When you’re a team like Orioles, you learn to appreciate the little things. Series wins. Staying competitive into the summer. Developing young talent. Knocking one of your biggest rivals out of the playoffs by winning five of seven head-to-head meetings in September.
You know. The little things.
Baltimore may be a long-suffering franchise but for a shining moment last season, everything felt right. It felt almost as good as a trip to the playoffs. In a division where big hitters and big spenders rule, the Orioles are usually stuck in the cellar, dreaming about how to extricate themselves from a predicament that seemingly has no end. In baseball the rich stay rich, and the rest fight for the few remaining postseason spots; while the small-market Rays have managed to turn things around in Tampa, the O’s are still looking to achieve a similar feat in Charm City. Yet thanks to a tenacious attitude, Baltimore’s 2011 ended on a high as the team played spoiler and sent the Red Sox reeling to the worst collapse in baseball history.
Sure, Boston’s fall had to do with more than just the Orioles, but the Birds were the proximal cause of the demise. And when you finish at 69-93, in last place yet again, you take your victories where you can find them. A winning September gave the O’s something to build on, and for all its recent struggles, this team does feature plenty of talent. Baltimore’s biggest mistake is one of geography, and while that’s not fixable, each new season offers a chance for teams to redeem themselves on the field.
Best case scenario for 2012
It would take everything breaking right for the O’s, but finishing out of the cellar would be quite an accomplishment. The lineup has its share of effective bats, but they need to stay healthy and play to their potential. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters form a solid enough core that can certainly do damage, and a resurgent J.J. Hardy has added some pop to the order. Mark Reynolds employed a new rigorous off-season workout in an attempt to slim down for third base duties; if his new regimen can elevate his batting average while allowing him to maintain his 30-40 HR power, he could be an asset. Baltimore needs to put it all together for an extended period. It needs to have consecutive winning months. It would be an uphill battle but overtaking Toronto for fourth place isn’t completely out of the question.
Most important Orioles
Catcher Matt Wieters has become the face of the franchise. Heading into his age-26 season, he’s about to enter the prime of his career. Last season saw him crack the 20-HR mark in just 500 at bats, and as his power at the plate develops to match his prowess behind it, he should become a formidable weapon. Outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are, along with their backstop, the heart of this offense. Markakis had a rough start last year and needs to come out of the gate swinging in 2012. Jones has seen improvements in his power swing, but needs to get his on-base skills in better shape. Collectively, this trio needs to set the tone for the rest of the club.
Potential breakout players
Former Ranger Chris Davis, who came over in the Koji Uehara deal, will be taking over at first base as Reynolds crosses the infield. Davis was a masher in the minor leagues and delivered an .880 OPS in his rookie half-season in Texas. But since then, his career has been a story of regression. Faced with a real opportunity to be a full-time starter, Davis needs to step up and convert potential into reality.
On the mound, Baltimore is rife with young pitching. Zach Britton and Brian Matsuz both have real upside and showed flashes of brilliance in previous seasons. But the southpaws suffered setbacks last year, particularly Matusz who endured a very tough campaign. With Jeremy Guthrie having been traded away, the Baltimore rotation is in search of an ace. So who will step up?
Worst case scenario for 2012
The worst case is the status quo for the Orioles. In a way it’s comforting; you can’t drop below last place, and if that’s where the team ends up yet again then, well, it’s something that everyone is accustomed to. It’s an unfortunate truth, but the team has set the expectation that it will finish far behind the leaders in the A.L. East. And before anyone feels too badly for the poor Birds, remember that they play in a sizable media market with access to several major cities. They have a storied tradition with a big-time baseball pedigree. If this organization wanted to change its culture of losing, it could. It wouldn’t be easy, but it could happen. Of course, if that commitment existed then Dan Duquette wouldn’t be the new GM, but that’s another topic for another day.
Areas of concern
It’s a long list. Can Mark Reynolds handle the hot corner? Can Brian Roberts, who has been plagued by physical injuries and concussion problems, stay on the field? What’s the solution in left field? Will Chris Davis actually deliver? And what should any of us think about the pitching?
The rotation and bullpen are the biggest worries. With the departure of Guthrie, Baltimore’s most reliable starter is probably Tommy Hunter. Other candidates for the rotation include Britton, Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, former Athletic and Blue Jay Dana Eveland, former Rockie Jason Hammel, and imports Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. It’s not exactly a group that inspires confidence. Hammel and Eveland are both near 30 and Wada is 31; the rest average about 25 years old. That kind of youth and relative inexperience makes it hard for the club to know exactly what it has.
The bullpen isn’t much better. Kevin Gregg is a serviceable closer but he’ll likely give way this year to Jim Johnson. Matt Lindstrom came from Colorado in the Guthrie deal, Alfredo Simon will move from the rotation into relief, and Jason Berken and Brad Bergesen will be back in mediocre action. One interesting name is Pat Neshek, a one-time stud who is looking to regain his form. But overall, the pitching isn’t in very good condition.
Who needs to bounce back from a down 2011
Brian Matusz has too much stuff to be this bad, and Nick Markakis can’t suffer another spring like last year’s. It seems like he’s been manning right field forever, but Markakis is only 28 years old. This is still his prime and has to yield better results than an OPS in the high .700s. Matusz was just a wreck in 2011 and needs to prove that 2010 was closer to the truth.
For the Orioles, a team with such a small margin for error, everything has to mesh. Everything has to work. No one can under-achieve if these guys expect to do the unexpected.