Baltimore Orioles Preview: If Everything Breaks Right…

Last year, as has frequently happened since the team’s 2012 renaissance, the Baltimore Orioles defied analysts’ expectations, falling one win short of 90 on the year.  However, their season ended in devastation in the wild-card game after Buck Showalter controversially didn’t bring in world-beating closer Zach Britton during extra innings, leaving Ubaldo Jimenez to give up the game-winning home run to Edwin Encarnacion in the 11th.  I’m not going to dwell too much on that decision, as it has been analyzed to death on every sports-talk medium you can think of.  The fact that the O’s even made it to that game was an achievement, and it will be interesting to see if they can follow it up.  It may take a lot of luck for that to happen, though… let’s break it down.

What’s new?

Answer: …not too much.  The Orioles lost catcher Matt Wieters (to the Nationals, of all teams…).  I liked Wieters during his tenure with the team and didn’t want them to lose him, but it may actually not be the worst thing in the world that he’s gone.  First of all, he just turned 30 years old, a time when many hitters start to fall off the age curve.  That may be exacerbated for him because he plays the most grueling position in all of baseball.  He also never quite lived up to his hype coming out of the minors, with a career .256/.318/.421 slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) and 117 home runs.  He was never a great defensive catcher either.  With top minor league prospect Chance Sisco looming large over the position, Baltimore probably figured that Wieters was expendable.  The O’s’ other key loss was Steve Pearce, who is perhaps the embodiment of the phrase “I can’t quit you, baby.”  He appears to have finally left Baltimore for good, however.  Pearce showed hints of power, but his batting average and on-base numbers frequently lagged, so he was probably redundant on this roster.

As for what Baltimore brought in, they replaced Wieters with Wellington Castillo from the Diamondbacks, who like Wieters is a good hitter who isn’t as focused on the defensive aspects of his position.  His hitting stats (.264/.322/.423, 14 HR, 68 RBI) are actually a tick better than what Wieters put up last season, so he should be able to slide right in once he gets adjusted to American League pitching.  The Orioles also traded away Yovani Gallardo, who after a horrific first half rebounded a little to put up a 6-8 record, but his ERA ballooned to 5.42.  Most of that was his fault, too, as his fielding-independent pitching (ERA adjusted for team defense behind him) was 5.04.  The trade brought in outfielder Seth Smith from the Seattle Mariners, who seems to be somewhat similar to Pearce, and could fill in for him just fine.

Catcher Wellington Castillo was the Orioles’ most interesting free agent signing.

Who’s back?

Perhaps the Orioles’ most significant offseason signing was bringing back DH Mark Trumbo.  It wasn’t so much that they got him back, but that they got him back for the right price.  Rather than way overpay, like they would’ve had to for Nelson Cruz last offseason, Baltimore was able to bring Trumbo back on a 3-year, $37.5M deal.  The contract comes with some risk, as he just finished his age-30 season.  He probably won’t match last season’s numbers, when he hit 47 homers as the next out-of-nowhere Baltimore slugger (joining Cruz and first baseman Chris Davis).  But even if he bats around .250-.260 and gets another 35-40 homers, it will be worth it.  His only drawback is that he isn’t that great defensively, so the team may not know what to do with him in interleague games.

DH Mark Trumbo did a lot of this last year.

The core of Baltimore’s lineup is also back, and it’s once again loaded with power.  Manny Machado is their best player, snaring nearly every ball that comes at him at the hot corner, and posting excellent all-around batting numbers year after year (career .284/.333/.477 slash line).  Oh yeah, and he’s only going to be 24 to start the season.  He is going to be a free agent after this year, so expect him to post just as good, if not better numbers to raise his value on the market.

Outfielder Adam Jones is a poor man’s Machado, though a rough start to last year caused many fans to wonder if Father Time had caught up with him.  He recovered to his usual offensive numbers, and is still Gold Glove-caliber in the field.  First baseman Chris Davis will likely turn into a Mark Reynolds-type player as he ages, with low on-base and high power (just hopefully not as maddening as Reynolds was).  JJ Hardy is likely nearing the end of the line at short, but can still hit some.  Second baseman Jonathan Schoop had something of a breakout in his second full season at the plate, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on it and become a .275 average, 30-homer type hitter.  Hyun-Soo Kim hit for a high average and OBP, and if he can maintain that, he could be the true leadoff hitter that the team has needed for awhile.  Adam Jones batted leadoff frequently last year, and I personally think some of his talents are wasted there.  Caleb Joseph, the defensive specialist at catcher, will along with Castillo help keep the seat warm for Sisco, who may make his debut this year.

The starting rotation is where Baltimore will need the most luck.  Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy showed signs of maturing into solid starting pitchers as the team finally figured out how to properly utilize them.  If they can be a one-two punch at the top, Chris Tillman can slide in at the #3 spot, which is probably the best place for him at this stage in his career as long as he stays healthy.  Who will be the #4 and #5 starters, though?  Deadline acquisition Wade Miley hasn’t been the same since his All-Star 2012 season, and was dreadful after coming over from Seattle.  Jimenez is probably more suited to the bullpen.  Mike Wright had an inflated ERA in his spot starts, and Virginia Cavalier product Tyler Wilson hasn’t really shown any of the promise he flashed in 2015.  This rotation has the feel of being held together with duct tape and string, and is one injury or lackluster performance away from being a disaster.

Starting pitcher Kevin Gausman has to have a breakout season for the Orioles to contend for the playoffs.

The bullpen should be strong again, though.  Zach Britton, he of the magical sinker and infinitesimal 0.54 ERA, will be the closer.  The ‘pen may not have as much depth as last year, as Darren O’Day took a step back due to age.  Brad Brach is still a solid contributor, and Mychal Givens showed some promise in a setup role.  Vidal Nuno and Oliver Drake could be solid pieces as well.  The team took a step back defensively last year, ranking 19th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating, so that will need to improve.

Add it all up and you have a team that, if everyone produces and avoids major injury, could easily compete for a wild card.  I’m not naïve enough to think that everything will go perfectly, though, so while I’m not willing to project the O’s to win 89 games again, I think 84 is an attainable goal.  That may be enough to get them a wild card berth, as the Blue Jays look weaker and the Yankees and Rays probably aren’t ready to challenge just yet.  I could see Seattle or Detroit making a play for the wild-card, but even if one of those teams is successful, Baltimore could still nab the second spot.

Around the league, I like the Cleveland Indians, who got to the World Series even as their own rotation was held together by duct tape and string due to injuries, as the favorites to get to the World Series.  I figure one of these years, my constant predictions of the Los Angeles Dodgers to break out will finally come true.  In a matchup of those teams, I like the Indians to win.  The Dodgers have the aforementioned record of folding in the playoffs, and the Indians will be supremely motivated, as they now have the longest World Series drought in the majors after the Chicago Cubs broke theirs last year.

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