The biggest keys to the O’s having yet another surprisingly successful season under Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette
Let me first state that I do still believe that the O’s should have unloaded prior to last season’s July 31 non-waiver trade deadline given their many free-agents-to-be after the 2017 season (Seth Smith, Welington Castillo (who had a player option)) and after the 2018 season (Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Brad Brach). I still don’t have a good feeling about the state of the franchise, especially given that Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are entering the final seasons of contract extensions signed in Jan. 2013 and that the American League East has become so top-heavy again with Boston and the Yankees. There remains a feeling of impending doom hovering over this club.
But before the end of the season we have the actual season. And the signing of Alex Cobb on March 21 has given this Orioles season renewed hope and has given me an excitement that I didn’t previously have. The Orioles’ over/under win total is 73. I’m taking the over. And while I still don’t expect them to make the playoffs for a fourth time in seven seasons, I do now see a realistic path to the postseason. Here are three things that would go a long way toward the O’s actually making the playoffs in 2018:
1. Each of at least three Orioles starters makes at least 25 starts and has an ERA+ of 100 or better
The single biggest reason for the O’s going 4-19 over the final 23 games of last season and going just 53-77 after a 22-10 start last season was the starting pitching. The O’s had a starting-pitching ERA last season of 5.70, the worst in the majors and a continuation of a decades-long problem of identifying, drafting and developing quality starting pitching.
I have no delusions of Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman all being great. But I can see three of the five being good. An ERA+ of 100 is league average. If three of the five can pitch at that level while also staying reasonably healthy to the tune of each also making 25 starts, the rotation can be good enough to compete. What you can’t have is anything close to what the O’s had last season.
2. Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo combine for at least 100 home runs
The O’s have finished in the top-five of the majors in homers each of the last six seasons. The O’s ranked in the top-three of the majors in homers from 2012-2016. This team scores via the homer. That’s just the way it is. I’ve largely given up on the O’s becoming a good-on-base-percentage team, which they haven’t been in forever. The O’s need to mash, and then they need to mash some more.
The most realistic route to the O’s getting back into the top-three in the majors in homers is Machado, Davis and Trumbo all bouncing back in 2018. They combined for just 82 homers in 2017 off totaling 122 homers in 2016. If those three players can provide at least 100 combined homers in 2018, that goes a long way toward getting the O’s to where they need to be from a home-run-hitting standpoint, especially if Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini replicate their 2017 seasons.
3. Orioles relievers finish in the top-three in the American League in ERA
Orioles relievers finished in the top-three in the AL in ERA in each of the Orioles’ playoff seasons during the Showalter/Duquette Era (2012, 2014 and 2016). ERA is a flawed stat to go by for relievers, because not allowing inherited runners to score is such a big part of what relievers are supposed to do, but you get the idea. The bullpen was a major key to the Orioles’ success in 2012, 2014 and 2017. Well, the bullpen fell off in 2017, during which Orioles relievers ranked no. 6 out of 15 AL teams in ERA (3.93), no. 11 in WHIP (1.34) and no. 11 in opponents’ OPS (.744).
Zach Britton could be back as soon as early June from his ruptured right Achilles suffered in December. He needs to be better, because there was a massive dip in his performance last season off his all-world 2016 season. Brad Brach also was far less effective last season than in 2016. And the Orioles’ re-signing of Darren O’Day in Dec. 2015 to a four-year, $31 million deal doesn’t look so great with him having been very mediocre over the last two seasons. The O’s need these guys and the likes of Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Donnie Hart and Rule 5 draftee Nestor Cortes Jr. to comprise a quality bullpen in 2018.