Playing Pepper 2018: Baltimore Orioles

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Baltimore Orioles
75-87, fifth in AL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

After a tough playoff loss in 2016, there was a bit of an expectation around the Orioles last season.  While it’d have been tough to find anyone that expected them to win the division, being in the hunt for either that or a wild card would have been reasonable.  They were in first place at the end of April but just kind of slid down the standings like dirt settling in water, finally winding up in last place by a game.

Expectations for the club are much different this year, especially after a slow offseason (which, in fairness, is something probably 26 of the 30 teams could claim).  We’ve got some great folks today to tell you all about the orange birds and what 2018 has in store for them.

Writer Site Twitter
Kristen Bentley Birds Watcher kris10bentley
Jon Shepherd Camden Depot CamdenDepot
Domenic Vadala Birdland Crush DomenicVadala
Tony Pente Orioles Hangout OriolesHangout
Derek Arnold Eutaw Street Report BMoreBirdsNest

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Kristen: The offseason has been incredibly boring. The team has only two starting pitchers, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who are average pitchers. As of today (1/20/18), the team has not signed anyone of note other than a bunch of minor leaguers and Rule 5 players. The club has not improved, especially since it looks like Bundy and Gausman might each pitch 81 games each – or the other three rotation spots will be filled by minor leaguers or guys that were discards from other teams. 

Jon: The Orioles entered the off season as a club that overperformed all season until the final month of the year. If the starting rotation was not one of their history’s worst starting rotations, they may have been able to sneak into the playoffs. They also had a lot of money coming off the books and visions of 50 MM or so to spend on free agents gave a lot of fans some hope. That has not exactly materialized yet. The club continues to punt on decisions about whether or not they want to be competitive by hemming and hawing with trading Manny Machado and Zach Britton (whose injury put that on the shelf). With a slow off season, they have secured the signatures of back bench free agents, such as Chris Tillman and Andrew Cashner. A professed need for a left handed bat drew them in to minor league free agents. In the end, they really have not spent much money on salaries and it remains rather obscured what exactly their plan is for 2017 and beyond.

Domenic: The Orioles, along with most other clubs didn’t do much in the offseason. They did add RHP Andrew Cashner, and re-signed RHP Chris Tillman as a free agent. Having said that, the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley are no longer on the club. Cashner’s not a big signing per se, but his numbers are better than either of those two. That combined with the potential for Tillman to have a bounceback season could in theory mean the rotation will be better. Unfortunately for the O’s, two of the teams who DID improve themselves were Boston and NY.

Tony: The Orioles are rarely winners in the offseason since they rarely sign high profile free agents or make significant trades. Typically Dan Duquette waits the free agent market out and scoops up the value free agents, but with the market moving so slow that several big name free agents were still unsigned as Spring Training opened, the Orioles basically made no moves of significance this offseason. Coming off a year in which they finished last, and with two starting pitchers penciled into their rotation going into spring training, the Orioles certainly didn’t improve this offseason.

Once spring training started, the Orioles signed Right handed starters Andrew Cashner and resigned Chris Tillman (coming off a career worse year in which there are questions surrounding the health of his shoulder) for the rotation. They then signed Colby Rasmus to a minor league deal that will allow him to compete for a platoon role in right field. Unless at least one of the major starting pitching free agents (Arrieta, Cobb, Lynn) land with the Orioles this spring, they are going to have to piece together a 5th starter from candidates that include Rule 5 draft picks (the Orioles took three pitchers), and a bunch of guys who have had some success in AAA, but never sustained success at the major league level in a starting role.

Derek: Most Orioles fans would agree that this was the most frustrating and confusing offseason in memory, which is saying a lot with this club. It’s been a long stretch of such offseasons, but this one really took the cake. The team posted a franchise-record worst 5.70 ERA from their starting rotation last season, and so far their big moves to fix that have been to sign Andrew Cashner, bring back Chris Tillman (he of the 7.84 ERA in 2017), and talk about making a bunch of relief pitchers into starters. On top of that, they’re banking on Kevin Gausman (who has had a few good half-seasons as a starter) and Dylan Bundy (who has a one-year track record of staying healthy under a starter’s workload) to be their 1-2 in an again-loaded American League East. While guys like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and even Jon Jay are still out there and would be immediate upgrades, most O’s fans have resigned ourselves to the idea that none of them are coming to Baltimore. Without adding one of those pitchers, it’s really hard to talk ourselves into believing that they got any better since October. 

C70: How does the team bounce back from losing Zach Britton for much of the year?

Kristen: The team can bounce back from Britton. The bullpen has enough arms to get through the games. It’s the starting rotation that has issues. Brad Brach was ok in Britton’s spot last year and Britton wasn’t great in 2017 anyway. 

Jon: Losing Britton hurt because he was a decent trade chip. As a player, he does not push the needle much one way or the other due to the rather major problems in the starting rotation and concerns about performance across the field. Britton does not make Mark Trumbo or Chris Davis hit. He does not impact whether Manny can actually put together a great season as is expected of him. Britton really does not impact how well the starting rotation pitches. The club had a payroll around 160 MM last year, saw off about 50 MM or so in departing salaries, so his 12 MM or so contract is not really hampering them. They simply are not spending. What Britton’s loss means is that everyone moves up a slot. Maybe that costs them a game. Maybe two. Not much more than that and that is based on the assumption that Britton can regain his past elite performances.

Domenic: The expectation is that Britton might start baseball activities in May or June. So he may actually see some time in the first half. However, they have trusted veterans in Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and others in the pen. They’ve covered for Britton before and can do so again. 

Tony: The Orioles have some depth in relief with Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day all capable of providing late inning relief. Brach filled in last season when Britton was on the disabled list and will most likely fill in this season as well as the closer. Saying that, losing Britton hurts because Brach struggled in his first extended role as closer blowing six saves and picking up five losses. His loss could spell an opportunity for one of the Orioles three Rule 5 picks to get a job in the bullpen.

Derek: The simplest answer there is to say that they won’t need a closer very often, so it’s really not a big deal. Britton actually looks to be progressing quite well in his recovery though, so he could be back sooner than we originally expected. Even then though, he’ll be a bit of a question mark. He dealt with other nagging injuries in 2017 that decreased his effectiveness. The O’s – or any team – are better with Zach Britton than without him, of course, so it will still be a factor. Brad Brach has the ability to close games and will get the shot in Britton’s absence. Perhaps a best-case scenario for the O’s would be for him to be lights-out in the role to further increase his trade value before the deadline. 

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Kristen: I think most people know that the Orioles don’t have a rotation. They have some outstanding bats and an above average bullpen. It’s an even year, so there is a chance that the O’s could go to the playoffs – they’ve got a little SF Giants-thing going, but without the World Series part. I think one thing that most people do overlook is that at the end 2018 – Machado, Jones, Britton, Brach, Showalter, and Duquette are all free agents. That’s a lot of power that could be leaving at the end of the season. 

Jon: The team has a number of position prospects that come with some red flags, but could help the club out if everything clicks. Tanner Scott has made some major advances in his pitching ability and could be a monster out of the pen with more development. Chance Sisco has all star level ability, but some issues with catching and power. Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle have looked exceptional, but also carry some worry with how aggressive they are. You can go much deeper and dream on a number of prospects. My point being that this club’s minor league system is better than a lot of people give it credit, so there may indeed be meaningful baseball in Baltimore post-Manny and we may well see the beginning of that this year.

Domenic: I’m not sure if overlook is the proper term in this case, however the Orioles had a putrid month of September. If they weren’t looking at called third strikes they were flailing at ball fours. That was the sum of lots of tired bats. So when people look at last season’s numbers it’s easy to forget that the likes of Davis, Jones, Machado, et al, are all great players. One has to assume that won’t happen again.

Tony: The Orioles offense has the potential to be one of the better offenses in the American League. Last season Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo all had down years and if they can rebound the Orioles could be pretty dangerous offensively. Second Basemen Jonathan Schoop had a breakout year and could be on the bring of super stardom and LF Trey Mancini proved to have an above average major league bat. Adam Jones is mister steady of course in the middle of the order.

Derek: I think an outsider would have a tough time grasping just how strange they are in the way they conduct business. Peter Angelos is now 88 years old. Back in the 90’s, he would issue press releases regularly, sniping at the media for perceived slights and letting you know exactly where he stood on a lot of issues. But for the past, oh, 15+ years, he’s been mostly silent. We never hear from him, either directly or through the media. Throw in that Dan Duquette (the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations) has had Brady Anderson (the Vice President of Baseball Operations) foisted upon him in recent years. We also know that Buck Showalter has some say in personnel decisions. The problem is that this trio (or quartet?) doesn’t work in harmony. Reports have surfaced for years about Dan & Buck butting heads. A few years back, Toronto tried to lure Duquette away, but Angelos wouldn’t let him go, a fiasco that still sours the way many fans view Duquette. Angelos is extremely risk averse, and pitchers are risky, so he doesn’t believe in paying them the going rate (and never has – look back at Mike Mussina leaving for the Yankees). Thus, the team’s pitching woes are never truly addressed, not in any meaningful way. That they finally paid a pitcher (a middling one at that) the going rate for his services, and it all went belly-up (Ubaldo Jimenez) likely solidified his strange opinion on this matter. Another risky venture? Young international players – the O’s give away their international signing bonus money like Halloween candy. So they don’t pay big money for free agents, and they don’t invest in the international market, or in scouting and development. Tell me that’s not a strange way to operate an MLB team! Yet, it’s tough to call Angelos “cheap,” as the O’s regularly have an Opening Day payroll somewhere in the Top 10 (though they currently sit $30-40 million below last year’s, so that streak could be coming to an end). He’ll sign players that he personally likes (see the albatross of a contract he gave to Chris Davis a few years back) for big money. It’s just very hard to divine what the decision-making process is at any given time, and who is to blame/credit for any particular decision. I think we’ll look back in a few years and be amazed that Dan & Buck were able to win as many games as they were between 2012-2016, while operating in this strange organization. (One of our writers actually wrote about this very topic today.)

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Orioles to do well?

Kristen: I think there are two that need to do well: Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman. There aren’t many replacements for them if anything goes wrong. 

Jon: Last year almost everyone has a career worst year. Perhaps the most disappointing was how terribly Kevin Gausman did in his first 15 starts with a 6 plus ERA. But, really, you can pick a number of guys: Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado. The club has about eight prime candidates for comeback player of the year.

Domenic: A dark-horse candidate for you: Tim Beckham. Beckham was acquired via trade at the deadline last year, and overall it was a very good move. He quickly became a fan favorite because he seemed genuinely happy to be with a team that legitimately wanted him. At first the idea was that he could replace J.J. Hardy at shortstop. However Manny Machado made it very clear that he wanted that spot this year, and the Orioles have obliged. So Beckham will be guarding the hot corner, a position that he’s played five times in his career in the big leagues. So the Orioles’ success may well be contingent on his success at the hot corner.

Tony: The Orioles wish they only needed one player to have a good year. It’s all about the starting pitching for the Orioles so if there are two guys that are among the most important it’s starting pitchers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. The Orioles need them both to pitch to their number one draft pick potential. With only four starters in the rotation as of this writing, the Orioles can’t afford for either one to not pitch well.

Derek: It’s time for Gausman to put up or shut up. The past two seasons, he has been dreadful in the first half, but then made some adjustment to fix things in the second. Last year, I made the joke that he should start his Spring Training regimen at Thanksgiving instead of in February, to see if that made a difference. He’s 27 now, with two full seasons under his belt as a starter. Nobody really thinks he’ll ever be a True #1 at this point, mostly due to his inability to ever have developed a consistent breaking ball to show right-handed batters. But he has the arm talent and stuff to be a reliable #2-3 starter, and this needs to be the year that he proves that over a full season. Many O’s fans are fearful that he’ll end up as a dominant bullpen arm (which he could certainly be), the latest in a long list of failed O’s starting pitching prospects. 

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Kristen: My projection is that the team will be last in the AL East. Unless something unexpected happens before the season starts, the team doesn’t have the pitching to contend with the hitters on the Yankees or the pitchers in Boston. The Blue Jays have more pitching depth than the Orioles and so do the Rays. The Orioles will not beat the other AL East teams if they put out a starting rotation loaded with Triple-A pitchers.

Jon: The club looks like they will settle into the mid 70s for wins and finish last in the AL East. Starting pitching depth is an issue. Chris Tillman may well have a degenerative shoulder and always flirts with having a minus minus fastball. Andrew Cashner gives the impression of someone who will get blown up soon. The club really does not have any other options once you get four deep with adding Gausman and Dylan Bundy in there. Over the course of a season, a team usually leans hard on sixth, seventh, and eighth starting pitchers and this team frankly does not have them. They did not have them last year and have done nothing to correct that.

Domenic: Really tough to say. Could they slide into a wild card spot? Absolutely. Could they finish last again? Honestly, I think that’s more unlikely. Tampa’s gutted its lineup and Toronto has lost some pieces as well. Plus I think they play better down the stretch than they did last year. I never predict wins and losses until the roster is set, but I predict a third place finish in the AL East.

Tony: It’s hard to say of course, but if the Orioles don’t make anymore significant changes to their roster it’s hard to see them finishing above 3rd place at best. Tampa is in the middle of a firesale and Toronto is not improved, but Boston and the Yankees are the clear favorites to be the Division winner and wild card team.

Derek: I think the team will fall somewhere in the 75-79 win range. Unfortunately, they’ll be close enough to a Wild Card spot (isn’t everyone?) as the trade deadline nears to delude themselves into thinking they should pick up another marginal player or two and go for it, instead of selling off the few desirable assets they possess for the best return they can get. Manny Machado probably should have been traded a year ago. Then he probably should have been traded a month ago. Next up, they should probably trade him at the deadline. The guess is that they will not. Then, he’ll ultimately walk at the end of the season. Joining him will be Adam Jones, the face of the franchise for almost a decade, and another pending free agent. Good times. 

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Kristen: Will Manny Machado be on the team at the Trade Deadline? While I would like to say yes because he is one of the franchise faces and I absolutely love to watch him defend third base, my gut is saying no because the team will not pay what he could get elsewhere. 

Jon: What do you think will be the highlight of the season? And, sadly, my answer would be the draft. This club has made an incredible run from 2012 through 2016. 2017 was a realization that players have gotten older and that there is not a readily available group of high minors players ready to fill in. It was a great time and now the team is in transition, a painful transition because it does not appear the franchise has chosen what lane they need to be in moving forward.

Domenic: Which pitcher breaks out this year? Dylan Bundy

Tony: With all the free agents after the season, including manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette, is this the last hurrah for this core group of players?  Ownership has been very quiet on the goals after this season and with Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones, Darren O’Day, Showalter and Duquette in last years of their deals, it’s pretty apparent the window is closing on this core group of players. The Orioles choose not to trade Machado and Britton when they had opportunities to restock the team with young talent saying the offers weren’t good enough, so it appears the Orioles are going to try one more time with this group. The only issue is if you are going to go for it, why not really go for it and try and get the top starting pitchers, especially when starting pitcher is the number one problem for this team?

With no real answer from ownership on the future of this organization, players, leadership and fans will just need to enjoy this year and hope the Orioles can catch lightening in a bottle one last time.

Derek: You should have asked me what it would take to get Manny Machado in Cardinals red. Then you should have offered me a juicy plate of prospects to sift through, and helped me figure out a way to get that list to somebody in the aforementioned decision-making forest. 

My thanks to all the guys (and lady) that provided us with some insight on the Orioles.  Perhaps we’ll be able to tap one of them later on this year after the two teams make a blockbuster deal!

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