The Baltimore Orioles enter the 2016 season with a lineup that should be very fun to watch and most likely another above average defense, yet the club maybe has put themselves into a “now or never” situation, thanks to a confusing off-season. Baltimore gave a bunch of free agent money to Chris Davis and added a few other bats. Meanwhile, the club has a bad farm system and gave up the #14 pick in this year’s draft to sign Yovani Gallardo in a very weak attempt to improve a very weak starting rotation. When you consider there is no help coming from the farm any time soon and that Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, and Matt Wieters will be free agents after 2016, the Orioles have gotten themselves into a position where they might have to win now. Unfortunately, while the offense should be setting off fireworks all summer, the starting rotation appears to be one that is incapable of doing their fair share.
Let’s recap how the Orioles got into this position. In December, the O’s traded for Mark Trumbo. At the time, the move made some sense. Trumbo is a power hitter that could do some serious damage in Camden Yards during the summer. The move also gave Baltimore a safety net at 1B if contract talks with Chris Davis did not bear any fruit. However in January, Davis signed a 7 year/$161 million contract with the club (with some of that money deferred over the next 2 decades). It was a big gamble, but not necessarily a bad signing, as Davis is good fit at OPACY and is coming off another great year in terms of power and OBP. Where it gets confusing is in early March when the Orioles signed Pedro Alvarez to a one year, $5.75 million contract. Not exactly an overpay when you consider what Alvarez is capable of providing at the plate (projected to slash around .245/.322./478 with 25+ home runs). However, Alvarez is an extreme liability in the field (1B or 3B), meaning his role will almost entirely be as DH, pushing Trumbo or Davis into the OF (where neither is good) or maybe Davis to 3rd and Manny Machado to SS (not ideal). The Orioles were already going to have a powerful lineup, so there really wasn’t a real need to add Alvarez’ bat at the expense of their defense.
But they did. So here is what the lineup is expected to look like on most days:
- Manny Machado 3B
- Matt Wieters C
- Adam Jones CF
- Chris Davis 1B
- Mark Trumbo RF
- Pedro Alvarez DH
- Nolan Reimold/Hyun-Soo Kim LF
- Schoop 2B
- Hardy SS
That’s a very sexy lineup in terms of power potential and scoring runs. In a healthy year 7 of 9 of those guys can easily hit 20+home runs and at least a couple of them will pass 30. Even non-Orioles fans should be tuning in on MLB TV with some regularity just to see the firework show. Yes they will strike out a lot, but I’ll take the power over a bunch of hoping to string together singles and doubles.
Now, the starting pitching. While the organization spent a lot of resources to add bats (Trumbo, Hyun-Soo Kim, Davis, and Alvarez), almost no effort was put into bolstering a starting rotation that was not good last year (18th in mlb/11th in AL in ’15). The team saw its best starter from 2015 in Wei-Yin Chen leave for Miami in free agency and chose to replace him with Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo was a big free agency signing for Baltimore this winter, with the Orioles giving him $22 million over the next 2 seasons and giving up their 14th pick in this year’s draft to do so (more on that in a minute). Gallardo had a pretty good year last year for the Texas Rangers, posting a 3.42 ERA over 184 innings. The good news ends there though. None of Gallardo’s peripherals, starting with a 1.42 WHIP, back up that ERA. Gallardo’s strike out rates have nose dived over recent years (7.17 k/9 in ’13, 6.83 in ’14, and 5.91 last year). That is pretty alarming. On top of that, Gallardo has been less impressive this spring, posting an ERA over 10. Then the Orioles released veteran Miguel Gonzalez yesterday, which was kind of a surprise but his velocity was down considerably this spring. So that leaves this, courtesy of Fangraphs Depth Charts:
- Chris Tillman 192 IP 6.7 K/9 3.1 BB/9 4.36 ERA
- Yovani Gallardo 176 5.9 3.1 4.39
- Ubaldo Jimenez 157 8.0 3.7 4.27
- Mike Wright 137 6.1 2.9 4.78
- Kevin Gausman 131 7.7 2.9 4.01
- Tyler Wilson 46 5.7 2.6 4.97
- Dylan Bundy 28 7.7 3.3 4.03
Almost none of those numbers are good. When you don’t have a prospective starter projected to have an ERA under 4, it is hard to be considered a contender in any division, much less the AL East. It doesn’t make any sense that the front office spent the winter putting so much of their resources into offense and then essentially did nothing to help the rotation beyond signing a 4th or 5th starter in the decline of his career. The club’s offense means the Orioles don’t need a Mets-type rotation but you can’t count on the offense to score 5+ runs every night. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are the young hopes that Orioles fans expected to be stepping into big roles this year, but injuries and TINSTAAPP (look it up) have delayed or maybe even derailed those plans. Gausman has had some (supposedly) minor shoulder issues this spring and will start the year on the DL, while Bundy has pitched just 65 innings since 2013 due to Tommy John surgery and a freak issue with calcium build up last year. Both are still too talented to be written off, but it’s getting to the point where they need to start showing it, as this Orioles rotation needs some big time help.
The Orioles have had a great defense over the last few years, finishing 1st, 6th, and 2nd in MLB in fielding percentage from 2013-2015. This has helped their starting rotation immensely, allowing pitchers to feel confident putting the ball in play to get outs. Baltimore looked to be on path to get that kind of help again this year, but the recent signing of Pedro Alvarez and the resulting movement of Mark Trumbo from DH to RF will hurt that this year, as Trumbo will be an absolute liability in the OF. This is especially concerning considering that the top 3 pitchers in the O’s rotation (Tillman, Gallardo, Jimenez) have ground ball rates under 50%, meaning their will be plenty of fly balls in the outfield. Besides Trumbo however, the O’s defense is still solid or even great at the other positions and should still be pushing top 10 in the majors, which is imperative if this team is going to try to compete this year, considering the rotation’s inability to strike batters out.
So yeah, the starting pitching is bad. This wouldn’t be such a huge deal were it not for the fact that the Orioles have put themselves into a position where they have to win now. They club has Adam Jones in his prime while Manny Machado is just entering his. They also decided to make the leap and give Chris Davis big time money. The team may be in their last year with Matt Wieters at catcher and Trumbo and Alvarez are most likely one year rentals. And finally, there is not a farm system that provides any hope in the near future. Baseball Prospectus lists the Orioles system as its 26th best. Baseball America ranks them 27th. Fangraphs has them 22nd. MiLB.com 21st. Keith Law has them 27th. For the cherry on top, remember that Baltimore gave up its #14 pick in this year’s draft to sign Gallardo, a pick they could really use in June. There’s no hope for this farm system unless they were to sell off everyone, similar to what the Braves have done. That’s not a realistic approach though, as Davis will be untradable very soon and no one wants the club to trade Machado or Adam Jones.
So with that said, the Orioles are left hoping for the best possible scenario, which is that they bash their way into playoff contention, while Gausman finally blooms and one or two of the starters pitch well above their expectations. Then maybe the club can dip into their already depleted system and somehow pull off a deadline trade to get a true #1 starter to lead them into October. That is a lot that has to break right, but we’ve seen crazier things in baseball. The worst case scenario is that the O’s strike out a ton, can’t get their rotation to eat innings or keep games close, and their defense slips a bit, causing them to stumble into a 90 loss season and some firings in the winter. I’ll take somewhere in the middle. I think the offense will be great and the defense will be solid, but the rotation won’t be able carry their share of the load, as the team finishes .500 again. If that is the case, the club will have a lot of work to do next winter, as there will be holes in the lineup and the rotation and no help coming from the farm.