2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

Bob Dylan has a great song from his 1997 album “Time Out of Mind” called “Not Dark Yet.” It’s a bleak song — click that link to check out the lyrics — but it’s one that in some weird way makes me feel good. Death is coming, death is certain and death will arrive soon, but the subject of the song is facing it with fortitude. When doom is certain, what else can you do but face it with dignity?

The 2018 Baltimore Orioles are facing certain doom, it seems. Their general manager and manager are lame ducks and the former didn’t do all that much to help the latter in his offseason moves. It’s longest-serving star, Adam Jones, it’s brightest star, Manny Machado, and the team’s erstwhile star closer, Zach Britton, are in their walk years. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo are still around. For now they still have their seasoned team leaders and these stars. It’s not dark yet. But, yeah, it’s gettin’ there.

How are the O’s facing it? Well enough, I suppose, at least on the surface. They haven’t punted yet. They didn’t try particularly hard to deal away Machado in the offseason as some other teams might’ve. They’re even doing him a solid by moving him back to his preferred position of shortstop. That might help the O’s themselves if they try to deal him as a rental at the deadline, but it’ll help Machado more as a free agent, assuming he handles the position well, which by all accounts he has so far this spring. Whatever else is motivating Machado’s move to short, it’s also a move that a club which is at least trying to put its best foot forward makes and there’s something to be said for that.

At the same time, the Orioles haven’t totally raised the white flag. As I’ll get to below, I don’t think they’ll truly compete in 2018 — the division is stacked and they’re just not that good– but they’re at least making a token effort at it, which is much more than a lot of clubs are doing. Did they make the moves needed to fix the holes on last year’s last place, 75-win team? Nah. But they didn’t hold a fire sale, which is par for the course these days. Given that they only signed one free agent of quasi note they do not get an A for effort here but a gentleman’s C- is a better mark than a lot of clubs I could name deserve.

Things are in reasonably decent shape with the lineup, though everything will have to break just right. To compete, the Orioles are counting on bounce backs from old stalwarts like Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo. For Jones to at least maintain last year’s level of production which, while off his peak, was still serviceable. They need Machado to avoid last year’s slow start and to go hog wild in his walk year, which is totally possible. For the big steps forward taken by Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini in 2017 to be real and not illusory which, I tend to think, is reasonable. The O’s were a middle-of-the-pack offense in the AL last year. With a few breaks they could approach the back of the top of the pack. Maybe.

The pitching is another story. They were among the worst staffs in all of baseball last year and it’s hard to see how they got any better. Their “big” pickup, Andrew Cashner, did a lot with smoke and mirrors in Texas last year and smoke and mirrors play a lot better in the AL West than in the loaded AL East. At some point they’ll get Zach Britton back, but that won’t happen until June or maybe even the second half. They brought back Chris “55 ERA+” Tillman who will probably be better because (a) he can’t be worse; and (b) simply releasing him if he repeats his 2017 performance will be addition by subtraction. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are back, and each of them stand to be at least fairly decent starters. There’s a three or four guy competition for the fifth spot consisting of guys who, on most teams, would be competing for, like, the seventh or eight spot.

The problem here is pretty obvious. Even if every guy on the staff improved over their 2017 performance to a reasonable degree, the staff would still be bad. And it’s never safe to bet on five or six guys all improving in the same year. All in all things look pretty damn rough for an O’s pitching staff which could’ve used a Lance Lynn or an Alex Cobb, each of whom are or were close to freely available. The O’s have 38 games against the Yankees and Red Sox. Those lineups are going to so thoroughly obliterate this O’s pitching staff that they may have to open up a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

So, what happens if none of that stuff breaks right and the O’s do as well as some of the sabermetric projections, all of which have them finishing in las place, have them doing? The Orioles didn’t do the fire sale thing yet and, in the past, haven’t even really tried to do it, either in the offseason or at the trade deadline. This year, though, if things start off as tough as it appears things will, they could be one of major deadline players. Machado is the obvious chit here, with the O’s looking to get something besides a compensation pick in 2019. Jones could be moved, though he may not bring much. Gausman and Bundy could, if they pitch well in the first half, bring back some talent. Indeed, the likelihood of Baltimore making waves on the transaction columns is much greater than them making waves in the standings.

In the meantime, the Orioles will hold their collective heads high, talking the talk of a competitive team for as long as reasonableness allows and then to and, perhaps, a bit longer than that. The competitiveness is not likely to come to pass. They will almost certainly get slaughtered by the Yankees and the Red Sox and could easily find themselves looking up at the Rays and Jays once again. Doom to this year’s club and death to the run of mostly competitive teams in the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era seems nigh.

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. But at least as the darkness approaches, the Orioles are holding out hope. At least they are halfway trying to look like a major league club. That’s not much, but that’s not nothing in the year 2018.

Prediction: 5th place, AL East