A team that many pundits (myself included) picked to flirt with the 100-loss mark this year, the Baltimore Orioles are improbably continuing to tango instead with the .500-win percentage mark as we head into the final week before the All-Star break. Let's have a look back on the first half and make some predictions for the second stretch of the season.
While this lineup doesn't have a huge bat anywhere in it, it is a remarkably consistent group of hitters with very few dead spots throughout. Not one Oriole has cracked 20 home runs yet (Aubrey Huff leads the team with 18) but there are five players with at least 10 (Huff, Luke Scott, Nick Markakis, Kevin Millar, and Melvin Mora). The situation is similar with RBIs - nobody in Baltimore has cracked 60 yet (Huff is leading with 56) but there are 8 hitters with over 30.
Brian Roberts has put up his usual All-Star quality numbers, hitting .292 and nicking 25 bases, and Nick Markakis (.300, 13 HR, 49 RBI) has continued his development into an elite outfielder for the Birds.
The only real liability for this team has been whoever is playing shortstop at the moment, a job which Freddy Bynum, Alex Cintron, and Brandon Fahey have been sharing. The three of them have combined for a total of 21 RBIs and only a lone home run this season, and have been dragging down the bottom third of this lineup all season.
The lineup could still use a real bopper in its heart. Ramon Hernandez seems to have regressed a little bit at the plate from his form last season, batting only .243 with only 7 homers. However, the Orioles have so far been at worst matching, and usually far exceeding, offensive expectations.
The starting rotation, which for the moment consists of Daniel Cabrera, Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Burress, Garrett Olson, and the recently-added Radhames Liz has been maddeningly inconsistent - lights-out for some starts, and getting lit up the next. Cabrera, Burress, and Olson all have 6 wins, with Guthrie compiling 5 and Liz having won his first three decisions before taking a loss to the Rangers on Sunday. On the whole, this staff has been competent so far, and is only going to get better as this young group of hurlers matures and learns how to pitch optimally at the big league level.
The bullpen has been the pleasant surprise of the year. Jim Johnson has put up a stingy 1.81 ERA is his 49+ innings, and closer George Sherrill, acquired in the Erik Bedard trade this summer, made his first All-Star game behind his 27 saves.
This group has come together and pitched more than the sum of its parts - honestly, I have to wonder how long this can be kept up. This team has developed the alarming habit of losing late leads, and I think the bullpen might be starting to get tired out from being called into games early on. This unit could use another veteran reliever, but overall has been a fantastic safety net for this team.
Something that any overachieving team will do well is field. By playing sound defensive baseball, the O's keep themselves in ballgames and give their bats and bullpen a chance to salvage the contest. Baltimore is 9th in the MLB in fielding percentage, with a teamwide .985 rate.
While the team has made errors - 50 of them to date, they rarely are in costly situations. A steady defense is the keystone for any good team, and with luck the Orioles will be able to keep their fielding records in top shape.
Overall, this Baltimore team has spend the first half of the year vastly overachieving. While it's far from unlikely that they won't be able to keep up this pace through the late summer, the team is miles ahead of the development envisioned by the organization and it's fans.
This season has been a great opportunity for the young Orioles to see what they can do. With the right moves this offseason - one more ace in the rotation, a big bat, and an everyday shortstop - the Orioles could be poised to make a push for the playoffs.