You already know the gory numbers. In 2019, the Orioles finished 58-108 (.333), last in the AL East, and second-worst in the Major Leagues. Their combined staff ERA was a major league-worst 5.59, and they allowed a historic 305 home runs on the year. (Let it be known, however, that the O’s were not a terrible-hitting team: they finished 15th out of 30 teams in total hits, and 20th out of 30 in batting average.)
Perhaps the most troubling numbers, though? A third-worst average 16,347 fans per game. Only the state of Florida stayed home more: Tampa Bay and Miami fill out the bottom.
So you can understand why The Athletic just ran a piece on each team’s offseason shopping list concluding that the Orioles’ biggest need is “a player, or players, who, while unlikely to be part of a winning Orioles team, would at least provide some sort of entertainment or nostalgia value for fans in the region.”
Here’s my problem with that assessment.
First, the same piece (or its NL equivalent) treats winning as more “strategically relevant” for the Tigers and Marlins, who hardly stood apart from the Orioles in badness. “Runs,” it says, of these two light-hitting teams’ most pressing need.
This is ultimately just another example of lazy “Dump on Baltimore”-stereotyping by national sports media. I say this, not because the Orioles don’t have an attendance problem right now, but because actually, our fans are pretty normal.
The Orioles had the 6th-best attendance in the MLB in 2001, on the tail end of those competitive years in the late-‘90s, and the 13th-best in 2014, when you had a reason to watch Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and J.J. Hardy compete in the playoffs.
Give us relatively competent baseball to watch, and we will come.
On the other hand, there have been only three years since 2001 when Tampa Bay and Miami did not both finish in the bottom-five in attendance—and one of those was when the Marlins moved to Miami. The Marlins won the World Series in 1997, and Tampa Bay has competed in a handful of years since then. That, sirs, is an attendance problem.
OK, but more substantively, and to prove I’m not just an embittered fan, the idea that the Orioles need to get butts in the seats by signing a name-brand-recognition player who’s past his prime, and thus can be gotten for cheap, is the exact opposite of what needs to be happening this offseason.
On the Hot Stove Show last week, Mike Elias explained that “particularly for a team in our situation with a lot of young players coming,” there won’t be “a lot of veteran free agents right now.”
In other words, holes on the diamond are going to get plugged with prospects, not outside signings, except where there’s a real lack of depth.
Right now, said thin spots are clustered in the rotation and the bullpen, especially with recent cuts like righty Aaron Brooks and Gabriel Ynoa, and, on the 40-man roster, a ton of unproven names (Cole Sulser, Eric Hanhold, and Cody Carroll) or on-the-bubble types (Shawn Armstrong, Evan Phillips, and David Hess).
There’s also need up the middle, what with the Orioles likely to lose both Jonathan Villar and Richie Martin this offseason to trade and demotion, respectively (though this isn’t certain).
Take a look at the MLB’s free agent list right now. Even second-tier pitchers— Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels—are likely to snap up three-year deals, which puts them outside the Orioles’ budget. The Orioles have been linked to veteran hurler Colin McHugh, a Houston guy from Elias’ time there. Otherwise, there’s guys like Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Martin Perez, Brandon Kintzler, and Brett Anderson.
Up the middle, Joe Trezza speculates that the O’s could sign any of José Iglesias (age 30, .273/.315/.687 career stats, $2.5 million salary with the Reds in 2019), Adeiny Hechavarria (age 30, .253/.290/.642, $1 million), Jordy Mercer (age 33, .257/.316/.703, $5.25 million), Hernán Pérez (age 29, .252/.282/.668, $2.5 million), or Starlin Castro (age 30, .280/.319/.733, $12 million).
These are solid names, especially at shortstop, but if they set your heart a-racing, well, you love this game more than I do.
I’m all for clever fixes at the margins to bring up attendance. Bark at Oriole Park, more Hawaiian t-shirts, and Yoga in the Yard have been hits. Moving the games earlier could make them more family-friendly. And why not bring back the UK Scouts as a yearly thing?
But any marquee player will cost this team more than he’s worth—particularly with its still being mortgaged to Chris Davis. And, much as I hate to say it, pursuing a heartwarming reunion—say with beloved outfielder and Birdland hero Adam Jones—seems like it would just set back the process of assessing what the Orioles have in Austin Hays, Yusniel Diaz, and Cedric Mullins.
A reason to watch? Well, according to Jon Meoli, the Orioles should be “interesting and fun” some time late next year, “watchable for non-enthusiasts” late in 2021, and “competitive” by the end of 2022.
In the meantime, I hope you find player development compelling. Let’s go O’s!