At the start of every season, we try to pinpoint what must go to plan and what cannot happen if the Orioles are to have a successful year.
In truth, there are very few absolutes you can count on over the course of a marathon 162-game schedule filled with twists and turns.
No one would have predicted a division title if they knew the Orioles would lose both Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries in 2014. Last season, the discussion centered around the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and the Orioles ended up scoring more runs than they did the year before — and still finished 81-81 and out of the playoffs.
You just never really know and that’s what makes the game great.
With that truth in mind, below is a stab at five things that can’t happen for the Orioles in 2016 after looking at the factors that must go right. In an effort to not be too redundant in the wake of the first piece, I tried to avoid discussing the previous points needing to go well.
1. The starting pitching collapses
Yes, we touched on the starting pitching in the previous piece, but what else could possibly top this list — the entire starting lineup adopting Marty Cordova’s tanning bed strategy for the season?
In the AL in 2015, the Baltimore starting pitchers finished 14th in in ERA, 10th in strikeouts, sixth worst in walks, and second worst in home runs allowed. On top of that, the club’s most dependable starter, Wei-Yin Chen, signed with the Miami Marlins in the offseason.
Veteran newcomer Yovani Gallardo was tabbed as the man to replace him and carries a 3.66 ERA for his career, but his strikeout rate and velocity have plummeted over the last few seasons and the Orioles renegotiated his original three-year contract because of concerns with his right shoulder. The hope is that an impressive ground-ball rate keeps the 30-year-old effective pitching at Camden Yards.
Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman provide the most upside, but the former dealt with a hip issue early in camp and is coming off his worst season since 2011. Meanwhile, Gausman will begin the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and the Orioles have already pushed back his projected return date from April 10 to April 19, making you wonder if the ailment is more serious than they first indicated.
You never know what you’re going to get from Ubaldo Jimenez, but he’s been more bad than good in his first two seasons with the Orioles. And now with the Orioles having severed ties with Miguel Gonzalez, they’ll be counting on the likes of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and veteran newcomer Vance Worley to fill out the last spot in the rotation with Wright getting the first shot.
If this group can bring middle-of-the-pack quality — probably the most upside you could reasonably hope for — the Orioles are strong enough elsewhere to be in contention. A repeat of 2015 or worse could lead to a long summer in Baltimore.
And then you’d fear how dramatic struggles from the rotation could wear out a strong bullpen, no matter how effectively it’s managed.
2. Corner outfield wasteland repeats
The Orioles failed in their plan to use a committee of fringe veterans to handle the spots flanking center fielder Adam Jones a year ago, but questions remain for a second straight season.
Projected to be the primary starter in right field, Mark Trumbo should be an upgrade with the bat, but his limitations in the outfield are no secret and negative defensive value would wipe away much of what he brings at the plate. Fortunately, there isn’t a ton of ground to cover in right at Camden Yards, so the test will be how quickly Trumbo can get used to playing balls off the out-of-town scoreboard.
Left field was supposed to be handled by Korean newcomer Hyun Soo Kim, but his poor spring has his future in limbo. Putting aside the scouting failure of signing a player who isn’t able to catch up to fastballs and is poor defensively to a $7 million contract, the Orioles haven’t exactly treated Kim in the most hospitable way by benching him and then speaking at length to the media about his shortcomings as they’re trying to get him to accept a minor-league assignment, something he’s under no contractual obligation to do.
Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard is the wild card here after he posted a 1.029 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, but are the Orioles putting too many eggs in this basket? What did Tampa Bay not like about Rickard that the Orioles could be missing?
Veteran Nolan Reimold will factor into the mix as well, but he is better suited to be a fourth outfielder at this stage of his career. The minor-league options include Dariel Alvarez, Xavier Avery, Henry Urrutia, and converted first baseman Christian Walker, who is intriguing if he proves himself defensively.
3. Chris Davis reverts to his 2014 form
You can’t expect Davis to be any better just because he signed the richest contract in franchise history in the offseason, and it will be difficult for the 30-year-old first baseman to match what he did last season with his 47 homers.
That said, few events would be more deflating than to see Davis have a season more closely resembling what he was in 2014 when he hit .196 with just 26 home runs. If the Orioles are to contend, they’re going to need to hit a ton of home runs and Davis needs to again lead the way in that department.
His ever-increasing pull rate is something to monitor and could cause him to age poorly, but the Orioles hope Davis will continue being a great power hitter for the next three to four years before crossing their fingers that the final few years of the contract aren’t as painful as some fear they will be.
4. Buck Showalter leans too heavily on J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters
I touched on these topics at length in the offseason, but the Orioles would be wise to better manage Hardy’s health after two injury-plagued seasons and shouldn’t overlook defense when it comes to the catching pair of Wieters and backup Caleb Joseph.
Hardy has stayed healthy and slugged .521 with three home runs this spring, drastic improvement from his .564 OPS while playing the entire 2015 season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 33-year-old shortstop would likely benefit from more routine days off and should no longer be treated as the guy who missed only seven games combined in 2012 and 2013. Keeping Hardy fresh would presumably go a long way in keeping him healthy and productive at the plate and in the field.
The spring scare with Wieters’ right elbow could be a sign that he isn’t yet ready to be the guy who regularly caught 135-plus games per season prior to Tommy John surgery. Even if he is, the tools Joseph brings behind the plate shouldn’t be ignored despite Wieters being the better offensive player. If Wieters isn’t tearing the cover off the ball, the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to use Joseph more often because of his ability to frame pitches and handle a pitching staff, especially since the former is only under contract through this season.
5. The Orioles are unable to block out the noise
It was a weird offseason a year after executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette flirted with the Toronto Blue Jays’ job promotion, and questions continue about whether members of the organization are on the same page.
The Orioles enter 2016 with a franchise-record payroll, but negotiations didn’t exactly go smoothly with Davis and the early-spring drama with both Gallardo’s physical and the twists and turns with free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler were nothing short of bizarre.
The decision to release Gonzalez this week may have been the correct one from baseball and business standpoints, but it’s no secret that the well-liked pitcher’s departure didn’t sit well with his teammates. Yes, they’re professionals and will move on, but these are human beings with emotions, as Showalter often likes to remind us.
The Kim situation threatens to linger if the Orioles choose not to eat $7 million and instead carry him on the 25-man roster after saying he wasn’t good enough to make the club. Such a scenario wouldn’t exactly send a great message to the rest of the clubhouse, either.
On top of all that, the Orioles spent a great amount of money to essentially maintain a similar roster to the group that needed a five-game winning streak just to finish .500 last season. And few experts are giving the Orioles much of a chance to make the playoffs for the third time in five years after they failed to make any significant improvements to the starting rotation.
Over the past few years, the Orioles have often thrived under such circumstances, which should give fans hope.
None of this is quantifiable, of course, but with a higher payroll come greater expectations and this is a club with a window of just three seasons before All-Star pillars Manny Machado and Adam Jones hit free agency. And the minor-league well is quite dry when it comes to reinforcements to help address deficiencies.