Over to Mike Shapland now for his Baltimore Orioles preview. I know Mike through the UK MLB Forum, which is well worth a look – a great place to discuss baseball with some very knowledgeable UK fans, and me too! Feel free to comment below, and give Mike a follow on Twitter.
How did 2017 go for the Orioles? Not well. After years of exceeding expectations in the face of getting written off at the start of every season, 2017 was the year they finally proved the talking heads right. Not everything was disastrous, with breakout performances from players like Trey Mancini, Jonathan Schoop and Dylan Bundy showing glimmers of his potential in his first season as big league starter, but far more went wrong than right. As always seems to be the case in Baltimore, the starting rotation was a mess with Kevin Gausman disappointing before rebounding post-All-Star break, Chris Tillman falling off a cliff and Yovani Gallardo failing to be anything like needed. All in all the rotation posted a 5.70 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP, both good for worst in the league. In 2016 Zach Britton set records for his closing and was a legitimate Cy Young contender, but his 2017 was anything but, and even before injuries cost him large portions of his season, he didn’t look as dominating as he had the season before.
On offence, strong showings from Mancini, Schoop and the newly acquired via trade from Tampa Bay, Tim Beckham powered the O’s to some big wins, but with Manny Machado, Chris Davis and in particular Mark Trumbo bombing after his huge year leading the Bigs in home runs struggling it usually wasn’t enough.
The Orioles always face an uphill struggle sharing a division with financial powerhouses the Red Sox and the Yankees and this one looks no different, with both teams expected to compete for a World Series this season. Fans in Charm City were crying out for some action in the past offseason but GM Dan Duquette largely stood pat, just signing Andrew Cashner from Texas and bringing Chris Tillman back when no one else wanted him. However, just a week or so before the end of Spring Training, the front office burst into life with the announcement that the team had signed Alex Cobb, the best FA pitcher remaining on the market after Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn found teams. Even after signing Cobb the Orioles will start the season again with a rotation lacking a proven track record in the majors but if Bundy and Gausman are able to progress and become the true 1-2 punch the Orioles have long envisioned, for the first time in years the O’s starters could be a true asset to the team. The Baltimore bullpen returns as strong as ever, with Buck Showalter seemingly able to find contributors anywhere, but after the injury issues, he had last year the news that Britton had damaged his Achilles and would be out until at least June was a bitter blow. 2016 All-Star Brad Brach will handle closing duties, with Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day providing ample support. Richard Bleier will be the overworked long man picking up the slack after short starts.
On the plus side, while streaky, the Baltimore batting line-up is often enough to overcome subpar starting pitching, especially at Camden Yards, one of the most homer-friendly parks in the league and where the team is almost built to play. While the leadoff slot is as yet undecided, the favourite is Tim Beckham who looks a different player out of Tampa Bay and the pressures that came with being the first overall pick although he’s probably not the prototype leadoff hitter. Trey Mancini has been at leadoff for portions of spring but with the news that Trumbo will miss a month with a quad strain, it’s likely he be needed at 5 or 6 in Trumbo’s place. Jonathan Schoop will likely bat second and Machado third, with the ever consistent Adam Jones cleaning up. Chris Davis, looking for a bounce-back season will flip with Mancini for 5/6.
Baltimore returns a strong defensive team, although will lose longtime stalwart and infield captain JJ Hardy at short, with Machado moving across from third. Machado is one of the premier defensive players in the Majors and while his seemingly daily highlight reels on the hot corner will be missed, his being involved in more plays at shortstop will only be a positive. The defensively underrated Chris Davis will man first base and could even challenge for a gold glove and Schoop will return to second. Adam Jones will patrol centre field, Mancini will be in left with right field currently open. Anthony Santander has had an impressive spring and as a Rule 5 pick has to make the roster and will also compete with new signing Colby Rasmus. A dark horse could be No 1 prospect Austin Hays who while was expected to start the season in the Majors could benefit from the additional roster spot created by Trumbo starting on the DL and will be tough to shift after raking after being called up late last season. Caleb Joseph, who makes up for his offensive deficiencies with excellent catching skills, will be the favourite to be the starting catcher but catcher-of-the-future Chance Sisco will likely make the team after joining Hays with a promising call up last year and could steal at-bats from Joseph.
The Orioles will always be a fun team to watch with the ball a threat to fly out of the yard on any pitch but overall, a lot has to go right for the Orioles to make the playoffs – the starting pitching will have to consistently make it to the sixth inning with the game under control, the bullpen will have to continue to be effective and all the players that had down years with the bat will have to rebound. You certainly can’t count the O’s out though.
80-82. Too many questions to predict a winning season but will likely not be bad enough to finish too far below.
Manny Machado – There’s every chance he won’t finish the season in Baltimore if the team is out of contention at the trade deadline and look to cash in on their most valuable asset. However, after a down year in 2017, Machado moves to his favoured position at shortstop and will be looking to maximise his next contract and this could spur in to produce the kind of season that takes him to the next level.
One to watch
Chance Sisco (C). He’s not a power bat but makes excellent contact which is exactly what the Orioles have been needing for a long time with poor OBP regularly stymieing rallies. He could be a starter by midseason.
Mike Shapland (@mikeyshaps)