X-factor; it’s become an overused buzzword. One that I have not been immune from using myself. In season’s past, just about everyone on the Orioles roster has been named by one publication or another as a potential x-factor for the team in the season to come. More recently, it seems like Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman have garnered most of the attention. And it would be relatively easy to make the case for either one of them once again heading into 2017.
Of course, this all depends on your definition of an “x-factor”. In the plainest terms, the x-player is a variable. They could be really good. They could be really bad. But the point has always seemed to be that in whichever direction that player goes, the team will follow.
For me, x-factors are underdogs with expectations. Neither perennial all-stars nor fringe role players qualify. So, people like Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, Chris Tillman or even Ryan Flaherty don’t count. Although the candidates for this designation on the 2017 Orioles are harder to find when compared to recent history, they are certainly still there.
Bundy and/or Gausman
The two right-handed starters will each be expected to improve on solid seasons. Bundy was a surprise despite his high-draft-pick status. The now-24-year-old rebounded from an injury-plagued minor league career to be a dependable bullpen arm and then a trusted member of the rotation. Gausman was finally given his first full season as a starter and seemed to have turned a corner down the stretch, pitching to a 3.10 ERA after the all-star break.
But it may be too soon to really lean on Bundy in a way that sways the Orioles one way or another. He will likely be placed on an innings limit after throwing 109.2 innings in the bigs last year. So, expect lots of five-inning outings and repeatedly being skipped in the rotation when possible
For Gausman, this is his time to shine. While Tillman is likely still in line to start Opening Day, the 26-year-old Gausman needs to usurp him as the “ace” on staff, and he needs to do so in a big way if the Birds are going come anywhere close to making the jump from “contender” to “favorite” in the wild wild east. Sounds x-factor-ish to me.
Behind the dish
Offensively, Welington Castillo is almost a carbon copy of Matt Wieters. The new Oriole is about a year younger than the departed one. But, you can still expect moderate power, no speed on the basepaths and the ability to drive in about 50 or 60 runs. That’s fine.
But there is still a lot to be concerned about. Castillo struggles defensively. And he is making the switch from the NL to the AL. So far in his career, he has played a grand total of six games on the junior circuit. The other 503 games have been in the “easier” league and for pretty bad teams.
At the moment, Castillo’s backup looks to be fan favorite Caleb Joseph. There have been times in his career where Joseph looks like the ideal backup. The 30-year-old provides good pop at the plate (11 homers in 2015) and throws out runners at a 35 percent rate.
However, those times come when Joseph plays regularly. Unless this is a 50/50 platoon, he could be a waste of a roster spot. In 2016, playing in just 49 games, Joseph slashed .174/.216/.197 with no RBI. It’s tough to win games with a black hole at one position.
He only needs one name, like a frustratingly inconsistent Madonna, or a much taller Prince. Ubaldo Jimenez has been both mind-numbingly awful and exceedingly incredible for the Orioles. After being banished from the mound early in the season last summer, the right-hander bounced back to carry the pitching staff later on. His 2.82 ERA in 12 second-half games came out of nowhere. He was so good, that he nearly started the Wild Card game against the Blue Jays.
Jimenez is a variable personified. Could he throw seven shutout innings? Certainly. Will he implode in the second? Possibly. Is he going to make you scream four-letter words at the television? Always.
The other four members of the Orioles likely rotation all have a range within their performances can reasonably be expected. Both Tillman and Gausman will be above average to very good. Bundy will probably be solid, but will always pitch with a safety net. And Wade Miley stinks, yet he throws with his left hand so we keep him around. No one can genuinely say that they know what Jimenez will do.
The mess in right field
Seth Smith is the starting right fielder, right? But he can hit lefties. So, Joey Rickard? Well, he can’t hit righties. Mark Trumbo? He hits massive dongs but is an atrocity in the field. OK, how about the two Rule 5 dudes? Are they even going to make the team?
There’s probably not gonna be an “everyday” right fielder for this year’s version of the Orioles. Don’t be surprised if the team opts for another late-season addition in the mold of Michael Bourn or Alejandro De Aza to get some time in right field in September. The position has been a mess since Nick Markakis bolted for Atlanta a couple of years ago. It’s more of the same now.
It will take a mad scientist approach for manager Buck Showalter to make the most out of this crew. Smith, Trumbo, Rickard and maybe even Trey Mancini will end up sharing the DH and right field duties. Offensively, the position can be a strong point of the roster, but unless one of them learns to field, it could be a place where weak fly balls fall for hits more often than they should.
Who’s it gonna be?
For me, Jimenez is the ultimate “x-factor”. There is little else to figure out about this Orioles team. Not much has changed. Once again, the team is going to hit a ton of home runs, play solid infield defense, struggle for an identity in the outfield, steal almost no bases and lock down late leads with the bullpen. It always comes down to the rotation.
Tillman, Gausman and Miley are all relatively known commodities. Bundy is still developing. Jimenez? Who knows. But if he struggles, the Orioles will find it tough to replace him. Yovani Gallardo is in Seattle. And the trio of Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and T.J. McFarland has time and time again disappointed. Logan Verrett is the only other internal option, but he’s not REALLY a starter. This team needs Jimenez to perform.