Buck Showalter took the typically terrible Baltimore Orioles and made a surprise contender out of them in 2012. The O's won 93 games to finish higher than dead-last in the AL East for the first time in five years, and they also made the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
And there was much rejoicing.
There was not, however, hardware to be had for Showalter. He was a finalist to win the American League Manager of the Year award on Tuesday, but it ended up going to Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin instead.
So much for that whole East Coast bias thing...
Even if some of them want to, there's really no need for Orioles fans to cry foul here. Showalter has already won two AL MOY awards, after all, and this is a rare case in which the voters could not have gone wrong either way. This is not a Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera situation.
In a perfect world, the award would have been split between the two managers. Melvin would have gotten his share of the award for doing wonders with a young A's team that had to deal with a ton of adversity, and Showalter would have gotten his share for making the Orioles better than they had any right to be.
So say the statistics, anyway. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the O's finished the season with a Pythagorean record of 82-80, meaning they won 11 more games than their runs scored/allowed totals said they should have won. They were the "luckiest" team in baseball by a wide margin.
Of course, Orioles fans will say that it wasn't luck. They'll say that it was the general character of the team that led to all those extra wins, and the character of the team stemmed directly from its manager. Showalter made the Orioles so much better than the sum of their parts.
Indeed he did. And hardware or no hardware, now the question becomes whether he can do it all over again next season. Will the Orioles be as good under Showalter in 2013 as they were in 2012?
For that matter, will they be even better?
Well, to be fair, questioning whether the Orioles will be better in 2013 has more to do with the club's players than it does with Showalter himself. Managers can only do so much, and Showalter won't be able to be more successful (note: as opposed to as successful) in 2013 than he was in 2012 unless his players are more successful.
To this end, much depends on much depends on much depends on much.
We know that the Orioles are going to lean very heavily on four key guys to carry the team in 2013: Centerfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and right fielder Nick Markakis. Jones, Wieters and Hardy were the team's three best position players in terms of rWAR in 2012, and Markakis is the sort of the elder statesman of the team at this juncture.
There's room for optimism where Jones is concerned, as he's coming off a career-best season in which he posted an .839 OPS with a career-high 32 homers.
However, there's also room for caution where Jones is concerned. He had a .983 OPS at the end of May, but then managed just a .773 OPS in 111 games the rest of the way. He essentially went from being an early MVP candidate to being closer to a league-average player.
Wieters went through a similar journey in 2012. He had his OPS up over 1.000 in early May, but he hit just .239 with a .719 OPS in 121 games the rest of the way. It looked like he was finally going to become a superstar, but he essentially regressed to a level slightly below where he was in 2011.
Nick Markakis' 2012 campaign was also a tale of two seasons. He had a merely solid .786 OPS through his first 50 games before going on the DL with a broken wrist, and then he bounced back to post an .879 OPS in 54 games batting out of the leadoff spot.
Then he broke another bone, this time in his thumb, and was lost for the season. The broken bone gods can be cruel like that.
J.J. Hardy's 2012 campaign, meanwhile, was more like a tale of six seasons. He played excellent defense all year long, but he had a very hard time establishing himself at the plate. His OPS's from April to September were as follows: .569, .922, .498, .538, .736, .708.
Considering the up-and-down performances of these four players in 2012, it's impossible to predict what lies ahead for them in 2013. If the good versions of all four players show up, the Orioles will be very strong. If the bad versions of all four show up, the Orioles will sink down the AL East ranks like a stone.
If the good-and-bad versions show up again, well, who knows? Their unpredictability will force other players to pick up the slack, and that's where the Orioles will need more heroics from unusual suspects like Nate McLouth and Lew Ford.
And let's face it, they may not be that lucky again in 2013.
The unpredictability factor is also at play in regards to the club's starting pitching. Though things settled down toward the end of the 2012 season, you never really knew what you were going to get when an Orioles starting pitcher was on the mound. It's possible that the same narrative will unfold all over again in 2013.
But first we need to know who's even going to be in Baltimore's starting rotation. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel will presumably be back, but beyond them Showalter and his staff will be forced to pick and choose from a mix that presently includes Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Dylan Bundy, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and any pitchers GM Dan Duquette picks up off the trade and free-agent markets.
There's some upside where Chen and Hammel are concerned, but there's also some downside as well. Chen was a model of consistency through his first 22 starts in 2012, but then posted a 5.34 ERA and allowed an .853 OPS in his final 10 starts. Hammel was very good in his first 18 starts, but then hurt his knee in July and was only able to make two starts in September before he had to be shut down again.
Gonzalez and Tillman were the club's best starting pitchers toward the end of the season, but it's fair to question whether they overachieved seeing as how neither of them had ever made an impact in the majors before 2012. If they can't repeat their performances in 2013, the O's will be left with two spots in their rotation that will need to be addressed.
This isn't necessarily cause for alarm, though. The Orioles were masters at solving the ever-changing jigsaw puzzle that was their starting rotation in 2012, and they were able to do that largely because of the work put in by director of pitching Rick Peterson. He oversaw the organization's arms from top to bottom, and he turned out to be quite the puppet master.
Peterson will be back in 2013. He was rumored to be John Farrell's choice to be the next pitching coach of the Boston Red Sox, but they settled on Juan Nieves instead. Peterson recently told Steve Melewski of MASNSports.com that he would be interested in being a pitching coach again if the right opportunity arises, but for now he's sticking with the Orioles.
Baltimore's starting rotation will be in good hands as long as Peterson remains in town, and the same is very much true of the club's bullpen.
This bullpen, of course, has quite an act to follow in 2013. Orioles relievers won more games and totaled more saves than any other set of American League relievers, and their 3.00 ERA ranked third-best in the AL behind the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's.
The good news is that the Orioles are set to return all the key members from their 2012 bullpen. Jim Johnson, who led all of baseball with 51 saves in 2012, will be back. Barring a trade, so will Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Brian Matusz, who excelled as a reliever after struggling as a starter.
The not-so-good news is that this same group of guys had to work a lot of innings in 2012. Only two AL clubs required their relievers to cover more innings than the Orioles.
As such, Baltimore's formulas for winning games in 2012—either put a lead in the hands of the bullpen or hope that the pen can keep the game going long enough for a clutch hit—may not work so well in 2013. If so, the O's are absolutely going to need their four key players and their starting rotation to be more consistent.
Furthermore, it would help if the Orioles' prized youngsters became integral parts of the team in 2013. Much will be expected of Manny Machado after he played so well down the stretch in 2012, and everyone will be looking for Dylan Bundy to make good on his No. 2 ranking in Jonathan Mayo's year-end prospect rankings for MLB.com.
Machado will have to work on his plate discipline, but he was better than anybody could have anticipated at the plate during his time in the majors this season. In 51 games, he posted a .739 OPS and hit seven homers, pretty good numbers for a mere 20-year-old.
The Orioles can expect Machado to at least be solid on defense, as he was much better than advertised at third base in 2012. Per FanGraphs, he posted a 13.2 UZR/150 and finished with a Defensive Runs Saved of plus-seven. If he plays that well at the hot corner again on a full-time basis in 2013, he could win a Gold Glove.
We have less of an idea of what to expect from Bundy. He was excellent in the minors in 2012, but he only made two major league appearances and didn't pitch enough innings to come anywhere close to giving everyone a preview of what's to come. He'll presumably be given a chance to break camp with the big club in 2013, but he could also end up starting the season in the minors if things don't go so well.
There may be a reality check in Machado's future too. As promising as he looked in his debut season, the dreaded sophomore slump can strike anyone at anytime. Machado may be next.
So if Machado and Bundy are wild cards...and the bullpen is a wild card...and the rotation is a wild card...and the club's four key players are all wild cards...and because injuries can ruin everything...what exactly should we make of the Orioles in 2013?
Shoot, we may as well say that the 2013 Orioles are one big wild card. The 2012 club served as a reminder that you can never predict baseball, so it's only fitting that the team's future could go in a million different directions.
And this is where Showalter finally reenters the conversation. It will be up to him to be the one constant from 2012 that survives into 2013. If what could go wrong ends up going wrong, it will be his job to make order out of the chaos, just as he did on a daily basis in 2012. He was met with challenge after challenge after challenge, and he shrugged off every single one of them. His players took after him in this regard.
Outside of his bullpen management, which was excellent, instilling his own attitude in the head of every single Orioles player was the best thing Showalter did all season. The Orioles were so much better than the sum of their parts because Showalter got them to believe they were so much better than the sum of their parts.
And in retrospect, this is not surprising in the least. Getting young, unproven players to believe in themselves is what Showalter does. If he is forced by various circumstances to do it all over again in 2012, he and the O's will be fine.
But then there's the alternative: What if, perhaps by some miracle, things actually go right for the Orioles in 2013?
What if Jones, Wieters, Hardy and Markakis all play up to their capabilities? What if the club's starting rotation settles down and becomes the dependable unit that it never really was in 2012? What if the club's bullpen is lights-out again? What if Machado and Bundy make good on their considerable potential?
The Orioles should be better than fine if everything goes right for them, in which case Showalter's job will change from getting everyone to line up to making sure everyone stays in line. He'll have to get his players to accept that they're no longer upstart winners. Just plain winners.
If you look at this track record, however, this is an area where Showalter has actually struggled. He got the Yankees to shape up when he took over in the early 1990s, and then he lost them. He got the Diamondbacks to shape up in the late 1990s, and then he lost them. He got the Rangers to shape up in the early 2000s, and then he lost them.
If the pattern holds, Showalter will lose the Orioles too. It may seem like a silly conclusion to draw based on some silly trend, but you can't deny that the trend exists. Showalter's effectiveness as a manager has tended to come with a shelf life.
If the narrative is going to change, it's Showalter who will have to change it. In this case, he needs to determine where he went wrong with his three previous clubs and try not to make the same mistakes with the Orioles. He's passed a ton of tests as a manager, but he still has some evolving to do.
Since he's been down the same road three times before, Showalter should know by now what he's up against now that he's revived the Orioles. And if he does end up figuring out what he did wrong with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers, he won't lose the Orioles.
As such, Showalter has just as much to prove in 2013 as the club's players. If they evolve and he evolves with them, one thing that's for sure is that nobody's going to want to be in the Orioles' path in 2013.
Place your bets at your own risk. But for whatever my advice is worth, I found out the hard way time after time in 2012 that betting against Showalter's Orioles isn't such a good idea.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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