Although the 2012 Baltimore Orioles surprised almost everyone (except for those diehard, live-and-breathe optimistic Birds’ fans) with their postseason run, the 2013 season will prove to be an even tougher challenge in the more competitive American League East.
As most are probably aware, the underachieving 2012 Toronto Blue Jays have revamped their starting rotation and added key members to both their lineup and bullpen over the last couple of months.
They will be a force to be reckoned with next year and could be the best team in the league.
Plus, you can never count out the New York Yankees; there’s no doubt they will be back with a vengeance after struggling mightily in the ALCS against the Tigers. They will find a way to improve regardless of losing Nick Swisher and postseason hero Raul Ibanez.
The Boston Red Sox suffered through one of their worst seasons in recent memory, but have been busy this offseason; with a new manager and personnel, they should rebound next year.
And you cannot forget about those pesky Tampa Bay Rays. Although they struggled throughout August and early September, they came on strong towards the end of the season and made the East a three-team race; they will be in the thick of things next year as well.
So, the East is shaping up to be one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball next year. Usually, this division is right up there with the NL East and the AL West, but in 2013, this might prove to be the most competitive division baseball has seen in a long time.
All five teams have a great possibility of finishing over the .500 mark, and it should be an exciting season.
Here are five keys to the Orioles repeating their 2012 success in a far better AL East in 2013.
The first priority for the Orioles is to find a strong, powerful first baseman. So far this winter, they have not been able to land a home run-hitter to replace Mark Reynolds, who left a couple of weeks ago for the Indians.
Last season, the Birds first baseman production ranked 21st in the major leagues and ninth in the AL, and Reynolds spent the majority of the season at first base. He produced some of the lowest power numbers in his career and struggled in his second season with the Birds.
As a team, the Birds first basemen hit a collective .246 with 29 home runs and only 80 RBI. Washington led the majors with 40 home runs and 118 RBI, while Detroit led the majors with a .312 batting clip.
The AL champion Detroit Tigers recorded 30 home runs and 108 RBI while on their way to their second World Series appearance in the last seven years.
There is no doubt that one of Dan Duquette’s major offseason focuses is to address the underachieving power production from the first base position, especially since Reynolds is no longer with the team.
Not only did the Birds rank towards the bottom in home run and RBI production, but they also finished eighth in slugging percentage (.446) and OPS (.774) in the AL (out of 14 teams).
Seven teams in the majors produced 30 or more long balls, while six teams finished with 100 or more RBI out of their first basemen.
Reynolds drilled only 23 home runs (low for him) and 69 RBI. If the Orioles are going to make a run for the top crown in the East next season, they are going to need a more powerful first baseman that can put up at least 30 home runs and around 100 RBI.
Although Chris Davis led the Birds with 33 home runs and 85 RBI, most of his production came out of the designated hitter position in the lineup. He struggled with his consistency last season, which is one of the major reasons why the Birds are looking for a proven home run threat who can anchor the Orioles offense.
Much like their struggles at first base, the Orioles also failed to string together a consistent starting rotation for any length of time over the course of 2012. Last year, the Birds used 12 different starting pitchers and ranked 21st in the majors in ERA from their rotation. In the AL, they ranked ninth out of the 14 teams.
Collectively, the Birds posted a 61-58 record with a 4.42 ERA. In 937.2 innings of work, they surrendered 460 earned runs on 946 base hits, including 136 home runs allowed, and a .261 opponent batting average.
Four of the Orioles hurlers that started games sported ERAs of five or higher, while eight of the 12 Birds’ finished with an ERA of at least 4.02 or higher.
For example, Jake Arrieta, who posted his worst season of his young career, started 18 contests for the Orioles and finished the year with a 6.20 ERA. After allowing six earned runs over just 3.2 innings of work on July 5, the Birds demoted him to AAA-Norfolk. He returned in September; however, he did not return to the starting rotation.
As I have written in previous articles, besides searching for a proven, power-hitting first baseman, Baltimore must focus on its starting rotation.
No questions asked.
There is no way it can contend in the powerhouse AL East with a rotation ERA over 4.00 runs per game. Two of the four postseason AL teams (the Tigers and Oakland A's) finished with starting ERAs of 3.76 and 3.80 respectively.
Besides the Orioles, the Yankees were the other team to qualify for the postseason, and their starters' ERA touched just higher than 4.00 (4.04).
So, it’s imperative for the Birds starting rotation to lower their collective ERA. One of the ways they can accomplish that feat is for them to be more consistent by having a set rotation. Choose who deserves to be in the rotation and stick with them!
Personally, I think they need to go out and sign a proven, experienced veteran to lead the staff. But, I do not see that happening. They have so many potential starters, I feel like they are going to go with who they have and hope for the best.
But consistency is the key next season. Without it, they will be buried in the East.
Last season, the Orioles featured one of the best bullpens in the AL. The first half of the year, they ranked at the top of the league with a sub-3.00 ERA. Although they struggled a bit after the All-Star break, they still finished strong as the third-best team in the AL with a 3.00 ERA.
Behind the incredible Rays and dominant A’s pens (which led in ERA, respectively), the Birds relievers recorded a 32-11 record (which led the AL). Over 545.1 innings of work, they allowed only 182 earned runs 487 base hits, including 48 home runs and a .238 opponent batting average.
Closer Jim Johnson posted a major league-leading 51 saves and was the anchor in the pen. He appeared in 71 games for the Birds and finished the year with a strong 2.49 ERA. Over his 68.2 innings of work, he surrendered just 19 earned runs on 55 base hits and only three home runs allowed.
The Birds need him to repeat next season and be the rock out of the pen in 2013.
Not only did Johnson post impressive numbers, but Pedro Strop was almost unhittable during the first half of the season. The 27-year-old right-hander finished the first half with a 1.67 ERA. Over the second half of the season, he was more hittable and struggled a bit. He earned a 3.45 ERA after the All-Star break and a 2.44 overall ERA for the year.
Luis Ayala was another very strong performer last season out of the bullpen. He posted a career-best 2.64 ERA. Over his 75 innings, although he allowed 81 base hits, he surrendered only 22 earned runs and was one of the most reliable relievers down the stretch.
The most underrated relief pitcher out of the Birds pen might have been right-hander Darren O’Day. In his 67 innings of work, he sported a very impressive 2.28 ERA after he allowed just 17 earned runs on 49 base hits. Maybe it’s his unconventional, submarine delivery. Regardless, he proved he can dominate the competition.
The Birds need these four relievers, among others, to come back and pitch as strong as they did last year. Of course, there were a couple other relievers I did not mention (Troy Patton and Steve Johnson, for example) who pitched very well over the course of the 2012 season.
Although the Birds made it as far as they did last season, it’s somewhat of a miracle in respect to their struggles with RISP, RISP with two outs, runners on and two outs and the bases loaded.
You might be wondering how they posted as many runs as they did, and the answer is the fact that they launched 214 home runs, which earned them second-most in the majors behind the Bronx Bombers (245).
Getting back to their struggles, as a team, the Orioles hit only .256 with runners in scoring position, which placed them ninth in the AL. Although they were able to smack 49 home runs with RISP (second-highest in AL), they only recorded 446 RBI, (second-lowest in league).
This proves that they produced runs mainly because of the home run-ball.
With RISP and two outs, the Birds hit even worse, just .229 on the year. Again, that number ranked them ninth in the AL. They recorded the second fewest number of hits (126) in that respect as well.
With runners on base and two outs, the Orioles hit just .237 as a team, compiling the third-fewest hits in the AL, ranking them 12th ahead of just the Mariners and Rays.
With the bases loaded, Baltimore hit just a point better at .238. In 101 at-bats, it collectively recorded only 24 base hits and scored the lowest number of runs in the league (66).
Nate McLouth hit just .184 with RISP, while Matt Wieters (.254), Adam Jones (.258) and J.J. Hardy (.264) all struggled as well. With RISP and two outs, Jones hit even worse (.190), while Wieters dropped to just .211 and Hardy fell to .242.
With runners on and two down, McLouth again struggled with the bat; he hit just .192 in 26 at-bats. Over 113 at-bats, the clean-up hitter Jones posted just a .221 average, and Davis finished with just a .228 clip over 92 at-bats.
There’s no doubt that the Orioles power hitters and most important bats in the order need to produce more with RISP, RISP with two down, runners on with two down and the bases loaded. If they are going to be contenders, they need to find a way to improve their timely hitting.
The final key to the Orioles' repeated success from the 2012 season is for them to improve their defense. Last year, they finished with a collective team fielding percentage of .983, good for 10th in the AL.
In 6,235 total chances, the Birds committed 106 miscues. The White Sox led the AL with just 70 errors, followed by the Mariners, who committed only two more in just 27 more chances.
In 2011, the Birds finished the year in 11th place in the AL with 110 miscues, and we all know how they placed in the division that year. It’s amazing they were able to battle the Yankees down the stretch with as many errors as they committed.
The last time the Orioles finished with less than 100 errors in a single season was back in 2009, when they ended the year with 90. In 2007, they led the AL with just 79 miscues.
It seems strange that, even though there were three Orioles who won Gold Glove awards (Hardy, Wieters and Jones), they still struggled as a team, which points to the fact that the rest of the team struggled at their respective positions.
Wilson Betemit led the team with 15 errors and he played in just 103 games. Granted he moved all over the diamond, but 15 errors in so few games needs to be addressed. He finished with a .951 fielding percentage, which might be a reason why he is the leading candidate for the designated hitting role.
Both the second and third-most error-prone Orioles last season are no longer with the team. Robert Andino, who is now a Mariner, committed 13 miscues in 127 games, and Reynolds finished the year with 11 errors in 135 games.
Without these three players, the Birds would have finished with much fewer errors. Although defense is not a major factor in winning, a team needs to be strong in the field and support its hurlers.
Last season, the Orioles allowed 63 unearned runs. If the Birds are able to cut that by a third, that would help immensely. One thing they can improve upon more easily than anything else is their defense.
At the beginning of the season, they really struggled with their defense, and towards the end of the year, they improved. If they want to be contenders, they need to be consistent throughout the entire year.
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