The time has come once again. Spring (training) has sprung, teams have reported to camp and hope is in the air among players and fans across MLB.
In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles took a giant leap forward, going from a 69-93 record in 2011 to a reversed 93-69 2012 campaign. They won a wild-card spot, beat the Texas Rangers in the 2012 Wild Card Game, and challenged the New York Yankees in five games in the ALDS before they were eventually knocked out of the playoffs.
With almost the exact same team that made the strong run over the final two months of the season set to return for the 2013 marathon, the Orioles and their fans are confident in their team going forward. Young players provide intrigue and excitement, while veterans look to maintain the swagger the team had last season while improving on their individual game.
This season should be an exciting one for the Birds. Let's take a look at how things are set up thus far for the team.
2012 Record: 93-69
Key Arrivals: OF Trayvon Robinson (from Seattle), OF Chris Dickerson (free agent), SP Jair Jurrjens (free agent), RP Mark Hendrickson (free agent), SP T.J. McFarland (Cleveland Indians, Rule V Draft), INF Alexi Casilla (from Minnesota), UT Conor Jackson (free agent)
Projecting the Rotation: As all Orioles fans know, the Orioles rotation is one of the "least-set" rotations in baseball at this point. The team has plenty of candidates to consider, which is a relatively new thing for the team over the last couple of seasons.
The assumption is that Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA) will get the ball on Opening Day down in Tampa, and he'll likely be followed by Wei-Yin Chen (12-11, 4.02 ERA) and Chris Tillman (9-3, 2.93 ERA), who broke out in a big way last year. Miguel Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25 ERA) is a deserving candidate for the fourth spot in the rotation, but after that, the fifth spot is up for grabs. Jurrjens, McFarland, Steve Johnson, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter will all be competing for that final spot, as well as a couple of bullpen vacancies.
My projected five-man rotation on Opening Day is as follows: Hammel, Chen, Tillman, Gonzalez, Jurrjens.
Projecting the Bullpen: The biggest strength for the club in 2012 will be returning in majority for the upcoming campaign. Jim Johnson will be closing for the Orioles this season, with Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop setting up in the late innings. Luis Ayala will return to handle middle relief, with lefty Troy Patton likely holding onto his spot in the bullpen as a middle reliever/lefty specialist.
That leaves two open slots, which should be reserved for a pair of those who are battling it out for the fifth rotation slot but don't quite make the cut. I see Hunter securing one of those spots due to his ability to come out with major heat for an inning, or eat some innings as a long man should a starter have to leave the game early. Matusz will likely grab the second open spot because of the need for a second lefty in the 'pen and his strong finish there in the 2012 season. However, because of McFarland's Rule V status, he could force his way into the 'pen as the second lefty, because the O's would have to offer him back to Cleveland before they would be able to stash him in the minors.
C: Matt Wieters (.249, 23 HR, 83 RBI)
1B: Chris Davis (.270, 33 HR, 85 RBI)
2B: Ryan Flaherty/Alexi Casilla/ Brian Roberts
3B: Manny Machado (.262, 7 HR, 26 RBI)
SS: J.J. Hardy (.238, 22 HR, 68 RBI)
LF: Nate McLouth (.241, 7 HR, 20 RBI)
CF: Adam Jones (.287, 32 HR, 82 RBI)
RF: Nick Markakis (.298, 13 HR, 54 RBI)
DH: Nolan Reimold (.313, 5 HR, 10 RBI)/ Wilson Betemit (.261, 12 HR, 40 RBI)
Reimold and Betemit will likely share DH duties while also spelling guys like McLouth and Davis in the field on occasion. The only real question mark for the upcoming season in terms of fielders is at second base, where three candidates have legitimate cases. Roberts, who appeared in only 17 games last season, will be trying to prove he's healthy and still capable of playing second base this spring, while Flaherty (.216, 6 HR, 19 RBI) and Casilla (.241, 1 HR, 30 RBI) look to make a case to be listed on the starting lineup card on April 2.
X-Factor: The main critical factor for the team in 2013 will be, as usual, the starting rotation. If the group of starters the Orioles have can perform this season like they did in 2012, the team will be fine. They can hit, they can field well enough and their bullpen is scary good. The O's will need Hammel to stay healthy, Chen and Tillman to grow on their success from last year, Gonzalez to keep being effective and the other young candidates to grow and contribute. And when a starter goes down due to injury, which will surely happen, the team will need guys like Steve Johnson and Arrieta to step up and perform.
Hitter to Watch: Nolan Reimold/Manny Machado
Everyone knows Reimold has power. He's displayed that power at every level. His issue is staying healthy. Early on in the 2012 season, Reimold was tearing the cover off the ball, but again was forced to miss most of the season due to injury.
As long as Reimold proves he's healthy during spring training, he'll likely make the roster, and manager Buck Showalter will look to him to provide a nice offensive boost from the right side of the plate. If Reimold can stay healthy, and that's a huge "if," he could potentially put up some huge numbers for the Birds, helping to balance out a lineup featuring Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters.
The O's would love to see Reimold do what he can do in 2013. For him, it's now or never.
Machado, for obvious reasons, will be the talk of the team among fans for much, if not all, of the season, just because the expectations are so high for the kid. He did a fantastic job after being brought up in 2012, and was a big part of the reason the O's made it into the postseason as he solidified the defense at third base and provided a solid bat in the lower third of the order.
Machado will grow this season. He may not become the superstar he's destined to be this year, but that time isn't too far off for the young infielder, and he could easily put up a strong .270/20/65 line this year.
Pitcher to Watch: Chris Tillman
Tillman has always had some pretty good stuff, but since being brought over from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade, he has had trouble putting it all together at the major-league level.
Last season, however, Tillman took a step forward with a fantastic half of a season, helping to put the team into the playoffs. He stepped up to provide awesome pitching when it counted, as ace by default Hammel missed a good deal of time, and Tillman was pitching great game after great game for the O's.
Tillman is going to have to prove that last year was no fluke. But now that he's proven to himself that he can dominate at the major league level, it should be an easier task for him out of the gate.
Prospect to Watch: Dylan Bundy
Who didn't see this coming? Bundy has been the focus of all Orioles fans ever since he was drafted, because the kid is simply incredible. His stuff is unbelievably good, especially for a pitcher so young, and he keeps himself in tip-top shape.
A very short stint in the bullpen for the O's late last season showed Bundy what pitching in MLB is all about, and probably helped to relieve some of his jitters. Still, I expect he'll probably be quite nervous come the time of his first start in the bigs, which is expected to be in the later half of the season.
I think Bundy will come up and dominate hitters, helping to propel the team to another postseason appearance.
Overall: The Orioles will grow as a team in 2013, and having full seasons from players like Machado, McLouth, Tillman and Markakis will certainly help boost them forward. Still, the AL East is a tough division, so the O's shouldn't take last season's success for granted. They'll have to fight just as hard, if not harder, than they did in 2012 to prove to themselves, the rest of the league and baseball fans that 2012 was no fluke year.
It won't be easy, but then, what in baseball really is? The Orioles know it, and not only are they accepting of it, but they're excited for it.
My final prediction for the Orioles in 2013: a 95-67, and AL East winners.