This is part of an occasional series comprising MLB season previews.
The last time you watched the Baltimore Orioles was probably October of last year, when they played the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card playoff game. You might’ve been perched in some bar or deposited on your couch at home, maybe even slugging Natty Boh from an orange and black Orioles-themed can. But wherever you were, I’m sure you were frowning in confusion, or, depending on your level of commitment, yelling in disbelief, wondering why—why—O’s manager Buck Showalter wasn’t calling in ace closer Zach Britton to pitch a tied, must-win extra-innings game. Britton sat and watched during the ninth inning, and then the 10th, and then the 11th, and then it was over. The Orioles lost.
It came out in the post-mortem that nope, Britton wasn’t injured, and nope, the decision to hold him back (allegedly) had nothing to do with hewing to old the baseball philosophy of “saving” him for a save situation. Showalter, a usually sound and clear-headed manager, just made a bad call, and it probably cost them the game.
So yeah, the playoff loss left a really bad taste. But aside from that, it was actually a pretty fun season! The O’s finished 89-73, tied for second in AL East, and piled up 253 home runs, the most in MLB—and it wasn’t even close, St. Louis was second with 225. The bullpen was good, the infield defense was a wall, and did I mention all those dingers? Plus, Camden Yards sometimes looked like this:
The Orioles starting pitching last year was, in a word, butt. Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and Wade Miley combined for an atrocious 4.76 ERA. Luckily, the Orioles’ relievers were the team’s saving grace. This season, Britton and the other the bullpen staples—Darren O’Day, Mychel Givens, and Brad Brach—have returned, and they should step up to protect the runs the dynamic Orioles offense racks up.
And rack them up they will. Home run machine Mark Trumbo, owner of a .533 slugging percentage with a league-high 47 home runs in 2016, is back and burly as ever, as is fellow dinger-smashin’ first baseman Chris “Crush” Davis. Manny Machado and Adam Jones also figure to be significant contributors to the dong haul, though it remains to be seen who might bring the fifth consecutive American League individual home run title to Baltimore. (Catcher Matt Wieters, another big hitter for the O’s hopped the beltway to join the Nationals. The Orioles front office plugged the opening with Wellington Castillo from the Diamondbacks.)
Third baseman Manny Machado is Baltimore’s truest claim to fame right now, and as evidenced by this play from the World Baseball Classic, he’s ready for the season. Machado, a generational talent usually mentioned in the same breath as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, will be a free agent after the 2018 season. He hit .294/.343/.533/.876 in his age-23 season and looks ready to spend the next decade or so being a top-five player in the league. The O’s would be smart to lock him up in the next two seasons, as other teams will be all too happy to cough up the monster salary he’ll command.
Along with Machado and Davis in the infield is second baseman Jonathan Schoop (rhymes with pope, not poop), who had a streaky run at the plate last season, but finished the year—in which he played in all 162 games—batting a respectable .267 with 25 home runs. Then there’s veteran shortstop and former soul patch disciple J.J. Hardy, who’s as solid an option as there is.
The outfield is a different story. Adam Jones, the heart and soul of the team, is hungry for a competitive postseason, and after a few down defensive years, he’ll be hoping to rebound by making plays like this on the regular. Standing in right field will likely be the newly acquired Seth Smith, and in left looks to be Hyun Soo Kim, Korean slugger who was solid during his first year in the bigs and may become even more dangerous as he adjusts to MLB pitching. The Orioles also called in outfielder Joey Rickard, who impressed in spring training. Jones though, said those moves weren’t enough:
“A step in the right direction, but I don’t think my question was completely answered on the defensive side,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. Those guys aren’t necessarily known for their defense.
“We don’t have a strikeout pitching staff, so our defense is used quite a bit. And you see our infield defense is unbelievable. We’re still competitive in the outfield, but we just need to get a little bit more athletic in my point of view. I’ve been out there for a while and I’ve seen the changes. Those are just my ideas.”
The Orioles were rumored to be interested in outfielder Jose Bautista, a veritable star who would add some needed defensive prowess to the outfield (and is also good for a few sassy bat flips). But GM Dan Duquette shot down that idea when he went and mouthed off about how the Orioles wouldn’t bring Bautsista to Baltimore because he wasn’t the right kind of “working-class-type baseball player” whom the fans would “identify with.” The O’s instead decided to re-sign Trumbo, of whom Duquette said, “If he was going to work every day on a construction site, you would understand that he brings that kind of work ethic every day.”
Duquette showing his ass was the lowlight of the offseason in which there were no real highlights. The Orioles’ characteristic putzing meant they missed out on all the good free agents, specifically a pitcher to add to their starting rotation, which can be described at best as “having potential.”
With Chris Tillman starting the season on the disabled list due to a lingering shoulder injury that sidelined him last season as well, young Kevin Gausman was named the Opening Day starter. Wade Miley is also reportedly on the DL, and the Orioles will only have three starting pitchers on their roster to begin the season, though Miley will soon be back on the roster. The optimistic view of Tillman’s injury and Miley’s absence is that it gives Guasman, and other pitchers like Dylan Bundy, Gabriel Ynoa, and Jayson Aquino, opportunities to prove themselves. A pessimist would say the Orioles don’t have a real starting rotation.
This chin still rocks a soul patch in its heart.
Machado, Britton, Jones, and Tillman all have two or fewer years left on their contracts, so the time to win a pennant is waning. The Orioles could win a lot of games this year or they could lose a lot of games this year. Baseball Prospectus projected the O’s will finish last in the AL East and that they’ll have a losing season. But the O’s have been projected to have losing seasons for the last four years, and each of those years, they’ve finished at .500 or better.
Maybe the motley crew will overachieve again this year, maybe they’ll make a postseason push, maybe Buck Showalter won’t make another dopey bullpen decision. Either way, rooting for the Orioles means plenty of opportunities to just sit back and enjoy the home runs.
Correction (12:54 p.m. ET): This post has been updated to reflect that the Orioles finished 81-81 in 2015.