The Baltimore Orioles are a step away from falling into the baseball netherworld, and it’s unclear that they care to apply the brakes. This article is about the Orioles, but in an article that was not about the Orioles, Jeff Sullivan wrote this (about the Royals):
In terms of top talent, the Royals are last. In terms of supporting talent, the Royals are last. In terms of depth, the Royals are last. … It’s known around the industry that the Royals are in a challenging spot. They’d tell you as much, themselves. Yet this might not just be a window closing. This could be a window slamming shut.
Soon thereafter, in a chat not specifically about the Orioles but in answer to a question about them, Dave Cameron said this:
Michael Scarn: Is there a team with a bleaker future right now than the Orioles?
Dave Cameron: The Royals.
Dave Cameron: The Royals are the Orioles after they let Machado and Jones walk for nothing and Dylan Bundy blows out his arm again.
That’s pretty grim, but it’s hard to disagree with it (re: either club). The Orioles were bad last year. They won 75 games. Even if Manny Machado had produced his typical awesome year, which he didn’t, they would have received merely mediocre production from their offense. And their pitching was among the very worst in baseball. They have a bottom third farm system. Their best players are all free agents within the next couple years. They probably don’t have a 2018 run in them. They should sell while they can.
They won’t, though.
Things to know from 2017
The Orioles won 89 games in 2016, made the Wild Card game, and lost it due at least in part to a famous episode of bullpen mismanagement. Zach Britton, the ubercloser who was bafflingly not used in that game, was awesome, Manny Machado was great, Kevin Gausman led a… well it wasn’t a good pitching staff, seeing how Gausman’s 3 wins led it, but it had four average-to-above SP in front of a really good bullpen. The rest of the team was good enough to put that group within range of some Pythagorean fortune and make the Wild Card Game.
Things went firmly south in 2017.
On the infield, second baseman Johnathan Schoop broke out big time with a four-win season, and on a better team it would have been a bigger story. An altered approach suggests some, if not all, of his breakout could be durable. However, Schoop’s breakout was more than outweighed by collapsed production from Machado (just 3 WAR, which is a collapse in production relative to his excellent past) and first baseman Chris Davis (0 WAR, which… he does that, sometimes). Deadline acquisition SS Tim Beckham did continue a strong season that saw him post 3.5 WAR between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, but it came on the back of a .365 BABIP that makes it tough to believe he’s above-average going forward.
About the outfield, the less said the better. Adam Jones’ descent from stardom continued, as he played 147 games but only managed a couple of WAR – not a bad result, but certainly not what the Orioles have been hoping for from the 32-year-old. Trey Mancini contributed about the same, in the same number of games. Nobody else they tried out there appeared worthy of MLB appearances, but of course there are three outfield positions and they had no choice. The outfield unit finished with a collective 3.2 fWAR, good for 26th in baseball.
And then there was that pitching. Dylan Bundy finally put it together a bit as a starter, with nearly 3 wins in 170 innings. Gausman was about average. But the rest of the rotation was a real problem. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, and Jeremy Hellickson combined to be replacement level over nearly all of the Orioles’ starts not taken by Gausman or Bundy. You’d think somebody better would have stepped in if there was anybody better in the wings, but there wasn’t, so nobody did.
Even the relief corps, which had been so great for Baltimore in years prior, had a tough time. Setup crew Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day were all solid. But Britton was on and off the DL with an elbow issue, saw his velocity and strikeout rates dip noticeably, and was merely good rather than the best reliever in baseball. It was still a decent group, and can be very good again if Britton is healthy and bounces back, though.
The good news is, there’s probably nothing wrong with Manny Machado. As Craig detailed on FanGraphs, Machado’s apparent regression in 2017 can almost entirely be laid at the feet of poor batted-ball luck. His 2017 xwOBA (expected wOBA derived from average outcomes for each batted ball, based on velocity and launch angle) was actually right in line with his career numbers. A half-season of terrible batted-ball luck was followed by a terrific second half with a 166 wRC+ (and while that was somewhat luck-aided, on balance his luck for the year was decidedly bad). There’s good reason to believe Machado will be just fine moving forward – and “just fine” for him means a 6+ win player, given his very good bat and elite defense at third. His off year results-wise may even make him a bit of a buy-low… if they’ll sell.
Schoop is also a potentially interesting buy. He improved his approach by simply not swinging so much at balls outside of the zone while maintaining his excellent power production when swinging inside the zone. It’s sort of the dream Randal Grichuk story, really, and it turned him into a very good hitter at a tough defensive position.
The bullpen is, probably, still pretty good. At the very least, guys like Givens and Brach and O’Day are quality late-inning arms, and Britton’s not so far removed from being the best reliever out there that you’d feel bad about giving him a closer job to see what happens.
Despite the farm system slotting into Needs instead of Strengths, there were a few prospects worth mentioning:
- OF Anthony Santander was rushed onto the MLB roster in August because the outfield situation was awful, and he didn’t hit at all, but only had 59 plate appearances above high A. He’ll return to the minors for more seasoning, most likely, but he showed power and a good approach through high A, and at age 23 isn’t too old for a AA or AAA assignment; there’s real potential here.
- OF Austin Hays had a major breakout. He was a 2016 third round pick who has simply mashed minor-league pitching, with the kind of low strikeout rates paired with high ISOs that point to a guy who has just been way too good for the minors. He reached AA last year at age 21, and was (like Santander) pressed into MLB service too early, but he’ll probably start 2018 in AAA and could easily be a Big Deal Prospect in 12 months, if not before then.
- SS (nominally) Ryan Mountcastle is thought to be a little big for shortstop long term, and struggled in AA after an aggressive promotion, but he crushed A+ and was young for the promotion so there’s still lots of promise in his bat. His issue is defense: his arm is considered not good enough for the left side of the infield long term, and his quickness potentially not a fit at second, which leaves him either hitting enough for 1B (unlikely) or standing in LF.
Winter is coming in Baltimore. Machado, Jones, Brach, and Britton are free agents after 2018. Schoop and O’Day are after 2019. Their only long-term assets right now are Bundy, Gausman, Mancini, and Givens, and while those are all useful role players… it’s Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Trey Mancini, and Mychal Givens. You want those guys to be in the like, 5th to 10th best player range on your team, if not below that.
The rotation is a mess. Bundy and Gausman are okay but both hard to trust, and there’s just not much else there. Manager Buck Showalter recently commented that the Orioles want to have a rotation that is eight or nine quality options deep, but with all due respect, it’s hard to see more than two right now. They’ve expressed interest in guys like Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas, who would certainly get their chances at innings, but if that’s your #3 and #4 starters you’re likely hurting.
And help is not really on the way. Baseball America ranked the Orioles’ farm system in the bottom ten as of their most recent update. I can’t argue. Santander and Mountcastle could be contributors or maybe more, and Hays could be a star, but there’s little other impact projection here. Combined with the lack of high-end MLB talent controlled long term, if they can’t extend Machado and Schoop in particular, the Orioles look stuck in first gear for a while starting in a year or two.
What they should do
Baltimore does have some money to spend: projected payroll for 2018 so far is about $40M lower than 2017 opening day payroll, as a number of unproductive but well-paid players are hitting free agency. So, hey! Baltimore could sign J.D. Martinez and three cheap rotation fillers and get, like, seven wins better that way, just with money.
The problem is, even with those seven added wins, the Orioles only project for about 35 WAR on the roster. That projects for a win total in the low 80s. That’s within normal lucky-bounces variance of a Wild Card spot (worked in 2016), so it’s a feasible path if ownership is okay with it (narrator: they are). But, then Jones and Brach and Britton, and especially Machado, are due to leave. Maybe a couple of them are extended, or maybe their freed-up money is used to retool again. But then Schoop is due to leave. There isn’t clear impact talent coming to replace these guys, and you can’t replace all their money with free agent spending unless you’re willing to run a $200M+ payroll, so… when do you get off the “throw money at it” treadmill, if you’re Baltimore?
Me, I’d do it now. I’d trade Machado, Jones, Schoop, all the good relievers, and, maybe, Gausman. I’d strip it down to the bone, spend meagerly on lottery ticket free agents who might be profitably flipped, and that’s it – full Astros.
They’re not going to do that. Owner Peter Angelos is 88 years old, and has always had a reputation for being hands-on (too much so, in fact). He has a transcendent talent in Machado. He’s clearly been willing to invest in the face of long odds in recent years, as he’s aged. It seems pretty clear that he wants to win a World Series while he’s still around. So the big Baltimore rebuild is coming, but it’s not coming while Angelos has the wheel.
How they match up with St. Louis
If they’d sell… if they’d just sell. The Cards could use Machado the same way, and on basically the same terms, that they could use Josh Donaldson. Schoop would be an interesting albeit small upgrade. Any of the four relievers named above would be good to have (especially Givens, who I love and who is controlled for longer than the others).
But, they’re not going to do the big ones. I’m not even going to do a template Machado trade, because look, it’s not happening. Maybe in July, but we can talk about that in July. In reality, the Cardinals and Orioles match up because the Cards have pitching depth and outfield depth, the Orioles have neither, and the O’s are gonna go for it.
The “Zag During a Zigging Offseason” Trade: Michael Wacha and a throw-in for Austin Hays and Mychal Givens. This is preposterous! The Cards have outfield depth and, although they’re deep in pitching prospects, if anything I’d advocate for them to add a known-quantity SP to raise the floor this offseason, not trade one away. But… Hays probably becomes the best outfield prospect in the system, with higher probability than Tyler O’Neill but a similar ceiling. Givens takes over the 8th or 9th, and could be a two-win reliever with enough leverage and a less bandbox-y home stadium. The Orioles REALLY need a Wacha. The Cardinals backfill in Wacha’s absence with a free agent or another trade. If you can snag a top-50 prospect and four years of a closer type for two years of Wacha, I mean... take it.
The Boring One: Randal Grichuk for Givens. Boooooringggg, but look, they’re gonna trade him for something, he’s got decent value, and a guy like Givens is a good return.
So Boring as to Not Merit Further Comment: Austin Gomber or somebody for Darren O’Day.
So that’s the Orioles. Before you say anything: no, he’s doing the full Mike Ilitch thing, give it up. Sorry. Maybe as a free agent.