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2017 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

Hey Orioles fans: Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see guys sock a few dingers?

“Dingers! Dingers!”

Well, then, you’re in luck! The 2017 Baltimore Orioles will, in all likelihood, sock a bunch of dingers. They led all of baseball in homers in 2016 — by a lot — and there’s no reason to think they won’t lead it again in 2017. That’s despite the fact that Matt Weiters (17 HR) and Pedro Alvarez (22) are leaving. Buck Showalter’s lineup will still have Mark Trumbo (47), Chris Davis (38), Manny Machado (37), Adam Jones (29), and Jonathan Schoop (25). The longball will not be an issue.

The problem, of course, is that all of those dingers only led to the O’s ranking 7th in the American League in runs last season. That’ll happen when you strike out a lot, are only 10th in the league in walks and 8th in hits. The Orioles hit the ball a long way when they hit it, but they need to hit it more.

Unfortunately, that’s not the terrifying truth I was referring to above. The terrifying truth is that the O’s are shaping up to be pretty darn bad at run prevention in the coming year.

Baltimore’s rotation had the third-worst ERA in the American League (4.72), edging only the Twins and A’s. Their starters walked more batters than anyone this side of the Texas Rangers, were only 11th in strikeouts and were near the bottom of the AL in innings pitched. Gone is Yovani Gallardo, who was not good last year, to that will help. Not gone are Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley who were basically train wrecks. The O’s simply don’t have many more options. Tyler WilsonMike Wright? T.J. McFarland(oops, he’s gone)? No offense, but those randos aren’t good enough to be starting pitchers on a playoff contender.

One starter who was good last year, Chris Tillman, may begin the season on the DL due to rehab from shoulder surgery, but he is throwing now and things look to be on the upswing for him. The top of the rotation seems OK as well, with Kevin Gausman, who took very well to full-time starter duties and last year, and Dylan Bundy, who finally showed everyone what all the fuss was about back when he was drafted, returning. If Tillman is healthy and the other two build on their 2016 seasons, there is something to work with here. If Tillman has a setback and the two younger starters regress, things may get super ugly super fast given the lack of starting pitching depth.

Defense is likewise going to be a problem, particularly in the outfield. As an outfielder, Mark Trumbo makes for a passable first baseman. Newcomer Seth Smith is not known for his leather either. Adam Jones has four gold gloves, but he has regressed as a fielder and was actually a sub-par center fielder last year. He’ll be forced to run down a lot more balls than most center fielders this year. A lot of O’s opponents will be running for extra bases.

The clear strength in Baltimore remains the bullpen. Buck Showalter may have gotten a lot of bad press for poor bullpen management in the Wild Card Game last October, but over the course of 162 games he’s one of the best bullpen managers in the game today. Maybe the best. Zach Britton was the game’s best closer last season and he’s back. So too are Darren O'Day and Brad Brach. Overall the Baltimore pen was the best in the AL. The problem is that they had to pitch a lot more innings than any other playoff team’s pen did and likely will be forced to again. Like Jones in the outfield, the Orioles relievers will be leaned on heavily.

What does that give us overall? A team that may be hard to watch for folks who like well-rounded, fundamentally-sound teams. There will be some bad starting pitching and some bad defense. There will also, however, be a lot of bashing, some good relief pitching and, in all likelihood, the continued improvement of one of the game’s brightest stars in Manny Machado. That’s not nothing and, with the Yankees rebuilding and the budget-challenged Rays always a bit of a question mark, it could very well be enough to put Baltimore back in the playoff hunt in 2017.

But I think it’s a marginal playoff hunt, with the Wild Card as their best bet. If things break right, they could win 89 games again. If things don’t, it could be an ugly season at Camden Yards. Prediction: Third Place, A.L. East.

Reds acquire Darnell Sweeney from the Dodgers

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The Reds acquired utilityman Darnell Sweeney from the Dodgers in exchange for cash considerations, J.P. Hoornstra of the Southern California News Group reports.

This is the second time that the Dodgers have traded Sweeney. The club sent him to the Phillies along with John Richy in August 2015 for Chase Utley. The Phillies sent him back to the Dodgers this past offseason with Darin Ruf in exchange for Howie Kendrick.

Sweeney, 26, made his major league debut in 2015 with the Phillies, hitting a meager .176/.286/.353 in 98 plate appearances. With Triple-A Oklahoma City this season, he hit .227/.290/.412 in 131 PA. While Sweeney’s bat hasn’t proven to be anything special, he has played second base, third base, shortstop, and all three outfield positions, so his flexibility will make him useful at some point.

Bryce Harper to Little League players: “No participation trophies, first place only”

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Nationals’ star outfielder Bryce Harper had some words of advice for a local Little League team on Saturday, telling a crowd of young players and their parents that winning matters far more than any participation trophies they might receive for their efforts on the field.

“As much as they might tell you, ‘Oh, it’s okay, you guys lost…’ No, Johnny, no,” Harper explained. “No participation trophies, okay? First place only. Come on.”

The panic over participation trophy culture has swelled over the last few years as studies continue to suggest that children are happier when they’re praised for their accomplishments, rather than rewarded for simply trying their best. The general idea is that kids aren’t motivated to succeed when they know they’ll receive a ribbon or medal celebrating their efforts at the end of the day — regardless of whether they win or lose. (Granted, it stands to reason that every kid can feel the difference between winning a championship trophy and receiving a participation ribbon.) Some have taken the idea to an extreme, claiming that when a child receives too many accolades for mediocre or poor performances, it can warp the way they view the world by generating a sense of undeserved entitlement.

Harper kept his tone light during the Q&A session, however, drawing cheers and applause from the majority of parents and a few of the kids. The 2015 NL MVP has routinely taken his own advice over the years, earning Rookie of the Year honors, four All-Star nominations and a Silver Slugger award since he broke into the major leagues in 2012. Next on his list? A World Series championship.