It's that time of year again. I don't mean time for spring training, although it is almost time for that. I'm talking about projection season, where every two-bit prognosticator with a computer model or an inflated opinion of his or her own intuition steps forward to issue grim prophecies for the season to come.
Orioles fans are familiar with this process from recent years. The team record projection complex has never liked the Dan Duquette Orioles in all of his tenure. The venerable projection system PECOTA, hosted on Baseball Prospectus, failed horribly with the O's from 2012-14, projecting 42 fewer wins across those seasons than the Orioles actually received. This system has not known what to make of successful Orioles teams.
The O's run of racing far past their projection came to an end last season. What seemed like another water cooler of Haterade being dumped on Birdland with spring projections of a 79-83 record was more or less borne out as the O's limped along to an 81-81 record, a record they reached only by winning their final five games of the season. Lest it be forgotten, those wins were racked up against two clinched playoff teams who could not have seemed less interested in continuing to contest regular season outcomes.
Like a wrestling heel, PECOTA is back again this year, ready to deliver its steel chair payload when the referee's back is conveniently turned. And, big surprise, PECOTA once again is not much of a fan of the Orioles, offering a prediction of a 72-90 record as things stand right now.
The case of the pessimist
A low-70s win projection seems harsh. O's fans might understandably feel like the team underachieved its talent to end up at 81-81 last season. Yet for all the things they've done and all the money they've spent, as my Camden Chat colleague Alex Conway argued earlier today, what they've managed to do is bring back most of that team, except for the lone good starting pitcher.
There are still two giant question marks in the corner outfield spots. It may be generous to call them question marks, because that implies some possibility of an affirmative answer. And as for the starting rotation, well, Yovani Gallardo or not, the O's have basically bet $130 million and counting that Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez won't suck again this year.
That sounds terrifying. It should be terrifying to O's fans. Where those pitchers entered last year with three season track records of success, that's been interrupted. What will they be now? Gonzalez, at least, you can try to talk yourself into his performance being affected by a mid-season injury that never healed. His ERA before and after a trip to the disabled list give support to this idea.
In the case of someone like Tillman, there was no reported injury or anything that would be a mitigating factor for why he did so poorly last year. He was simply bad in a way that doesn't have an immediate apparent solution, and, as far as the various projections are concerned, bad in a way that they always thought he would be bad.
It's clear from the O's actions that they do not view themselves as a 72-90 team. If the Warehouse appraised the team and decided it all needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt, they probably wouldn't have shelled out to retain Chris Davis at any price. They certainly wouldn't be out there still rumored to be in the mix to sacrifice two draft picks in order to sign Gallardo and free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler.
The argument of the optimist
Anxious as you might be about the team's direction this year - I certainly am feeling that way - the O's are surely not crazy to believe themselves to be better than 72-90. That the O's starting rotation was bad last year is not in doubt. Yet as bad as they were, the team still allowed "only" 693 runs for the season - not great, but still fewer runs allowed than two of the five American League playoff teams.
The PECOTA projection that generated 72 wins predicts the 2016 O's will give up 786 runs. I think that we can agree that a whole lot more would have to go wrong than last year for the O's pitching staff and defense to allow 93 more runs in 2016.
Sure, it's possible, but if the O's are too afraid of that possibility, they're as surely handcuffing their chances for success as they could be by sinking gobs of money and giving up draft picks to fortify this year's team. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" is a total cliche, but it's also true. You have to risk something to win anything. Just don't be the person at the blackjack table who keeps going double or nothing thinking you're bound to win a hand eventually.
"They can hardly be any worse!" isn't going to find its way onto any Orioles giveaway t-shirts, even if it is true. It's not an inspiring slogan. Yet it's also the slogan for Orioles designated hitters, who were 14th in the AL with a .684 OPS last year. It's ALSO true of Orioles left fielders. The .640 OPS from 2015 was good for 13th among AL teams. It's *ALSO* true of Orioles shortstops, who were dead last in the AL - by far - with a .579 OPS.
Shortstop figures to remain a lost cause; J.J. Hardy's woes were likely due to the torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, which he won't be getting surgery to fix. There's hope for those other dead zones. Mark Trumbo will be mashing taters in Camden Yards, whatever flaws he may have in his game. Hyun Soo Kim may not turn into a star, but he doesn't have to do a lot to be better than Travis Snider and the other failed outfielders of last season.
Other positions could have reasonable expectations for improvements as well. A full season of Jonathan Schoop at second base should be better than one that was half Schoop and half Ryan Flaherty. Matt Wieters' recovery should allow he and Caleb Joseph to be deployed in such a way to get the most out of both at catcher. All of these things will not happen, but enough of them could to make a difference.
In the end, for all the guesses, nobody really KNOWS what's going to happen. As a wiser man than me once said, that's why they play the games. O's fans can only hope the computers are wrong about this year. It wouldn't be the first time.