The Murky Future of the Baltimore Orioles

The 2017 season marked the first time since 2011 that the Baltimore Orioles finished with a sub-.500 record, with the club winning just 75 games and finishing last in the American League East. 2018 presents another obstacle for the Orioles, thanks in part to a division that has gotten considerably stronger.

The New York Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning 2017 National League Most Valuable Player, to an already star-studded and youthful roster. The Boston Red Sox have won 93 games in each of the last two years and just added J.D. Martinez, one of baseball’s best hitters, to their roster. The Toronto Blue Jays have made numerous under-the-radar moves, putting them in Wild Card contention. Baltimore’s only hope for avoiding last place may be due to the Tampa Bay Rays moving towards a rebuild.

The Orioles, in the midst of all of this, have had an extremely uneventful offseason up until the past week, when they added Andrew Cashner and brought back Chris Tillman. Given that those pitchers are projected for a 5.22 and 5.27 ERA, respectively, it’s fair to say the club still hasn’t done enough to contend this year. The Orioles offense should bash plenty of home runs (232 in 2017) and the bullpen should perform well, even with Zach Britton out until midseason, but there are huge question marks around the starting rotation, the team defense, and their overall speed.

Baltimore, however, has a bigger problem on their hands: Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Britton are all slated to hit free agency after 2018. Machado has been baseball’s 10th-best position player by FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) with 16.2 during the last three seasons. Jones has averaged 2.88 fWAR every year since he became a regular in 2008 in Baltimore. Since his transition to the bullpen in 2014, Britton has the second lowest ERA (1.61) among relievers. General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are also in their final years of their respective contracts.

Obviously, losing those three players to free agency, along with Duquette and Showalter, would be a huge dagger to the organization. What is more concerning, however, is the Orioles front office and ownership’s direction for the team. They have tried to move Manny Machado in a trade but have been unsuccessful in doing so. There have been no discussions for extensions with players such as Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop. Tension between owner Peter Angelos and the rest of the organization has put the Orioles in an odd spot heading into 2018.

The direction, or lack of a direction, puts the organization in an uncomfortable position. FanGraphs projects the Orioles to win 72 games in 2018, the sixth-lowest projected total for any team. PECOTA projections are even more pessimistic, projecting the team to win 69 games. Even if you believe the Orioles are annually underrated by projection systems, it’s far-fetched to believe the Orioles have a roster capable of overtaking the Yankees, Red Sox or even the Blue Jays.

Where exactly does this put Baltimore? The Orioles farm system is decent (ranked 17th by Baseball America), including Major League Baseball caliber regulars such as Chance Sisco and Austin Hays, but there’s no escaping the inevitable rebuild that’s coming soon. That gives the Orioles two options: make one more go at it in 2018 or sell off pieces to mitigate the rebuilding process. The Orioles have picked neither of those routes.

The Orioles could go the direction of the 2017 Kansas City Royals, hoping for a playoff run and just letting their pending free agents leave and reward them with draft picks. They could try selling at the trade deadline as well but we’ve seen pending free agents get moved for very little recently (see, J.D. Martinez), which doesn’t benefit Baltimore much. Realistically, the time to move pieces should’ve been last year but it’s a moot point now.

With so many teams blatantly not trying to win in 2018, it’s possible Baltimore feels they have a chance to compete with the roster they have. If they pull off a contending season, it makes their lack of transactions look more defensible. If they struggle to finish above .500, the next calendar year in Baltimore could be a rough one, possibly one that results in a lot of turnover on the roster and in the front office.

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