The Orioles’ season is roughly 20 percent complete, and the rebuilt team has shown fans that the hard work is just beginning. After the team won four of its five games, they’ve recorded just seven victories, and entering tonight’s game against Tampa Bay are 11-21.
That record projected over a full season would put the Orioles at 56-106, an improvement over the 115-loss 2018 season, but miles from respectability.
Some fans hoped that an improvement in the team’s fundamentals would make them more enjoyable to watch, but that hasn’t been the case.
Teams that are bad are bad in part because they’re weak on fundamentals, and the Orioles’ awful pitching of the first fifth of the season has led to many of the fundamental breakdowns.
A year ago, the Orioles had baseball’s worst pitching with a 5.18 ERA. The starters had a 5.49 ERA, and the relievers had a 4.76 ERA.
This year’s starters have been slightly worse—a 5.54 ERA, but the relievers have a woeful 6.27 ERA to put the overall ERA at 5.89.
Manager Brandon Hyde has used seven starters, including Nate Karns, who twice served as an opener in an experiment that was quickly discarded.
Hyde has used 23 pitchers in relief, including a club record three position players — Hanser Alberto, Chris Davis and Jesus Sucre. Until last September, the Orioles had never used more than one position player as a pitcher in a season.
The Orioles began the season with 12 pitchers, but when the short starts quickly piled up, they went to 13 and reduced their bench from four to three.
They began the season with Rule 5 draft choice Drew Jackson serving in a utility role, but when they signed pitcher Dan Straily, Jackson was returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
One of the three bench players will always be a catcher, which leaves two players who must be versatile in reserve.
While Alberto and Stevie Wilkerson, who often comprise the bench players, have played a number of positions, the many errors and countless misplays can be attributed in large part to players not playing positions they’re used to.
Alberto and Wilkerson, who are both natural infielders and played little outfield, have been inserted in the outfield for the first time in the majors in recent days.
When the Orioles were able to add a 26th player for the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader, Anthony Santander was added, and it gave Hyde some temporary maneuverability in the outfield.
Santander isn’t a centerfielder, and neither is Alberto or Wilkerson. When the Orioles decided to send Cedric Mullins and his .094 batting average to Triple-A Norfolk, that left them without a true centerfielder.
Joey Rickard has been playing center since Mullins was sent down, weakening the overall outfield defense. Rickard is in a 1-for-22 drought and his average is just .183.
If Mullins continues to hit well at Norfolk, he could return. If Austin Hays, who injured his thumb sliding headfirst and is scheduled to play in extended spring games in Sarasota in the next several days, shows he’s healthy, he could join the Orioles at some point later.
The Orioles have already used 39 players and should easily surpass the 2018 team record of 56 players used. They could challenge the 2014 Texas Rangers, who used 64 players, a major league record.
This churning isn’t pointless. It’s general manager Mike Elias’ way of trying to find players who will be part of the new foundation.
The Orioles were known for their strong infield defense and exceptional relief pitching. Those areas fell sharply last year, and Elias spent much of the offseason and spring training trying to acquire better defensive infielders.
Richie Martin, another Rule 5 pick, has been strong defensively but has been overmatched at the plate. Since the Orioles don’t have a major league-ready middle infielder at Norfolk or Double-A Bowie, it’s Martin’s job for now, even with a .183 average and two RBIs.
There have been some solid showings by the bullpen, and Elias will keep trying to find better solutions. This week, he added right-hander Shawn Armstrong, who was picked up on waivers from Seattle.
When Armstrong came, Tanner Scott and his 6.75 ERA and astronomical 2.85 WHIP went to Norfolk.
Only one starter, Andrew Cashner, has completed seven innings, forcing Hyde to find relievers to cover the final four innings of most games.
Frederick native Branden Kline pitched two strong innings in Wednesday’s first game and picked up his first major league win. Mychal Givens has been erratic, but Hyde has little confidence in anyone else in the late innings.
Givens’ last two appearances, both saves, weren’t the typical ninth-inning closer roles. Against the Chicago White Sox on April 24, Givens worked two innings. In Wednesday’s first game of a doubleheader, Givens recorded the final four outs, and though Hyde wanted to use him in a winnable second game, he improvised, and paid for it.
Gabriel Ynoa had pitched three brilliant innings, the fifth, sixth and seventh, but Hyde didn’t want to extend him beyond that. He tried to get by with Evan Phillips, Paul Fry and Miguel Castro, but the Orioles lost on a two-out, two run single by Yonder Alonso against Castro. First baseman Chris Davis also made a misplay on a bunt in that inning, the last defensive mistake of many the Orioles made in the doubleheader.
If Elias and Hyde can find a dependable reliever or two, and the starters go deeper into games, perhaps the team can again have a four-man bench.
That’s unlikely for the time being, and while there’s a short bench, rocky fielding and fundamentals could continue, and more losses like Wednesday night’s might be coming.