Ever since they knocked the Boston Red Sox out of the 2011 postseason on the last day of the regular campaign, the Orioles have enjoyed their most consistent run of success. Between 2012 and 2016, the O’s finished each season with at least a .500 record. That stretch included three playoff appearances, going as far as the American League Championship Series in 2014. However, the team took a step back in 2017, finishing with a 75-87 record and leaving plenty of questions surrounding next season and beyond. With several top players closing in on free agency and a barren farm system, have this team’s best days passed them by?
What went wrong?
Throughout Baltimore’s recent renaissance, they seldom relied on lights-out starting pitching. Between 2012-16, Orioles starters ranked just 26th in the Majors in ERA, per FanGraphs. Their advanced numbers were just as shaky; they also ranked 28th in fielding independent pitching (FIP), last home runs per nine innings (HR/9), 27th in walk rate, and 24th in both strikeout rate and wins above replacement (WAR).
This past season, the Orioles starters fell below even those standards; ranking 27th in WAR, 28th in FIP and dead last in ERA. The starters’ 5.70 ERA in 2017 was almost a full run more than the previous year. With exception of Dylan Bundy (his 4.24 ERA was at least below league average), none of the O’s starters effectively kept opponents off the scoreboard.
The lack of effectiveness from the rotation put more pressure on their all-or-nothing offense. Although the O’s once again put good use to their small ballpark, ranking fifth in MLB in home runs, they were no better than average in just about every other aspect of run production. The O’s finished 16th in both runs scored and weighted runs created plus (wRC+), 27th in on-base percentage (OBP) and 19th in OPS. As has been the case for the past several years, the Orioles struggled to generate offense outside of the long ball, with many players opting to swing for the fences instead of working pitch counts and attempting to get on base. Baltimore’s mediocre offense combined with their anemic starting pitching and lackluster defense (20th in defensive runs saved) contributed to their first losing season since 2011.
This team might look very different next season and beyond, particularly in the rotation. Starters Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jeremy Hellickson will hit the free agent market this offseason, and none of them had ERA’s lower than 6.81. The team has a club option for Wade Miley, but I doubt they will pay $12 million to retain him after finishing with a 5.61 ERA. With the O’s short on MLB-ready minor league pitching prospects, they will look to the open market for replacements. However, the list of top free agent pitchers is thin, and it is not the team’s usual modus operandi to spend heavy on free agent pitchers (which puts the likes of Madison Bumgarner and former Oriole Jake Arrieta out of their price range). They might end up bringing in the same middle of the road innings eaters that have filled their rotation spots over the last several seasons.
The real decision comes with superstar third baseman Manny Machado. The 24-year-old rebounded from a slow start to slash .259/.310/.471 this past season, giving O’s fans hope for next year. That said, he enters his final year of salary arbitration in 2018. If Baltimore struggles once again next year, they might have to consider trading their best player elsewhere in an attempt to rebuild a farm system that is consistently considered one of the worst in baseball.
Can the O’s Rebound?
This team’s window for contention may have closed for a little while. With their shaky pitching, their star players getting older, and the uncertainty surrounding Machado, their run of success may have reached the end. General Manager Dan Duquette expressed the Orioles’ intentions to contend for a playoff spot in 2018. The always competitive Red Sox and up-and-coming Yankees will make that task difficult. If they don’t improve their roster and minor league system, contending might become near impossible.