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Scouting the AL East: Baltimore Orioles’ projections

Once again, the Yankees will essentially be playing in a four-team division in 2020.

Baltimore Orioles v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Last week, we looked over the Yankees’ ZiPS projections, and they confirmed what we already knew. The Yankees are poised for a dominant season. Now, let’s take a spin around the AL East, to get a sense for what the cold-hard projections think about the Yankees’ direct competition in 2020.

Here, I think we might have our suspicions confirmed again. The Orioles are coming off a putrid two-season stretch, and there’s little reason to believe they will get off the mat this coming year. ZiPS agrees:

This depth chart is courtesy of Dan Szymborski’s write-up his ZiPS forecasts for the Orioles, which you can read over at FanGraphs.

Even a cursory knowledge of the general Wins Above Replacement framework is enough to take one glance at Baltimore’s projected depth chart and shudder. Typically, an average player, given a full season’s worth of playing time, will cobble together about two WAR. You’ll notice that the Orioles do not project to have a single above-average player in 2020.

The closest thing Baltimore possesses to a genuinely good baseball player is Trey Mancini, who projects for a 121 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR spread across a few different positions. Mancini, while a quality hitter, is cast with carrying an entire major-league lineup all by himself.

The only other batter this side of Mancini forecast for an above-average hitting line is Renato Nunez, whose projected 103 OPS+ would represent a solid consolidation of his breakout the past couple seasons, which has included a 105 OPS+ mark with the Orioles. Otherwise, former top prospects Austin Hays (projected 94 OPS+) and Chance Cisco (95) are Baltimore’s best shots at even average hitters.

The situation is just as dire on the pitching side. Lefty John Means’ projection catches one’s eye merely because it stands so far above the rest of the replacement-level forecasts that litter Baltimore's barren roster. The Orioles’ lone All-Star representative in 2019, Means thoroughly impressed in 2019, putting together 155 innings with a 131 ERA+ in finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. However, Means’ peripherals and pure stuff have never stood out, and ZiPS likewise expects some regression, projecting 153 innings and a 95 ERA+.

Outside of Means, the Orioles’ pitching forecasts are simply difficult to look at. Alex Cobb, Asher Wojciechowski, Brandon Bailey, and Dean Kremer, the starters pegged to fill out the rotation, all project for ERA+ figures in the 70’s or 80’s. Don’t feel ashamed if this your first time hearing of one or three of these pitchers.

Obviously, this is a rebuilding team, so we should focus on the prospects who could debut this season, with the hope that they’ll soon help this team back toward contention. Adley Rutschman’s projection in particular should be cause for some optimism. Last year’s first overall pick only projects for a 76 OPS+ right now, but that he’s pegged for a full win above replacement despite playing only a handful of games in A-Ball is quite promising.

Elsewhere, the optimism fades. Ryan Mountcastle, possibly Baltimore’s other top hitting prospect, projects for a 93 OPS+ as he switches to first base. Outfield prospect Ryan McKenna projects for a 76 OPS+. Yusniel Diaz, the top player acquired in exchange for Manny Machado in 2018, currently projects as below replacement. Outside of the aforementioned Kremer, virtually no pitching prospects appear close to the majors, outside of Michael Baumann, who’s projected for a respectable-enough 89 ERA+.

Combing through these projections, it’s impossible to ever shake the notion that this is all by design. It’s difficult to build a team this incompetent, already two seasons into a rebuild, without making that incompetence the explicit goal. Of course, this Orioles team designated Jonathan Villar for assignment earlier this offseason, with Villar coming off an All-Star caliber season, and entering the age-29 campaign of a career that’s included over 12 WAR in 3000 plate appearances. Moves like that quickly extinguish the illusion that this team is meant to do anything other than lose.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, given who’s tasked with running the Orioles at the moment. General manager Mike Elias was Jeff Luhnow’s assistant GM in Houston in 2018. Elias brought several executives from Houston with him, including Sig Mejdal, Chris Holt, and Eve Rosenbaum. The Orioles have taken well to the early steps of Houston’s tanking plan. We’ll see in the coming years whether Baltimore can avoid cultivating the toxic culture the Astors clearly built on top of all those seasons of losing.

For now, the Orioles are merely a target for the Yankees. These projections paint a picture of a club that will limp to 100-plus losses for a third consecutive season. The Yankees should lick their chops, and aim to repeat the sort of domination they put on Baltimore in 2019.