By Michael Klopman
"You know, people don't really like us in the offseason. They don't predict us to do well."
That's probably the most accurate statement that Dan Duquette has made during his tenure as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Here's how the offseason usually plays out: The other teams in the American League East seem to do as much as they can, sometimes as quickly as they can, to improve their rosters. Meanwhile, the O's get linked to just about every decent free agent available, but they end up losing out on all of them. Then Baltimore usually waits until late January, February and March to make any significant changes, if any. The five offseasons under Duquette before this one are the biggest reason why Grant Brisbee dubbed the O's as "the weirdest team in baseball." When the Orioles do get active, their moves yield mostly negative reactions.
This winter has been no different. O's fans have had to hear about how the Red Sox brought yet another ace into their rotation, and how the Yankees can spend big on a closer and still be perfectly positioned to poach Manny Machado away from Camden Yards when he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season. Meanwhile, the Orioles haven't made many changes besides switching out catcher Matt Wieters for the cheaper Wellington Castillo and trading Yovani Gallardo to Seattle for platoon outfielder Seth Smith (addition by subtraction for the rotation!).
Then, around this time of the year, the preseason projections enrage the fan base. Before every season since Duquette arrived in November 2011, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system has projected the Orioles to finish under .500. Well, the PECOTA projections for the 2017 season have been released, and wouldn't you know it, the Orioles are expected to finish with a losing record of 73-89, good for last place in the division (cue the collective Sideshow-Bob-steps-on-rakes grunt).
As Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun wrote, there are reasons for this. The O's tend to go after power hitters who strike out a lot instead of emphasizing on-base percentage. They haven't done much to bolster the starting rotation through free agency -- a rotation that badly needs improvement (their starters were finished 22nd in ERA-minus in 2016, 23rd in SIERA, 19th in strikeouts per nine innings, 26th in walks per nine innings and 18th in the league in fWAR in 2016). And as Adam Jones pointed out last week, the outfield defense is flawed as well. These factors significantly outweigh the impressive power and stellar bullpen Baltimore possesses when it comes to PECOTA's algorithm.
But, as O's fans are quick to point out every year these projections are released, the team has outperformed expectations every season since 2012, sometimes by a lot. Throughout the five seasons of being projected to finish below .500, they've made three postseason appearances and even won the AL East in 2014 (they were projected to just win 78 games that year). In fact, the Orioles have won the most regular-season games in the AL over the past five seasons.
Despite being projected to finish each of the last five seasons as losers, Baltimore has been one of the most successful teams in baseball. It's hard to pinpoint why the Orioles have drastically crushed their projections over the five-year stretch, although having a manager like Buck Showalter -- who knows how to get the most out of what's given to him -- certainly helps.
And that's the beauty of baseball, and sports in general. It's a cliche for sure, but anything can happen and the Orioles are the epitome of that cliche.
Maybe they'll finally succumb to their expectations in 2017, maybe they won't. All we know is that the O's have been much better than expected over the past five seasons, so if we see them do it again, it should be as surprising as them being picked to finish last. While the offseason might be Baltimore's losing season, the regular season -- those six months when baseball is actually being played -- is when they tend to win.
Michael Klopman is an associate producer for Sports on Earth.