The Orioles haven’t made any big moves yet in this busy offseason, but they have an exciting, young team with several rising stars that many fantasy managers will be excited to draft for this season. The moves that they have made—signing Kyle Gibson and Adam Frazier—don’t seem like they have much fantasy relevance on the surface, but I believe they both will have their impact: one raising a player into fantasy relevance and the other making a previous top-200 target nearly obsolete.
There are a couple of teamwide factors to consider when analyzing its players, the biggest of which is the left field wall in Camden Yards. This change in dimensions, which I’m going to refer to a lot in this article, changed Camden Yards from a home-run hitter’s haven to one of the most hostile to righty power hitters. Divisional play is also restructured for 2023 and the Orioles will be playing 30% fewer games within the AL East. This likely only has a marginal effect, but if any division is to benefit from more balanced scheduling, it’s likely the AL East.
Finally, John Means is currently on track to return from Tommy John surgery at some point in 2023. His surgery date was April 27, 2022, so the reports targeting late June seem awfully ambitious to me, but I’ve seen anything between that and mid-August as a targeted timeline for now. In any case, when he comes back, he will take over a starting job which could mean switching to a six-man rotation or bumping someone from the rotation. Given the number of young arms the Orioles will be relying on (only one projected starter has thrown more than 130 innings in a single season), either is possible and I’d expect quite a bit of load management and spreading of innings as the season goes along.
Let’s get to the sleepers and busts!
Key stat: 36%, the projected percentage reduction in home runs for a pitcher moving from Citizens Bank Park to Camden Yards based on 2022 Statcast park factors
This is far from a sexy sleeper and Kyle Gibson isn’t about to break out with huge strikeout upside and start dominating batters with gif-worthy stuff. However, between changing home parks, changing defenses, and being due for a little bit of positive regression, Gibson has a lot of things going his way in 2023 that would mean better fantasy production even without pitching any better than he did in 2022. If he does get back to generating 50+% ground balls and limiting home runs, this could be a poor man’s version of 2022 Tyler Anderson.
Just thinking about factors outside of his control, there’s a reason to argue that Gibson could be considerably better in 2023 without making any actual improvements to his performance. He spent the past season and a half pitching in Citizens Bank Park, which is in the conversation for top five hitters’ park in the league. It ranks fifth in Statcasts’ park factor over the last three years and has been quite friendly to power hitters, allowing the fifth-most home runs in that span as well. Yes, team ability plays a big role in this, but it’s at least a bit normalized over three years.
The new Camden Yards, on the other hand, was one of the most difficult parks for home runs in the entire league. A league-high 277 home runs were hit in Camden Yards in 2021 and that number plummeted to 151 (25th in the league) in 2022. The Orioles returned four of their top five home run hitters from 2022, so offensive skill likely isn’t a big factor in this; however, they did completely revamp their pitching staff in ways that showed results even on the road. The team’s road ERA dropped from 5.69 to 4.24 while their home ERA dropped from 6.00 to 3.73. It’s impossible to tell just how much of that was real improvement from the pitching staff (which was one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball last year if you ask me) and how much was supported by the changes in ballpark dimensions. However, it’s clear that Camden Yards is now among the top 10 in pitchers’ parks in the league and potentially rivals Seattle, San Diego, and Oakland in terms of its ability to stifle offensive production and boost pitching.
In addition to the improvement in park, Gibson moves from a team with widely known defensive problems on the infield that was dead last in Defensive Runs Saves in 2021 and 25th in 2022 to a team that was ninth. Normally, moving from J.T. Realmuto as your primary catcher would be a downgrade, but Adley Rutschman is already viewed as one of the best defensive catchers in the league. Gibson also may have had some bad luck in 2022 with an ERA-FIP of 0.77 compared to a career mark of 0.23. I’ll admit, there are a lot of things that are a bit fuzzy and difficult to perfectly capture in this paragraph. Park factors, defense, and luck are all notorious for being difficult to really quantify. However, all three are pointing in the same direction for Gibson and that’s something worth paying attention to.
Now diving into the pitcher himself, a big problem that Gibson had in his short time in Philadelphia was home runs. He allowed a career-high 24 homers in 2022 and saw a career-low ground ball rate and a career-high fly ball rate. For a guy that typically likes to live with 50+% grounders who was pitching in a homer-friendly park, this was not ideal. A big reason for this was throwing more cutters deeper in the count. Let’s take a peek at his sinker versus cutter usage in 2021 and 2022 and the batted ball results they provided:
The sinker, because of its movement and where he throws it in the zone, is a ground ball machine while the cutter, which he works higher in the zone, generates a few more swings and misses, but considerably more fly balls. It’s unclear why he started throwing the cutter more in two-strike counts when it was primarily an early count pitch for him in 2021, but it didn’t appear to work out. With an improved defense behind him, I think he can have more faith using that sinker to generate copious amounts of ground balls like he did in the first half of 2021 and have faith that the defense will swallow them up and that a more pitcher-friendly home park will swallow up any mistakes left up. He’s still going to be a guy with a K-rate around 20%, but if he can use the sinker more while maintaining his improvement in walk rate from last year, there’s absolutely a path to success for him.
I understand this is not an exciting sleeper, but we saw from guys like Tyler Anderson and Martín Pérez that there can still be lots of fantasy value from guys who don’t rely on strikeouts. If the context is right, and for Gibson the team and park context is excellent going into 2023, value can come out of strange places. He won’t cost you that much on draft day and has a few pretty favorable matchups early on. An early guess at his first six starts is: @BOS, @TEX, OAK, @CWS, DET, @DET. He’s probably someone I hold back for at least the first start and perhaps the first two, but who I roll with in the OAK, DET, and @DET games as I react to early season trends and figure out who is going to be on my roster for the full season. If he struggles early on, keep him in mind as a home streamer. If he locks in, he could be a valuable source of innings and wins on a rapidly improving team.
Key stat: 1.41, his FIP in 10 innings of relief in September
It would be unfair to judge DL Hall based on his overall numbers in the majors in 2022. In a sample size as small as 13.2 IPs in which he filled multiple roles and made his MLB debut, we have to look beyond ERA to figure out exactly what happened. Hall has admittedly struggled with control throughout his time in the minors and did so in his debut walking three in a short 3.2 IP start in Tampa Bay. However, he returned to the big league club as a reliever in September and generally dominated. He posted a 1.41 FIP, 22.2% K-BB rate, and a miniscule 13.8% hard-hit rate in ten innings of relief. His electric fastball was paired mainly with an excellent change and a slider that was frankly pedestrian, while the curveball was generally sidelined. Even without improvement from his slider and curveball, he’s got the stuff to be a solid 1-2 inning guy. The major question preventing him from being drafted in all but the deepest of leagues concerns his role. At 98 professional innings in 2022, he’s not ready to be a starter for a full season, especially considering his injury history as a prospect, but Félix Bautista is potentially a top-10 closer in the game preventing him from being seen as the top option for saves. Is there a middle path to relevance for him in standard fantasy leagues where DL Hall is neither a starter nor a full-time closer? Absolutely yes.
Manager Brandon Hyde has said “Probably right now if we go into spring, we’d build him up to be at least a multiple-inning guy, then we’ll kind of go and see what the rotation looks like and see what the bullpen looks like from there.” With the signing of Kyle Gibson and the O’s reportedly still in the market for another starter, it would appear the chances that Hall starts the year in the rotation are slim and would likely only happen as a result of an injury or two. However, this doesn’t shut the door from him making a spot start later in the year or serve as a follower to Grayson Rodriguez‘s starts as his innings inevitably get managed. He’s definitely not supplanting Félix Bautista either, but Hyde hasn’t been the type of manager eager to name a traditional closer. Even in 2022 when the Orioles had a firmly established top dog, Jorge López in the first half and Félix Bautista in the second, their top arm only logged about 70% of the saves. Hall did earn a save on September 30th in New York. While he likely only got the opportunity because Félix Bautista had to leave the game after finishing the eighth inning and Cionel Pérez and Dillon Tate had thrown 26 and 22 pitches respectively in the previous game, ending it like this has to establish some confidence.
You know who that kind of reminds me of? I see a little bit of Josh Hader there and Josh Hader is actually someone who mastered the role I think Hall might be able to ride to fantasy relevance in 2023.
Take the example of the 2018 Brewers bullpen. Corey Knebel had just logged 37 saves in 2017 but hit the IL early in the year, forcing manager Craig Counsell to creatively use his 24-year-old starting prospect who had posted good strikeout numbers in AAA but struggled with command and with overall results. He started using this 24-year-old Josh Hader to begin the eighth inning and sometimes deployed him in the middle of the seventh inning and rode him all the way to the end of the game. By the time Corey Knebel came back, there was a big debate about what his role should be given the success of Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress at the end of the games. By the end of the year, Knebel led the team with 16 saves, but Jeffress logged 15 and Hader 12. Because of his unprecedented strikeout rate and excellent ratios, Josh Hader was one of the most valuable relievers in the league that year both in real life and fantasy.
Now, Hall would be hard pressed to match the otherworldly strikeout numbers Hader was putting up at the time and Félix Bautista is still healthy, but this is a clear path to success for him. The “FrankenAce” strategy allows guys like 2020 Devin Williams or 2021 Kendall Graveman, who were nearly universally undrafted, to be major contributors even in standard 5×5 leagues. It’s true that we don’t know exactly how wins or saves are going to come for him, but I’m willing to take a risk on his role if I think I’m going to like the innings I get.
Key Stat: 2, his average launch angle, fifth-lowest among players with 100 PAs
Top prospect status and an impressive 126 wRC+ in his short 132-PA debut in 2022 have vaulted Gunnar Henderson into the top-100 overall picks and the eighth overall third baseman, with quite a gap between him and the next couple of options in Eugenio Suárez and Max Muncy. At first glance, Steamer seems to agree with this assessment, placing Henderson as the eighth-most valuable third baseman for 2023, although with a sizable gap between him and the top seven. Steamer projects him to continue his 126 wRC+ and essentially maintain his performance from 2022 over a full 600 plate appearance season. One could interpret this as pretty conservative given that Henderson was only in his age-21 season and we can expect improvement as he moves into his prime over the next few years. However, I believe that Steamer actually predicts a sizable and unlikely improvement in one area that, so the old adage goes, typically develops last in young hitters: power.
Henderson hit four home runs in 2022 which would put him on a 600 PA pace of 18 going into 2023. The sample size is small, but he also only averaged 22 HR/600 PA across the past two seasons in the minors. He doesn’t have a track record of power. Beyond that, I’d say that even the pace of 18 he put up in his 2022 debut may be a bit inflated. His HR/FB ratio was 20% which, had he kept that pace up for a full year of at-bats, would have placed him ninth in the league between Paul Goldschmidt and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. No other Oriole even came close to this figure. With the new dimensions in Camden Yards, home runs are hard to come by and Henderson’s 20% figure led all Orioles hitters who logged at least 100 plate appearances by a considerable margin. Only Ramón Urías came within 5% of him. In order to hit his target of 21 home runs that Steamer provides, he’s going to need to not only maintain this pace but exceed it by a couple more percent! Or, rather, he could do what most people do when they want to hit home runs and just try to hit more fly balls. Well, that’s not exactly Henderson’s strong suit.
Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Gunnar Henderson‘s two-degree average launch angle was fifth lowest. His ground ball rate of 59.8% was sixth highest. We all know how important it is to hit fly balls for power, but looking at the list of hitters grouped around his average launch angle brings up some pretty troubling comparisons.
Those other nine batters combined for 35 home runs in 2792 plate appearances in 2022, a 600-PA pace of 7.5 home runs. Seven and a half. It’s clear that Henderson is already the best hitter of this group. I’m not arguing for him to be a bust as a player, but he’s going to need to change his batted ball profile to come close to 21 home runs.
Pitchers aren’t going to make that easy, though. His ground ball rate rose every time he climbed a level as pitchers became better able to execute a game plan against him: 40% in AA, 50% in AAA, and 60% in the bigs. He sees considerably more pitches than average in the lower part of the zone and below the zone (52.7% vs MLB average of 45.5%) and pitchers continued to adjust to him as the year went on. Henderson finished the year hitting .170 with a 68% ground ball rate over his final 57 plate appearances in the final two weeks of the year. In order to hit 21 home runs, Henderson can’t just carry forward his pace from 2022. He has to completely reshape his batted ball profile and adjust to major league pitchers effectively pitching him low in ways that guys couldn’t in the minors.
The skills are there, though, so what if you buy the whole package even if you agree that 21 home runs might be a bit of a reach for Henderson this year? If you think that Steamer has everything else right, but that Henderson hits 15 home runs instead of 21, his value drops to that of the 10th-overall 3rd baseman, packed tightly in with Jose Miranda and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who are going, on average, around 70 picks after Henderson. A big chunk of the reason why Henderson is being drafted in the top 100 (in mainly draft-and-hold leagues right now, so applicability to standard leagues may vary) is this projection that his power will develop. In order to draft him at his current price, you have to believe that he will overcome the difficult Camden Yards park factors and hit more fly balls without sacrificing quality of contact.
These adjustments can certainly be made. Being pitched low doesn’t mean you can’t hit for power. Aaron Judge gets pitched low more than anyone in the league. However, it’s a learning curve to be able to hit the low pitches that MLB-caliber pitching is able to deliver, and, on top of that, it’s a learning curve to be able to hit for power in the first place. I think the projection of 21 home runs that Steamer has (which is driving a considerable amount of his value) is based on underestimating the effect Camden Yards will have (Henderson was in the top-20 in opposite field % in 2022, so he is affected even though the left field wall is the one that was moved out) and overlooking the underlying metrics of his performance in the majors in 2022. I’m setting 15 home runs as a more realistic target for him and, therefore, would be targeting him more around pick 150 to 160.
Key Stat: 41.3%, his O-swing rate since his debut in 2020, third-highest in the league
Ryan Mountcastle has been a bit of a controversial figure in fantasy circles over the past two years. Everyone knew that his .333 average in his debut in 2020 was a mirage, but some thought he had enough power to stick around while others thought his swing-and-miss heavy approach would eventually cause his average to bottom out. He broke out with 33 bombs and a .255 average in 2021 but continued to display a troubling amount of chase and swing-and-miss in his approach. 2022 brought the infamous left field wall changes in his home park and, despite improving in most batted ball metrics (barrel rate, hard hit rate, average exit velocity, contact rate, and others), his power numbers plummeted, delivering only 22 home runs. Going into 2023, Steamer is projecting a bit of a bounce back with 26 home runs while maintaining the slightly improved strikeout rate. Despite the excellent Statcast numbers, I don’t see the bounce back in power as a given and generally see Mountcastle as riskier than other 1Bs at his price point given his heavy swing-and-miss profile and home park.
I absolutely expect to see Mountcastle on several sleeper lists. He has a lot of green flags that the fantasy community loves to look for. His 15% barrel rate was seventh among qualified hitters in 2022. His xSLG (.509) and xwOBA (.362) indicate that he “earned” much better numbers than he actually posted (.423 SLG, .316 wOBA). He showed an ability to improve both his rate and quality of contact simultaneously while being one of the main bats that pitchers focused on strategizing against. He could also find himself on an improved offense if Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson develop and Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins stay healthy. However, I don’t think it was 100% luck that Mountcastle so underperformed his metrics, specifically in the power department. Camden Yards is potentially the most hostile park to righty power hitters in the league now. Here’s an absolute shot with an exit velocity of 104.6 and a distance of 404 feet. It’s a home run in every other park in the league.
Left field in Camden Yards swallowed no fewer than five home runs from Mountcastle last year and that’s not changing. Even if he repeats his career highs in all of his contact metrics, his home park is going to make it difficult for him to approach 30 home runs. Steamer has him at 26, which is possible, but it seems awfully tough for a baseline. If we move the projection to 22 home runs, he drops from the 16th 1B to the 19th. He’s currently being drafted as the 15th 1B. To draft Mountcastle at his current price, you’d have to be banking on him sustaining or even furthering his improvements in batted ball rate and quality from 2022 and turning that into a 25+ homer season. It’s certainly possible, but carries more risk than others in that position not only because of both his home park but also his swing-and-miss profile.
Mountcastle is quickly becoming one of the more notorious “bad ball hitters” in the league. His o-swing rate is 41.3% since he made his debut, third highest in the league among qualified hitters over that span behind only Salvador Perez and Javier Báez. His swinging strike rate of 15.9% is fifth highest over the same span. Despite this, he’s been able to avoid massive strikeout totals. His 25.3% rate was 19th in 2022. His career .261 average remains pretty serviceable especially for someone with the ability to provide so much power. There are certainly examples of guys like Rafael Devers who are able to maintain high o-swing and swinging strike rates relative to their overall strikeout rate and maintain pretty solid, consistent power. However, the general rule of thumb is that swings and misses bring strikeouts and inconsistency. The range of outcomes is considerably wider for someone like Mountcastle than other first basemen being drafted around him like Ty France, who offers less power, but a better average and more consistency. Given the potential for Camden Yards to sap the power of right-handed power hitters, I’d say Mountcastles range of outcomes is skewed right a bit in its distribution meaning that the chance of negative outcomes outweigh the positive ones.
At the end of the day, I don’t hate Mountcastle. I recognize there’s a chance that Camden Yards isn’t quite as bad as I think for right-handed power hitters and that Mountcastle can continue to be an exception and swing and miss at his current rate without striking out more or making worse contact. I recognize that he was pretty good last year despite the park and potentially some bad luck finishing as the 19th 1B. This isn’t a major bust pick, but rather a call to re-adjust our expectations for him a bit despite the tasty looking Statcast data. Looking at the other first baseman going around him, if I’m looking for a first baseman with the potential to give me 30-homer power and I’m willing to take a hit on average, I’m likely taking Rowdy Tellez. If I am concerned about average at that point in the draft and I’m willing to sacrifice a few home runs, I’m taking Ty France. I can maybe see the argument for taking Ryan Mountcastle to try to split the difference, but he’s got a good chance of not helping you much in either category, giving you 22 homers that Ty France could get you while hitting .230 like Rowdy Tellez could. The chance of that happening, in my opinion, is much higher than successfully splitting the difference and getting 28 homers and a .260 average. I’d be fading him 20-30 picks from where he’s currently going (160 overall) and to the 19th overall first baseman.
Well, I did warn you I’d talk about Camden Yards a lot. In any case, a couple of guys almost made this article. I really wanted to put Grayson Rodriguez as a sleeper, too, but I think questions about innings means his price point is about right for me right now. This could very well be another 2012 Stephen Strasburg situation where the team has to figure out what to do with their best pitcher on an innings limit down the stretch in a playoff race and I fear the Orioles will make the same call, but at an innings limit of 120-130 instead of 160.
Jorge Mateo was also nearly in this article as a bust, but the signing of Adam Frazier brings so many questions about his role that I think fading Mateo isn’t really a question anymore. I don’t know exactly where his value will fall, so I can’t really call him a bust until I see where he’s being drafted in his current role. That being said, Steamer now projects him for 295 PAs and 16 steals, so don’t look at recent draft data and think you’re getting a steal at 250 overall and the SS24. He’s not even worth that anymore.
I’m also paying close, close attention to John Means news. He could be one of the more impactful mid-season pickups this year. I ended up being pretty satisfied with the price of Cedric Mullins, Adley Rutschman, Félix Bautista, and Anthony Santander after looking into it a bit.
Overall, I feel like the Orioles are going to produce a couple of sneaky valuable pitchers who come out of nowhere. Between the park and Adley Rutschman, there’s a lot of potential for a pitcher or two to way overperform for a year and unexpectedly put up a great season. I’ve hung my hat on Kyle Gibson for now, but I’m going to be closely watching the performance of Orioles starters early in the year to see if there’s anyone I should pounce on.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)
I get where you’re coming from on Gibson, Hall, and Mountcastle, but I have to disagree on Henderson. I think anyone assuming a significant increase in HR / PA is relying on hope (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but citing Camden Yards as potentially suppressing his HR power is supportable. In your own words, “This change in dimensions, which I’m going to refer to a lot in this article, changed Camden Yards from a home-run hitter’s haven to one of the most hostile to righty power hitters.” Henderson is a lefty, though, and Camden Yards remains a very good park for LHBs to go deep. His average exit velocity of 92.4 mph was in the 73rd percentile (small sample size, but is there an argument this is inflated? Not that I’ve seen…), his max exit velocity was 111.1 (not bad), his hard hit rate was 53.7% (league average 35.8%). Long story short, he hits the ball hard. He can go the other way, but he prefers to pull the ball (unlikely to change given the end of the over-shift).
He also hit 11 HR in 295 PA in Norfolk, which is one of the more difficult hitting parks in the International League.
Projecting him for 30+ HR in 2023 isn’t reasonable. Looking at a potential “sophomore slump” if pitchers throw him fewer fastballs (.385 xwOBA) in favor of breaking / offspeed pitches (.299 / .284) is very reasonable. However, the new LF in Camden Yards is very unlikely to be a significant factor on his power development and if one wants to consider park dimensions in his power projections, then they need to be applied to his Norfolk power numbers, too.