Mar 1, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones (10) is congratulated by Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado (13) after he hit a home run during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Baltimore Orioles face an uphill battle as they try to return to the postseason, but residents of Birdland have seen this story before.
Dan Duquette took over as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles following the 2011 season. Since then, all the team has done is exceed expectations, reaching the playoffs in three of five years and not once finishing below .500.
The Orioles finished last season with an 89-73 record despite scoring only 29 runs more than they allowed. Their Pythagorean win-loss record, which predicts a team’s record based on the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed, was 84-78. Back in 2012 the Orioles had an even more extreme separation, with a 93-69 record compared to an 82-80 Pythagorean record.
What accounts for such a discrepancy? Are the Orioles lucky, or have they broken some kind of code that will enable them to consistently outperform what one might expect? Usually when a team has a better record than what their run differential might suggest, that means they’re winning close games and losing others in blowout fashion.
Sure enough, the makeup of the Baltimore roster lends itself to these outcomes on a replicable basis. The starting rotation is a weakness, especially at the bottom. Opponents have been likely to score early and often. The offense is very boom or bust, extremely reliant on the home run ball to score. The back end of the bullpen is something special.
This all means that when the Orioles put their power on display and keep games close, the bullpen will do its job and shut down opponents. This happened quite a bit, as their 253 home runs easily led the majors. But when the ball isn’t leaving the yard, the Orioles have not shown an ability to manufacture runs. Joey Rickard led the team in stolen bases in 2016… with four. Four! As a team, Baltimore only stole 19 bases on the season, or one less than what third baseman Manny Machado stole in 2015. Machado finished the 2016 season without a steal, a puzzling development in an otherwise stellar age-23 season.
Most of the gang is still all here for 2017, so manager Buck Showalter will try to work his magic again as the Orioles look to continue defying the odds with another postseason appearance.
Mar 8, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles outfielder Craig Gentry (14) is greeted by catchers Caleb Joseph (36) and outfielder Seth Smith (12) after hitting a three run home run in the second inning of the spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Some of the biggest signings Baltimore made in the offseason were bringing back their own free agents. Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez and even Michael Bourn re-signed with the Orioles. There aren’t many stars among the fresh faces, but there are some key role players.
OF Seth Smith — Baltimore jettisoned underperforming starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo to Seattle and received a very useful outfielder in return. Smith has experience in both corners and owns a career .827 OPS against right-handed pitching. Last season while working on the strong side of a platoon, Smith registered a career-high 63 RBI to go with 16 home runs. Despite a middling .249 average, Smith’s pop and on-base ability led to a 108 OPS+. For his career Smith has a 112 OPS+, and he should be able to provide a good amount of value for the Orioles if his exposure to left-handed pitching is limited.
C Welington Castillo — Castillo comes over as a free agent from the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he slugged 31 home runs with 118 RBI over the past season and a half. He’s generally a strong defender behind the plate, but does not score well on pitch-framing metrics. Castillo is also coming off a career high in RBI with 68. He will be counted on to replace Matt Wieters, and while that sounds like a tall task, Castillo actually has had a higher bWAR than Wieters in each of the past four seasons.
OF Craig Gentry, RP Vidal Nuno, RP Richard Bleier — There really isn’t much to talk about beyond Smith and Castillo. Gentry is a speedster who hasn’t played regularly since 2014, but he could be pressed into action with Bourn likely out for at least the first couple weeks of the season. Nuno and Bleier will provide left-handed bullpen depth in a unit that features plenty of options from the right side in front of closer Zach Britton.
Sep 23, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (32) rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
The Orioles brought back several of their free agents, but there were some noticeable departures.
C Matt Wieters — Wieters had been a mainstay at catcher for Baltimore since 2009, though injuries have plagued him the past few seasons. Wieters won two gold gloves and made four all-star appearances in his eight seasons with the Orioles. His reputation far exceeded his production, though, as Wieters sports a career OPS+ of 98. He’ll now practice his trade across the beltway with the Washington Nationals.
IF/OF Steve Pearce — Pearce only spent the final two months of 2016 with the Orioles after coming over in a trade deadline deal with Tampa Bay, but he has been with Baltimore at various points in the season each year since 2012. He can play all over the diamond and has crushed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .852 OPS in his career. The Blue Jays signed him to play first base and left field for the next couple of seasons.
SP Yovani Gallardo — The Orioles received Seth Smith from the Mariners, and the ability to shed Gallardo in the deal was icing on the cake. Gallardo struggled in 23 starts last season, putting up an abysmal 5.42 ERA, two runs higher than the career-best figure he put up the season before in Texas.
Oct 2, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; The Baltimore Orioles spray manager Buck Showalter with champagne after beating the New York Yankees 5-2 to clinch an American League Wild Card playoff spot at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Lineup — More of the same can be expected from the Baltimore offense in 2017, as the lineup is filled with familiar faces. Third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop are a year older and should continue to break out. First baseman Chris Davis and the seemingly positionless Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez will continue to provide immense power. Adam Jones is a mainstay in center field, while J.J. Hardy will attempt to stay healthy at shortstop. Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim will likely function as strong sides of platoons in the corner outfield spots. However, it should be noted that Kim skipped the relatively meaningless World Baseball Classic so he could use Spring Training to prove to the Baltimore brass that he can handle the job on a full-time basis. Welington Castillo takes over behind the plate.
Rotation — Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman were quietly solid starters for the Orioles in 2016, each with an ERA well below 4.00. They’ll return to head up the rotation, though Tillman is expected to miss the start of the regular season. Gausman seems poised to break out. Dylan Bundy has dealt with his share of injuries since debuting as a 19-year-old in 2012. He didn’t reappear with the Orioles till last season, but he appears poised to step into the rotation on a full-time basis while still a young 24. Wade Miley had a dismal 6.17 ERA in 11 starts for Baltimore after coming over in a trade from Seattle last July. Ubaldo Jimenez put up a 5.44 ERA in 142.1 innings. Unfortunately, the Orioles are counting on both to round out their rotation.
Bullpen and Bench — The bullpen is absolutely stacked, with closer Zach Britton coming off an historic season in which he put up a 0.54 ERA across 67 innings. Of course some regression is likely, but he should still be one of the game’s dominant relievers. A trio of right-handers will set him up in Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day. All four have the ability to strike out in excess of 10 per nine innings pitched. The top offensive reserves include Joey Rickard, last year’s Rule 5 pick, across the outfield and Ryan Flaherty, another former Rule 5 pick, around the infield. Caleb Joseph will again serve as backup catcher. Joseph followed up his 49 RBI total in 2015 by driving in absolutely nobody across 141 plate appearances in 2016.
Overall — Despite returning most of the key pieces of last season’s 89-win playoff team, most projections expect quite a bit of regression in 2017 for the Orioles. Baseball Prospectus calls for Baltimore to have the second-worst record in the American League at 74-88. Fangraphs is a bit more optimistic, projecting an 81-81 record, while Vegas pins the over/under at 79.5 wins. Conventional wisdom says that Buck Showalter may not have the opportunity to atone for leaving Zach Britton in the bullpen during the extra innings loss to Toronto in the AL Wild Card game.
The American League is very deep this year, so a return to the playoffs for Baltimore does seem unlikely, and I’m not predicting they’ll make it. But recent history suggests that another unexpected magical run is still possible.