Let’s start by saying 42-46 at the All-Star Break is not acceptable.
Not for a team that made the playoffs last season. Not for an organization with MLB’s 10th highest payroll.
Not for a club that was 22-10 on May 9, owning the best record in the bigs leagues at the time.
Not for a club whose window of competitiveness appears to be closing rapidly.
A 42-46 record at the break is a major, major disappointment for these Orioles.
Yet I have to stop short of labeling the season up to this point a disaster.
Because the reality of Major League Baseball in 2017 is just about every team is flawed, and the presence of two Wild Card spots makes nearly every team a potential contender in July.
As bad as the Orioles have been in the past two months – 20-36 (a .357 winning percentage since the 22-10 start) – very few teams have separated from the pack.
The Houston Astros (60-29) are on another planet and the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox finally look to be the class of their divisions after slow starts.
I don’t claim to be a baseball soothsayer here, but that’s how I predicted the divisions to go in April. Those three looked like the class of the AL – everyone else was a step below.
Now, I expected the Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays to be better than they are. And I didn’t imagine the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays would be tied for the two Wild Card spots.
I’m still not sure how the AL East shakes out this season – besides Boston clearly looking like the best team. I honestly don’t buy the Yankees, not yet anyway, or the Rays as slam-dunk Wild Card clubs. Frankly, I don’t believe either is significantly better than the Orioles, and the head-to-head matchups bear that out. The Orioles have won five of nine against the Rays and five of 12 against the Yankees.
Both clubs are four games ahead of the Orioles at the break, concerning but not insurmountable. The problem is there are five other teams between the Orioles and the AL Wild Card leaders. Yet none of those – the Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners – is particularly good, either. And none of those is more than three games ahead of the Orioles.
That’s the big picture here: Plenty of baseball remaining. The more focused lens, however, tells us that the Orioles’ starting pitching is abysmal – only the Cincinnati Reds have a worst starters’ ERA or total ERA – and that starting pitching wins championships.
I don’t think anyone can look at this team and think it can be a champion in 2017.
However, when I was being interviewed on 105.7 The Fan on Friday, shortly after I was railing on how bad the Orioles’ rotation has been this year, I was asked a simple question: Can you say with certainty this team won’t make the playoffs?
And I hesitated. I don’t think the Orioles can overcome such troubling pitching to be a postseason team – something I thought they were in April. But I misjudged the rotation then, thinking it would be serviceable not horrendous.
The offense is still way too streaky and disappears too much, and the vaunted defense isn’t as sharp as it was, partially due to injuries to first baseman Chris Davis and shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Still, with all of that, I couldn’t say with absolute certainty that the Orioles won’t make the playoffs. Do I think it will happen? Nope. Could it? Well, maybe.
Because the AL – outside of the division leaders — is weak. And the Orioles showed plenty of ability early. And the return of closer Zach Britton and the impending return of Davis makes this club more competitive. And one has to believe that Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman will be better in the second half.
That’s why things are so precarious for the Orioles right now.
A large chunk of the fan base wants the club to be sellers at the non-waiver trade deadline. It’s hard to argue with the concept. The Orioles haven’t played well, their farm system is void of highly touted prospects, there are too many “ifs” in the rotation and several of their best players could walk after the 2018 season.
Selling makes sense.
Except that the only way for the Orioles to truly improve their farm system is to deal away Manny Machado, Britton and Brad Brach – free agents after 2018 – and/or lone All-Star Jonathan Schoop, a free agent after 2019.
No one else, whether it’s because of contractual reasons, performance reasons or a combination, will you get you much of anything in return. I appreciate the Facebook GMs who declare the Orioles need to trade Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, Chris Davis, Welington Castillo, Mark Trumbo, Tillman, Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim for quality pitching prospects.
I respectfully retort, “that ain’t gettin it done.” Maybe, just maybe, one of those gets you a minor leaguer that, on a wing and a prayer, becomes a competent, back-end starter. Nothing more.
So, if you really want a rebuild, it has to come at the expense of Machado and Britton, and maybe Brach.
The Orioles are at a crossroads here. They’ve done nothing in the past two months that makes you think they can reach the playoffs. They have too many deficiencies to seemingly make a deep run in the postseason, if they somehow get there, after a disappointing first half.
But they are not dead, yet. And they are getting healthier. And that complicates things.
Which may mean the Orioles do nothing for the future, and little to improve this club, at the deadline. And it ends up at or below .500. That would be the certifiable disaster of 2017.