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Can the Orioles stay out of the cellar in 2021?

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Hey, just being realistic here: the Orioles’ real improvements over the past two seasons look to be drowned out by the competition’s big offseason spending.

MLB: SEP 15 Braves at Orioles Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A great many strange things happened in 2020, but one was that, as of August 15, 2020, the Orioles were a playoff-bound team. Second in the AL East, a few games back of the Yankees, they had just swept the (future AL Champion) Tampa Bay Rays, and the defending World Series champion Nationals and the Phillies before that. O’s magic in 2020?!? People believed, damnit!

And then, the collapse. The Orioles lost six games in a row and thirteen of the next seventeen, including a couple to last-place Boston and a New York Mets team that definitely didn’t have Francisco Lindor or Carlos Carrasco. It wasn’t the pitching that stunk, so much as the hitting. That fine day in August, the Orioles were fifth in MLB in runs/game; two weeks later, they were 18th. Injuries (especially to Anthony Santander and José Iglesias) were a part of it; hot starts followed by cold slumps, in the cases of Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino, explains a lot of the rest. (Team ERA actually improved from MLB’s 22nd to 16th as the season went on.)

It was a classic case of the law of small numbers. An underprovisioned roster overperformed for a while, and then crashed down to (statistically average) earth. So what does this bode for a 162-game season?

The Orioles, believe or not, have been on an upward trend for the last two seasons. Their win-loss percentage has improved each year, from .290 in 2018 to .333 in 2019 to .417 last year. Their team batting average has improved from .239 to .246 to .258; their OPS+ from 89 to 91 to 104. Last year, albeit in a shortened season, the pitching staff posted its best ERA (4.51) since 2016 and its best WHIP (1.313) since 2014.

All in all, we are still in a data-driven honeymoon phase with a Mike Elias regime that has delivered what it promised: changes in the way talent is scouted, developed and coached, and slow, gradual statistical improvements. In September, MLB Pipeline ranked the Orioles farm system No. 8, a huge jump from the days when they regularly clocked in in the 20s. It’s a little like what Theo Epstein did with the Cubs and Jeff Luhnow with the Astros (minus the cheating). Except, so far, for the championship. And the sad fact that, as MASN’s Steve Melewski wrote yesterday, these two teams “didn’t do it in the American League East.”

The AL East is brutal, and, barring the Red Sox (whose CEO just stated, in brilliant CEO-ese, “It would be inaccurate to say we are going for it with an all-in approach that perhaps we did prior to the 2018 title”), the competition has only grown stiffer since October.

The Yankees came a hair’s breadth (and maybe one good starting pitcher) away from the World Series last season, and last week’s signing of two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber (aka “The Klubot”) and their resigning of second baseman DJ LeMahieu makes them even more formidable—and their fans even more annoying.

The Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series last year. They’ve lost a pair of aces in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, but they’ve picked up valuable depth in Michael Wacha, Luis Patino, and Garrett Cleavinger. They’re also smart, well-coached and their farm system is consistently at the top of MLB, allowing them to weather bumps. (Oh, and they signed David Hess to a minor-league deal, so, don’t worry, all should be well. I kid. Or who knows, maybe they are the ones to fix David Hess.)

And now, not even the Toronto Blue Jays are ready to go down quietly: MASN says they may be “ready to make a push for an AL East title in 2021.” The Blue Jays went 32-28 in the shortened 2020 and made the expanded playoffs before losing in the opening round to the Rays. Last year, they added starters Tanner Roark and lefty ace Hyun-Jin Ryu. Now they’re creating a buzz with signings like former ace closer Kirby Yates and a six-year, $150-million deal with outfielder George Springer (the biggest in club history). They probably overpaid for the 31-year-old Springer. But with him batting around Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Randal Grichuk, this is a lineup built to do damage.

So what does this all bode for 2021? Unsurprisingly, FanGraphs predicts the Orioles to come in last in the division in 2021, with a .422 W-L percentage and 5.52 runs allowed per game. That win percentage isn’t bad (speaking to the competitiveness of the AL East), but even so, they might be being a little hard on this team. The Orioles have one big hole at shortstop and another in the rotation, a fifth starter to complement John Means, Alex Cobb, and rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin. But there are plenty of in-house candidates, and nothing is stopping Mike Elias from signing another in early spring.

And while “all of the major [offseason] moves have involved established players leaving the organization,” as wrote Tyler Young on January 6, there were also a lot of good things to build on from 2020. The pitching staff may slip a bit from 2020’s fluky numbers, but I’m excited to see more from “wait and see” guys like Akin, Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, and Zac Lowther. The bullpen should stay steady enough as the Orioles keep playing in a deeper talent pool than a few seasons go. The infield offense will stumble as the team fails to recoup on the 1.3 WAR and 160 OPS+ that now ex-Oriole José Iglesias put in (again, admittedly, in a very weird year). But the outfield bats will shine, especially if new blood like Ryan McKenna and Yusniel Diaz get time at the big-league level.

Is this likely to be a “successful” season for the Orioles? The question comes down to: do you care about wins or watchable baseball? If the latter, you may finally be in luck.