Even in dark years, there's something about spring training that makes it a time of hope and optimism. After all, every team starts the season at 0-0 and there are many possibilities for the season to come, some of which could be good for the Orioles, as some recent seasons have been. It could all work out spectacularly.
That is a big if, and that is the big problem with trying to feel good about the 2018 Orioles. They have committed themselves to this course where practically everything must go right in this final year before so much of their core of the last several seasons, including Manny Machado, Zach Britton, and Adam Jones, become free agents.
Machado must bounce back. So must Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, in different ways. Britton has to get healthy. Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy have to step forward. Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini, and Tim Beckham have to keep up the pace, and so on.
Nothing would make me happier than if enough of those things broke in the Orioles favor for them to have a smashing success of a season. I will be rooting for those good things in every Orioles game this year, pleased when they happen, resigned when they don't.
Yet after watching the dismal performance of last season, I can't escape the feeling that we watched the Orioles last, best chance with this group sail over the fence in Toronto in October 2016, with Britton never pitching in the game. We just didn't realize it at the time and neither, it seems, did the front office.
One illustration of the challenges facing the Orioles can be seen in their placement in this week's ESPN Future Power Rankings, in which ESPN writers Buster Olney, Dan Szymborski, and Keith Law set out to quantify the current and future health of each franchise. The Orioles place 28th out of 30 MLB teams on these rankings.
For extra heartburn, the Yankees, fresh off acquiring Giancarlo Stanton and still with a loaded farm system and near-term financial flexibility that should allow them to be players for Machado next offseason, are #1 in the rankings.
The four components of the rankings were: Current strength (25%), future strength (45%), financial support (20%), and front office/ownership (10%). The Orioles ranked 23rd for current strength, 26th for future strength, and 20th for both financial support and front office.
This is the sort of thing that would surely prompt GM Dan Duquette to deploy one of his favorite applause lines for a crowd: "The same people who rate our farm system are the people who pick us last every year." It is a line that has more punch when it does not come on the heels of a season in which the Orioles did, in fact, finish last in the division.
The current strength assessment needs little to justify it. The Orioles were bad last year. Their marquee offseason additions were Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman and, if he makes the team, Colby Rasmus. The safe bet is that this will not be enough for them to any good this year.
With the Orioles operating in the Baltimore market, among the smaller ones in the league, the financial support rating seems fair as well. We may well be witnessing the shrinking of the Orioles payroll starting this year. They opened the season with a $164 million payroll last year and are currently on track to start this year at about $130 million. Money doesn't buy happiness and it doesn't buy wins either, but it sure helps.
As for the front office and ownership, the story from a couple of weeks ago that laid out how the Orioles were too dysfunctional to sign either Ryan Flaherty or Ryan Goins means that, if anything, 20th is probably generous here. What's more, we have no idea what the team's brain trust will look like a year from now. Even Duquette and Buck Showalter are in the last year of their contracts.
It's the future strength one that is the worst, and the biggest concern. Orioles fans hardly need another reminder of Machado's pending free agency because that thought is always present. A year from now, he's out. So may be Britton, Jones, and Brad Brach. Another year after that, Schoop is probably out.
Though the Orioles have made some improvements to their farm system, placing 2-3 players in most top 100 prospect lists - Chance Sisco, Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle - that's just not going to be enough to replace the talent that they've had on their own team that will soon be on other teams. Simply put, the Orioles already may not be good this year and their best player is about to leave. Of course that's a tough situation to be in for the future.
Orioles fans have to hope that the ESPN people are wrong. The good news about this is that the baseball pundit world has had a tendency to be wrong about the Orioles over the last six years, not predicting their success beforehand and often searching about for justifications to downplay what success the team has had, acting as though it must be illusory and unsustainable because, obviously, the only "real" good teams are the ones everyone knew would be good ahead of time. I'm being sarcastic just there.
The farm may not rank highly, but it's not bereft of talent either. Much like the big league team this year, it may just require a number of things going right to really hit big. The potential is still there for a legitimate big league outfield of D.J. Stewart, Cedric Mullins, and Austin Hays. Mountcastle might settle in to third base.
For the pitchers, Hunter Harvey might finally get healthy and join Gausman and Bundy in the rotation for a couple of years before those guys too become free agents. Farther down, you can dream about contributions from players who've yet to get above Frederick, like lefties Keegan Akin and Alex Wells, and hope for a bounce-back from 2016 top pick Cody Sedlock.
At lower levels still are pitchers worth keeping an eye on: DL Hall, Brenan Hanifee, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther. Most of these guys won't make it. Maybe none of them will. That's the business with prospects. It is really, really hard to be good enough to be an average MLB player. Even can't-miss players can miss, and the Orioles haven't had one of those in the minors since Machado, whose pending departure has us grappling with this whole existential quandary to begin with.
The Orioles aren't in a tough place just because some ESPN guys said so. They're in a tough place because of all of the obvious things that the ESPN guys can see as easily as us. Altogether, it paints a bleak picture for the Orioles in the present and the future. Here's hoping the obvious answer about the Orioles is the wrong one.