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Making sense of a weird start to the Orioles season

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All we know about this team is that we don’t know much.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Miami Marlins Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t know if you’d heard, but I do a mean impression of an Orioles fan in 2020. Here, it goes like this:

Orioles Fan on July 25th (after the opener): “OMG, this is 2019 all over again. Page me when it’s next year.”

On July 27th (after taking two from the Red Sox): “Hahaha, eat it, Boston.”

On August 1st (the Tampa Bay series): “Hey, this offense looks pretty good!”

On August 3rd (after sweeping the Rays): “Wheeee, we’re going to the playoffs!”

On August 5th (after losing three straight to Miami): “The bats have gone silent. We’re losers again. At least the rotation looked good.”

On August 7th (after Wade LeBlanc’s start): “Wait, I thought we could pitch?”

Twelve games into the 2020 season, all that’s certain for the O’s is that the team is giving fans whiplash.

Let’s recap: The pitching was bad against Boston and New York and excellent against Tampa Bay and Miami, except for that last game. Barring the opener, the offense was good against Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, then dreadful against Miami, except when it woke up last night. When the Marlins series started, the Orioles had the fourth-best offense in the AL. Then, they went and got shut out two nights in a row.

In honor of this season, maybe we should stop trying to make long-term predictions and focus on breaking down the latest. It’s the closest we can come to making sense of this season.

Q: What happened to the bats this week?

A: It’s not actually accurate to say that “the bats went cold.” Overall, I like this offense a lot. There are guys here who are taking consistent good swings. I saw three issues:

1. Injuries. Replacing José Iglesias (quad strain) and Rio Ruiz (shoulder soreness) with Andrew Velazquez and Pat Valaika was a turn for the worse. While Pat Valaika is hitting a totally-serviceable .263 with two RBIs and three runs scored in 19 trips to the plate, Velazquez is 1-for-18 so far.

2. Cold streaks. Pedro Severino and Anthony Santander both started hot, then fell off the table last week. Santander hit .273 with seven RBIs in Week 1, then .150 with zero RBIs in Week 2. For Severino it was .294/three RBIs vs. .143/one RBI. Austin Hays started ice cold (.100 in his first 30 at-bats), but is hitting .300 in his last three games.

3. A lack of outfield depth. Over the last week, we also started to see Brandon Hyde mix and match in the outfield, and I can’t say the results at the dish have been good. Cedric Mullins had a good spring, but the solid contact isn’t there: he’s just 1-for-12. DJ Stewart fared even worse, going 0-for-14 before getting sent down to Bowie. (Although with six walks, he had a .300 OBP to go with a .000 BA.)

Can the up-and-down offense be explained by the quality of the pitching they faced? Not really. Marlins starter Pablo López showed sharp stuff on Tuesday. But sharper than Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell? No. And the rest of the Marlins staff is nothing to write home about. From Week One, the Red Sox rotation looks truly terrible (team ERA: 5.79), but the Yankees have a solid cast, especially in the bullpen. So overall, it’s been a mix.

Streaks are streaks. What goes up, must come down. Severino and Santander should start heating up while Rio Ruiz and José Iglesias, when they start getting regular at-bats again, will come back down to earth. Together with Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez, these players form what I see as a solid offensive core.

However—and this is the heartless logic of a team in rebuilding mode—rotating around these guys is a cast of characters whose problems go beyond a cold streak. I’m not saying DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins don’t get a longer chance to stick, but I see it as increasingly difficult. Chris Davis (2-for-26) has a longer rope than either (from what I understand, that rope is worth $42 million), but he may have to get used to a bench role if things don’t turn around.

Q: What’s up with the pitching? Is it good or terrible?

A: It’s more good than bad, because Mike Elias’s team of scouts and analysts has continued to unearth good arms to improve on last year: Cole Sulser, Travis Lakins, Shawn Armstrong (count him because he’s made improvements). The bullpen WHIP is seventh-best in the American League. They’ve allowed 21 runs this season, which is middle of the pack—but nine of those were on that brutal 13-2 Opening Day loss. (And six of those runs belong to Cody Carroll, whose arm seems nice but whose head is not where it needs to be.)

Like the lineup, the problem is still a lack of information about inconsistent-but-talented types (Tanner Scott, Paul Fry, and even Mychal Givens) and the continued presence of weak links like David Hess and Tom Eshelman. You have to keep auditioning the former and, I fear, cut ties with the latter. I have loved seeing Miguel Castro grow into his ridiculous arm, though.

Brandon Hyde says the bullpen has been looking better because his starters are going deeper in games. Well, that’s nice, because the starters—except Alex Cobb, with a 2.51 ERA and 174 ERA+—look really erratic. I still don’t know, after three starts, if Wade LeBlanc’s stuff is good enough to keep fooling major league hitters (or even the bunch of minor leaguers currently playing for the Marlins), but I sure don’t think Tommy Milone’s is. I do think and hope this can be a great year for John Means, but we’ll need to see more accuracy.

Bottom line: I think, as usual, this Orioles roster gets less respect than it deserves, but is not quite a competitive team. The makings are there for a half-decent outfit in a year or so, but you can’t have a streaky offense, a thin bench, a weak rotation and a porous bullpen and compete. Two out of four, maybe (a bad rotation and a streaky offense, actually, and you’ve got the 2014 Orioles!).

I guess we’ll have to let the revolving door keep swinging.