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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.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.