It's been a glorious season for the Baltimore Orioles.
Simply finishing over .500 would have been enough to call Dan Duquette's first season in charge a rousing success, but Buck Showalter's boys went above and beyond, challenging the Yankees for first place into the final week of the season and wrapping up a spot in the Wild Card playoff game, where they handed the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers their final loss of the season.
While every member of the roster has played a part in bringing a winning team back to Camden Yards, there are a handful of players who deserve special recognition, those who have put together such strong campaigns that they've likely earned a spot on the Opening Day roster for next year.
Some, like slugger Chris Davis, are players with immense talent and who just needed enough at-bats to secure their place in the big-leagues. While others, like journeyman Miguel Gonzalez, went from no-name organizational players to integral members of Baltimore's ALDS squad.
Here, in no particular order, are eight players who have helped out their cause in a big way, and who stand a reasonable chance of making it onto the roster for next year's squad.
Heading into the 2012 season, Chris Davis was a gigantic question mark.
After a campaign in which he slugged 33 homers, drove in 85 runs and maintained a respectable .266 average, it's no shock that Davis will be coming back in 2013.
The real question will be, where should he play?
The 26-year old has been amazing in right field since Nick Markakis went on the DL, making several key plays and showing off an arm that Buck Showalter called the strongest in the entire ballpark during the Orioles Game 2 victory. In Game 1, he picked up his fourth outfield-assist in just 30 games played in right.
With Markakis returning, however, right field is out. As is first base, where Mark Reynolds has turned in some Gold Glove caliber play over the second-half of the season. Reynolds' former home, third-base, is likely to be occupied by 20-year old wunderkind Manny Machado, who should slide over to shortstop after J.J. Hardy's contract expires after the 2013 season.
By my count, that leaves either designated hitter, where Davis saw at-bats in 60 contests, or left field, where he played 11 games.
Left might make the most sense, with Adam Jones and Markakis providing more than enough speed and athleticism to make up for Davis' lack thereof. Although, there's no guarantee that Showalter doesn't bring back Nate McLouth, especially after his set-the-world-afire performance in the final month of the season.
Either way, Davis has earned his way onto the O's roster, for 2013 and beyond.
During his year-and-a-half struggle as a starter, Matusz developed a reputation for being a nibbler. He often relied too much on his secondary stuff, to the detriment of his fastball which was an excellent pitch despite not having elite velocity.
Shortly after the All-Star break, the O's announced their plans to convert Matusz to a relief role, in the hopes he could help them should they be playing meaningful baseball at the end of the year. To everyone's surprise, they were, and Matusz certainly played a major part in that.
His ERA, since moving to the pen, is just over 1.00, and his stuff has looked more electric than at any other point in his big-league career. His clutch performances in the O's first two ALDS games have been particularly impressive.
When asked, the O's front office seems non-committal as to their plans for Matusz beyond this year. After announcing the switch to the bullpen, they did state that he would likely return to the rotation at some point after the 2012 season, but he's pitched so well in relief this season, that it seems like a better idea to leave him there, giving them another great option.
Gonzalez is the kind of player that makes it okay for the O's to keep Matusz in a relief role.
After toiling in the Mexican League for several years, the O's acquired Gonzalez and thrust him into the middle of a pennant chase this year, and the 28-year old rookie responded like a seasoned vet.
In 18 appearances, including 15 starts, he went 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA. He was the Orioles wild card against the American League East, where picked up victories against New York (two), Boston (two), Tampa Bay (one) and Toronto (one). It only made sense that he make the Game 3 start at Yankee Stadium.
Baltimore has struggled in recent years to find starters capable of pitching into the sixth and seventh innings, making Gonzalez all the more valuable. He pitched into the seventh in 10 of his 15 starts.
With Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen slotted into the first two rotation spots, Gonzalez stands a real chance at occupying one of the final three spots.
If there was a theme to the Orioles 2012 season, it was redemption.
Count Brian Matusz, Nate McLouth, Chris Davis and Jason Hammel among those who bounced back from sub-par 2011 seasons. Davis and Hammel enjoyed career-years, despite the latter missing a large chunk of the season with a knee injury.
The one player who took the biggest step forward, however, was right-hander Chris Tillman.
Coming into the 2012 season, Tillman's career line looked like this: 7-15, 5.58, 116:80 K:BB
One demotion and a bio-mechanical analysis of his delivery later, Tillman became one of the Orioles best pitchers down the stretch. He won eight in a row from July 21 to September 28 and pitched into the sixth-inning in ten of his 15 starts.
A big part of Tillman's evolution was limiting damage.
Only once this year did he allow more than four earned runs in one game. He had four such starts in 2011.
And in his worst outing of the year, in which he gave up six runs on six hits against Kansas City, he still managed to pitch into the sixth-inning.
Granted, a lot could happen between now and next spring, but, as of right now, Tillman appears to have locked up a rotation spot for 2013.
Not too many Orioles fans were excited when the team called up Nate McLouth.
Yes, this was the same player who led the league with 46 doubles, slugged 26 homers and won a Gold Glove back in 2008. Unfortunately, it was also the same one who hit .190 two years later.
Fortunately for Duquette and Showalter, McLouth hit right off the bat, and was a major factor in the Orioles late season run to the playoffs. He posted 11 multi-hit games during the final month of the season, stole 12 bases and solidified left-field, which had been a problem spot for the O's the entire year.
In his first taste of postseason ball since the 2010 NLDS, McLouth has proved to be quite the catalyst. He's notched a hit in all three of the O's games, including the Wild Xard playoff at Texas, and has four RBIs.
Given a full-seasons worth of at-bats (he had only 209 for Baltimore), McLouth might not be capable of putting up the kind of numbers he once did, but he stands a chance at making the team's 2013 roster thanks to his speed, his defensive play and his place in Buck Showalter's heart.
It seems hard to believe, but Teagarden, in just 57 at-bats and 22 games, may have solidified his spot on the O's 2013 roster.
How did he do that?
Well, for starters, five of his nine hits on the season went for extra-bases. Also, five times base hits off his bat resulted in providing the Orioles with a game-winning run. Add in the fact that he played flawless defense and threw out 25 percent of runners attempting to steal and it's much easier to overlook his .158 average.
Matt Wieters only sat for 19 games in the regular season this year.
Five game-winning base hits from Taylor Teagarden is a respectable trade-off.
Heading into the 2013 season, there's a strong possibility that the Orioles starting rotation could look like this:
- Jason Hammel
- Wei-Yin Chen
- Chris Tillman
- Miguel Gonzalez
- Joe Saunders
That's a far cry from the start of the 2012 season, with Hammel and Chen the only holdovers. However, both Tillman and Gonzalez have done enough to warrant a long look and possible inclusion in the starting five next year.
Saunders has done the same.
In just seven starts, the seasoned lefty proved a capable starter in baseball's toughest division. Four of those seven starts came against AL East rivals, and in those Saunders went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA and just four walks in 25.1 innings.
He provided a gigantic boost in the one-game playoff against Texas and could play a vital role if the O's take the Yankees to five games in the ALDS.
I see no way that having Saunders, a eight-year veteran with a 78-65 record and a 4.15 ERA isn't a major coup for the Orioles heading into 2013.
It's hard to believe, but the Orioles didn't have a go-to long reliever in 2012.
They tinkered with a few guys, including Randy Wolf and Kevin Gregg, but if they're going to reduce some of the stress they put on their bullpen this season, they're going to have to find a reliable long-man.
After 12 outings and four impressive stars, I'm ready to declare Steve Johnson to be that guy.
After a rocky debut (1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 2 BB), Johnson pitched lights out the remainder of the year, including four spot starts. In those four appearances, he went 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22 innings.
Not too bad, eh?
Check out his stats as a reliever and you'll be even more impressed.
1.10 ERA, seven base-hits, one homer allowed, 21 strikeouts, eight walks.
In typical long reliever appearances (3 innings or more), he didn't allow a single run, getting 11 punch-outs in nine innings.
Yes, the Orioles could send Johnson back to Triple-A to wait until an injury necessitates his insertion into the big-league rotation, but why not have him provide a useful service in the meantime.