HomeTrending MLB NewsThe Orioles Are Running Out of Lineup Spots

The Orioles Are Running Out of Lineup Spots

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James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a great time to be a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. This is now the third season since their emergence from the dark basement of the AL East, and they no longer retain their tatterdemalion appearance. The O’s, at 20-11, have been winning by the very straightforward method of beating their opponents into submission, not by collecting more than their fair share of extra-inning and one-run victories. While the pitching staff has been a big part of the team’s success, what has made the Orioles so dangerous is a lineup that leads the American League in runs scored and wRC+. Even better for an O’s fan, they’re terrorizing opposing pitchers with a lineup that’s largely made of players that came up with the franchise and are several years away from hitting free agency. And there’s more on the way, giving the team a rather novel first world problem: having too many hitters and not enough lineup spots.

That the O’s have some of the best young offensive talent in the majors should not be lost on anyone who is into baseball. Adley Rutschman was the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year in 2022, Gunnar Henderson took the award last year, and Jackson Holliday was the heavy favorite before his poor debut. Holliday could very easily come back and win it in the end, but if he doesn’t, one of the current favorites is yet another young Baltimore left-handed hitter, Colton Cowser. Through Thursday’s games, Cowser stands with the top WAR among AL rookies, with a .277/.351/.578, 164 wRC+ line. I haven’t even mentioned Jordan Westburg, who has an .890 OPS while splitting time between second and third base.

Even with Holliday falling flat in his first 10 games in the majors – something I expect him to rectify in the not-too-distant future – the O’s are leading the league in WAR from players younger than the traditional peak age of 27.

Team Positional Player WAR, 26 and Under

TeamPAHRBAOBPSLGwRC+WAR
Orioles51325.276.332.4931375.2
Yankees47016.274.365.4381354.1
Guardians74617.253.324.3921093.9
Brewers64413.270.341.3941113.6
Royals66920.237.302.406983.0
Nationals43611.267.324.4131102.5
Rangers50711.252.332.3961092.1
Reds50218.229.311.4311062.1
Giants2496.269.327.4081132.0
Braves3334.280.351.3771101.8
Padres45114.245.302.4041061.8
Twins37314.237.319.4531221.7
Phillies31910.237.308.389981.7
Rays3159.262.334.3971171.6
Tigers61016.216.301.372941.5
Diamondbacks4285.245.331.346971.2
Astros2606.290.327.4121141.1
Athletics61519.201.275.352840.9
Mariners1994.261.302.367970.9
Mets1633.258.313.358980.8
Cubs37713.222.289.387910.7
Dodgers1493.217.262.333720.4
Marlins2707.240.319.368960.4
Red Sox43513.220.281.391840.3
Blue Jays4358.210.292.316800.2
Angels44811.235.296.36890-0.2
Cardinals61910.203.277.31572-0.2
Rockies51314.231.284.37371-0.7
Pirates4766.210.284.29365-1.0
White Sox3606.195.243.29954-1.5

In franchise history, including its first year as the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901 and through decades as the St. Louis Browns, the 2023 team ranked seventh in WAR (12.2) from position players younger than 27, and this year’s team is already within shouting distance of halfway to that mark. So naturally, my question is how this team is likely to end up by the end of the season, and whether it would stack up to the best young offensive teams ever. For this, I’ll use our Depth Charts playing time to give plausible estimates of how the O’s will use their lineup for the rest of the season.

Orioles Lineup Projections, 26-and-Under

PlayerWARRest of Season WARTotal
Gunnar Henderson2.15.37.4
Adley Rutschman0.94.65.5
Jordan Westburg1.32.84.1
Colton Cowser1.31.93.2
Jackson Holliday-0.31.10.8
Heston Kjerstad-0.10.40.3
Coby Mayo0.00.30.3
Connor Norby0.00.10.1

Even with Depth Charts projecting a much more conservative promotion schedule for Holliday than expected at the start of the season, the O’s have a mean projection of 21.7 WAR from this group of players. That would be the best in team history, edging out the 1973 club with Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Earl Williams, and Al Bumbry as the headliners. And yes, it’s significant on a historical level as well.

Best AL/NL Teams, 26-and-Under Hitters, 1901-2024

SeasonTeamWAR
1943Cardinals29.9
1942Red Sox29.6
1912Athletics29.3
1910Athletics28.3
1941Yankees27.8
1928Giants25.8
1988Reds24.9
1965Reds24.8
1910Giants24.3
1911Giants23.7
1912Red Sox23.4
1913Athletics23.4
1987Pirates23.2
1929Yankees23.1
1939Yankees22.9
1935Cubs22.9
1942Cardinals22.5
2016Cubs22.1
1921Yankes22.0
1974Reds21.9
1930Giants21.8
2024Orioles (Proj.)21.7
1911Athletics21.4
1979Expos21.4
1978Expos21.3

Their 21.7 WAR would be enough to put the Orioles in the top 25, and there’s an argument that this undersells the group. The vast majority of the teams with the most 26-and-under contributions come from the pre-World War II era, when players were called up at younger ages and there was no ticking service time clock. Looking at just the divisional era – which now covers more than half a century – the Orioles rank impressively among recent stables of young talent.

Best MLB Teams, 26-and-Under Hitters, 1969-2024

SeasonTeamWARTop Players
1988Reds24.9Barry Larkin, Kal Daniels, Chris Sabo, Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill
1987Pirates23.2Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Michael LaValliere, Bobby Bonilla, Jose Lind
2016Cubs22.1Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Báez, Willson Contreras
1974Reds21.9Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, Dan Driessen, George Foster
2024Orioles (Proj.)21.7Gunner Henderson, Adley Rutschman, Jordan Westburg, Colton Cowser, Jackson Holliday
1979Expos21.4Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie
1978Expos21.3Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter, Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson, Larry Parrish
1972Giants21.2Chris Speier, Bobby Bonds, Ken Henderson, Dave Kingman, Garry Maddox
2023Braves20.8Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Michael Harris II, Braden Shewmake
1973Orioles20.7Bobby Grich, Al Bumbry, Rich Coggins, Earl Williams, Don Baylor
1977Royals20.1George Brett, Al Cowens, Darrell Porter, Frank White, Tom Poquette
1980Athletics20.0Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Mickey Klutts, Jeff Cox
1970Reds19.9Johnny Bench, Bobby Tolan, Bernie Carbo, Dave Concepcion, Hal McRae
1996Mariners19.8Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Darren Bragg, Manny Martinez, Raul Ibanez
2018Red Sox19.8Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Tzu-Wei Lin
1975Red Sox19.8Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Cecil Cooper, Rick Burleson
2021Astros19.8Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers
2005Guardians19.5Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, CC Sabathia
2019Red Sox19.3Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Michael Chavis
1969Athletics19.2Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Rick Monday, Blue Moon Odom, Lew Krausse
2007Brewers18.9Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks Jr., Ryan Braun
1992Expos18.8Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields, Moises Alou, Bret Barberie
1973Dodgers18.8Willie Crawford, Joe Ferguson, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey
2013Braves18.7Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis
1979Twins18.7Butch Wynegar, Roy Smalley, Rob Wilfong, John Castino, Ron Jackson

There are some mighty impressive teams on that list, most notably the Big Red Machine and the early 1970s Athletics before free agency.

And even this perhaps underrates Baltimore’s offensive talent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Holliday destroy in the minors and get a quick call back up, and if he does, he would slide right into the everyday lineup. Otherwise, though, the Orioles are now up to the practical limitation of roster and starting lineup spots. Cowser is an example of this: It would have been hard to get him regular playing time if not for Austin Hays’ dreadful start to the season. (Hayes is now on the IL). Heston Kjerstad was called up to replace Hays on April 23, after hitting .349/.431/.744 at Triple-A Norfolk, yet the former first rounder has gotten only eight plate appearances total in three games — the O’s have played 10 games with him on the roster.

Kjerstad is far from the only Orioles farmhand who likely would have gotten more playing time on a team with a thinner roster. At Triple-A, Coby Mayo is hitting .333/.397/.683 with 11 homers while mostly playing third base, a position at which the Orioles are already overflowing. Connor Norby has split time at second base and the outfield with an .829 OPS at Norfolk, but there’s no obvious place for him to get playing time unless the team decides to cut Ramón Urías. Using up-to-date minor league translations for Kjerstad, Mayo, and Norby, we can get an idea, via some up-to-date ZiPS projections, at what this trio could do if they O’s had playing time to give them.

ZiPS Rest-of-Season Projections – Mayo/Kjerstad/Norby

PlayerBAOBPSLGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBOPS+DRWAR
Mayo.243.326.43846065112252207649138311212.5
Kjerstad.261.319.43247269123223187534116210831.6
Norby.248.309.410474711182221769381276100-11.5

All three players project as league average or better if they started in the majors right now.

While this represents a pretty enviable problem for the Orioles to have, it also can be an opportunity. The organization is deep in hitters, but its farm system does not have anywhere near the same depth when it comes to pitching. We don’t yet have a 2024 farm system ranking up for the Orioles, but in the updated 2023 list, the top 15 prospects featured just two pitchers, Cade Povich and Seth Johnson. Corbin Burnes was a great acquisition, but it doesn’t have to end there; as teams fall out of contention, the possibility exists for Baltimore to add a pitcher who can not only pitch down the stretch or in a possible playoff series or three, but in 2025 and beyond. The surplus of offensive talent should give the Orioles the ability to offer more for the right pitcher than practically any other team in baseball can, and if they do swing a trade, they’d still have so many other hitters in the pipeline that such a move likely wouldn’t make a dent in the team’s long-term outlook in a meaningful way.

Whether Baltimore gets to the World Series after a drought of more than 40 years is still uncertain. But this is the Orioles team that looks the most like the ones of the early Earl Weaver years: It’s a club that’s built mostly from within and overflowing with young stars. That worked out pretty well the first time around.

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