It’s always tricky to make season predictions as a baseball beat writer.
If you suggest the team you cover isn’t going to be good, you’ll be labeled by the players and fans as too negative. If you predict a high win total, well, then you’re a homer.
I’ve been all around that slippery slope in my years covering the Orioles. I try to ignore outside opinions and focus on the overall roster, the quality of teams in the American League East and where I think certain players are in their development.
Last year, I predicted the Orioles would win 88 games, finish third and capture an AL Wild Card berth. They won 89, tied for second in the division and lost the Wild Card game. I’m not always that close. In 2012, I shorted the Orioles about 15 wins in my preseason prediction. Since then, though, I’ve been pretty solid, give or take three wins.
So, this year, I’m going with 90 victories, a second-place finish and another Wild Card berth. I’ll say they get to the AL Division Series, but stop there.
What makes me second-guess my call is twofold: the uncertainty surrounding the health of right-hander Chris Tillman, who will need to get back from a shoulder issue by May to further stabilize the rotation and help preserve the bullpen, and an always competitive division that should be tougher in 2017.
But there are plenty of reasons I think the Orioles will be at least one game better this year. Here are five:
1. Gausman And Bundy Take The Next Step
Right-handers Dylan Bundy, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Kevin Gausman, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, have been linked for years. Each had his first full season in the majors in 2016. And there’s no reason to think Bundy, 24, and Gausman, 26, can’t be better this year.
They’ll have their struggles at times -- primarily with pitching deep into games -- but these two may be the most talented 1-2 punch the Orioles have had in their rotation in two decades. What they need is experience, and they gained a valuable dose of that last year. I expect that will translate into lower ERAs and higher win totals for both.
2. The Offense Is More Balanced, But Still Potent
It’s not perfect. There are still too many swing-and-miss guys. But with the addition of patient veteran Seth Smith, the return of Joey Rickard from injury and a full year of MLB experience for Hyun Soo Kim, the Orioles should have more ways to score than bludgeoning opponents with the long ball. That should help the club improve with runners in scoring position.
Regardless, this team is going to score runs because of its immense power potential. Chris Davis was bothered by a thumb injury for a chunk of 2016, and that likely contributed to his down season. Mark Trumbo, the AL home run leader, was re-signed. And Manny Machado, already one of baseball’s best at 24, keeps improving.
3. So Many Optionable Bullpen Pieces
For several years now, the Orioles have had one of the game’s best bullpens. Part of that is sheer talent. Led by outstanding closer Zach Britton and superb set-up men Darren O’Day and Brad Brach, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has plenty of quality relief choices.
But what also makes the bullpen so good is the way Showalter balances his group. He is exceptionally careful to not overuse individual relievers, and he’s willing to potentially sacrifice the outcome of one game to keep certain pitchers rested for the long-term.
One way to do that is to keep refreshing bullpen personnel. This year they can do that more often because they have so many optionable pitchers on their 40-man roster. Most of their relievers can go back and forth between the minors and majors without being put through waivers. Last year, the club’s best long reliever, Vance Worley, was out of options, and that hamstrung the Triple-A Norfolk shuttle some. This year, it will be running in full force.
4. The Bench Is Deeper
Showalter has been criticized for not using his bench much; but, frankly, it hasn’t been either good or versatile during his tenure. At times last year, he had just three reserves, including a backup catcher. So, he couldn’t often use pinch-runners, pinch-hitters or defensive replacements as much as he would have liked.
This year, Showalter has an outfield with left-handed and right-handed hitters that can be platooned. He has a variety of options with speed and power, and there are legitimate major leaguers in Norfolk that could be called up if injury or ineffectiveness hit the bench.
Overall, the rosters in the big leagues and at Triple-A are deeper, and that should make Showalter, a tremendous tactician, more dangerous.
5. I Believe In Ubaldo
I saved this one for last because it is on the shakiest ground. Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t lived up to the four-year, $50 million contract he signed before the 2014 season. In his first three seasons in Baltimore, Jimenez was 26-31 with a 4.72 ERA in 86 games (79 starts).
So why would I suggest he’ll be better in 2017 at age 33? Because Jimenez was 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA in 12 games (eight starts) during the second half last year. And because Jimenez was 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA for the Cleveland Indians in 2013, the last time he was in a contract year. Maybe that’s just incidental, but some players seem to crack under the pressure of needing a new contract; Jimenez handled it fine the last time.
The bottom line is he’s good when he can repeat his complicated delivery and throw strikes from a deceptive wind-up. But when his mechanics get out of whack, his control suffers. And simplifying his delivery seems to eliminate the deception he needs to succeed.
There’s no guarantee Jimenez can figure it out for a full season -- he hasn’t as an Oriole -- but I just have the sense he can at least match what he did in 2015, when he was 12-10 with a 4.11 ERA. Actually, I think he’ll do better than that.
Issue 232: April 2017