BALTIMORE -- For much of the first half of the 2023 season, the Orioles have sat atop the American League Wild Card standings. But as the second half begins, their sights can be set on a larger target: first place in the AL East.
Baltimore (54-35) is only two games back of Tampa Bay (58-35) in the division, and it won’t be long before the two AL East rivals meet again. The Orioles and Rays are set to play a four-game series at Tropicana Field from July 20-23.
It could be a tight race all the way until late September and early October.
“Our guys are getting a little bit of a breather right now, I think that’s good. I think we need it,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I expect us to be ready to go.”
Before the second half begins, here’s a midterm report for the 2023 O’s.
What we learned in the first half: The O’s are a legitimate postseason contender
Sure, Baltimore went 83-79 during the 2022 season, a marked improvement from the first three years under general manager Mike Elias and Hyde. But the Orioles then had a fairly quiet offseason, acquiring only complementary pieces such as right-hander Kyle Gibson, infielder Adam Frazier and catcher James McCann. With a budding young core already in place, would those moves be enough for Baltimore to seriously contend in ‘23?
The answer has been a resounding yes. The O’s are a season-high-tying 19 games above .500 after winning their final five games of the first half, and they’re the only team in MLB that hasn’t been swept in a multi-game series this year. So they’re well on their way to getting into the postseason for the first time since 2016.
Likely Trade Deadline strategy: Buy -- for real this time
Last year, Baltimore was 52-51 at the Trade Deadline and in the thick of the AL Wild Card race. Some may have expected the O’s to be buyers for the first time since Elias became GM prior to the 2019 season. Yet, they again acted as sellers, dealing All-Star closer Jorge López to the Twins and fan-favorite slugger Trey Mancini to the Astros.
The ‘23 Deadline should be different, as Baltimore owns the second-best record in the AL and the third-best mark in MLB. In order to bolster their postseason push, the Orioles should trade for pitching, and there’s a good chance they could do so, given their wealth of position-player depth. But Elias isn’t going to overpay, so it will depend on how the trade market develops.
Key player: Gunnar Henderson
Henderson’s rookie season can be split into two parts thus far. From March 30-May 31, he slashed .201/.332/.370 with five homers and 14 RBIs in 50 games. From June 2-July 9, the 22-year-old posted a .307/.358/.570 slash line with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 29 games.
Henderson showed what he’s capable of while winning American League Rookie of the Month for June and getting off to a hot start to July, and he hasn’t even reached his ceiling yet. If the O’s are going to make it to the postseason -- and then go on a deep run through October -- it would help to have Henderson continue putting up big numbers down the stretch.
Cowser (Baltimore’s No. 2 prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 13 overall prospect) and Westburg (O’s No. 3 and No. 31 overall) each made their big league debut late in the first half. Westburg, a 24-year-old infielder, arrived June 26, then Cowser, a 23-year-old outfielder, was called up nine days later.
They’ve already shown a small taste of what they can do. Westburg slashed .325/.400/.500 with three doubles, two triples and six RBIs through his first 11 games, while Cowser had a .188/.381/.188 slash line with two RBIs and four walks in his first five games. Both should only improve as they gain big league experience in the second half.