Last year, the Baltimore Orioles seemed to be headed for another successful season that may have even enabled them to sneak into the playoffs with the Rays and Red Sox having down years. But alas, they fell apart at the end of the year to finish at exactly .500. This year, though, just about every team in the AL East improved, while the Orioles burned a bunch of money re-signing their own free agents and swapping out some pieces. This leaves a lot of questions about how competitive they’ll be this year.
Baltimore signed five key free agents in the offseason: starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, leftfielder Hyun-Soo Kim, first baseman/DH Pedro Alvarez, first baseman Mark Trumbo, and centerfielder Dexter Fowler. Oh wait, Fowler actually re-signed with the Cubs after the O’s wouldn’t offer an opt-out clause. Looks like this was yet another case of a reporter caring more about being first than being right, which is sadly an all-too-common problem in today’s media landscape.
That aside, the Gallardo signing was solid. I’d recommended him as someone who could bolster the rotation in my previous post. The O’s signed him to a 2-year, $22M deal, which strikes me as a good move. While Gallardo is a solid pitcher (3.42 ERA and 4.1 Wins Above Replacement last year), he is 30, and his contract guards against him being an albatross on the team’s payroll if he begins to slip into age-related decline. The problem with this signing is that it was accompanied by the exit of Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Miami Marlins. Chen was probably the Orioles’ most consistent pitcher over the past few years, and swapping him for Gallardo probably doesn’t improve the team’s weakest area much. In fact, it may even hurt it.
The addition of Alvarez makes sense too, given the kind of lineup it appears the Orioles want to field. Alvarez doesn’t get on base much (.236 average, .318 on-base), but he owns a .469 slugging percentage, meaning he can drive the ball when he makes contact. He brings another 27 homers to a team that should lead the league in them. Trumbo has a somewhat similar profile, though he’s a little better at getting on base. While such a power-stocked lineup can be fun to watch for fans, I wonder if it’s a great strategic decision in today’s MLB. The Kansas City Royals have won two straight AL pennants with a contact-centric approach that manufactures runs, rather than relying on the long ball to score runs in bunches. The Orioles’ strategy is very all-or-nothing, and when their sluggers have off nights, they could struggle to score runs.
The O’s also grabbed Kim from South Korea, who should platoon with Joey Rickard in the outfield. It’s hard to tell how he will do in the States, but he did post a .438 on-base percentage (OBP) and 28 homers with the Doosan Bears, so he probably has at least some talent. Other free agents that exited Baltimore include outfielders Gerardo Parra and Steve Pearce, neither of whom had an eye-popping season last year.
The core of the Orioles’ lineup is back, but at a steep cost. First baseman Chris Davis was retained for a 7-year, $161M deal, which to me is a potentially dangerous contract. There’s no doubt Davis is a good hitter, having hit the most home runs of anyone over the past three years. But given that he turned 30 three weeks ago, he probably only has one or two more seasons like that in him before his decline starts. Hell, it may even start this season. The O’s were somewhat between a rock and hard place here. If they didn’t give Davis that kind of money, another team probably would have. And if they had let him go, a team that was already -34 in Offensive Runs Above Average (according to FanGraphs) would’ve tumbled down even further.
Centerfielder Adam Jones and third baseman Manny Machado once again are the team’s two other best players. But we may be about to add another name to that trifecta. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop has flashed some defensive talent, and posted 1.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). More importantly, he raised his average, OBP, and slugging percentages all by more than 60 points over 2014. Many think he could be on the verge of a real breakout season, and I’m excited to see how he does.
Backup catcher Caleb Joseph has also made strides while Matt Wieters was getting his elbow put back together. His WAR almost doubled last year due to the strides he made behind the plate. While still not a dazzling hitter, he probably will rotate with Wieters more than anticipated. I’m not sure Wieters will ever live up to the considerable hype bestowed upon him when he entered The Show, but I’d still rather have him than a lot of catchers out there.
The Orioles’ rotation is largely the same aside from Gallardo. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez will try to return to their 2014 selves rather than the shells of that the team got last year. Ubaldo Jimenez fared somewhat better in his second year as a Bird, and hopefully can contribute a little more. Then we come to Kevin Gausman. The Orioles have, of late, had lots of trouble developing starting pitcher prospects. Witness the trade of Jake Arrieta to the Cubs… all he did with them was win a freaking Cy Young. The O’s have seemed dedicated over the last few years to using Gausman in the most awkward ways possible, and I’m afraid it’s going to permanently hinder his growth into a major league pitcher. The team still has Dylan Bundy waiting in the wings, if his elbow recovers from Tommy John surgery, so this is a problem they need to fix. Now.
The Orioles excel, however, in developing relief pitchers, and their bullpen should still be one of the best in the league. Darren O’Day was retained in the offseason and Zach Britton’s ERA remains microscopic. Brad Brach emerged as a solid seventh-inning guy, and Brian Matusz can contribute when needed. Their ability to shorten games will be very helpful on days when the balls aren’t flying out of the park. The O’s project as a solid defensive team as well largely thanks to Machado, Jones, Schoop, and shortstop JJ Hardy.
As mentioned before, it seems like we have largely the same team that we had last year, with little discernible improvements made. The O’s had to increase their payroll to about $139M this year just to do that. Their free-agent signings probably helped at the margins, but their biggest obstacle to continued success is still that rotation. If they can put together even an average performance, the team could have a shot at a Wild Card spot. I think, because they are having trouble keeping pace with the other teams in their division, they will slip a bit from last year. Sports Illustrated projects them at 69 wins, but they’ve been able to outperform their projections lately. I’ll set the over/under at 75 wins this year.
Around the league, the Chicago Cubs look like the best team on paper, and probably the World Series favorite. But since the preseason favorite never seems to win the Series lately, I’m going to go with the New York Mets, last year’s runners-up. That filthy starting rotation combined with a solid closer and a capable offense look like a winning combination. Though given how accurate my World Series predictions have been lately, this could be the kiss of death. In the AL, I like the Toronto Blue Jays to capture the pennant, but their hot bats will be cooled off by the Mets’ pitchers.