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2018 MLB team preview: The Baltimore Orioles won’t fool us again

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The Orioles have a history of beating their statistical projections, but that doesn’t appear likely in 2018.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Projection systems have long hated the Baltimore Orioles.

Okay, maybe “hate” is a strong word — especially for a statistical algorithm. But the O’s, like the Kansas City Royals, enjoyed a half-decade of success that flew in the face of PECOTA, ZiPS, and any other system out there. No American League team won more games than the Orioles from 2012 to 2016, yet the computers didn’t see any of it coming. As our friend Mark Brown at Camden Chat said...

This [PECOTA] system in particular has been spectacularly wrong about the Orioles in the past, whiffing in its Orioles projection by 10+ wins in four of the last six seasons and by 15+ in three of those seasons. Success that confounded the computers and formulas and analysts was part of what made those seasons so fun.

Saying “those days are over” flies in the face of the above paragraphs. The Orioles are once again projected to lose 90 games, in large part thanks to a lineup that doesn’t draw many walks and a pitching staff that doesn’t rack up many strikeouts. General manager Dan Duquette slow-played the offseason, like usual, picking up a couple bargain bin starters in February after others had done their shopping. They also have a couple Rule 5 picks in the mix, another annual Baltimore tradition. They are doing the same things they did during that aforementioned five-year run, so why not defy the odds once again?

Unfortunately, it feels like those days are over. The Orioles aren’t relying on unknowns in the rotation anymore, they are depending heavily on retreads with their share of red flags. Their lineup will hit plenty of dingers, but their pitching staff might give up more. Zach Britton might no longer be Zach Britton, and the bullpen doesn’t seem prepared to lock down close wins nearly every night again.

But hey, we’ve been wrong before.

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 75-87 | 2017 pythag: 72-90 | 2018 farm system rank: 17
Manager: Buck Showalter (9th year)
SB Nation site: Camden Chat
Key additions: RHP Andrew Cashner, OF Colby Rasmus, C Andrew Susac
Key departures: OF Seth Smith, C Welington Castillo, RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, SS J.J. Hardy, LHP Wade Miley

Lineup

Baltimore’s offseason was dominated by rumors that Manny Machado was on the move. But instead of transitioning to a new city, he’s heading to a new position. The two-time Gold Glove third baseman will take over as the Orioles’ shortstop this season, offering them a bit more versatility elsewhere around the infield. While I have questions about how well he’ll transition back to short, his offensive slump from 2017 isn’t a concern. Machado shrugged off a bout of random variation last April and May to post an .824 OPS from June 1 onward. His double play partner, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, was even better. Schoop put up career-bests in nearly every statistical category, and finished the year with 5.1 rWAR to lead the team. While he’s just now entering his prime at 26, his iffy plate discipline limits his ceiling somewhat. Still, he’ll be an above-average second baseman for years to come and a nice buffer for when they need to replace Machado next winter.

One potential option to fill that void might be Tim Beckham. The former No. 1 overall pick put up 2.0 rWAR in just 50 games after arriving from Tampa Bay last season, and was trending in that direction even before the Rays cut bait with him. He’ll shift to third base in Machado’s final year of club control, but could move back if he proves that last season wasn’t a fluke. The O’s will need Beckham to do so, because I don’t like Chris Davis’ chances of bouncing back from a replacement level season in 2017. Davis’ strikeout rate climbed to a career-high 37.2 percent, resulting in his worst batting average in three years. He still drew walks and hit the ball hard — his average exit velocity was identical to Cody Bellinger’s — but wasn’t a threat to leave the ballpark in every plate appearance like he has been in previous years. The power will still play if he can get the ball in the air, but not if he doesn’t make enough contact.

Davis’ gaudy contract initially looked like a huge obstacle for Trey Mancini, but the former first baseman capably shifted to left field last season. He wasn’t great defensively, but did well enough on both sides of the ball to guarantee his job for a second season. Center fielder Adam Jones might eventually be slated for a corner position himself, but the O’s will keep him in center for the last year of his current deal. He was the same player offensively last season, slugging his way to a 109 OPS+ despite a 4.3 percent walk rate. The right field situation might be a bit of a mess until the Orioles call up top prospect Austin Hays, who had a monster season in Double-A last year. He was not impressive in his big league debut, however, leading the O’s to pursue Tigers fan favorite Colby Rasmus. The 31-year-old Rasmus signed a minor league deal, but appears to be a safe bet to make the Opening Day roster. Also in the mix for playing time is former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander, who pulled off the rare “batting average > on-base percentage” trick in a handful of plate appearances last year. Mark Trumbo might also try to fake it in the outfield occasionally, but will otherwise be the team’s primary designated hitter.

Baltimore’s most interesting position battle is behind the plate. The incumbent starter, Caleb Joseph, is heading into his age 32 season. He put up a career-best .700 OPS last year, and was worth 2.4 WARP* last season in just 89 games. He will get the majority of starts this year now that Welington Castillo is gone, but will be pushed by one of Andrew Susac, Austin Wynn, or top prospect Chance Sisco. The 23-year-old Sisco hit well in a cup of coffee with the Orioles last year, but didn’t display very much power in Triple-A Norfolk last year. Susac once looked like a promising complement to Buster Posey in San Francisco, but injuries (including headaches) have limited him to 142 games at all levels over the past two years, mostly in the minors. Wynn is a 27-year-old who has never reached the majors, but he put up a .796 OPS with decent pop at Double-A Bowie last year.

*WARP is Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR. It takes pitch framing numbers into account for catchers.

Pitching staff

It came about four years later than expected, but the Orioles finally got the breakout season from Dylan Bundy everyone expected when he debuted as a 19-year-old in 2012. Bundy ignored this random idiot’s advice and threw his fastball less often than the year before, instead choosing to use a slider that batters whiffed on one quarter of the time. It didn’t help his strikeout rate, but he walked fewer batters while nearly doubling his inning total from 2016 to 2017. He needs to cut his home run rate, but that might be difficult with a fly ball rate that pushed north of 47 percent last season. Kevin Gausman also threw a career-high number of innings last year, but his walk rate and ERA also climbed. However, he teased Orioles fans (and others) with a 2.70 ERA and 26.1 percent strikeout rate in his final 14 starts, several of which went into the seventh inning or later. He’s getting into “not so young anymore territory” now, but is finally eating innings after a couple years in the swingman wilderness. Call me an optimist, but I think we see something closer to 2016 Gausman this year.

The rest of the rotation is a hot mess, though. Andrew Cashner BABIP’d his way to a 3.40 ERA in 166 ⅔ innings last year while striking out just 12 percent of batters. His 1.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the lowest among a 150-inning pitcher since Ricky Romero (remember him?) in 2012, and the worst for a full-time starter with an ERA under 4.00 since John Lannan in 2009. Somehow, the Orioles thought this was sustainable enough to give him a two-year deal. Worse yet, the O’s are also relying on Chris Tillman for heavy innings this year. While the 29-year-old Tillman has given them some solid production over the years, but his fastball was sitting 87-89 mph in a start earlier this week. For a pitcher who large chunks of 2017 with shoulder issues, that’s not a good look. Mike Wright is the current favorite for the fifth starter spot, but his profile seems better suited for the bullpen. Miguel Castro and Rule 5 pick Nester Cortes are putting up a decent fight this spring.

All three players appear slated to make the Opening Day roster (https://www.mlb.com/orioles/news/orioles-opening-day-roster-taking-shape/c-268515812), but the losers of that fifth starter battle will likely fall into the bullpen. They will join Rule 5 picks Pedro Araujo and Jose Mesa Jr., who could also feasibly make the roster. Araujo has impressed the coaching staff so far this spring with seven strikeouts in five innings, while Mesa has an ERA near 8. Righthander Brad Brach will be the team’s closer again following a solid 2017 season. His 3.06 ERA was over a full run higher than his All-Star 2016 season and his highest in three years, but he still struck out over a batter per inning and didn’t give up too many homers. He might be the most important player on their pitching staff, especially until lefthander Zach Britton returns from his Achilles injury. The 30-year-old Britton is ahead of schedule following Achilles repair surgery, but will still miss at least four to six weeks of the regular season. Righties Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens will also be counted upon in the late innings.

Down on the farm

For an organization that doesn’t dip into the international free agent market, the Orioles have a surprisingly strong farm system. Baseball America ranked them near the middle of the pack (yes, ahead of the Tigers) in their 2018 organizational list. This impressive ranking is largely due to how well they have done with their top draft picks in recent years. Outfielder Austin Hays was a third round pick in 2016, but has already reached the majors. Both he and third baseman Ryan Mountcastle are good hitters with above-average power, but don’t draw many walks. Mountcastle was their second round pick in 2015, and will be in Double-A this year. A strong season could put him in position to fill the infield void left by Manny Machado next year. Chance Sisco was also a second round pick back in 2013, and a few of their recent first round picks — DL Hall (2017), Hunter Harvey (2013), and D.J. Stewart (2015) — are also in their top 10. It would be a solid farm system to supplement a contender, but is a bit thin for a team in Baltimore’s current position.

Player to watch: Trey Mancini

Expectations were low when Trey Mancini was drafted in 2013. Even reaching the majors as an eighth round pick is an accomplishment. Putting up the stellar rookie season Mancini did is even more surprising. Doing so while playing a new position? Color me impressed. Mancini fits the “hey I don’t walk much but check out these dingers!” mold that several other Orioles subscribe to, and he raced out of the gate with five homers in his first three weeks of action. He was sporting a .921 OPS by the end of June before a slight swoon in the second half, but still hit well enough (.279/.324/.436) during that three month stretch to stay afloat. The 25-year-old Mancini might never have a better season, especially since he (understandably) wasn’t very good out in left. However, he’s one of the most intriguing players on this Orioles roster, and I’m interested to see how he fares in year two.

Outlook

If you’re looking for one more reason to not trust the 2018 Orioles, I have two: the Red Sox and Yankees. Throughout Baltimore’s aforementioned five-year run atop the American League, New York and Boston were not up to their usual standards. Sure, Boston won a title, but they also finished in last place three times. The Yankees only made the playoffs twice during that stretch, and one of those appearances was a Wild Card loss to the Houston Astros. The Orioles deserve full credit for taking advantage of those sleeping giants, of course. However, it now feels like we’re back to those days in the late ‘90s and early aughts when the Yankees and Red Sox dominated the division for years on end. We’ve seen stranger things happen, of course, but this feels like an even taller order than usual for the O’s.