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Sizing up the Orioles competition for the top of the 2020 draft: August edition

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The Orioles are no longer the worst team in MLB and they’re close to not even being the second-worst.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
The players have changed a lot, but the victory jump endures.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

As recently a month ago, it seemed almost like a given that the Orioles would once again end up with the worst record in baseball in 2019 and that a second straight #1 overall pick would be theirs next June. That was the belief of 83% of people who voted in the poll of last month’s installment of this series.

It’s not hard to see why any of us believed that. The Orioles have the worst rotation ERA in the AL, worst bullpen ERA in the AL, and the worst defense in MLB by the Defensive Runs Saved metric. Oh, and their offense stinks too. Despite these undeniable truths about the team, the O’s played .500 baseball in July. With their next 12 games against the Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox, that’s unlikely to last, but it’s made the race to the bottom of MLB more interesting than you might have thought.

There are still five teams who have a winning percentage under .400 for the season. These are the same five teams who were on that list about a month ago, and the same five teams on the list about two months ago. The Tigers, Orioles, and Royals seem to be in a class of their own for the top three picks in the draft, and the Marlins and Blue Jays are also pretty bad.

Things can always change. A month ago, the Orioles were three games worse than the Tigers in the standings. Now, the Tigers are four games worse than the Orioles.

This doesn’t mean some miraculous fix has happened. GM Mike Elias was direct in appreciating the team’s July play, but realistic in what it means: “I can’t stand here and announce that because of one good month we’ve turned the corner and we’re ready to be on the up and up.”

The trade deadline has come and gone. These teams will not be subtracting from their rosters according to any design to be worse in the present to improve for the future. They’ve got who they’ve got, and it’s probably going to be the worst team that ends up losing the most.

Detroit Tigers

  • Record: 32-76 (On pace for: 48-114)
  • Pythagorean record: 33-75 (Expected based on runs scored/allowed)
  • Fangraphs projected record: 53-109

At the trade deadline, the Tigers unloaded their closer Shane Greene, who’d posted a 0.868 WHIP, 1.18 ERA, and saved 22 of their 32 wins on the season. They also moved pending free agent Nicholas Castellanos, who happened to be one of their only two players with an OPS+ of 100 or better.

What’s good

The Tigers have three of the top 50 prospects in MLB, according to MLB Pipeline’s recent update. That includes last year’s #1 overall pick, Casey Mize, and 2016 first rounder Matt Manning, both of whom are in Double-A Erie’s starting rotation.

With those two pitchers looking great, rookie Spencer Turnbull pitching well (3.72 ERA, 4.00 FIP in 20 starts) and trade rumor generator Matthew Boyd still hanging around with his 12.2 K/9, 6.23 K/BB, 3.91 ERA, and 3.43 FIP in 23 starts, a Tigers fan can imagine a much better rotation in the not too distant future.

What’s not

The Tigers offense is 15th in the AL in batting average, 15th in on-base percentage, and 15th in slugging percentage. They are amazingly bad. They still owe Miguel Cabrera and his sub-Hanserian OPS $124 million through 2023. Position player help does not seem to be around the corner in any way.

Their bullpen was in such a desperate place that they picked up Trevor Rosenthal, who gave up 16 runs in 12 games for the Nationals earlier this year, as an attempted reclamation project. In fairness, that’s worked out so far, with Rosenthal sporting a 2.25 ERA after eight Tigers appearances - though he’s walked seven men in eight innings, so command still seems to be a problem.

Baltimore Orioles

  • Record: 38-74 (On pace for: 55-107)
  • Pythagorean record: 40-72
  • Fangraphs projected record: 57-105

The only July deal the Orioles made was sending Andrew Cashner to the Red Sox for a couple of 17-year-old Venezuelan prospects. With Cashner’s first four Sox starts going poorly, perhaps Elias struck at the right time here. Every other trade target is hanging around until at least the offseason.

What’s good

The Orioles farm system is on the upswing in rankings, as high as the #8 team with Baseball America. They might not get the #1 pick next year, but another high pick is coming. The dominance of the Bowie rotation, including lefties Zac Lowther and Alex Wells, and Manny Machado trade return Dean Kremer, is exciting, too.

There are even a couple of guys on the MLB roster who look like they could maybe be a part of the next good Orioles team, even if that team doesn’t arrive until 2022. Anthony Santander’s .299/.345/.4935 batting line is still playing out over a relatively small sample size of 51 games, but it’s an exciting breakout for a guy who was more at the fringe of the future outfield conversation before the season.

The same can be said of starter John Means, an afterthought in spring training who forced his way into the rotation picture and stayed there. It’s still early to say he’s guaranteed to be a rotation mainstay in the future; Brad Bergesen’s 2009 rookie season that was fun but had no impact on any future good Orioles team comes to mind when I think of Means. I’m rooting for Means, though. If they found their first guy from a good rotation off the fringes of 2019 when no one expected anything, that’s a nice bonus.

Also, Hanser Alberto’s 2019 season is fun. Despite being in just the 2nd percentile in exit velocity, according to Statcast, Alberto is batting an almost unbelievable .406/.418/.524 against lefties.

What’s not

Take out Means and there’s probably not a single pitcher here who’s part of the next good Orioles staff, and they’re pitching like it. Means and Cashner are the only two out of the 23 Orioles pitchers who’ve thrown at least 10 innings this year with ERAs below 4. If you change that criteria to “ERAs below 5” then you get another five relievers matching the description. If the best that can be said about a guy is “His ERA is below 5,” he isn’t providing much relief at all.

Despite the preseason excitement about the Orioles outfield prospects, the O’s are continuing with a hodge-podge outfield that sometimes includes Trey Mancini in right field and Stevie Wilkerson in center. Richie Martin and Chris Davis still really, really aren’t hitting. Rio Ruiz got demoted to the minors for not hitting. Dwight Smith Jr. stopped hitting in June.

Kansas City Royals

  • Record: 40-74 (On pace for: 57-105)
  • Pythagorean record: 46-68
  • Fangraphs projected record: 61-101

The Royals had a busier July than the Orioles, but not by much. They made some modest deals for struggling starter Homer Bailey, struggling reliever Jake Diekman, and struggling catcher Martin Maldonado. They didn’t spin any deals that would make you say, “These guys are tanking no matter what.” But they’re still losing losers who are losing.

What’s good

To my eternal chagrin, the Royals won the 2015 World Series. That doesn’t make this year’s team suck any less, though it has to help at least a little to have such recent memories of when it was all more fun.

Young Adalberto Mondesi, son of Raul, has a 2.3 WAR despite a sub-.300 OBP. That’s probably because he’s stolen 31 bases and rates at +9 runs in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop. He’s on the injured list with a left shoulder subluxation.

What’s not

Of the ten Royals who’ve batted at least 200 times this year, three of them have an OPS below what Chris Davis has hit for the Orioles. They were not able to find a taker for expensive failed starter/converted closer Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline. The relief corps is only slightly less of a mess than the O’s.

This team is not much better off than the O’s in the sense that it’s unclear who on their current roster will be a part of the next good Royals team. Their four above-league-average hitters are all 27 or older and only two of these four are under team control beyond 2020. At least their one good starting pitcher, Brad Keller, is in his age 23 season, though with a 6.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9, people will be side-eyeing and expecting worse from him forever.

**

The Orioles remaining strength of schedule, according to Fangraphs, is .510, while the Tigers are at .494 and the Royals are at .490. The Orioles and Royals have six games left against one another, with a four-game set left against the Tigers. Detroit and the Royals still have seven games left to play together. Those games could go a long way towards settling who picks first, second, and third next June.

If the Orioles end up with the same record as any other team, they will pick higher than that team in the draft due to holding the tiebreaker of a worse 2018 record.

Poll

Which team will have the worst record in MLB at the end of the 2019 season?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Tigers
    (350 votes)
  • 23%
    Orioles
    (113 votes)
  • 2%
    Royals
    (11 votes)
  • 1%
    Someone else
    (5 votes)
479 votes total Vote Now