It's been nearly 12 hours since the Giants brought the first World Series trophy to San Francisco, but the question that's on everyone's mind is who's next?
Who will be next season's Giants?
Who will be the team that defies the odds, utilizes one of the most talented, biggest upside starting rotations, makes the most of a rag-tag roster and seizes their opportunity to turn Major League Baseball on its head?
I've got one team in mind. The 2011 Baltimore Orioles.
Believe it or not, this team isn't as bad as the 2010 66-96 record indicated. They have a new manager who has instilled a new set of beliefs, and for the first time in a very, VERY long time this team is one that believes it can win. And in a division like the A.L. East, that counts for a whole heck of a lot. Just ask the Rays.
And I know it seems like a super long-shot, but keep in mind a few of these things
-this Giants squad spent the first two-and-a-half months of the season alternating between third and fourth place.
-their offensive effort was led by a 33-year old journeyman, Aubrey Huff, who hit .290 with 26 homers and 86 RBI.
-their two-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher had arguably the worst season of his career
-the ranking veteran, Barry Zito, went 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA and worse than a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio
-offensively, the Giants were a middle of the pack team, ranking seventh in the N.L. in average, and ninth in runs scored.
-no team in the N.L. was worse on the basepaths as the Giants stole a league-low 55 bases, and had the worst steal success rate at 63 percent.
-their pitching staff ranked as the third-worst in terms of walks issued, trailing only the Cubs (75-87) and the Brewers (77-85).
So, taking all of that into account, and fully realizing how unpredictable this season has been, let's examine why, I think, the Orioles have the capability and potential to emerge as the Giants of next season.
Don't let the youngsters on this squad, Buster Posey (23), Madison Bumgarner (21), Tim Lincecum (26), Matt Cain (26), and Pablo Sandoval (24), fool you.
The team average was almost 30 years old this past season.
The team was anchored down the stretch by the play of Aubrey Huff (33) and Freddy Sanchez (32). Andres Torres (32) was a huge spark-plug all year long. The National League Championship Series MVP Cody Ross is 29. And World Series hero and MVP Edgar Renteria is a savvy 35-year-old veteran.
The bottom line is, while the young talent sustained and reinvigorated the Giants throughout the season, it was the veteran core that kept them together and in the end, won the Series for them.
The Orioles have a very similar veteran core.
They've got some experienced pitchers in Jeremy Guthrie (31) and Mike Gonzalez (32). Brian Roberts (33) is an unquestioned team leader, and assuming they keep Cesar Izturis (30), the Orioles have one of the most experienced, defensively solid middle-infield in all of baseball.
They also have 32-year-old Luke Scott, named Most Valuable Oriole for his amazing effort on one of baseball's worst teams. Scott is finally shedding his reputation as a streaky hitter.
Excluding a terrible April, Scott hit at least .269 in each month, hit at least three home-runs, and drove in at least nine runs. And while those numbers don't sound particularly impressive, keep in mind he's playing for the Orioles who didn't really have a legit power threat this past year.
The Orioles average age is an even 28, and they have just as many veteran pieces that form the glue of this team.
Just as the Giants did, the Orioles have the youth movement down.
Arguably their two best players, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, are 26 and 25 years old. They feature a young stud behind the plate in Matt Wieters (24), a young-but-talented infield duo of Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell (both 23), and decent outfield depth in Felix Pie (25) and Nolan Reimold (27).
They also have one of baseball's most promising young rotations.
Brian Matusz (23) was sensational after Buck Showalter was brought aboard, posting a 7-1 record and a 2.18 ERA, with 52 strikeouts in 16 walks in 62 innings. Against the tough A.L. East opponents Matusz was strong. Against Boston he was 2-0 with a 2.43 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 29 innings. Against the Rays he went 2-1 with a 4.24 ERA. And against the imposing lineup of the Yankees he went 1-3, although he did post a 2.92 ERA in 24.2 innings.
Jake Arrieta (24) had a solid rookie campaign and was at his best down the stretch. In three September starts, he went 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA and a 13:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Red Sox.
Brad Bergesen (25) emerged as the staff ace in August, and from then until the end of the season, he went 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA, pitching an average of seven-innings per outing.
And Chris Tillman (22), who has the potential to be the best of the bunch, took a no-hitter into the seventh-inning, outshining Texas Ranger's pitcher Cliff Lee, in a 6-1 victory in July. Tillman shuttled back-and-forth to the big leagues from Triple-A, which no doubt affected his performance.
And waiting in the wings, the Orioles have Zach Britton (22), most recently of Triple-A Norfolk, who pitched lights-out this season, winning team and league honors, as well as being named to the USA Team in the Future's Game. Britton throws in the low-to-mid 90s and has the best sinker in all of the minor leagues.
The Orioles are stacked in the bullpen too.
Righty David Hernandez (25) pitched outstanding after being relegated to the bullpen, but before a sprained-left ankle forced him to miss all of August. Out of the pen he posted a 3.13 ERA and he struck out 42, while walking only 12 in 37.1 innings. He will definitely return for the O's.
Jim Johnson (27) posted another strong year. While he was healthy he posted a 3.42 ERA in 26 outings.
And 25 year old Rick VandenHurk (18 strikeouts in 18 innings) looks poised to lock down the long-relief role in the O's bullpen.
Once upon a time there was a debate as to who would turn out to be the better catcher: Matt Wieters or Buster Posey.
Both backstops had big bats, played excellent defense, and were energetic spark-plugs. But Wieters put up huge numbers in the minors and garnered most of the support in that debate. So, here were are, in 2010. Matt Wieters is a career .266 hitter with only 20 home runs in 228 games, and coming off of a season in which he hit .249.
Buster Posey, on the other hand, locked down a top-two finish in the N.L. Rookie of the Year voting, played a seminal role in the Giants making the playoffs, and can now call himself a World Champion after the Giants shut down the Rangers in the World Series.
Which would you rather have?
I'll still take Wieters. His bat is huge, and he offers way more power than Posey long-term. He also features the superior plate discipline, and he's been catching way longer than Posey, so he gets the edge there too.
If 2010 was the year of Buster Posey, 2011 will be the year of Matt Wieters.
Wieters has finally settled into his role as the cornerstone of this franchise. He worked wonders down the stretch with a rotation that was easily the worst in the A.L. before the All-Star break. Near mid-season, he looked like a 10-year vet behind the plate.
And at the plate, he had a pretty strong finish to the season. Now it's all about consistency for Wieters.
I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that the switch-hitting catcher goes for 25 or more home runs this year. I do think that the O's will go out and get a veteran bat to sit somewhere between the three and six-hole in the lineup, and I think that will take some pressure off of the Orioles youngsters, especially Wieters.
He's more than capable of a .300, 25 home run, 85 RBI season in 2011.
And production like that from your catcher in the A.L. East is huge!
Don't get me wrong, the O's starting rotation was, for the most part, pretty bad last season.
They had four starters with 12 or more losses. The only starter with an ERA under 4.30 was Jeremy Guthrie, and they didn't have a pitcher come within a sniff of 150 strikeouts, much less 200.
But, there is plenty of hope in the group of Brian Matusz (23), Jeremy Guthrie (31), Brad Bergesen (25), Jake Arrieta (24) and Chris Tillman (22).
After the All-Star break, and especially after Buck Showalter was named the O's manager, the rotation took their game up a notch, to an entirely different level not seen since the days of Mussina.
Post All-Star break, Matusz, Guthrie and Bergesen finished in the top-30 of ERA. Separately their second-half lines looked like this:
Matusz: 7-3, 3.63 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 63 K, 25 BB in 72 innings
Guthrie: 8-4, 2.76 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 62 K, 16 BB in 98.0 innings
Bergesen: 5-6, 3.94 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 57 K, 28 BB in 98.1 innings
After the break, Guthrie ranked fifth in the A.L. in ERA and second in WHIP. He posted more victories than Phil Hughes, Clay Buchholz, or David Price.
Matusz sharpened his command and improved his breaking pitches, of which he has one of the best repertoires in the American League.
Bergesen emerged as one of the best sinkerball pitchers in the A.L. and had batters driving balls into the ground all September.
Tillman's numbers at the big league level (2-5, 5.20 ERA) weren't that impressive, but he has been outstanding at Triple-A two-seasons running, so it's only a matter of time before he's in Baltimore for good.
And Arrieta was outstanding in Triple-A in 2010, and down the stretch for the O's.
At least one of Tillman and Arrieta should make the O's opening day rotation, if not both.
Going into 2011 with a healthy rotation of Guthrie, Matusz, Arrieta, Bergesen and Tillman is going to be huge for the Orioles. And knowing that if one of the quintet sustains an injury Zach Britton is there to fill in should help Showalter sleep well at night.
2010 was all about growing pains for this group. 2011 should bring unbridled success, and even more wins.
Before the season, in their MLB Season Preview, nobody on ESPN's panel picked the Giants to win the National League West. Nobody picked them to win the wild card either.
In fact, Baltimore's own Buck Showalter was the only one to pick the Giants to finish somewhere other than in third place. He picked them to finish fourth.
Shows what the experts know. Good thing Buck is a much better manager than prognosticator.
These same experts also picked Buster Posey as their "bust" for the team's season, citing Matt Wieters as the primary proof that you can't trust a rookie catcher.
ESPN the Magazine issued some predictions too. They picked the Giants to finish somewhere in the vicinity of 80 wins, with the best case scenario in the simulations being a 93-win season. The Giants ended up winning 92.
And aside from the Padres (go figure there too) no team finished with a greater "improbability" to win the N.L. West.
As an interesting side-note, SportsNation voters correctly tabbed the Giants with 33.6 percent of the vote when asked who would win the N.L. West, ahead of the Rockies (27.2 percent), Dodgers (26.1 percent), Diamondbacks (8.7 percent) and Padres (4.5 percent).
So, what did we learn from all those percentages and predictions? Everybody was sleeping on the Giants in 2010.
How good do you think the predictions for the 2011 Orioles, coming off of their 13th consecutive losing season, and their fifth in a row with 90+ losses, are going to look?
I'm guessing there might be only one "expert" picking them to finish outside fifth place.
Remember, motivation like that can be huge for a team that knows they're better than everyone else thinks they are.
Anyone who watched the Giants run to the playoffs, the NLCS, and finally a World Series championship knows that theirs truly was a team effort.
Huge hits from waiver-wire find Cody Ross. A Series-clinching three-run homer from Edgar Renteria. A comeback season from Aubrey Huff. And a starting rotation whose performances could go down as some of the best in Series history.
GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy did one heck of a job assembling this team, one that not only systematically shut down the Rangers in the World Series, but stopped in their tracks the "unbeatable" Phillies in the NLCS, a team everyone had already given a free pass to the Series.
The Orioles showed late last season that they are more than capable of playing with a genuine team effort. After Showalter was brought on-board by Andy MacPhail, the team played with a new sense of unity. Hit-and-runs became a regular part of the hitting, and finding the right cut-off man became slightly more common. The defense shored up, and the Orioles' most acerbic statistic, hitting with runners in scoring position, became their most fruitful.
Like the Giants squad, this Orioles team is one with no true superstar. No pretty boy Evan Longoria, or no triumvirate of heroes like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
Like the Giants, this is just a good darned baseball team, with a good dose of experience, some talented youngsters, and one heck of a pitching staff.
This is easily a team that could make the huge jump, encouraged by the efforts of both the Giants and the previous year's Rays' squads, and overtake the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox.
You just wait and see.