Not too many years ago, an annual ritual for Orioles fans was to survey the various expert projected records for the upcoming season and then imagine with glee how wrong they would be. That game is over, for now. As this year’s PECOTA projection was unveiled today at Baseball Prospectus, the only thing there really is to say in response to their 57-105 record is, “That sounds about right.”
Gone are the days of the Orioles blowing past their projected win total by 15+ wins in three out of five seasons, at least for now. The PECOTA system was one of the first harbingers of doom for the 2018 O’s, seeing a 69-93 record for last year’s squad. If only it had been so good. Where they were once double-digit wins too low, in 2018, PECOTA was 22 wins too high.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is the worst projected record for any team by far. The closest team is nine wins better, a 66-win projection for the Marlins. The other 100-loss teams from last season, the Royals and White Sox, check in at 71 and 70 wins, respectively, in their 2019 projections.
The specific projections are, not surprisingly, no more pretty than the record. This is a team that is expected to score the second-fewest runs in the AL, with 655 runs scored. They are expected once again to be the worst team in MLB at allowing runs, with 910 expected runs allowed. That’s worse than even last year’s 892 runs allowed. It’s not going to be pretty. The only difference between this year and last is that we know it ahead of time.
The ugly foundation on which this whole house is built are the player projections. They are gruesome, too. How gruesome? How about: No one expected to throw a pitch for the Orioles, starter or reliever, will have an ERA lower than 4.39. Of the five pitchers projected to start the most games for the team, four will have ERAs higher than 5. At least, that’s what PECOTA says. This is very close to what happened last year.
This would not be a great beginning for the Mike Elias rebuilding project. The record doesn’t matter. The fact that seven or eight pitchers may have a revolving door of failure as 4th/5th starters doesn’t matter - only Dan Duquette’s platoon of failed pitching evaluators ever believed those guys might be good or even acceptable, anyway.
What would be unfortunate for the Orioles building for the future is if even their next wave of trade bait underperforms. It’s a sad thing looking at a team before the season even starts and knowing that anyone with value is getting dealt for prospects in July, but that’s how it has to be for the O’s for the next couple of years. If they’re good, they’ll be gone.
Worse still if they’re not even good. Mychal Givens with a 4.59 ERA as a closer would probably not fetch very much. Dylan Bundy with a 4.64 ERA, probably the same thing. On the hitting side, a .242/.306/.421 batting line for Mark Trumbo or a .245/.311/.382 batting line for Jonathan Villar aren’t going to inspire dreams of July mega-deals either.
One thing that can be said about this year’s team is that there is room for improvement. After last year, duh, of course there is. While I think even the most starry-eyed optimist would have a hard time concocting a scenario where the O’s get above, say, 70 wins, I like the O’s chances to squeeze out a few more wins just from having Elias and his newly-hired nerds providing information to a coaching staff that can actually apply that information to specific players in a meaningful way.
Perhaps I’m the biggest idiot of all for really believing in this possibility. Maybe the 2018 Orioles were bad because Duquette assembled a collection of players who were operating at their best and still completely outmatched. After having watched way too much of those losers, I don’t think that is what was happening. Nothing could have made those dopes into a playoff team, but smart, modern thinkers could have probably made them better than they were.
Defense is one big area where things could get a little better with mostly the same people. The 2018 Orioles were the worst team in MLB at turning balls in play into outs with a .310 BABIP. An Opening Day lineup with three real outfielders would be huge. An analytics department that can figure out what pitchers should be throwing and where the fielders should be standing would also be huge.
The PECOTA projection doesn’t expect a whole, real outfield. The most playing time in left field is Trey Mancini at 45%, followed by Joey Rickard at 35%. If that’s really how left field looks for 80% of the season, that’s not much fun. If Chris Davis doesn’t have a miracle rebound, it will be brutal to watch him bat 536 times as PECOTA projects. I suspect new manager Brandon Hyde will not live up to those and other playing time projections.
There’s not much that anyone can do to change the fact that this season is going to suck. The Orioles are not going to win very much. They were never going to win very much. That’s not part of the plan.
If fans and the team are lucky, some surprises will emerge. Perhaps Renato Nunez can continue serving as a decent stopgap at third base rather than ending up with his sad PECOTA-projected .687 OPS. Maybe the Richie Martin Rule 5 experiment at shortstop will go better than a .203/.256/.321 batting line.
And maybe someone, anyone, can manage to look like a competent starting pitcher and stay healthy in the process. Luis Ortiz, Dillon Tate, Yefry Ramirez, David Hess, John Means - please, someone surprise us and save us. Thank you. If enough things go right, maybe the Orioles will only lose 99 games.