The Baltimore Orioles finished tied for second in the AL East last season with the Blue Jays, who also finished 89-73, four games behind the Red Sox. As the rules of baseball would have it, they played a single game to determine who would move on in the postseason, which the Jays on an Edwin Encarnación walk-off bomb in extra innings. The Orioles used six relievers in the game, none of whom were closer Zach Britton during his shooting-star career year and one of whom was Ubaldo Jiménez, and paid the price.
In the face of such a tough loss, can the O’s parrot their 2016 success, or even do last year one better, and overtake the Sox for first in the AL East? It’s pretty darn early, but it’s not looking good. Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings have the O’s falling to a 73-89, a complete reversal of last year’s fortune. The Oddsshark website has Baltimore at +700 to win the division, the most squalid odds of everyone outside of Tampa, who sits at +1800, but whom BPro predicts to win 84 games. If that screams “Bet on the Rays!,” you’re onto something, but we’ll cover that tomorrow.
Today, it’s the team of my Facebook friend, former Red Sox GM, Israeli Baseball League Director of Operations and current Orioles GM. Dan Duquette. Don’t even worry about it, Let’s steal the format from our evil cousin BP Boston’s Roster Recap series and go over the highs and lows for the O’s in 2016, along with what to expect this year.
The Orioles’ most conspicuous success story on offense last season was Mark Trumbo, who turned a one-year make-good deal into the American League home run title. Trumbo’s charming in his own way, having explained to David Laurila his bombs-away-every-day approach: “I’d love it if I had the ability that Paul Goldschmidt, or Joey Votto, has to control the strike zone. That’s just not one of the natural abilities I possess.” With 47 dingers, the approach worked for him last year, but it wasn’t the windfall one might have expected. He spent a good deal of the offseason trying to piggyback his wonderful season into a nice new contract, finally settling to return to the Orioles, on Inauguration Day, for 3 years, $37.5 million.
Of course, Trumbo isn’t nearly the best player on the team; that would be Manny Machado, who’s an MVP in a non-Mike Trout world. His .296/.343/.533 over nearly 700 PA, split between SS and 3B, is about as delicious as it gets. With a stout 37 homers, though, he didn’t even finish second on the team: That honor goes to Chris Davis, who banged out 38 in a considerably less efficient line, aka, a Chris Davis line.
Pretty much everyone on the team hits homers, basically, and most of them are returning. Jonathan Schoop dongs so at second, Hyun-Soo-Kim hit well in a half-season from the outfield, Adam Jones bombs from center and, replacing the capable Matt Wieters at backstop, is another nice hitter: Welington Castillo. The Orioles may not be able to fill seats with people, but they do a good job of supplying them with souvenirs, and with last year’s DH Pedro Álvarez still a free agent, they can always sign up a vendor. It’s not their offensive that’s a problem.
Nor is it half of their rotation, which had three good performances and several dreadful ones, Kevin Gausman finally had The Good Year (179.2 IP, 3.61 ERA, 174 K) as did Chris Tillman (172.0 IP, 3.77 ERA, 140 K) and Dylan Bundy (109.2 IP, 4.02 ERA, 104 K), but Baltimore’s real pitching story came from the bullpen.
Over four days last August, The Ringer published pieces arguing that Zach Britton was both a surprise Cy Young and MVP contender. Regardless of where these pieces fall or fell on the merits, they set off a firestorm on August Twitter, a reliably furious iteration of a perpetually angry platform. No matter how you sliced it, Britton was excellent (0.54 ERA, 67 IP, 74K, 47 saves), but the way his season ended -- benched, as his classicist manager Buck Showalter used lesser pitcher (aka, all of them) after lesser pitcher in anticipation of a save situation -- was some tragicomic poetry.
To be fair to Showalter -- an exercise that does not come easy to me -- the first four relievers he brought into the game were all quite good for the Orioles last year. It was, in fact, nice top-down usage of the bullpen aside from Britton, to that point -- doing Hamlet without Hamlet, but doing it damn well. First up was Mychal Givens, who was certifiably nasty (3.13 ERA, 74.2 IP, 96 K), then Donnie Hart (0.49, 18.1 IP, 12K) followed by Brad Bach, who was the best of all three (2.05 ERA, 79 IP, 92K). After that, it was Darren O’Day, who was also actually pretty good (3.77 ERA, 31 IP, 28K). Then it was Brian Duensing, who was not good, and after that it was Jiménez, the platonic ideal of the pitcher you don’t want on the mound in extra innings in Toronto. The Orioles had a shot to do some real damage, and Showalter blew it, hard.
There’s not much, outside of a world-historical managerial blunder in an era where the line between playoff success and failure is razor-thin at all times, in a season where most everything went right. The got precious, and they got Boromir’d.
Notably, outside of Gausman and Tillman, the pitchers were bad, but I don’t know what else you expect from Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo. Maybe you expect Wade Miley not to implode, but can you really be surprised that he, along with Jiménez and Gallardo, had 5+ ERAs? You can build a rotation out of lottery ticket guys if any one of them hits, but it might help to buy something other than a $1 scratcher... though Duquette’s consistent success may say otherwise. PECOTA doesn’t like it, but it’s been wrong before. Still, it’s hard to view this is an aberration. These are, like most lottery tickets, basically worthless.
Davis and Jones had lower-bound years on the offensive side, and J.J. Hardy got hurt, but that’s about it.
The Year Ahead
The good fortune in the section above is, if you’ll forgive me, the rub. Given another season of good health and good luck, the Orioles could probably compete for a playoff spot again, but the odds are against them. I don’t think they’re 73-89 bad, but their floor is pretty low, especially if any of Gausman, Tillman or Bundy biffs it or gets injured. If they don’t, and they repeat or improve on their good seasons, and the offense stays healthy, and the bullpen remains awesome, and Stuffwalter can keep his show together, well, they’ve got a chance. That’s too many “ands” to fret too much.