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Orioles season preview: Standing at the crossroads

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The Orioles have come a long way from a dark place to get where they are right now. This season will determine where they’re headed from here.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It wasn’t very long ago that the Orioles were down in the depths of the American League, annually avoiding a season with 100 losses by an uncomfortably slim margin. Robert Andino’s destruction of the 2011 Red Sox changed all of that, not that we knew it at the time.

Now, as Birdland turns its eyes to contemplate the season to come, it’s with a playoff exit fresh in our minds, including the maddening (I’ll never mention it again after this) non-use of Zach Britton in that Wild Card game.

All across the SB Nation MLB blogs, we will be looking ahead to the upcoming season while considering the changing face of MLB. It’s been the Orioles who were part of that change, for the better, over the last several seasons, thanks in large part to stars they were lucky to get into the organization, like Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Britton.

Yet if we look another few years down the road, it seems so unlikely that any more than one of that trio will still be on the Orioles. The contracts of all three will be coming up after next season. Time is running out for the current core of players.

If the Orioles find themselves struggling around the trade deadline - like, say, due to a bad starting rotation, which every Orioles fan must fear right now - they will face a very tough choice about whether to trade off the stars and load up on prospects. It’s not an exciting thing to consider.

The baseball intelligentsia doesn’t expect a good season from the Orioles. But then, they haven’t expected a good season from the Orioles during this stretch of three playoff berths in five seasons. The Orioles did not start winning in a way that was in vogue, and it seems that because of this, the people and the computers that try to predict the future never quite get them right.

Barring any further injuries or other surprises, here’s who the Orioles will be bringing to the 2017 campaign.

The starting rotation

  • Chris Tillman, RHP
  • Kevin Gausman, RHP
  • Dylan Bundy, RHP
  • Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP
  • Wade Miley, LHP
  • Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson or Gabriel Ynoa, RHP; or Chris Lee or Jayson Aquino, LHP

Even looking at all of them written down makes me wish that there were more than 14 days to go until Opening Day in order to put off the torment of having to watch this unit. Things were looking grim enough before Tillman reported to camp with some kind of unidentified shoulder problem, the rehab for which keeps getting pushed back.

There are many possible futures where this group ends up surprising people by being better than people think. If that was going to end up happening, it would probably be headlined by Gausman and Bundy stepping into the shoes the Orioles imagined when they were drafted at #4 overall in consecutive drafts. Is it likely? No, but then, neither was the 2012 Orioles making it into the playoffs.

Bundy particularly concerns me because the Orioles appear to be relying on him to be able to do a full season’s workload of starts after throwing 109.2 innings the previous season and possibly wearing out towards the end of his last month of starts.

In a perverse way, there’s upside to be found in the rest of the rotation, if only because it will be hard for either Jimenez or Miley to stink as much as they did last season. Similarly, Wright/Wilson or whoever wins that spot can hardly be much worse.

The bullpen

  • Zach Britton, LHP
  • Brad Brach, RHP
  • Darren O’Day, RHP
  • Mychal Givens, RHP

There will, of course, be other relievers, but these are the ones who matter the most. And that’s actually a little scary because, while it’ll be hard for the rotation to be as bad as it was last year, it’s going to be equally hard for the back end of the bullpen to be as good as it was last year.

Start with Britton. Short of having a 0.00 ERA or WHIP, you can’t get much better of a season than he had last year. Can he possibly be just as good as he was last year? If he’s only a little bit worse - while still being amazing and possibly the league’s best closer - then the Orioles will be worse off for that.

There was a big difference between First Half Brach and Second Half Brach. Which will we see in 2017? If it’s the latter, a counted-on bullpen strength will not be as prominent as expected. Although we probably shouldn’t put too much value on the World Baseball Classic for 2017 performance prediction, if you’ve been watching Givens in the WBC, you might be worried about him.

On the other hand, O’Day was hurt last year. If he’s healthy and able to perform like he did from 2012-15, always a big if, the bullpen should be in good shape.

The infield

  • Welington Castillo, C
  • Chris Davis, 1B
  • Jonathan Schoop, 2B
  • J.J. Hardy, SS
  • Manny Machado, 3B

There’s a lot to worry about with the Orioles. Not a whole lot of that is in the infield. Machado is a perennial top-5 MVP contender, combining Gold Glove-caliber defense with elite home run power potential. Schoop is a solid second baseman who can hit many dingers and may even hit more this year.

Davis, if it was really the thumb fracture that ailed him last year, should be healthy and back to a good form - and it’s worth mentioning he still hit 38 homers while having a “down” year. Hardy’s health is a perennial worry, but at least in spring training, he’s pretty much the only Oriole whose rehab and return to action actually went as projected.

That leaves Castillo, who will have to do his best to fill the shoes of Matt Wieters. How big those figurative shoes were is a matter for some debate, but they’re almost the same hitter in their careers and Castillo had the better 2016 season. Will his defense be enough? Will he be able to frame pitches and help the pitching staff get a bigger strike zone?

The outfield

  • Hyun Soo Kim, LF
  • Adam Jones, CF
  • Seth Smith, RF (?)
  • Platoon partners for Kim and Smith possibly including: Joey Rickard, Craig Gentry, Trey Mancini, Mark Trumbo, Anthony Santander

The Orioles have succeeded in somewhat unorthodox ways of late. If they are able to keep succeeding, this business of platooning two outfield spots would be another such way. The O’s only let Kim face a lefty 22 times last season. He did not get a hit.

Smith, for Seattle, only faced lefties 33 times. His name has a question mark because he hasn’t played since March 8 due to a hamstring problem and I’m nervous about that as I write these words.

It seems crazy to use their roster this way, especially with the possibility that non-outfielders who can hit bombs may take the right-handed spots. That Trumbo is not an outfielder was repeatedly demonstrated in 2016, to the team’s detriment. Mancini, no matter how good of a hard-working athlete he may be, is not an outfielder either.

With a division rival like the Red Sox having a lefty-loaded rotation, this will matter for whole series at several points this season.

Jones was among the O’s hitters who had a possibly injury-influenced down season. He was so bad in April and May. His track record is better than that. I believe in him. Or maybe I just watched his catch in the WBC too many times.

The bench

  • Caleb Joseph, C
  • Ryan Flaherty, INF
  • Probably two of the above outfield platoon guys

The Orioles bench was horrible last season, including Joseph’s season long RBI drought. The fact that it was so bad may have contributed to the fact that the regulars were run into the ground, possibly leading to the big September slumps for Machado (157 games played in season, .697 OPS in September) and Schoop (played every game in season, .570 OPS in September.)

They need to play the bench more, even if it stinks. Will Buck Showalter decide to do so? That’s a mystery. They will certainly be playing guys off the bench for this outfield platoon business, for better or worse.

The prediction

Put me down for 84 wins, although if Tillman’s rescheduled Sunday bullpen session gets pushed farther back, I’ll be regretting the prediction in a hurry.

I’m worried about the rotation, Tillman or no Tillman, and I don’t know that the Orioles will be able to repeat success with a home run-or-bust offense or with a bullpen whose back end was so elite that it’s almost impossible to equal that again.

What’s even worse is that a path to 84 wins probably involves the Orioles being just good enough to trick themselves into thinking they are contenders at the trade deadline, even if they aren’t - kinda like how things worked out in 2013 and 2015. The Orioles could end up at that crossroads and choose a path that loops them right back into the years of losing.