History is not on the Baltimore Orioles’ side.
Thanks to a horrific start in which the Orioles lost 18 of their first 24 games, they have all but guaranteed that their every-other-season mojo will end, and for the first time in four even-numbered years, they will not make the playoffs. Don’t believe it? Check the data.
Since the beginning of the wild-card postseason era in 1995 through 2017, 19 teams have gone 6-18 or worse through 24 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Every one of those clubs missed the playoffs. Perhaps even more damning, all but one of them ended the season with a losing record. The only team that didn’t was the 1996 Boston Red Sox, who went 85-77 after starting 6-19 and finished three games behind the wild-card Orioles. Twenty-two years later, the wildest thing about the O’s is how awful they’ve been out of the gate.
To be clear, nobody in their right mind had the Birds down as legit contenders to win the American League East. Not with the Red Sox coming off a division title and boasting a starting rotation that features two former Cy Young winners (David Price, Rick Porcello) and the guy who’s arguably the best active pitcher to have not won a Cy Young (Chris Sale). Not with the Yankees coming off a 91-win season that was followed by the blockbuster acquisition of National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton. But with the late addition of free-agent starters Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb to go along with an offense that’s led by Manny Machado and has been known to mash -- since 2012, Baltimore has hit over 100 homers more than the next-closest MLB team -- there was reason to believe that maybe … juuuuust maybe … a wild card wasn’t completely out of the question.
Then the first 24 games happened.
If you’re searching for viable excuses to pass off Baltimore’s brutal beginning as an aberration, you don’t have to look hard. The injury bug has bitten early and often, robbing the lineup of All-Star second baseman Jonathan Schoop, DH Mark Trumbo and slugging left fielder Trey Mancini. Cobb, who didn’t sign until a week before Opening Day, was torched in his first couple of outings (posting a 13.11 ERA and allowing 30 hits in his first 11⅔ IP across three starts), a trend that’s not likely to continue once he rounds into form. The schedule has been savage, with five of Baltimore’s seven completed series coming against 2017 playoff teams (Twins, Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, Indians), one coming against a solid Blue Jays squad and the other taking place in blustery Detroit, where the average game-time temps were more befitting of Lions-Ravens than Orioles-Tigers.
Still, 6-18 is 6-18.
“It’s a formidable task,” Baltimore GM Dan Duquette says of his club’s quest to overcome its appalling April and make the playoffs this year. “We dug a hole for ourselves out of the start.”
Duquette knows a thing or two about digging holes. He was the GM of that ’96 Red Sox squad, which lost 19 of its first 25 games, but made things interesting by going 38-19 over the final two months of the season. Ironically, Boston’s late push came after the trade deadline, when Duquette sold off a trio of veterans (starter Jamie Moyer, outfielder Kevin Mitchell, reliever Mike Stanton) in three separate deals with the Mariners, Reds and Rangers, all of whom were contending for the postseason. A couple of decades later, Duquette finds himself in familiar territory, reeling from a sluggish start that has his club looking for all the world like a seller. But don’t try telling him that. Not yet, anyway.
“I like to be a buyer,” says Baltimore’s GM, who has made a habit of acquiring players at the deadline, even when context clues suggest otherwise.
In 2015, with the O’s just a game above .500 on July 31, he traded top pitching prospect Zach Davies to the Brewers in exchange for outfielder Gerardo Parra, then watched as the Orioles finished with an 81-81 record, a full five games behind in the wild-card race. Last July, even though the Birds were several games under .500, Duquette went into buy mode again, trading for starter Jeremy Hellickson and infielder Tim Beckham. That didn’t end well either, as Baltimore went 75-87 and finished in last place for the first time since 2011. Perhaps even worse, the Birds whiffed on a golden opportunity to start their rebuild in earnest.
Had Duquette and the Orioles played peddler last summer, they could have made out like bandits. Machado, the third baseman-cum-shortstop who is one of the game’s premier players, is set to become a free agent after the 2018 season. So too is veteran center fielder Adam Jones. Ditto for relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach. That’s four former All-Stars, each of whom had a year-plus of club control remaining on their contracts as of last July. If the O’s had gone the seller route en route to the cellar last summer, they could have inherited a veritable cornucopia of prospects in return.
Had the Birds decided to sell this past winter (remember all those Machado trade rumors?), they still would have done just fine, thanks, for themselves. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they stayed put. They hoarded Machado. They hoarded Jones. They hoarded Britton and Brach, all in the name of keeping the band together for one last chance at glory in 2018, which just so happens to be the final year of Duquette’s contract and the final year of manager Buck Showalter’s contract.
As shortsighted as that plan may have seemed at the time based on projections, it’s worth noting that Baltimore has routinely made a mockery of said projections during the Showalter era. All of which is to say that the team’s decision to not sell this past offseason, while debatable, was certainly defensible. Just like the team’s decision to not sell last summer, while perhaps even more debatable, was still defensible. But a month into the 2018 season, the defense rests.
Twenty-four games into the nightmare that is the Orioles’ season so far, it was virtually impossible to envision a scenario in which it makes sense for them to hold on to Machado and friends. If Baltimore had a legit shot at re-signing Manny after this season and/or signing him to an extension some time over the next few months, then and only then could you make an argument for not trading him. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Given that, and given that the O’s started slower than a slow-motion replay of the DMV scene in "Zootopia," it seems like only a matter of time of before B’more opens up for business. The question is, how much time?
“April is kind of early to do it,” says Duquette, “but by the end of May, you take a long look at your club. Sixty games will give you a pretty good idea, once you get into the schedule and pitchers are stretched out, you have a better idea what your ballclub can do. We’ve got to take a hard look between now and Memorial Day.”
Even if Duquette felt compelled to sell prior to the unofficial start of summer, he might have a hard time convincing ownership -- not to mention the people of Baltimore -- that the early Birds get the worm.
“The message to fans in the first month or two is awful if you sell,” says one National League GM. “Earliest teams consider selling is June.”
In the meantime, the Orioles will try to climb out of the humongous hole they’ve dug for themselves. It’s a colossal crater that, coupled with Boston’s white-hot start, had the Birds more than 12 games out of first place before the season was even 4 weeks old. Not that Duquette has lost all hope.
“Let’s see if we can get out of the hole and see some daylight.”
If that doesn’t happen soon, then Baltimore’s season -- and the Orioles as we’ve come to know them over these past few years -- will be history.