The Orioles became the first team in Major League Baseball to be eliminated from all theoretical playoff contention in 2018, the first team to cross to the “other side,” where even Harry and Lloyd can’t say there’s a chance. As such, the Baltimore Orioles become our first team in our series of post-mortems for the 2018 season, in which we’ll talk about where each team was, is, and where they’re headed.
After a 75-87 season in 2017, the Baltimore Orioles were in no mood for a rebuild. The season marked the team’s first losing campaign since 2011, a stretch that marked the most successful sustained non-losing run by the Baltimore Orioles since the early 1980s, a happier time featuring Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Cal Ripken a little later on, and until his first retirement, legendary manager/tomato grower/curse-word innovator/umpire fighter Earl Weaver.
Since that era, times have been a bit less sepia-toned. The “Why Not?” Orioles of 1989 didn’t have staying power, the free-spending ways of the early Angelos era only led to a single 90-win season, and the fundamental issues of how the franchise was run resulted in more than a decade of darkness once money could no longer paper over the organizational problems.
Manny Machado had one more season with Baltimore and the 2017 Orioles didn’t even fall under .500 for good until September 10th, so why not give it one more go? To do this, the Orioles needed serious upgrades to the pitching rotation, a unit that put up a nearly unfathomable 5.70 ERA for the season. This was going to be a budget rebuild, though — no pursuit of Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish — and the quality of the starters dropped off very quickly (and Darvish certainly hasn’t panned out in any case). In was Andrew Cashner of the 3.40 ERA and a 4.61 FIP because, really, Buck Showalter’s going to FIP? Signed later on, in the abyss of dull that made up the offseason, in came Alex Cobb, a signing I personally preferred.
With Cobb a year farther removed from Tommy John surgery, Cashner hopefully at least eating innings, and Chris Tillman not possibly pitching any worse than in 2017, could the rotation at least improve to below-average? Would that be enough with an offensive rebound from Mark Trumbo and a bullpen that still ranked at the top of the league?
The ZiPS projection for the Orioles the night before Opening Day was 77-85, with a 1.2% chance of winning the division and an overall 8.8% chance of making the playoffs. Hardly the best odds, but is one chance in 11 the craziest unlikely thing you ever saw? Nobody is shocked when Barry Bonds hit a homer. ZiPS had missed on the O’s before, after all, and maybe there was enough Orioles Magic left to defy the projections one more season.
There… was… not. The projections were defied pretty seriously, but not in the direction that O’s fans had in mind. As I write this, the O’s stand at 37 wins, less than half of what they were projected to collect — and just in case you’re not great at reading a calendar, there’s a lot less than half of the season to go. There have been some terrible Orioles teams since the first time Baltimore swiped a Browns franchise more than 60 years ago, but this one takes the cake. Not one of those good baking competition cakes, of course.
For the first couple of months, the front office very publicly avoided facing the reality that this team had taken the Super Mario warp pipe to oblivion (perhaps the negative world glitch in the original, but I don’t want to be too obscure with my nerdery). Quotes about the team still needing to evaluate where they stood flooded local media and the team merrily cruised along in their quest for the No. 1 draft pick. Things that should have worked out — the bullpen pitching well even without Zach Britton or Chris Davis hitting like a major leaguer — didn’t. Things that shouldn’t have worked out — like Cashner meeting the team’s expectations or Trumbo hitting 47 home runs again — also didn’t. Even things that seemed impossible, such as Tillman pitching even worse, actually managed to come true. I would not be surprised to find out that Brady Anderson found a cursed genie’s lamp in a Mt. Washington thrift store sometime last winter.
Practically the only thing that did work out was Machado. No, his defense at shortstop wasn’t well acquitted by the metrics, suggesting that the downward blip in his 2017 defensive numbers at third had something real behind them, but Manny’s offense was better than ever. He bounced back from a sub-.800 OPS in 2017 to a .315/.387/.575 line this year, numbers that would be star-level even if he had declined so much defensively to be limited only to first base. (And, of course, it’s not that severe.)
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the team’s capacity for losing is just how consistent it has been. This team would have to go nearly .500 to not finish with a worse record than the notorious 54-107 Orioles in 1988, a team that started the season with a 21-game losing streak. These Orioles never had a 10-game losing streak and never gave any false hope, with the longest winning streak coming in at a mere four games. A three-game winning streak against Tampa Bay has been the only time the O’s have even won consecutive games since the All-Star break.
In the end, reality set in. One of the things I used to say about the Orioles during their decade in the desert after 1997 is that the best thing for them, given the ownership, would be a season so dreadful that it takes away any deluded hopes of being a good signing or a hot prospect away from playoff contention. Back then, the Orioles never faced up to their situation until the 11-28 ending to 2007 made the team willing to move Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada in the trades that netted Adam Jones, Luke Scott, and Tillman. Heading to another 75-win season likely would have doomed them to another offseason of treading water.
When the O’s finally pulled the trigger on Manny, the other dominoes fell quickly. Britton was gone a week later to be followed by Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day’s contract, and Jonathan Schoop. Jones would have ended up elsewhere, too, had he not been against a trade. Since then, the O’s have acted like a rebuilding team, doing rebuilding-team things like weighing the need to evaluate Cedric Mullins in center field in the majors as more important than honoring any abstract tenure rights to the position that Jones has. Renato Núñez, picked off waivers, is being given an opportunity to demonstrate in the majors that his .297/.366/.432 line at Triple-A has some real meat on the bones. These aren’t franchise-altering things, but they’re the little things that good organizations do.
What Comes Next?
The Orioles, despite a record that will pale in comparison next to last season’s, end the season on a higher note. Rebuilding can be a painful process, but it’s most painful for fans if you approach it simply in terms of a team being terrible. If the O’s rebuild successfully, you’ll likely see the next relevant team feature at least some of the players acquired at this year’s trade deadline.
But there’s a lot of work to do, this being only Month Two of a rebuild that will be numbered in years, not months. It’s a great start, and the Orioles traded so many players that even the most resistant member of the organization in a decision-making capacity would have a hard time arguing that the team can reverse the rebuild decision at this point. There’s not enough money or depth in free agency to rebuild the team by going that route.
What the club needs to do next doesn’t really have much to do with the players themselves, but rather the organization’s decision-making. Even with Peter Angelos fading quickly from a dominant role in the organization, you add in the Angelos sons, Brady Anderson, Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter, and now Eddie Murray, and you have a lot of people pulling the team this way or that. Even with it appearing likely to this observer that either Duquette or Showalter will be gone after the season, you have an organization with unclear, overlapping responsibilities and many clashing philosophies. Well-run organizations have been trying to get away from that style of management, with collaborative relationships like the ones employed by the Astros, Cubs, and Indians having become more the norm. I’m known as a fierce critic of how the Kansas City Royals are run; for what it’s worth, though, David Glass, Dayton Moore, and Ned Yost tend to be on the same page, or at least in the same chapter.
I tend to be a hater of overwrought nostalgia, but The Oriole Way — which emphasized player development and conceived of the entire organization, from MLB down to Rookie leagues, as one cohesive unit — has some merit. Add in some pitching, defense, and three-run-homers, and maybe the Orioles will find their way back. They’ll never spend like the Red Sox and Yankees again, so they have to take advantage of the “try everything” opportunities that only rebuilding teams truly have.
Way-Too-Early 2019 Projection: Chris Davis
ZiPS normally has a set of algorithms to take playing time away from veterans once they get to a certain level of performance. For this projection, I instructed ZiPS to ignore that and consider only injury risk from age and history. That these projections are essentially guessing a two-win improvement may be one of the most depressing cases of optimism I’ve seen in a projection yet. The probability of Davis even getting his OPS+ back to 100 in 2019 is a mere 14%, just a year removed from almost achieving that figure in 2017. But even that could be generous, as we just don’t have a lot of seasons in baseball history in which an established veteran plays at this level.
Baltimore will likely not see a single penny in return from the rest of the contract, one that will long take a place in the team’s lore like Ryan Howard‘s with the Phillies or Wayne Garland’s legendary 10-year contract. The deferred money is actually a benefit to the team, with $42 million to be paid from 2023 to 2037 at no interest, something you can’t say about the higher interest rates in the Bobby Bonilla/Bruce Sutter contracts. But the yearly July 1st payday, or Chris Davis Day if you prefer, will serve as a memory of just how broken some of Baltimore’s decision-making process was at this point in history, no matter how good the Orioles are 15 years from now.
It strikes me as unlikely that the Orioles just eat the contract. He literally has no value to another team, even if the club eats the entire contract. As a result, the thinking may very well be to use him, not in a way that blocks any prospect ever, and hope for the best. I’d be giving Davis plenty of time in the outfield and third base; if you’re going to have the world’s most overpaid role player, you might as well be flexible with him.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.