As preparations for the Orioles' season unfolded in Sarasota, Fla., in mid-February, I realized there would be no new reinforcements brought in to replace the free-agent losses of designated hitter/outfielder Nelson Cruz, right fielder Nick Markakis and left-handed reliever Andrew Miller.
There was a frequent and constant refrain. The Orioles won the American League East last season, and entering 2015, first baseman Chris Davis, third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters were expected to return from injuries and suspensions to anchor the middle of the batting order.
Davis and Machado have bounced back and been regular contributors, but Wieters has yet to play in a regular-season game. I arrived in Sarasota March 13, four days before Wieters was scheduled to return from season-ending Tommy John surgery that limited him to 26 games in 2014. Wieters returned as scheduled for the team's March 17 Grapefruit League game against the Minnesota Twins.
After that game, though, the club reexamined Wieters and placed him on the 15-day disabled list. On April 14, Wieters began to play in extended games in Sarasota. However, MASN's Roch Kubatko reported May 3 that there was no exact date for Wieters' return since he couldn't play in back-to-back games. One week later, the Orioles transferred Wieters to the 60-day disabled list, meaning he isn't eligible to be activated until May 26, at the earliest.
When Wieters was initially placed on the disabled list, my best guess was that he wouldn't be back in a big league uniform until mid-June. And while the Orioles continue to wait for Wieters to return, his replacement, Caleb Joseph, has taken a lot of the pressure off the club.
But despite the Orioles' sub-.500 record through mid-May, Joseph has been nothing short of remarkable in Wieters' place. Joseph, who spent parts of seven seasons in the Orioles' minor league system from 2008-14, has established himself as a possible long-term replacement during the last two seasons. Wieters, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2007 draft, can become a free agent following this season.
As of May 12, Joseph has played in 24 of the Orioles' first 30 games this season, batting .295 with one triple, three doubles, three home runs and 10 RBIs in 78 at bats. His on-base percentage is a respectable .391 and his slugging percentage is .474.
Nobody can say for sure how Wieters' comeback and eventual contract situation will work itself out. One thing is clear, though. Joseph's five minutes of fame have now been extended indefinitely.
Smaller Margin For Error
One thing that has become abundantly clear in the aftermath of not re-signing Cruz, Miller and Markakis is that the Orioles have a much smaller margin for error. That's why bad base running, poor fielding and inconsistent pitching have appeared to hurt the Birds more this season than the previous three seasons, when they finished better than .500 each year.
One of the areas I thought the money the team didn't spend on Cruz and Markakis would go toward was the re-signing of Miller, the dominant setup man. With left-hander Zach Britton having emerged as a superstar closer, one can probably understand the O's reluctance to give Miller a four-year, $36 million contract for the same type of pitcher as Britton.
Perhaps the most devastating part of Miller's departure for fans was that he ended up with the Orioles' division rival New York Yankees. It never should have happened. Miller was such an exceptional talent, and the Orioles should have found a creative and strategic way to keep him.
It's one of the few disagreements I have had with O's executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette during his 3.5-year tenure. Since we can't go back in time and have a do-over, I'll just have to let it go.
But while I am nitpicking Duquette, let me address some key points I have with the roster he put together for this season. If the Orioles could not afford a couple of premium difference-makers in Cruz and Miller, so be it. But they could not compound that by hamstringing manager Buck Showalter with two questionable decisions in the team's 12-man pitching staff.
The issue of right-hander Kevin Gausman's role in this staff will now be put off, as he was placed on the 15-day disabled list May 8 with shoulder inflammation.
Meanwhile, the other decision has to do with Duquette's attachment to Rule 5 draft selection Jason Garcia. The O's have been effective at improving the roster through Rule 5 additions since Duquette's arrival. The Orioles have been creative in their use of four Rule 5 selections, infielder Ryan Flaherty, left-hander T.J. McFarland, third baseman Michael Almanzar and Garcia, in the expectation that they'll help the team during the long haul.
When Duquette took over the reins, there was no question he was wise in his attempts to use the Rule 5 draft to help build the team. But now, it appears Duquette's pipeline should have in-house options ready to contribute to the big league club.
There is a time for franchise building, and there is a time when a team tries to do everything it can to win a division and make a World Series run.
The reality is that if the Orioles can't afford to spend the money to retain players like Cruz and Miller, then they also can't afford the luxury of clogging their 12-man staff with a pitcher who has an undefined role.
Remember Steve Johnson? Well, he is dominating at Triple-A Norfolk. During 15.2 innings this season, Johnson has posted a 0.57 ERA and 1.149 WHIP, as of May 12. Johnson has proven he is fully healthy, compiling a 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Now is not the time for the Orioles to try and stash a good pitching prospect. The organization has quite a few good arms, including Johnson. He belongs up in the big leagues, and if that happens, it would make Duquette look as smart as I know he is.