Baseball is a funny game.
Sometimes, teams that are supposed to be good end the season with a horrid record. And sometimes, a team that is supposed to be awful ends up doing wonderfully.
You have each one of those circumstances occur every baseball season. It provides quite a thrill and intrigue, and we as baseball fans love it.
In the 2012 season, two of those surprise teams could very well be in the AL East: The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. I predict that they'll trade places in the standings.
I know you probably think I'm crazy, but just hear me out on this one.
We all know what happened on September 28 of last year. I won't make any Red Sox fans who may be reading this relive it.
That ending to the season seems to have put a new spring in the Orioles' players' steps, judging by the way they celebrated directly after that game and how spring training has been going the last half a month or so.
Everyone on the O's desperately wants to change the franchise's losing ways. They've got drive. And we all know that much of baseball is the mental aspect—90% of it, in fact, while the other half is physical (Yogi Berra).
The Sox, on the other hand, had any kind of momentum killed on that fateful September night, when they didn't make the playoffs after being projected as preseason World Series favorites. They've got a lot of ground to make up in the mental department.
Boston also didn't do much in the way of trying to improve their team this offseason. Their biggest addition was their new manager, Bobby Valentine. Their starting rotation is pretty unreliable, although you could say that the team's biggest gain was the loss of starter John Lackey for the whole season.
If the O's get off to a good start and the Sox get off to one similar to last year's, then you may be watching the former run with it while the latter starts a free-fall.
All those "young stud pitchers" that former President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail added over his tenure haven't had a great amount of success yet.
Zach Britton enjoyed some success as a rookie last season. His numbers weren't bad at all, but he has a lot of work to do.
Brian Matusz (pictured) looks to rebound from a historically awful season after showing immense promise in late 2010.
Jake Arrieta needs to improve as well, but after having a bone spur removed from his pitching elbow this offseason, his numbers should climb this year. And Chris Tillman, well—let's just say the O's would be pleased if he became a serviceable MLB pitcher at this point.
However, the first three of those four guys are coming into this season with something to prove, and they have to actually fight for their roster spot after GM Dan Duquette added a good bit of starting pitching depth to the team.
Britton was a bit sore early in camp, but is working his way back great and is coming off his strong showing of a rookie year.
Matusz's velocity has apparently come back to about 91 mph, which is huge for him, and he's looked sharp all spring.
And as I said, Arrieta should have better command and breaking stuff now that his arm is fixed.
If those three can live up to their hype (and I say they're about due to), and any number of Tommy Hunter and the new acquisitions Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada can turn in solid seasons, this pitching rotation could actually turn from terrible on paper to pretty good in reality. Enough to have a fighting chance at a winning season, at least.
Okay, I realize this slide is a little silly, but just listen—err, more so read—first!
Sometimes, a uniform change can help get a team out of a drought. It goes back to how baseball is such a mental game. If you feel good, you're more likely to play well.
It worked for the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2008. Prior to that season, they changed their logo and uniforms, and even dropped the "Devil" from their team name. Look what's been happening since.
(Granted, they had tons of prospects coming up, and their scouting and development is top notch, but still, give it to me, would ya?!)
The Cartoon Bird is everyone's favorite. We all know it's the best logo in sports. It helps remind us that baseball is a game, and it's meant to be fun, just like cartoons are.
Plus, it goes back to the glory days when the O's were a consistent threat, their farm system was one of the best in baseball and they actually made the playoffs—and even won a few World Series.
Everyone loves the Cartoon Bird. Hopefully, it can bring back some of that Orioles Magic.
The Orioles' manager, Buck Showalter, has a history of turning around a crummy team during his second full season at the helm. Take a look at the numbers of his first three managerial stops:
New York Yankees
1992: 76-86; fourth place finish.
1993: 88-74; second place finish
1998: 65-97; fifth place finish.
1999: 100-62; first place finish.
2003: 71-91; fourth place finish.
2004: 89-73; third place finish.
If that trend continues, as every O's fan prays that it does, the city of Baltimore will be a happy place come September of this year, even if the O's miss the playoffs. We just want a winning record already, and topping a division rival like the Red Sox would be even sweeter.
For much of the last two seasons, the Orioles have been playing without their leadoff catalyst and second baseman, Brian Roberts.
The longest tenured Oriole, Roberts has had a couple of different issues during that time. At first, it was a herniated disc in his back. When that finally healed and he returned to action in late 2010, he re-injured himself by lightly hitting his head (while wearing his helmet) out of frustration after a strikeout, causing a concussion.
He was ready to go in 2011, but made his concussion symptoms return when sliding into second base during a game, and didn't return to the field after that.
Things appear to be looking up, though. This spring, Roberts has been working out with the team, taking grounders and hitting in the batting cage. He's progressing slowly, as to not cause any setbacks, but progress is progress.
If he can play in even 100 games this year, that would be a huge boost to the Orioles' lineup. One player doesn't make a team, though Roberts' impact on the O's lineup is larger than any other player that bats for the Birds. He's a doubles machine, and he's easily the best stolen base threat on the roster.
His return could really help provide a spark to the Orioles.
The Orioles have one of the stronger "up the middle" groups in baseball, with catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones.
Wieters and Jones both took steps forward last year, and if they can continue to do that in 2012, they'd provide a big boost to the Orioles both offensively and defensively.
Wieters won a Gold Glove and is arguably the best defensive catcher in baseball, while doubling his homer total from the season before.
As of now, Jones may be the best all-around player on his team, but he still needs to really cut down on chasing the outside slider. If he can do that, the sky is the limit for him.
Hardy, on the other hand, probably peaked last season with 30 home runs, but as long as his production at the plate is even remotely close to what he did last year, he'll remain the best shortstop in the AL East. His strong defense and great bat for a shortstop make for an excellent package.
These types of players are the ones that help a team become a winner. You need great balance on the offensive and defensive end of the game, and these three help bring it to their team.
If Hardy can maintain, and Jones and Wieters can progress, then American League pitchers better watch out.
I admit, on paper, it isn't very likely that the Orioles top the Red Sox in the AL East standings this season.
However, if a few things go just right, such as the ones mentioned in this slideshow, we could be looking at another upset in the baseball world come the end of the season.
The Orioles have momentum and the promise of young players. The Red Sox have a chip on their shoulder, looking to prove last season was just a fluke and that their new manager can help right their ship.
Both teams are going to be fighting ferociously from the beginning of the season to the end for the best record they can muster.
At the very least, it should provide for some good baseball for us fans.