There they were, yet again, fighting in the postseason for the right to play in the World Series. The Baltimore Orioles have made the playoffs in alternating years since 2012 while playing in baseball’s most consistently competitive division. That’s a result that fans of most franchises would take in a heartbeat, regardless of the amount of luck involved. The 2014 Orioles belonged in October, ain’t no ‘bout a doubt it. However, the 2016 team could be thought of as a less-extreme form of the crazy-lucky 2012 counterpart. It was a mediocre roster that managed to elevate itself beyond its meager expectations. By fWAR, the Orioles rotation ranked 18th in baseball (in case you were curious how the sad legend of Baltimore starters continued to unfold), and the position players ranked 14th.
The Orioles did stand out in one key area last year, and that was the bullpen. Only Cleveland blew fewer saves than Baltimore in 2016, and that’s largely thanks to the efforts of worm-killing closer Zach Britton, who had a year to remember. Britton allowed just four earned runs all last season and didn’t blow a single save. That means that the few leads the Orioles’ bullpen did lose were generally happening with enough time left in the game for the team’s good bats to fight back. Aside from superstar third baseman Manny Machado, Britton was the most special thing about the 2016 Orioles, one of the lone players able to transcend normalcy and make sense out of the team’s presence in the American League Wild Card Game.
Too bad he never appeared in it.
The 2016 AL Wild Card Game was a tense affair, an 11-inning game in Toronto during which manager Buck Showalter had burned through his other high-leverage relievers to keep the game knotted at 2-2. Conventional wisdom dictates that a manager should preserve his closer for a save situation, so if the Orioles were to score in the top of an inning, presumably Showalter would have used Britton to slam the door. The game’s events tested and stretched the absurdity of that wisdom to the point where Showalter put the oft-terrible (and wild) starter Ubaldo Jimenez into the game during the 11th inning with the game on the line, almost as a sacrificial offering. Edwin Encarancion then deposited that shaky logic into the left field seats, where it belongs.
This year, Showalter is doing what he can to put the mistake behind him. The Orioles were projected by PECOTA to win just 73 games this season, but here they are, crushing their projections yet again and battling for the AL East lead. Showalter’s cause is of course greatly aided by having Machado in tow, who’s somehow only in his age-24 season. Machado can hit for average and clubbed 72 home runs over the last two seasons while playing elite defense at third base. He’s the superstar that makes it tough to count out Baltimore, even in this division.
Machado’s hardly the only slugger the Orioles can rely upon, as Baltimore has been a homer-happy team for years. 2012 was the last time that the major league leader in home runs didn’t play for the Orioles, and two of the three players responsible are still on the 2017 roster. Mark Trumbo accomplished the feat last year, and while he gets asked to play the outfield more often than he should (read: at all), 47 dingers are 47 dingers. Chris Davis carried the flag in 2013 and 2015, with 100 homers combined between the two seasons. Unfortunately, Davis has also led the majors in strikeouts each of the last two years, and he’s playing like he really wants that three-peat.
Center fielder Adam Jones is no stranger to the homer party, either. He’s typically overshadowed by somebody else’s staggering quota, but Jones has quietly averaged 30 home runs over the past five seasons. That’s also made his decline somewhat tough to notice because while he’s lost little on the homer front, his doubles rate has basically been cut in half over that span, suggesting Jones might be trading some barrels to swing for the fences. He’s lost a step defensively in center as well, but the 31-year-old is still a contributor.
In the outfield corners, the Orioles employ a variety of platoon players, including the contact-hitting Hyun Soo Kim, the righty-mashing Seth Smith, and the glovely Craig Gentry. Probably the most interesting of the bunch is Trey Mancini, a 25-year-old rookie with plenty of power who got off to a very fast start this year before cooling down. Mancini is right-handed and has been deployed mostly against lefties, but in a small sample he’s done even more damage against righties, so one could see the Orioles trying to get him some more looks.
Given Camden Yards and all this thump, the Orioles will be putting up plenty of runs. The starting rotation is where the Orioles look weak, despite a couple of interesting arms. Kevin Gausman finally gave Baltimore something better than average at the top of their rotation in 2016, though he’s no ace and hasn’t fared well this year. Gausman ditched his curveball for a slider this season and the early returns have not been kind; hitters haven’t chased much and it’s led to an uptick in walks.
Dylan Bundy is another slider-heavy arm in the Orioles rotation, but unlike Gausman, Bundy’s breaking ball has been very effective thus far. The former top prospect is off to a great start in establishing a permanent home in the rotation after his long recovery from Tommy John surgery and shoulder problems. The rest of the Orioles’ starters aren’t quite so compelling. Chris Tillman has been valued between 1.8 and 2.4 fWAR each of the last four years, so he’s about as LAIM-y as you can get. Wade Miley’s a good lefty whose results seem to lag behind his talent, and Ubaldo Jimenez has yet to recover from Encarnacion reallocating his baseball to the upper regions of the Rogers Centre. Jimenez was used in long relief the other day and with Alec Asher looking competent in the rotation, there’s speculation that Jimenez might be done in Baltimore once Tillman is activated.
Failing to use Britton was one of the worst managerial mistakes in baseball history, but it’s unfortunate that Showalter’s tenure in Baltimore might be reduced to that one error. For one thing, the Orioles’ offense should shoulder some blame for failing to score for seven straight innings against pitching that wasn’t exactly elite. More importantly, though, is that Showalter has overseen a great five-year stretch of Orioles baseball. Baltimore has been blowing expectations out of the water and playing a brand of ball that’s been both fun and successful. History might never forgive Showalter for his major blunder, but maybe it should.
Probable Starting Pitchers
Friday, May 5: Wade Miley vs. Miguel Gonzalez
Saturday, May 6: Dylan Bundy vs. Dylan Covey
Sunday, May 7: Chris Tillman vs. Jose Quintana
|1. Seth Smith - RF||SP1. Kevin Gausman - RHP|
|2. Adam Jones - CF||SP2. Dylan Bundy - RHP|
|3. Manny Machado - 3B||SP3. Chris Tillman - RHP|
|4. Mark Trumbo - DH||SP4. Wade Miley - LHP|
|5. Chris Davis - 1B||SP5. Alec Asher - RHP|
|6. Jonathan Schoop - 2B||CL. Zach Britton - LHP|
|7. Hyun Soo Kim - LF||RP1. Brad Brach - RHP|
|8. J.J. Hardy - SS||RP2. Donnie Hart - LHP|
|9. Caleb Joseph - C||RP3. Mychal Givens - RHP|