The year that just finished for the Orioles was a good one. They made the playoffs, hit tons of home runs, and had a great bullpen. It all added up to them being better than a whole lot of other baseball teams. It’s a new year now and none of that matters any more. It’s time to turn our attention to the season to come.
That season is still three months away. That’s significant for a team like the O’s who have been notorious for making moves late in the offseason during Dan Duquette’s time as GM. That’s been the case the last several years and will probably end up being the case this year as well.
The Orioles do still need to find a right fielder. Who they settle on will affect how fans view the team before the games actually start.
For the most part, though, the team now is going to be the team. Beat writers have been communicating for a while that if the O’s drop any big money, it’s going to be on Mark Trumbo and that’s about it. MASN’s Roch Kubatko repeated this line in his first blog post of the year:
You’ve read the list of free agents (outfielders) who interest the Orioles. They all come with pluses and minuses. There’s no perfect solution. But they potentially fit a budget that’s not going to expand much beyond attempts to re-sign Trumbo and raises to arbitration-eligible players.
The same sentiment wasn’t exciting to read in late November or early December when there were still many potential improvements to be had on the free agent market. It’s not much more exciting to read now that the pool has really thinned out. Although sometimes the January bargain bin brings a 2014 Delmon Young, it can also bring a 2015 Delmon Young.
The team was never going to be able to address one of 2016’s huge weaknesses - starting pitching - this offseason anyway. If we’re lucky, they’ll find a real right fielder somewhere. If we’re unlucky, they’ll re-sign Trumbo and put him in right again. If we’re even more unlucky, they won’t re-sign Trumbo and they’ll play Joey Rickard out there.
Do the Orioles presently look like a team that will compete for a postseason spot? Your answer to that question probably depends on whether you feel like the Orioles, on the whole, were an overachieving team in 2016, or whether they were an underachieving one. After all, nearly the whole team that underachieved (or overachieved) is coming back.
Pessimistic view: The O’s were lucky and will be worse
It’s not hard to paint the 2016 as overachievers given their preseason expectations and the fact that they were able to carry one of the worst starting rotations in MLB into the playoffs.
Their offense, while prolific for home runs, was pedestrian in its overall results: 744 runs scored, ranking 7th in the American League. A best in the AL bullpen helped overcome their problems as well, though for looking ahead to the season to come, it’s worth keeping in mind that few people will get rich betting on the same team to have the best bullpen two years running.
Zach Britton may be very, very good next year and still be worse than he was this year. There’s almost nowhere to go other than down. That’s true for other holdovers as well, including Brad Brach and Donnie Hart.
All in all, the Orioles did better than anyone thought they could. That’s a good thing in that it was fun to watch, but it’s a bad thing if any part of that was extremely good fortune rather than something that is guaranteed to roll over to this year.
Optimistic view: The O’s were unlucky and will be better
Yet despite all of that, couldn’t we say that the Orioles were actually underachievers compared to the talent available on their roster? This is a team that was good enough to have a lead of 5.5 games in the division as late as June 29, and a team that was good enough to be in first place in the AL East as late as August 12.
Making the playoffs was nice and all, but you can also think about all the rough patches they went through in the year and feel like, if only they were a little better then, they could have been - and perhaps ought to have been - better still.
There was the Houston series where they set the strikeout record. Those three games they lost 3-2, 2-1, and 1-0 in Oakland while facing jabronis like Zach Neal and Ross Detwiler. The final homestand, where their division hopes were torched for good thanks to that horrible four-game sweep at the hands of Boston.
They didn’t get the best of Adam Jones or Chris Davis. They had the worst defensive outfield in all of baseball, in part thanks to using a first baseman/designated hitter in right field. Starters like Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley all underperformed even relative to pessimistic expectations for them.
The Orioles didn’t even get the best of Chris Tillman. Heck, they didn’t get the best of their unquestioned best player, Manny Machado, who “only” batted .255 with runners in scoring position despite batting .294 with a .348 OBP overall. Smooth out just a few of those bad things and we’re talking about another division title for the Orioles. For all of those problems, they only missed out by four games.
On the whole, a feast-or-famine offense that didn’t get on base enough and struck out way too much is still going to be there. Individual players may and hopefully will hit better.
Davis, certainly, was plagued by the mystery hand injury and hit 38 home runs despite that. Jones, who insisted “sometimes you suck” rather than offer an injury as an excuse, was probably hampered for at least some of the season. There is room for improvement and a reasonable hope that some improvement may occur.
That’s true for the starting rotation as well. Even if you’re not big believers in pitchers like Miley and Jimenez, the fact that they underperformed their career track records by so much is also something that leaves a reasonable hope for improvement. Those guys were so bad in 2016 that they don’t have to be good in 2017 to make the team better. They just have to be OK. They should be able to be.
The current Orioles roster doesn’t look like a roster that is going to go for the playoffs. Yet the same could have been said this time a year ago, and even as late as late September, and they made the playoffs anyway. The 40 glorious hours where we thought the Orioles had signed Dexter Fowler was the only stretch of time where things were obviously headed in a good direction, and that didn’t even last.
People can charge into a new calendar year with resolutions made and start doing things differently, if they want, almost right away. Baseball teams and their fans have to wait until April. That’s even more true for the Orioles than most. Hopefully by the time everything counts, they can keep finding good ways to surprise us.