The 2018 Baltimore Orioles were so bad that we questioned whether they belonged in the major leagues at all. They were our runaway pick for worst pro team of the year, going far beyond the many wannabe Astros and Cubs who’ve jumped on the tanking fad in recent seasons.
Amazingly, things might get even worse this year. Since the middle of last season, Baltimore has traded away established veterans Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach, and watched as others such as Tim Beckham, Caleb Joseph and Adam Jones departed in free agency as well. Now there are only three remaining members of the Orioles’ lineup with even two years of MLB service time heading into 2019: Jonathan Villar, Trey Mancini — both average players at best — and Chris Davis, who had arguably the worst individual season in MLB history in 2018 when he hit .168 (in 470 at-bats!) with a .539 on-base plus slugging and -2.9 wins above replacement (WAR).1 Davis’ untradeable contract means the Orioles are stuck with him, so they’ll pencil his name in on opening day no matter how bad he was last season.
And those are the guys in the starting lineup who can be remotely labeled as household names. The rest is filled out with either youngish players who are past “prospect” status or journeymen plucked off the scrap heap. Taken as a whole, the 2019 Orioles’ roster basically recalls this scene from “Major League”:
(No word on whether Baltimore owner Peter Angelos secretly built this team of cast-offs so he can move the team to Miami.)
There have been a few teams who went into a season with less apparent talent than Baltimore — but not many. Using Baseball-Reference.com, we gathered data for each American League team’s opening day lineup since 1973 (to include every team who used the designated hitter full-time) and calculated those players’ established WAR track records going into the season.2 The track records for these Orioles — to the extent they have track records at all — place the team at or near the low-water mark at each position relative to all other AL opening day starting lineups since 1973:
Only three teams in our sample — the 1977 and 1982 Toronto Blue Jays and the 1980 Oakland Athletics — had lower established WAR levels for their starting lineups on Opening Day than the Orioles will have this season.
Baltimore’s place among the worst opening day lineups
Among American League teams since 1973, the four worst opening day lineups according to the sum of players’ established wins above replacement (WAR) levels
|1977 Blue Jays||1980 Athletics||1982 Blue Jays||2019 Orioles|
One of those teams, the ’77 Jays, was an expansion club that won just 54 games. But the two others finished around .500, meaning there are limitations to predicting off a lineup’s previous MLB track records. Of course pitchers can come to the rescue, as they did for Toronto in 1982 (led by the underappreciated Dave Stieb). Also, young players can emerge in dramatic breakout fashion: Rickey Henderson had done little as a rookie for the 1979 A’s before erupting for 8.3 WAR in 1980, for instance.
But it’s tough to find the next Stieb or Henderson waiting in the wings to save Baltimore this year. De facto staff ace Dylan Bundy had a 5.45 earned run average last season, while the top prospect in the Orioles system, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, is starting the year in the minors and probably won’t be a full-time contributor until 2020. Among those actually in this lineup on opening day, outfielders Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays and catcher Chance Cisco probably have the best breakout potential. In fact, FanGraphs currently projects Mullins for a team-best 1.8 WAR, thanks to a combination of power and speed that could make him one of the few Orioles worth watching this season.
New Orioles general manager Mike Elias told BaltimoreBaseball.com earlier this month that he wants the rebuild to go quickly: “This team finished last last year with a bad record,” he said. “I want to get out of that phase as quickly as possible, and so every decision that we’re going to make is going to be towards accelerating our advancement to be a playoff-caliber team again. I see no reason to stretch that out, drag it out beyond what we have to.”
For now, though, this Baltimore lineup looks like it will battle the Miami Marlins for the saddest collection of mediocre veterans and anonymous prospects in the game. In each case, you’ve probably never heard of half of these guys, and the ones you do know are way past their prime. (Or never had a prime.) We’ll just have to see if this ragtag group can rally together and win the pennant anyway — or more realistically, rally to avoid 115 losses this time around.