Anyone who has watched the Orioles since May would reasonably come away with the conclusion that they're not a very good baseball team. In an ordinary year, the weakness the team has showed, particularly with their AL-worst starting rotation, would have them far out of the picture. This is not an ordinary year. It turns out that nobody else is all that good, either.
With six days to go until the trade deadline, the Orioles find themselves sitting at three games below .500. Their 48-51 record, played to the same percentage over a full season, would leave them with 79 wins by season's end. A 79 win season is a lot like Stringer Bell's 40 degree day: Nobody has much to say about it. It's not good. It's not historically bad. It's just a thing that happens.
Despite that pace and those flaws, the Orioles remain just 3.5 games out of a wild card spot in the American League. The dark magic that fueled the Yankees early on may be sputtering, and the Royals have recently renewed their own hopes with a six-game winning streak that may have stemmed from a revival of the human sacrifice-fueled pact that allowed them to win the World Series. That's who is in the wild card spots right now.
Whatever it is that's gotten them there, these two teams aren't far away from the Orioles or from anyone else. It's made for a big jumble in the wild card picture, with eight teams within those same 3.5 games of a playoff spot. That's going to mean a lot of teams still to pass, but if the Orioles just keep their heads down and win a bunch of games, that can happen.
Last year's O's team won 89 games on the way to a wild card spot. If that's how many wins it will take this season, the 2017 O's will need to finish the season by going 41-22 to get there. That's a .651 winning percentage over almost 40% of the season's total games. It doesn't seem very likely, does it?
However, the weakness in the AL means that maybe it won't take 89 wins. In fact, the current playoff odds spit out Fangraphs offer the crazy-sounding proposition that the two AL wild card spots will be taken up by teams with only 84 and 83 wins. An ascent to 83 wins would mean that the Orioles "only" have to finish the season 35-28, a more attainable .556 clip from here til season's end.
The odds of that happening still aren't great for the O's. Fangraphs pegs them as having an 8% chance to make the playoffs at this moment. You would not want either your life or your life savings riding on an 8% chance. The vast majority of outcomes would see you dead or bankrupt.
To say the least, that's not ideal. Neither is trying to contemplate surging from three games below .500, with this starting rotation, to make the postseason.
This isn't life or death, though. It's just a baseball season. There will be another one next year. Unless players are traded away, most of the same ones will be back, and for the most part, the ones who are about to be free agents aren't ones whose performance will be missed.
What's a general manager to do? Not that you can or should expect Dan Duquette to be fully candid in front of an audience of people who hold Orioles season tickets and who the team would like them to renew for next year, but his remarks at the season ticket holder Q&A over the weekend were interesting nonetheless:
“I still have hope for this year’s club. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys that we have that we can put it together. This is a tough division. ... This year we haven’t had the starting pitching that we need, but the other elements of our ballclub are intact. And if we can get a little bit better stronger pitching and add to the pitching, we can still make a run at this.
It's a very "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" kind of response. One really can't say enough negative words about the performance of the Orioles starting rotation. Not only are they the worst in the AL by ERA, but if you shave a full run off of their ERA, they'd still be 13th out of 15 teams.
Really sitting and thinking about who will be starting the 63 games remaining for the Orioles makes even that 8% chance sound too generous to the Orioles. It's not just about improving on one or two problem spots, either. With Dylan Bundy having a bad June and a worse July, the Orioles do not have a single average-or-better starting pitcher.
My heart sinks when I think about the Orioles depleting their team or system in any way in order to trade for the next Scott Feldman or Bud Norris, the way that they tried to save the flawed 2013 team.
That concern said, the Orioles rotation is so bad and the trade market seems to be so tilted towards buyers that the O's might be able to improve without giving up all that much. Just yesterday, two of the other wild card competitors, the Twins and Royals, each picked up a starting pitcher for what amounted to a willingness to eat salary.
Neither Trevor Cahill, traded to the Royals, nor Jaime Garcia, traded to the Twins, are great. Ubaldo Jimenez has been so bad that the Orioles don't need "great" to improve on what he's done. The same is true for Chris Tillman, and also for Wade Miley. All three of those guys will be free agents at season's end.
I still suspect that the lack of quality of that rotation will show and the O's playoff chances won't even be as high as 8% by the time the deadline rolls around. I also have my doubts that an 83-win team will really end up playing in the AL wild card game.
Miley is pitching tonight and Jimenez is pitching tomorrow, so getting excited about even an 8% chance is surely premature. For now, though, the door is cracked open. The O's will have to shove past a lot of teams to get through it. It's not very likely, but as long as no one else in the AL is all that great, there's still some hope.