The hiring of Mike Elias to be the next Orioles general manager is something that should offer hope to everyone that, a few years down the road, the O’s can be good again. There is a lot of baseball to be played between now and then, including next year.
Some of that baseball could still be bad. The reality is that there’s probably nothing Elias can do this offseason, or would even necessarily want to do, to make the Orioles a 90+ win team in 2019. No combination of free agent signings or trades are going to make the Orioles contenders for the World Series next year.
This is not any kind of statement about Elias and the job he might be able to do so much as it’s just a recognition of the situation the O’s have fallen into. They could improve by 15 wins over their 2018 record, ordinarily the kind of improvement that might leave you jumping for joy, and still lose 100 games next year.
Though in a perfect world, every year could begin with hopes that the Orioles might win the World Series, in 2019, success must be defined a different way. What are some things that would have to happen next season for us to look back a year from now and still think, “OK, this might get better”?
Improve the defense
If you had the misfortune of watching a lot of 2018 O’s games, you probably had a lot of times where you saw another team make a play and thought, “There’s no way the O’s would have made that.” In this case, your eyes were not lying. The Orioles allowed the worst batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in all of MLB, with .310.
Some part of this is personnel being out of position. Adam Jones no longer seemed to be a center field-caliber defender. Trey Mancini doesn’t belong in the outfield. Neither does Mark Trumbo, even when healthy. Tim Beckham did not seem to belong at third base, or even necessarily shortstop. Chance Sisco appeared to have some troubles defensively, and so on. For some of these, we can hope that Elias comes up with a better stopgap solution than Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter could do.
Another problem is that the Orioles did not have a front office capable of getting first-rate analytics information to improve the team, or they did not have a field staff able willing to apply the analytics conclusions to the team on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps it was some of both. The difference between Manny Machado’s publicly-available defensive numbers with the Orioles and Dodgers last year - both small sample sizes, of course - is striking.
Put simply, the Orioles may just need more and better nerds who can figure out where the players should stand, and a manager and coaches who are willing to tell the players where the nerds say to stand.
Figure out the outfield of the future
There are not many strengths in either the Orioles farm system or MLB roster right now. The best thing going might be hopes for an outfield of the future.
Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart showed enough to remain intriguing possibilities. Still in the minors is Yusniel Diaz, the centerpiece of the Machado trade, as well as Austin Hays, who had a tough, injury-afflicted 2018 season. There’s also a potential late-bloomer in 2015 fourth round pick Ryan McKenna, who recently finished blasting the Arizona Fall League for a (small sample size) .344/.474/.590 batting line.
Three of these five players have had at least a little bit of MLB time and the other two have both made it to Double-A.
At his press conference, Elias said there are players on the MLB roster right now, and in the farm system, who will be on the next good O’s team. If this was more than just a nice thing to say to not freak out the returning players, the emergence of a young outfield by the end of the season might be one way to show it.
Chris Davis doesn’t suck
Absent an unforeseen circumstance, the Orioles are contracted to pay Davis an additional $110 million. That’s four more years of salary plus deferred money that will be paid out annually until 2037. This fact does not change no matter how much we don’t like it.
One way they could have a successful 2019 is if they’re able to salvage some value from the back years of this contract. At this point, even what was then a disappointing 2016 with a .221/.332/.459 batting line would be more than welcome. Elias sounded hopeful about Davis in his introductory Q&A, also saying that he would get involved in Davis’s offseason work this year.
It won’t take very long into next season to find out if they were able to pull off any meaningful Davis improvement. The September 2018 article in Sports Illustrated offered a depressing possibility that there might be nothing Davis can do, so hopefully they’re wrong.
Develop starting pitchers in the minors
It’s fairly safe to draw the conclusion that the Orioles pitching development program was not firing on all cylinders, with a pair of top five picks underachieving at the MLB level, a pair of first round picks stuck in injury hell, and absolutely no answers to be found in the high minors as MLB’s worst rotation failed its way through another season.
This is another one of those problems that Elias can’t solve overnight. If it turns out that Duquette had been drafting or trading for bums or bad luck busts, the new regime can’t reach back into the past and change any of that. And even if the group of players that showed some promise at Delmarva and Frederick last year have future value, we’re likely not going to see it in Baltimore in 2019.
What the new O’s honchos can do, hopefully, is unlock the best versions of some of their pitchers in a way that Duquette’s crew did not seem to be able to do as much as they should. This starts at the MLB level with Dylan Bundy and plunges all the way down to the just-drafted Grayson Rodriguez.
The best-case scenario probably has at least two of these guys doing a decent job in the MLB rotation by August: Luis Ortiz, Dillon Tate, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin. That’s two of their July headliners, the second-best guy in another July trade, and their 2016 second rounder. If you really want to do some pie-in-the-sky dreaming, put Hunter Harvey in this group of possibles as well.
Also nice would be to continue to see progress or at least holding their own as these pitchers get up to Bowie: Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells. Another trio figures to be headed to Frederick: Cameron Bishop, DL Hall, Brenan Hanifee. If three or more of these pitchers have successfully and healthily climbed another rung in the minor league ladder this year, that’s a success for the franchise even if the MLB team loses 100 games again.
Just about everything to do with the team could stand to improve next season. The Orioles didn’t end up 47-115 by accident or due to bad luck. Anything that gets better is a success. These are the big ones, and if they can hit on two or three of these, the future of the O’s will look like a lot of fun.