Baltimore Orioles: 6 Reasons Team Can Keep It Up in AL East

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IMay 14, 2012

Baltimore Orioles: 6 Reasons Team Can Keep It Up in AL East

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    The Baltimore Orioles have shocked Major League Baseball through the first 35 games of the 2012 season. They sit atop the standings in the American League East, one game ahead of the New York Yankees.

    Many seem to think that the Orioles will not be able to sustain this type of run. As of Monday morning May 14th, Baltimore boasts a 22-13 record and is tied for the second most wins in baseball. Starting 10-2 or 15-5 is one thing. Thirty-five games is a much larger sample size. Nearly a quarter of the MLB season has gone by and the Orioles are still winning at an astounding clip. 

    The AL East has faltered a bit in the early going of this season and the Orioles have clearly been the beneficiary. By consistently playing above-average baseball with solid pitching, Baltimore has catapulted themselves into the early playoff conversation. After nearly a quarter of the season, it is time to give them their well-deserved credit and discuss why they will be able to keep up their new-found winning ways. 

Quality Starting Pitching

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    In 2008, when the Tampa Bay Rays turned the AL East on its head by winning 97 games and making it all the way to the World Series, they did it with pitching. Teams without the big payroll lineups full of mashers like the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Angels need to rely on quality young arms to carry the load. 

    The Baltimore Orioles have emulated that to the best of their ability and it is working. Six pitchers have started games for the Orioles this season, all of them under 30 years old.  

    Former journeyman Jason Hammel has reshaped his career in his first year wearing orange and black. After finishing 7-13 with the Rockies last season, Hammel owns five quality starts and an ERA just north of 2.00 through six starts. Rookie lefty Wei-Yin Chen is not far behind Hammel in terms of ERA (2.68) and quality starts (3). 

    The AL East is still as hard-hitting a division as you will find in the league, so these quality young arms of the utmost importance to Baltimore's success. 

Lights-out Bullpen

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    Best closer in the AL East? Papelbon? Rivera? Try Jim Johnson. 

    The 28-year-old has been a quality reliever for some years now, but this season he has taken his production to a whole new level. Johnson has allowed a single earned run through 15 appearances on the season while earning 11 saves to lead the league. 

    The Orioles have three other relievers who have tallied 15 appearances on the season; Luis Ayala, Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day. None of the three have an WHIP over 1.00 or an ERA over 1.60. 

    A lock-down bullpen is vital to a team's success especially a team that doesn't hit very well. Through 35 games, it appears the Orioles have that lock-down unit. 

Surprising Power

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    The Orioles continue to have surprising power from their lineup. Devoid of any sort of household names, the Baltimore batting order goes yard far more often than you would expect. 

    In 2011, the Orioles had nine players clear the fences nine or more times throughout the season. That included four batters with 20-plus home runs. They do it by committee and a well-rounded power-hitting lineup. No single hitter is going to break any records. The 2011 Orioles finished with the fourth-most dingers in the league.

    Their 54 in 2012 is the most of any team in baseball. Once again they have seven players with five-plus on the young season. In the AL East you have to be able to hit for power, right on the heels of Baltimore is New York, Toronto and Tampa Bay all in the top six. 

    If the Orioles bats can keep popping balls out of the stadium, that will give them enough run support to continue on in their 2012 quest for AL East supremacy. 

Underrated General Manager

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    Perhaps the most underrated move in baseball this past offseason was Baltimore's naming of Dan Duquette as their new general manager.

    Though he often gets little credit, it was Duquette who started what Theo Epstein finished in Boston. Duquette was responsible for bringing in the core of the 2004 and to a lesser extent 2007 World Championship teams. 

    His track record boasts the signings or trades of Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, and Manny Ramirez, all key members of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. He made a controversial move already by sending Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, but in return he landed Jason Hammel, the Orioles best starter and Matt Lindstrom who has been great out of the bullpen.

    Duquette has added depth across the board for Baltimore, from Endy Chavez in the outfield to Luis Ayala in the bullpen. He will be looking to build what he built in Boston, a consistent winning team and the rewards have already started to show in Baltimore.

AL East's Struggles

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    The opening run of the Orioles has been eye-popping to say the least. Extrapolating their 22-13 record over an entire season would see Baltimore winning 102 games. 

    The AL East has been a shaky entity throughout the opening quarter of the season. The Red Sox are mired in an awful situation physically and mentally. The Yankees lost their all-world closer for the season and are relying on a 37-year-old shortstop for the majority of their offense. Tampa Bay and Toronto's batting orders are hitting just .244 and .240, respectively.

    The bottom line is that Baltimore will not have to keep up their current pace in order to reach the postseason. They merely have to remain consistent in the aspects which they are excelling in. If their starters continue giving quality starts and their bullpen can keep delivering at the caliber they have been, then they will be right there at the end of the season within striking distance of their first pennant since 1997. 

Young Veteran Leadership

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    The Orioles have a core group of young players who have gone through the trials and tribulations of the past few losing seasons in Baltimore. They are sick of losing and the more they win this season, the more the pressure subsides and the better they will get.

    Players like Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Robert Andino and Adam Jones have been together in Baltimore for some time now. They have grown together and the chemistry they have developed is starting to show this season. Many see it as inexplicable that the Orioles keep winning. Even the Baltimore Sun can't seem to put their collective finger on it. 

    I'll wager that it has a lot to do with their young leaders finally developing into players. Wieters has emerged as one of the top catchers in the league. Jones has continued crushing the ball after his 25 home run 2011 campaign. If Markakis can finally realize his complete potential, he will be one of the most dangerous hitters in the division.

    These guys are finally having fun playing in Baltimore, and enjoying playing the game is half the battle. Winning goes hand-in-hand with team chemistry. The Orioles have the latter, and now are starting to realize the former. 

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