The Orioles are not going to win the World Series this year. They aren’t going to win the division, they aren’t going to make the playoffs, and they aren’t going to have a winning record. Some kind of miraculous 20-win improvement over last season with mostly the same roster would still see them losing 95 games this year. That this reality is no fun does not make it less true.
All of this adds up to mean that when June or July roll around, the Orioles will be looking to trade whatever’s not nailed down. Last year, that meant getting the best deals they could for pending free agents Manny Machado and Zack Britton, and since the team was well and truly in the toilet, it expanded to include other arbitration-eligible players in Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman.
With the Orioles outlook for next year not looking too great either, this year’s trade deadline will probably see the O’s looking to make deals for the arbitration-eligible players who are still here. The Orioles goal for the season has to be to try to start finding and developing the players who will be a part of the next good Orioles team. For anyone whose team control ends in 2021 or sooner, trading them may be their only chance of “contributing” to that team.
There are four arbitration-eligible players on the Orioles in 2019: Jonathan Villar (free agent after 2020), Nate Karns (2020), Dylan Bundy (2021), and Mychal Givens (2021). Those are the guys who GM Mike Elias will probably be looking to swap when the summer gets here, the ones who might hopefully be able to be used to bolster a weak farm system. Unfortunately for the Orioles, spring training hasn’t gone very well for any of them so far.
Spring training results don’t matter for a variety of reasons. You never know who’s just working on something, who’s shaking the rust off, who’s compiling good numbers against minor league-caliber competition. There are still 13 games until Opening Day and 12 more Grapefruit League games for guys to get into game shape. Whatever numbers are there get wiped clean at the end of spring training.
When it comes to these numbers that don’t count, I have a simple rule. I would rather have to remind myself why exceptional numbers mean nothing than have to make excuses for why poor numbers mean nothing. I try to look at minor league performance a similar way. Sometimes, a guy is going to be better than what he’s shown to date. Sometimes, you end up waiting for better performance that never arrives.
After acquiring the 27-year-old infielder last July in the Jonathan Schoop trade, the Orioles saw Villar turn in a fine final two months of the season, batting .258/.336/.392 over 54 games with the O’s, hitting eight home runs and stealing 21 bases. His 1.3 bWAR proved to be the second-best of any player who ended the season still on the Orioles, trailing only... Richard Bleier. The Brewers surely regret trading him for Schoop, who posted just a .577 OPS there and was non-tendered.
That 2018 second half immediately made Villar look like 2019 trade bait as well. Somebody will need a fast middle infielder whose upside at the plate is league average. That hasn’t carried over to spring training yet, where Villar is batting .160/.300/.200 across ten games.
A ten-game sample size wouldn’t tell us much in the regular season. Players slump all of the time. Being bad right now is not the same as being bad. Villar has still stolen three bases, and having drawn five walks is also reasonably encouraging. It’s not time to panic. It’s just that, going back to my rule, I wish I didn’t have to make excuses for why Villar would be better in the regular season.
Orioles fans don’t have a whole lot of emotional investment in Karns, the only MLB free agent signed by the Elias regime to date. The fact that the O’s signed Karns with the hope that he could stay healthy enough hold down a rotation spot and immediately saw him suffer a setback that’s left him cast as a one-inning reliever in spring training doesn’t hurt too much.
Maybe the team plans to stretch him out as a starting pitcher as the season goes along. Maybe he will still be capable of doing that enough to make himself an interesting piece by the time July rolls around. But maybe he just can’t really be a starter any more, and the “high reward” parts of this low-risk, high-reward signing are already toast. That doesn’t make it a bad signing, just an inconsequential one for the future of the O’s.
The good news is that Bundy became the first O’s starter of the spring to pitch five innings in an outing yesterday. The bad news is that he gave up four runs on seven hits and was only hitting 89-91 on the radar gun with his fastball, all while facing a Minnesota Twins B-list lineup.
Through four spring outings, that has added up to a 10.80 ERA for Bundy, with batters hitting .407 against him and a 2.06 WHIP allowed across 11.2 innings. It doesn’t count, and he has two more outings before the regular season when it matters, but if you were hoping, like me, that the Elias-era analytics might click with Bundy right away and turn him into more of the pitcher we always hoped we would be... well, maybe it will still happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.
For Bundy in particular, poor spring performance is just carrying over from last year, when his home run rate spiked as batters hit better than ever against him, leading to a 5.45 ERA and 5.17 FIP in his 31 starts. I am tired of having to say that things will get better with him because of X, Y, and Z. I just want them to be better.
It’s a challenge to have much worse results than Givens has to date this spring, with a 30.37 ERA as Givens has completed just 2.2 innings in four outings, with three home runs allowed. Batters are hitting .529 in Givens’s Grapefruit League games.
This is the guy who, almost by default, seemed to be on track to be the highest-leverage reliever out of the bullpen in the regular season. Maybe he still will be. A fireman reliever who’s pitching well and has two years of team control remaining beyond the current season is one with real trade value! A guy who follows up on a “meh” 2018 with early-season problems in 2019... not so much.
All of that bad stuff gets erased at the end of the day on March 26. The time between now and then is time where Givens can work with the coaching staff on making sure that whatever has gone on this spring doesn’t carry over into the regular season. It could stick and Givens could be lights-out. That’s what we have to tell ourselves. But it might not work out.
As preseason fan rallying cries go, “Maybe our tenured players will play well enough to get traded!” is not very inspiring. It’s even less inspiring when those players are not yet looking like the winter’s rust has been removed.
That’s one of the things that O’s fans have to hope for this season: That the guys who aren’t a part of the next good O’s team because they’ll be free agents before it gets here can be traded for prospects who will be a part of future good O’s teams. We have to hope that Dan Duquette started finding some of those guys last July and that Elias can use these pieces to find some more this July.
Ideally, most or all of them will do fine in the regular season and my mid-March nervousness about them will look ridiculous. Until they start to show me reason to believe otherwise, though, I’m nervous.