What should the Orioles do differently?
This was supposed to be the year for the Orioles. The last year in the contracts of players like Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Manny Machado. The last year in the contracts of Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. This was the last gasp at getting this group a title.
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The off-season saw it shares of ups and downs. They saw their closer and perhaps best reliever in baseball, Zach Britton, go down with an Achilles injury. We saw the team, on paper, improve the worst starting rotation in baseball. It was an off-season that brought some fans a lot of hope, but it was also a Winter that many saw as a missed opportunity to hit the reset button. Personally, I think the real lost opportunity was the off-season of 2016. With Brach, Britton and Machado coming off great years, their value wasn’t going to be higher. However, the Orioles decided that they should go for it one last time with this group. As we have seen thus far this season, that has failed miserably. They have the worst record in baseball and have been outscored by more than any other team. Dating back to last May, after they started the season 22-10, the Orioles are 61-101. Yes, that’s correct. They have played a full 162 game schedule since that start last year. In that 162 game stretch, they have been outscored by 153 runs.
Instead of yet another article where we talk about what went wrong or who they need to trade, I would rather talk about how I would like to see the team built. The Orioles have never truly gone through a true rebuilding process because they have an owner who isn’t willing to commit the resources into signing international talent, scouting, development and the draft. These are major commitments that need to be made and Mr. Angelos just doesn’t care about doing them. Until this organization really starts committing to those things, this organization will suffer. Putting that aside, I have felt for years that the Orioles have been put together poorly. Luckily for the Orioles and us fans, they have been able to overcome that. They have been to the playoffs 3 times, have a division title and made it to the ALCS in 2014. Whether you want to call them lucky or not isn’t really the point anymore. The point is that they won those games and accomplished those feats.
However, because of the way the team was built, they also had some down years in that stretch and we are now seeing what happens if you have a few injuries and guys you count on struggle, it can turn disastrous very quickly. The Orioles lack of depth really hurts them. Their poor allocation of money hurts them. In so many ways, they just don’t seem to understand how to properly build an organization, at least in terms of the players, what to look for, etc…
Everyone has a different way they want to go about things. When the Orioles were doing well from 2012-2014, they played outstanding defense, hit the long ball and had a great bullpen. The rotation wasn’t great, but it was good enough. I think there are certain ways that you build a team and while I like some of what the Os were doing back then, I feel it could have been even better.
The first aspect is just the general roster construction in terms of payroll. The money the team spends on players has been a big topic for many years. For most of Peter Angelos’ time as the owner, fans have felt that he was cheap. That he was just an owner to make money and didn’t care about spending the money he was making off of ticket sales, concessions, TV/radio, et al…Personally, I never really felt that way. Sure, they could have spent more at times (see Vlad when he was deemed a “luxury) but for the most part, the team is right about their stance on free agency. Free agency is a terrible way to build your team..in any sport. Ask the Knicks, the Redskins, etc…When you rely on free agents, you almost always lose. Most free agents hit their free agency years when they are right around 30 years old. Historically speaking, that means they are already heading into a decline. Sure, there are always going to be exceptions to any rule but for the most part, this holds true. Teams pay free agets for what they have done, not what you should expect them to do. There are exceptions here and there and you can find value in free agency but for the most part, it’s better to stay away from it. The Orioles have also upper their payroll quite significantly in recent years. In 2012, the Opening Day payroll was just under 85 million. Last year, the payroll reached its peak at just over 164 million. In 2012, the ending 40-man payroll was ranked 19th in baseball. In 2017, it was 11th. As the O’s started winning again and fans returned to Camden Yards and TV ratings were going up, Angelos did spend money.
The problem isn’t and never really has been the money spent. The problem is HOW you spend it. The Orioles still haven’t learned a few truths (generally speaking) about how to properly spend money. I already briefly mentioned the development, scouting, international FAs, etc…That is one example of how they have spent their money poorly. Another example is the type of players you are spending your money on. A big discussion we are having in Baltimore right now is the idea of Joe Flacco vs Lamar Jackson. Some want to see Jackson right away while others feel he needs time and that we need to let Flacco play in hopes we can make the playoffs and/or he has a good enough year so that he can be traded. The real conversation regarding Flacco (and most other big contracts) is that he was paid elite money when he wasn’t an elite player. Yes, he came off an amazing playoff run that resulted in a SB but 4 games does not a career make. The Orioles did something similar with Chris Davis. Davis, coming off a great 2015 season, was rewarded with a $168M contract that they will still paying on for the next 7 presidential terms. You can see, in some ways, why they felt it was a good investment. He was coming off of a 5.4 WAR season in 2015 and he had a 7 WAR season in 2013. The upside was there. But he also combined for a 2.7 fWAR in 2012 and 2014. He had a history of being very hit or miss (literally and figuratively). He was suspended because of his Adderall usage and basically admitted that he needed it to stay focused. Despite that, he received the largest contract in franchise history. He is known to be a good teammate, does a lot in the community and seems to be the type of person you would like to call one of the faces of your franchise. However, there needs to be more than that and the Orioles missed on that simple concept. They also paid close to $40M for Mark Trumbo, a guy coming off a career year who is basically a one-dimensional player. They paid $31M to O’Day, a guy who has been an excellent reliever (when healthy) but not one who is as good as Andrew Miller, the player they decided to let walk instead.
In terms of money they have not spent, they let a contract extension for Manny go by the wayside over $10M, according to Jon Heyman. They didn’t extend Schoop a year or 2 ago. They haven’t secured guys like Gausman. (Yes, I know he has disappointed for the most part, but you could have likely signed him to a cheap enough deal to where his performance still justifies the contract and he could become more). They just aren’t forward thinking when it comes to this. They don’t get players signed. They wait and go year to year with them and then, when it’s obvious you should trade them, they don’t. The former GM of the vaunted Braves teams, John Schuerholz, had a mantra that you trade a player a year to early. The Orioles mantra is to trade them a year to late. As this team and this organization goes forward, the focus (in terms of the payroll) has to be on allocating the money better. You don’t sign middling free agents. Those contracts rarely work out. You don’t pay elite money for good to very good players. You put your money into your system, your infrastructure and your young players that you feel should be a part of the team for many years. You have to be aggressive in doing that. Sitting on your hands, offering low ball contracts and waiting for them to come to you isn’t a good strategy.
The next aspect of roster construction I want to see improved is what they value in the players themselves. When I say this, we obviously want to see “good people” on the team. We want to see guys that play hard, love the game, hustle, etc…Essentially, you would like more attitudes like Adam Jones. Beyond that, I feel the skill sets the Orioles have gone after is a big issue.
When it comes to pitching, there are many things I like to look for in a pitcher. This doesn’t mean every pitcher has to fit this exact mold because guys can be successful if they don’t do all of these things. For me, there are some things that can’t really be argued when it comes to pitching. We know that throwing quality strikes is a good thing. How do you throw quality strikes? You do it with command. I don’t care if you throw 100MPH or not, I care that you can command that fastball (and your secondary pitches) and get guys out with that command. Striking guys out is a big thing for me. A strikeout is an out usually around 99.5-99.9% of the time. A ball that is put in play, is normally an out 70-73% of the time. That is just basic math. The more guys you strikeout, the less batters can reach base. Along those lines, missing bats is a big thing for me as well. If you miss a bat, you can’t put the ball in play. Again, this is just common sense. I am not exactly re-inventing the wheel here. I am asking for pitchers that miss bats, don’t walk guys and get strikeouts. I would prefer guys that can keep the ball in the ballpark as well but with the way the game is being played today, with hitters emphasizing on launch angles, uppercut swings, etc…I think the homers are just going to be something you have to live with. However, if you can find the pitcher(s) that can do those things and keep the ball down in the strike zone, even better. Since 2012, according to FanGraphs.com, the Orioles best ranking in terms of SwStr% was 19th in all of baseball. They were near the bottom in most years. This year, they are currently 18th, led mostly by what Gausman and Bundy have done this year. The best year they were ranked in terms of K rate, they finished 16th and in most of those years, they were ranked in the bottom third of MLB. In the last 3 seasons, 20 of the 30 teams that finished in the top 10 in ERA were also top 10 in K rate and swingstr%. The walk rate was pretty good from 2012-2014. They were ranked either 12th or 13th those years. Since then, it has been 18th or worse. Going back how the team is spending their money. This off-season, the Orioles signed 2 starting pitchers. One of them, Alex Cobb, has been a pretty good pitcher for most of his career. The walk rate was always very solid, he had a very good K rate and did a good job of missing bats. However, that changed after he had the TJ surgery. Yes, he had pretty good “actual” numbers in 2017 but there were warning signs with a drop in K rate and missed bats. Well, this year, his swstr% is terrible, his K rate is 3 and he is getting crushed. Yes, he will likely settle down but it’s fair to wonder if he will ever be a sub 4 ERA pitcher again. Andrew Cashner was another guy coming off a year where we saw his K rate and swingstr% be poor. Now, luckily those numbers have gone back up some, so that That is encouraging but the walk rate, which has never been that good, is also up. His HR rate, while not really sustainable because he has been unlucky, is very high. A big problem I see there is that he has gone from a ground ball pitcher to a flyball pitcher. His stuff isn’t good enough to work up in the zone.
So again, the Orioles are spending money on guys that they really shouldn’t. A lot of people looked at them and said, they should be upgrades over what we have and if they can stabilize the rotation, it’s worth it. The problem is, they never should have been in position to sign those guys to begin with. But again, since they don’t trade guys at the right time, don’t draft and develop well and don’t spend internationally, it means you have to dip into free agency and give out these middling contracts to players on the decline. For whatever reason, this organization cannot figure this out.
In terms of positional talent, the glaring weakness has been on base percentage. The Orioles clearly don’t value this. Duquette has said he wants to improve this but it never happens. The ML team has been at or near the bottom of OBP since the 2012 season. Even the guys they draft aren’t usually great OBP type guys. Two of their best offensive prospects, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, have been told to work on their plate discipline because it’s not good. Chance Sisco seems to be an exception to the rule within the Os organization. In 2013, the Orioles offense was 11th in MLB in contact%. Every other year since 2012, they have been 26th or worse. This isn’t a team that puts a lot of balls in play. They aren’t a fast team, so they don’t put pressure on teams with speed. It’s a lot of base to base, plodding around. I am not saying we need a bunch of Rickey Henderson’s out there and I really don’t care about stolen bases, but I would like to see good team speed. I would like to see us make these infielders get the ball over quickly and perhaps force them into errors they wouldn’t otherwise make. Now, to be honest, that type of thing is trivial in the long run, but overall team speed does have its value. More so than anything, I want to see this team start targeting good hitters. I want to see approaches like we see in Boston and NY. They get pitchers pitch counts up very quickly. They battle, they take pitches, they make contact. It’s not a bunch of all or nothing players.
I do think the Orioles have done a decent job at developing some defensive players. I do like that they made defense a priority but they have gotten away from that in some ways. I want to see them getting athletic guys who can play in the field. Not plodding guys that are you trying the square peg, round hole theory with at certain positions.
The Orioles have had a formula that worked for them but it’s not a formula you can rely on long term. They happened to catch the AL East the right time, played good baseball and took advantage of things. That’s great, that’s what they should have done but now you have Boston and NY back to where they were, and they are here to stay. Houston is here to stay. You have other teams charging hard and a few others that are loading up on young talent themselves. In the years to come, its likely going to be harder to make the playoffs than it was from 2012-2016 (it’s never easy but there are times when it’s easier). As currently constructed, both in the majors and minors, the Orioles can’t contend with them. The organization must change. Philosophies must change. And if they choose not to change, we may be in for another 10+ years of losing. There has been some recent talk that Lou and John Angelos control the team now and they feel they should do more with the amateur talent. We will see. We can all hope because if they don’t, it could be a long decade+.
Nothing I have said here is anything that’s outside the box and there are certainly more ways to build teams and rosters than I have talked about here. The Orioles proved that over a 5 year stretch but I feel with better roster construction, they would have had even more to show for that 5-year period than 2 WCs and one Division title.