The Baltimore Orioles had one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory. After 14 years of losing and coming off a 69-93 season with a top-heavy-but-thin farm system, Baltimore and their new General Manager Dan Duquette appeared to be in for a long re-rebuilding project. Then, that elusive vagabond Lady Luck decided the Orioles were due for a little good fortune.
Despite only outscoring their opponents by seven runs over the course of the season, the Orioles used record setting performances in one-run and extra inning games—going 29-9 and 16-2 respectively—to win 93 games and battle the Yankees for the AL East title down to the final days of the season. After disposing of the two-time-defending AL Champs in the play-in game, they took those very same Yankees to the brink in the ALDS before finally bowing out.
The O’s were mostly inactive this winter, making only a few minor depth moves and there are two schools of thought as to why. Perhaps Duquette thinks his current team is good enough to compete in baseball’s toughest division again and didn’t feel the need to upgrade significantly. Or perhaps he’s realistic and knows throwing money at a free agent or two or trading away what few blue-chip prospects the team has is not going to be enough to contend again and such moves could harm the long-term viability of the team.
One would hope that Baltimore’s brain trust is smart enough to know not to count on the luck the team benefitted from last season.
The Orioles were only the eighth-best run prevention team in the American League last season despite fielding one of the best bullpens in baseball. The starting rotation got surprising performances from the likes of minor-league signing Miguel Gonzalez and Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen, but overall they weren’t very good.
The rotation finished well below average in advanced pitching such as tERA, SIERA and FIP and is returning much the same group for 2013. Having said that, they should get full seasons out of Jason Hammel and Chris Tillman who were both excellent last year. Hammel missed most of the second half recovering from knee surgery and was never fully healthy once he returned. It’s not an arm injury so if he’s 100%, there shouldn’t be much concern for him going forward. However, whether or not Hammel’s numbers in 2012 were for real is still up for debate.
Tillman, on the other hand, looked solid in 15 starts last season posting a 2.93 ERA. He’s still entering just his age-25 season and could finally be ready to deliver on all the promise he once showed when he was acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade. Having said that, he did have a propensity to give up the long ball and his peripherals don’t bode well for continued success.
Chen was a revelation last season coming over from the Japanese Central League and posting a 4.02 ERA in a team-high 192 2/3 innings. His peripherals also show that slight regression could be on its way, but he’s still a good bet to be a solid-average Major League pitcher.
The last two spots in the rotation will likely go to Gonzalez and minor-league signing Jair Jurrjens whose wonky arm could be an issue. Like many Baltimore pitchers, Gonzalez is a regression candidate who drastically outpitched his peripherals.
Both lefty Brian Matusz and righty Tommy Hunter could compete for a rotation spot this spring, but both had much more success pitching out of the bullpen last season and could be better fits there long term. Matusz probably has more of a chance than Hunter at cracking the starting five. Baseball’s best pitching prospect Dylan Bundy is poised to join the rotation permanently at some point in 2013 and although he could be a difference maker down the stretch, it’s likely that he starts the year in AAA.
The rest of the projected bullpen posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2012 which helped a lot when the rotation struggled. Jim Johnson isn’t your prototypical closer since he doesn’t strike out many hitters, but a groundball rate north of 60% helps make up the difference. Last season, he led baseball with 51 saves and kept the ball in the park really well.
Setting up Johnson will be hard-throwing Pedro Strop. Strop led all American League relievers with a 64.3% groundball rate which made up for an average strike out rate, but he walked over 13% of the batters he faced which will need to change if he expects to repeat last year’s performance.
Submariner Darren O’Day, left-hander Troy Patton and veteran righty Luis Ayala are expected to make up the rest of the bullpen and all were good last season. Unfortunately, none of the relievers on the team had shown this ability before last season, which just increases the risk of regression going forward.
Last year, Baltimore finished only ninth in the AL in runs scored despite career years from centerfielder Adam Jones and designated hitter/first baseman Chris Davis. Jones doesn’t get on base enough to be considered a true superstar, but he continually hits for a solid average and last year hit 32 home runs while slugging .505. Davis, meanwhile, should get the bulk of the playing time at first this year and is coming off a .270/.326/.501 slash line with a team-leading 33 homers. Joining Jones and Davis in the middle of the lineup will be catcher Matt Wieters who despite not living up to his lofty prospect status, has become one of the better all-around catchers in the AL.
Rightfielder Nick Markakis played in only 104 games last season but, when he was healthy, he was excellent posting a 125 wRC+ and 13 home runs while getting on base at a solid clip. Like Wieters he never quite lived up to the prospect sheen, but he’s still a very good player. A healthy Markakis will go a long way toward the O’s getting back to the postseason in 2013.
Joining Jones, Davis, Wieters and Markakis as the Orioles core will be Manny Machado who should play a full season at third base after a second-half call-up in 2012. In 51 games in his debut, Machado slugged seven home runs and showed flashes of the superstar potential he possesses. He still needs to refine his approach which should lead to an improvement on his .294 on-base percentage, but he’s still just 20-years-old. He has the potential to be the best home-grown position player the Orioles have developed since Cal Ripken Jr.
Machado should eventually move back to his natural position of shortstop which will increase his value, but for now J.J. Hardy will play there. Hardy is an above-average shortstop overall despite his terrible on-base skills. His power and defense more than make up for the other deficiencies in his game.
The rest of the lineup is filled with question marks. Longtime Oriole Brian Roberts hasn’t been healthy for years. He’s slated as the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter for Baltimore, but who knows who much they can count on him if at all. If he gets hurt or is inconsistent, former twin Alexi Casilla could step in but isn’t exactly leadoff hitter material.
The Orioles also brought back Nate McLouth to play leftfield. He played well with Baltimore after being signed to a minor-league deal in June, but he shouldn’t be expected to repeat that performance in 2013 which could lead to more at-bats for Nolan Reimold who will probably be McLouth’s platoon partner as it stands now. Reimold was limited to just 16 games last season where he hit well, but he’s never been consistent and is now 29.
Wilson Betemit and Reimold are expected to see most of the time at DH and although Betemit can flash above-average ability with the bat, he shouldn’t be counted on for overall consistency. Corner infielder Danny Valencia and backup catcher Taylor Teagarden will fill out a thin bench.
Baltimore was the fifth-best team in the AL at converting batted balls into outs last season and should improve upon that with a full season from Machado at third base and using Chris Davis less in the outfield. The metrics aren’t a fan of their outfield defense as pretty much every one of them had Jones, Markakis and McLouth well below average—although Baseball Prospectus’ fielding-runs-above-average (FRAA) liked Jones.
The left side of the infield looks great with Hardy and Machado while Wieters is generally well-regarded defensively. Overall, Baltimore should be a slightly above average defensive team even if their outfield isn’t terribly good.
Studies have shown that by and large, things like team records in one-run and extra-inning games are more the result of luck than skill. Although things like a good bullpen and good tactical managing can sway that luck in a team’s favour, there’s no way a .763 winning percentage in one-run games is repeatable. Throw in the fact that Baltimore’s bullpen has several regression candidates and the starting rotation might be one of the worst in the league and we probably shouldn’t expect a return to the postseason for the Orioles.
2013 Prediction: 74-88, 5th AL East.