TORONTO — As they do after most road trips, the Orioles’ brass will meet in the warehouse Monday to discuss how to navigate what’s becoming not just a bad season, but an embarrassing one.
There will be some head-scratching involved. After finishing their six-game trip having been swept in four games in Toronto, the Orioles returned to Baltimore with the worst record in the major leagues.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette wanted to give this club until Memorial Day to perform, but last weekend told The Baltimore Sun that it was time to “put a little sharper focus on the future.”
Manager Buck Showalter, a longtime advocate of trusting players who have had success, said Saturday that “it’s only so long you can talk about track records. You seek your level, but your level’s got to get better than what we’re doing.”
And inside the clubhouse, players — veterans and young players alike — who have suddenly become used to losing are frustrated. There have been times when they build momentum — like last week when they won two low-scoring one-run games against the New York Mets to open their trip only to fall off the cliff here at Rogers Centre in a series that included two extra-inning losses and ended on the bad end of a 10-run rout.
“It’s really hard,” outfielder Trey Mancini said. “I don’t really know how to describe it, like ‘The Twilight Zone’ almost the last couple of months just the way things have gone. A lot of us are struggling and you have a choice: You can either sulk in your sorrows and feel sorry for yourself, or you can just wake up and choose to be positive and be a good teammate and help pick everybody up. I think everybody does a good job of that and tries to do that. We play this game for six months so you don’t want to spend it too miserable. You want to be as positive as you can and it’s really hard to do sometimes.”
The way the Orioles’ season has spiraled is bizarre. The starting rotation — which was the biggest concern entering the offseason — might now be the team’s most stable piece, especially over the past month. An injury-riddled bullpen will get back closer Zach Britton — but it’s uncertain how long he will he remain with the team as he, fellow pending free agent Brad Brach and possibly reliever Darren O’Day could be moved as the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline approaches.
A team built on defense over the past seven years has sprung major leaks in converting batted balls to outs, regressions throughout the field that often aren’t truly detailed by the error column. The Orioles entered Sunday last in the majors with minus-63 defensive runs saved. But the biggest problem has been the offense, which is averaging 3.58 runs a game, which ranked 29th of the 30 major league teams entering Sunday. Six players in the starting lineup Sunday are hitting .233 or lower.
A week after Duquette said the team was prepared to shift its focus toward the future, Orioles decision-makers have done nothing to shift in that direction. There have been several times over the past month when it has felt as if change were near — as when the team returned from a winless West Coast trip in early May or in the midst of a recent seven-game losing streak, but the Orioles continue to sit and watch as their season becomes a horror film.
They replaced struggling Chris Tillman in the rotation with rookie David Hess. And the club has handed the starting catching reins to Chance Sisco, and last week promoted rookie Austin Wynns to back him up. Those are unquestioned moves to the future, but shouldn’t be confused for a shift in focus.
They have reportedly begun to field interest in shortstop Manny Machado, who is beginning to come down from a great start. Machado’s 50 RBIs are second most in baseball — which is amazing considering he’s had little protection and few runners on base — but he’s just 4-for-25 over his past seven games.
Other than Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, Brach and Britton are pending free agents, but other players — such as veterans Danny Valencia or Craig Gentry — could have value for contenders looking to trade for specific tools.
With the exception of outfielder Cedric Mullins, who was recently promoted to Triple-A Norfolk from Double-A Bowie, there are few replacements currently available. The organization’s other two top outfield prospects, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart, are on the disabled list, though Stewart is expected to return to Norfolk from a hamstring strain this week. Hays, the Orioles’ top prospect, struggled at Bowie, hitting just .224 with 43 strikeouts in 185 plate appearances before he was sidelined by an ankle injury.
There was some discussion about giving Mullins a big-league call-up, but the Orioles decided instead to season him in Triple-A.
The organization’s eyes are on Mullins, who had his best game at the Triple-A level Saturday with two hits, including a homer, and two RBIs. Not only would his switch-hitting bat give the Orioles an outfield option who can hit from the left side, but his range could help an outfield that has produced a majors-worst minus-26 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs.
Mullins isn’t a one-man solution to the problems, but his presence would send the team on a clear path to the future.
Also, the decision to option left-hander Tanner Scott to Triple-A Norfolk — and continue to carry out-of-options reliever Mike Wright (6.00) and Rule 5 draft pick Pedro Araujo (7.71) — was a peculiar move if the Orioles want to build beyond this season.
Scott was building innings and confidence, beginning to gain more high-leverage relief opportunities while establishing his slider as a legitimate big league out pitch. Britton’s return would have given the Orioles three lefties and likely limited Scott’s appearances, especially late in games, and Showalter said the club wants to keep the ball in his hand, but after not allowing a run in 10 1/3 innings at Norfolk, he had little more to prove in Triple-A.
Any move to the long-term future of the Orioles has to include a decision on mightily struggling Chris Davis, who has become an albatross in the lineup. The Orioles have four more seasons committed to him after 2018 after signing him to a club-record seven-year, $161 -million deal.
Davis — who went 1-for-4 on Sunday in his return to the starting lineup after receiving two games off — is batting .153. His minus-1.9 WAR (wins above replacement) entering Sunday is the worst of any big league player this season.
The Orioles have tried many things to help Davis out of his slump, but nothing has seemed to work. In most situations, such a lack of production would warrant a demotion, but Davis cannot be sent to the minors without his permission. And while acknowledging that he could benefit from a minor league assignment would be a selfless act that would likely play well with a frustrated fan base, it would be an unprecedented move that would likely cause concern in the players union.
“From my personal standpoint, my thought process is making the people we have better, getting back to the things we’re capable of,” Showalter said Sunday. “I’m not just going to hang it around one guy. It’s more than that. It’s always easy to switch players and do things, it’s not always easy — but I’m more in tune with the people we have here and trying to get them back on track.”