Another Orioles season is about to begin. The team and their fans believes themselves to be playoff contenders, while the national media and projection systems see a sub-par club (both Fangraphs and Baseball Projections project them to be a .500 club or below). This has been the case the last 5 years, and while the Orioles have beaten those projections, I personally sided more in line with the projections at the start of most, if not all of those years. However, they've outperformed them so many times and so convincingly over the last 5 years, that it’s increasingly plausible (if not likely) that the projections are missing a key ingredient to their success. Is it the undervaluing of the bullpen, not accounting for the genius of Buck Showalter, the failure to quantify the “Orioles Way”, or some combination of all of the above? I don’t know. All I know is despite that, the Orioles again appear (in my opinion) to be taking a roster into the 2017 season that requires everything to go right if they really want to contend.
But not only will everything need to go right, the team will also likely have to be creative in order to squeeze every bit of value out of this roster. How are they going to do that? I don’t have any answers or suggestions for them at this time, but there are some areas where I think they will need to focus on in order to do that.
The first is something that they’ve always done under the Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter era, and that is roster manipulation. The concept of the “Norfolk Shuttle” and moving guys all over the place to play the best match-ups they can and keep guys from wearing down is something that Matt discussed last week. The Orioles are going to have to continue to take advantage of roster rules once again to try and gain an advantage, and as Matt mentioned, the advent of the 10-day disabled list in the new CBA may end up leading to even more roster moves than we’ve seen in previous year’s.
Additionally, the team is going to need to get creative with their starting pitching. I’m not even talking about players they should add or target at the trade deadline, I’m talking about getting creative in how they use the guys that they have. Similar to previous seasons, the Orioles starting rotation has serious question marks, and that was before they lost Chris Tillman for at least a month. Obviously, getting a healthy Tillman back in the rotation is essential, but even when he returns, the rotation likely only performs average at best, as every member, with the possible exception of Kevin Gausman has a serious question mark surrounding them. With one of the best bullpens in the league (and the previously mentioned expertise in roster manipulation), the Orioles should look to use both their starters and relievers in creative ways to get the most out of each group, and to limit the exposure of their starting rotation.
On the offensive side, it feels as if half of the players on the team are 1B/OF/DH types. Despite Adam Jones asking for a more athletic outfield in 2017, the Orioles brought in (or in some cases brought back) outfielders with decent bats and suspect gloves (with a couple more hanging around Norfolk). Those bats aren’t necessarily every day bats though, and Showalter will need to pick his match ups to put the team in the best position to win. And while the projected starting corner outfield defense leaves a lot to be desired, Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard did make the club (at least for now), so they should factor into defensive replacement duty. The challenge will be when and how to deploy them.
Finally, the front office will have to be creative in the trades they make this season, no matter how the team performs through the All-Star break. If they’re contending, they’re likely going to be looking to add at the deadline, which means they’ll be shipping off prospects to help the major league club. However, outside of Chance Sisco, they don’t really have anyone of significant value to trade. Even if players such as Cody Sedlock, Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Austin Hays, Jomar Reyes, and DJ Davis continue to develop during the first half of the season, all of them appear to have at least one sizeable deficiency that limits their ceiling, and potential value in a trade. With that in mind, the team (and Camden Depot bloggers for that matter) may have to be creative in finding ways to upgrade. The best way may be hoping that some of the 1B/DH/OF depth performs well enough to draw interest from another contending club. Either way, it will be a challenge.
If they’re losing, then they will likely sell at the deadline, but how much will they want to trade away? The team has several major league assets that could bring back good returns and provide a boost to the minor league system, but the general consensus is that their window of contention remains open through the 2018 season. As Jon mentioned last week, April will be unusually more important to the success of the Orioles season than it typically is, so we may find out sooner rather than later how the team wants to plan for their immediate and long term future.
The Orioles hope to contend in 2017, despite an opening day roster that once again doesn’t immediately look like they will. Luckily for them (and for fans), this situation is something that this organization is very familiar with, and something they have consistently overcome during the last five years. However, the old tried and true methods may not be enough and a return to the playoffs will likely require some additional creativity in the front office and the dugout. Enjoy the 2017 season, and here’s hoping Baltimore (both the team and its fans) can keep an open mind.
*This post was later updated to clarify that Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard could serve as defensive replacements