How many times throughout the course of an MLB season do we find ourselves muttering, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint…“?
The ups and downs of the 162-game MLB season cannot be matched by any other professional sporting league, and the 2017 Baltimore Orioles epitomize the varying extremes experienced through the journey. An MLB-best start to the season raised hopes of another playoff push, before a dramatic collapse in the months leading into the All-star Break essentially left the fanbase screaming for the team to sell as the trade deadline approached. A three game sweep at home to the red hot Chicago Cubs after the break left the team languishing at 42-49, and nobody in their right mind could see the team turning their fortunes around any time soon.
Then, the Texas Rangers came to town…
As trade rumors increased in intensity and the season appeared all but over, something clicked and a spark was lit. In the four games since, the Orioles of 2012-2016 returned – pitching well (unless your name is Wade), hitting home runs, and making incredible defensive plays seem almost routine. Throughout the four game series sweep, the Orioles out-hit the Rangers 49 to 26 and outscored them 34-11. Defensively, they made just one error – a throwing error from Welington Castillo in the fourth game.
With 69 games still remaining on the season, the Orioles find themselves just 3.5 games out of playoff position, despite owning a disappointing 46-49 record. This time last year they were 55-40, eventually finishing 89-73 and securing the second wildcard spot – the same spot they’re eyeing off this year. That nine game difference is significant though, and more accurately indicates where exactly this team is at compared to the one last year. So where does this leave us?
Is the offense good enough to win most games? Absolutely. Any lineup which has the likes of Machado, Schoop, Trumbo, Mancini, Jones, and Davis in it every night is more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.
Is the bullpen good enough to hold a lead? Absolutely. Despite having been a little shaky at times this season, now being back to full strength it is still one of the more formidable bullpens in the major leagues. Britton, Brach, O’Day, Givens, Bleier, Castro, and Hart are all good relievers in their own right and as a unit, give Showalter many reliable options.
Is the defense good enough to back the pitching staff? Absolutely. Despite being on pace to commit 12.5% more errors this year than last, with Machado lurking in the hot corner, Schoop at second, and Davis scooping-up anything coming his way at first, the infield is loaded with a gold-glove caliber defense. Tejada, who is now hitting well, is filling the void for Hardy at shortstop amicably, while Castillo and Joseph behind the dish are each performing well too – especially controlling the running game. The outfield, consisting of Jones and Mancini each night, as well as a combination of Smith, Rickard, or Kim, is far from spectacular yet more than serviceable.
Is the rotation good enough to keep the Orioles close early in games consistently? No. This is where the problem has been most of the season and remains so now. Tillman and Gausman have each had terrible seasons thus far, however there are some signs of improvement. Granted, it was against a Rangers lineup which is one of the worst offensively in the major leagues. Bundy too was impressive this week, however his form over the past few months has deteriorated massively. Jimenez and Miley are the two major concerns though, each of which struggling for consistency and simply being unable to find the strikezone regularly enough to get ahead of hitters and control the situation. Jimenez’s best stuff is better than anyone else’s on this staff, however it’s simply too few and far between. His worst stuff, which we’re seeing three our of every four outings, is horrendous. Miley’s isn’t much better, throwing far too many balls and preventing himself from going deep into ballgames.
Being in contention with so much baseball still remaining has provided the fan base, and no doubt Showalter, Duquette, and Angelos too, with a glimmer of hope, however the real test will be this weekend’s three game series against the American League-best Houston Astros. Jimenez takes the mound in game one, followed by Tillman and Bundy Saturday night and Sunday afternoon respectively. Jimenez is due for a good outing, so we may be in luck – all he needs to do is keep the game within reach and let the offense and bullpen salvage something late. The keys for me will be seeing if Tillman and Bundy can build upon their improvements seen last start. If they can, and if the Orioles can take at least two of the three games before heading back out on the road, the team’s plans to be sellers at the deadline may change. With that comes a significant risk, because an opportunity to restock the farm is present right now, and if they go all in for 2017 and the bid fails, they’ll do far more harm than good.
It’s a risky business and the next few weeks could have a monumental impact on the short-mid term future of this organization. The hope of another playoff run is alive and well, however the threat of missed opportunities lurks large too. One thing’s for sure, I’m glad my surname isn’t Duquette right now.