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5 Reasons Why the Orioles Will Own the AL East for the Foreseeable Future

Alexander Van ReesContributor IIIOctober 18, 2012

5 Reasons Why the Orioles Will Own the AL East for the Foreseeable Future

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    The Baltimore Orioles used to be one of the most respected and storied franchises in all of baseball—back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. But something changed along the way.

    Starting pitching used to be the key to the Birds’ success. They prided themselves on strong pitching from Hall of Fame RHP Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Tippy Martinez, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and the list can go on and on.

    Plus, they were led by one of the best minds in the game, good ole Earl Weaver. Now, Buck Showalter has righted the ship, at least for one season, and he’s tried to bring back the winning tradition to Baltimore.

    The success for any team starts with its starting rotation, and the Orioles will have a strong front five come next spring.

    Check out these five reasons why the Orioles will own the AL East for the foreseeable future.

1. Strong Starting Rotation

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    The Birds have not put together a strong starting staff since the days of Mike Mussina and Scott Ericson in the late 1990s. They’ve struggled with wannabe aces like Sidney Ponson, Jeremy Guthrie or Daniel Cabrera, who at times showed they could pitch well.

    They just could not demonstrate sustained success at the major league level.

    Finally, the Orioles have put together a strong starting staff, although it’s currently in pieces right now. There is no doubt Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA) will return next season as the ace of the staff.

    The former Rockie led the Birds for the first three and a half months of the season before his bad knee sidelined him for most of the rest of the year. He had picked up eight wins before the end of June and was on a roll until his knee acted up and he was forced to the DL.

    In the postseason, he started two games and allowed four earned runs over 11.1 innings to the Yankees (3.18 ERA). There’s no question he was one of the reasons the Orioles made it so far this season, and he will be at the top of the list next year.

    The crafty LHP out of Taiwan, Wei-Yin Chen (12-11, 4.03 ERA), will definitely be back as a number two starter, most likely. After Hammel went down, the 27-year-old really took control of the rotation and led the Orioles in starts and wins.

    In his first year in the big leagues, he tossed 192.2 innings, allowed just 186 base hits and 86 earned runs. Not to mention, he picked up 154 strike outs and walked just 57 opponents. He showed great control, and although he struggled down the stretch, he will be a different pitcher next season.

    In the postseason, he started one game and was very impressive; he tossed 6.1 innings, scattered eight base hits and allowed just one earned run against the Bronx Bombers.

    RHP Miguel Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25 ERA) out of Mexico was one of the most pleasant surprises for the Orioles this season, as he came out of nowhere and really showed the Birds what he can do.

    Although he was called up primarily to be used a long man out of the bullpen, he eventually pitched his way into the rotation and it’s a good thing he did. He appeared in 18 games, had15 starts and tossed 105.1 innings, allowing just 38 earned runs on 92 base hits.

    In the postseason, he continued his dominance as he tossed seven strong innings against New York. He surrendered one earned run on five hits, but received a no-decision in his only start.

    Although Zach Britton (5-3, 5.07 ERA) struggled this season after returning from an elbow injury, next season he should be back and hopefully will pitch the way he did his rookie season in 2011.

    The 24-year-old southpaw went 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA in 28 starts in ’11 and started off the year very strong. He did trail off towards the end of the year, but after just 12 appearances this season, he should be well-rested for next year.

    Chris Tillman (9-3, 2.93 ERA) really turned heads this season and he pitched like his life depended on it. There’s no doubt he will make a bid for the fifth spot in the rotation. Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 ERA),  who pitched in two of the three elimination games, showed he deserves a shot at the rotation could be that fifth starter as well, if he returns.

    Finally, let's not forget Tsuyoshi Wada, who is out of Japan. He was supposed to be at the top of the rotation this season, but was lost to an injury in Spring Training. He will be back next year battling for a shot at the rotation as well.

    I’ve run out of room, but who can forget the Orioles' strong bullpen? Although a strong starting staff is slightly more important than a proven bullpen, a winning team needs a bullpen that can close the door. The 2012 Birds’ pen showed they can do that with the best of them.

2. Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy and L.J. Hoes

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    The Birds called up Manny Machado in mid-August and he was great after making his major league debut. In his first week with the club, he was award the player of the week after smashing three home runs and driving in seven RBIs.

    Since then, he has cooled off a bit, but he’s played superb third base and is definitely a cornerstone for the Orioles in the future. Although he was primarily a shortstop over his entire career, he quickly adjusted to his new position and plays the hot corner as if he has all of his life.

    He delivered an RBI single in the Birds’ Wild Card win over the Rangers, making him the youngest Oriole ever to get a hit in the playoffs (20), and he delivered a home run in game three against the Yankees, which made him the youngest Oriole to hit a home run in a playoff game.

    The 20-year-old third baseman is an exciting player and will only continue to get better.

    Now, I omitted a possible hurler in the starting pitcher section because I do not think that he will make the team right out of spring training. Although the 19-year-old phenom Dylan Bundy, who was called up in the middle of September and made two appearances at the major league level, will be with the team, I’m not sure if he is ready to start the year in the rotation.

    He went 9-3 with a very impressive 2.03 ERA in three different stops at the minor league level. The fireball RHP turned heads with his explosive stuff and his strong demeanor, but again, he is just 19 years old, and Showalter might be cautious of him.

    Although he only pitched in two games, he looked very sharp over his 1.2 innings pitched at the major league level. He might not make the club out of Spring Training (although he probably will out of the pen), but he will join the big club at some point next year as a member of the rotation.

    L.J. Hoes was also called up to the majors with Bundy and only made two appearances for the Birds this season as well. He was mainly called on as a defensive replacement in the outfield, as he only appeared one time at the plate, unable to pick up his first major league hit.

    With both the Triple-A Tides and the Double-A Baysox, the speedy 22-year-old hit .287 with a .372 on-base percentage, and he swiped 20 bases. Not to mention, he was award the Robinson Award in the International League and has a bright future with the Birds.

3. Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold Return

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    Not only were the Orioles able to put together an impressive season, they were about to endure a tough, injury-ridden year without the help of Brian Roberts, Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis (half of the season).

    Roberts, who was one of the best leadoff hitters in all of baseball, has not been a regular in the lineup since 2010 after he suffered a concussion sliding into first base on May 16 of last year. The second baseman made a brief return this season, but suffered season-ending hip surgery and will return next season.

    Finally, his concussion symptoms are gone and he should be back next year. But who knows how he will perform after missing over two full seasons.

    The 34-year-old showed great power over the last five years or so. In 2009, he delivered a club record 56 doubles, smashed 16 home runs and drove in 79 RBIs out of the first slot in the lineup.

    He is a doubles machine, as he’s accumulated 339 over his tenure with the Birds (11 years, however he’s played in just 115 games over the last three seasons).

    I think the Orioles will give him a shot to come back and play at second base next year and have Andino as a backup. He still has a couple of years left in him, and if the Birds do not go out and get a second baseman for the future, I think Andino will be the future middle infielder.

    I would like to see the Birds maybe go out and get Chase Headley, who has talked about leaving San Diego since they’ve struggled to win for the last couple of years (they would move Hardy to second, Headley at third and Machado to his natural shortstop position). But, who knows, as of right now, Roberts will most likely return fully healthy in the spring.

    Reimold has a bright future, and although he was unable to make it into many games this season, he showed he deserves to be in the majors. In 16 games this year, he batted .313 with five home runs and 10 RBIs before he suffered a neck injury that resulted in season-ending surgery.

    He will be back next year; however, like in Roberts’ case, who knows how he will perform after missing at least an entire season? He was one of the top-hitting prospects in the Orioles farm systems and has been up and down with the big league club since 2009.

    Markakis has been the Orioles' rock in right field since making his major league debut back in 2006. Before suffering a broken left thumb on September 8th, he was batting .298 with 13 long balls and 54 RBIs and was thriving out of the first spot in the order.

    There’s no doubt the 28-year-old will be back with full force next season after he missed the first year in his tenure with the club that they made it to the playoffs. Obviously, it was tough for him to watch his team battle the Yankees when he was unable to be out there.

    Look for the right fielder to put together a strong season in 2013, and for years to come. 

4. Getting Rid of Mark Reynolds and Jim Thome

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    Although both Mark Reynolds and Jim Thome are two of the most powerful hitters the Orioles have on their current roster, I think both of them need to go.

    Unfortunately, Thome did not hit a lick with the Birds after they acquired him at the end of June. He spent half of his time on the DL with a neck injury, which could have been a possible cause for his struggles at the dish.

    However, let’s face it, the 42-year-old, who will turn 43 next August, could be done with his career. In 28 games in the regular season with the Birds, he picked up just 26 base hits in 101 at-bats, including three home runs and just 10 RBIs.

    Obviously, he cannot deliver as many home runs as he used to with the Indians and the Phillies. He is currently 7th on the All-Time home run list and I have great respect for him, but he did not help the Orioles at all in the playoffs.

    In 15 at-bats during the postseason, he picked up just two base hits, both singles, and one walk. It would be great to keep him around in the clubhouse, but I do not think it’s worth it to keep him on the roster if he will not produce.

    There is no doubt he is headed to the Hall of Fame, and the fact that Orioles fans can say he was once an Oriole is a great thing.

    Now, Reynolds, who had that one hot streak this summer, really struggled at the dish, almost as much as he did in his first year with the Birds. He hit just .221 on the year with 23 home runs and 69 RBIs. If you take away that week and a half period when he delivered seven bombs, he really did not produce much this year.

    He struggled at the hot corner and was forced to move to first base, where he excelled very well. I’m all for keeping Reynolds if he can turn around his batting because he really showed he can play excellent defense at first.

    However, I just do not see him ever becoming a strong batter. In 135 games this season, he struck out 159 times. Last season, in 155 games, he struck out 196 times. And, although he has cut down his strikeout numbers since leaving the desert (he posted more than 200 strikeouts in three straight seasons with the Diamondbacks), he did not produce enough to stay.

    With Markakis coming back to right field, and Nate McLouth and Reimold sharing time in right and DH, that allows Chris Davis to move to first base, where is very comfortable. I think this will help the Orioles grow as a team. 

5. Re-Signing of Buck Showalter

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    If you’ve read my articles in the past, you know that I think Buck Showalter is one of the best managers in the game, and he deserves as much praise as you can give him for his work with the Orioles over the last two and a half years.

    Before he took over the Orioles in 2010, they were well on their way to a 100-loss season. When he took over August 2, the Birds had won just 32 games over the first four months of the season; they had a 32-73 record.

    Over the final two months of the season, Showalter turned the team around and they played the role of spoiler in September. They went 34-23 the rest of the way and avoided the 100 loss season by finishing with a 66-96 record.

    In his first full season with the Birds last year, they finished three games better with a 69-93 record. However, this season, they improved by 24 games and battled with the Yankees down the stretch.

    Managers are highly accountable for how their teams play; if a team endures a horrible season, for example Bobby Valentine in Boston this year, the manager is usually fired come the end of the year (the Red Sox fired Valentine shortly after the season).

    So, why should a manager not be praised for putting together a strong, impressive and surprising season? I think Showalter deserves great praise for the work he has done. Although his contract is up at the end of the year, I think there is a good chance Duquette and Showalter will come to a deal this winter and he will be back as their skipper.

    If not, the future does not look as bright without Showalter.

     

    Follow me on twitter: @Alex_VanRees

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