It's hard for the 2015 Orioles to accomplish much without being compared to the 2014 team at every turn. Last year's team won 96 games, ran away with the American League East, and made it to the AL Championship Series. It was an incredible, unexpected journey, with lots of surprises along the way.
Obviously the 2014 group is different. Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, and Andrew Miller are gone. Alejandro De Aza got off to a slow start and was traded away. Delmon Young was recently designated for assignment after struggling offensively. But many of the same pieces are still there; some of them are performing well, and others are not.
Offensively, the Orioles have been fine. With lots of strikeouts, not many walks, and a mediocre team on-base percentage, the O's offense can be frustrating to watch at times. But last year, the O's averaged 4.35 runs per game. In 2015, they've averaged 4.43. That's good enough for fourth in the AL. They could certainly use an on-base percentage boost, but the addition of another good hitter, period, would help.
Led by outstanding performances by Zach Britton and Darren O'Day, the O's bullpen has been pretty good. But the starting rotation overall has not been. O's starters rarely pitch late in games, are second worst in the AL in BB/9, are worst in HR/9, have the fifth worst ERA, and are tied for last in FIP.
With a .500 record at the All-Star break (44-44), the Orioles clearly have flaws. But they're also just four games out of first place in the AL East, and they're 3.5 games away from a wild card spot. They've actually been unlucky considering their +39 run differential (fifth best in the AL) and their 12-14 record in one-run games.
Let's take a look at what's been good and bad in the team's first half:
Machado has far and away been the O's best player this season. He is currently posting career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk percentage, strikeout percentage, home runs (already 19), and stolen bases (13; only had 10 total before this season). He's swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than ever, and he's making the most contact he's ever made. And he's still playing superb defense at third base.
Right now, Machado is sixth in the major leagues in fWAR (4.2). He's fourth in bWAR (4.9). And he only recently celebrated his 23rd birthday. Machado is healthy, and he's clearly one of baseball's best players.
I wrote about Paredes and his scorching start earlier this season, and he seems to have bounced back after an extended slump. He's been slightly better offensively than Adam Jones and Chris Davis -- not bad considering anything from him would have been welcome. He has his flaws -- his high BABIP may not be sustainable, he doesn't appear to be useful at all from the right side of the plate (against left-handed pitching), and apparently he isn't even adequate enough to use anywhere in the infield or even in the outfield over the likes of Chris Davis and, previously, Delmon Young -- but he does hit the ball harder than average and has power. And he's actually been hitting, unlike some of the O's struggling corner outfielders.
Jones has been playing with an injured shoulder for weeks, and he has still been able to perform. His overall numbers are very similar to a typical Jones season, but he's actually walking a bit more and striking out less this year. Defensively, he's performing well according to both Defensive Runs Saved (+5) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+4.8). The injury is concerning, and he could use some time off during the All-Star break. But it's reassuring and impressive that if Jones stays on the field, he'll probably play well.
Ubaldo Jimenez/Wei-Yin Chen
Jimenez has turned things around completely after a disastrous 2014, and Chen has been very good (though he is drastically outpitching his FIP). They've been the team's best starting pitchers, ahead of Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and Bud Norris. Tillman has slowly started to turn things around; Gonzalez has been up and down; and Norris is currently in the bullpen. A second half's worth of starts by Kevin Gausman should help, but those starts aren't guaranteed, either (you know, because he has minor league options).
Zach Britton/Darren O'Day
I'm also including these two together because they've both been outstanding (and they're also both All-Star selections). Both have thrown more than 33 innings and have ERAs under two (1.72 for Britton and 1.07 for O'Day). They've both taken a step forward in the strikeout department, although O'Day can be a little scarier to watch because he doesn't keep the ball on the ground.
Others of note: Chaz Roe, Brad Brach, Caleb Joseph, Jonathan Schoop and Matt Wieters being healthy
Norris has been awful and was deservedly removed from the starting rotation. He could regain his form in the bullpen and still carve out a useful role as either a long reliever or as a power arm behind Britton and O'Day, but Gausman should make his starts for the rest of the year.
Hardy battled an assortment of injuries earlier in the season, and his defensive numbers seem about normal for what he's accomplished throughout his career. But he is not hitting for any kind of power, and he's hitting about 25 percent worse than the average major league shortstop. Hardy has been the team's worst everyday hitter, and it's not particularly close.
I wrote about this topic in mid-May, and things haven't really gotten better. Again, both De Aza and Young were bad and are gone. Travis Snider has been below average and has provided little pop. Steve Pearce has bounced back after a terrible start, but he's still having a frustrating season (although not defensively). And David Lough still can't hit. Chris Parmelee and Nolan Reimold provided a temporary boost, but they both came back down to earth relatively quickly. Mix and matching this group has not helped, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the team make a move or two to try to upgrade.
Selling Ryan Webb and a draft pick to the Dodgers
You already know the Orioles spend very little on international players. It's frustrating, but that's just the way it is. But when the Orioles start using competitive balance picks to shed salary, that's when I start to get angry. Remember when Duquette tried to sell O's fans on the Ben Rowen acquisition and how similar he is to O'Day (even though he isn't at all)? Rowen recently opted out of his contract with the Orioles and signed with the Cubs because he wasn't on the team's 40-man roster. So yeah, that's how highly the O's thought of him.
The O's farm system is awful, and any pick that could have helped them acquire a prospect should be something they shouldn't part with easily.
Others: Everth Cabrera, Ryan Lavarnway, fans thinking Mike Wright's early success was any kind of sign that O's pitching prospects had turned some corner, the Jason Garcia experiment, not seeing more of Mychal Givens