The Orioles are in trouble. The Orioles can still win the American League East.
Both of those are correct.
Nearly one-third into the season, the Orioles are four games under .500 for the second time. Not since 2011 have they been that far below the breakeven point.
They’re only three games out of first place in the East. A year ago, they were 3 ½ games out through 50 games and won the division going away.
The Orioles haven’t yet played with their projected roster on the field, and J.J. Hardy may have another serious injury.
Last year, Manny Machado and Matt Wieters never played together, and they still went to the American League Championship Series.
There are many more worrisome signs this year than there were a year ago. Machado and Wieters were the key players on the disabled list. Bud Norris was on it briefly. This year, Wieters, Hardy, Norris, Kevin Gausman, and Jonathan Schoop gave been on the DL.
Last year’s team had Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. It also had a surprising breakout season from Steve Pearce. This year, Cruz and Markakis are gone, and Pearce is batting .186.
Hardy missed the first 25 games of the season with a shoulder injury. If the injury that caused him to miss Monday night’s game turns out to be an oblique injury (manager Buck Showalter didn’t want to use that term when talking with reporters in Houston), then it could cost him another month.
Everth Cabrera, who was supposed to be insurance for Hardy has played well defensively, but horribly offensively. He’s 2-for-26 in May, and batting just .202 with no power.
If Hardy is sidelined for any length of time, they could call Paul Janish up from Norfolk. His defense is excellent, but has a lifetime .214 average in the majors, and is hitting just .234 for the Tides.
The Orioles clearly need some offense.
Last year, they scored two or fewer runs 45 times, but won 11 of them. This year, they’ve lost 18 of 19 games in which they’ve scored two or fewer.
The offense is probably going to have to come from within. Other than Chris Parmelee or Nolan Reimold there doesn’t appear to be any help from Norfolk. The team’s two best Triple-A position prospects Dariel Alvarez and Christian Walker are batting .239 and .243.
Only four teams (Miami, Milwaukee, Oakland and Philadelphia) seem to be out of playoff contention, and there’s likely to be lots of competition for players they might want to deal.
Some of the Orioles with the best track records are stumbling. Chris Tillman has a six-game losing streak. Adam Jones has hit just one home run in his last 36 games. Chris Davis has struck out 70 times in 49 games.
There are some good signs. Three starters, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez all have ERAs under 3.50. Mike Wright, who’s starting tonight has looked strong in his first three starts, and the back end of the bullpen, Zach Britton and Darren O’Day have been solid.
In order for the team to contend, the starters must keep pitching at least as well as they have, and Tillman must join them. And, they must get through Brian Matusz’s suspension.
Matusz’s appeal of his eight-game suspension for having a foreign substance on his arm is scheduled to be heard Wednesday, and if it’s upheld, that makes for a tricky several days.
When Machado was suspended for five games a year ago, the Orioles played with a three-man bench and won four of five.
Showalter hasn’t said definitively what he will do, but the odds are he’ll play with a three-man bench and keep seven relievers though it’s likely he’ll change the roster during the suspension’s duration.
If there’s an injury during that time that’s thought to be relatively minor, the Orioles might have to disable that player. A two-man bench won’t work. The possible addition of Reimold might also have to wait until the suspension is completed.
A suspension of eight games that might start, say, Friday wouldn’t conclude until June 14. Even though Matusz might not appear to be terribly valuable, and generally appears in games where they trail (the Orioles are 3-14 in games he pitches), his absence makes both in-game and roster maneuvering tricky.
There is precedent on the Orioles side. While their best shot may be at winning a mediocre AL East, last year, the Kansas City Royals were 24-28 and came within an eyelash of winning the World Series.
But, if the Orioles don’t start playing better and soon, all those precedents won’t mean much.