The 2018 season is going to represent a last hurrah for the group of Orioles that has gotten the team into the playoffs three times in the last six seasons. The pending free agency of Manny Machado, Zach Britton, and Adam Jones lines up with the final year of the contracts of both manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette. All good things must come to an end. For this group, the end is near.
If the Orioles were heading towards that last hurrah coming off of a successful season, things might not feel as desperate as they do. However, with the team winning only 75 games last season while having the worst starting rotation, by ERA, in the entirety of MLB, that creates much more of a feeling of urgency heading towards the end of the line with this core of players.
That lame duck front office led by Duquette does not appear to feel the same urgency headed towards this season. The Orioles had a great opportunity to improve the starting rotation in free agency this offseason because all of last year's bad pitchers hit the road and will be taking up neither payroll nor roster space for the O's.
The Orioles are hardly alone among MLB teams in dragging their feet about the free agents. What makes the Orioles different than those other teams is they didn't have the luxury of waiting around for the bargains. By choosing not to follow through on the winter meeting talks to trade Machado, they effectively committed to trying to compete in 2018.
Yet with that opportunity, what they've done to improve the rotation consists entirely of signing Andrew Cashner, who has some potential warning signs of a regression candidate, and Chris Tillman, from whom they are hoping for a major bounce-back from last year. These certainly do not feel like the moves that are going to set up the Orioles to compete with the titans of the AL East, the Yankees and the Red Sox.
What the Orioles have done to improve the rest of the roster is nothing, unless you count moving Machado to shortstop as something. For position players, the "big addition" was non-roster invitee Colby Rasmus.
Beyond that, the Orioles are hoping, in a way that feels foolish, for revivals from last year's slumping sluggers, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. They do need that to happen. They needed a healthy Britton, which they already won't be getting since he tore his Achilles and could be out until June or later. They need Brad Brach, also a pending free agent, and Darren O'Day, to pitch better in Britton's absence than they did last year, when Britton had forearm problems.
The Orioles also need Machado to turn in a career year as he springboards towards a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars with some other team. They need last year's solid performers like Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini to stay good and stay healthy. Whether they will get enough of those things happening to contend or pretend to contend is another story.
With all of that in mind, there is little surprise to find that the Orioles are receiving little credit for their chance of finding success this year. The Fangraphs projected standings have them repeating last year's record of 75-87, again with one of the worst pitching staffs in MLB. The PECOTA projection on Baseball Prospectus comes back with an even-worse 69-93 record for the Orioles, leaving the O's as one of MLB's four worst teams, with the most runs allowed in all of MLB. Signing Cashner and Tillman did not budge the initial PECOTA projection by even one win.
These aren't the only places down on the Orioles. Another place is Las Vegas, where one sports book set the Orioles over/under win number at 71.5, with 200-1 odds of winning the World Series and 80-1 odds of winning the division. Then there are the annual ESPN Future Power Rankings, where the Orioles check in at 28 out of 30 MLB teams due to the Orioles entering this crossroads season with what feels like not enough talent to make something good happen this year or in the near future.
One of the hallmarks of the Showalter/Duquette era has been success in defiance of anything projected by the likes of PECOTA or Fangraphs. The Orioles have beaten the PECOTA projection for each of the last six years, and in three of those years they exceeded the projection by at least 15 wins. For a time, an Orioles fan might project confidence about this, that the Orioles just have some secret sauce to beat the projections.
It is more difficult to project such confidence coming on the heels of the 75-win team in 2017, with largely the same returning roster and no major upgrades at open positions. Maybe the Orioles will find a way to do it again like they did in recent better times. That would be a lot of fun. It's reckless to make a big bet on that outcome, though, which the Orioles have effectively done by keeping Machado and passing on the opportunity to rebuild.
In interviews throughout the offseason, Duquette almost seemed offended at suggestions the O's should rebuild. He often deflected these inquiries with the buzz phrase that the Orioles were "reloading, not rebuilding." That makes a good sound bite for a TV or radio interview, but when the "reloading" consists of big-ticket signings of Cashner, Tillman, and Rasmus, it's fair to question whether any such reloading actually happened.
The outlook for the 2018 season is bleak for the Orioles. This is made even more bleak with the fact that the farm system is not stocked for the team to just pick up in 2019 right where they left off if their best players leave in free agency - with the especially painful possibility of Machado going to the Yankees having felt inevitable for a while now.
That's not to say there are no prospects on the farm. The Orioles have had three top 100 prospects on many of the various lists: outfielder Austin Hays, catcher Chance Sisco, and third baseman Ryan Mountcastle. Hays and Sisco could factor on the 2018 team, though it appears the Orioles may start them off in the minors this year in order to
manipulate their service time give them more seasoning.
If onetime top 100 prospect Hunter Harvey is truly back from the injuries that have plagued him for several seasons, that's another name for the pile, and there's a crop of less-regarded players from whom big league regulars might emerge in a year or two, including outfielders Cedric Mullins and D.J. Stewart, and lefty pitchers Keegan Akin and Alex Wells, among others. Potential is there. Certainty is not.
The deck sure seems to be stacked against the Orioles for finding success in 2018 and beyond, but they will start the season with the same 0-0 record as everyone else. If Orioles fans are lucky, they will surprise people again.