Can the Orioles repeat last season's breakthrough?
The Baltimore Orioles’ breakthrough season included their first trip to the playoffs and first winning record since 1997. They shocked the baseball world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee future success. They didn’t follow up with an impact move as the calendar turned to 2013. Other teams in the division, most notably the Blue Jays and Red Sox, made the kind of improvements that should lift them past the Orioles.
Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez are the staples of a rotation that could add a veteran starter before Opening Day. Hammel wasn’t added until last February. Gonzalez was signed out of the Mexican League in early March. Chen adapted quickly to the demands of pitching in the U.S. and was the only Orioles pitcher to post a double-digit win total (12). He also led the staff with 32 starts, 12 more than the next-closest teammates. Chris Tillman figures to stay in the rotation after going 9–3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts, easily his best season in the majors. There is no shortage of candidates for the fifth spot. Jake Arrieta started last Opening Day but was demoted to Triple-A and later placed in the Orioles’ bullpen. He’s competing against lefthander Zach Britton and righthander Jair Jurrjens, who won 27 games for the Braves in 2008-09. Top prospect Dylan Bundy is expected to join the rotation at some point this season.
This was a team strength in 2012 and figures to stay that way. Jim Johnson converted 51-of-54 save opportunities in his first full season as a closer, but he’s quick to credit others for continually handing him the lead. Pedro Strop was an effective setup man until slumping in September. His bouts of wildness are a concern. Darren O’Day (7–1, 2.28 ERA, 69 games) turned out to be one of the best signings of the offseason — and it came after Andy MacPhail left the front office and before Dan Duquette was hired as the team’s executive vice president. O’Day was equally good against lefties and righties, an oddity for a submarine-stylist. Luis Ayala and lefthander Troy Patton also return, and Matusz figures to be the lefty specialist, a role he took on after returning from the minors. The last spot can go to whichever starting candidate is bumped from the rotation. Hunter is out of options, which could make him the favorite.
Shortstop is in the reliable hands of J.J. Hardy, who finally won his first Gold Glove in 2012. He committed only six errors in 779 total chances. Hardy wasn’t nearly as reliable at the plate, however, with his average dipping to .238 with a .282 on-base percentage. His home run total decreased from 30 to 22, and his RBI total from 80 to 68. Second base is becoming less of a riddle. Brian Roberts says that his surgically repaired hip is feeling good, and he’s no longer experiencing post-concussion symptoms. The job belongs to Roberts if he stays healthy through spring training. Otherwise, Alexi Casilla, claimed him off waivers from the Twins, or Ryan Flaherty, a super-utility player would take over.
Top position prospect Manny Machado joined the Orioles in August and was outstanding at third base, steadying a position that had been a disaster for the first four months of the season. Who knew that a 20-year-old Double-A shortstop would make such an impact at the hot corner? He’s the shortstop of the future, but he’s needed at third base in the present. Chris Davis is the leading candidate to play first base after the Orioles made no attempt to re-sign Mark Reynolds. The club needs a big bat for the middle of the lineup. Davis, the team leader in home runs and RBIs, is able to play the outfield corners if needed.
All three projected starters have Gold Gloves at some point in their careers that they can show off, which the pitching staff loves. The Orioles re-signed Nate McLouth, who was a huge addition after they purchased his contract from Triple-A over the summer. He can bat leadoff if needed, and he was the only player whose bat didn’t go into a deep freeze in the playoffs. Nolan Reimold, who didn’t play after April because of a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery, will vie for the starting job in left. A platoon is possible. Adam Jones returns to center field after being named Most Valuable Oriole for the second consecutive season. He played all 162 games. He’s getting a little better every year. Nick Markakis used to be an iron man, but he went on the disabled list in late May with a broken hamate bone and had his left thumb shattered by a CC Sabathia fastball on Sept. 8, costing him the rest of the season and sidelining him for the playoffs. The thumb is healed, and he expects to play every day in right. He’s also a candidate to bat leadoff if Roberts is unavailable.
Matt Wieters won his second consecutive Gold Glove in 2012. No catcher does a better job of fielding short hops and applying the tag. Wieters has turned it into an art form. And it’s usually not wise to run on him. He’s quite a weapon behind the plate. With the bat, he posted career highs with 23 homers and 83 RBIs, but his .249 average was disappointing. He may never be Johnny Bench, but he’s plenty good. The Orioles re-signed Taylor Teagarden to serve as Wieters’ backup. He didn’t break camp with the team last spring because of a back injury. Teagarden had only nine hits, but he also collected nine RBIs. His value comes in his work behind the plate, not beside it, but he had some clutch hits last year.
Manager Buck Showalter can choose a platoon that includes Wilson Betemit, who batted 162 points higher from the left side. Betemit can play the infield corners and left field, but his glove isn’t an asset. He’s best used as a DH and pinch-hitter. Danny Valencia, a new addition to the organization, could be a right-handed DH and occasional third baseman. Casilla will be a utility infielder if he’s not starting at second base. Reimold could be a fourth outfielder. So could Trayvon Robinson, acquired from the Mariners over the winter. He’s out of options. Infielders Yamaico Navarro, acquired in a trade with the Pirates, and Flaherty a Rule 5 pick last year, are also bench candidates.
Showalter clearly is the face of the franchise. His hiring was one of the best moves to come under the ownership of Peter Angelos. He brought instant credibility to a franchise in desperate need of it. The players respect him and play hard for him, and nobody handles a bullpen better. Duquette’s hiring last year was greeted mostly by criticism and skepticism from the national media. He had been out of the game too long. Nobody else wanted the job. Duquette got the last laugh, adding key pieces such as Chen, Hammel, Gonzalez, Ayala and McLouth. He greatly improved the depth in the organization with under-the-radar signings. Angelos is a big supporter of both men, which doesn’t hurt.
There’s a lot more to like about the Orioles than in previous years. They have a fine nucleus of players in Wieters, Jones, Hardy, Markakis, Davis and Machado. The bullpen is outstanding, and there’s great potential with their younger starters. Plus, top pitching prospects Bundy and Kevin Gausman loom on the horizon. They have lots of candidates for the rotation, but no one who’s a bona fide ace. Having only one double-digit winner is insufficient. The Orioles can’t count on winning as many one-run and extra-inning games as they did last season. They could battle for another playoff spot or tumble into a battle with Boston to avoid last place. The latter seems more likely to happen in baseball’s toughest division, but that’s what everyone predicted in 2012.
2B Brian Roberts (S)
Not a sure thing after being limited to 115 games the past three seasons.
RF Nick Markakis (L)
Needs better luck after having two surgeries and a broken left thumb in 2012.
CF Adam Jones (R)
Two-time defending Most Valuable Oriole batted cleanup in 133 games last year.
C Matt Wieters (S)
Hit .224 with 18 homers from right side and .323 with five homers from left side.
1B Chris Davis (L)
Led the Orioles with 33 home runs, 85 RBIs and 169 strikeouts in 2012.
SS J.J. Hardy (R)
Provides pop but must improve on a .238 average and .282 on-base percentage.
LF Nate McLouth (L)
Also a candidate to bat leadoff or second if Roberts has another health-related setback.
DH Wilson Betemit (S)
Platoon candidate after batting .302 with 11 homers from left side and .140 with one homer from right.
3B Manny Machado (R)
Stud shortstop prospect made smooth transition to third as 31st player to make Orioles debut before age 21.
C Taylor Teagarden (R)
His nine hits in 2012 included three doubles and two homers to produce nine RBIs.
OF Nolan Reimold (R)
Should be fully recovered from disc surgery in neck to compete with McLouth and Betemit for at-bats.
INF Alexi Casilla (S)
Could start at second if Roberts is hurt; is 71-for-80 in stolen base attempts during career.
3B Danny Valencia (R)
Career .316 hitter against lefthanders could platoon with Betemit at designated hitter.
RH Jason Hammel
Was having an outstanding season before bothersome right knee led to surgery in July.
LH Wei-Yin Chen
Only Oriole to reach double digits in victories while adjusting quickly to life in the U.S.
RH Chris Tillman
Long on potential and short on results until going 9–3 with a 2.93 ERA last year.
RH Miguel Gonzalez
Didn’t sign with Orioles until early March and wound up being one of their most dependable starters.
RH Jair Jurrjens
On his way to beating out Jake Arrieta for the fifth spot.
RH Jake Arrieta
Opening Day starter won three games and will need big spring to beat out a host of young candidates. Will likely start season in Triple-A.
RH Jim Johnson (Closer)
No one is suggesting he should be a starter after he saved 51 games in 54 chances last year.
RH Pedro Strop
Was dominant setup man before posting an 8.38 ERA in his last 15 games beginning Aug. 27, but was huge for Dominican Republic in WBC.
RH Darren O’Day
Lefthanders hit .205/.237/.420 against him and righthanders hit .201/.263/.325.
RH Luis Ayala
Can work sixth, seventh or eighth innings, but he did a poor job when inheriting runners.
LH Troy Patton
Former starter posted 2.43 ERA in 59 relief appearances and was sole lefty in pen much of season.
LH Brian Matusz
Former first-round pick thrived as lefty specialist with 1.35 ERA in 18 relief outings.
RH Tommy Hunter
Could be long man if he doesn’t make rotation because he’s out of options; allowed 32 homers in 2012.