This is part of an occasional series of slightly belated MLB season previews.
On the eve of the season, ESPN’s Buster Olney explained why he was ranking the 2016 Baltimore Orioles No. 24 in major-league baseball. His assessment went like this:
The Orioles needed pitching answers to emerge in spring training; instead, the questions multiplied, from the ineffectiveness of Miguel Gonzalez—who was eventually cut from the 25-man roster—to the shoulder soreness of Kevin Gausman. The Orioles are going to score a lot of runs and they have a good defense and a good bullpen, but the rotation could be a huge problem.
Sometimes, hindsight makes a forecaster look hopelessly wrong. In this case, though, the passage was odd to read, even at the time, because it was a mostly accurate rundown of Baltimore’s strengths and weaknesses. It just didn’t seem like it was describing the seventh-worst team in baseball.
Here were four components of baseball success: offense, defense, starting pitching, and relief pitching. And the Orioles looked likely to be good at three of them. Were there really 23 teams better off than that?
Probably not. The Orioles broke out on top of the American League East with a 7-0 start, and they’ve mostly kept going. Last week, they put together another seven-game winning streak. They may or may not be good all year, but it seems unlikely they’ll be bad. The franchise hasn’t had a losing record since Dan Duquette took over as general manager at the end of 2011, after more than a decade in the wilderness, and the 2016 team is built off a version of the same blueprint that’s been working pretty well these past few years.
Olney didn’t examine his own cliché closely enough: Did questions multiply around the starting rotation in the preseason? Not really. There was one basic question about the starters, and it was the same question it’s usually been for the Orioles of the 2010s: Can these guys go five innings, most days, without the game getting out of hand?
The thing about good offense, good defense, and good relief pitching is that each one of those things helps a team cover for less-than-great starting pitchers. The patron saint of the Orioles rotation in this era was probably, quietly, Bud Norris in 2014. Norris made 28 starts that year, of which only 11 met the “quality start” standard—six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs. He pitched into the eighth inning a mere three times.
But Norris lasted at least five innings in every start but two, and one of those two was interrupted by rain. The most runs he ever gave up was five, which happened on three occasions. He ended up going 15-8, and in the games where he got no decision, the bullpen went 4-1. Every game he pitched was a winnable game. Constant adequacy isn’t as thrilling as running Clayton Kershaw out there to eat the other team alive, but day after day, it feels pretty good. It has to feel better than paying Justin Verlander $28 million to possibly pour gasoline on the mound and light himself on fire.
The Orioles pitcher who least resembles 2014 Bud Norris right now is Ubaldo Jimenez, who is in year three of a four-year, $50 million free-agent deal that he’s been so unable to live up to that he’s acquired a sort of underdog charm, or at least pathos. The de facto ace is Chris Tillman, the young pitcher who might turn out ace-ish is Kevin Gausman, and behind them comes a batch of guys who so far seem capable of getting the job done, as long as the job isn’t too hard to do. There’s nobody who currently makes you flinch when you see his name under Today’s Starters.
This was supposed to be an all-new Orioles team. Four of last season’s key players—reigning AL home run and strikeout champ Chris Davis, ever nascent superstar catcher Matt Wieters, overpowering sidearm setup man Darren O’Day, and Wei-Yin Chen, the team’s most effective starter—were eligible for free agency, and three of them were Scott Boras clients. The assumption was that all four were headed to big out-of-town paydays. But Wieters and Boras shocked the industry by accepting Baltimore’s obligatory $15.8 million qualifying offer, and Davis and O’Day found big enough paydays in Baltimore to suit them. Only Chen left; he went to the Marlins and seems to be pitching well enough.
What would it have meant to have lost Davis? He contributed a sort of paradoxical thought experiment in 2015 by effectively vanishing for 12 straight games in August, hitting .163/.265/.256 as the team went 1-11 and fell out of the playoff race. Without his bat, the Orioles were terrible; yet even with his bat, the Orioles might be without his bat.
If there’s a reason for people not to like the O’s, it would be that some of their most famous players are, from certain angles, overhyped. There’s Davis, with his two home-run crowns in the past three years and with a .196 average in the year in between. There’s Adam Jones, who wins Gold Gloves in center field over the protestations of defensive analytics experts and who is a perennial All-Star despite playing the same position in the same league as Mike Trout. And Wieters, everyone knows, was supposed to be the greatest talent of his generation, a better version of Johnny Bench, and he’s closing in on his 30th birthday while still waiting for a breakout season.
But none of this is a problem in the context of the team. The Orioles do not believe that Jones is Mike Trout or that Wieters is Johnny Bench, and they don’t act as if they do. Before they gave Davis seven years and $161 million to keep on being their big slugger, they traded for Mark Trumbo to also be their big slugger. Afterward, they added Pedro Alvarez to be one more big slugger.
You don’t have to have faith in any of those guys, individually, to be impressed by the resulting lineup. It’s a monument to reasonable expectations. Does it seem OK to pencil in Trumbo to be No. 2 on the team in home runs, behind Davis? Jones No. 4, maybe? Alvarez No. 5? What if, instead of asking him to be Johnny Bench, you’re asking Matt Wieters to be your seventh- or eighth-most productive hitter?
All of this collective reasonableness is underwritten by the completely unreasonable presence of Manny Machado, who last year at age 22 was a shockingly great defender with a really nice bat and now at age 23, through a quarter-season, is indistinguishable from an all-around MVP.
There are a few unknown quantities. In the outfield are Joey Rickard, a Rule 5 pickup from the Rays who forced his way onto the roster with a .397/.472/.571 spring training, and Kim Hyun Soo, a pickup from the Doosan Bears, who forced his way onto the roster by exercising his right to refuse demotion after a .178/.224/.178 spring. Rickard is third on the team in plate appearances; Kim is batting .379 with five infield hits.
They are not scheduled to play the Cardinals this year. The Cardinals are not going to the World Series. So, no, nor can they lose to the Cardinals.
Fun as it would be to honor the sharply molded chin of utility man Ryan Flaherty or the rich beard of Alvarez or the immense and stubbly jaw of Davis, the outstanding baseball chin indisputably belongs to Manny Machado. Proud, jutting, boyishly clean-shaven, a little bit cleft in certain lights—the chin of Machado carries itself high and forward, whether it’s leading a throw across the infield or stretching out in anticipation of clobbering an incoming pitch or just tipping toward the field in a moment of relaxation. It is a true leader.
They are going to be really, really good at mashing the ball. They currently are No. 2 in the league with 57 homers, despite Jones only finding his hitting stroke a week ago and Alvarez not really having found his yet. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop hit 16 homers two years ago and 15 last year, while being underaged and overmatched at the plate; now he’s 24 and he’s got 7 homers already.
Here’s a 2016 Orioles game: May 14, at home against the Tigers. In the top of the sixth inning, Miguel Cabrera hit a homer with a man aboard to give Detroit a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the sixth, Trumbo clubbed an RBI double to deep left to make it 2-1, and Wieters followed with a homer to make it 3-2. Next inning, Schoop homered: 4-2. Detroit made it 4-3 on an RBI single in the eighth, and Jones homered on the first pitch of the bottom of the inning. Five batters later, Schoop hit a grand slam. Orioles 9, Tigers 3.
No one should feel at all compelled to root for the Orioles. Baseball is a regional game, and you should cheer for the team that suits your personal circumstances and history. The Orioles are perhaps underrated, but they don’t offer a thrilling underdog story or a proof of some abstruse and revolutionary baseball concept. They’re a bunch of guys who have certain baseball things they’re good at doing. Do you like watching sidearming relief pitchers? O’Day and converted shortstop prospect Mychal Givens are there for you. Do you want to be able to say you saw one of the best players alive, at the dawn of his prime, playing spectacular defense and terrorizing pitchers? There’s Machado.
Or you can just enjoy seeing big, strapping fellows wallop the ball far over the fences. With that comes the calm and cheerful knowledge that if they don’t score early, they’ve got a good chance to score late, and if they don’t score late, they’ve got a good chance to score tomorrow. Home runs work like that. You can look around in envy at the great starting pitchers on other teams, but if you do, you might forget to look up and see the ball sailing off into the distance.