At various points last season I tried to caution Orioles fans that their magical season would probably end in disappointment, like so many of their seasons since 1996. It seemed like all the empirical evidence was on my side. I’d point to the run differential, the unsustainable record in one-run games, and the apparent lack of high-end talent. Their competition was too tough with the juggernaut Yankees, the well-run Rays, and the AL West powers of Texas, L.A., and fellow upstarts Oakland all in competition.
And honestly, I didn’t trust GM Dan Duquette’s ability to make the moves that he needed to make to sustain the team’s success. This seemed especially true going up against smart GMs in Cashman, Friedman, Daniels and Beane.
As it turned out, Duquette out-maneuvered all of them (except maybe Oakland’s Beane who made similar moves with a more obvious platoon oriented philosophy) with a series of low-profile scrap heap moves that paid dividends.
Still, even as Duquette worked his wizardry, I remained unconvinced of the Orioles’ validity. How could adding Nate McLouth help any team? And Joe Saunders didn’t strike me as the ace the O’s desperately needed.
Even after the Orioles made the playoffs (and lost in a 5 game ALDS to the Yankees) I thought the magic would run out. They still had the glaring luck from last year in one-run games, the mediocre pitching staff, and no clear plan at left field, second base, or designated hitter. This seemed like a team that should take its lumps in 2013, letting future superstar Manny Machado develop during a full-season in the league, figuring out which former star pitching prospects (out of Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta) could succeed at the major league level, and coming on strong in 2014, when super-prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman joined the club full time.
Dan Duquette seemed to agree with my assessment. He made no major moves in the offseason, letting 2012 contributors Saunders and Mark Reynolds move on to other teams and not signing any free agents of note. The 2013 Orioles would look very much like the 2012 Orioles and I rolled out all the old reasons why this team was due for regression.
The team’s opening day lineup actually looked pretty good. Reimold crushes left-handed pitching (David Price was starting for the Rays) and Brian Roberts could be a solution to second base when healthy. They still had a massive hole at DH though and Jason Hammel, while a fine pitcher, didn’t seem like an Opening Day pitcher.
And yet, after all my doubts, here we sit on April 29th, 2013 and the O’s are 15-10 and tied for the fifth best record in baseball (by winning percentage).
And now I stand before you a changed man; I believe the Orioles are actually a good team that could get even better.*
*It’s at this point that I should probably acknowledge that it’s absurd to change your opinion on anything in baseball based on a 25 game sample. That’s dumb. I’m not doing that. My opinion is evolving based on a 187 game sample. As I pointed out, this is essentially the same Orioles team as 2012. The 25 game sample might be too small to draw conclusions, but it is barely large enough to start noticing trends.
I’ve talked about Orioles past, why are the Orioles present doing so well and why will they continue to improve in the (near) future?
Right now the Orioles are winning because of their offense. With 129 runs scored, they rank second in the American League. And that dynamic offensive performance has been helped by three red-hot players: Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Nate McLouth.
The only obvious player here is Adam Jones, a super-star caliber hitter (if not defender) who had his best season last year as he entered his prime and seems to be following the aging curve to perfection.
Davis has been the talk of the league for the first month of the season with a stellar line (..349/.438/.756, 9 HR). He’s been a beast, getting on base and hitting for power. If you had to point to a single player to explain the Orioles success this season, it would be Davis.**
**I’ll write this in a note because I’m trying to stay positive on the Orioles. Davis’ success is most likely not sustainable, especially the batting average. He’s been a three true outcomes player for most of his career and those abilities will continue this season. But Davis has also been a streaky starter over the course of his career. This April has been his most prolonged hot streaks, but don’t be surprised if he has three, four, or even five stretches during the year where he doesn’t hit for weeks.***
***There’s always the tantalizing possibility though that this is Davis finally realizing his potential and putting things together.
That the offense has been so good despite significant contributions from only four players (I”m adding Manny Machado to the group above; he’s not performing above his head, but he has played very well.) portends good things for the offense when one of them inevitably goes into a slump. Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, Nick Markakis, and Reimold all have yet to play well this season but should certainly pick it up as the weather gets warmer.
The concern, as always remains the pitching staff. As I observed on Twitter Monday night, the Orioles pitching has been below league average this year.
The Orioles are 24th in K%, 27th in BB%, 16th in ERA, and 29th in SIERA
— Tim Curtis (@timmycurtis) April 30, 2013
The Orioles are 20th in K%, 14th in BB%, 6th in ERA, and 19th in SIERA among relievers.
— Tim Curtis (@timmycurtis) April 30, 2013
In the current league landscape, it’s difficult to pitch well if you don’t strike out many batters and the Orioles don’t strike out many batters. To compound matters they (especially their starters) walk too many batters.
If the pitching concerns seem to be antithetical to my case that the Orioles are a better team than I thought they were, well it is. The starting pitching as designed at the beginning of the season will not succeed, but changes are coming, and have already started. Jake Arrieta, one of the biggest offenders this season (6.63 ERA, 7.58 BB/9) was optioned to Triple A Norfolk. And lurking in midseason could be top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman who’s been good in Double-A Bowie so far this season.
But honestly, I’m beginning to think their pitching doesn’t have to be good, just good enough. Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel, and Chris Tillman will all keep the Orioles in a game while the offense goes to work. I still think the lack of a frontline starter will hurt the team come October, but there’s no reason a team of number three and number four starters can’t help a team with a throwback offense**** win.
****That offense really feels like a throwback to the mid-2000s. They crush a lot of homeruns and they’re all up at the plate swinging and looking to hit for power. They’re one of the teams I have the most fun watching play baseball.
But if the Orioles want to rely on their offense to win games, they’re going to have to make improvements at second base and designated hitter (let’s assume that a platoon of McLouth and Reimold in left field works, which I think it does). The team has some traditional inside the box options, both internally and externally, available to them.
At second base the team can hope that when Brian Roberts returns he’s finally healthy (though that would be rather foolish). Or they can turn to Honkbal hero Jonathan Schoop, an IF prospect currently at AAA. Like Machado, he could have the ability to learn to hit on the fly while ably manning second base (though he also has the skills to play third base and a passable second).
Other than Schoop, the internal options appear to be limited and similar to what’s already eating up the offense. Outside of the organization it doesn’t appear that second base help is very available either. There’s an outside chance the Phillies trade Chase Utley if they fall out of contention, but that seems unlikely due to the Phillies impending television deal.
Personally, I favor some outside-the-box thinking to fill the second base hole. I’ve always wanted to see the O’s move Machado back to SS where his bat is even more valuable. They can move him to short, Hardy to second and trade for Chase Headley.*
*Look, I know it’s not that simple and there are a lot of moving parts to even get Hardy to move to second. But as I noted, its an outside-the-box suggestion, not a likely scenario.
At DH the Orioles have more obvious internal solutions if they want to continue the platoon theme. Xavier Avery contributed to the team last year and could help the team as the left-handed half of a platoon at DH or in left while providing a high contact/speed profile from the bottom of the order. He shows some ability to hit for power. LJ Hoes could be the right handed half of that platoon. Like Avery, Hoes doesn’t project to be an everyday player at the Major League level but he could be a very good fourth outfielder with a great approach at the plate and solid contact skills (but minimal power and only average speed, which is what keeps him from being a regular). He could also play good defense at a corner outfield spot. Other options include left-handed Cuban import Henry Urrutia and the well-traveled Travis Ishikawa.
Of course, if we learned anything last year, it’s to expect the unexpected from Dan Duquette. Last year at this point Nate McLouth and Lew Ford weren’t on the Orioles’ roster, and they would not have been anyone’s idea of an improvement for a team trying to get into the playoffs. So I’ll undo all of my speculation by saying we really have no idea how the Orioles will improve, we should just trust that Duquette will continue to tinker as appropriate.
This year a lot of last season’s red flags don’t exist anymore. The Orioles’ pythagorean record matches up with their actual record. That absurd record in one run games from last year? The Oriole’s have won only five of their eleven one run games; they are winning games by more than one run.
Something has clicked. Over the last 12 months I have watched the Orioles with skepticism but now slowly that eroded. They still might not win the division; the Red Sox are really good this year and the Yankees have held together despite their injuries. But now I expect the Orioles to compete rather than being surprised that they’re still hanging around.