After nearly a decade and a half of losing seasons, will this finally be the year that the Baltimore Orioles rise from the depths of the AL East to finally top .500?
I will go out on a limb here, as I always do with my baseball predictions, and say that it is not all that far-fetched.
Is it likely that they win the AL East? Not in the slightest bit, but hey, never say never.
I can tell you one thing that is for sure though—if the Orioles play to their potential this season, they will add even more buzz to what is already arguably the toughest division in baseball.
For years now, the Orioles have had a relatively solid lineup, which behind a decent pitching squad, could have made a run for a few playoff spots.
As all baseball fans know, that is exactly what the team has lacked—decent, reliable pitching.
The O’s approached the issue not with huge blockbuster deals, but rather simple improvements to what has been a lackluster pitching staff.
To me, the biggest question with this year’s pitching will be reliability.
For the most part, the O’s have a youthful pitching squad which combined with past injuries, can potentially be an equation for disaster.
One of their biggest pitching acquisitions this offseason was injury-prone Justin Duchscherer.
Where do you think the Orioles will stand in the AL East at the end of the 2011 season?
Now I have always been a fan of Duchscherer since he first stepped onto the mound in Oakland, but his last few years have been less than impressive as he has suffered injury after injury after injury.
He claims that he currently feels the best that he has in years, mentally and physically, but who is to say which Duchscherer will show up at Camden Yards—the two-time all-star or the injury-prone mess.
Other than Duchscherer, Jake Arrieta is another starter whose health presents us with a rather large question mark, since he had a bone spur in his elbow last season and decided to let it heal naturally on its own rather than have surgery to have it removed.
Only time will tell whether or not he made the right decision in choosing that path of rehabilitation.
As for the remainder of the starting rotation, health is not as big of a concern as is the age of some of its players, such as second-year pitchers Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen who both struggled a bit coming out of the gate in 2010.
Both of them did bounce back from their poor starts after the All-Star break, but similar to Duchscherer’s situation, who knows which version of these two will show up this season—the first half disappointments or second half surprises.
However, when we look at the bullpen, the issue of injuries pops right back up again, and in dramatic fashion.
With the exception of the newly acquired Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo, every other relief pitcher in the pen dealt with some sort of injury last season.
Michael Gonzalez, Koji Uehara, Jim Johnson and Jason Berken all had some type of shoulder or elbow injury.
Gonzalez suffered a left shoulder sprain, Johnson was bothered by lingering right elbow problems for most of the season, Uehara had elbow and hamstring issues and Berken suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
Uehara came back strong to end the season on a high note, but who is to say that he will not be plagued with the same issues this season?
Okay now onto a lighter, more positive note.
These negatives can just as easily turn out to be positives for the O’s.
Uehara, despite his injuries, impressed many as he only let up 14 earned runs, five home runs and five walks in 44 innings.
Johnson also did fairly well last season when his elbow was not acting up and will only improve as he gets more years of experience under his belt.
The addition of Gregg will also bolster the bullpen.
Although a bit wild at times, Gregg is coming off a career season with 37 saves and will hopefully look to build off of this and use it as motivation in his battle with Uehara for the closer role.
And let's not look past the potential that the O’s starting rotation has.
Guthrie was solid last season and if Duchscherer is as healthy as he says he is and gives the baseball world another great year like 2005, I think that they would be a great one-two punch.
Yes, Matusz and Bergesen are young, but if they continue pitching at the level they were on at the end of last season, I only see good things to come from the two of them.
If this pitching staff can manage to avoid major injuries and regressions and help the O’s keep games within reach so the offense does not have to continually struggle, I think they have a pretty good chance of finally making it over .500 again.
Let me just reiterate here that I am not saying the Orioles are going all the way this year, I am just saying that they are headed down the right path and that their fans would be crazy to not be excited for the first time in a long time.