Somehow, the O's did this with the likes of Nate McLouth, Endy Chavez, Steve Pearce, Xavier Avery and Lew Ford playing left field.
What could this team be capable of next season with free agent Josh Hamilton at that position?
In a recent post for the Baltimore Sun, Dan Connolly highlighted 10 possible free-agent targets that the Orioles could pursue during the offseason. Topping the list was the Texas Rangers outfielder, who figures to be the hottest commodity on the open market this winter.
It's certainly not a stretch to say Hamilton would be a great fit in Baltimore. As mentioned above, left field was a carousel of mediocrity for the O's this season. As a team, they combined to hit .235, which ranked 12th among the 14 American League teams. Their .694 OPS ranked 11th.
McLouth did emerge as a late-season and playoff surprise with his bat, but Hamilton would obviously provide a massive upgrade at the position.
His 43 homers are twice as many as the 21 Baltimore left fielders hit this year. Hamilton also more than doubled their RBI total of 57 with 128 runs driven in, and his .930 OPS was more than 200 points higher than the collective.
As a team, Baltimore scored 712 runs this season, ranking ninth in the AL. Much was made of the team's 29-9 record in one-run games, but they were in so many close games to begin with because of their lack of run production. The O's scored only seven more runs than their opponents for the year.
Adding Hamilton's bat to the lineup would surely boost that run total next year. Could he push the O's to 750 runs scored? The Rangers put 808 runs on the board this season with Hamilton.
Obviously, Hamilton didn't do that by himself. But the Orioles don't have a lineup full of slap hitters either. Five players hit 20 or more homers for Baltimore this season. Two batters—Adam Jones and Chris Davis—slugged more than 30 home runs.
Baltimore would almost certainly lead MLB in home runs next season with Hamilton in left. He's coming off a 43-homer season, the highest total of his career, and in six years as a major leaguer, Hamilton has averaged 30 home runs.
The Orioles hit 214 dingers in 2012, 31 fewer than the league-leading Yankees. Hamilton just about makes up that difference himself. Fans would get plenty of souvenirs at Camden Yards and at ballparks throughout the league when the O's come to town.
But does Hamilton alone make Baltimore a World Series contender? Adding that signature slugger and MVP-caliber talent most certainly improves the team's chances. (Though Jones and Davis probably disagree with that statement.)
However, manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette should pay as much attention to run prevention as to run production. The pitchers allowed 705 runs this season, the seventh-highest in the AL. That puts the O's right in the middle of the pack, but consider that three of the AL's five playoff teams allowed fewer runs. Only the Rangers allowed more.
This is a team that won 93 games with a rotation of Wei-Yin Chen, Joe Saunders, Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez and some combination of Steve Johnson, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton and Brian Matusz.
Of course, just because some of those names aren't established yet doesn't mean they're no good. Chen, Gonzalez and Tillman, in particular, look like future pitching stars. And the team still has high hopes for Arrieta and Britton.
But if we're talking about the Orioles becoming a World Series contender, don't they have to add a top-of-the-rotation ace?
Should Zack Greinke be Baltimore's top free-agent target this offseason? Should they tap into some of that prospect depth to pursue an ace like the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez or the Miami Marlins' Josh Johnson?
Though the Orioles have the minor-league talent to pull off such a deal, it's probably not in their long-term interest to part with top prospects. Besides, Dylan Bundy rocketed through Baltimore's minor-league system this season and was a September call-up. He could be that No. 1 stud in the rotation very soon.
In the meantime, maybe Dan Duquette is taking the right approach by pursuing the likes of Saunders, Randy Wolf and Joe Blanton to shore up the back end of the rotation until Bundy is ready and some of the team's other pitching prospects develop.
That brings us back to Hamilton. Again, he's a great fit for the Orioles—perhaps the perfect fit, depending on what kind of contract he's seeking. But owner Peter Angelos hasn't had a problem with handing out big cash before. Over the past few years, the issue has been finding free-agent talent willing to take it and play for the O's.
But for a team that was already so close this season, the best solution might be to take the mega-millions Josh Hamilton is seeking and spread that around the roster instead. Sign a lesser outfielder—even if it's still an expensive one like B.J. Upton or Shane Victorino—and go after a second-tier starting pitcher like Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson.
The Orioles already have star players. Do they need to spend big money on a superstar to ascend to the next level as playoff contenders?
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