21 August 2017

Orioles Don't Actually Consider Themselves A Playoff Contender

At the trade deadline, nearly everyone expected the Baltimore Orioles to be sellers. And it would have been a prudent move. On July 31, the team was in 4th place of the AL East with a record of 51-54, 6.5 games behind in the division and 4.5 games out of the second wild card. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, they were behind 3 other teams fighting for that second wild card. As we’ve discussed before on this site, it’s difficult to leap frog that many teams, even if the overall games behind seems surmountable.

Instead of selling, they bought at the deadline by bringing in Jeremy Hellickson to improve the starting pitching and Tim Beckham to fill a void at shortstop left by J.J. Hardy’s ineffectiveness and (eventually) his injury. Who knows how close the team actually were to selling. It did seem for a while that Zach Britton was close to being dealt, along with possibly Seth Smith. But that didn’t happen.

Even though neither of those moves were what anyone else expected, they were defensible. The 2017 starting rotation was so bad that they needed someone just to pitch innings to finish out the season. This was needed not only so they could provide Dylan Bundy some rest as the season closed, but also because there were no viable options in AAA to call up. Bringing in Hellickson was an upgrade that helps the team finish out the season at the cost of a non-prospect and Hyun-soo Kim (and international bonus money, of course). It wasn’t necessarily buying at the deadline, it was survival.

As for the deal that brought Tim Beckham to Baltimore, there wasn’t much to analyze. The Orioles brought in a capable shortstop that could hit for some power, who was controllable through the 2020 season. And this able to be done for the measly cost of a pitcher in short-season A ball. Again, it was a perfectly defensible trade, even if it wasn’t what was expected.

Regardless of the actual reasons, the front office stated that those deals were made because they were still going for it in 2017. And I get why they have to say that. The Oriole players don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season, and the fans don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season. Furthermore, it’s entirely probable that many members of the team's management believe that they’re a playoff team, but their actions don’t show it.

The Orioles have since fallen 11.5 games behind in the AL East. And while they’ve nudged nominally closer to the second wild card (4 GB), they are tied for that spot with Tampa Bay, and now have 4 additional teams ahead of them (not to mention one more team just a game behind). It’s a big hill to climb, and that’s reflected in their current odds of making the playoffs, which dropped to 1.9% according to Baseball Prospectus. Is there a chance they make it? Sure! But to put this into perspective, since 2013 (that’s as far back as the playoff percentage data goes at Baseball Prospectus), no team has made the playoffs with odds at this point in the season. The worst odds a team overcame were the 2016 New York Mets, who were at 13.4% by August 21.

So yes, there is a chance, but there are at least two things the organization is doing that indicate that they are not taking that chance seriously (not that they should). The first is the declaration that J.J. Hardy will be the starting shortstop when he returns from the disabled list (although Showalter seems to have taken a step back from that initial statement). The second is by giving a roster spot to Rule 5 Draft selection Anthony Santander.

Santander had spent the entire year on the 60 day disabled list with shoulder and forearm injuries. Prior to this season, he had yet to reach AA, although he had performed well in High-A in 2016, hitting .290/.368/.494 in 574 plate appearances. Before the start of the season, Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs rated Santander as a prospect with a future value of 40 (a below league average player), with future hit and game power tools grading out as average (he rated both in their present state at 30 out of 80, well below average). Since Santander hasn’t played much in 2017, I’d expect that his scouting report has remained unchanged (Eric’s report can be found here). Despite that, Santander hit very well this year in AA during his rehab assignment, with an excellent line of .380/.458/.780 in 59 plate appearances. After using the full extent of his rehab assignment time, the Orioles had to place him on their active roster or offer to return him back to Cleveland. They chose to keep him.

While I believe that keeping Santander and putting him on the roster was the right decision, it’s another reason that the front office doesn’t take their playoff chances all that seriously. As I mentioned, the odds of them making the playoffs are not good, and in order to make the playoffs, the Orioles will need to squeeze every remaining win out of this roster they can. By putting Santander (another corner OF/1B I might add) on the active roster, Baltimore is either going to give extremely important playing time to someone who hasn’t played meaningful baseball above single-A, or they’ll bench him and essentially play with a 24 man roster. Neither is a good option if you’re trying to make the playoffs in a race that leaves little room for error. And while having Santander on the roster at the expense of someone more capable will only be for a 2 to 3 week stretch until rosters expand in September, the Orioles don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of weeks.

Who knows, maybe Santander will continue to hit the ball well in the major leagues and this will not only help the Orioles but look like a stroke of genius. Stranger things can happen. But I would not bet on it. This seems like a situation where the Orioles want to have their cake and eat it too. And while every once and a while that is possible, most times it is not.

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You can find Playoff Percentages for previous seasons below:
2013
2014
2015
2016

4 comments:

Aaron Smith said...

Two positive developments that are more important than the O's making the 2nd wildcard:

1)Tim Beckham - One less position the O's will have to scour free agency for

2)Zach Britton

There is going to be a really good team out there who won't win the world series; and it will be thanks to a leaky bullpen. So with Britton being back to his old self, here begins the the next round of trade talks during the offseason.

Should the O's be able to deal Britton for a promising young pitcher, they won't have to splurge in free agency. Corner outfield and catcher can be filled within the organization, leaving just two starting pitcher holes to fill.

Spend wisely and cheap this offseason, Orioles. Significant rotation help from the minors is on the way in 2019 (Harvey, Aiken, Sedlock). Hmm....do we now have an opening for a Manny Machado long term deal?



PTCello said...

That is a very grim list. If 40 is below average, we only have one prospect on the whole list who is not.
However, Trey Mancini has certainly been outstanding, I think. Perhaps he's really been bad and I'm just judging poorly.
The real problem is that Dan picks the wrong guy. Why choose a player who offers, potentially, something that we already have in great abundance?
Oh well, great article.
Go Os

PTCello said...

You should go look over that prospect list, the link to which Nate politely shared.
It will temper your enthusiasm very quickly.

Nate Delong said...

It's important to note that the Fangraphs prospect list is from the beginning of the season, so the scouting reports on certain players on that list have likely changed since then (for better or worse). Hays and Mountcastle have certainly helped their stock and MAY have increased their overall ceilings to average major leaguers.

I highlighted that list because Santander hasn't played enough this year to really change his projection, so my assumption was that Eric's thoughts on him should not have changed from then to now.

It's also important to note that that list is also just one person's opinion and opinions can vary greatly from one scout to another. I have never seen Santander play in person, so I can't personally comment on what I think he will become (nor am I a scout). Still, it's hard to imagine someone who only has 59 PA's above single A having any sort of immediate success in the majors.

As for Mancini, it looks like Eric may have been a little light on his current hit tool to begin the season. However, Mancini's on pace for 1.5 fWAR this year, so if you consider 2.0 WAR to be average, slightly below average major leaguer (45 out of 80) looks to be about right. He's young though, so he could still improve to be more than that.