Baltimore Orioles: Power Ranking the Team's 5 Biggest Wild Cards

Sean Pelletier@@SeanLPellContributor IIFebruary 20, 2012

Baltimore Orioles: Power Ranking the Team's 5 Biggest Wild Cards

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    The last time we saw the Baltimore Orioles, they were celebrating at home plate after eliminating the Boston Red Sox from playoff contention. Sadly enough, that was the closest the Orioles have been to playoff atmosphere in quite some time. It was a great ending to a dismal 2011 season for the Baltimore Orioles.

    Spring Training is quickly approaching for Major League Baseball, and The Baltimore Orioles haven’t had a winning record since 1997 when they finished in first place in the AL East. Since then, the Orioles have had 14 straight losing seasons and haven’t finished better than third in the division.

    In their latest Power Rankings, CBS Sports ranked the Orioles as the second worst team in the league, just ahead of the Houston Astros. CBS Sports also picked the Orioles to finish last in their division for the fifth straight time. There are many things that will have to happen for the Orioles to have a surprise season.

    This article will focus on the five major factors that could lead to a successful 2012 campaign.  

1. Improvement from the Young Pitchers

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    Remember when the Orioles had four-to-five young pitchers that were going to save the rotation? That is looking a lot less plausible at the moment. The biggest problem with this team last year was their pitching. The O’s starting rotation had a league-worst 5.39 ERA in 2011. They were also dead last in innings pitched with 881. The Orioles were at, or were close to, the bottom of almost every single pitching statistic.

    Last season, Brian Matusz was supposed to transform into the team’s ace. Instead, he suffered an injury in spring training and never returned to his form from the end of the 2010 season. His fastball dropped from the mid 90s to around 85-87 mph. He also struggled with command of all his pitches.

    A healthy spring training and a clear mind could help restore some confidence in Matusz. In his last 11 starts of 2010, he went 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 16 walks over 62 innings. This shows that Matusz does have the ability to dominate batters in the Major League.

    Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Chris Tillman are the other young guns who the Orioles hope can develop into legitimate major league pitchers.

    Arrieta ended last season on the DL after having a bone spur removed from his throwing elbow. He is expected to be 100% by spring training.

    With Arietta, it’s all about consistency. He has too many “mistake pitches” throughout the course of the game that usually end up as home runs. In his last six starts of the season, Arrieta gave up nine home runs. O’s fans hope that was due to the discomfort in his elbow, which has now been removed.

    Zach Britton wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of spring training but was forced into action when other pitchers were injured. The rookie responded and played well for the most part. He was the Orioles' best pitcher in the first two months of the season, boasting a 5-3 record with a 2.92 ERA.

    But, like most rookie pitchers, Britton struggled when facing teams for the second time. After spending some time in the minor leagues, Britton returned to the Orioles to end the season. Britton will be entering spring training with a shoulder injury, but if he can overcome that and return to his form from the beginning of last season, the Orioles should be in good shape.

    Chris Tillman didn't spend much time in the majors last season, only pitching 62 innings. Tillman’s biggest problem is the lack of a legitimate third pitch. His first year in the league, his curveball was very successful. But, once opposing batters learned that he really only had two pitches, his production plummeted.

    He throws a fastball or curveball 86 percent of the time. Batters have learned of this and adjusted accordingly. If Tillman is able to develop a third pitch, he could be a good back-of-the-rotation guy.

    The pitching situation in Baltimore will definitely be interesting to watch this season. It will be interesting to see if the additions of Tsuyoshi Wada and Wie-Yin Chen pay off. No one really knows how Japanese pitchers translate to the MLB.

    The entire Orioles pitching staff needs to step up in order for the Orioles to surprise everyone in 2012.

2. Major Injuries to Other AL East Teams

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    Let’s be honest: The Orioles are one of the worst teams in the league and they are in the best division in baseball. The teams in the division were uncharacteristically quiet this season (aside from Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox and Michael Pineda to the Yankees). Even with the quiet offseason, the Orioles are still the least talented team in the AL East.

    The Orioles have to play the AL East 72 out of a total of 162 games each season. It’s hard to win the majority of your games when you play some of the best teams in the majors that many times.

    The Orioles would need some injuries to occur to the majority of the teams in the division. Now I’m sure the O’s are not wishing bad health upon the other AL East teams, but it sure would help.

    Baltimore’s young pitching staff would benefit greatly if they didn’t have to face many of the experienced power bats that the AL East teams possess. 

3. The Mystery DH Having a Huge Season

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    Last season, the Baltimore Orioles signed Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year contract to be the team’s designated hitter. Vlad’s .290 batting average was the worst since his rookie year, yet it still lead the Orioles in 2011. He did not provide the O’s with the power they expected when they signed him, only hitting 13 home runs and 63 RBI.

    The Orioles signed free agent third basemen Wilson Betemit to help fill the void at DH. This signing indicates that the O’s will have multiple players in the DH spot this season.

    We could see a combination of Wilson Betemit, Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold at the DH position this season. It would be ideal if Mark Reynolds could become the everyday DH so the O’s wouldn’t have to deal with his errors in the field.

    Whoever is at the DH position this year will need to hit more than 13 home runs and 63 RBI this season in order for the Orioles to be competitive.

4. Impact Season from 2110 Eutaw Street

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    Nick Markakis (No. 21) and Adam Jones (No. 10) make up 2110 Eutaw Street at Camden Yards. Both of these players will be huge story lines this season.

    Adam Jones was able to sign a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, but he’s still playing for a contract. This could mean big things for him and the O’s this year.

    It’s no secret that many players perform much better when they are playing for a new contract. The O’s will hope that this trend applies to Adam Jones. Jones showed great power last season, hitting a career-high 25 home runs and can hopefully build on that this season. He needs to improve hitting curveballs off left-handed pitchers this season, hitting on .156 in that category last year.

    Markakis earned his first Gold Glove Award last season and has been one of the best right fielders in the league since he came into the majors in 2006. His batting average of .284 last season was the worst of his career and he had the second-worst home run total of his career with 15.  

    Nick Markakis had surgery in early January to repair an extensive abdominal tear but is hopeful to be ready by the regular season. The O’s need their right fielder to be healthy and hopefully have a season like he had in 2007, when he hit .300, 23 home runs and had 112 RBI.

    Jones and Markakis are two of the best outfielders in the league, but if they can pick their offensive numbers up this season, the O’s should be able to score with anyone.

5. Cut Down on the Defensive Errors

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    The Orioles committed 110 errors in 2011, which was 20th in the league. Bad pitching and bad fielding don’t mix well together. Last year it resulted in a 69-93 record, fourth worst in the league.

    Mark Reynolds was responsible for 28 percent of the Baltimore Orioles errors in 2011. He committed a league-worst 31 errors last season.

    The Orioles could eliminate a big chunk of errors by moving Mark Reynolds to DH and making newly signed Wilson Betemit, who only committed 11 errors last season, their third basemen.

    It’s a subtle change that can make a huge impact. Errors slow down the game and make pitchers throw more pitches. Cutting down on the errors could help this team have a surprising 2012 season.