The lineup card was genuinely shocking. This was the morning of Opening Day, when the first realities of the baseball season were being set, and the 2019 Baltimore Orioles had written out their lineup. It was never going to be a good lineup. Last year, after a run of overachieving, competitive seasons, the team had utterly collapsed: losing 115 games, trading away nearly every remotely valuable veteran player, and shedding the manager and general manager. Everyone knew that this year was going to be extremely bad.
The lineup card was worse than that. The lineup card was so bad that the Orioles became a trending topic on Twitter as the whole baseball world read it in disbelief. But even for fans who’d been keeping an eye on the team through the offseason and spring training, it was incredible.
Leading off was Cedric Mullins, the speedy young center fielder, who’d been brought up to the majors toward the end of last season, had a thrilling debut game, and then muddled along OK. Everyone was glad to see Mullins, even if batting him leadoff was maybe a little much. That’s what you do in a down year, though, you put the kids in there and let them take their cuts.
The No. 2 hitter was—
Dwight Smith, Jr.?
Dwight Smith Jr. is 26 years old and had batted .268 in seven minor-league seasons, averaging less than nine home runs a year. Earlier in the month, the Toronto Blue Jays dumped him rather than trying to figure out a way to fit him onto the roster. The Orioles picked him up in a trade for unused international signing-bonus cash. And now he was the starting left fielder.
When a team has failed, it has to start over. This is obvious. The Orioles had slid into failure a little sideways and fully unprepared: two winters ago, with one year left before their young superstar third baseman, Manny Machado, would become a free agent, they decided there was no way they could possibly keep him. There had always been a hovering assumption that Machado, with his seemingly limitless talent and likewise limitless earning potential, would inevitably get bought up by the Yankees, in their century-long mission to crush the very idea of competition. So the Orioles surrendered in advance.
They did not, however, succeed in trading Machado right away. They broke camp in 2018 with Machado still on the roster, now playing shortstop, on a squad that looked like a non-winning team. Even so, they’d done fine with unimpressive rosters before. This time, though, some cloud of despair descended on the team and suffocated it. Machado hit like an MVP, while nearly every other player turned in a performance worse than his worst reasonable projection. Chris Davis, the two-time home run king with a long-term contract for $23 million a year, simply lost the ability to hit at all, turning in one of the worst seasons in the history of baseball. Machado was finally traded to the Dodgers, but hit enough home runs in his partial season with Baltimore to still be tied for the team lead at the end of the year.
The Yankees did not sign Machado. Almost no teams tried to. Finally, the big-spending contest that the Orioles had preemptively avoided came down to the Chicago White Sox getting beaten out by the San Diego Padres, who signed Machado for 10 years and $300 million.
The new Orioles general manager, Mike Elias, had countered by doing nothing, or possibly less than nothing. The three and four hitters on the Opening Day lineup card were actual major-leaguers, Jonathan Villar and Trey Mancini, guys who could do fine but who have very little on their resumes to suggest they should be hitting third or fourth. The No. 5 hitter and third baseman was someone named “Rio Ruiz,” who got waived by the Atlanta Braves back in December.
The sixth hitter was Joey Rickard. Rickard turns 28 this year; the Orioles got him four years ago in the Rule 5 draft, meaning that his old team didn’t think he was worth a major-league roster spot but the Orioles thought he might be. Given the chance, he was a passable fourth or fifth outfielder, the kind of guy who couldn’t really hit but who stuck around because he could cover center field when the center fielder needed a day off. Now, like someone trapped in a horrible stress dream, he was the starting right fielder.
Here’s a funny thing about right field in Baltimore: last year, at the end of the season, the right fielder was Adam Jones. Jones had been the center fielder for most of 11 seasons, since arriving as a 22-year-old in a package of players the Orioles got the last time the team tore things down and tried to start over. He was a five-time All-Star and the most popular Oriole, the face of the team as it broke out of 14 years of losing seasons and started making the playoffs again.
But his defense in center field was declining, and in August, with the season in rubble and all his good teammates traded away, Jones moved aside to right field and welcomed Cedric Mullins, as the rookie came up from the minors and took over his job. Mullins doubled in his first major-league at-bat and then Jones drove him in, giving the Orioles a 4-3 lead over the Red Sox and providing the only real moment of warm, honest good feeling at the ballpark the entire year. The Orioles went on to lose the game, 19 to 12.
Jones became a free agent at the end of the season, and the Orioles…ignored him. So did everyone else. Adam Jones was exactly the sort of player to be victimized by baseball’s new culture of hyper-rational financialism: he had expensive-looking past performance and, at age 33, declining future returns. Ten years ago, someone would have heavily overpaid for a player like that, so now the consensus thing to do, in the new era of cost control, was to not pay at all. Long after spring training started, the Arizona Diamondbacks finally brought him on, for a one-year deal for $3 million.
So the Orioles had let their most popular player go, in the name of rational baseball asset management, and they had replaced him with, effectively, nobody. With the guy who would have been in the lineup if Jones had sprained an ankle, back when the Orioles were a major-league baseball team.
It would have been good to see a familiar veteran in the lineup, as the team entered the bleak new year. But the Orioles aren’t trying to make fans feel good. They are putting on a show of allocating—or not allocating—assets.
This is the current scam, migrating from basketball to baseball. If you’re a clever general manager, who wants to be known as a smart general manager, the first step is to establish that winning is impossible. You don’t even want to try to win. Winning is for some future version of the team, which you will create over the long haul by saving the money you would have spent on decent players today, by losing as many games as possible, and by getting high draft picks.
In the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers did this, and by playing some of the worst basketball of all time, they eventually ended up with one or two great players, who may or may not allow them to meaningfully compete for a championship. The Philadelphia fans believe in this, anyway. They have built a furious Internet cult around the premise that being the very worst team in basketball was necessary and actually good, even while the actual best team in basketball, the Golden State Warriors, built its roster by identifying superstar players lower down in the draft that other teams missed.
But in basketball, you only need five starting players. In baseball, you need nine, plus the pitchers. If you ruin your baseball team and lose 110 games, and then you draft the very best possible player, and he has the very best possible season right away, you’ll lose 100 games next year. You need an entire team’s worth of players to be competitive.
After Rickard came Davis. It’s cruel to say anything about Davis; what happened to him should never happen to anyone, and no amount of money can really make up for the awfulness of suddenly, publicly becoming completely incompetent at your job. If baseball runs on harsh, practical calculations, though, the fact is that Davis’ value is so profoundly negative, the Orioles could gain roughly $23 million worth of baseball performance if they paid him and didn’t play him, rather than paying him and playing him.
These are the thoughts that pass through the mind when there is nothing good to think about or to hope for. The financialized vision of baseball depends on convincing fans that it OK to have something that dresses like a major-league baseball team, and charges major-league prices for tickets and hot dogs, and collects a share of major-league broadcast and online revenue, but is not seriously trying to win the major-league games in which it plays.
After Davis came the catcher, Jesus Sucre. The Orioles have a young catcher, Chance Sisco, who was awful last year but might still turn into a hitter. He got sent to the minors to work on his defense, so the job went to Sucre, who is 31 and has never been a first-string catcher.
Last was Richie Martin, a new Rule 5 pickup, who has zero major-league experience but gets to try being a full-time shortstop. In 2018, when Machado wasn’t playing shortstop, the job belonged to Tim Beckham, an undistinguished utility man who had once upon a time been the No. 1 pick in the draft—the sort of prize the Orioles are supposed to be sacrificing this season in the hopes of someday getting. Baseball prospects are a lot harder to predict than basketball players are. Martin himself was the 15th overall draft pick, and now he was getting a flyer at the bottom of the lineup of the worst team in the league. As with Mullins, there was no reason not to let him try.
Why wasn’t the front office trying, too? Mike Elias came from the Houston Astros, who did in fact pull off the whole plan, dragging their team through the very bottom of the standings for years before they climbed all the way to a championship. Lots of teams, though, go to the bottom and stay there. Maybe Elias knows something about Dwight Smith Jr. and Rio Ruiz that the rest of baseball doesn’t. Maybe in the long run, the fans will judge that the results were all worthwhile. But the message of the lineup card was that right now, the team considers itself immune to judgment.