4 Reasons Baltimore Orioles Could Shock the AL East

Nolan Ahern@@NolanAhernContributor IIIApril 24, 2012

4 Reasons Baltimore Orioles Could Shock the AL East

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    The Orioles have improved their record each season that Buck Showalter has managed the team, and this year’s 9-7 start is a promising sign of things to come.

    Despite General Manager Dan Duquette’s quiet offseason, the O’s may be in a better position to win than last year, based on the development of some players and the emergence of a couple potential stars.

    For the Orioles, finishing anywhere but dead last would be a shock to the rest of the division—19 games a year against Boston, New York, Toronto and Tampa Bay make things especially difficult.

    But the team is playing well in April, and this may be the year that the O’s climb out of the cellar of the AL East and finish somewhere closer to .500. This would give fans at least some legitimate hope for the team’s future prospects.

    Here are four reasons that the Orioles are ready to pass at least one team in the standings this year.

1. Matt Wieters

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    The Orioles’ young star is off to a fantastic start in 2012.

    Wieters has hit .292/.382/.625 so far this season, with an OPS of 1.007, good for 10th-best in the AL. Wieters leads the team with five home runs and 12 RBI hitting out of the five-hole, and has been the anchor behind the O’s respectable record in April.

    Perhaps even more important is Wieters’ ability to manage the young Orioles pitching staff. Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have all gotten off to good starts, and if the O’s could hit on a couple of their pitching prospects, this season’s outlook could improve.

    Wieters is a Gold Glove catcher with the ability to hit for average and power. For the Orioles to have success, Wieters needs to be the star that he was touted as.

2. The Outfield

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    The O’s young outfield consists of Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis.

    Reimold has been inconsistent over the past few years, but he has gotten off to a great start batting leadoff and playing left field. Through 11 games, Reimold is hitting .370/.383/.783, with five homers and 10 RBI. If he can keep his strikeouts down (11 in as many games), Reimold would join Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the starting lineup and form one of the best young outfields in baseball.

    Jones looks ready to have a career year, building off a strong 2011 campaign where he hit .280/.319/.466 with 25 homers and 83 RBI. His numbers in April are indicative of what Jones could be, and if he can keep up his .303/.333/.621 pace, Jones could become one of the best, most well-rounded center fielders in baseball.

    Markakis has gotten off to a slow start, hitting only .242 through the first 16 games, but he has been consistently around .290 and 18 home runs each of the last six years, so this season should be no different. If Markakis can get it going, the young, talented outfield will lead the Orioles to a better record in 2012.

3. Improved Starting Pitching

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    The Orioles have been developing their starting pitching for years, but last year proved to be a disappointment for some of the O’s most promising young arms.

    This year, things are looking slightly better.

    Jake Arrieta had successful elbow surgery in the offseason, and has looked much better so far this year. He has gained a couple MPH on his fastball after the surgery, and has pitched at least 6.2 innings in three of his four starts. His 4.01 ERA is certainly an improvement, and if he can continue to command his fastball, he should have a strong 2012 at the front of the Orioles' rotation

    Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz have struggled, but Jason Hammel has been a nice surprise this season, posting a 2.37 ERA through three starts. If Arrieta, Hammel and newcomer Wei-Yin Chen could provide solid starts along with Zach Britton, who should return from a shoulder injury fairly soon, then Showalter's rotation will far from the disaster it was last year.

4. Bullpen

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    Jim Johnson has shown excellent stuff in the closer role for Buck Showalter, having yet to allow a run in eight appearances this season.

    This is no surprise, but the strong performances from Luis Ayala, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Matt Lindstrom were not necessarily expected.

    The bullpen will be especially important for Showalter this season, since the current rotation does not project to go very deep into games. If Johnson, Lindstrom and Ayala could lock down the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, there is instantly less pressure on the starters, and it makes Showalter’s job much easier.

    This bullpen has a nice blend of youth and experience, and should prove to be a strong suit for the O’s this season.