submitted by Michael Payne
We’ve only just entered February, so right now there aren’t a lot of predictions flying around for the MLB in 2016. There are a number of prominent free agents who are unsigned, there may be some trade action, and teams are still months away from showcasing themselves in spring training. Even so, one early set of predictions has been released, and as many might have expected the Orioles were left out of the winner’s circle in the AL East. Specifically, the predictions had the Yankees taking the division and the Blue Jays earning a wild card bid.
That might end up being what a lot of predictions look like. The Yankees and Blue Jays will probably both get some support as potential division winners, as will the Red Sox after the addition of David Price to their rotation. The truth is, however, that this looks like a pretty strong division all around after a marginally disappointing 2015, and the Orioles may have a decent shot at contention.
For one thing, from a simple odds perspective, divisional underdogs perform quite well in general, and the Orioles will be in that position in 2016. This team will be picked to lose a lot of its games within the AL East, but both the history of divisional underdogs and that of the AL East in recent seasons show that that won’t be damning. An underdog in the division may perform better (3,414 – 4,513 over a seven-year study) than an underdog in any other game (4,401 – 6,434). This implies that the Orioles can perform decently in a tough division while enjoying more balanced competition and more games as a favorite elsewhere.
Looking more specifically at the roster we expect the O’s to field, however, there are some positive signs as well. The first that comes to mind is the somewhat-unexpected re-signing of Chris Davis, who may be a regular right fielder now that Baltimore has also traded for Seattle’s Mark Trumbo. Those two pack quite a bit of power and could combine to give the Orioles one of the more formidable middle lineups in the division. Don’t let Trumbo’s low power numbers in the past couple of seasons fool you, either. He’s still only 30 years old, and Camden Yards can be a pretty attractive stadium to a righty power hitter (certainly much more so than Safeco Field, where he played a season ago). Trumbo’s average tends to hover around .260 these days, and don’t be shocked if he gets up around 25-30 in the home run category again.
Throw in the improving power bat of Manny Machado, and we’re looking at a mini-Murderers’ Row at Camden Yards. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. However, when you consider that one bold preview suggested Machado could belt 44 homers in 2016, it might be fair to say the Orioles could be the deadliest power hitting team in the division. It’s not unreasonable to expect the Davis/Trumbo/Machado group to produce somewhere between 100-120 home runs. Also of note is that they’re all right-handed, which doesn’t only play well in Camden Yards but combats some of the improvements made elsewhere in the division. Boston and New York are going to get a lot of attention because Boston added Price and New York now boasts a bullpen featuring Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to close out games. But three of those pitchers are lefties (Betances being the exception), which means the Orioles’ lineup could be as well suited as any to nullify the shiny new pieces in the AL East.
The question mark, quite clearly, is in the rotation, where the Orioles have seen Wei-Yin Chen depart without a clear replacement. Chris Tillman is reliable enough and there’s always the chance of a return to form for Ubaldo Jimenez. Right now, though, Baltimore’s rotation looks like it’s built to hang around and not to win big games against big competition. That might be as good as it gets for the O’s at this point, though one intriguing option is Mark Buehrle (who sounds as if he might retire). A vaunted innings-eater who still has really great stuff, Buehrle would reinforce the depth of this rotation. And while he’s now far from an ace, he has no qualms going toe-to-toe with a guy like Price on a given night.
All things considered, it looks as if the Orioles have made an interesting gamble. They’re betting on their own lineup to produce while their pitching fends off AL East lineups that might not be as good as they look on paper. In 2015, the Yankees received shocking production from some aging veterans who appear certain to fall off in the coming season. The Red Sox simply didn’t get a ton out of the likes of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and the Blue Jays’ late season surge isn’t really sustainable in a new season. That’s not to suggest the AL East doesn’t boast some offensive punch, but you might not need elite pitching to hold some of those lineups down from time to time.
Ultimately, I still don’t believe the Orioles will win the division without a relatively major addition to the pitching staff. I’d give them only about a 15% chance of pulling it off, but I do believe that this team can beat out Boston and compete for a wild card spot with either Toronto or New York.