Home > MLB > MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Baltimore Orioles

MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles are 29-19.  They have a winning record against all except three opponents this year (Yankees, Angels, Rangers).  They were a last place team last year.  And the year before that.  And before that.  And every year since 2007, when the Devil Rays were an entity.  It’s more than possible (with every team in the AL East being above .500) that the Orioles could be a last place team this year as well.  They’re the single largest surprise in MLB this year.  But I don’t think they’re a total fluke.

Where to start?  The Orioles lineup is incredibly legit.  That was probably the case before this year as well.  The Orioles have an issue with their offensive depth.  Left Fielder Nolan Reimold got off to a .313/.333/.627 start, but he’s hurt (and backup Endy Chavez is hurt), so the Orioles have been forced to play 22 year old Quasi-prospect Xavier Avery.  Avery is the offensive black hole in a strong lineup, but he’s explosive enough with his speed and defense to masquerade as a part-time leadoff man for the O’s.  The great weakness on the Orioles is the outfield, where major league regulars Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are joined by Reimold/Avery/whoever they can field.  With a legitimate left field acquisition, the O’s may have the best offense in the AL East, although in it’s current state, they fall short of the level of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and are roughly on par with the Yankees (minus Brett Gardner).

The big step forward in 2012 was two fold: they acquired quality depth on the corners (Wilson Betemit, Nick Johnson, Chris Davis during the 2011 season, meaning they turned their biggest weaknesses (hilarious ineptitude at 1B and DH) into a relative strength.  The other big step was made by CF Adam Jones, a long time frustrating prospect, who is currently sporting a .308/.349/.595 line, and a brand new 6 year/$80 million contract.  Nick Markakis has enjoyed a similar but less heralded power bump (.122 ISO in 2011, .200 ISO in 2012).

The O’s have already had to overcome four key offensive injuries.  Injuries to Reimold and Chavez have created a black hole in the lineup.  But injuries to 2B Brian Roberts and 3B Mark Reynolds have cost the Orioles a significant part of their payroll to the disabled list.  Reynolds has been activated by the Orioles for today’s game.

While it’s worthwhile to be optimistic about the Baltimore offense, it’s hard to know what to think of the pitching.  The Baltimore bullpen has been fantastic, and that has likely been manager Buck Showalter’s greatest personal contribution to this hot start, because while there are some strong names in this group, the Orioles have survived by featuring journeymen like Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Dana Eveland, and Darren O’Day over highly priced pieces such as Matt Lindstrom and Kevin Gregg.

The starting rotation started off really hot, but a couple notes on this group.  First of all, a bunch of great starts from the rotation fueled this team’s early April success.  That caused most observers to conclude that the Orioles’ couldn’t compete because the rotation would regress sharply and the team would hit a long losing streak.  Well, here are the ERA’s of the Baltimore rotation to date: 2.78, 3.31, 4.82, 4.87, 5.07.  It’s not a good rotation.  Tommy Hunter a 25 year old long man who is a bit out of place in a big league rotation.  Brian Matusz is a former 2008 top five draft pick and top prospect.  Jake Arrieta is another top prospect.  While Matusz has been better of late and might settle in as a nice number three pitcher, Arrieta continues to fight command issues.

Thing is, even after the rotation began to look more like the Orioles rotation of recent years, the Orioles look more like a .500 team than a true last place team.  The keys for the rest of the season rest perhaps on two pitchers: Jason Hammel, who looks much improved in his age 29 season with a 8.7 K/9 rate.  He probably can’t support a 2.78 ERA all year, but 3.5 is a reasonable hope.  The other is rookie Wei-Yin Chen, who might be the biggest candidate in the Oriole rotation for regression.  If Chen can beat the odds and put up another nine starts like his first nine, then the Orioles will be in this thing at the trade deadline.

This team will need to find another starting pitcher to move Hunter to the bullpen, and probably at the very least, a left handed power bat in the outfield who can platoon with Nolan Reimold once healthy.  Then they’ll need to hope for extremely good health, because the O’s are not a deep club, at all.  When the rosters expand to 40 players in September, the Oriole dreamers may start to entertain thoughts of a call up for 19 year old phenom Dylan Bundy, the team’s 2011 first round pick who apparently has no use for the minor leagues.  They also have Miguel Tejada playing on a minor league deal in AAA Norfolk, though I’m not sure if there’s anything there.  MLB veteran Bill Hall also plays for Norfolk, having just been outrighted after making it through waivers.

The upshot for the O’s is that they’ll need to go outside the organization for help if they want to compete in 2012.  There’s no one in the minors who is going to move quicker than Bundy, and although they sky is the limit for him, it’s not going to be Bundy alone that makes the Orioles a contender in 2012 or even 2013.  They need Chen, Hammel, Arrieta, and Matsuz, as well as veteran hitters like J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and Nick Markakis to carry the team.  That’s the good news: with a couple of parts outside the organization who the Orioles might be able to cash in their vast group of stalled prospects from yesteryear for, there is enough talent here to compete sooner rather than later.  The bad news is that for all Showalter has done for this group, the Orioles are going to need to get off the fence and either buy veteran help sooner than anyone in the AL East, or they’re going to want to sell high sooner.

The longer the Orioles wait without making a move, the more of a waste this hot start will have been.

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