Baltimore Orioles 2018 season team preview: A competing bird is worth two rebuilding

Although the Washington Nationals are the mid-atlantic team receiving all the attention, the Baltimore Orioles are entering a pivotal season, too.

Like the Nationals, the O's enter the season knowing it could be the last Opening Day for their franchise player, their general manager, and potentially even the manager (hey, the Nats like to change skippers). And yet, while the Nationals are expected to walk to the postseason, the Orioles -- well, the outlook isn't as pretty. PECOTA has down Baltimore for 70 wins, one of the lowest totals in the majors, and FanGraphs' 75-win projection isn't a whole lot better. Woof.

Nonetheless, the O's will play 162. Here are the points of interest.

The vitals

The last dance

As the teaser suggests, these O's stand to look a lot different in a year's time.

Third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, and closer Zach Britton are each slated for free agency after the year, as are manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette. In other words, the Orioles could lose their franchise player, one of their longest tenured players, their closer, their skipper, and their point guard within the next 10 months.

Relative to Machado's expected departure, re-signing Showalter and Duquette would seem like an easy task. But there have been murmurs of a power struggle between the two for years, rumors that seem validated to some extent when Duquette openly pined for a job with the Toronto Blue Jays before they decided to hire Mark Shapiro.

There's sufficient time remaining for owner Peter Angelos to smooth over relations with Duquette and get him back on board with Showalter and crew, and perhaps even for him to decide to pony up and pay Machado. If you had to bet on it, though, the odds are that one of Showalter and Duquette will be elsewhere in 2019.

Baltimore has to make this year count. Can they?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at San Diego Padres
Showalter could field offers this winter. USATSI

Is there enough starting pitching?

This is the biggest hurdle separating the Orioles from Playoffvile. The lineup looks fine, the bullpen should be at least average. The rotation? The rotation is the one area that seems to tank this club's chances of being a serious threat in the wild card race.

Following the Alex Cobb signing, the O's will enter the season with a rotation featuring him, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Andrew Cashner, and likely Chris Tillman.

Bundy and Gausman represent the closest the O's have to sure things. Bundy is the de facto staff ace, and at times he's looked the part. Through last May, he was toting a 2.89 ERA. He experienced second-half turbulence, however, and allowed 12 runs in 14 September innings before being shut down. Gausman isn't any more consistent. He saw his walk rate head in the wrong direction last season, and is entirely too hittable given his stuff -- hence the homers.

Ideally, Bundy and Gausman would be the O's second and third starters. Cobb's late addition could make that a reality. Cobb's 179 innings in 2017 represented a career-high, but it's worth noting his strikeout rate has dipped over his last 200 innings -- owed in part to his split-change abandoning him. A smart, gutsy pitcher, there's no doubt Cobb will max out his ability. The questions are whether he can stay on the mound and profile as more than a mid-rotation arm heading forward. 

The other free-agent additions, Cashner and Tillman (more of a re-signing), are coming off diametrically opposed years. Cashner had a shiny ERA (3.40) but a 4.61 FIP and a paucity of strikeouts suggests he could be in for regression. The hope here, perhaps, is that he'll lean into generating more groundballs. Who knows the likelihood of that. Tillman, meanwhile, was horrendous for the O's in 2017. They brought him back with an eye on him enjoying a bounce-back season. He seems far from a sure thing, and there's a real chance he doesn't last all season on the 25-man roster.

What if they need another arm? Mike Wright, for his part, kind of resembles Tillman physically, while having a delivery that's at least a little reminiscent of Ubaldo Jimenez. He's entering his age-28 season but hasn't yet made good on his no. 4 starter upside. Maybe this is the year, more likely it isn't.

Dawning of a new era

If there's something the Duquette-era Orioles are known for -- besides poor starting pitching -- it's lacking prospects.

This year's O's are a little different, as they have a number of youngsters on the cusp of breaking into the Show, including catcher Chance Sisco. Pitchers Tanner Scott and Chris Lee are both probably relievers long-term, but could figure into the rotation as the season progresses. Ditto for Hunter Harvey (if he stays healthy), Keegan Akin, and maybe Cody Sedlock. Positionally, infielder Ryan Mountcastle and outfielders Austin Hays, D.J. Stewart, and Cedric Mullins provide some depth in case of injury or poor performance.

A few of those players are going to finish on the wrong side of the role-50 ledge -- meaning they're closer to relievers or bench players -- but Mountcastle, Harvey, and Hays were all given potential grades of 60-plus by Baseball Prospectus. Mountcastle was even ranked the system's top prospect due to his offensive potential. It's not clear where he'll end up position-wise -- he doesn't have a strong enough arm to be a stellar fit at the hot corner -- yet his stick could make him an intriguing late-season addition to the lineup.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles
Manny Machado and Tim Beckham are swapping positions in 2018, with Machado potentially swapping teams later in the year. USATSI

The deadline stars

The Orioles almost never say die -- see adding at last year's deadline rather than subtracting -- and there's no telling if they'd seriously consider it this year, given the stakes.

If they did, though, they'd have a lot of parts to move: Machado, Jones, Britton, and Brad Brach account for their free agents at season's end who should have value. The O's also have Mark Trumbo, Darren O'Day, and Jonathan Schoop reaching free agency after the 2020 season, with Gausman, Bundy, and Tim Beckham following the year after. If the Orioles are going through a line shift, then they could well dominate the deadline. Such an approach would bring back a wealth of prospects, and would dramatically shift this franchise's long-term outlook.

Is that probable? No. And it's possible the Orioles find a way to compete this season -- shaky rotation and all. But it's something to consider, especially when the Orioles are starting someone other than Bundy or Gausman.

Probable lineup

  1. 3B Tim Beckham
  2. 2B Jonathan Schoop
  3. SS Manny Machado
  4. CF Adam Jones
  5. 1B Chris Davis
  6. LF Trey Mancini
  7. RF Colby Rasmus
  8. DH Mark Trumbo
  9. C Chance Sisco

Bench: C Caleb Joseph; UTL Engelb Vielma; OF Anthony Santander

Probable rotation

  1. RHP Dylan Bundy
  2. RHP Kevin Gausman
  3. RHP Alex Cobb
  4. RHP Andrew Cashner
  5. RHP Chris Tillman

Probable bullpen

Closer: RHP Brad Brach

Setup: RHP Darren O'Day, RHP Mychal Givens

Middle/Long: LHP Richard Bleier, LHP Donnie Hart, RHP Miguel Castro, RHP Jose Mesa Jr.

CBS Sports Staff

R.J. Anderson joined CBS Sports in 2016. He previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to five of the New York Times bestselling annuals. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and... Full Bio

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