Cole, Strider highlight top 10 fantasy starters
D.J. Short and Eric Samulski reveal their top 10 fantasy baseball starting pitchers for 2024 and discuss the order in which they should be ranked.
2023 record: 101-61 (.623)
First Place, AL East
Team ERA: 3.91 (7th)
Team OPS: .742 (14th)
What Went Right
Pitching and youth were at the center of Baltimore’s success this season. They finished 7th overall in team ERA and 5th in bullpen ERA with their crew posting a 3.55 ERA. They were 8th in staff WHIP and 9th in staff K-BB%. All of which happened without having a true bona fide ace in their rotation.
Of course, they got a tremendous year out of Kyle Bradish, who made the leap that many people were hoping for on the back of his elite slider. The right-hander posted a 2.83 ERA (3.76 SIERA), 1.04 WHIP, and 25% strikeout rate in 168.2 innings. There also is some potential for improvement as Bradish continued to lessen the use of a mediocre four-seam fastball as the season went on.
The Orioles also got a strong season from Tyler Wells before they shut him down over innings concerns. The converted reliever pitched to a 3.98 ERA (4.28 SIERA), 1.07 WHIP, and 17.4% K-BB% in 108.2 innings this season. If the Orioles can get 130 or more innings from him next season, he could help shore up the middle of their rotation.
However, the biggest sign of positive development for Baltimore was the growth of Grayson Rodriguez, the former top pitching prospect in the minor leagues. After struggling with his command and pitching to a 7.35 ERA in the first half of the season, the Orioles sent him back down to the minors. When he returned, he pitched exactly like the arm they knew he could be, registering a 2.58 ERA (3.88 SIERA), 1.10 WHIP, and 17.1% K-BB% in 76.2 innings. If he can now work back towards an uptick in strikeouts while maintaining his improved command, he could vault into the spot as the ace of this staff.
What also went right for Baltimore was the continued development of their young hitters. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson both hit over .250 with 20+ home runs, 80_ runs scored, and 80+ RBI. Henderson, in particular, got better as the year went on, hitting .264/.308/.521 with 15 home runs and five steals in 71 games in the second half of the season. The two of them figure to remain central to the young core in Baltimore that will continue to grow and develop together over the years.
The Orioles also get credit for one of the better under-the-radar signings of the offseason, when they inked Ryan O’Hearn to a one-year deal. The 30-year-old had never quite lived up to his minor league power production while with the Royals, but the Orioles started giving him at-bats against right-handed pitching when Ryan Mountcastle went on the IL, and O’Hearn never looked back. On the season, the veteran hit .289/.322/.480 with 14 home runs, 60 RBI, and five steals in 368 plate appearances. In the second half of the season, he hit .280 and drove in 32 runs in 65 games. He helped to solidify the middle of the lineup until Mountcastle could come back and find his swing again.
What Went Wrong
We have to start with the injury to Felix Bautista. The Orioles closer was tremendous in 2023, pitching to a 1.48 ERA (2.06 SIERA), 0.92 WHIP, and 46.4% strikeout rate in 61 innings. Unfortunately, he was placed on the injured list on August 25th and, despite trying to work his way back onto the mound, underwent Tommy John surgery in early October. Without him, a lot of the teeth was taken out of the Orioles bullpen. After his injury, they were still 10th in bullpen ERA but ranked 27th in strikeout rate and18th in blown saves. It was a major loss and turning point for the Orioles.
The Orioles also tried to take a big swing at the trade deadline and acquire a frontline starting pitcher, snagging Jack Flaherty from the Cardinals. Only, Flaherty was terrible in Baltimore, going 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA and 1.67 WHIP across 34.2 innings. He made one postseason appearance in the Division Series, allowing one run while walking three hitters in just two innings of work. It’s highly unlikely that Baltimore tries to bring him back.
Given the speed that Baltimore has, it was also a surprise to see them ranked just 16th in stolen bases. They had finished 11th in 2022 but only had 17 more stolen bases as a team in 2023 despite the massive increase in stolen base totals across the league. For reference, Cincinnati led the league in steals with 190, which was a ridiculous 132 more steals than they had in 2022. Arizona also had 62 more steals as a team in 2023 and Kansas City stole 59 more bases. So 17 more from Baltimore pales in comparison to a lot of the top teams.
One of the biggest drop-offs was from Cedric Mullins, who had stolen 30 bases in each of the last two seasons but battled injuries in 2023 and finished with just 19 steals in 116 games. What’s more, Mullins saw a big dip in performance across the board, slashing .233/.305/.416 with 15 home runs, 51 runs scored, and 74 RBI in 455 plate appearances. The Orioles responded by taking him out of the leadoff spot, often having him fifth or sixth in the order across the final months.
In truth, not much else really went wrong. This team finished with over 100 wins and saw some impressive performances from young starts who are continuing to mature and improve. The future is most certainly bright.
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** Yennier Cano was a breakout star for Baltimore this season, pitching to a 2.11 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 18.4% K-BB% across 72.2 innings. He was a tremendous set up man for Bautista; however, there are some questions about whether the Orioles can count on him as their closer for 2024. While Bautista had over a 40% strikeout rate on the year, Cano sat at just 23%. He had 65 strikeouts in those 72.2 innings, which is not really the swing-and-miss stuff you want to see from your closer. The Orioles certainly won’t make a big splash on a multi-year closer with Bautista coming back in 2025, but this is a team with World Series aspirations that might want a more dominant arm in the back of the pen. That makes Cano a risky draft pick until we know what Baltimore’s plans are.
** Another big fantasy question is what, if anything, the Orioles will get out of John Means next season. He pitched only 23.2 innings in 2023 (and just eight in 2022) and was shut down with arm soreness at the end of the season. The Orioles claim the 30-year-old will be ready for Spring Training, but it’s hard to trust a pitcher who has only thrown 31 innings since 2021. Means’ fastball was also down to 91.7 mph in his four appearances this season, when it was up at 93 mph during his breakout 2021 campaign. It might be best to take a wait and see approach with means.
** Ryan Mountcastle had a prolonged battle with vertigo during the 2023 season and was dreadful when he first returned. That may cause people to forget how great he was down the stretch. In 54 games in the second half, Mountcastle hit .322/.404/.489 with seven home runs, 30 runs scored, and 28 RBI. That’s with a cold month of September mixed in. The new stadium dimensions may prevent Mountcastle from cracking 30 home runs again, but he feels like a solid CI option who will hit .270 with 25 home runs in a strong lineup.
** We mentioned above that Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman really cemented their value in the second half of the year. Rutschman provides essentially no speed, but he still has a strong argument to be the first catcher off the board in fantasy drafts due to his excellence in the other four categories. Henderson also flashed five-category value over the second half of the season and, considering he is just 22 years old, we should expect even more growth out of him and a 30 home run, 15 steal season is not out of the question with a .260 average or better. That has tremendous value given the lineup around him.
** Jordan Westburg will be an interesting fantasy pick because he seems locked into every day at-bats next year, but the Orioles also have a plethora of talented infield prospects behind him as well. For fantasy purposes, Westburg’s batting average is his calling card. He’s a .278 career minor league hitter, who hit .295 before his promotion to the big leagues in 2023. He went on to hit .260/.311/.404 in 68 games with a respectable 24.6% strikeout rate. The issue is that Westburg has a likely ceiling as a 20-home run hitter, and he’s never stolen more than 12 bases in a season. So, if you get a 20-home run/10 steal season with a .270 average, that has value but likely as more of a MIF option.
** Jackson Holliday and Connor Norby are two of the top prospects in the Orioles system and will likely be drafted in redraft leagues, but there’s only space for one of them to start the season in Baltimore. At 23-years-old, Norby is the older of the two. In 2023, he hit .290/.359/.483 in 138 games at Triple-A, clobbering 21 home runs, stealing 10 bases, and driving in 92 runs. He deserves a shot in the MLB lineup. Of course, Holliday is the bigger name and former number one overall pick. As a 19-year-old, he hit .323/.442/.499 across four levels in 2023, even reaching Triple-A, where he hit .267 with 17 strikeouts in 18 games. As much as everybody wants to see Holliday in the big leagues, the Orioles have taken it slow with their other prospects, and I’d expect to see Henderson-Westburg-Norby open the year in Baltimore, with Holliday at Triple-A.
** The Orioles also have a logjam in the outfield, which could impact fantasy value. They finally promoted former 2nd overall pick Heston Kjerstad to the big leagues after he hit .303/.376/.528 across two levels in the minors in 2023 with 21 home runs and five steals. He seems like a lock to make the Orioles lineup as a starting outfielder, and with Mullins likely taken the other spot, that leaves only one spot for Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, or a number of other Orioles outfield prospects. Until that logjam gets sorted out, it’s hard to trust anybody in fantasy aside from Kjerstad and Mullins.
** On that note, with stolen bases up across the league, Cedric Mullins sees his fantasy value take a huge hit. A lot of Mullins’ past value had been that he could be one of the few 30 steal players who also could hit 15-20 home runs with a solid batting average. While he is still likely a 20 homer, 30 steal player with a .250-.260 average, that’s just no longer as rare. You’re happy with him as your OF3 or OF4 (depending on league size), but he’s no longer an early round pick.
Key Free Agents
Kyle Gibson, Jack Flaherty, Adam Frazier, Jorge Lopez, Shintaro Fujinami, Austin Voth, Aaron Hicks
The Orioles will return at least three key components in their rotation in Grayson Rodriguez, Tyler Wells, and Kyle Bradish. The key to staying at the top of the division might be what they do with the other two spots. Can they go into 2024 trusting John Means and Cole Irvin to be the other two starters? If not, they’ll need to go out and sign somebody because they don’t have any impactful pitching prospects ready to start 2024 in an MLB rotation.
The next biggest question is what Baltimore does with their glut of incoming hitting prospects. There simply isn’t enough room in their lineup for all of Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Jackson Holliday, Heston Kjerstad, Connor Norby, Coby Mayo, Joey Ortiz, Colton Cowser, and Kyle Stowers. At some point, the Orioles are likely going to need to package some of those hitters to get an impactful MLB player, most likely a pitcher. Given that they’re coming off a 100-win season and entering their window for World Series contention, this offseason seems like the best time to make the move. Until they do, it just feels like this franchise is in a holding pattern in regard to what their true roster looks like moving forward.