The Baltimore Orioles used to be the envy of the baseball world. There was an Oriole Way: The team had an identity and a unique sense of fundamental soundness and professionalism. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, they won 90 games nearly every year and went to six World Series.
These days, that once-proud organization is in tatters. The team last won 80 or more games in 1997. They have finished as high as third in the AL East just once since then, and have been the worst team in the division three years running. Even the farm system is not strong, so the future is not (necessarily, at least) very bright.
But it's early March, and thus the time for hope. Who knows? The Orioles have a plethora of talented young players and a rebuilt veteran infield with a chance to break out. They could come out of nowhere to displace the titans of the AL East and, a la the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, surprise everyone with a World Series berth. Here are 10 things that could make that far-fetched fantasy a reality.
This is the third in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.
At age 24, Brian Matusz is no longer a fragile prospect. The southpaw still has not reached the magic age of 25 and should not be asked to face 1,000 batters this season, but he is ready to claim his spot atop the Orioles rotation and never let go.
At first glance, Matusz's first year in that role appears to have been a mixed bag. He went 10-12 with a solid but unspectacular 4.30 ERA, striking out a fair number of batters but giving up more walks and home runs than would be ideal. For a 23-year-old rookie, the final results were good but they do not seem to imply immediate breakout potential.
Below the surface, though, there is a bit more to be mined from Matusz's early experience in the big leagues. He faced 760 batters in 2010, of which a staggering 596 were right-handed. That represents 72.5 percent of Matusz's total. Meanwhile, the average left-handed pitcher in the AL last season faced right-handed batters in 58.6 percent of their overall confrontations. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Jon Lester, Mark Buehrle, John Danks, David Price and Cliff Lee all enjoyed the chance to pitch to more left-handed hitters than did Matusz.
That factor is critical to Matusz, whose FIP was 4.55 against right-handed hitters and 2.28 against lefties in 2010. He did not get to make use of his slider very often as a result, which is a shame since that pitch is a true weapon for him. That figures to balance out for Matusz in 2011, so he will take a step forward.
If he makes it two steps, or even three, the Orioles will massively improve in run prevention and could gain two or three wins from Matusz's bump alone.
Koji Uehara, who struggled somewhat as a starter in 2009, met with great success upon a move to the bullpen in 2010. He will turn 36 just after Opening Day, however, so the Orioles acquired an insurance policy this winter in free-agent hurler Kevin Gregg.
Gregg saved 37 games for Toronto last season and seemingly will be installed into the closer's role to begin the year. Hopefully, that will not last long.
A big-league relief pitcher can demonstrate (essentially) four different assets that make him well-suited to close games. They can strike out a lot of batters, walk very few batters, minimize home runs consistently or demonstrate an elite pitch with the potential to make one of those earlier things possible.
Neither Gregg or Uehara has a dominant offering of any sort. In fact, both men rely on a wider array of pitches than the usual closer. Both are fly-ball pitchers with a history of home-run vulnerability. So it comes down to command ratios: Which pitcher projects to post a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and, therefore, better prevent runs?
The answer, in runaway fashion, is Uehara. Gregg's strikeout proclivity comes and goes, but he battles to find the strike zone at all times. Uehara may or may not be able to consistently whiff batters with his deception-oriented attack, but he walks virtually no one. The difference over a long season is small, but if Baltimore sneaks into the playoffs, the guy who pitches the biggest innings in those games absolutely must be the best available.
A great deal has been made of the power outage Nick Markakis suffered in 2010. Some wonder whether he will ever grow into the potential he showed as a 24-year-old in 2008, when he batted .306/.406/.491 and was worth 6.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.
In fairness to those folks, Markakis' defense has been markedly worse over the past two seasons, and his isolated power (slugging average minus batting average) dropped to the lowest mark of his MLB career in 2010.
That said, Nick Markakis is a good ballplayer. He is a really good ballplayer. He draws walks, makes contact, runs and fields okay, throws really well from right field and does have the potential to hit for power. Don't forget that Markakis is just 26. He can and likely will still improve.
The one thing that would most aid Markakis in doing that would be to hit more fly balls. For his career, Markakis has a 1.29 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. He is not a hugely strong player, so falling in love with an uppercut swing would be a mistake. Still, Markakis could and should try to lift the ball a bit more. Be encouraged, Baltimore fans: Markakis hit two home runs Tuesday in the Grapefruit League.
Why these two guys? What does it matter if Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes come back to the pack in 2011?
Well, for one thing, it is important because (and this is a striking statement about the well-disguised decay of the AL East's dominance over the baseball world) Buchholz and Hughes are the best right-handed pitchers in the AL East. If those two guys struggle the way they honestly ought to have in 2010, both the Yankees and Red Sox will lose a few wins.
Secondly, the Orioles' offense is much more right-handed than average and only came to lean more that way over the winter. Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds all bat right-handed. They will be well-positioned to hit the bevy of left-handed aces around the division, but they will be vulnerable to Buchholz, Hughes and any of the three or four right-handed Rays who could join those ranks in 2011.
Regression by that pair, who lack command and do not consistently miss bats, seems in order and should help the Orioles.
This demands a certain amount of discernment on the part of Orioles fans: Do you want to win so badly you will deal with Hell freezing over and all that goes with it?
If so, root for Duchscherer to get healthy and make a season-long impact on the Orioles pitching staff. This guy's career high in innings was 141.2, and it came in 2008. He did not pitch in 2009 and tossed just 28 innings last season with Oakland. Baltimore got him for a mere $700,000 base salary.
If he is healthy, Duchscherer is a force with which to be reckoned. In that 2008 season, he allowed just 107 hits and 34 walks in those 141.2 innings and pitched in the All-Star game. If he is healthy, the Orioles have much better depth in their rotation. If he is healthy, pigs will fly.
This may sound strange, but I firmly believe it: Any solid and clear team identity is better than none at all. It does not matter what a team decides to make its trademark, but rather that the team imprints itself in some way and takes the field with unified purpose.
For Buck Showalter, the preferred team identity on offense is a power-oriented station-to-station game. Showalter's teams have only once finished with an above-average steals total in their league. However, several of his teams have led the league in home runs, and this squad could do that too. Mark Reynolds, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero alone add anywhere from 70 to 100 homers to this club, and full seasons from Adam Jones and Luke Scott could add 25 or so apiece as well.
Happily, unlike many teams that slug it out day after day, this Orioles team retains some athleticism and the ability to field adequately. Hardy is a great defensive shortstop, though not as good as he once was. Ditto Lee at first base and Markakis in right field. If Showalter makes defensive fundamentals and intelligent use of power, the hallmarks of this team, the team will be playing to its strengths and has a chance to outperform expectations big-time.
Hey, you know what the AL East needs right now? Another high-upside left-handed pitcher!
Thankfully, yet another such player is within shouting distance of the parent club. Zach Britton is the organization's top prospect, except arguably Manny Machado. Britton can gas hitters at 94 miles per hour, and his slider projects as an above-average pitch bin the big leagues.
There are red flags here: His arm action really is as short-armed and funky as it looks in that photo. He also slows it down at times and loses critical deception on his changeup. Britton needs more polish, but if he can pick it up in March and be ready for a call-up to Baltimore by May, he can bolster the rotation yet again and make a serious impact. His lack of vulnerability to homers, a product of the heavy sink on his fastball, makes him a true potential asset for the Orioles.
Luke Scott hit 27 home runs last year, and his final line was .284/.368/.535. As a left-handed slugger, he has huge value to the very right-handed Orioles. Scott is limited as a defender and hurt himself during a home-run trot last season, but he is a key cog for them going forward.
If Scott is the starting left fielder, though, the outfield is left with little depth. Felix Pie could help remedy that problem: He is not a great hitter, runner or fielder but does all of those things well enough to hang around. He may even eventually push Scott for some starts in the outfield, and if he does, the team will have a strong enough bench to score runs consistently.
Scott can play first base or DH, and so he may slide to those spots when Lee and Guerrero need days off. Pie needs to be able to step into that gap ably.
Chris Tillman really isn't bad. He has a changeup with every chance to be among the best right-handed off-speed pitches in the league, a curve with a lot of bend and depth that could one day be Hell on right-handed hitters and a fastball that makes up for modest velocity with good movement.
The problem is that the Orioles, like the Mariners before them, have pushed Tillman way too hard and way too high. Tillman will not even turn 22 until two weeks into the season, but he tossed 174 innings last season between Triple-A and the big leagues. He continues to be asked to do more than his body or his stuff is ready to do.
Many similar players have suddenly broken out from similar situations, though. If Tillman avoids the knife, he could actually be a breakout candidate in 2011. If he succeeds, the Orioles get a lot better fast. If his growing pains continue, this team lacks the pitching to escape the cellar.
Adam Jones is everything Matt Kemp is not. Jones is not blessed the same way Kemp is, but like Kemp, he is a five-tool player with youth on his side and the potential to transition from good player on a bad team to national superstar. Kemp squandered one chance to do that in 2010, while Jones stagnated somewhat.
Still, this is a smart, confident and very engaged young ballplayer. He said he will learn a great deal from Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, and I believe him.
Somehow, even at age 25 and in a clubhouse full of veterans, Adam Jones seems to be looked to constantly as the source of this team's self-confidence and general attitude. He carries himself well, and combined with his superb skills, that could spell a big year in 2011. The gain for Baltimore? An elite offensive presence they currently lack and a solid anchor for their up-the-middle defense.
Aha! I survived the Orioles piece without mentioning super-hyped post-hype catcher Matt Wieters.
Damn...undone at the final bell.
Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May.