Now that the World Series is heating up, I thought I’d do a recap of the Baltimore Orioles’ season and preview their offseason. The Orioles’ year was largely a study in inconsistency, with the team prone to bruising losing streaks that ultimately made their better stretches feel like too little, too late. The O’s season started a little choppily in April and May, as five- and four-game losing streaks resulted in a 23-26 start. In June, the team looked like legitimate contenders, recovering from a five-game losing streak to go on streaks of six and four straight wins and finish the month at 41-36. The O’s seemed like they could compete for an AL East title or, failing that, a wild-card berth. But then the bottom fell out. A bad start to July was followed by an even worse end to August, where the O’s lost 12 of 13 games, effectively ending their playoff hopes. Credit manager Buck Showalter for refusing to let his team give up, though, as the O’s closed the season on a five-game winning streak to finish a somewhat respectable 81-81. Let’s break down the team as it stands right now, and see what their chances are to return to contention.
One of the things I talked about in my preview as key to a good season for the Orioles was a successful return to form for their hitters who were coming off season-ending injuries and ineffectiveness. Most of the players I highlighted did so successfully. First baseman Chris Davis rediscovered his power stroke, and has now led the majors in home runs two of the last three years. But more importantly, he raised his average to .262 and led the team (!) with a .362 on-base percentage. Manny Machado played like an MVP candidate for most of the season, posting a .286 average with a career-high 35 home runs and his usual great defense at the hot corner. Those players were worth more than 10 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) between them.
Centerfielder Adam Jones continued to be a franchise cornerstone, with an almost identical batting line as last year’s. Steve Pearce and Jonathan Schoop also chipped in some timely home runs. On the mound, Zach Britton continued to be lights-out in the closer role, posting an ERA under 2.00 and 36 saves. Darren O’Day showed he can still bring it as a setup man too, with an ERA even lower than Britton’s. Starter Ubaldo Jimenez bounced back from a very difficult 2014, lowering his ERA by more than half a run, making him worth almost three more WAR than last season. Wei-Yin Chen also continued his steady-if-unspectacular play in the rotation.
The problem with many of the players I cited above having good seasons is that many of them need to be re-signed in the offseason. Davis, Chen, and O’Day are all unrestricted free agents, and it will take a significant investment to keep them all. Also joining them in free agency are catcher Matt Wieters and outfielders Steve Pearce and Gerardo Parra. Wieters had a decent season coming off injury but did not produce offensively at the level the O’s had come to expect from him. He was also 2 runs below average in Defensive Runs Saved, while his backup, Caleb Joseph, was 13 above average. Catchers tend to have shorter shelf lives than other position players, so this could be the first sign of a possible decline. Pearce was good for occasional power at the plate but largely failed to match his breakout 2014 season. Parra was acquired from the Brewers at the trade deadline, and I was largely unimpressed with his production.
The rest of the starting rotation also regressed badly. Former ace Chris Tillman saw his ERA balloon almost a run and a half over last year, and his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) rose from 4.01 to 4.45. Miguel Gonzalez saw similar increases. Bud Norris flamed out so badly that the Orioles released him in August, and he was picked up by the San Diego Padres as a reliever. I keep waiting for Kevin Gausman to live up to his potential, and while he has shown flashes of brilliance, he hasn’t been able to string them together with any consistency. Needless to say, this group was the Orioles’ biggest Achilles heel last year.
What to do from here
The Orioles’ first priority in the offseason should be re-signing Chris Davis. He was the engine that powered their offense last year and losing him would be a huge blow. ESPN has reported that Davis has been annoyed by what he perceives as a lack of effort by the team to retain him, which is a bad sign for O’s fans. The problem the team could run into is that power hitters are often overvalued on the free-agent market, as the they learned when they were outbid for DH Nelson Cruz’s services by the Mariners last year, who signed him through his age-39 season, long after most hitters tend to fall off due to age. I’m afraid another team will come in with a ridiculously long and expensive contract for Davis, and the O’s may be forced to take on an albatross of a contract or risk losing him, a catch-22 if ever there was one.
While a setup man is far less of an essential commodity, I do think it’s almost as important for the O’s to retain O’Day, in order to avoid turning a strength into a weakness. While he is getting up there at 33, I think he probably still has a good year or two left in the tank, and I think that’s about how long his contract should be for. Wei-Yin Chen has been mostly productive and should be retained as well. While Wieters is a good team guy, I wouldn’t be completely heartbroken if the Orioles lost him, and the three players above probably should be higher priorities than him. Pearce and Parra could probably be replaced on the free-agent market or through the farm system if they walk.
Beyond retaining free agents, I think Baltimore should have two main priorities. First, they need an ace at the top of their rotation. Many thought that much-hyped pitching prodigy Dylan Bundy might be that player, but he has struggled to stay healthy in the minors, first needing Tommy John surgery on his arm, and then succumbing to a calcium buildup in his right shoulder that caused soreness and inflammation last year. While he could always come back from those, I think the O’s have a more immediate need for a starter who can lock down every fifth day and help prevent the team from getting into those death spiral-style losing streaks that plagued them last year. I think Doug Fister of Washington or Yovani Gallardo of Texas could be options, as they wouldn’t completely break the bank. I worry that going after big-ticket players like Zack Greinke or Jordan Zimmermann wouldn’t be within the team’s payroll, and would jeopardize the team’s ability to re-sign others.
Second, the team should try to fill the only gap I see in their lineup: the lack of a true leadoff hitter. Now that Machado has developed some power, I think batting him first doesn’t maximize his talents, and he should be hitting no higher than second. Ideally, a leadoff hitter is good at getting on base. Speed is also nice but not a necessity. The Orioles have been connected to free agent Ben Zobrist of the Royals, and I think he could fill that role for them. Zobrist isn’t anywhere near his MVP-caliber form of 2009, but his OBP was similar to Machado’s, and he strikes out far less often. He’s also shown the ability to swipe bags in the past. Problem is, many other clubs are going to be after Zobrist, which could drive the price out of the Orioles’ range, especially given that he’s 34.