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    Sunday, October 2, 2022

    Reflections on the Orioles' 2022 Season, and Transitioning from Tanking to Winning

    As of October 1st, the Orioles’ 2022 season has come to a close, thanks to a walk-off win by the Mariners and a regular-old win by the Rays on the final day of September. Even a nailbiter win in the Bronx couldn’t save them (edit: and they lost Saturday's follow-up anyway); at best, they can tie Tampa and Seattle, and they lost the season series to both teams, and therefore, the official tiebreaker as well.

    While it’s a bit of a sour note to go out as the AL’s runner-up, the best record to be sent home before the postseason, it’s ultimately hard not to view this season as a success. This wasn’t a team meant to even be good yet, let alone be a playoff contender all the way through September, and sealing up their first winning season since 2016 while seeing so many young players make strong impressions… those are all definite wins, even if they aren’t a playoff berth.

    (It also probably helps that this is the first season with three Wild Card slots, so they wouldn’t have even been the runner-up prior to this year, but we’ll ignore that for now.)

    And yet... it’s also not hard to feel like they could have made it. It’s like that Crash Davis quote from Bull Durham quote about the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 being one extra hit a week; it wouldn’t take that many tweaks to get this team over the final hurdle. And despite being plucky up-and-comers, it’s also not difficult to find areas where they were very clearly leaving some opportunities on the table.

    The one that I imagine most people are going to point to is going to be the trade deadline. Dealing veterans Trey Mancini and Jorge López away is going to look like giving up, to some extent, even if there is a solid logic behind both of those deals.

    But I’m not sure that I fully buy that, either. The team looked fine in the immediate aftermath of their departure, with August being Baltimore’s second-best month by record, at 17-10 (only narrowly behind July’s 16-9). And neither of them looked especially dominant post-trade either, with Mancini’s Houston wRC+ dropping from 117 to 87 and López‘s ERA and FIP both ballooning in Minnesota. Sure, maybe they wouldn’t have fallen off that much had they stayed with the Orioles, but at the very least, I think it’s clear that just keeping them wouldn’t have been enough to get the O’s over the hump either.

    September was definitely rough after going 47-31 over the three summer months. They actually kept a over-.600 record for half the season, a 97-win pace! And they absolutely stumbled after that, going 13-15 in the final full month of the season. But it also wasn’t their worst month of the season: in April, they went an abysmal 7-14. And May was also rough, a virtual tie with September at 14-16; it can be easy to forget now, after a serious attempt at the third Wild Card spot, but this was a team that still looked pretty hopeless two months into the season!

    And that’s ultimately why it’s difficult for me to blame any midseason moves the team made. The biggest flaws that ultimately cost the team were all cast by Spring Training, and I was predicting it not just in that May piece, but as far back as December, when I noted how disappointing the team’s pre-lockout offseason had been.

    Sure, there’s a little bit of bad luck involved, primarily team ace John Means missing most of the season for Tommy John surgery, and possible Rookie of the Year Adley Rutschman getting injured at the end of spring and having to delay his Major League debut.

    But they were also lucky, in a lot of ways, with most of their young players immediately taking to the majors, or Cedric Mullins following up on his breakout 2021, or Anthony Santander, Jorge Mateo, and Ramón Urías all having surprising, above-average campaigns. Even their free agent signings weren’t a total disaster, almost entirely thanks to Jordan Lyles posting arguably his best season ever and looking like a solid, back-of-the-rotation arm.

    But that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? After Means’s injury, Lyles was forced to be the team’s nominal ace, at least until Dean Kremer was called back up and hit the ground running. But still, this was a team that was relying on the rotational equivalent of duct tape, depending upon a large number of quality innings from emergency signings like Lyles or Nationals’ midseason castoff Austin Voth to even qualify as “adequate”. That it happened is technically a win for the team, despite how just-passable the end results were, because the expectations were “basically nothing”.

    Even worse is how many quality veteran options were available this past offseason. Sure, some of them were expensive, but never in prospects, which is key for the team right now. And even if some of them had higher salary costs, it’s not like this team needed to be this tight on budget, anyway; they finished the year with the second lowest-payroll, and have gone much higher than this in the past.

    Just among free agents, there were the big budget options, like Carlos Rodon (6.2 WAR, per Fangraphs) and Kevin Gausman (5.5), who by themselves might have closed the gap, or Noah Syndergaard (2.1), Robbie Ray (2.1), Jon Gray (1.8), or Marcus Stroman (1.8), who would have all represented marked improvements. Rodon and Syndergaard weren’t even long commitments, which would be great for this team; good starters if you’re competing, or strong potential trade candidates if you aren’t.

    But while you can maybe understand passing on the big names, they also weren’t active in the second-tier market, either, despite much more reasonable costs. José Quintana (4.0), Martín Pérez (3.8), Tyler Anderson (3.8), and Corey Kluber (3.0) all went for 1 year and under $10 million, as did Johnny Cueto (2.3) who proved to be a strong mid-season addition for the White Sox. Alex Cobb (3.4) was a little more expensive, but still wasn’t budget-breaking at 2 years/$20 million. And even if they weren’t as strong as the first tier of signings, guys like Michael Wacha (1.8), Rich Hill (1.8), Zack Greinke (1.7), and Alex Wood (1.7) would have all been a step up, and on reasonable contracts.

    Sure, there were some failures on the market as well, that’s always a risk (although I think this year’s group of signings ended up positively, on the whole). But this isn’t even asking them to know in advance who would have been the biggest surprises or anything; the more aggravating issue is that they didn’t even try to address an obvious area of need outside of signing Lyles, even with so many options that would have made sense for them.

    It would not have been hard to improve on the middling starts of Kyle Bradish (0.7), Spenser Watkins (0.8), Tyler Wells (0.9), and Bruce Zimmermann (-0.8), a quartet who have collectively managed 76 starts, and 216 earned runs in 385.0 innings (a 5.04 ERA). You don’t even need to replace all of them, really; just let the better half of them hold down the back of the rotation and rotate out the worst performers.

    And we haven’t even addressed the offense. The starting lineup was mostly fine, but there were a few glaring holes, and the overall roster was pretty thin. In fact, of the Orioles 25 non-pitchers who played in 2022, the 12 worst combined for -4.4 fWAR.

    It’s almost impossible to completely avoid all negative-value players over the course of an entire season, but the Orioles’ results look worse in context: going down the top 20 teams by position player fWAR totals, the only other team I could find with that much negative WAR was the Texas Rangers (who are at 90 losses and counting). Outside of that, the only other team I saw at -4.0 was Cleveland, but the Guardians have the advantages of a) a really good pitching staff to offset things a bit, and b) playing in the AL Central, where you can make a few more mistakes. Most other competing teams were in the -1.5 to .-2.0 range, with the best of the best around -1.0 or lower.

    The most frustrating part of this equation is the catching scenario. Backup catchers are one of the most normal contributors to negative WAR, since it’s such a demanding position and in short supply. And Adley’s injury was always going to complicate things, pushing the backup into a bigger role for some time. But Robinson Chirinos and his temporary backup Anthony Bemboom were very bad, with neither hitting and Chirinos seeing his fielding value tank (in fact, he has some of the worst pitch framing numbers in the league now).

    And… I’m not sure there was a great option here, sadly. Chirinos falling apart at age 38 isn’t the biggest surprise or anything, but the catching market this winter was very thin. He was fine enough last season that it made sense, and there was nothing obvious recommending one of the alternatives instead.* And maybe they could have traded for someone else’s backup catcher, but a lot of them are still generally not great (well over half of the catchers with any plate appearances this season fall at 0.0 WAR or below), and a lot of the potential replacements might have been worse when pressed into a larger role like Chirinos was.

    *In hindsight, the answer was probably “just sign Luke Maile instead”, and there might have been reasons to make that argument back over the winter. But I don’t think I would have been strongly for one or the other at the time, and the argument now is heavily influenced by how the season actually went. It’s mostly just unfortunate how badly that choice blew up.

    The much more addressable problem was the infield situation. Starting second baseman Rougned Odor was more or less a net zero across 130+ games, despite being one of the “big” signings of the offseason. It’s pretty easy to wish the team had done a little more there. And the team cycled through utility infield options behind him, with most of them contributing negative value. You can kind of forgive them for sticking with a prospect like Tyler Nevin (-0.6) for a while in the hopes he figures it out, but signing Chris Owings (-0.7) and using him off the bench for the start of the year clearly had none of that upside, especially when the starter ahead of him was also clearly lackluster. And beyond them, the team still had plenty of other AAAA guys coming up and doing nothing in short stints outside of that.

    Those decisions look especially rough given how immediately Gunnar Henderson succeeded in that role upon being called up, after dominating the minors pretty thoroughly over the year. Maybe pulling that trigger a little quicker would have gotten them an extra win or more. And maybe signing someone better than Owings would have saved a bit at the start, or they could have at least started cycling through prospects a little sooner to find some that could hold their own.

    Of course, there’s also the big option they passed on: signing Carlos Correa. There were a few rumors of it at the time, although it was never clear how serious those were. But I think signing a generational talent like him made a lot of sense for most teams, even if the deal was expensive. And the Orioles especially had good reasons to consider it, given their low salary commitments in the immediate future, ties to the Houston front office, and place in the rebuilding cycle.

    Even projecting the Orioles to follow an Astros-like schedule, it would have looked a lot like the Manny Machado deal with the Padres, where the star would be still in his prime by the time the team was contending a year or two later. And as it turned out, he could have made a significant difference even in his first year!

    (It looked even weirder not making that move when he signed his shorter deal with the Twins, eliminating the need for a long commitment, and adding to their salary in a year where their commitments were extremely minimal. Granted, I think this sentiment applies to a lot more teams than just the Orioles, so it’s less of a “just them” issue here.)

    I’m a little worried this might come across as too negative, but I mostly just want to emphasize that I’m doing this mostly out of a desire to be thorough, to show that there were other options available, and that some of us were pushing for them, even before things fell apart. On the whole, though, this Orioles’ 2022 season has been an unquestionable success. Hopefully, the young stars on the team continue to develop, and Baltimore has a run of strong years in their future after this one. But it would also be nice to see the front office being a little more proactive in the coming offseason, to prevent these kinds of roster depth issues from affecting another potential postseason run.

    1 comment:

    1. Wow. With the non pitchers WAR so low I am surprised they won as many games as they did.

      But I agree on the positive year. Kudos to the team for making it a winning year and something to build on for next year.