- The Orioles entered the 2018 season hoping to compete for a playoff spot. Thirty-five games later, they may as well start rebuilding.
The common wisdom around baseball is that you can never win a season in the first two months, but you can lose it. When the Orioles returned home after a six-game West Coast road trip, they were losers of all six and 19 of their last 22 to fall 18 games below .500. Opponents had outscored Baltimore by 72 runs over the season's first 34 games. It was hard to imagine it could get any worse.
And then Dylan Bundy took the hill in the top of the first against the lowly Kansas City Royals.
On Tuesday night, Bundy became the first pitcher since 1900 to allow four home runs before recording an out and was removed having failed to retire a single batter in an eventual 15–7 loss, a nadir in a season that could comfortably be described as an utter trainwreck. Baltimore trailed 10–0 in the bottom of the first and was down 15–1 after the top of the sixth inning. Bundy has now allowed 19 earned runs over his last three starts and has surrendered more home runs (nine) than recorded strikeouts (eight). Of the mere 10,863 ticketed attendees, maybe half of them were paying attention by the time Trey Mancini led off the bottom of the first.
In a year where roughly one-third of Major League Baseball is tanking (or not actively trying to win the World Series), the Orioles are somehow the worst of the lot despite spending in the offseason while most teams weren't. They refused to move star shortstop Manny Machado even though he's due to hit free agency at the end of 2018, and they signed starting pitcher Alex Cobb to a four-year, $60 million deal to pair with starter Andrew Cashner, who they inked for $16 million for two years earlier in the offseason. General manager Dan Duquette buffered the offense with more power—re-signing Pedro Alvarez and adding Danny Valencia and Colby Rasmus—to add to an already fearsome lineup that included Machado, a powerful young second baseman in Jonathan Schoop, former AL home run king Mark Trumbo, and a declining, if still effective Adam Jones.
Though no sane analyst was going to predict that the Orioles would finish ahead of the Yankees or Red Sox, Baltimore expected to compete the way that earned them three playoff appearances since 2012: Club teams to death with power and shut them out in the late innings.
But everything has gone wrong for Buck Showalter's bunch, and there is no way out of this mess except to start shedding the few assets the team has to try and rebuild a broken system. The 2001 A's had the worst start to a season (8–17) before making the playoffs; the Orioles are ten losses worse than that. It's over.
Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong so far in Baltimore. Schoop and Trumbo have played a combined 22 games because of injury. Third baseman Tim Beckham is out six weeks with a groin strain, but was hitting just .193 before going on the DL. Closer Zach Britton tore his Achilles tendon over the winter and will be out until at least June. Cashner and Cobb are a combined 1–9 with an 8.45 ERA and 2.04 WHIP.
We're not done. Chris Tillman may be the worst starter in the big leagues—he surrendered seven earned runs in one inning against the Angels in his last start to balloon his ERA to 9.24. The team is 29th in OPS (.662) and runs (3.49) and last in team ERA (5.24), opponents' batting average (.281) and 29th in WHIP (1.50). All those numbers translate to one point: The pitching staff gives up a ton of runs and the offense doesn't score much. That's what puts you 19 games under .500 with an -80 run differential on May 9. And all of this is happening while Machado is slashing .346/.432/.617 with nine homers and a 187 OPS+.
But somehow, all those facts are not the saddest reality of the Orioles: They are also responsible for the worst existing contract in baseball. Chris Davis signed a seven-year, $161 million contract before the 2016 season. Since then, he is hitting .214 with an OPS+ of 98 (a league-average player is set at 100) and has struck out 457 times; Tony Gwynn struck out 434 times in a 20-year career. This year, Davis has five extra-base hits and scored six runs in 130 plate appearances and is slashing .162/.262/.267. He is owed $95 million from 2019 through '22.
So what can Duquette and the Orioles do? Start selling immediately. Machado is one of the most valuable players in all of baseball at just 25 years old and may be the missing piece to a team's playoff hopes. The Dodgers are usually loath to bankrupt their farm system for a pending free agent, but they are 15–20 and nine games out of first place with their own star shortstop (Corey Seager) out for the year with an elbow injury. The Cubs may be running out of patience with Addison Russell, who has just eight extra-base hits in 120 plate appearances, is slashing .241/.308/.324 and is a major part of their disappointing start to the season. There is always the specter of the Yankees, who definitely have the prospects to complete a deal, though owner Peter Angelos hates his foes to the north more than he hates spending on free agents. Machado might be a Yankee in 2019, but he won't suit up in pinstripes this year. All of this, naturally, is conjecture, but the Orioles have no reason to hang onto Machado when he'll likely leave them empty-handed once he hits free agency in the offseason.
The second move is to shop both Bundy and Kevin Gausman, the touted hurlers who have always had the stuff but never seemed to put it together. Gausman is still just 27 and could be a serviceable mid-rotation pitcher for a competitor. After a rough Opening Day start against the Twins, he has a 2.27 ERA over his last six starts, and opponents are hitting just .211 against him. His fastball-splitter-slider arsenal has long been admired by scouts, and he might be a Jake Arrieta-like change-of-scenery candidate for a contender. The Dodgers, Phillies and Mets are teams who could use a pitcher like Gausman as a plug in their rotation.
Bundy may have had the worst outing imaginable on Monday, but even if his velocity is a tick down (closer to 92 mph than earlier in his career at 94), his fastball and power slider are pitches that any pitching coach would like to work with. The Orioles may need to find a few good starts out of the struggling Bundy before trying to move him, but the 25-year-old has plenty of value, whether it's in the starting rotation or converting to a long setup man like the Indians' Andrew Miller or the Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley.
The rest of what Duquette can do is unclear. Nobody will touch the Davis contract without forcing the Orioles to eat most (or more likely all) of the money, Trumbo still has plenty of power but lacks the lineup protection he had when he hit 47 homers in 2016. Cobb has improved over his last two starts, but it's unlikely a team would take on his contract in a depressed market. Schoop and outfielder Trey Mancini are reasonable pieces to start rebuilding around, but the farm system is generally depleted.
Maybe the most ominous sign for the team is that the fans are giving up; Monday's paltry crowd of 10,863 wasn't even the lowest of the season. Camden Yards is one of baseball's most beautiful parks and hosts a devoted and passionate fan base (the sound of Delmon Young's bases-clearing double during the 2014 ALDS is one of the greatest noises any crowd has any made), but there have been four home games with a paid attendance of fewer than 10,000 fans. Once Machado departs, it'll be hard to find any reason to attend besides taking in a summer night at a pretty park.
For now, the Orioles need to guess right on draft picks and prospects that will arrive in trades. It's not a great sign for baseball that the two major-market teams (New York and Boston) will control the AL East for the foreseeable future while its mid-market squads (Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay) will have to functionally hit a lottery to compete, but the Orioles may as well start rebuilding now. Because if they don't move Machado and lose him for nothing, then the fans may abandon even more than they already have.