Anyone who went into this season expecting to see an Orioles team on the verge of being a contender after a rough stretch of seasons has been considerably disappointed.
A better-than-expected 2020 season (from a team performance standpoint) that followed brutal 2018 and ’19 campaigns may have given the impression that the O’s were taking a step forward, but 2021 has crushed those hopes.
Baltimore is headed in the right direction, yes. But the bridge from where the Orioles were to where they want to be is a long one, and they have a lot of it still ahead of them. They don’t do anything quite well enough, and when that’s the case, you’re 48-102 and in dead last place in the American League East.
At the same time, though, it’s apparent to see that the Orioles are much further along in one primary phase of the game than the other. At the plate, Baltimore does have something going.
It’s on the mound where the Orioles truly, honestly, seriously, are a mess.
That’s not to say the O’s have everything taken care of offensively. They’re below league average in most significant statistics, including batting (entering Monday, tied for 16th at .240), slugging (tied for 18th at .405), OPS (tied for 22nd at .710) and runs (26th at 618). They’ve been shut out nine times, held to one run 17 times and two runs 26 times. That’s 52 times total with two or fewer runs; by comparison, the Arizona Diamondbacks, their only competition for the worst record in baseball, have had 47 such games. And they play without a DH.
And yet, despite all of this, it’s easier to make the argument that, all things considered, the Orioles offensively are in decent shape.
Baltimore will almost certainly finish with two players with over 30 home runs, and they could have another with over 25 (a big reason why the Orioles are actually one over the league average of 183 round-trippers). Not included among the three is Trey Mancini, who in a normal season in which he wasn’t working his way back from a year spent recovering from cancer would probably be pushing 30 home runs himself.
Also not included is Anthony Santander, who in one of his other two seasons as an Oriole hit 20 home runs, and in the other was an MVP candidate for much of the season. He’s had a disappointing 2021 season, considering how he hit for most of 2020, but since July 2 he’s managed to bat .254 with a .792 OPS and 12 home runs and 30 RBI over 54 games - a 36 homer and 90 RBI pace over a full 162 contests.
The Orioles have holes, most notably at second base, shortstop and third base, but they also have players any other team would covet in Cedric Mullins, an MVP candidate, and Ryan Mountcastle, a Rookie of the Year candidate. Add in Austin Hays, who while not likely a star certainly seems to have the makings of a good major league outfielder, Mancini and Santander (provided they’re not dealt in the offseason), and incoming franchise catcher Adley Rutschman, and it feels like the gap between Baltimore’s lineup and one that can more than hold its own isn’t that far. The O’s just need to make sure the weak points in their offense are Cs and C-minuses, rather than the D-minuses and Fs they are now.
It’s a different story on the mound.
Aside from John Means, who has been gradually rounding back into the form he displayed before missing time in the middle of the season, there’s little with the big club to build upon or feel good about. In the rotation now there’s a triumvirate of highly-ranked prospects in Zac Lowther, Keegan Akin and Alexander Wells, but Akin has had the best season of the three and he’s still sporting a 6.93 ERA (though he has started to find success of late).
The bullpen arms that seemed poised for a breakthrough season have faltered. Tanner Scott has regressed. Dillon Tate has too. So has Paul Fry. It doesn’t mean that they’re finished as pitchers, but it does mean they’ve disappointed and the arrows aren’t pointing up with them like they were at the start of the season.
Nearly everyone who has been given a shot at closing or pitching in late-game situations has melted down under the pressure. Cole Sulser (5-4, 2.97, 157 ERA+) has been the saving grace in the Oriole pen, the lone arm to be solid start to finish. Everyone else leaves you scratching your head as you ponder their role for 2022, and though Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall await their eventual promotions to Camden Yards, the early returns on prospects making their way to the show, be it Akin or Lowther or Dean Kremer or Mike Baumann, have not been promising.
The stats say it all. The team that is dead last in the major leagues with a 5.95 ERA is the Baltimore Orioles. The team that is dead last with a 1.499 WHIP is the Baltimore Orioles. The team that has given up the most home runs (237), most hits (1,399) and compiled the worst fielding independent pitching (5.16) is...well, you get the idea.
It adds up to an Orioles team that has everyone wondering when the corner gets turned, but that still has some ways to go and pieces to fall into place yet before that progress translates to the standings. But it’s a rosier picture when looking at it from the offensive perspective. Offensively, this is a team that really isn’t all that far off from making some noise in the American League. A frustrated fan can see the path to a better day,
When it comes to pitching, though, this is very much a team with the structure of a 100-game loser, and one that may be so for some time to come. There’s help coming, but it needs to get here soon. And until it does — and maybe even after it does — there is a whole lot of work to do.