It happens in the last two months of most baseball seasons—a team surges from off the radar and makes a push for the playoffs. If you look in the American League at teams on the playoff fringe, the Baltimore Orioles are the most likely team to make that run.
Let’s begin with the definition of “the playoff fringe.” It includes the Orioles, Twins, Angels and Rangers, all of whom are a handful of games under .500 and approximately five games out of the second wild-card spot. The teams ahead of them are full-blown contenders, the teams behind them are dead in the water.
One of these teams, Texas, has already waved the white flag with the trade of Yu Darvish. Los Angeles is a one-man show. Minnesota is going in the wrong direction, falling from the race rather than playing their way back into it.
That leaves Baltimore and not just by process of elimination. Consider how much has gone wrong for the Orioles in 2017—the pitching has been a catastrophe and the everyday lineup is filled with disappointments. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop has been terrific, but if you told anyone in Baltimore that Schoop would be the best offensive player, they would know something had gone terribly awry elsewhere.
Whether the Orioles can be the surge team of 2017 depends largely on the performances of five underachieving players…
Manny Machado—A year ago he was in the conversation with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as the game’s brightest young stars. This season, Machado has an on-base percentage of .313, easily the worst of his career and his power has been mediocre.
Chris Davis—The dropoff in Davis’ production isn’t quite as severe, but with a .321 OBP, a .450 slugging percntage and 17 home runs, this is still one of Davis’ weaker seasons since his emergence as a top-tier slugger in 2013.
Chris Tillman—Injuries have limited Tillman to 14 starts and even those have been dreadful, with a 7.65 ERA. He symbolizes the entire pitching staff in that he can’t get much worse. With a track record of a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the previous five years. he’s more than capable of a strong August and September.
Dylan Bundy—The highly regarded 24-year-old started strong, but recent struggles have left his ERA at 4.53, a regression from last year’s 4.02.
Kevin Gausman—A steady starter over the last three years with a good upside, Gausman has gone the other direction, with a 5.37 ERA.
So if you’re the Baltimore Orioles and you’re 4 ½ games off the wild-card, 6 ½ out in the AL East and you’ve thus far gotten lousy years from Machado, Davis, Tillman, Bundy and Gausman and you’re also getting closer Zach Britton back healthy for the stretch drive, would you like your chances?
I would, and it’s why those who advocated the Orioles deal Britton at the deadline were foolish. Baltimore’s margin for error is gone, but they aren’t dead yet.