve the club felt a bit minor by their standards- signing grizzled veterans Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, Adam Duvall, and Corey Kluber while taking a gamble on Masataka Yoshida, who won batting titles in Japan but was a massive gamble. While they got Rafael Devers to finally sign an extension, it felt like a team taking a bunch of half-measures with fliers as the prospects they’ve accumulated get some experience around them.
What felt like a directionless offseason now feels like it’s got a cake in the oven that just needed to bake. While they’ve been an unfortunate product of playing in the best division in baseball, the Red Sox have the best record in July at 12-5, they’re 2.5 games back of the wild card spot, and the young talent appears to be finding their footing finally. Yoshida was the best gamble of the offseason, batting .315 with 11 homers; Tristan Casas is 23 and getting his first full run on the year, and while he’s only batting .247, he’s been incredibly smart at the plate, and 26-year-old Jarren Duran has been electrifying on the basepaths and batting .317. When you combine that with Duvall and Turner looking like great value signings this offseason and Devers continuing to perform like a superstar, you get a team with the third-best batting average in the majors that looks like an offensive powerhouse.
The challenging part of building in Boston has been the pitching due to how many runs are always scored at Fenway; losing Eovaldi and not having Sale has been tough, especially with Kluber now being one of the worst pitchers in the majors coming out of the pen, that’s why there’s so much hope in their young staff performing well this early. Brayan Bello, at 24, is turning into a bonafide ace with a 5-pitch mix, and they’ve even gotten creative with Brennan Bernardino functioning as a solid opening pitcher that provides some much-needed diffusion of the opposition’s offense to start the ball games with an ERA of 2.45 and striking out 45 if you believe in momentum. The Sox are in definite need of an arm, and they’ll likely try to find one at the deadline, but they at least have some bodies that look like they’ll be a part of their long-term future as opposed to not feeling as if they have a direction.
The Sox are benefited by being one of the largest markets in the league- that pressure will springboard them to act fast when things aren’t going their way. The past several years, they’ve had seasons finishing close to the bottom of the AL East to follow it up by making the ALCS. The pressure generates moves, so if they play their cards right this deadline and in the offseason by adding names that fit this developmental timeline, the frisky young talent paired with the stellar management of Alex Cora, Boston could easily be back in contention for the division next year by overperforming in this season alone.
Candidate 2 // Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates had such a hot start in 2023, only to experience a collapse like a confident teenage boy feeling good about himself before leaving, only to walk face-first into a sliding glass door.
They reeled us in with their 14-7 start, their best in decades; they became the first team to reach 20 wins, extended Bryan Reynolds and their manager because the vibes were so high, and led the NL Central for a large portion of the first half of the year! Andrew McCutchen, AKA Uncle Larry, had the young, budding roster riding high and feeling like they were building something for the first time in forever!
And it all came tumbling down. Since May, when they had the best record in the majors, they’ve gone 22-46, only one game better than the Oakland A’s. Yes, that Oakland A’s that currently is actively trying to lose, has possums living in their press box, and is just waiting to move to Las Vegas by not fielding a professional ball club. They went from one of the promising bright starts to fool’s gold at the bottom of the NL Central.
So, what’s the formula for them to recapture that magic that made the first month? 2023 is a wash, but they had something cooking there for a while, and their task now is to figure out what could make that improbable success sustainable.
First, you’re getting O’Neil Cruz back from injury– he’s the superhuman shortstop that put up stat-cast-like numbers comparable to Cincinnati Reds phenom Elly De La Cruz as they’re both built like Giannis Antetekounmpo. His freak fractured ankle right as he started hitting his stride was a killer, but he’s only 24 and could rehab and refresh at the end of this year.
Bryan Reynolds will be back after signing his massive 8-year extension, so you have that veteran voice and “face of the franchise” in the clubhouse to be the team leader as the young talent is starting to figure the league out.
They’re also making moves with their third-ranked farm system in baseball as if they want them in the bigs, and they want to win now. They called up top prospect Henry Davis, who can alternate from the catcher or in the outfield, and he’s already gotten off to a solid start, batting .286. He’s the only player EVER to have a multi-homer game off of Shohei Ohtani. Along with Davis, this month alone, they’ve been bringing up Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester to get experience in the bigs.
Also, the Pirates MLB draft selection at first overall was pitcher Paul Skenes- the flamethrowing pitcher from the National Champion LSU team. Skenes was arguably the best college pitching prospect in years. Still, he was also older and likely ready to play in the big leagues sooner rather than later, even if he won’t have the longevity of an everyday position player like Dylan Crews or Wyatt Langford. That was a “we want to win now with this core” selection in Skenes.
The Pirates did have that first month where the bats looked good, Mitch Keller was a Cy Young-caliber pitcher, and the youth was producing. The Orioles had a comparable start in 2022 before finishing fourth last year. Now, post fall-off, they can build around this young core that they’re developing in Cruz, Davis, Endy, and Priester by giving them big-league reps, have Skenes learn through their system, and hopefully get brought up as soon as possible. Now they have a lineup largely consisting of highly-touted 20-year-olds around Bryan Reynolds. It’s a formula that’s a long shot by betting on youth, but we said the same thing about Baltimore in the gauntlet of the AL East going into this year.
Candidate 3 // Miami Marlins
It’s not necessarily a bold take to say that a team that’s been hovering around an NL Wild Card spot all season with a player that’s been the closest to batting .400 all season could be a surprise team next year, but the way that the Marlins have generated success this year, playoffs or not, provides so much optimism for them to be a legitimate threat and a Baltimore candidate next year if they make some slight adjustments.
Ever since superstar ace Jose Fernandez tragically passed away at age 24, the Marlins have been a pitching developmental powerhouse, a skill that few organizations know how to replicate on such a consistent basis that’s worth its weight in gold. Sandy Alcantara won the Cy Young last year. Jesus Lazardo (25 years old) has been lights out since they acquired him in a trade from Oakland and has performed like the #1 option since Sandy has been hit-or-miss this season by comparison to 2022. Lazardo is 8-5 and fifth in the majors in strikeouts. They even have 20-year-old Eury Perez, their top prospect that’s 6 ‘8 and throws absolute gas, sidelined in the minors for now in order to preserve his arm after they called him up. He was 5-3 and looked like the future superstar workhorse. At third-best in the league in strikeouts, the Marlins are fish with arms!
With how loaded they are as a pitching factory, they were able to swap Pablo Lopez to the Twins for Luis Arraez and address an area of need: hitting. Now, Jazz Chisholm is the young, electric personality on the cover of MLB: The Show; however, their atrocious lack of offense prevents us from taking the Marlins as seriously as the Braves or Phillies in their division and reaching their ceiling. Arraez has been carrying them with getting on-base, and Jorge Soler has powered their slugging, but they score the 4th-fewest runs in the majors and have the third-fewest home runs. A lack of offense against those big boppers in the NL East is an Achilles’ heel, no matter how great Alcantara or Luzardo are. They’re 1-9 against Atlanta this year and get absolutely owned by them in run differential at -54. Also, aside from the Giancarlo MVP year, that weird new Miami desolate dome just never feels like any offense is scored there on television from the naked eye due to the dimensions as a fan.
They also just plain need to get younger- aside from Bryan De La Cruz, Chisholm, and Arraez, they have a lineup that makes up the oldest roster in the majors.
However, those are the flaws of the Marlins that we’re seeing this year. The reason for us to believe in them NEXT year and have a Baltimore-esque turnaround is that, in spite of this being a flawed team, they’re winning in ways we never would have imagined. If you had told the average baseball fan that Alcantara would have a mediocre year and Jazz would miss a large portion of the beginning of the year, they would have believed that they were at or near the bottom of the NL. Instead, we’re a week away from the trade deadline, and they’re in playoff contention. That’s a testament to their continuous development and evaluation of pitching, making the right hires in Kim Ng and first-year manager Skip Schumaker, and playing in a way that puts balls in play with the new rules.
The Marlins are in glamorous South Beach despite their hollow attendance- if they decide to commit to winning and acquire young, slugging talent at the deadline or in the offseason, look for them to be a candidate to make a leap with this unexpected optimism.