Fans of the Baltimore Orioles already know that their team will not make the playoffs this year. A realistic goal, in fact, simply will be to avoid losing 100 games. But I daresay that the Orioles will be a much more exciting team than most losing teams usually are.
I fell in love with the Baltimore Orioles late in life… well, late for a baseball fan. I was 21 years old, the year was 1988, and it was the first time that I can remember seriously watching major-league baseball games. Why did I, a Maryland native, take so long to come to baseball? Well, the short answer is that that year I became disenchanted with the National Football League when the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, fired longtime coach and football legend, Tom Landry. As a diehard Cowboys fan since my childhood—I was a contrarian from the start despite being born and raised in a suburb of Washington, D.C.— this was a bitter pill to swallow. There was no major league team in D.C. at the time, so the Orioles were the choice of everyone in the region; “Birdland” in fact stretched from southern Pennsylvania to the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Transferring my primary sporting allegiance to the Orioles wasn’t a case of jumping on a winning bandwagon. In 1988, the Orioles were a bad team… historically bad, in fact. They opened the season by going 0-21, a record in baseball annals. They proceeded to finish the season 54-107, a bad record by any measure. But despite their ineptitude, their past included recent glories, namely, World Series victories in 1979 and 1983. The team also featured a burgeoning legend: shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., a Maryland native who had helped the Orioles win that second world championship in his second full season in the majors, and whose father had managed the team in 1987 and the first six (winless) games of 1988, and whose brother, Billy, was manning second base for the team. The Ripkens—hardworking, hard-nosed, humble types—were easy to root for.
Over the next two decades, the O’s would have their ups and (mostly) downs: In a seemingly miraculous turnaround in 1989, they fell just short of making the playoffs; this was followed by a decent run of success, capped by playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997; but the years 1998 through 2011 were a wasteland, as the Orioles suffered through 14 straight losing seasons. In 2012, Manager Buck Showalter guided the team to the playoffs, and two more postseason appearances followed in 2014 and 2016. In fact, between 2012 and 2016, the Orioles won more games than any American League team. But their loss in the single-game elimination Wild Card contest in 2016—in which Manager Showalter inexplicably failed to use his best pitcher in a close game decided in extra innings—was in retrospect, the beginning of the end of a brief era of success for the team.
With an aging team of un-athletic swing-and-miss-type hitters, “control” pitchers (meaning pitchers lacking velocity and movement on their pitches), and mediocrities everywhere, the Orioles made another go at the postseason before several of their veterans’ contracts expired, putting off the inevitable day of reckoning when they would have to rebuild the team—and indeed the entire farm system, the latter neglected by General Manager Dan Duquette and thus bereft of many quality prospects. The result was a losing season in 2017, and a total disaster in 2018, when the Orioles lost an astounding 115 games, more than all but three teams since 1900; truth be told, they didn’t seem good enough to win even the 47 they somehow managed to pull out.
As the Orioles limped to the end of the 2018 season, management wisely traded away pending free agents and players soon to be eligible for arbitration raises. The goal was to cut salary and obtain prospects; the need to rebuild had at last hit Orioles ownership in the face like an errant fastball. The most significant trade was that of All-Star third baseman/shortstop Manny Machado, the greatest position player drafted and developed by the O’s since Cal Ripken, Jr. The thought even just six months before of the possibility of trading Mr. Machado if the O’s 2018 campaign faltered was a painful one; yet Mr. Machado had increasingly proven himself to be a showboat and a lackadaisical player as his Orioles tenure progressed, and when the trade came, it surprisingly felt like a relief.
This past offseason, the rebuilding process continued, as the Orioles revamped the entire management of the organization by hiring a new General Manager, Field Manager, and coaching staff. Having largely resisted the new era of computer-generated statistical analysis in favor of old-school scouting and “gut” instincts on player evaluation and development, the O’s were finally getting with the times by hiring those experienced in the new data analytics.
The 2019 Orioles baseball team will not make the playoffs. A realistic goal, in fact, will be to avoid losing 100 games (the measure of a very bad team). But I daresay that the Orioles will be a much more exciting team than most losing teams usually are. Already, this spring training—a time when most teams are simply trying to decide who will be their utility infielder or who will fill that last spot in the pitching rotation or bullpen—has provided me more enjoyment than any Orioles spring training that I can recall. The reason? Many roster spots are wide open, and the Orioles have many young players vying for a job. Thus, instead of watching highly-paid, older veterans who are assured of roster spots “work on their swing” or “a new pitch” during spring training games, we O’s fans are treated to watching young prospects (and even non-prospects) compete wholeheartedly for jobs in the major leagues. These young players and their new, younger manager have featured an aggressive brand of baseball, as evidenced by the Orioles ranking among the leading teams in stolen bases this spring. With few jobs guaranteed and few big contracts still on the books, we are witnessing players whose careers depend on their day-to-day performance, who are fighting to join the major team in Baltimore and earn in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, instead of facing a season in Norfolk, Virginia with the team’s AAA team, where they would only earn a little more than $2,000 per month. An opposing manager told the Orioles television broadcasters that Orioles players were “playing like it’s the seventh game of the World Series” this spring. No wonder.
The Orioles’ team philosophy is also undergoing a welcome change. Under Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, the team had come to rely on hitting home runs as the key to winning games. The formula generally worked for a while, as the Orioles made the playoffs three times in five years under the Showalter-Duquette regime. But by 2017 and 2018, the team had too many high-strikeout hitters who simply weren’t hitting enough home runs to justify their inability to make contact and get on base. Combined with their defensive limitations and mediocre starting pitching, this recipe became a disaster as players aged and their positive skills declined, while their weaknesses on both sides of the ball became more pronounced. The Orioles have had the fewest stolen bases in the majors since 2008, a good indicator that they had abandoned the notion of speed and athleticism as being important to winning. In a sense, the Orioles were not only outdated in terms of their rejection of analytics, but also in their brand of baseball, which was a holdover from the steroid era of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The poster boy for the Orioles’ all-or-nothing approach to scoring runs is first baseman Chris Davis, whose 161 million-dollar, seven-year deal (given prior to the 2016 season) quickly has become an albatross to the team. Mr. Davis hit .168 last year, the lowest batting average ever recorded for a full-time player in baseball, and by most measures he turned in the worst season ever by a major leaguer. At this point, he is un-tradeable, as no team would even be willing to waste a roster spot on him, much less pay even a small portion of the $100 million still owed him.
And yet, though Mr. Davis seems set to begin the season as part of the Orioles, his predictable futility (he struck out in 15 of his first 27 spring training at-bats, as of this writing) will provide its own drama, albeit of the schadenfreude variety. Many Oriole fans wish that Mr. Davis would simply spare himself the embarrassment and the team some of the money owed to him by going to management and working out a deal by which he foregoes some of the money left on his contract. (He could follow the example of Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche, who retired rather than sit out injured in the last year of his contract.) If he does not, it will become a question of when Oriole management deem that his contract is already a sunk cost, and that there is no reason to spend a roster spot at the expense of a younger player on Mr. Davis.
In the meantime—with no prima donnas in sight, and with the few remaining high-salaried players, aside from Mr. Davis, simply being showcased as trade bait—we Oriole fans will enjoy watching a group of young, hungry, athletic players run down seemingly-uncatchable fly balls, dive for sharply-hit grounders in the hole, take the extra base on a hit, steal second, and, refreshingly, simply put the ball in play. Even if our beloved O’s lose 100 games again, we are confident that this year—unlike the 2018 and 1988 seasons—is the beginning of great things to come.
Yes, this year in Birdland will be exciting indeed. Play ball!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a screenshot from MLBTV of young Orioles outfielder and top prospect, Austin Hays.