One of the hallmarks of being a sports fan is the great delusion everyone can participate in as the season is about to get under way. Maybe this year will be our year! For many, the cruelty of reality will interrupt these dreams before long, and for all but one team of the rest the cruelty of the postseason will snuff out those hopes after months of team performance stoking them.
The 2019 Orioles present a different case. There is barely anyone, if anyone at all, who believes even a tiny bit in the potential for success at the MLB level from this squad. Spring training is just a week away and there is no hope anywhere. That’s no surprise to those of us who watched the bulk of this same squad put up a 47-115 record last season. Of course these guys are not going to be any good. Why the heck would anyone believe any different?
This is a strange thing to experience. In the bad years of the past decade, and for that matter the bad years of the past two years, even a pessimist had to concede to the optimist that there was a path to success for the Orioles.
At this time last year, you could still try to talk yourself into things working out OK for the ‘18 O’s. You could think things like “Chris Davis can’t possibly suck as much as he did last year,” “the Orioles will be able to sign a couple of free agent starting pitchers capable of having ERAs in the low-4s,” “the bullpen will be fine while Zach Britton recovers,” and “Chance Sisco and Austin Hays will arrive and improve weak areas of the 2017 team.”
As we know, the 2018 Orioles did not find that path to success, because as it turns out all of those things were unlikely to ever come true. The general O’s plan of “hope everything bad from a 75-87 team improves and nothing good gets any worse” was a bad one whose architects deserved to be, and ultimately were, ushered away from the franchise unceremoniously.
The pessimists were right about everything, but early last February, no one knew any of that, so that even a pessimist might find himself imagining that maybe an unlikely series of events would play out and the O’s would be good. Why not? It happened three times in five years during the 2012-16 run of success, didn’t it? Even having watched them, it’s a challenge to explain how the winning Orioles managed to win with what they had. It just worked, somehow, until it didn’t.
For a variety of ultimately loser Orioles teams, you could talk yourself into them if you were intoxicated by spring imagination. Former manager Dave Trembley’s “cavalry” of pitchers was another prime example. They were coming in 2010. After so many years of losing, things would get better when guys like Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman arrived to save us.
We know that did not ultimately happen. The Orioles started 2-16 and Trembley was fired in early June. If you believed in that cavalry, you could imagine good things for the 2010 team and beyond. Confession: Though I’m now known for pessimism about the Orioles I was, at that time, dumb enough to believe in those losers. I went around telling my non-Orioles fan friends that this would be the year they at least found their way back to looking competent. We all make mistakes.
There is no path for even foolish belief in the 2019 Orioles. No one involved with the team is trying to sell us on any such thing. Of course they aren’t. After a 47-115 season, no one could talk up the potential for something like a 25-win improvement into uninspiring garden-variety mediocrity without sounding like one of the world’s biggest idiots.
New GM Mike Elias has brushed aside any questions about setting a timetable for when the O’s might be good again since he arrived. Not only does he not want to get anyone’s hopes up for this year, he doesn’t even want to make you start to expect good things by like 2022 just yet.
With the O’s generally seeming to be regarded as having a bottom-third farm system, or if you ask ESPN’s Keith Law, dead last even after last July’s trades, it makes plenty of sense for Elias not to start setting expectations until he and his people can get in and work their magic with improving the existing talent and adding new, better talent to the farm. Elias and company have got their work cut out for them.
It brings us all back to the odd case of the 2019 Orioles. There is no “Maybe this year!” There won’t even be a “Maybe next year!” if the team is already bad by June. When asked at FanFest about what he might consider a successful 2019 campaign, Elias offered a longer answer that included one bit in particular that has stuck with me: “I don’t want to place undue emphasis on something that’s not strategically relevant.”
Winning in 2019 is not strategically relevant and everybody knows it. Even the possibility of winning is not, from a fan’s perspective, worth exploring in any way.
Some individual players might surprise us as the season goes along. I, for one, am hoping, perhaps stupidly, for good things from Dylan Bundy now that people who are actually in touch with modern baseball analytics will be offering him advice on how to get the most out of his talent. But a modest surprise story here and there can’t and won’t make a winning team out of the cratered remains of the 2018 Orioles.
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in a week. The hopes of Orioles fans will not be reporting with them. Here’s hoping that now that Elias and his hires are in charge, there won’t be many more sad springs in the future.