by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 11th team preview of the series, featuring the Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles had one of their worst seasons of the decade in 2017 based solely on their record, finishing dead last in a top-heavy AL East. The team allowed 841 runs, which was their highest mark since a tumultuous 2011 campaign that saw the organization post a 69-93 record. That 2011 season was Buck Showalter’s first as the full time manager of the franchise (he had filled in for 57 games at the end of 2010), and coincidentally was the last time his team finished under .500 before 2017 happened.
Many people forget that the Orioles were just one game back of Twins in the Wild Card race after a 7-6 win over the Yankees on September 5th. However, the squad pulled off a masterful tank job after that win, going just 4-19 over their final 23 games. Over that stretch, they went on two three-game losing streaks, a four-game losing streak, and a six-game losing streak. People also forget that this team started off the 2017 season hot, going 15-8 in April. After a 7-5 win over the Blue Jays on May 20th, Baltimore sat in first place in AL East with a 25-16 record. They proceeded to go on a seven game losing streak and never held the top spot in the division again.
Welington Castillo was one of the best catchers in the entire league last season, which is not something I would have ever thought I’d say. The backstop was phenomenal both at the dish and behind the plate. He slashed .282/.323/.490 while cranking 20 home runs and posting a wRC+ of 113. Castillo was 7th among catchers in adjusted FRAA (13.8), and 10th in framing runs (9.7). Maybe you’d like to see better strikeout and walk rates (26.6% and 6%, respectively), but at the point you’re just nitpicking. He definitely held off Caleb Joseph, who didn’t post great offensive numbers but was a top five catcher from a defensive perspective.
Remember when Chris Davis set the world on fire in 2013 by hitting 53 homers and posting an impressive 168 wRC+? He regressed mightily in 2014, but bounced back the next two season, finishing with home run totals of 47 and 38 and wRC+ marks above league average. In 2017, Davis put up his worst numbers since that 2014 campaign. The first baseman slashed just .215/.309/.423 and contributed just 26 home runs in 524 plate appearances. The most telling stat was his strikeout rate—that 37.2% mark was the worst in the league, almost one percent higher than Joey Gallo.
Jonathan Schoop’s first full-time season in 2014 was not great, at least from an offensive standpoint. He hit to an ugly .209/.244/.354 triple-slash over 481 plate appearances, albeit with 16 home runs. The infielder has made vast strides at the plate since that season, and showcased his intriguing skillset in 2017 en route to becoming Baltimore’s 2017 WAR leader. The 25-year-old had the best wRC+ of his career (121) while slashing .293/.338/.503 with 32 home runs, a career-high 5.2% walk rate, and a .355 wOBA. He didn’t hurt the Orioles in the field, either, posting a 0.2 UZR at second base.
It seems hard to believe that 2017 marked J.J. Hardy’s seventh season with the Orioles. Maybe this factoid shocked Hardy too, as his performance throughout the year was awful. The 50 wRC+ he posted was ugly, the .217/.255/.323 slash-line he posted wasn’t any better, and the four home runs he hit/the 73 games he played in were both his lowest since 2006, when Hardy played for the Brewers. His strikeout rate jumped two percent from 2016, and his walk rate dropped by one percent. He was passable in the field (0.8 UZR), but regardless Hardy’s decline became increasingly clear.
It’s not often that a .259/.310/.471 line with 33 home runs and nine stolen bases is considered a down year for a position player, but that’s what the story was with young stud Manny Machado. The lower averages were due to a rough first half of the season when Machado slashed just .230/.296/.445 with a BABIP that would have been the lowest of his career. He bounced back in the second half, though, quelling the nervousness that some fans were feeling. Machado’s name was the subject of trade rumors all season, but a move never ended up being made.
The Orioles outfield was intriguing if nothing else in 2017. The group of four was led by one of Baltimore’s top prospects, Trey Mancini. He came up through the system as a first baseman but logged more innings in the outfield in his debut season. Mancini hit 24 dingers and slashed .293/.338/.488, ultimately finishing with a 117 wRC+, which was a nice starting point for the rookie. He struggled from a defensive perspective (-4.2 UZR in the outfield), but that was to be expected. Adam Jones also produced what was expected—the .285/.322/.466 line was right in line with his career averages, he finished a 7th consecutive season with at least 25 long balls, the strikeout rate was below 18% (17.8), and the walk rate was a few ticks above four percent (4.3). The one downside was his fielding ability—the -13.3 UZR Jones posted was the worst among qualified outfielders. The other two outfielders weren’t really anything special; Seth Smith slashed .258/.340/.433 with 13 home runs in 373 plate appearances while Joey Rickard hit .241/.276/.345 in 277 plate appearances.
31-year-old DH Mark Trumbo heavily regressed in 2017. A year after leading the league with 47 home runs, the former Angel and Diamondback hit just 23 last season while also seeing his triple-slash drop off from .256/.316/.533 to .234/.289/.397. It didn’t help that Trumbo couldn’t really play the field, either—he logged 249 innings in right field and posted a -3.5 UZR.
Baltimore was lucky enough to field one of the worst pitching staffs in the league last season. Their arms pitched to a cumulative 4.97 ERA, which was better than just the Mets, Reds, and Tigers. In hindsight, expecting a rotation where Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez make at least 25 starts to perform well was probably extremely optimistic thinking. Expecting Jeremy Hellickson to come in and solve the rotation issues was probably extremely optimistic, too. As it was, the Orioles got positive contributions from one of their starters—Dylan Bundy. In 28 starts, the 24-year-old tossed 169.2 innings and pitched to a 4.24 ERA and 4.38 FIP. The 21 percent strikeout rate was fine, but Bundy still had issues keeping the ball in the yard. His HR/9 mark was 1.38, which was an improvement over 2016 but only slightly.
Kevin Gausman was the only other starter that didn’t completely suck in 2017. His ERA/FIP/xFIP line was 4.68/4.48/4.33, he walked 3.42 batters per nine innings, and the 1.40 HR/9 statistic wasn’t pretty. Still, he struck out close to nine batters per nine innings (8.63) and started 34 games. This quote from Paul Sporer of FanGraphs is really telling: “Looking over his career, his ERA gets lower each month starting at 5.88 in April and then going to 5.29 in May, 4.43 in June, 4.03 in July, 3.63 in August, and finally 3.44 in September/October.” Gausman has exhibited his upside multiple times throughout his career, but he’s never really been able to avoid inconsistencies and put it all together.
The rest of the Baltimore rotation wasn’t good. Some might call it embarrassing, others might call it awful, and some might pose the question, “How could you willingly throw those arms out there as much as you did?” All are acceptable responses. Take a look:
Wade Miley: 32 starts, 5.61 ERA/5.27 FIP, 5.32 BB/9, 1.43 HR/9
Ubaldo Jimenez: 25 starts, 6.81 ERA/5.54 FIP, 3.66 BB/9, 2.08 HR/9
Chris Tillman: 19 starts, 7.84 ERA/6.93 FIP, 4.94 BB/9, 2.32 HR/9
Jeremy Hellickson: 10 starts, 6.97 ERA/6.33 FIP, 2.96 BB/9, 2.26 HR/9
Baltimore’s bullpen was actually much better than the starting rotation (although it would have been hard to be much worse). They finished 12th in the league in combined ERA, pitching to a combined 3.93 mark over 595 innings. Their relievers struck out 505 batters while walking 227. Elite southpaw Zach Britton only being able to make 38 appearances hurt a lot, but other relief arms definitely picked up the slack. The Orioles benefitted from great performances from the trio of Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Darren O’Day. The two 30-plus year old veterans in Brach and O’Day made close to 70 appearances and pitched to ERAs in the low-to-mid threes and accompanying FIPs in the same range, while Givens finished with a 2.75 ERA and 3.72 FIP, striking out 88 while walking 25.
Richard Bleier had a sparkling 1.99 ERA, but the 4.37 FIP was concerning as was the fact that the lefty struck out just 26 batters in 63.1 innings. Ditto for arms like Donnie Hart and Miguel Castro. Hart pitched to a 3.71 ERA and 4.49 FIP while striking out just 29 batters in 43.1 innings; Castro finished with 3.53 and 4.94 marks while striking out just 38 batters in 66.1 innings of work.
Probably realizing that they won’t compete for anything in 2018, the Orioles had a quiet offseason. They made a couple minor trades and several minor free agent signings, but didn’t make any moves that would shift them from a pretender to a contender. The most notable addition was Andrew Cashner, who outperformed his peripherals in 2017 but will be counted on to provide the rotation with some stability.
The biggest loss over the offseason was catcher Welington Castillo. As was mentioned earlier, the backstop had a career year for the Orioles, and while the organization will likely get younger and slot in top prospect Chance Sisco, it will still hurt to lose the offense that Castillo provided last season.
All Departures: Welington Castillo, Ryan Flaherty, Jeremy Hellickson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Seth Smith, J.J. Hardy, Wade Miley
Best Case: The Orioles are somehow able to trade Machado for a boatload at the deadline despite having very little leverage. Mancini and Sisco live up to the top prospect hype and prove that they’ll be contributors when the Orioles are ready to compete again. Schoop doesn’t regress and the duo of Davis and Trumbo bounce back and hit at least 30 home runs. The starting rotation outside of Bundy and Gausman is god-awful, but that’s to be expected. The bullpen is good once again.
Worst Case: Baltimore is unable to trade their young, stud infielder in Machado and watches him walk in the offseason. The young offensive duo in Mancini and Sisco provide more questions than answers, while the young pitching duo in Bundy and Gausman both experience an up-and-down season. Davis and Trumbo regress further, and the bullpen proves that 2017 was a fluke. The Orioles post their first 100 loss season since 1988.
PECOTA Projected Record: 70-92, 743 RS, 863 RA