In the not-too-distant past, the Orioles found themselves mired in a dreadful situation. From 1998-2011, the team failed to eclipse 80 victories in any given season. Only the Pirates also fell short of that mark in the 14-year span. Since then, however, the team has pulled together some semblance of a nice core that has helped pull them from the trenches somewhat.
Former top prospect Dylan Bundy is now a couple of years removed from Tommy John surgery and shoulder calcification, and just turned in his first full campaign, in which he started 28 games and posted a fine 4.24 ERA and 4.38 WHIP, with an impressive 1.19 WHIP as he averaged 8.1 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. He could stand to improve his long balls, which he gave up at a 1.4-per-nine clip in 2017. That being said, he looks at least like he has a future ahead of him as at least a serviceable-to-decent starter at the Major League level.
Adam Jones has been a model of consistency at a level that is remarkable.
The third column, home runs, shows a very neat range of 25-33 over the course of his last seven seasons. His strikeout ratio is consistently between 17-20%. His batting average and OBP – perhaps the two most intriguing of all – stay compact between .265-.287 and .308-.334, respectively. He likely won’t break out one year as a 40-homer, 100-RBI player, but he has that seventh tool (assuming sixth is mental makeup) that is often talked about, and yet still forgotten: pure consistency. He has the rare ability to take his craft and reproduce over and over again without losing sheen.
Elsewhere on this roster, we have Jonathan Schoop, coming off a career offensive year of 4.1 fWAR to go with a .293/.338/.503/.841 batting line, a 121 wRC+, 32 homers, 92 runs scored, 105 RBIs. He was no defensive slouch, adding 2 DRS at second base. As he just turned 26, it is likely the best of Schoop is yet to come.
Of course, the most key of the cogs to mention is Manny Machado who, despite a down season, stands to get paid like nobody’s business not too far down the road, as a premium player on both sides of the ball who won’t see the age of 30 until summer of 2022. His down offensive season is likely attributable to struggling to make solid contact, as his line drive percentage this season was just 15.8%, the lowest he has posted since his first taste of MLB action in 2012. In addition, it seems reasonable to deduce that mistiming his swing and pulling the ball were negatively impacting his numbers. In the first half, he pulled the ball 43.3% of the time, and posted a meager .230 batting average with a .741 OPS. When that number dropped to 39.9%, and his infield pop-up ratio dropped from 16.1% to 10.3%, his average in the second half jumped to .290 with a .826 OPS – much more reflective of Machado’s track record. It wasn’t that he struck out more, as his rate actually dipped by 0.5% from 2016 to 2017. Is Machado the 6-7 WAR superstar he has appeared to be in some campaigns? Maybe not. Is he the 2-3 WAR league-average contributor he looked to be this season? Almost certainly, the answer is again “no”. It’s reasonable to bet on a bounceback of some sorts, but temper your expectations before counting on him to bring home any hardware in 2018.
So, with this core, it seems reasonable to think the Orioles should have some, but not overwhelming concerns, right? No such luck. Jones, Brad Brach, Zach Britton, and Machado are all eligible for free agency one year from now, and Schoop will come right behind them a season after. Unless they are purchased by Mitchell Rales, I don’t see any way they have the money to retain all of these players. In addition, who’s to say any, let alone multiple of them, would even want to stick around? They have time and again failed to answer their pitching questions. Jones isn’t getting any younger and might want to win some games beyond the ALDS before he retires. Machado doesn’t seem bound to stick around and wait out a rebuild in the hopes that by the time he is 32 there is enough young talent around him to contend for one or two seasons before he starts to go downhill. Brach and Britton are two solid relievers (though Britton’s value isn’t what it once was, being another year older and after battling two separate forearm issues this season, in addition to rupturing his Achilles tendon) who are likely to each get more on the open market than Baltimore would want to pay.
The current state of affairs for the Kansas City Royals must serve as a cautionary tale for the Birds. Five of their eight best players from this season (Escobar, Hosmer, Duffy, Cain, and Moustakas) are likely all gone, none traded at the deadline to maximize return and prepare for the future, all kept out of hope that an ill-fated winning streak in July would set the table for a magical run before the quintet of stars parted ways from Missouri. July 29, two days from the trade deadline, sitting 54-47 and having won nine games in a row, Dayton Moore and his associates reiterate for the nth time that they will not engage in a fire sale. The team would proceed to finish 26-35, thenceforth never putting together more than three consecutive wins, and leaving them five games shy of the Wild Card. Kansas City and Baltimore have farm systems in comparable shape. Spoiler: this is not a compliment. The two solid prospects in the Orioles system, in my opinion, are Austin Mays and Tanner Scott. The rest of their top 10 includes three players who seemed to lose their bite once reaching Double-A, and five who have yet to reach the level (two of whom still already might be raising more concerns than champagne glasses). This is not a collection of talent for which any front office should be comfortable putting their job on the line, but if deals aren’t made, a decent roster could soon be looking at .500 the way Champions League middle-dwellers view Manchester United.
This offseason, I believe Baltimore should be actively entertaining (and seriously considering) transactions for Machado, Brach, Jones, and Schoop. If they can trade Machado this offseason, while his value is little down after his 2017 performance, it may be recoupable when considering a team acquiring him would likely intend to keep him for the long haul, and having a full season to spend with a team with a bright future – say, the Phillies – could help rocket them to the clear top of his list, even barring a contract extension. What is another damper on the situation and a painful reminder for Baltimore that perhaps they waited a little too long on this process is the unfortunate news that former star closer Zach Britton has ruptured his Achilles tendon in offseason workouts. He might not have brought what Aroldis Chapman did when the Yankees traded him to the Cubs in 2016 – but, then again, he very well might have come close. Elsewhere in the Baltimore ‘pen, usage may be a concern with Brad Brach down the road, but for now, he is a proven workhorse who can give you 70-80 innings out of the bullpen and is capable of being thrust into save situations and getting the job done. By trading those players alone – not even factoring in Schoop – they could receive a haul of 3-4 top-100 caliber prospects and potentially several others, most of whom could be ready by 2020. Heading into a season with a deeply flawed roster and in competition within the division already with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, it seems logical to me that the franchise would be willing to take 2-3 steps back to take a greater leap forward, as the Astros, Cubs, Phillies, and other teams have done in recent years.
We shall know in the weeks ahead: are the Orioles 2018’s “Royal Disaster”, or will these concerns prove “Mach Ado About Nothing”?