Two Young Teams to Watch in 2023
Adley Rutschman catching for the Orioles minor league team; CC by License 2.0
Opening Day is almost here. It has been an action-packed off-season, which included the World Baseball Classic. But now, it is time to transition back into Major League Baseball.
What do the Baltimore Orioles and the Arizona Diamondbacks have in common? Both teams have very young cores that are in the process of being called up to the majors. Both teams have many high-end prospects from top-tier farm systems. Last year, both teams were postseason killers toward the end of the season. Neither team was an automatic out once August rolled around. Both clubs adopted a sandpaper-like mentality and never gave up on a game or an at-bat. Each game was a war, and the Orioles nearly scratched and climbed their way into a Wildcard spot.
The Orioles caught fire in the second half and solidified their reputation as the Baby Birds and with that, they became the heel of the American League. It started once star prospect Adley Rutschman got the call to the Majors. With him in the lineup, the attitude of the ball club seemingly changed and started turning heads across the MLB. The rookie struggled at first, but the Orioles were patient and gave him time to learn. Once he adjusted, he was leading the charge and nearly won the AL ROY. In addition to the Adley Era beginning in Baltimore, their bullpen made huge strives and ended the season as the #10 bullpen in baseball based on value generated. One of the biggest factors in their success was Felix Bautista, who was another rookie sensation that became the anchor and pitched like a veteran in huge moments.
Onto this season, more incredibly talented prospects are expected to either be on the Opening Day roster or be early call-ups. Gunnar Henderson is the starting 3rd baseman, which is very exciting. Henderson is currently the #1 prospect in baseball, according to the MLB.com pipeline. He had an underwhelming Spring Training, but he is poised to be a star, considering that in his 34-game stint in the majors last year he slashed .259 / .348 / .788 with an OPS + of 123, which shows a potential star in the making. Unfortunately, Grayson Rodriguez (the #7 prospect in baseball) will not be a part of the starting rotation to start the season. Rodriguez surrendered 12 earned runs over 15 innings pitched, so they are not going to rush him to the Majors. He is the top pitching prospect within the organization but lost the spot for 5th arm in the rotation to Tyler Wells, who gave up only 2 runs over 8.2 innings in his last two starts of Spring Training. So that will be something to watch, how quickly does Rodriguez bounce back to form, and when does he get the call.
The ceiling is what the starting pitching allows. Despite having Rodriguez in the minors to start the year, there are many reinforcements expected to bolster the big-league pitching staff, so that might be an area for growth. John Means will be back, but it will not be for a while. In the relief department, they are down two pieces in Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens who will be on the IL to start the year, but both should be back around the beginning of May.
Offensively, the Orioles ranked middle to the bottom half of the league across most metrics, but they were #16 in offensive value generated. There is plenty of room for growth with this young club. Given that they were one of the more aggressive teams on the basepaths, they can benefit from the new rules. Hopefully, they unleash Jorge Mateo and let him run wild. Last season, he stole 35 bases at an 80% success rate, so look for him to build off of that. Additionally, watch the young core progress at the plate as they learn how to consistently hit at the major league level.
This team is loaded with young talent and is not the Orioles of the last 5 seasons in which winning 60 games is a big ask. This club is trekking toward a playoff appearance. They will benefit from the balanced schedule in that they will not have to go through the AL East gauntlet. This could give them an opportunity to pick up more wins than would if they played the 19 games against each division opponent since now they only play 13. DO NOT COUNT THIS TEAM OUT. The Baby Birds are here to play.
Onto the Arizona Diamondbacks who are also in a rebuilding period. They need to catch up to the Orioles in terms of having a core at the major league level, but that will change over the next few seasons. The Dbacks had a strong second half as they called up some of their younger prospects to get them to experience at the major league level. Corbin Carroll demonstrated why he is such a high-value prospect, currently #2, according to the mlb.com pipeline. In 32 games, he hit .260 with an OBP of .330 and a wRC+ of 130. That is a great start for a young player, and the Diamondbacks even offered him an extension in the off-season because they see how talented he is.
Talent development has been crucial for the retooling of this organization, and it started with the hiring of Brent Strom, who has turned around their pitching development. Strom is famous in the baseball community for his development of the Houston Astros rotation. There are still holes within this lineup, and the team has some rough edges. On the positive, their farm system is poised to fill some of those gaps in the coming season. Losing Daulton Varsho to a trade with Toronto is difficult considering he was arguably their best position player, but they brought in one of the best catching prospects in baseball in Gabriel Moreno. He is regarded for his bat and will be one of the best offensive catchers in the MLB in years to come. He had a great spring and won the starting spot. He has the potential to be in the NL ROY conversation alongside teammate Corbin Carroll. Offensively, there is still much to be desired, being middle of the pack without major star power. Christian Walker and Ketel Marte will be solid, but hopefully some of the young outfielders can find their swing and produce at the major league level.
Their pitching is improving, but there is a stark drop-off. The emergence of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly has been fun to watch. Unfortunately, the rest of their starters have not been producing. Madison Bumgarner and Zach Davies are past their prime and are inning-eaters at best. Ryne Nelson made two starts last season and looked good but has had a rough spring, so he might get roughed up a little this year, based on the projections and expected stats from last year. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) was nearly 2 full points higher than his ERA, which means he is not going to strike out many guys but will benefit from the strong defense behind him. Hopefully, he figures it out and has a good year. Their bullpen was one of the worst in the league. They added Andrew Chafin, which is a step in the right direction, but Joe Mantiply is starting the season on the IL. Not having him will hurt. This team will be handicapped by their backend. There is no hiding it.
Who is on the way and which players are in their farm system? The number 3 farm has a great mix of pitchers and position players at the top of their system, which is great. They should be able to fill certain holes in the major league club with pieces from the farm. Druw Jones and Jordan Lawlar are not ready yet; they need more time. But pieces like Brandon Bfaadt (P), Blaze Alexander (INF), and Slade Cecconi (P) could be midseason call-ups that are needed as reinforcements. This organization needs time for the development cycle to take its course.
By no means is this team going to challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego Padres. Are they better than the Giants? Probably not, but they should give them trouble. The Diamondbacks too benefit from the balanced schedule and should be able to steal a few more wins than they would have had with 19 divisional games. Their floor is fourth in the division and the ceiling is third. They will be in a similar position to where they were last year, playing spoiler at the end of the season. This year is an opportunity for growth and development. Prospects should receive plenty of opportunities to make an impact at the major league level. Hopefully, this team progresses forward and is in the 81-win neighborhood.
Both teams offer an opportunity to watch a team build chemistry and form an identity, which can preview good things to come. Hopefully, winning seasons are on the horizon for these fanbases as a new generation of talent rises in the MLB. Anyways, the MLB is finally back. Cheers to a new season.