At 22-10, it’s safe to say the Orioles have started the year better than most of us thought they would throughout the offseason. The experts projected Buck Showalter’s squad to finish last in the AL East yet again — and while there was outrage from fans in the orange and black, you couldn’t blame the outsiders for their unspectacular predictions.
Amazingly enough, even with Zach Britton sidelined for perhaps two months, the Orioles might not be done getting better. The numbers say there’s room for improvement across the board, especially in terms of offensive production.
Everything would have to fall into place for the O’s to become Major League Baseball’s best by the season’s end, but the season doesn’t have to play out perfectly in order for the Birds to win the AL East in commanding fashion. With the team’s hot start, it’s realistic that the 2017 Orioles might be the best in the Showalter era.
It’s mid-May — who wouldn’t want to look at the best-case-scenario projection?
Offense: HRs spike, Machado returns to form
It’s scary to think that at 12 games above .500, the Orioles offense isn’t coming close to reaching its full potential. Sure, the starting pitching has been slightly better than expected, but there’s no telling what this team’s record might be in September if the offense returns to 2016 form.
Last season, the Orioles finished 3rd in slugging percentage (.443), second in the American League behind only the Red Sox. You might be shocked to learn that the Orioles rank in the lower half of the league this year, coming in at 18th with a team total slugging percentage of .407.
That number is heavily dependent on HRs, which the Orioles haven’t been able to find in large quantities in 2017 — Mark Trumbo (3) and Chris Davis (4) haven’t begun to streak yet, which will undoubtedly happen at some point this season. There’s plenty of untapped potential in those two bats, which is scary considering the overall early-season results.
Manny Machado leads the team in HRs with eight, but he hasn’t begun to nearly reach his potential in terms of base hits and on-base percentage.
Considering only Trey Mancini and Wellington Castillo have batting averages over .300, there isn’t much in this lineup that has been abnormally out of place in terms of what we can expect for the remainder of the season. Can you imagine if the results stay consistent with a boost in power numbers and Machado results?
To be fair, losing Zach Britton has already hurt the Orioles (flashback to the tough Yankees loss). The 2017 performance won’t be repeated by anyone, and there will be a slight drop-off while he’s sidelined. But that dip in performance should be just that — slight. Thanks to Brad Brach, there’s an arm in place to hold down the fort, and a good one at that.
For the rest of the bullpen, is the really any reason to believe that performance won’t improve and at-least match 2016’s results?
Last season, Orioles relief pitching posted a perfectly respectable 1.29 WHIP throughout the year. This year, the bullpen has put up a 1.45 WHIP, a significant early-season dip that appears on paper to be cause for alarm. However, is it realistic to believe that Darren O’Day (1.47 WHIP) and Donnie Hart (1.40 WHIP) won’t lower those numbers as the season continues?
It’s likely that both will settle down in terms of allowing runners — if they do, the O’s bullpen will own a wildly-talented four-arm punch (Brach, O’Day, Givens, Hart) that should be on track to perform as well as any bullpen in Major League Baseball.
If Britton can join that group at some point in July, the bullpen automatically becomes the best in the game.
You might think this is where the argument falls apart and we begin to sink back down to reality in terms of realistic projections for the rest of the year. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame you if you feel as though the Orioles aren’t legitimate contenders because of the rotation.
However I’d ask you to consider the legitimacy of these four possibilities:
- Can Dylan Bundy, who won’t likely continue his current pace, be a reliable starting arm who finishes the year with an ERA of around 3.75 or better?
- Can Chris Tillman work another season of good, not elite, baseball with an ERA under 4.00?
- Can Kevin Gausman get back on track and have a year similar to the Tillman projection, with an ERA around or under 4.00?
- Finally, can Wade Miley fit into the rotation as he has for the early portion of the season and be a reliable back-end starting option?
If the answer to all of those questions was yes, then you believe the Orioles will have a rotation that is ultimately significantly improved from last season, even with the fifth starter not mentioned.
It’s not that all of the above possibilities will absolutely happen, but based on what we currently know, it seems more likely than not that all four of them are going to work out. We haven’t accounted for potential injury or strange regression, but we are after all working in a “best case scenario” situation. And if the notes above are the best realistic projections, that’s pretty good news for the outlook for the rest of the year.
The bottom line
There are 130 games left in the Orioles season, so there’s no predicting what kind of crazy storylines will pop up throughout the summer stretch.
But with the Orioles already sitting 12 games over .500, there’s a little bit of breathing room for whatever might take place in the coming months. And looking at the trends and numbers, the scenario in which the Orioles emerge as the best team in the American League isn’t far-fetched.
A few more home runs, a slight increase in production from the O’Day/Hart duo and somewhat consistent starting pitching would put the Orioles in a position to be where they haven’t been for quite some time.
It’s only May and this approach is a rather optimistic one. But at the end of the day, is it really too much of a stretch to say this 2017 team has the potential to be a front-runner in October?
Note: All stats prior to Tuesday’s 5-4 win over Washington.
How many games will the Orioles win this year?
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Less than 81
More than 91