Offseason Review, Spring Battles to Watch, & ’18 Predictions

Colby Rasmus swings and watches the ball fly.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

Hello again, Orioles fans!  It’s been a long offseason but once again hope springs eternal as the Birds are back in Sarasota getting ready to begin the 2018 season. There’s a cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the team though, as it looks like the end of an era is here as there will be a mass exodus of players, coaches and front office executives after the season ends. For now though the team is still together and has one last shot at ending the World Series drought in Baltimore before they go their separate ways (That one’s for you, Roch).

This was the first time in a few seasons where I haven’t posted my offseason plan for the Orioles, then spent the next few months wondering if they would finally make some moves after I posted it. Lo and behold, they did make some moves before I posted my plan this time, so let’s instead take a look at what they have assembled this offseason and I’ll make some camp battle predictions and predictions for the 2018 season.

 

Position Players

Arrivals:  Jaycob Brugman, Alex Presley, Craig Gentry, Colby Rasmus, Pedro Alvarez, Engelb Vielma, Andrew Susac

Departures:  Welington Castillo, J.J. Hardy, Seth Smith, Ryan Flaherty

 

Shortstop and Third Base

Manny Machado touches the brim of his helmet as he prepares to hit.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

The J.J. Hardy era ends in Baltimore, with a slight surprise as his replacement is none other than Manny Machado who will be playing SS full time in his final year under contract and likely his final year with the team. Hardy had his worst year as an Oriole suffering through injury, with only a .217 AVG and wRC+ of only 50 and his fielding slipped as well as he had 0 DRS at the positon.

It won’t be hard for Machado to improve on those numbers, even though his numbers also slipped as he only managed a 102 wRC+ and had 6 DRS at the hot corner. Manny’s last time playing SS, he had 3 DRS in 380 innings so there’s good reason to believe he’ll be an upgrade defensively there, while his old position of 3B will be manned by Tim Beckham who has a career -1 DRS but in only 52.0 innings at the position. Beckham offensively had a 109 wRC+ last season including a slight reverse split of 110 vs. RHP compared to 105 against LHP, so if he can replicate those numbers he would actually be an upgrade offensively over Machado’s 2017 performance at the position.

 

Catcher

Caleb Joseph catches in front of the umpire.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

Welington Castillo’s role will be taken over by Caleb Joseph with a yet to be determined backup (more on that later).  Joseph will likely be an improvement defensively over Castillo, who in spite of throwing out a league-leading percentage of baserunners (49%), was terrible behind the plate as evidenced by his CERA of 5.62 and his -98 extra strike calls according to StatCorner.

Joseph had a CERA of 4.23 and got 36 extra strike calls in comparison, so that alone should help improve the Orioles’ starting pitching now that he’ll be the primary catcher, even though his caught stealing percentage (CS%) fell to 18%. Offensively though, Joseph will be a major downgrade as Castillo hit .282 and had a combined wRC+ of 113 which included a wRC+ of 147 against LHP. Joseph hit .256 with a wRC+ of 82 and only a wRC+ of 105 against LHP.

What will really hurt the offense though (until Chance Sisco takes over the job) is Joseph only managed a wRC+ of 75 against RHP, and he’s likely going to be seeing the majority of his plate appearances against RHP.

 

Right Fielder

Colby Rasmus plays catch.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

Seth Smith leaves after having a decent season offensively (105 wRC+) as a platoon LH bat. His defense however was pretty poor at -6 DRS. To replace him, the Orioles have brought in three players that bat left-handed  – Jaycob Brugman, Alex Presley and Colby Rasmus. To fill the right-handed hitting side of the platoon, in addition to Joey Rickard, the Orioles have brought back Craig Gentry.

Rasmus is the most promising addition of the group as he had a wRC+ of 135 in just 37 games with the Rays against RHP with a .375 wOBA. But another big benefit would be his defense as he had 4 DRS in the OF over the three positions, and when he last played a full season in 2016 with the Astros, he had a combined 20 DRS in the outfield. He quit the Rays and baseball in 2017 apparently due to the same sore hip he’d been dealing with since 2016. Now he wants to give his career one more shot with the Orioles and Buck Showalter likes him.

Brugman had a .280 AVG and 102 WRC+ against RHP last season, his first with the A’s, and defensively had -9 DRS with the bulk of his time in centerfield. He was already DFA’d and outrighted to AAA so he’ll serve as depth. Presley on the other hand had a .321 AVG against RHP with a 113 wRC+ and a .350 AVG and 134 wRC+ on the road against RHP. One would think he could excel with the short right field porch at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium. However, like Brugman, Presley’s defense was poor as he had -11 DRS split across the various outfield positions.

Craig Gentry is back because Buck Showalter loves Craig Gentry. Gentry may have some speed, but his 107 wRC+ against LHP and 2 DRS in the OF is hardly anything to get excited about. Still, if he can stay healthy, Gentry serves as an upgrade over fellow Buck-crush Joey Rickard offensively (81 wRC+ vs. RHP). Still, Rickard’s 8 DRS in right field will likely make it a tough choice for Buck (more on that later).

 

Utility Infielder/Outfielder

Eric Salcedeo prepares to hit.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

Fans may have made fun of Ryan “Flash” Flaherty, and the guy got next to nothing for playing time, but the Orioles knew he could play just about every position decently which gave them flexibility. He wasn’t an offensive juggernaut but he had good plate discipline (26.1% O-Swing%) and could take a walk (11.1 BB%).  Now they have Engelb Vielma as well as Luis Sardinas, Garabez Rosa and Erick Salcedo to compete for the utility position, which will be an infield utility position only. I wish the Orioles could have brought back Flash or somebody better like Nick Goins but apparently the divide in the front office caused the Orioles to be stuck with this group, according to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun.

Oh, and Pedro Alvarez is back to serve as the emergency 1B/DH if needed, but will likely stay in Norfolk or opt-out.  I’d love to see the Orioles figure out a way to jettison Trumbo and give Alvarez his PAs against RHP because he is very valuable in that DH vs. RHP role.

 

Spring Training Battles to Watch

While most of the positions are set, there are a few camp battles to watch this spring besides in the rotation. It seems you may want to cover your eyes for that one and focus on these anyway.

Backup Catcher:  Austin Wynns vs. Chance Sisco vs. Andrew Susac

Chance Sisco prepares to hit in the batter's box.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

This battle seems like the annual Buck Showalter man crush vs. dog house contest. First it was Delmon Young against Steve Pearce, then Joey Rickard against Hyun Soo Kim, then Trey Mancini against Kim, and now we have Wynns vs. Sisco. Sisco at only age 22 had a tremendous offensive debut (wRC+ 220) with the Orioles in September 2017. In fact he likely had the best offensive debut for any catcher in the history of the franchise, but was 0-5 in throwing out runners and only threw out 23% of runners in AAA. Meanwhile as a 26-year-old in AA, Wynns had a pretty good offensive season with a 124 wRC+ and threw out 38% of runners attempting to steal. As I’ve pointed out many times, the focus on base-stealing is a big one for Showalter and John Russell so Sisco automatically starts out behind Wynns in this battle in spite of his more advanced bat.

In my view, Showalter has already set the stage by saying strikingly little about Sisco’s performance early this spring even though he hit a 3-run HR in the opening game, and caught multiple innings. When Wynns hit a game-tying solo HR, Buck couldn’t wait to gush about him. You may say I’m reading too much into things here, but this is a pattern about Showalter I’ve been noticing for years. We’ll see if my intuitions prove correct.

Andrew Susac is a bit of an unknown, so he’ll be the wild card in this race, but he was a former top prospect with the Giants who just never put it all together and has been bitten by the injury bug. Case in point, Susac is currently recovering from a staph infection sufered early in camp.

Even if whichever player we are talking about that year is eventually replaced, I’d always bet on Buck Showalter’s man crush to be on the team Opening Day.

Predicted Winner: Wynns

Right Field vs. RHP:  Colby Rasmus vs. Alex Presley vs. Jaycob Brugman vs. Austin Hays vs. Anthony Santander

Rasmus has the edge here among all the LH bats because of his defensive prowess while Presley and Brugman can go to AAA to serve as depth. Brugman cleared waivers a few days ago and was outrighted to AAA.

Buck obviously didn’t think Hays was ready when he was called up last September, as he barely played him, and Hays hit poorly when he did get PAs against RHP (.217 AVG, 30 wRC+). Hays has always performed better against LHP in the minors, so it makes sense for him to go down to play in AAA to get more PAs against RHP and a little more plate discipline.

It would be an upset if Santander didn’t make the club considering he only has to be on the roster for 44 days to be kept and sent down, but he’s going to be used sparingly and will spend most of his time on the bench as he’s only average defensively.

Predicted Winner:  Rasmus

Right Field vs. LHP:  Craig Gentry vs.  Joey Rickard vs. Austin Hays vs. Anthony Santander

Man crush vs. Man crush? Oh what will Buck Showalter do? Last season he inexplicably kept both Gentry and Rickard as the Orioles had a 5-man bench to start the season. Now he’s going to have to cut one of them if the Orioles want to keep Santander on the roster because they can’t go with a 5-man bench when there are so many questions with the starting rotation.

Now the Orioles could give Santander back to the Indians and keep both, but that would be incredibly short-sighted and foolish so I don’t see it happening. You never know with Buck though…

Gentry’s speed and better offense compared to Rickard, plus the fact Rickard has an option, I think gives Gentry the edge here between the two, even with his current hamstring injury.

As noted above, Hays is likely going to AAA and Santander will warm the bench until he’s sent down in late May.

It’s going to be another man crush that grabs the roster spot, and I don’t think the injury will change the results of the competition.

Predicted winner:  Gentry

Utility Infielder:  Engelb Vielma vs. Luis Sardinas vs. Ruben Tejada vs. Garabez Rosa vs. Erick Salcedo

Not much to say here other than the prediction. They all are about the same and defense will be the separator I believe.

Predicted winner:  The best defender

Now let’s take a look at the arms the Orioles have brought into camp:

Nestor Cortes Jr. pitches from the mound.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

 

Pitchers

Arrivals:  Nestor Cortes Jr., Jose Mesa Jr., Pedro Araujo, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman, Michael Kelly

Departures:  Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, Jeremy Hellickson, Tyler Wilson

 

Starting Rotation

Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy were the only locks in the rotation until late February when they were joined by Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman. It’s hard to do much worse than what Ubaldo, Miley and Hellickson produced for the Orioles in their rotation last season. Wilson could also never put it together as a starter and will now be pitching in the KBO to try to revive his career like Miles Mikolas did. The loss of these former Orioles looks like a case of addition by subtraction at the very least.

Cashner’s declining K/9 – which is more extreme than Yovani Gallardo’s – and Tillman’s past shoulder injury and performance are big red flags though and it would only take one injury to completely expose the Orioles’ lack of depth.

Cortes, Mesa and Araujo were all added via the Rule 5 draft and all have a chance to break with the Orioles. Cortes Jr. doesn’t throw hard, but he still had a K/9 of 9.0 last season in three levels of the Yankees system by being deceptive and using multiple arm slots. Jose Mesa Jr., the son of the former MLB closer, will work in camp as a starter and like his father has a lively fastball and piles up the strikeouts (10.8 K/9) but has some control issues (3.4 BB/9).

Bullpen: Rule 5 pick Araujo is the only relief addition the team made from outside the system, with the other spots likely being filled internally or from the other two Rule 5 picks. Araujo comes from the Cubs system and although he hasn’t pitched above AA, he’s been impressive with a 10.4 K/9 and only a 2.7 BB/9.

Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens are locks and I’d probably add Richard Bleier to that list after his 2017 performance. Zach Britton is likely to come back in June at the earliest so there are 3 spots open for Opening Day but only two will stick during the season.

Mike Wright of the Orioles prepares to pitch from the mound.

GulfBird Photo/Craig Landefeld

 

Spring Training Pitching Battles to Watch

No. 5 Starting Pitcher:  Mike Wright vs. Nestor Cortes Jr. vs. Jose Mesa Jr. vs. Gabriel Ynoa vs. Alec Asher vs. Miguel Castro vs. Michael Kelly

Mike Wright is the Nolan Reimold of the pitching staff.  He’s getting his fourth opportunity to make the starting rotation in spite of a career ERA of 5.86, and as I posted elsewhere, he’s got Brady Anderson in his corner and he’s out of options. Usually this would make him the favorite to make the roster in spite of past performance. Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com said in a recent post that the Orioles don’t want him to be the next Arrieta if they were to trade or release him.

However, Nestor Cortes Jr. has not only caught Dan Duquette’s eye as a LHP, but Buck Showalter has been impressed by the way he has thrown as well and he also has to make the roster or be offered back to the Yankees, where he could certainly face the Orioles in the coming years. Mesa just suffered through a poor outing in his first start, so we’ll have to see what his next one looks like, but I see him in the bullpen if he makes the team at all.

Ynoa and Asher were called upon in 2017 because the Orioles literally had no one else and Asher will likely serve as depth in AAA Norfolk. He will probably see some time with the team in 2018, just hopefully not for an extended period of time. Ynoa is out of options and will probably be traded or claimed off waivers at the end of Spring Training – if not sooner.

Castro could head to AAA to be stretched out as a SP for depth considering the Orioles don’t have a lot of quality depth and he has one option remaining, but his future likely lies in the bullpen. Kelly will also likely be sent to AAA – whether as a starter or reliever.

This one is going to come down to Wright vs. Cortes Jr. Which one will the Orioles cut or put in the bullpen?  Nobody in the organization likes giving the Yankees anything that can hurt the Orioles – just look at Machado – and Cortes gives Duquette the LHP he wants in the rotation. Anderson will also be a factor though.

Predicted Winner:  Cortes

Now, the Orioles could always surprise with a late signing or trade and change this all around, but Wright is still out of options, so he’ll be in consideration for a bullpen spot as well.

Bullpen:  Mike Wright vs. Jose Mesa Jr. vs. Pedro Araujo vs. Miguel Castro vs. Donnie Hart vs. Tanner Scott vs. Chris Lee vs. Jimmy Yacabonis vs. Stefan Crichton vs. Jayson Aquino vs. Joely Rodriguez vs. Asher Wojciechowski vs. Yefri Rameriz vs. Jesus Lirizano

I think Wright’s a lock because he’s out of options, but the Orioles also like the other two Rule 5 picks, Mesa Jr. and Araujo. Of course it will depend on how they pitch in Grapefruit League play, but I think the Orioles will try to keep them both.

Castro may wind up in the bullpen, but if the Orioles want to keep the Rule 5 picks, they can send him down to be stretched out as a starter as mentioned earlier.

Donnie Hart was the LOOGY in 2016, but he’s been replaced by Richard Bleier so he’ll likely head to AAA.

Scott and Lee probably need some time in AAA to work as relievers before going to the bullpen, but you could see both in Baltimore this season. However, Lee’s recent oblique injury likely ends any shot he had of being on the roster on Opening Day.

Yacabonis, Crichton, Aquino, Rodriguez, Wojciechowski, Ramirez and Lirizano are likely headed to the minors as well and are just filling innings and getting their work in and aren’t a seen as real possibilities to make the bullpen.

Predicted Winners: Wright, Mesa, Araujo

Opening Day Roster

Now that roster spots have been determined, let’s see what this team looks like on Opening Day:

Lineup vs. RHP

3B Beckham

SS Machado

2B Schoop

CF Jones

1B Davis

LF Mancini

DH Trumbo

RF Rasmus

C Joseph

Bench:  OF/DH Santander, C Wynns, OF Gentry, INF

Lineup vs. LHP

3B Beckham

SS Machado

2B Schoop

CF Jones

1B Davis

LF Mancini

DH Trumbo

RF Gentry

C Joseph

Bench:  OF/DH Santander, C Wynns, OF Rasmus, INF

Unfortunately, the lineup against RHP is quite unbalanced with only two left-handed bats in the lineup. Sisco will help and Santander will also be there to balance the lineup when he gets some starts at DH.

Rotation:

SP Gausman

SP Bundy

SP Cashner

SP Tillman

SP Cortes Jr.

Bullpen:

LR Wright

MR Mesa

MR Araujo

MR Bleier

SU Givens

SU O’Day

CL Brach

The Orioles rotation has the potential to be average or awful, but the bullpen should be solid once again, especially when Zach Britton returns in late May or early June.

 

2018 Season Predictions

I think we’ll see Hays called up to MLB when it is time to send down Santander in late May, pushing Rasmus to a reserve role, and Gentry will likely be designated for assignment. Sisco will follow soon after, likely in June with Wynns being sent to AAA and Joseph becoming the backup catcher. Britton will join the team around the same time, so I would expect one of the Rule 5 picks or Wright to be cut from the team at that time.

Beckham will hit poorly in the leadoff spot and will be put near the bottom of the order where he belongs after a few months, but until then be prepared to be frustrated and for many tweets from my Twitter account expressing that frustration.

Mark Trumbo could be cut if he has another poor season with the team’s need of balance to their lineup and this being their last shot with the current core. Either way, Pedro Alvarez will once again see some time in Baltimore this season if he doesn’t opt out before July, and hit well if/when he does.

I expect rebound seasons from both Machado and Davis, and Schoop will pick up right where he left off.

If the Orioles are within striking distance of the Wild Card, they’ll keep Machado unless blown away by an offer. If they are well out of the race however, my guess is you will see a mini fire sale, with Britton, Machado and Jones on the trade block for sure. Depending on how they are pitching, Tillman and Cashner could wind up there too – perhaps even Gausman.

On the other hand if the Orioles are in the race, fans will likely see additions to the roster. Pitchers like Keegan Akin, Brenan Hanifee, Zac Lowther, Cody Sedlock and Alex Wells as well as position players like Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart and Jomar Reyes or possibly even Ryan Mountcastle are prospects that may go in trades for pitching or offense depending on what the Orioles need at the time and what is available.

Ultimately I think this team is in the race until August at least, and has a shot at a Wild Card berth just because there are so many teams in the American League with holes and flaws. That means nobody from the 25-man roster is likely traded, and the Orioles will make some upgrades in July and some more in August to take one final run.

Hays and Sisco will likely be big contributors when they come up but the pitching (surprise) will be the difference.

With that said, Cortescould be the best starting pitching addition the Orioles made this past offseason, but if both Bundy and Gausman falter or are injured, the rotation will be exposed quickly for lack of quality.

So that’s my analysis for now, but one major signing could change a lot, especially if it’s somebody like Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb, and injuries and other surprises can always occur. The best thing to do is wait and see how Spring Training unfolds before making final predictions for their place in the standings and if they’ll make the playoffs or not.

Overall I think we’ll see a competitive team this year that will be both fun and frustrating to watch.

They wouldn’t be the Baltimore Orioles otherwise.

One Cheer about “Offseason Review, Spring Battles to Watch, & ’18 Predictions

  1. avatarTwoEdgedSword on said:

    I have to wonder if the obsession with “Buck’s man-crush” as being some great and substantial motivator is a manifestation of jealousy or having never coached a baseball team before? Sure, we all wondered what Ryan Flaherty has on Buck that had “flash” in Buck’s good graces all the time. But that was mostly tongue-in-cheek. We never took it to “First it was Delmon Young against Steve Pearce, then..” Rickard against Kim, then Mancini vs. Kim. Then you want to make something out of Sisco vs Wynns saying how Bucks said little about Sisco so far but gushes over Wynn. Well, “gush”? Really? “gush”? You even admit, Sisco has played more innings than all catchers combined. Well, that “says something”. Only a baseball “observer” could miss the fact a catcher has to (uhh) “catch” and not just hit. Somehow, valuing a player’s defense equates to a man-crush. In each of those cited situations, there was a component of offense vs defense. I suppose Pedro isn’t on the roster because he’s not “Buck’s type”.

    A baseball roster is a 25 man TEAM of varying but complementary skills. Showalter has shown the ability to get a lot of winning out of a group of guys who, on paper, shouldn’t win quite as much. I defer to that until shown otherwise. Until then…

    Just stop with the hype. Fringe fans buy that but those of us who love (and understand) this game know that’s just selling hype because there are more writers than words to actually say. “Man crush” – please.

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