There are a number of different ways to construct a successful baseball team. In a given season, one of them feels like it reigns supreme by virtue of the team that wins the World Series being put together the way that it was. The 2019 champion Nationals are on top of the mountain now, the shining example for a woeful, 108-loss team like the Orioles to emulate, or at least for fans of the team to imagine they might some day be able to copy.
It’s not like the Orioles can just plan to have a team three years from now that’s as good as the 2019 Nationals were. A lot of decisions, big and little, made along the way by both World Series teams, the Astros and Nationals, got them where they were. In building the next great Orioles team, Mike Elias is going to face different decisions at different times and the result will be an O’s roster that gets better - we hope - in its own unique way.
That the Orioles were not any good this season is not news to anyone. The gulf between the O’s and the champions is wide and deep. Out of morbid curiosity, I found myself wondering just how bad it would look at each position side-by-side. Let’s find out together.
Even before some signature awful plays like “DJ Stewart dives for ball and gets a concussion after it hits him in the head instead” came along, you probably had a sense the O’s defense was pretty bad. They had a worst-in-MLB Defensive Runs Saved of -105, and were next-to-last in Ultimate Zone Rating with -29.5.
One bit of good news for the Orioles is that they don’t necessarily have to go from “worst defense” to “best defense” in order to be competitive. The Nationals just won it all with a defense that rated at -2 DRS and +2.9 UZR. Some things being middle of the pack can still lead to success if you’re good at enough other stuff. You don’t have to be great at everything, though it doesn’t hurt.
These are batting lines by position on the field, not player. I’ve included in parenthesis the player who made the most starts at the position.
- LF: .245/.302/.402 (Dwight Smith Jr.)
- CF: .224/.281/.386 (Stevie Wilkerson)
- RF: .258/.327/.490 (Trey Mancini)
- DH: .264/.328/.472 (Renato Nunez)
Yes, no wonder they lost 108 games, especially considering left field and center field were two of the biggest negative contributions to the defensive numbers above.
- LF: .281/.397/.536 (Juan Soto)
- CF: .260/.327/.430 (Victor Robles)
- RF: .271/.350/.418 (Adam Eaton)
Soto, who was worth 4.7 bWAR, was the 5th-most valuable Nationals player and was more valuable than any Oriole by this measure. Robles, who was not a very good hitter, managed to contribute enough with defense and on the bases to be worth 4.1 bWAR - more than any Oriole except for John Means.
One of the storylines of the World Series is that the Astros and Nationals, between them, were two of the three oldest teams in MLB. The Nationals were able to pay older veterans because they had an age 20 Soto and an age 22 Robles making near the MLB minimum while combining to be worth nearly nine wins between the two of them. Of course, you also have to be good and lucky about deciding which veterans to pay.
Soto and Robles, who are both from the Dominican Republic, were international amateur signings. With apologies to the spirit of the deceased horse I am about to beat, Soto signed for $1.5 million and Robles for $225,000 when they were each just 16.
The Orioles have been whiffing on chances to get players like this for years. It’s good that now that they’re trying. Still, it’ll take four years to bear fruit at a minimum, and that’s only assuming they find a player like Soto who can be a star at 20. The players who won’t debut until 22-23 are six or seven years away from the day they sign.
- C: .227/.307/.380 (Pedro Severino)
- 1B: .227/.309/.403 (Chris Davis)
- 2B: .260/.314/.418 (Jonathan Villar)
- SS: .242/.297/.378 (Richie Martin)
- 3B: .282/.333/.426 (Rio Ruiz)
Hanser Alberto played a lot of both second and third base, which isn’t super relevant to this discussion, but I liked him and he did fine this year, so I don’t want him to be erased from anything that looks at the 2019 Orioles.
- C: .240/.316/.427 (Yan Gomes)
- 1B: .280/.330/.513 (Matt Adams)
- 2B: .259/.354/.468 (Brian Dozier)
- SS: .281/.340/.458 (Trea Turner)
- 3B: .314/.402/.570 (Anthony Rendon)
Rendon was another of the players who was better than any Oriole. His 6.3 bWAR is great. He also made $18.8 million in this, his last season before becoming a free agent. If you were wondering, Rendon was selected two picks after the O’s took Dylan Bundy in 2011.
The Nationals are lucky that they were able to keep a window of success pried open for long enough to have Rendon’s greatest season yet matter. They also made a lot of good decisions to be able to have this good of a team even after Bryce Harper left. It’s even more impressive considering their 19-31 record after 50 games.
They could have easily gone the way of the 2018 Orioles with Manny Machado. It is easier to succeed with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the starting rotation than the jabronis the Orioles deployed in 2018.
August scrap heap pickup Asdrubal Cabrera caught on fire with Washington after being released by the Rangers. He batted .323/.404/.565 in 38 games. He was worth 1.5 bWAR in just that short stretch. There’s the luck again. Get the right guy at the right time and things all look magical.
These are the five pitchers who started the most games with each team.
- Dylan Bundy: 161.2 IP, 4.79 ERA, 4.73 FIP
- John Means: 155 IP, 3.60 ERA, 4.41 FIP
- Andrew Cashner: 96.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 4.26 FIP
- Asher Wojciechowski: 82.1 IP, 4.92 ERA, 5.30 FIP
- David Hess: 80 IP, 7.09 ERA, 7.26 FIP
There were 18 different pitchers who started a game with the Orioles this season. Another way to look at the chaos is that there were eight different pitchers who started at least eight games, and only two who started more than 20. With the exception of the injury-limited Nate Karns, who started two games, none of the 13 unlisted starters had an ERA below 5.
- Stephen Strasburg: 209 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP
- Patrick Corbin: 202 IP, 3.25 ERA, 3.49 FIP
- Max Scherzer: 172.1 IP, 2.92 ERA, 2.45 FIP
- Anibal Sanchez: 166 IP, 3.85 ERA, 4.44 FIP
- Erick Fedde: 78 IP, 4.50 ERA, 5.34 FIP
Scherzer made $35 million this season, though the entirety of it was deferred. Strasburg also made $35 million, with $30 million of it deferred. It certainly helps to pay the players you need to be successful right now if you can get creative. They’ll pay later and it doesn’t matter. Flags fly forever.
Corbin, the free agent addition before this season, got a $140 million contract, but it only pays him $12.5 million this season. A GM looks like a genius when everything clicks. At the same time, it’s easier for everything to click when your big free agent pitching expenditures are Scherzer and Corbin, plus a healthy contract extension for Strasburg, rather than... you know, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Alex Cobb.
These three pitchers were worth a combined 17.7 bWAR. Their contribution to the Nationals success in the postseason was essential. It’s the idea of the Orioles building a rotation THIS good that seems the most daunting to me as a fan. How will they ever get guys like this? The answer is that they don’t have to, as long as they get enough good players elsewhere.
Relievers listed are the ones labeled as either CL or RP on Baseball Reference - that is, the guy with the most saves plus the four other guys with the most relief innings pitched.
- Mychal Givens: 63 IP, 4.57 ERA, 4.50 FIP
- Miguel Castro: 73.1 IP, 4.66 ERA, 4.73 FIP
- Paul Fry: 57.1 IP, 5.34 ERA, 4.71 FIP
- Richard Bleier: 55.1 IP, 5.37 ERA, 4.19 FIP
- Shawn Armstrong: 54.1 IP, 5.13 ERA, 4.28 FIP
One thing that stands out to me is that, while the Orioles defense was very bad and probably cost some pitchers runs at different times, there was nobody pitching well out of the bullpen by the Fielding Independent Pitching calculation. On the other hand...
- Sean Doolittle: 60 IP, 4.05 ERA, 4.25 FIP
- Wander Suero: 71.1 IP, 4.54 ERA, 3.07 FIP
- Javy Guerra: 53.2 IP, 4.86 ERA, 4.50 FIP
- Tanner Rainey: 48.1 IP, 3.91 ERA, 4.37 FIP
- Matt Grace: 46.2 IP, 6.36 ERA, 5.55 FIP
The only team that had a worse bullpen ERA than the Nationals was the Orioles. In this one way they stand as a shining beacon of hope to everyone. If even these hapless losers weren’t enough of an anchor to drag down their team, maybe any other team can overcome anything and succeed.
The Nationals victory through the wild card spot certainly exposes the cowardice of various front offices who decided not to pursue significant upgrades at the trade deadline out of a belief that it wasn’t worth trying to get past the Dodgers as a wild card team.
The Nationals did it. They had one big tragic flaw and they overcame it. If you get enough great players at the right time - which takes smart moves, money, and lucky - you can overcome a lot. Maybe some day that can be the Orioles, too.