How bad are the Orioles, really?

A comment on the last post apologized for going off-topic by mentioning the Orioles’ recent slide; but that’s what I was going to write about tonight, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I was going to write a post complaining about how people kept describing the Orioles as “trying to avoid a 100-loss season”; at the time, they were 60-85 and seemed well on their way to beating their history of bad Septembers, having already won more games than they did in the dismal September of 2008.  I didn’t get around to writing that post; and twelve straight losses later, a hundred losses seems more likely than not.  But I feel good about this team, even better than I did last August.  Hereunder find the argument that the Orioles are not really that bad.

  • First of all, the Orioles are plain unlucky, playing 5 games worse than their Pythagorean record of 65-92.  They might be the worst team in the league, but it’s not clear they’re much worse than Cleveland or Kansas City.  Unfortunately, they’re nowhere close to catching the Blue Jays or the Rays, let alone the Yankees or Red Sox.  Which brings us to:
  • The unbalanced schedule.  The Orioles are 20-47 against the AL East, the toughest division in baseball.  Against the rest of the league they’re 40-50.  Put the Orioles in the Central, with 18 games each against the Indians and Royals, and I think they’re 15 games behind the Tigers instead of 40 behind the Yankees.
  • Every team has injuries, but the 2009 Orioles are surely missing more key parts than anybody.  Our two most effective starters, Koji Uehara and Brad Bergesen, missed most of the season.  Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, two young pitchers who came up midseason and made effective starts, are done for the year, as is Kam Mickolio, the only guy who’s pitched well out of the bullpen since we traded George Sherrill.  Two-thirds of the outfield, Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones, have been gone for more than a month, and one of their replacements, Felix Pie, is hurt too.  The guys on the field right now are the third choices of a third-rate team.  It’s not shocking they can’t beat the Red Sox.
  • Dave Trembley is probably going to get fired for the Orioles’ bad performance.  And for the first time I can remember, I actually do think the manager deserves some blame.  He loves to use lots of relievers, carefully selecting for platoon advantage or just because he thinks one inning, even an eight-pitch inning, is enough.  But with a bullpen like this one, stocked with guys who could be good or terrible on any night, I think a different strategy is called for.  The strategy is “If a reliever is getting people out you leave him in until he stops getting people out.”
  • Players on the Orioles who are very likely to produce more in 2010 than in 2009:  Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Felix Pie, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Koji Uehara, Brad Bergesen.  That’s most of a team right there.  And kind of a good team.

But not as good a team as the 2010 Yankees or the 2010 Red Sox.  And that’s the one thing that’s hard about being an Orioles fan — and, I imagine, about being a Tampa Bay or Toronto fan.  The best-case scenario is the 2008 Rays — absolutely everything goes right and you make it into the playoffs and after a couple of short series you win a pennant.  And then the next year you’re 10 games back and stuck in third place again.  I can see the Orioles winning a pennant in the current system.  But I can’t see them (or Toronto, or Tampa Bay) building a team that can contend long-term under current conditions.

Prove me wrong, Orioles!

Update: Good discussion of the Orioles’ future at baseballthinkfactory.

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12 thoughts on “How bad are the Orioles, really?

  1. Adam says:

    The Orioles and Pirates (my old love and my new source of frustration) have nearly identical records (I think the Orioles have one more win but they are tied in losses).
    So the question is: are the Pirates really that bad? they certainly don’t have the excuse of playing in the AL East.
    By the way, I completely agree about Trembley over-finessing the relief pitching. But I don’t think they can really contend until they have 3 or 4 healthy decent starters and a more reliable bullpen. I worry more about the pitching than about the hitting.

  2. Jeff says:

    At least you can take comfort in the O’s fleecing the Cubs for Felix Pie. The Cubs turned him into Aaron Heilman (ugh)

  3. JSE says:

    Well, that’s the thing! The Orioles have made lots of good moves like this; we’re drafting well (Weiters and Matusz), we’re trading well (Bedard turning into Jones, Tillman, Mickolio, Josh Bell, and Steve Johnson, Garrett Olson turning into Pie) and we seem to be doing a good job developing our young talent. We’re not saddled with a lot of bad contracts. Adam, is that true of the Pirates? Are they a good bad team or a bad bad team?

  4. Adam says:

    The Orioles seem savvier about developing young talent and making strategic trades (e.g. the Bedard trade). The list of players the Pirates have shed over the last couple of seasons would make a pretty decent starting line-up. They get quantity (I think their trade with the Mariners was Ian Snell and Jack Wilson for seven prospects) but I’m not sure they are getting quantity. And while I think the major problem for the Orioles is pitching I would say the Pirates have problems with pitching and offense. So I would say bad bad more than good bad.

    On the other hand, the Pirates seem to be pursuing the same strategy as the Orioles so if some of these prospects pan out next year, maybe, just maybe.
    But (I have to end on a pessimistic note), people were saying the same thing about the Pirates in September 2008 and September 2007 and it hasn’t worked out.

    Anyway, looking forward to taking my grandchildren to an Orioles-Pirates world series game.

  5. JSE says:

    Let’s hope it ends better than the last one.

  6. Steve says:

    Is it just me, or are bad teams in baseball more likely to stay bad for longer (compared to bad teams in other US pro team sports), not only because

    a) the richest teams (Red Sox and Yankees) can spend without penalty, but also because

    b) compared to the NBA, WNBA, NFL, NHL, the “reward” for a bad record (a high draft pick the next year) has less value (a number-one draft pick is less likely to be much, much better than a number-eight draft pick) and takes longer to deliver what value it has (because even high draft picks have to go through the minor league system)?

    It seems like the kind of question some sabermetrician, somewhere, might have tried to answer.

  7. JSE says:

    Also, a single top-flight player at a key position can dramatically improve a football or basketball team. Not so in baseball. Give the Orioles Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez and they’d just be a less bad bad team than before. (See: Greinke, Zack.)

    I’m not even sure whether bad teams do stay bad for longer, in general. I think there’s a specific AL East pathology: baseball draws large financial benefits from having the Yankees and Red Sox play each other 18 times a year, and there’s no principled way to make this happen without a) having them play in the same division, and b) requiring three other teams in the divison to play them 36 times a year, thus c) making it hard for another team in the AL East to win even the wild card, let alone the division.

  8. Jeff says:

    Steve,

    The problem with looking at it that way is how the teams spend their money. There is definitely a bifurcation between the small and big market teams, but that only affects how much leeway GMs have to make mistakes. Get some smarter management in there and it would be a different story. You can’t deny that Dave Littlefield (among others over the past 15 years) have really run the Pirates organization into the ground with terrible, short-sighted moves (Derek Bell, the Aramis Ramirez trade, etc). Oakland and Florida have done quite well while operating on a shoestring by smart drafting and careful player acquisitions. These poor-performing teams ARE getting money through revenue sharing, they’re just not investing in their product (or not investing wisely, as the case may be). Another ‘small-market’ team is the Twins, who have done well for years despite crying poverty. Minneapolis is actually a quite large market – but Pohlad really wasn’t investing in his team as he should. I’m fairly skeptical of any MLB owner that tries to blame players or a lack of a new stadium for a team’s lack of success. You either have to spend money or hire smart people in this business – otherwise you can just cry all the way to the bank with your revenue sharing check

  9. Jeff says:

    * that should have read “blame players SALARY DEMANDS or lack of a new stadium…”

  10. JSE says:

    Get some smarter management in there and it would be a different story.

    Oh, I agree totally — the question is how different. I think the Orioles will be a nice case study here; I would say they spent 6-8 years as a badly managed, medium-payroll team and are now a much better-managed medium-payroll team. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t put up a more respectable record over the next couple of years. But enough to contend consistently in the AL East? We’ll see.

  11. Adam says:

    of course, I meant the Pirates are getting quantity but not quality in my comment above.

    I don’t really understand the small market/big market distinction. Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Saint Louis, etc. are metro areas of more than 2 million people with even larger TV markets. Oakland and Baltimore are part of combined msa’s of more than 6 million people. Boston is a smaller market than Philadelphia and not that much bigger than Detroit or Atlanta. The only really gigantic metro areas are NY, Chicago, and LA. Now there are particularities that might make a team control a bigger market area and thus command a bigger revenue base: e.g. Atlanta benefits from the TBS viewership; Boston draws on a wider base of fans in non-Boston metro area parts of New England, etc. But certainly there is no place like Green Bay or even Buffalo in MLB. On the other hand, if there were, MLB would need a salary cap like the NFL.

    I think each AL (NL) team should play the same number of games against every other AL (NL) team regardless of division. Before the-wild card a schedule loaded with more divisional games might have made sense but now? Or, they should go back to two divisions and have 2 wild cards. If the old AL east were somehow reconstituted, at least the Orioles might have a chance to finish third ahead of the second place team in the AL west. In the short run, yes, MLB loves having the Yankees and Red Sox play each other 18 times; in the long run, they are killing the fan base in a lot of places where people don’t care or don’t like one or both of those teams.

  12. Jeff says:

    Via Rob Neyer’s blog, here are the number of teams that have won championships in the last 10, 20, and 30 years in the major US sports

    MLB: 8/14/19
    NFL: 7/12/14
    NBA: 5/ 7/ 8
    NHL: 8/13/19

    I don’t think you hear many people complaining about the NBA, since it has a salary cap, but I think their large (and tediously long) playoffs have something to do with it. More than half the teams in the league are in the playoffs, often including some with losing records!

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