There is a natural tendency for any sports fan to start thinking about the what-ifs during tough times. There have been no shortage of Orioles decisions to prompt these questions over the last three or four years, starting with “What if the O’s had re-signed Nelson Cruz?” and going on from there.
As the 2018 team has endured a series of shellackings that have left them in last in the division with the worst run differential in the American League, these sorts of questions present themselves once again.
What stands out about this litany is how few of their current problems were things that they had any real opportunity to address this past offseason. Players whose roster spots were locked in from day 1 of spring training, and rightly so, are contributing to these early failures in a big way.
You probably have your own favorite (or least favorite), the one that just bothers you the most. Maybe it’s a trade they made, like Gerardo Parra for Zach Davies, or a bad signing, like Yovani Gallardo. Mine is: “What if the Orioles had realized Trey Mancini is good rather than re-signing Mark Trumbo?” This would not have fixed everything that ails the team right now, nor everything that ailed it last year, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.
Broadly, the Orioles problems are everything that doesn’t involve Dylan Bundy, Trey Mancini, Richard Bleier, and Manny Machado’s hitting. I’m exaggerating a bit there. You can toss a few more names on the acceptable pile, but not too many.
We all surely expected the starting rotation to continue to be an issue. Signing Chris Tillman was one mistake. Waiting until March 21 to sign Alex Cobb appears to have been another. However, these are not the only reasons that the Orioles are 5-14 right now. A healthy chunk of the blame can be laid at the feet of so many struggling hitters, who have collectively seen to it that the O’s have failed to score more than three runs in 13 of their first 19 games.
The lineup was always going to include Caleb Joseph, Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop, Tim Beckham, and Adam Jones. Why shouldn’t it have? Set aside Davis, whose contract is an unfolding problem. Those other guys were fine, or even good. They have been varying degrees of bad to begin the season.
That’s more than half of a lineup worth of trouble. Of course these jokers are in last place. But what could have been done to stop that anchor dragging the team down into the depths over these first three weeks? The Orioles had a decent reason to believe they’d be OK in sticking with their hitters - excepting, again, the non-sluggers like Davis and Mark Trumbo.
A similar situation exists in the Orioles bullpen. The main contributors so far were apparent from the moment we knew of Zach Britton’s ruptured Achilles. The back end of the bullpen duties would be handled chiefly by Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Mychal Givens. Last year’s middle-innings success stories, Bleier and Miguel Castro, would be around.
That group is not as good as if it was closed out by the 2016 incarnation of Britton, but it was reasonable to think it would be mostly good enough, right? That’s not just Orioles homer thinking. Here we are, though, 19 games into the season, and O’Day has blown two leads in his seven appearances and taken the loss in a third game after giving up a home run that broke a tie. Givens has allowed runs in four of his last outings.
Maybe they’re just getting their struggles out of the way early on. A couple of bad outings tilt a pitcher’s ERA in April. These things have contributed to losses all the same. Givens struggling in Houston on April 3 led to the dual Rule 5 pick meltdown. O’Day blowing the lead on Wednesday also put Rule 5 pick Pedro Araujo on the mound. Araujo took the loss on both occasions. I haven’t even mentioned Brach blowing the Opening Day save, which still ended happily for the O’s.
What could the Orioles have done about this over the offseason? Not messed around with Rule 5 picks, sure, but again, the key relievers were always going to be these guys. The Orioles got most of the bullpen they wanted to have and they didn’t have to spend any free agent money on it. That should have been a good thing! Maybe, by year’s end, it still will be. Here on April 20, though, it’s part of what has led them to last place.
None of this is to say that the O’s made every decision perfectly this offseason. In the end, it may turn out that the decision not to trade Machado and punt on the season was the biggest fatal flaw that will end up haunting the franchise in the years to come.
Even from a “Let’s try to win!” standpoint, there are the Tillman and Cobb situations mentioned above, the decision that they could solve the utility infield hole with Danny Valencia rather than Ryan Flaherty, the decision to sign Colby Rasmus rather than literally any other outfielder and perhaps even, much as it pains me to say, the decision to shift Machado to shortstop and Beckham to third base. These things have all sent the O’s to their 5-14 record, too.
Hopefully, the Orioles will find some way to get this ship turned around in time to matter for the 2018 standings and we will not have to spend the whole rest of the season haunted by the what-ifs. They are an abominable failure of a baseball team up to this point, but 19 games of failure is not an automatic indicator of 162 games of failure. Or so they have to tell themselves, and by extension, so we have to tell ourselves.
It is not a complete fool’s hope to think some of this will improve. If Joseph doesn’t hit better, the O’s can start playing Chance Sisco more. Beckham, Jones, and Schoop should all climb at least towards career norms. Reliever volatility being what it is, assuming a return to form for Givens and O’Day is less certain. The Orioles have been pretty good about figuring out the late innings in recent seasons, even if they have to adjust midseason.
There was nothing the O’s could do about these problems this past offseason because they weren’t even expected to be problems. Once some of this starts to improve, then we can get back to worrying about the starting rotation just like we always knew we would be doing.