The Orioles are picked to finish in or near last place every offseason, and they continue to contend while confounding their critics. The upcoming season shouldn’t be any different. They can hit, they can field and no one puts out a better bullpen. They also have one of the game’s best managers in Buck Showalter and an executive vice president, Dan Duquette, who never stops crafting the roster and making depth moves that so often pay off down the road. The Orioles would benefit from a legitimate table-setter atop their order, which was a priority over the winter, and they desperately need the rotation to duplicate its September success. The starters will make or break the season, and the unit on paper pales in comparison to the rest of the division. That’s the primary concern.
The Orioles may not have the best starters, but they’re not hurting in the depth department. They went into the winter with six candidates for five spots, leaving open the possibility of a trade in spring training. Chris Tillman remains the ace. He appeared to be on his way to a 20-win season before suffering a shoulder injury. Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are former first-round picks with ace stuff, but they’re still developing. Gausman needs to finally make the jump instead of inching along. Bundy just needs to stay healthy after moving into the rotation last summer. Showalter has indicated that the club won’t worry about Bundy’s innings total. Veterans Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley are vying for the last two spots, and they’re all pending free agents. Jimenez has been a bust since signing his four-year, $50 million contract, but he came on strong over the final month of the 2016 season. Gallardo showed up in camp with a weak shoulder and eventually landed on the disabled list, but he’s a nice bounce-back candidate. Miley disappointed after the Orioles traded for him, posting a 6.17 ERA in 11 starts, but he allowed only four runs over his last three outings.
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There wasn’t a better reliever in baseball last year than lefthander Zach Britton, who went 47-for-47 in save opportunities, registered a 0.54 ERA and placed fourth in AL Cy Young voting. It was a historic season that will be hard to duplicate. The Orioles are flush with quality setup men, led by veteran Darren O’Day, who made two stops on the disabled list last season. In his absence, Brad Brach stepped up and pitched well enough to earn his first All-Star Game berth. Brach posted a 0.91 ERA in the first half and finally gained notice. Mychal Givens has made the conversion from minor-league shortstop to quality reliever, going 8–2 with a 3.13 ERA in 66 appearances as a rookie. Lefthander Donnie Hart also made the jump from Double-A to the majors and emerged as a quality specialist. The Orioles non-tendered Vance Worley, but they have plenty of long relief candidates.
J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop form one of the best double-play combinations in baseball. Hardy remains one of the most reliable shortstops in the game, making every routine play and plenty of tough ones. He doesn’t have the best range or arm, but he’s always in the right place, and he’s the undisputed leader of the infield. Schoop possesses a rifle for an arm, and any runner sliding into him does so at his own risk. His range grades out poorly in the defensive metrics, but he passes the eye test.
Third baseman Manny Machado makes the short list of best players in the majors. He’s already won a Platinum Glove. No one has a stronger arm or better range at the hot corner. Factor in his production at the plate, including the 40 doubles, 37 home runs and .876 OPS, and it’s no wonder he finished fifth in AL MVP voting. Across the diamond, Chris Davis was a finalist for a Gold Glove and finally shed the label of underappreciated defender. No one is better at scooping throws in the dirt. He played most of the season with a hand injury that hurt his production at the plate in his first season after signing a seven-year, $161 million contract. However, he’s still one of the most feared power hitters in the game.
The Orioles want to upgrade their outfield defense. Center fielder Adam Jones wasn’t a finalist for a Gold Glove, though he remains one of the better defenders. Critics say he plays too shallow. He needed to cover a lot of ground in the alleys with Hyun Soo Kim and Mark Trumbo flanking him. Trumbo, who just re-signed with the Orioles in January, projects as a designated hitter. Kim was better than advertised, but still not close to elite. Kim did, however, lead the club in average (.302) and on-base percentage (.382) in his first season outside the Korean Baseball Organization. He was a platoon player, receiving only 18 at-bats against lefthanders, and may share the position with former Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard. Rickard, who didn’t play after July 20 due to a hand injury, can handle all three outfield positions and is a candidate to start in right field if the Orioles can’t find anyone else. He brings speed to the lineup that’s sorely needed.
Matt Wieters won’t be behind the plate for the first time since 2009, with the Orioles deciding to spend less on catching. They signed Welington Castillo to a one-year, $6 million contract that includes a $7 million player option for 2018. They wanted a short-term commitment while waiting for prospect Chance Sisco, who needs more experience at Triple-A. Castillo has some pop and a plus-arm, but he also was charged with 10 passed balls last season and grades poorly in pitch framing. Caleb Joseph is expected to be the backup, though Francisco Pena is on the 40-man roster and out of minor league options.
The Orioles are prepared to make rookie Trey Mancini their primary designated hitter despite a résumé that includes only five major-league games. The three home runs he hit in those give games turned heads. They could platoon him with a left-handed hitter or send him to the bench if they add a hitter later in the winter. Either way, they seem committed to breaking camp with him. Ryan Flaherty was a non-tender candidate, but the Orioles offered him a contract. He doesn’t do much with the bat, but he plays every position except catcher.
Showalter took heat for not using Britton in the wild card game, an 11-inning loss in Toronto, and he’s willing to take it. He knows it comes with the gig and it shouldn’t erase all of his accomplishments. Showalter changed a losing culture; the Orioles have posted five straight non-losing seasons and made the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Duquette is methodical, but there’s a method to his madness. He’s gotten some great bargains by letting the market play out, and the Trumbo-for-Steve Clevenger trade with the Mariners was a steal.
The Orioles always appear at a disadvantage in a division filled with big spenders. They also don’t have the prospects to swing major deals. They know who they are, and they somehow make it work. There’s no reason to believe they won’t contend in 2017, but the rotation could stand in their way. It’s filled with question marks.