For Major League Baseball players, managers, and staff, the All-Star Break brings both relaxation and reflection. A handful of players spend their four-day intermission competing in the All-Star festivities, but the rest of the bunch receive a window to examine their body of work for the first half of the season.
For the first time since 2011, the Orioles (42-46) enter the break with a record below .500. Baltimore sits at fourth place in the American League East, 7.5 games behind the first-place Red Sox (50-39). On May 10, the Orioles owned a 22-10 record, best in the majors. Since then, the club looks a shell of themselves, playing 20-36 ball, leaving everyone asking themselves the same question, “what happened”?
For starters, the pitching emerged as the team’s biggest flaw. Injuries and ineffectiveness set historic marks. Whether guys like Wade Miley or Ubaldo Jimenez failed to pitch out of the second inning, or old reliables like Chris Tillman and Zach Britton sat in the trainer’s room, or even high draft picks like Kevin Gausman had troubles figuring it out, the Orioles lacked competitiveness because of the serious pitching problems.
Representing the first team since 1924 to give up five or more runs in 20 straight games drove fans crazy, but shocked no one. After all, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette did not add pieces to the rotation over the offseason. He told us that the pitching would hold up because Gausman and Dylan Bundy would continue to develop, and Miley and Jimenez would throw better in their contract seasons.
Duquette can’t take all the blame for uttering that over the winter, because at the time the market for starting pitchers appeared mediocre at best. However, had Duquette not swapped Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra in 2015, or Arial Miranda for Miley in 2016, the rotation would probably look better.
With the rotation struggling to the extent that it did, the bullpen fell victim too. The Britton injury did not help. It left guys like Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day overworked. Year after year, Duquette and Buck Showalter put together bullpens that consistently ranked at the top of the majors, but through 88 games the deficiencies of the rotation trickled into the relief staff.
Not all of the fingers should aim at the pitching. The Orioles offense also holds some responsibility, ranking 22nd in the MLB with 392 runs scored. The struggles of the offense go back to the second half of last season, as the O’s recorded three runs or less in 41-of-75 game post All-Star Break.
The Orioles lineup includes some bright spots. All-Star Jonathan Schoop leads the club in several offensive categories. If it wasn’t for Aaron Judge, Trey Mancini could make a case for Rookie of the Year. However, Manny Machado’s current .230 average marks a season-long slump at the plate that most likely will end with the worst stats of the 25-year old’s career. This, coupled with the mediocre performances of several aging veterans (Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, etc), and that’s grounds for a 22nd overall offense.
Both the pitching and the offense together leave the O’s four games below .500 and fourth in the division. All signs point to that not getting better. Sure, by this time next week, Baltimore could win four straight and sit at .500. Six other teams in the American League accompany the Birds, possessing records within five games of .500. If more of the same carries on, the Orioles offense can keep the Birds in games. The pitching will not.
With the 2017 season going the way it appears, the Orioles should be sellers as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. The argument about the O’s standing at just four games at .500 will grab attention, but since May 10 the Orioles showed themselves as one of the worst teams in baseball.
The window with the current group of players slims by the day. After the 2017 season, Tillman, Miley, Jimenez and Seth Smith become free agents. Following the ’18 season, Machado, Jones, Brad Brach, Britton, and Wellington Castillo will hit the market. These comprise several key players for the Orioles. Shopping these pieces could create a solid return-on-investment. Parting ways with longtime players messes with emotions, but if it brightens the future, Duquette should pull the trigger.
Whether or not Duquette actually fires the gun will creep in the minds of Orioles fans throughout July. Fans and media frowned at Duquette saying the Orioles remain in “buy mode” a few weeks ago. If Duquette really believes that his team should buy again this season, he either sees things differently than the rest of us, or he’s delusional.
A Duquette tidbit to look at has nothing to do with the way he runs his baseball team, but his status with the Orioles going forward. Both Duquette and Showalter’s contracts expire after the 2018 season. Although none of his interactions with Showalter broadcast to the world, the relationship suffered ever since Duquette tried to jump ship for Toronto in 2015.
Much of the speculation leads to less motivation for Duquette ever since this incident took place. If he plans to leave Baltimore after his contract ends, he should try to make himself attractive rather than spite the Orioles for not letting him walk to a division rival with a position that would have granted him more power.
Nothing else needs to transpire about what the Orioles should do before the trade deadline. Over the past five seasons, the O’s made the playoffs three times. In 2014, they came a series short of participating in their first World Series in over 30 years. Even with Baltimore winning the most games in the American League since 2012, it did not end with a parade. The front office should start preparing for the new wave that will hopefully deliver that elusive championship to Charm City.
In the next few weeks, Duquette and the Orioles’ brass will sit down and tinker with the ballclub, and it could impact the team for years. Hopefully, the decisions will improve the team rather than doom them.
Image Credit: Flickr