2012 ALDS: 12 Tweaks the Baltimore Orioles Must Make to Get over the Hump
Not only did they break a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons, but they also challenged for the division crown until the final week, won a one-game playoff to secure a spot in the division series and took the Yankees to a win-or-go-home finale.
Along the way, they set numerous big league records, most notably by becoming the first team since 1900 to not endure a defeat in the regular season by means of a walk-off play, and created enough video highlights to last a lifetime, or at least until they return to baseball's biggest stage.
While 2012 was a victory for Baltimore, it also proved that the O's are still a few pieces away from competing on the same stage as the Yankees.
Clutch hitting, speed on the basepaths and patience at the plate are just a few of the areas they're going to need to see improvement in if they want to maintain their winning ways.
Here are 12 tweaks they could, and should, make to their roster before next spring's opener against the Rays.
Give Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez Rotation Spots and 30 Starts Each
Take a moment to consider the numbers put up by arguably the Orioles' best two starting pitchers in 2012. In fact, these numbers cement them as two of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball after the All-Star break.
Pitcher No. 1: 9-4, 2.88 ERA, 73:30 K:BB in 16 starts; 11 quality starts
Pitcher No. 2: 9-3, 2.93 ERA, 66:24 K:BB in 15 starts; nine quality starts
Between the two of them, Miguel Gonzalez (pitcher No. 1) and Chris Tillman (No. 2) went 18-7 with 20 quality starts out of 31, and an ERA under 3.00.
Just imagine what the two of them could have accomplished with a full season's worth of starts.
They'll both likely get that chance in 2013.
Keep Manny Machado on the Active Roster
Shortly after he was recalled to the major leagues, the consensus seemed to be that Manny Machado would be headed back to the minor leagues to start the 2013 season.
Not only did the Orioles value his defensive value at shortstop, but they felt his bat could use some more seasoning against more age-appropriate pitching.
After a whirlwind 51-game trial, one thing is clear: Machado is here to stay.
Thanks to the addition of Machado at the hot corner, a move that allowed Mark Reynolds to slide over to first base, the Orioles posted the highest fielding percentage of any unit in MLB after his call-up. Before Machado's arrival, the team had the worst fielding percentage in baseball
It isn't just the numbers that prove Machado should stick around. Watch him make a play at third or work an eight-pitch walk, and it's clear this kid belongs in the big leagues.
J.J. Hardy said it best (h/t Sam Gardner, Fox Sports), "I'm not sure he's 20."
With his Game 3 homer, Machado became just the third 20-year-old to homer in the playoffs, joining Mickey Mantle and Miguel Cabrera.
Bring in One Quality Starting Pitcher (Free Agency or Trade)
Despite the emergence of several quality starting pitchers (Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen), the Orioles will head into 2013 with an abundance of question marks.
Will they bring back Virginia-native Joe Saunders? Will Tsuyoshi Wada be healthy enough to rejoin the rotation? Will Jake Arrieta or Brian Matusz make the move back to starting? Will Jason Hammel need any more work done on his knee? Can Zach Britton weasel his way back into the picture?
My guess is they broker a deal with Saunders and head into the winter meetings with their starting five looking like this: Hammel, Chen, Gonzalez, Tillman and Saunders.
Buck Showalter is ever the tinkerer, so don't discount the possibility that the O's try to capitalize on the strong season they had and attempt to lure a big-name starting pitcher through free agency.
After all, it's hard to envision each of those first four names replicating the career years they produced in 2012.
Zack Greinke might be a bit of a stretch, but there are several other pitchers out there who could draw Showalter's interest.
Another possibility could be to swing a trade. The O's proved willing to part with prospect Jonathan Schoop, if the price is right. Duquette could build a deal around Schoop and one of their young arms, such as Matusz or Britton, and try to get James Shields from the Rays.
Adding someone like "Big Game James" would allow the rest of the starters to bump back into more suitable positions, and take some pressure off.
Make the "Brian Matusz to the Bullpen" Switch Permanent
As bad as Brian Matusz was as a starter in 2012 (so, so bad), he was just as good in the bullpen.
In fact, by season's end, he became a guy that Buck Showalter was willing to turn the ball over to in five of the O's six playoff games.
In those six games, Matusz was money, striking out six batters in four innings, allowing just two hits. Unfortunately, one of those hits was a Raul Ibanez walk-off homer that capped off a Game 4 win for New York.
Prior to that performance, Matusz had held opposing batters to just two earned runs in 18 appearances spanning 13.1 innings. In the same period he struck out 19 and allowed just five base hits.
Despite his success as a reliever, R.J. White of CBS Sports reported a couple of days ago that Matusz will report to spring training as a starter. Hopefully, the confidence he gained over the second half of the season will carry over into his pitching and allow him to return to his successful ways.
However, the Orioles have a plethora of starting pitchers who will be fighting for the same spot that Matusz is challenging for. While he has a track record of starting, there's no denying he's put together his most impressive big league performances as a reliever.
Twenty bucks says he finds his way back before the end of spring.
Go Out and Get a Clutch-Hitting, Middle-of-the-Order Bat
The past few years have seen failed attempts to land Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder and numerous other big sluggers.
After the most successful season in nearly two decades, the time might finally be right for the O's to bring a big-name bat to Baltimore. The problem is there isn't too much out there on the free-agent market to get excited about.
The few big names that are likely to be out there include B.J. Upton, David Wright and Torii Hunter. Hunter is pushing 40, Wright plays the same position as Manny Machado and Upton too often teeters on the line between All-Star and all-lazy.
Once again, their best option might be to take advantage of their stable of young pitchers and swing a trade. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton probably are more valuable to the team as trade bait anyway, so tossing in a few prospects might be able to get them Justin Upton, provided he proves 2012 was a fluke, Carlos Beltran or maybe even Jacoby Ellsbury.
There might not be a better time to throw some money or some prospects at some sluggers.
Settle on a Leadoff Hitter (Preferably Nick Markakis)
For seven years (2003-09) the Orioles had one of the best leadoff men in baseball.
Unfortunately, since 2009, Brian Roberts has averaged less than 40 games per season. For the past three years, the O's have been counting on having him back, and as such, haven't come up with any sort of contingency plan.
As a result, this past season saw Nolan Reimold, Nick Markakis, Nate McLouth and Xavier Avery all taking a spot atop the lineup. While all experienced some success there, to varying degrees, the O's are still lacking a true presence at the top of the order.
Markakis should be 100 percent by spring training, although it remains to be seen how committed he will be to reprising his role as the O's leadoff guy. He reportedly only took on the role this past season after Showalter convinced him he would get an extra 60 at-bats before the end of the season.
Reimold should be good to go by spring as well, although his success atop the lineup was the most short lived of any of those who took on the role. He also features more power than any of the others. Like Roberts, however, he has been beset by numerous injuries over the past few years, making him equally unreliable.
McLouth will likely return, thanks to his late-season heroics that endeared him to the fans. Whether he's the best option to lead off will depend on what the O's want to do in free agency. Left field could be an enticing spot for one of the Upton brothers, which means McLouth could be looking for a new gig.
I'd put my money on Markakis retaining the job. If so, he could stand to lose some weight and work on regaining some of the speed that made him a five-tool threat early in his career.
There's no reason he couldn't be a 20-20 threat atop the lineup in 2013.
Commit to Steve Johnson as the Long Reliever
It's been talked about before, but the Orioles should seriously consider adding Steve Johnson to their bullpen as the designated long reliever next season.
The team didn't have a go-to long man in 2012, utilizing a number of pitchers who succeeded in varying degrees.
Johnson, however, was the best in the limited opportunity he had.
He posted a 1.10 ERA, allowed just seven hits and struck out 21 batters in eight relief outings. In typical long-relief outings (those consisting of three innings or more), he didn't allow a single run and struck out 11 batters in nine innings.
He even proved reliable when needed for spot starts, going 3-0 in four appearances with a 2.86 ERA and 25 punchouts in 22 innings.
The O's might send him back to Triple-A to log some more innings, but it's easy to see that his most valuable spot is in the big league bullpen.
Get Some Speed into the Lineup
The Orioles finished dead last in the American League with 58 stolen bases.
Which means that they were beat out (by one) by a Detroit squad featuring not-so-fleet-of-foot sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. One would be hard-pressed to find a more embarrassing stat than that.
The O's are in a division loaded with speedsters (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Rajai Davis, B.J. Upton), so sooner or later they're going to have to add some to their lineup as well. Having only two players with more than six steals isn't going to cut it.
Keeping Nate McLouth, who stole 12 bases in 55 regular-season contests and another two in the postseason, would help, as would bringing back Brian Roberts. Although, at age 34, one has to wonder how much he has left in the tank.
Down in the minors the O's have several options, including outfielders Xavier Avery (28 SB in 2012) and L.J. Hoes (20), both of whom spent time with the big league club this past season.
Other options include scoping the free-agent market, where B.J. Upton and Juan Pierre will likely be available, or trying to swing a deal, potentially the long-talked about Justin Upton move.
Any way you slice it, having some good wheels atop the lineup could do wonders for a squad like Baltimore's.
Find Another Reason to Celebrate Orioles History
Anyone else notice that the Orioles' first winning season in 15 years coincided with the marketing ploy of statues honoring Baltimore greats Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray and Earl Weaver?
If I was GM, or the guy in charge of their marketing, I would make damn sure to find a reason to bring some of those players mentioned above, as well as some other Oriole greats, back to OPACY. Not only did the 2012 statue series generate some good karma, it also brought scores of fans back to the ballpark.
For starters, the team could exploit the 30-year anniversary of the last Orioles' squad to win a World Series. That celebration alone could bring back Ripken, Palmer and Murray, as well as fan favorites Rick Dempsey, Rich Dauer, Al Bumbry, Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez.
Re-Sign All of the Soon-to-Be Free-Agent or Arbitration-Eligible Relievers
While Adam Jones won the MVO (Most Valuable Oriole) award, given at the end of the season by the local Baltimore sportswriters, there's no question that the most valuable unit in 2012 was the Orioles' bullpen.
Not only did they prove to be an unbreakable brick wall (74-0 with a lead after the seventh inning), they also kept the O's in games late, allowing them to post a major league record for winning percentage in one-run games. They also won 17 of 20 extra-inning games they took part in during the season.
All of the bullpen, save for Luis Ayala, is inked past this season, although several players will be arbitration eligible.
Don't see the O's winning many of those cases.
Keep Up the Good Work in the MLB Draft
Despite the fact that the Orioles rank in the bottom half of Major League Baseball when it comes to their farm system, remember that each of the players listed below, many of whom played a major role in getting the O's to the playoffs in 2012, were signed or drafted and developed by the O's during the last decade.
—Matt Wieters (1st round, 2007)
—Nick Markakis (1st round, 2003)
—Manny Machado (1st round, 2009)
—Xavier Avery (2nd round, 2008)
—Nolan Reimold (2nd round, 2005)
—Wei-Yin Chen (signed out of Japan, 2012)
—Jake Arrieta (5th round, 2007)
—Jim Johnson (5th round, 2001)
—Brian Matusz (1st round, 2008)
—Zach Britton (3rd round, 2006)
For those who are too lazy to count, added up, those players contributed:
—132 extra-base hits
Doesn't sound like too much, but consider in addition to those numbers, the O's also have Dylan Bundy and 2012 first-rounder Kevin Gausman in the pipeline. Both should be fixtures in the big leagues by the start of the 2014 season.
The point is that the O's have done a savvy job of drafting over the past decade. They need to continue that. This year's draft class is weak, and for the first time in a long time the O's won't be picking in the top 10, meaning the going is even tougher for them.
That makes identifying talent and signing their top picks all the more important.
Do Whatever It Takes to Keep Buck Showalter Happy
Showalter's contract runs through 2013. Although considering he's been fired three times with time and money left on his deal, that doesn't mean too much.
What he did over the course of the 2012 calendar year deserves not only applause and AL Manager of the Year honors, but definitely a new contract. However, that's not the only thing that is going to need to be done to keep Buck happy.
For starters, the team needs to settle on a marketing campaign for 2013 that doesn't feature the manager. While "BUCKle Up" was a hit with O's fans, Showalter will be the first to tell anyone who will listen that the focus needs to be on the players, and not the guy filling out the lineup card.
With the emergence of young stars like Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Manny Machado, finding a new slogan shouldn't be too hard.
Second, more control is always a good thing. Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette have established a solid working relationship. As evidenced by his nightly quotes about performances down in the minor leagues, it's clear that the O's manager's eye extends further than his own squad.
By allowing Showalter to play more of a role in shaping the active roster, as well as that of the minor league squads, and possibly even have some input in the first-year player draft war room, the O's could ensure that they keep him around for another five to 10 years.
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