If you’re reading this, I don’t need to tell you how bad things are in Birdland. But here it is just in case: a 28-69 record, 39.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox. A first baseman with a -2.5 wins above replacement (WAR) in mid-July. An outfield defense that may end up being historically bad. A starting rotation whose ERA is only .4 points better than last year, when the Orioles had the worst in professional baseball.
Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it.
Anytime the Orioles come up in conversation, the question of how things went so wrong often arises. To be honest, I don’t really know; nobody really knows. They’re awful in so many ways, and in light of their recent run of good play, dating back to 2012, it’s hard not to feel like there’s some kind of hex descending on Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
When the season started, I thought the signings of starting pitchers Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb would shore up the team’s most obvious weakness, and the 2018 Orioles might surprise some folks and grab a Wild Card spot. Turns out the only surprise here is all the ways they’ve managed to be dreadful.
As I write this, the club is reportedly close–maybe even minutes away–from dealing away shortstop Manny Machado, by far the team’s best player and a generational talent, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This isn’t out of the blue. Fans across Baltimore knew the score well before Opening Day rolled around: Machado’s in his walk year, and every indication showed he intended to test free agency. Everyone’s been bracing for it, stuck in a paralysis of being sad about its inevitability and wanting to savor every last moment of Machado in an Orioles uniform.
Now that Machado’s pending departure appears imminent, there’s been increased heartache amongst Orioles fans. Me, I’m at peace with this, and here’s why: With the anchor around the franchise’s neck that is the Chris Davis contract (it goes all the way until 2022, insert crying emoji here), and given the general disarray in the major league club, is it reasonable to think the Orioles could pay Machado what he’s worth and have the resources to build a winning team around him during his peak years?
The answer is a resounding no, and I say that as someone who is rather bullish on the direction the Orioles’ farm system is heading.
Two players who showed immense promise in 2017, outfielder Trey Mancini and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, now look more like question marks after their performance has badly fallen off in the first half this year. Tim Beckham probably shouldn’t be starting at either shortstop or third base in the future. While serviceable at the plate, Danny Valencia doesn’t belong at third, either–assuming we even retain him after this year. As mentioned above, first base is a black hole for the next four years, or until the Orioles decide enough is enough. Once considered a top hitting prospect, catcher Chance Sisco has struggled in his first full season in the majors, hitting just .195.
Each of these guys is seeing regular playing time on the 2018 Orioles.
On top of that, center fielder Adam Jones and closer Zach Britton are also expected to be joining the free agency class with Machado. If the Orioles did nothing between now and the July 31 trade deadline, they’d almost certainly be losing at least Machado and Britton.
Now for some of the positives: Outfielder Cedric Mullins continues to rake in the minors and should be getting called up later this year. Third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, one of the best pure hitters to come through the Orioles’ system since Machado, is knocking on the door. After battling injuries, outfielder Austin Hays could return to the form that made him a top prospect. And there’s a wave of six pitchers–Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, DL Hall, Brenan Hanifee, Zac Lowther and Cameron Bishop–who have all made huge strides this season and could have an impact in Baltimore in the next several years.
Baseball prospects are far from a sure thing, of course, but after years of being ranked near the bottom of the league, the Orioles’ player development pipeline is starting to see results.
Taken together, it’s clear there are far too many gaping holes on this roster as it’s currently assembled, and even though help is on the way, it probably won’t be enough to really get this team back in playoff contention.
No, what this dumpster fire of a team needs is a top-to-bottom rebuild, and one of the best ways to get the ball rolling is to ship off your best assets–particularly the ones you can no longer afford (Machado and Britton), or veterans nearing the end of their peak performance (Jones and outfielder Mark Trumbo)–for premium young talent that stays under team control for years.
The Orioles would need to have to drop Yankees-level money to spend their way out of this mess by adding on more free agents, and that’s simply not happening. Yes, there’s the fabled MASN money, but Baltimore is still a team in a mid-market with four years of declining attendance. A rebuild is the only way toward relevancy.
Will it be hard see Machado ripping homers and making dazzling plays in colors other than black and orange? Of course. But if the 2018 season has proven anything, it’s that the organization is at one of its lowest points, and it’s going to take more than one immensely talented player to bring it back up.
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