Ever the pragmatist, Orioles manager Buck Showalter claimed to be unfamiliar with the idea that a team could be properly evaluated on Memorial Day, noting that this year it happened to fall on the occasion of Game 54 — one-third of the way through the season.
Forget that executive vice president Dan Duquette set this benchmark a month ago. Showalter's sidestepping the subject makes clear that there's at least some focus now on the field, even as the off-field speculation about the Orioles far outweighs the interest in what they're doing on a daily basis.
"I'm always evaluating kind of where we are and where we have the potential to head," Showalter said after Monday's 6-0 loss to the Washington Nationals. "It's got to get better, and I think our guys know that. It's very frustrating for them right now, and I'm sure, for everybody, including the fans."
Considering the Orioles are 17-37, percentage points ahead of the 16-35 Chicago White Sox for the worst record in the major leagues, there's really only one place all this could lead. If it's not clear to them yet, it's clear to everyone else.
So, as the Orioles hit this early-summer benchmark, here are five truths they'll need to confront about their slow start and their future, including how they got here and what the future could look like.
1. Injuries can't be the excuse anymore.
At one point in their slow start to the season, the Orioles could reasonably claim that they'd been undone wholly by injuries. Designated hitter-outfielder Mark Trumbo missed the start of the season with a quadriceps strain. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop pulled his oblique and missed several weeks. Outfielder Colby Rasmus and third baseman Tim Beckham were playing well below their capabilities because of hip and groin injuries, respectively, that landed them on the disabled list. Zach Britton still hasn't thrown a pitch, and fellow All-Star reliever Darren O'Day is out now, too.
That's certainly a lot, but it doesn't go very long in explaining what's been happening now. They're much more whole with Schoop and Trumbo back, and while third base is a hole without Beckham, the outfield depth to replace Rasmus certainly isn't an area the Orioles are lacking. The injuries probably contributed to the desperate feeling around the team that makes everyone grip the bat a little tighter, but this is still mostly the team they expected to have this season. It's proved to be a deeply flawed one, and whichever context they want to examine their season in going forward, the injuries they suffered early shouldn't be one of them.
2. Manny Machado and the Orioles have painted each other into a corner.
For something that everyone could see coming, the runup to Machado's free agency this offseason has included just about everything going badly that possibly could as the team decides how to deal with that future. His down year last season depressed his value going into the offseason, when the Orioles probably could have gotten the most significant haul for his services in a trade. They chose to keep him to start the season, ultimately betting that 2018 would go far better for the team than it has. His move to shortstop, and his frequent proclamations that he doesn't want to play third base anymore, might have limited his in-season trade partners, to say nothing of what it could do for his free agency.
It's essentially been about each side getting as much from the other as possible before the inevitable separation, and now that the time for that separation is fast approaching, nothing that has transpired over the past year puts either in a better position for it.
3. We're probably talking about the wrong players when it comes to a sell-off.
Machado and Britton and even reliever Brad Brach and center fielder Adam Jones — all the team's pending free agents — are going to be in the spotlight as the Orioles try to turn these short-term assets into long-term ones ahead of their contracts expiring. That's expected. But how long-term are we talking?
If the Orioles are committing fully to a rebuild, the next wave of pending free agents should be part of that. There have been some worthwhile rentals in recent years, but the real value for the Orioles is going to be in the likes of starter Kevin Gausman, Schoop, and even reliever Mychal Givens.
Schoop is going to be a free agent. Gausman has two full seasons left, and Givens is still a few years away, but the prospect of multiple playoff runs with each, to go along with their high performance over the past year-plus, will help drive the return for any of them into the stratosphere they’ll likely be seeking. As good as all of this year's free agents are, the returns might not be the multiple impact pieces the Orioles will surely be asking for.
4. This team has a major Chris Davis problem.
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Last week's furor around Hall of Famer and announcer Jim Palmer criticizing first baseman Chris Davis exposed a few things, mostly about those around the team and those who follow it more than the team itself. But even that will paint everything the Orioles do this year and going forward.
How can a team look toward the future if one of its few long-term assets is performing this badly, is the recipient of fervent fan dissatisfaction, and plays a position that will complicate giving young players a look down the road?
Leave Davis' own massive struggles at the plate off to the side and consider that he's already forced Trey Mancini to left field. Of the team's top position player prospects currently in the minor leagues, every single one likely has a corner outfield profile going forward, depending on how you view Ryan Mountcastle. That list also includes Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart and even now Ryan McKenna. Attrition will ensure that the Orioles won't have to fit them all into one lineup, or onto one roster, this season. But Davis' mere presence means that however many they do need to fit into the big league picture during this inevitable rebuild, they'll have one fewer slot to work with.
And that, more than his lack of production and massive salary, is going to be a headache for the Orioles.
5. The makings of a good rotation are there, if that's the direction the Orioles want to go.
With Dylan Bundy in the fold for a long time, Alex Cobb signed long-term, Andrew Cashner contracted through the end of 2019, and Gausman through 2020, the Orioles have seen glimpses of four strong major league pitchers for their rotation. David Hess has made a nice first impression, and the high minors also include arms like Hunter Harvey who could get a shot before long.
Most of the Orioles' long-term uncertainty comes with their position players and bullpen. But there's a world in which the Orioles have a more-than-competent rotation that can help them into the next era, whatever that looks like. This team has been at its best, both recently and throughout its history, when the starting rotation has led the way. Even though the Orioles haven't done that this year with the same players, replacing some of the soon-to-be-departed players with stronger defenders could help spark a rotation that leads another run to relevance before long.
This story has been updated to reflect Kevin Gausman’s free agency in 2020.