The 2012 Baltimore Orioles shocked the baseball world, yours truly included, when they finished the season with 93 wins instead of 93 losses and made it to the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. They did it with a lineup that featured no stars and often had trouble even getting on base, a starting rotation that included a player who was getting ready for the Mexican League before the Orioles signed him, a shutdown bullpen, and one no-nonsense manager who whipped his team into contending shape.
All it took was one year of winning and the Orioles are no longer the laughingstock of the American League. But can they keep it up, or will 2012 be a blip in the radar of a losing franchise?
Can the Orioles repeat their 2012 success?
This, of course, is the main question regarding the Orioles and ultimately the only one that matters. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles came out of nowhere to not only end their streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons, but to make it through the first ever Wild Card game and take the New York Yankees to game five of the ALDS before their magical season came to an end. Was it a fluke, or are the Orioles good now?
The naysayers will point to to the O’s outstanding record in extra innings, their unsustainable success in one-run games, and the fact that they made no moves to improve in the offseason and predict the 2013 Orioles will be a bust. But this is a team with a strong core of players in Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and J.J. Hardy, and up-and-comers like third baseman Manny Machado and pitching prospect Dylan Bundy. The team has talent and the Orioles were undeniably a better team in the second half, a fact that throws into question their shoddy run differential (-36 in the first half, +43 in the second half).
This is a team with a lot of question marks, no doubt about it, but unlike in years past when it seemed like everything needed to go the O’s way for a .500 record, they have a lot of points in their favor.
Will Dan Duquette’s quiet offseason come back to haunt him?
Much has been made of the Orioles’ lack of moves after their first winning season since the Clinton Administration. Coming off a year when the Orioles were successful, but still had a lot of concerns on their roster, general manager Dan Duquette didn’t add one player to the team’s major-league roster. He made a bevy of minor-league moves, but that’s it. Other than Mark Reynolds and Joe Saunders, who signed with other teams, the 2013 Orioles are going to look a lot like the 2012 Orioles.
The biggest problem with that is the fact that other AL East teams made moves to improve. The Blue Jays revamped their starting rotation and added Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to their offense, the Rays traded for super prospect Wil Myers, who is nearly major-league ready, and the Red Sox added Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew. On paper those three teams have improved while the Orioles remained the same.
The players have been vocal about their happiness that the team is back almost intact, but the 2012 team did have its blemishes. The starting pitching was up and down, they didn’t get on base enough, their defense had its issues (which, however, improved over the season). Duquette seems confident that the improvement of the core players will be enough to keep the team in contention. If it’s not, a lot will be made of this offseason when he failed to add even one player to the major-league roster.
Will the bullpen regress?
The short answer is yes. Of the mainstays in the bullpen in 2012, only one (Kevin Gregg) had an ERA+ of less than 156 and he was released during the season. ERA isn’t always the most reliable way to measure a reliever, but that’s ridiculously good. Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala and Troy Patton were the core stars in the bullpen and they were brilliant—so brilliant that I can’t possibly imagine a world where they don’t regress some.
The good news is that the bullpen can be worse than it was last year without actually being bad. The bullpen in 2013 will probably be good, just not historically good.
Both Johnson and O’Day have been consistently successful for long enough that it stands to reason that they’ll continue on that path, but some of the other pitchers in the bullpen are less reliable. Pedro Strop throws almost a hundred miles per hour and his pitches can move, but he’s too wild to put too much faith in. Luis Ayala appears to have been pitching over his head for the last two seasons, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do. The good news is that despite his lack of major-league roster moves, Duquette has built up some minor league depth with Daniel Schlereth, Zach Braddock and Adam Russell among others, so if the Orioles need help during the season, they might be able to find it in Triple-A.
Do the Orioles have enough starting pitching?
Actually, the Orioles have a ton of starting pitching, but the question remains if the pitchers they do have are good enough for the team to win. They have a list a mile long of possibilities, but even those expected to make the rotation thanks in part to their 2012 campaigns don’t have a track record to make anyone confident that they’ll repeat.
The four starters likely to have a spot in the rotation are Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. Each of these pitchers was successful last year, but they all come with question marks. Will Hammel stay healthy, and is there any guarantee he won’t revert back to the pitcher he was in Colorado? Will Chen suffer a sophomore slump now that the league has seen him for a whole year? Will Gonzalez be the gem of a pitcher we saw last year or will he look like the player who found himself relegated to the Mexican League? Were Chris Tillman’s 15 starts in 2012 indicative of a marked improvement, or will his ERA (2.93) catch up with his FIP (4.25)?
As for the fifth starter, take your pick: Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, T.J. McFarlane. All have talent, none have been able to sustain it. The good news is that if one fails, there is a whole line of pitchers ready to take his place.
Will the Orioles miss Mark Reynolds?
Mark Reynolds is a very flawed baseball player who had a subpar 2012 season, but without him the Orioles lineup looks a lot different. Without him they lose a good source of on-base percentage, and they lose a hitter who can hit well against left-handed pitching. With Reynolds gone, Chris Davis takes his place at first base and Wilson Betemit becomes the primary designated hitter. That’s not so bad overall: Davis’ defense will be a wash compared to Reynolds, and both he and Betemit can hit righties. But when a left-handed starter faces the Orioles (and there are a few dangerous ones in the American League East), the O’s lineup looks a lot more vulnerable.
One player the Orioles hope to have in 2013 that they didn’t have last year, and one who can fill the void and then some left by Reynolds, is Nolan Reimold. Hampered by injury the last few seasons, Reimold is by all accounts healthy and ready to go for this season. If he can stay that way, he’ll be a boon to the offense. He’s good at getting on base, he hits for power, and he’s a good base runner. He’s also a much better hitter against lefties than Betemit, Davis, or Nate McLouth, who manned left field in 2012 during Reimold’s absence.