The Baltimore Orioles bucked their trend in 2012, shooting up the AL East ladder and making a rare playoff appearance. Their 93-69 record was not only surprising but it broke a streak of consecutive last place finishes dating back to 2008. In fact, they hadn’t put together so much as a winning season since 1997.
So to say that they shocked the baseball world is certainly fair. Bringing Buck Showalter in to manage this club has turned out to be a great move. Adam Jones, the face of the franchise, was signed to a big offseason contract prior to 2012 and away they went.
The Orioles only had a +7 run differential a year ago, which is a sophisticated way of saying that they were a very clutch baseball team. Jim Johnson dominated at the back end of the pen and the O’s consistently found ways to win games late.
They were so good late in games that after losing their first 2 extra-inning games of the year, they rattled off 16 straight to end the season. Their record in 1-run games you ask? An astounding 25-8.
Add all of that up and you come up with 2 things: 1) a dramatically magical season, and 2) an awfully tough act to follow.
ESPN’s Jim Bowden recently ranked the O’s offseason as the 3rd worst in baseball. Arbitration-related payroll increases totaled up to right around $20M, which didn’t allow GM Dan Duquette to go after much on the open market. New faces that could land on the roster include Jair Jurrjens, Alexi Casilla, and Danny Valencia.
So which way is this thing going to go in 2013?
Best Case Scenario for 2013
The O’s didn’t care who was in their way in 2012, they were going to make the playoffs. After beating the Rangers in the play-in game they finally got upended in the 5th game of the ALDS by the Yankees. In ’13, the AL East party will be invaded by the much improved Jays and the always dangerous Rays. When 4 teams duke it out like this group is expected to, it sometimes takes just one defining run to finish at the top of the heap. At the risk of upsetting Birdland however, I just don’t see the O’s winning this division. I’m not a believer in their starting rotation, especially while Dylan Bundy still calls himself a minor leaguer. To me, their best-case scenario is to somehow sneak into the Wild Card round of the playoffs, and even that seems like tall talk.
Most Important Orioles
Adam Jones is the one true superstar of the O’s offense. He finished in Baltimore’s top 3 in average, doubles, triples, homers, hits, runs, RBI’s, and steals. Every team needs a guy they can lean on in the clutch and during the dog days of summer. The O’s stamped Jones as their franchise player last offseason and he delivered with a career year, swatting 32 homers along the way. Jones has been on the field almost every day for the last 3 seasons, improving his game each year. The Orioles will need him to be the triggerman for their offense, a group that will need to have a big season in order to offset some expected issues in the rotation.
I wonder where this team would have been without Jim Johnson in 2012. He earned the closer’s job and absolutely took off with it, saving 51 of his 54 chances over the course of the season. For Showalter to have pulled off all of those close games in 2012, he needed a dominant year from Johnson, and he got it. But can he get it again? Closers have a funny way of not remaining extremely consistent for long stretches of their careers. Johnson has now turned in two brilliant seasons in a row and should be counted on to be solid. But say those 3 blown saves balloon up to 8 or 9, (not a ridiculous thought given his reputation as a guy who doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses) then this team will almost certainly miss the playoffs. The rotation is the biggest question mark, but Johnson is easily the key to the pitching staff’s overall success.
Potential Breakout Players
A lot of eyes will be on 20-year old 3rd baseman Manny Machado. He is the kind of player who oozes with so much talent that he gets compared to a young A-Rod. That is never fair, but Machado is awfully special. But did you know that in 820 minor league at-bats that he hit just .263? Did you know that his on-base % in 51 games in the big leagues last year was .294? Let’s not anoint him this year’s Mike Trout just yet. Danny Valencia was brought in as a just-in-case insurance policy but at age 20, Machado’s star is certainly on the rise. One big plus is that Machado is a good contact hitter, not striking out a ton. His power is going to continue to blossom, as might his base-stealing skills. A full year of Machado at 3rd might give O’s fans a stat line something like this: .265 average, 20 homers, and 12 steals. For a guy who won’t turn 21 until midseason, I’d say he’s worth the hype.
Entering his age 25 season, it’s almost hard to believe that Chris Tillman is still that young. In 12 starts as a rookie, Tillman’s ERA was 5.40. He followed that up with a 5.87 effort in 2010 covering 11 starts and then a 5.52 mark in 2011 when he made 13 starts. In 2012, with a return of his fastball velocity in tow, he lowered his ERA to 2.93 and his WHIP to 1.05 in just 15 starts. As late as 2011, Tillman’s fastball speed dipped all the way down to an average of 89.3. Last year he cranked it back up to an average of 92.2. This created a much wider gap in speeds from his breaking stuff, and allowed him to take the next step. And now the heat will be turned up a notch on the former can’t-miss prospect. He will be relied upon to give Baltimore 32 starts of solid baseball, something he has never been asked to do. How well he holds up will go a long way toward determining how respectable the 5-man rotation ends up becoming. Another name to watch is top prospect Dylan Bundy. With Bundy, it’s all about opportunity, and with what currently looks like the projected 5-man rotation, my hunch is we see Bundy in Baltimore before June. If he steps in and does what everyone thinks he might do, then it could change the entire outlook of the O’s season.
Worst Case Scenario
It takes a lot of luck and even more mojo to crank out a 16-2 extra-inning record and a 25-8 mark in 1-run games. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s repeatable but I do know that the rotations in Tampa and Toronto are much more capable than Showalter’s crew. If things go poorly on the mound, and Johnson has a few more hiccups in the 9th inning, and Machado doesn’t take off, and guys like Chris Davis and Nate McLouth return to playing like subpar baseball players, then the O’s could spiral all the way back down to a sub .500 record and a 4th or even 5th place finish in the AL East. I don’t think they’ll finish last by any means, but it is conceivable.
Areas of Concern
I don’t mean for the overall tone of this piece to indicate that the Oriole rotation isn’t capable of having a strong season, but I’m not sold that it’s likely. After all, the track records in this group aren’t exactly at an All-Star level. Lefty Wei-Yin Chen did a good job in his first season in the big leagues but he’s no ace. Jason Hammel was a real reclamation project, but did miss quite a bit of time due to injury, and has a very checkered past on the bump. Miguel Gonzalez was solid as an older rookie, but can he repeat it over 32 starts? His minor league resume suggests not. Zach Britton has done nothing to suggest that he deserves a rotation spot. Brian Matusz looks the part of a career reliever now (and part of a tremendous all-around pen that is sure to cover some of the sins of the starters). To me, the best look that this rotation could have, and it might not happen right away, is a 5-man of Chen, Hammel, Tillman, Bundy, and maybe Jurrjens if he can get himself right. Remember, Jurrjens is just one season removed from an All-Star game appearance, a 2.96 ERA, and 1.22 WHIP. Will the overall rotation product be good enough?
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012
If there was an all-injury team of the past 3 years, Brian Roberts would probably be the captain. The dude has seemingly had every injury imaginable. Hip surgery ultimately ripped 2012 away from him and left O’s fans agitated yet again. At age 35, nobody really knows what this guy has left because he has played just 115 games since 2009. But it’s that ’09 season that fans keep pointing back to. The .283 average, 16 homers, 56 doubles, and 30 steals. If any semblance of that player still resides in Roberts’ body, may it please announce itself. If healthy and still capable, Roberts could be a true troublemaker at the top of the O’s lineup once more. He is coming into camp in good shape, which is a nice start. Watch his progress in spring training closely. If he is back, then this offense will instantly shift into another gear.
Zach Britton has not pitched well in his 2 stints at the major league level, but he still has talent and upside. If the 25-year old could find his way to a good spring and help stabilize the back end of the rotation early in the year it would allow Duquette and Showalter to ease Bundy into action. If Britton struggles and no other viable option emerges, fans will begin shouting to the rooftops for Bundy to get the call. The key for Britton will be his command and pitch speed variance. His ability to pound the strike zone really wavered in 2012 and led to his demise as a member of the big league club. He also could stand to benefit from creating greater separation between his 92 MPH fastball, his 82 MPH slider, and his 86 MPH changeup. The art of pitching eluded him last year. It’s time for him to figure it out or start thinking about what it’s like to not be an important member of this team’s future.
[Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe]