Has the Orioles Timid Offseason Turned Them Back into a Last-Place Team?
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I recall it was sometime in August that I finally gave up and accepted that what the Baltimore Orioles were doing was totally legitimate. I saw the light and realized that they were for real.
What I'm not sure of now is whether Baltimore's success in 2012 is repeatable, especially given the kind of winter the organization has had. It's been quiet. Too quiet, in fact. And along the way the Orioles have fallen back to the pack in the AL East.
From here, the next step may be for them to stumble all the way back down to the division's cellar from whence they came. The Orioles haven't pushed themselves in that direction, but they've created a situation where it could happen anyway whether they like it or not (and they won't).
The problem isn't that the Orioles have gotten worse. There's certainly been some movement in and out of Baltimore, but the club's depth chart looks a lot now like it did in late October when the O's put the finishing touches on a surprise 93-win season.
But that's just the thing. The Orioles haven't gotten worse this winter, but they haven't gotten better either. They've stayed the same, and it's clear that the organization's hope is that what held true in 2012 will hold true in 2013.
However, therein lies the big question of just how good the Orioles really were in 2012.
The Orioles had one major strength, and that was their bullpen. It led the American League in wins and saves, and it finished fifth in MLB in ERA while logging close to 550 innings. It was loaded with stud hurlers, and Buck Showalter knew how to pick 'em.
Pretty much everything else about the Orioles screamed mediocrity, beginning first and foremost with their starting pitching. It came around later in the year, but O's starters still finished 20th in baseball in innings pitched, 21st in ERA and tied for 26th with the lowly Boston Red Sox for home runs allowed per nine innings pitched.
Among playoff teams, Orioles starters ranked dead last in all three of the above categories. To say that the O's had the worst starting pitching of MLB's 10 playoff teams is not an opinion. It's a fact.
The Orioles have added nothing to this rotation. For that matter, all that's really happened to it is that Joe Saunders has been subtracted from it, and it's up in the air as to whether or not he'll be back in 2013.
Said one National League exec to ESPN's Jayson Stark: "I don't know how they can sit there and say this rotation is good enough to get them back there."
You can get by with subpar starting pitching if you have an elite offense. But though the Orioles offense made like their starting pitching and came around at the end of the year, it never improved to the point of being elite. The O's finished the season ranked 15th in runs, 20th in batting average, 23rd in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging percentage.
And like with the team's starting pitching staff, no major additions have been made to Baltimore's offense. Nate McLouth has been re-signed, but he's slated to back up a (hopefully) healthy Nolan Reimold.
To reiterate a point I've made often since the end of the season, the Orioles led baseball by a mile in what Baseball-Reference.com refers to as "luck" wins, which is simply the difference between a team's Pythagorean record and its actual record.
The Orioles totaled 11 luck wins in 2012. No other team in baseball had more than six, and six of the league's 10 playoff teams had between zero and two luck wins. No other playoff team had more than six luck wins. As such, it's a fairly accurate formula.
Furthermore, the Orioles are the first team since the Seattle Mariners in 2009 to compile as many as 10 luck wins in a season, and they're the first team to do so and qualify for the postseason since the 2008 Los Angeles Angels.
Clearly, Baltimore's success in 2012 can't be chalked up to numbers. It had a lot more to do with grit, determination and other such things that seemed to flow straight from Buck Showalter's essence.
This stuff helped the Orioles win pretty much every close game they were involved in, as they went an astonishing 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games. If a game was close late, the Orioles had you right where they wanted you.
The O's will be fine if they manage to do this all over again, but the odds of that happening are somewhere between slim and none. Their success in close games is the kind of thing that just doesn't happen.
I don't mean that like "It doesn't happen often." I mean it like "It doesn't happen ever."
The .763 winning percentage the O's had in one-run games is a historic figure. According to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com, the only other team to win as many as 75 percent of its one-run games was the 1981 Orioles, and they did it in a strike-shortened season.
Unless the baseball gods are huge Orioles fans—which is possible—they're going to come back to the rest of the pack in regard to their ability to win the close ones in 2013. Even if they do contend again, they're far more likely to win 60 or 65 percent of their one-run games than 75 percent.
And there's the rub. If the Orioles had won 60 or 65 percent of their one-run games in 2012, they would have finished behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East and missed out on the postseason.
Baltimore's mojo (or whatever you want to call it) was thus more influential than its talent in 2012. If it goes away in 2013, then the club's talent will be forced to fend for itself.
This is where the Orioles' silence this winter could come back to haunt them. They haven't added more talent to a rotation that was a consistent source of frustration in 2012, nor have they added any major bats to a lineup that was up and down all season long.
At this juncture, the best thing the 2013 Orioles have going for them is a full season of Manny Machado and, hopefully, the arrival and immediate impact of Dylan Bundy in their starting rotation.
While the Orioles have been keeping quiet and hoping for the best this winter, the clubs around them in the AL East have been fortifying their positions. In particular, what should have the Orioles feeling rattled are the improvements that have been made in Toronto and Boston.
The Blue Jays have made themselves the crystal-clear favorite in the division by adding the likes of R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera to a roster that was already well-stocked with talent.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have added a new manager in John Farrell and talent in the form of Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan and, eventually, Mike Napoli to their roster. They don't resemble a juggernaut, but they don't resemble a 93-loss disaster of a team either.
The Orioles went a combined 24-12 against the Blue Jays and Red Sox in 2012. The improvements both clubs have made should level the playing field in a significant way.
Elsewhere, the Tampa Bay Rays have kept a pitching staff that posted a 2.54 ERA against the Orioles in 2012 largely intact. Offensively, they're looking forward to a healthy season from Evan Longoria and will likely have a Rookie of the Year candidate on their hands in Wil Myers.
Then there are the New York Yankees. Like the Orioles, they've spent a lot of time upholding the status quo rather than making improvements this winter, but the difference between the two teams is that the Yankees are built around a core that has been there and done that many times before. Between them and the O's, the Yankees are a surer bet to carry their 2012 success into 2013.
All of this makes the Orioles...What exactly? A good team in a great division? A mediocre team in a great division?
The worst team in a great division?
If only it were that clear-cut. Whereas the AL West has the Houston Astros, the NL West has the Colorado Rockies and the NL East has the Miami Marlins, the AL East doesn't have a single team that's clearly inferior to all the others.
From top to bottom, the AL East looks like the deepest division in baseball. All five teams have a shot at making the postseason in 2013. The team that finishes in last will be the team that had everything go wrong, sort of like how both the Blue Jays and the Red Sox had everything go wrong in 2012.
Who's the best team in the AL East as things stand now?
The way their roster is looking right now, there are a lot of things that could go wrong for the Orioles in 2013. Their starting rotation could be just as inconsistent as it was in 2012, and their depth may not help them. Likewise, their offense could be just as hit-or-miss as it was in 2012. Their relievers could come crashing down to earth after a season in which way too much was asked of them.
If these things happen and the Orioles sink back toward the bottom of the AL East, they'll be kicking themselves for not participating in the division's arms race during the winter.
It will all come down to luck. Baseball always does, for good or ill. But as we all learned from watching The Incredibles, luck favors the prepared, and that's a sentiment that should have O's fans worried.
So fingers crossed, and feel free to look around for a place that sells rabbit's feet and other lucky oddities.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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