Can the Baltimore Orioles REALLY Be AL East Contenders in 2011?

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Can the Baltimore Orioles REALLY Be AL East Contenders in 2011?
Rob Carr/Getty Images

I have to preface this by saying, I know it's almost impossible to make any real substantive evaluations based on four games. But there is a lot of optimism in Baltimore right now and I want to write about something, so here we go.

The Orioles have been mired in mediocrity—and by mediocrity, I mean crappiness—for quite some time now. The hot start to the 2011 season has the fanbase energized, and rightly so; they've graduated most of their top-level talent from the minors to the big club, they filled some holes in their lineup through offseason acquisitions and new manager Buck Showalter has added a much needed swagger boost.

Despite all the positives, the question remains—is this really the season things turn around in Baltimore?

The answer, I'm afraid, is no.

I'm sorry for that—I really am—mainly because I've grown an affinity for this team by building it up in MLB: The Show the last three years. But the early-season success has mirage written all over it, for several reasons.

Let's start with the catalyst for the early-season Oriole success: the pitching. Through four games, the O's staff sports a beautiful 1.00 ERA, a full run better than the next-best team in the league. If you happen to be an ERA buff, this is all the proof you need of dominance, but a closer look at the peripherals paint a different picture.

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As a team, the O's rank 12th in K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) and they've maintained a very good 2010 BB/9 rate; a marked improvement, but hardly dominant. In fact, the Orioles team ERA itself is quite deceptive, considering their team xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) is 4.23, good for 16th-best in the majors.

So what accounts for the sterling ERA? Mostly a combination of defense (30 percent) and luck (70 percent). Despite Mark Reynolds' best efforts, the Oriole infield is solid defensively—especially with the addition of J.J. Hardy at shortstop.

But the most striking peripheral of all for the O's pitching success was the team BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

With a year-to-year league average around .300, the Orioles' BABIP of .191 is basically unsustainable and accounts for the major luck part of their success equation. When only 19 percent of the balls put in play against you go for hits, you're going to look pretty damn good.

Now, this isn't to say I think the Orioles staff will deteriorate like a Charlie Sheen comedy tour—quite the opposite, actually. The Birds have done a great job of building a strong, young starting staff that could make them contenders well into this decade; I just don't think it starts in 2011.

The other half of the equation, the offense, is much less impressive than the pitching, and we just saw how tenuous that situation is. The Orioles have won all four of their games despite a team offensive line of .237/.268/.351.

Of the four everyday regulars who are hitting (Roberts, Hardy, Markakis and Wieters), none project as a player who can maintain his current slugging percentage, unless this is the year Wieters puts it all together and Markakis finds some of that 2008 power.

Those who haven't started off hot are guys who already have major red flags, be it noticeable platoon splits (Scott), high strikeout rates (Reynolds) or serious age and deterioration concerns (Guerrero, Lee).

Overall, I think the Orioles take a nice step forward in 2011. The pitching is young and will have its growing pains, but the talent is really there. The offense, on the other hand, has some nice pieces, but the offseason stopgaps will probably prove to be nothing exceptional.

The point is, enjoy the success now, O's fans—because this carriage could turn into a pumpkin literally any day now.

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