21 December 2015

Are The 2016 Orioles The 2015 Brewers?

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The team has had an inconsistent run in the past few seasons. Although a playoff berth or two have kept fans relatively satisfied, last year didn't end well — after a promising start, the club faded from contention in the second half. With a few moderate offseason moves, the organization has theoretically improved; doubt for the campaign to come still persists, though. No one knows if the team will return to relevancy or bottom out.

This accurately describes the current state of the Orioles, right? Perhaps, but it also applies to the Brewers one year ago, a middle-of-the-pack team coming off a moderately disappointing, 83-79 record in 2014. For Milwaukee, 2015 went much worse: They collapsed to 68-94, their worst finish in more than a decade. Based on several similarities in the teams' constructions and backgrounds, I think Baltimore could potentially follow in the Brew Crew's footsteps, a prospect that should terrify Charm City.

Both teams have an aggressive approach at the plate.

If one thing has defined recent Oriole teams, it's an incurable allergy to the walk. Over the past four seasons, Baltimore ranks 25th in baseball in free pass rate; individually, the team has finished 15th, 28th, 27th, and 25th across those respective years. That time has seen some offensive highs (a 104 wRC+ in 2014, 101 in 2013) and lows (96 in both 2012 and 2015), demonstrating the volatility to this low-OBP mindset.

From 2011 to 2014, the same applied to the Brewers, who placed 26th in terms of bases on balls. Their hitting fluctuated as well — they finished with wRC+s above 100 in both 2011 and 2012 before dropping to 91 and 93 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. 2015 saw them retain their swing-happy ways, giving them a ranking of 25th in walk rate. At the same time, their offense flatlined: With an 86 wRC+, the Brewers topped only three other clubs. The lack of on-base percentage meant that the team had to rely on power and contact, both of which deserted them in 2015.

The year preceding the relevant one in this exercise (2015 for Baltimore, 2014 for Milwaukee) better illustrates how much this strategy can backfire. In both of those campaigns, the respective teams hit much worse during the second half, because their clout withered away:

 Orioles   Brewers 
 Half  BB% K% ISO  BABIP   wRC+  BB% K% ISO  BABIP   wRC+ 
1st 6.7%  22.3%   .167  .300 97 6.8%  19.8%   .154  .301 99
2nd 7.2%  22.0%   .175  .280 95 7.3%  19.7%   .136  .280 85

The Orioles went from the ninth-best offense in baseball to the 22nd-best, while the Brewers dropped from No. 12 to No. 26. And both did so with slight improvements in their walk rates. The declines occurred elsewhere, in the more fluky contact-based metrics. Teams that take free passes regularly can generally count on those to stick around, even when balls stop falling in or leaving the yard. The fact that neither the current Orioles nor the Brewers of old fit that description leaves (or left) their hitters susceptible to a breakdown.

There's one key offensive difference between Milwaukee and Baltimore, and it doesn't testify in the latter's favor. The Brewers didn't strike out much before this season; their fan rate spiked in 2015, which helped to facilitate their dropoff in scoring. By contrast, the Orioles have run high strikeout rates over the past couple years, which amplifies their risk of a similar crash. Without many walks to keep their offense afloat in the dark times, the Birds will face more of those.

Both teams have possibly solid, yet still iffy rotations. 

A few Orioles starters held their own in 2015. Wei-Yin Chen excelled all-around in his contract year; despite a poor showing after the All-Star break, Ubaldo Jimenez bounced back from a horrendous 2014; Kevin Gausman improved his strikeout and walk numbers; and Chris Tillman performed better toward the end of the season.

As a whole, however, the group didn't meet expectations. Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez each regressed significantly, to an extent that makes a full recovery seems unlikely (at best). Gausman didn't build upon his 2014 display, marking another season in which he fell short of his potential. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson pitched like the replacements they were, and we don't need to revisit the Bud Norris horror show. With Chen — the most reliable starter of the bunch — likely signing elsewhere, and the memories of Jimenez's 2014 lingering, the rotation as it stands now can only offer question marks.

This mirrors the situation in which the Brewers found themselves twelve months ago. Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, and Kyle Lohse had attained moderate success for them in 2014, but the former two had seen their velocity and peripherals decline, while the latter had turned 36 that October. Younger arms such as Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson hadn't yet blossomed, and beyond them the outlook was grim. Mike Fiers represented the Jimenez of the group: the most dependable starter, simply because no one else stood apart.

It's easy to see how Baltimore's rotation could follow the path of Milwaukee's in 2016. Tillman and Gonzalez remain subpar or get even worse, a la Garza and Lohse, and the Gausman/Wright/Wilson trio treads water as Peralta did. Even if Jimenez and a few other hurlers succeed — Fiers fared quite well before a midseason trade, and Nelson improved further — the struggles of the rest could negate their efforts. Unless Yovani Gallardo or Scott Kazmir bolsters it, the rotation that FanGraphs projects to rank 28th will probably remain at that level.

Both teams have a top-heavy roster.

This connects to the likely rotational woes for the Orioles, as well as the actual rotational woes for the Brewers. Both clubs have adhered to the stars-and-scrubs style of roster construction — the idea that, with a healthy amount of top-notch players, a team can rely on its lesser contributors for a breakout and cruise through a fruitful campaign. For the 2016 Orioles, men such as Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters will fill this mold; the 2015 Brewers hoped that Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy would do the same.

As you probably know by now, this approach has its faults. When the players at the bottom of the roster fail to carry their weight — as the rotating cast of Baltimore corner outfielders and designated hitters did in 2015 — the team struggles. The Orioles only played respectably this year because Machado, Jones, and Chris Davis carried them, and Davis's departure takes away one-third of that equation.

Plus, the stars-and-scrubs road counts on all the big names fulfilling their potential. What happens when, for instance, Gomez and Lucroy get hurt, as they did in 2015? The team lacks average players to back them up and/or compensate for their injury-marred output, so it stumbles. The Brewers' dearth of depth had harmed them somewhat before this year, but at least then the elites had shined. This route of team-building brings a razor-thin margin of error. Don't compile adequate scrubs, and you'll become mediocre; pair that with underperformance from your stars, and you'll plummet even further.

All of this, obviously, pertains to the 2016 Orioles. Per Steamer, they have four players — Machado, Jones, Gausman, and Wieters — who should earn at least three wins. Then comes Caleb Joseph, Chance Sisco (on whom I'll take the under), and Ubaldo Jimenez, at two wins apiece. From there, the roster is a collection of possibly average, probably sub-average talent, none of which inspires much hope. While the club certainly has money to spend, it can't plug in that many above-average regulars.

I'm not the first to criticize Baltimore's tendency toward stars-and-scrubs. Writing on the topic two offseasons ago, Dave Cameron correctly argued that:
There’s some validity to taking a lot of crap, throwing it against a wall, and seeing what sticks, but that’s a better plan for a team that is trying to build for the future...
And the Orioles have used this formula to their advantage in the past, by finding value in the Steve Pearces and Nelson Cruzes of the world. Dan Duquette has demonstrated an ability to dig up diamonds in the expansive free-agent rough; the question, then, is can he keep doing so? If he doesn't, Baltimore will head into 2016 with as many scrubs as it had in 2016, along with one fewer star — which looks like a recipe for failure.

Both teams have pretty barren farm systems. 

For Baltimore, one of the larger negative developments to emerge from 2015 was the continued decline of the minor-league pipeline. Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, unquestionably the organization's top two prospects, each had wholly unproductive years due to injury — the former for the third season in a row, the latter for the second. Of all the club's farmhands, only Chance Sisco and Jomar Reyes (and arguably Trey Mancini) stood out this season, and each of them won't accomplish anything at the major-league level until 2017 at the earliest.

Heading into this year, the Brewers' minor-league system hadn't really depreciated — because it had nowhere to fall. They ranked in the bottom five of BP's organizational rankings every season from 2011 to 2015, placing 26th in the latter year. (Baltimore finished 22nd in 2015, from which it'll probably fall a few spots in the upcoming list.) Like the Orioles, the Brewers had some impact talent, in guys such as Orlando Arcia and Tyrone Taylor, but they would need more seasoning to reach their ceilings. This absence of top-level minor leaguers contributed to Milwaukee's aforementioned depth woes, which Baltimore could experience in 2016.

The good news here is that that the Brewers improved their farm system significantly in the past season. Adding Brett Phillips and Zach Davies via midseason trades (ahem), in addition to drafting Trent Clark and Cody Ponce, helped them assemble what BP deemed "talent to make several teams quite jealous". They'll further add to their prospect trove with a high spot in the 2016 draft; perhaps fans of the Orioles can hope for the same in 2017. Of course, getting there requires a whole lot of losing, which is always a hard pill to swallow. Given everything working against them, though, maybe the Birds will have to follow that path.


The Orioles still have a few things on their side. Bundy and Harvey each have a great deal of upside, perhaps more so than anyone in the Brewers' system a year ago (or today). The former will spend the year in the show, and perhaps he'll make it through the trial-by-fire unscathed; the latter could progress faster than predicted, with a clean bill of health on his side. And we never know about guys like Gausman, who could break out, or Tillman and Gonzalez, who could return to their breakout form. With Duquette and company looking to better the club, it will probably fare okay in 2016.

Then again, most people said the same about the Brewers at this time last year. That didn't go according to plan, and although they currently have a bright future, the path to there was pretty ugly. After a few years of prosperity, Baltimore could find itself on the brink of disaster.


P said...

How depressing.
Even more so because I can't argue with anything here.
I can ask the pertinent question, however:
Why did Dan-who claims to be "a qualified GM"-trade away so much talent for brief rental appearances, however valuable(and only Miller was valuable and he was arguably unnecessary)
The result is a barren farm system for no return.
Every time I read about Josh Jader or Eduardo Rodriguez, my heart hurts.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly why the team should have been blown up on July 31, 2015... since trying to delay the inevitable would only result in a longer rebuild process.

It's still not too late to aim for dead last long before the start of the 2016 season by trading everyone over the next several months, though-- the Orioles front office just needs to be willing to commit to a full rebuild if they're not willing to overpay to make the team competitive in 2016. And as an added bonus, Angelos would actually get to save money in the short term as well while improving the team for the long term.


Matt Kremnitzer said...

I can't see the Orioles doing any kind of full rebuild with Duquette and Showalter around. I don't think that would go very well anyway.