As writers and analysts, we often discuss, with the benefit of convenient removal from the situation, the merits of decision-making within major-league organizations. We wonder why a GM makes a certain trade or if the owner pushed for a particular player to be signed. We critique lineups and defensive positioning. We lampoon bunt proponents, and loathe bullpen mismanagers.
We do all of this, of course, because we know better. We have data and proofs and theories and algorithms. And more often than not, we’re not wrong. We might overstate the magnitude of these transgressions, or make a minor mistake seem like a life-or-death decision. This is why it’s so easy to criticize Buck Showalter for his decision-making related to inarguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball this season. Matthew Trueblood put it exceptionally well in his postgame recap:
We can all document our feelings as Zach Britton remained unused through the ninth inning, then the 10th, then the 11th, and because we know everyone else was feeling it too, and because our worst suspicions about the whole thing seemed to be confirmed as the postgame press statements rolled in (no, Britton wasn’t hurt, yes, Buck Showalter was holding him back to protect an eventual, hypothetical lead), there’s a good chance this great baseball game will be forced to live in the too-short shadow of a single decision.
This isn’t about the Orioles losing a game, though. It’s not about Buck Showalter, previously viewed as a pretty darn good bullpen manager dropping the ball in the biggest of moments. This is bigger than one baseball game because not all baseball games are created equal.
No, I’m not going to go on and on about the merits of this Wild Card format or about playing an elimination game while also trying to prepare for the division series. I’m not going to talk about how the playoffs are often an exercise in randomness. These things have all been said before. What I’m going to talk about is an organization that, in a manner that would make Wile E. Coyote proud, dodged the falling anvil of missing the playoffs only to step off the edge of a nearby cliff moments later.
The best argument for using Zach Britton last night is one that’s often used to critique the moves of a front office staff, not managers. We often discuss the concept of windows of contention; attempting to identify the teams that are trying to get one or two more runs at the World Series out of an aging roster (Tigers), just broaching greatness (Cubs), or teams that are playing for tomorrow’s tomorrow (Phillies). We talk about how to best allocate dollars across a major-league roster and how they should invest in minor-league talent. We talk about team control of players and arbitration and free agency like they are the grim reaper, here to steal possible championships out from underneath our noses. We don’t use this concept to critique managers, really. Until now.
The Orioles are in a unique situation. They aren’t an old roster by any means—their average age of 28 is the seventh-youngest in baseball—but they do have many expiring contracts coming up. Mark Trumbo, the major-league leader in home runs, is now a free agent. Matt Wieters, the team’s longtime catcher, is a free agent. Pedro Alvarez, a useful lefty power bat, is a free agent. Steve Pearce, utility man extraordinaire, is a free agent. Nolan Reimold and Drew Stubbs have likely played their last games as Orioles.
The club is still encumbered by bad free agent deals of years past. Yovani Gallardo, he of a 5.59 DRA in 2016, is owed $11 million next season. Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up the game-winner Tuesday but isn’t really at fault for the loss, and who pitched to a 4.14 DRA in 2016, is owed $13.5 million next year. Chris Davis will be paid more than $21 million in 2017, despite producing just 2 WARP in 2016.
And 2018 makes matters worse. Jimenez and some other big contracts expire, but so to do those of valuable players. Chris Tillman is set for free agency after 2017. As is Hyun Soo Kim, the guy who arguably saved the Orioles’ season during the last weekend. It also marks, potentially, the last season in orange and black for many major players currently on the roster. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach could all be free agents come the winter of 2018.
Sure, there’s plenty of time to address these issues. One problem, however, is that the Orioles have little/no farm system to speak of. They ranked 26th in BP’s organizational rankings for 2016, and had no prospects on the midseason top 50. Their best prospects have huge question marks (Hunter Harvey, health; Chance Sisco, position) and a lack of interest in international spending leaves the stores barren.
That means cheap help isn’t likely to come, and so trades or free agency will be the only practical means of augmenting the roster. Trades too will be difficult, given the lack of anything except major-league talent to trade. Of course, free agency isn’t cheap either and the large contracts handed out to Davis, Jones, and O’Day might hamper their ability or interest to be competitive for the elite or even good/great talent.
All of this means that the chances the Orioles do get are that much more critical—it’s unclear how many more they might get moving forward. Obviously the playoffs are always a time to go for it, but a team like the Cubs has a larger margin for error organizationally than the Orioles do. They’ll be back next year, and the year after that, and so on. The Orioles can’t say the same with confidence.
So yes, last night the leverage in the 11th inning was north of 5.0—in any baseball game that’s about as high-stakes as it gets. Add on the fact that it’s the playoffs, and the pressure increases. Elimination game? Even more important.
Let’s not forget, though, that in the context of the Orioles’ window of contention and likelihood of success, last night was an abject failure. Losing this opportunity because of decision-making and not something on the field? Inconceivable. That might have been the Orioles' last chance to win a World Series with this team. It’s certainly the best chance they would have had—barring a heretofore unseen spending spree in the offseason—in the near future. And now, it’s gone. While Zach Britton watches from the sidelines.