Despite spring training having officially already begun, there is no certainty the Orioles’ offseason is finished. But the caliber of free agents remaining on this year’s market is not quite what it was in 2014 or 2016 when the Orioles made significant additions after already arriving in Sarasota, Fla.
Assuming the roster is at least largely in place, there’s one examination that needs to be made. It’s a simple question: “Are the Orioles actually better today than they were when the 2016 season ended in Toronto?”
It’s a question that should have guided the organization throughout the offseason. While making the postseason for a third time in five seasons was a noteworthy accomplishment, even those within the franchise know it’s no longer enough for a fan base starving to compete for a championship. In fact, manager Buck Showalter explained it at FanFest Jan. 28 by telling reporters, “This is real hard to do, but I keep telling the fans today, and the players know, that being competitive and making the playoffs isn’t good enough for us anymore.”
So the Orioles have to be better than the team that had inconsistent starting pitching throughout the 2016 season and saw its offense down the stretch become more “all or nothing” than long-forgotten, early 2000s boy band O-Town.
(If you get that obscure pop culture reference, we should probably get an apartment together.)
This is probably where I’m supposed to answer the question. Are they better? Well ... no. At least I don’t think they are. But I’m starting to talk myself into the idea that they could be. Maybe. An overall look at the 2017 Orioles on paper shows a team largely similar to the squad that made a Clint Howard-like cameo in the 2016 postseason.
Welington Castillo replaces Matt Wieters as the team’s primary option behind the plate, offering a largely similar skill set (solid bat, lack of pitch framing) while giving up the “don’t even think about it” arm threat. On paper, it’s no upgrade from where the team was a year ago.
Third base, shortstop, second base and center field will all remain the same. The other four spots in the lineup -- first base, right field, left field and designated hitter -- will primarily be handled by some combination of Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Hyun-Soo Kim, Joey Rickard and Seth Smith. Outfielder Smith is the only real chance for any upgrade, as the Orioles traded off some of the power designated hitter Pedro Alvarez provided for a better on-base option.
As far as pitching is concerned, the bullpen is largely the same (which is rather desirable considering how well it performed), and the pitching staff only switches out right-hander Yovani Gallardo for (hopefully) a full season of righty Dylan Bundy.
It’s not better. It’s mostly the same with slight alterations. Considering the Boston Red Sox were really good even before they got Chris Sale-d this offseason, it’s hard to fathom a team so similar to last year’s being capable of doing any better in the division or having any better fortune in the postseason. It has the smell of another season in which the Orioles outperform the projections of experts but yet never look like a serious threat to snap the now 34-year World Series drought. (Don’t look now, but with the Chicago Cubs off the table, only seven franchises have longer droughts in their current city.)
But yet, there’s this other feeling that sort of creeps in when I try to figure this team out. It’s the feeling where I start thinking “maybe third baseman Manny Machado could still be even better” and “maybe second baseman Jonathan Schoop is about to make his star turn” and “Davis should probably be better this year than he was last year.” In fact, I even think “lefty Wade Miley couldn’t be as bad as he was last year” and “maybe right-hander Kevin Gausman and/or Bundy is truly ready to become a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.”
In fact, those scenarios start seeming realistic enough that your only fear for the Orioles is closer Zach Britton is really good. That’s not a typo. If Britton is only really good this season that’s problematic, because he was perfect in 2016. Just being “really good” would actually cost the Orioles a few wins they can’t really afford to part with.
So are they better? No. On paper, the Orioles aren’t any better at all this season and expecting a World Series run doesn’t make much sense. But they’re good enough to think that if enough things go reasonably better, they could be.
Issue 230: February 2017