The Orioles had a disappointing 2017 and in a year’s time they could be facing a free agent talent exodus greater than anyone in Birdland wants to contemplate. Finding success in 2018 is imperative because there’s no guarantee whatsoever that there will be any kind of chance at competing beyond that.
A lot went wrong for things to end up the way that they did for the O’s this year. Here are five things they’re going to have to get right next year to get going in the right direction again. Realistically, if most of these five things don’t come to fruition, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the season doesn’t involve disappointment and a midseason fire sale of players.
1. Start out well
Given the uncertain contract status post-2018 with so many O’s regulars – Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, as well as Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette – anything short of more wins than losses will lead to a never-ending stream of media speculation around who will be traded, or fired, and when.
Things will be much easier in the clubhouse and more productive on the field if the focus is on winning and the group making another push to the playoffs, as opposed to asking when the tear down starts.
At the end of April 2017, the O’s were 15-8 and tied for first place in the American League East. Their high-water mark came a few weeks later, May 9, following a victory over the Washington Nationals, sending their record to 22-10. A similar hot start is a near must for the 2018 Birds or the distractions could become overwhelming.
2. Gains from Bundy and Gausman
Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman both need to stay healthy and take the next step to become solid top part of the rotation starters.
Gausman wasn’t terrible in 2017 but he was wildly inconsistent and needs to be significantly better. The flashes of brilliance from Gaus must be more frequent and the meltdown starts blowing five-run leads should disappear. He started 34 and 30 games over the last two years respectively, so the durability is there, which is good, but Baltimore needs consistent results from the 26-year-old 2012 first round pick.
For his part, Bundy proved to be healthy, as well as better and more consistent than Gausman, but he’s still not where he needs to be. Since battling through injuries, Bundy has gotten better each of the past two seasons and that trend needs to continue.
3. Solve the starting pitching depth problem
It is so obvious it practically goes without saying, but the starting rotation depth and quality must improve dramatically behind Bundy and Gausman. Ubaldo Jimenez (6.81 ERA), Wade Miley (5.61 ERA) and Chris Tillman (7.84 ERA) combined to start 47 percent of Baltimore’s games in 2017. That is not a path to success and frankly, makes the fact that they won 75 games amazing.
I don’t know if the answers include Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, CC Sabathia, other free agents, or other pitchers that could come via trade. Whatever the case, improvement needs to come from somewhere and if the Birds do not add two solid middle of the rotation starting pitchers that pitch fairly well and eat innings, they will be giving up on the season before it begins.
4. Sluggers get slugging again
Apart from the glove work by Chris Davis at first base and Mark Trumbo’s knack to deliver game winning hits, both players had extremely disappointing 2017 seasons.
Comparing 2016 to 2017, Trumbo got considerably worse in basically every statistical category that matters, including an ugly drop from 47 home runs to just 23 homers, this despite the supposed year of the juiced ball spiking dingers all across MLB. While that was happening, he also posted career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. At a bare minimum, the Orioles need at least career average numbers (.249/.301/.461) from Trumbo.
The downard trajectory of Chris Davis from 2015 to the present is even more concerning, considering how many years he still has to be paid by the Orioles. Davis also saw his home run production drop to just 26 home runs in the year of the juiced ball. Davis somehow managed to strike out 195 times in just 127 games.
The last time Davis struggled this much in a season was 2014. The year after that, he hit 47 homers. The O’s have to hope that happens again.
5. Have the good things stay good
Last year Jonathan Schoop took on a trend quite different than Davis and Trumbo – he kept getting better. Before the season, few would have predicted he would be an All-Star and receive MVP votes. Schoop earned them with his career-best batting line of .293/.338/.503. Along with Manny Machado – who last year combined a slow start with a monster second half to have an overall good season – Schoop needs to continue progressing and show that his breakout year wasn’t a fluke.
All five of these factors seem like they have a reasonable chance of happening, which is good news for the O’s. Combine these successes with a few other breaks and it could be an interesting summer at Camden Yards because of the play on the field and not because of who is on the trading block. What say you?