Ever since the 2012 season when the Baltimore Orioles decided to adopt their fresh logo, the New Cartoon Bird, the O’s have had a shocking reversal of opinion: They really want to win. Like, they actually think they can. Your end result is an Orioles team heading into the 2014 season with two fewer draft picks and two new stars to sharpen their teeth. They want to compete. They can compete. They will compete.
But that doesn’t mean they’re a championship-level team or even a synch to make the postseason. The Orioles instead are on the fringe of being a playoff team, but even that will be very difficult for them in 2014, thanks to, yes, competition.
The Orioles look more like that prototypical 85-win ballclub. They’ve got a good number of stars, they excite, and they’re one of the best teams in their league in at least one major category. The Baltimore Orioles’ offense, despite some of their hitters being overrated guys who don’t get on base enough—their only regular player in 2013 who got on base more than .330 was Chris Davis—is pretty solid. As a team, they slugged .431 last year and topped Major League Baseball by a mile in homeruns (212). Say what you want about the Orioles’ inability to get on base, they made sure to get their money’s worth in automatic run-scoring home runs, one of the best cures for an impatient team.
Only four other teams in the Major Leagues scored more runs than the Orioles in 2013, and you would expect Buck Showalter’s boys to crush and slug their way into the top 25 percent of runs scored this year, as they replaced Nate McLouth’s weak bat with Nelson Cruz, who, despite his defensive troubles and questions about how he will play following his 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, is a steal at $8 million. Cruz will reap his value if he even hits 20 home runs in hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
But the pitching hurts Baltimore a lot too. With Ubaldo Jimenez, their rotation gets a boost, as long as he is more like the Jimenez in his later Cleveland and Colorado Rockies days, but the rotation takes a diagonal dive after that. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez are only slightly above average, clocking in ERA+s of 113 and 111, respectively, while watching 57 combined baseballs fly out of the park. Wei-Yin Chen pitches like a number four starter, and Bud Norris simply is penciled in the rotation so the Houston Astros can get some laughs with their stolen prospects.
The former savior of an Orioles bullpen also is not dominant, only having two—Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter—excellent relief pitchers. Ryan Webb and his 2.91 ERA, with a pretty unremarkable Miami Marlins defense behind him, gives Baltimore some breathing room, but the loss of a guy who saved 101 games the last two years will always make a club backtrack. Overall last year, the O’s were in the bottom ten in the Major Leagues in ERA, quality starts, WHIP, and batting average against. Or in other Baltimore translations: Thank goodness for that offense!
The O’s can live on offense and an OK bullpen and rotation and get over .500, but the most substantial issue with the Orioles’ semi-all in plan is their competition. The American League is ridiculously stacked right now, especially in, yes, oh, hey, the American League East. There are three serious—and I mean serious—pennant contenders outside of the Orioles’ division that should finish with better records than the O’s: the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers.
Oakland quietly had one of the best off seasons in the Majors. Through trades and, for most teams, spare change, the Athletics made their bullpen even better. Yep, you read that correctly. The Ryan Cook-Sean Doolittle-Luke Gregerson combination should dominate baseball, a harmony of relievers each with a high ERA+. Combine that with Jim Johnson taking over the closer duties, striking out more batters and moving from the familiar hitter-friendly Camden Yards to the O.co Coliseum, and the A’s might just have the best relief core in the Majors. But the Orioles? Well, OK is only so effective compared to that, and they probably don’t have the control the Athletics’ relievers have.
Bolstering those late-inning arms is a promising rotation with the likes of Sonny Gray, he-who-matches-Justin-Verlander-in-postseason-duels, and Scott Kazmir. Gray, despite not pitching a lot in 2013, has a high ceiling and a strong strikeout rate. And Kazmir, despite his unpleasant WHIP, limits home runs, and with the help of the Coliseum, should have an even better 2014. That’s a rotation that is better than the Orioles’ starting core and has much more upside. Thanks to their backend of the rotation having more life than Baltimore’s, Oakland figures to be a better starting pitching team over the course of the regular season.
The Athletics and the Orioles stack up pretty closely on offense, interestingly enough, relying more on home runs than getting on base, and having one Most Valuable Player candidate lead the rest. Both teams were also in the top five in wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created+), but the A’s drew more than 150 more walks than the Orioles last season, so they are more likely to continue their offensive prowess in 2014 with mostly the same players. But even if we were to be nice and deem the offensive comparison as a draw, the A’s beat the Orioles in pitching, and probably defense too. Overall, the Athletics have a much more balanced team than Baltimore.
The Rangers field a pretty similar team as Oakland. Their pitching is one of the best in the American League, despite contending with the ban box that is the now-Globe Life Park in Arlington and despite Derek Holland’s dog hurting them. A healthy Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando give the Rangers good command and tough options in the middle of the rotation; Martin Perez could be a star; and Yu Darvish’s billion strikeouts-per-nine innings makes him a much better ace than Jimenez, and probably a few Orioles’ starters put together. From one to three—and even four—in their rotation, the Rangers are solid, unlike the Orioles, and they will likely get more run support this season than they did in 2013. Prince Fielder has too many spectacular seasons under his belt to panic about his production, especially since 40 home runs will be easy for him in Arlington. The protection he and Adrian Beltre give each other is strong, and makes the Rangers’ offense potent enough that their opponents can’t yawn when they see them.
The Orioles still probably have a better offense, but they lose again to the Texas bullpen. You can’t blame them, of course, when they have to compare against a bullpen with two relief pitchers with ERA+s above 200. Tanner Scheppers and Neal Cotts quietly shredded AL offenses in 2013, and Robbie Ross and Jason Frasor were no slouches either. Even if Neftali Feliz can’t find his form again, those four beat out Hunter, Webb, O’Day, and Brian Matusz any day. Chalk that up as another loss for the Orioles.
But if that’s a mismatch for the Orioles, than what are the Tigers in the eyes of Orioles’ fans? Detroit is automatically better than the Orioles in hitting and pitching. The Tigers were second to only than the Boston Red Sox in terms of offense last year, ranking in the top two in runs scored, batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage. Their lineup is simply more complete and less overrated than the Orioles’. The difference in starting pitching is laughable; the Tigers have the deepest rotation in MLB, even after trading away Doug Fister for a bag of tricks. Their bullpen may be a concern at times, but Luke Putkonen and Bruce Rondon will be regulars in 2014, two of the Tigers’ best secret weapons last year with strikeout-per-nine inning rates of at least 8.5. With Joe Nathan closing games, the Tigers should do just fine in the bullpen to clean up what few messes their offense and rotation will leave them. That’s quite unlike the Orioles, who are often in gunk and have to walk the tightrope more often than an excellent team should. The Tigers even project to be a better defensive team this season, a year after their Defensive Runs Saved was -66.
Considering that any three of those teams will give the O’s standings troubles for the AL Wild Card spots—Oakland and Texas more likely than the Tigers, who will surely clinch a playoff spot via the American League Central—and since there can only be two division winners outside of the East, the O’s will realistically have to battle their division foes for the last Wild Card spot.
Oh hey, about that.
Let’s put this into perspective: the American League East is again the best division in MLB. There are three—maybe even four—playoff-level teams outside of Baltimore in the AL East, and the O’s may only be better than two of them.
No, not the Red Sox or the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are a much more balanced team than the Orioles at the moment. After years of shoving by the league with their pitching, the Rays can actually hit and field; they’re in the top ten in both categories, and had the second-best wRC+ in either league last season. They may not have slugged like the Orioles but they got on base. Over the course of a whole season, the Rays’ offense will match up well with the Orioles.
They’ll also save a lot more runs than the O’s will, thanks to their pitching. From top to bottom, the Rays have the best rotation in the AL East. They don’t have a single bad starter. David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb strike out a ton of batters. The depth difference between them and Baltimore will give Tampa Bay many more wins than the O’s will get, and the Tampa Bay bullpen, anchored by Grant Balfour, is at worst just as good as Baltimore’s pen.
Even though the Red Sox’s rotation isn’t nearly as scary as Tampa Bay’s, their pitching department can run circles around Baltimore. The Boston bullpen looks poised to tear apart AL hitters again this year. Koji Uehara will play the entire year as the closer. It would be unfathomable if he walked only nine hitters like he did in the 2013 regular season, but even a fair regression would leave Uehara as a lights out closer. Behind him, the bullpen doesn’t get much thinner; Craig Breslow’s 1.81 ERA was almost as spectacular as Uehara’s, and Junichi Tazawa had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of six. ESPN’s Fantasy Projections aren’t kind to Edward Mujica, but as long as doesn’t get gassed like he did down the stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals, Mujica should be a good complement for the Red Sox thanks to his stellar walk rate of two percent in 2013, something that shouldn’t revert horribly against AL hitters.
The Boston rotation is a workhorse overall; Jon Lester is back to his ace-like self, possibly no more evident than how he mowed down the Cardinals in the World Series and built a legitimate World Series MVP case. John Lackey likely won’t have a down year, as he’s healthier, and even at age 35 he should sit well as the number three starter because of his control. Despite being the best pitcher in the American League before his neck and shoulder bugged him last year, Clay Buchholz’s history of injuries pushes the Boston rotation back, but there’s enough depth there to keep the Red Sox at the top and let their number one offense outscore just about everyone else in the Bigs. Because even without Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox’s across-the-board top lineup is about the same and might only get better if Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts hit.
Boston and Tampa Bay will probably fight out for the division title again, leaving the other to snatch a Wild Card berth. The math then puts the O’s immediately in a grave; one Wild Card spot taken by an AL West club, and another by an AL East team. But let’s entertain the possibility that both Wild Cards come out of the East. Surely, the Orioles can finish with a better record than the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays, right? Ehh, that’s not clear.
That’s because the Yankees are the Orioles’ biggest thorn. Both clubs are close. Offensively, the O’s still trump the Robinson Cano-less Yankees in home runs and should end up scoring more runs than them. The Yankees, after all, will rely on a 40-year-old Derek Jeter and a Mark Teixeira whose average and on-base skills have trended downwards over his tenure with the Yankees, to give them the extra push. Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury should give the Yankees more balance and extra pop, but the entire team will probably come up a shade short compared to the Orioles’ behemoths.
But the Yankees’ pitching, oddly enough, will keep them in the Wild Card race. Even if Masahiro Tanaka’s arm only lasts for half a season, the depth the Yankees have is actually not bad. Hiroki Kuroda, even at 39 and even if he hits the wall he’s been expected to hit, is better than most of the Orioles’ starters. For a full season, Ivan Nova is fine as a number three or four starter, as he’s averaged a 0.9 homerun-per-nine innings rate for his entire career. And CC Sabathia should be a good enough run preventer now that he is fully over his elbow surgery. If the Yankees had one more really good relief pitcher to back up David Robertson, then that would probably match the Baltimore bullpen to the tee. Regardless, though, the Yankees will be at Baltimore’s heels all season long, especially if one of their bullpen prospects converts the talk into results in 2014.
But even the Toronto Blue Jays might make the Orioles sweat. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark argues, the Jays still have talent on their team, and, unlike early last year, are healthy. J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow, two of the starters expected to give the Blue Jays the depth to survive and thrive in the East, started a combined 30 games in 2013. The only position players to log at least 120 games were Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and J.P. Arencibia—who now is not with the team—according to Stark. Jose Reyes’s ankle was throttled sliding into a base, Jose Bautista injured his hip stepping on home plate, and Brett Lawrie got injured in the World Baseball Classic. The end result was Reyes posting a .353 OBP in less than 100 games and Bautista hitting 28 home runs. If everyone stays on the field, the Blue Jays should hit and hit for power again. Their bullpen has been boringly good and likely will stay that way, so if the Blue Jays’ rotation remains on the mound and reclaims the hype they had one year ago, then Toronto could make a run at, yes, a Wild Card spot, and, yes, frustrate the Orioles.
There are a dozen Wild Card scenarios that could play out in the American League, but when there’s seven—maybe even eight—playoff-level teams fighting for five postseason spots, then the odds aren’t in the favor of a team with as many flaws as the Orioles. They haven’t done enough with their pitching to take themselves to that next level—that Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, A’s, Rangers level—to be a synch for the postseason. The Orioles want to compete. They can compete. They will compete.
But that’s not unlike six other teams with better opinions.