Reason for optimism: Orioles fans get to watch Manny Machado in the field and at the plate.
Reason for pessimism: Orioles fans have to watch Mark Trumbo in the field.
The Buck Showalter era has been very good for Orioles fans, but cracks in the foundation began to show last year. For the first time since 2011, Baltimore failed to go over its total wins market, and it wasn't the result of unrealistic expectations. Last year was also the first time in four seasons the Orioles didn't post a winning record.
Beneath the surface of their .500 record lay an uglier truth: The Orioles had fortunate sequencing, or cluster luck, at the plate and in the field that benefited them to the tune of two wins on both sides of the ledger. Furthermore, the roster that played to the level of a 77-win team had four guys who masked the fact that outside of Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Wei-Yin Chen, the Orioles were really, really bad.
Consider this: Baltimore got 1,820 plate appearances from players who posted zero or negative WAR. That means 30 percent of the plate appearances by non-pitchers were taken by replacement-level players or worse. For comparison purposes, that was much worse than the team in the AL with the worst record, the Oakland A's, who saw 1,215 below-replacement level plate appearances, just 19.8 percent of their total. In fact, no one in the American League came close to Baltimore's figures.
The good news for Orioles fans is that if a purge occurs, that sort of performance sets the stage for a rebound. With the exception of J.J. Hardy, whose decline as a power-hitting shortstop appears irreversible, Baltimore's front office has replaced the offending parties on last year's roster. The problem is, the new faces don't appear to have been assembled with a nod to the team's weaknesses.
Led by Davis' major league-leading 47 home runs, Baltimore managed to pound 217 homes runs (third in the majors) but only finished ninth in scoring, and as alluded to above, stripped of the benefits of fortunate sequencing, they slipped into a tie for 12th. The culprit was a 24th-ranked on-base percentage of .307. The Orioles' new starters this year are Trumbo (lifetime OBP of .300), Pedro Alvarez (.309) and Hyun-Soo Kim, a 28-year-old rookie from South Korea. Not only would that seem to limit necessary improvement in one area of weakness, it only exacerbates a second one. After three straight years of top-10 adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, the Orioles fell to 14th last year. With three first basemen in the lineup (Davis, Alvarez and Trumbo) Trumbo is going to have to play left field, and as Diamondbacks fans can tell you, that was a disaster for Arizona.
On the topic of defense, there is one other item of note to consider. Every so often there is an obscure area of performance that goes unnoticed on a day-to-day basis but which highlights success in a high-leverage, small-sample-size situation and is therefore highly unlikely to be repeated from one year to the next. Last year, Baltimore outfielders recorded 48 assists. Given that outfielders are almost always recording assists on runners in scoring position, these outs have huge value. The league average was 28, and with Trumbo and Kim in the field in 2016, that figure, which was sure to decline anyway, very well might fall to below league average. That would result in a loss of up to two wins, invisible to all but sabermetric data collectors.
A weakened defense is the last thing the rotation, which loses the services of last year's ace, Chen, needs. Signed as a free agent to replace Chen is Yovani Gallardo. The outlook for the rotation, and therefore the team, can be summed up with this sentence: There is a very decent chance Baltimore doesn't end the year with a single starter's ERA below 4.00. On the positive front, the bullpen is a real strength, and in a remarkable display of bullpen consistency (except for Tommy Hunter), every other reliever who threw at least 15 innings for the team in 2015 returns.
Showalter got fewer innings pitched by his starters last year than all but two teams in the American League. With the loss of Chen, last year's leader in innings pitched, Baltimore would appear to making a run at the top spot this year. With a lineup built to smash a lot of home runs and a pedestrian rotation, the Orioles appear to be constructed with an eye toward winning a lot of 8-6 games. Perhaps a viable strategy 10 years ago, with quality rotations and formidable reliever trios sweeping across the league, it looks like Baltimore is destined to lose a lot of games 4-2, featuring two bases-empty home runs.
Since he took over as the third manager in the back-half of the 2010 season, Showalter has done a terrific job coaxing two playoff appearances out of the Orioles in the toughest division in baseball. This year, however, despite the presence of the sublime Machado, there's a lot of reasons to believe the bottom falls out in a division where all their foes figure to finish above .500.
Baltimore is listed at 78.5 wins, and even though the Orioles haven't finished below .500 since 2011, I'm on this "under" with no hesitation. In fact, this is my strongest conviction under in the entire American League.
2016 projection: 74-88 (fifth, AL East)
Bet recommendation: Under