Baltimore Orioles' Johnson pitches against the Boston Red Sox during a MLB spring training baseball game in Sarasota, Florida

2013 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Was last season a fluke?

Wanna make an Orioles fan mad? Tell them that the Orioles got lucky in 2012. Tell them that winning all of those one-run and extra innings games was fluky and rare. Cite their pythagorean record (82-80) and say that it was way more reflective of team quality than their actual record (93-69). Tell them that their — well, let’s call it good fortune for now — in close games was unprecedented in recent baseball history and, as such, it is not something that can be expected to be repeated in 2013.  Hoo-boy, they get rather perturbed at that!

Thing is, it wasn’t just dumb luck as in “wow, how the hell did that happen?” luck. Winning so many tight games was mostly a function of the bullpen. Jim Johnson, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton and Luis Ayala all managed to have great seasons at once, and Buck Showalter was damn nigh masterful at deciding when to put them into games. That actually happened, without supernatural interference. But it’s also something that, historically, isn’t easy to replicate.

Which isn’t to say that the bullpen will be bad this year. It’s a very good bullpen. But things change from year to year. Guys who had big workloads in one year like Johnson don’t alway maintain their mojo. Pitchers who have been hurt before, like Darren O’Day, can get hurt again. No team in baseball history has ever had everything go right one year and then have all those same things go right the next year. It just doesn’t work that way.

So maybe the real question isn’t whether last season was a fluke. Last season happened and it nothing will ever take that away. But without even getting into the question of luck, one must acknowledge that what occurred last season as far as dominant bullpen work in addition to a few fortunate bounces here or there, is unlikely to occur this season or, at the very least, is not something one can count on with any amount of certainty in March.  If the Orioles are to make the playoffs again, they’ll have to improve in some other areas, anticipating that they’ll regress in the one area where the exceeded any reasonable expectations in 2012.

So what else is going on?

  • All of that talk about the luck of the Orioles and, particularly, their pythagorean record, obscures the fact that the team changed incrementally over the course of 2012 and the version we saw later in the season was legitimately good, not just lucky. Calling up Manny Machado and getting an unexpectedly good performance from Nate McLouth were sub-headline news items which nonetheless contributed to a team that did outscore its opposition late in the season. It seems, based on the very quiet offseason, that Dan Duquette and Showalter continue to treat the O’s as a work in progress which is better to be tinkered with than overhauled. This gives a lot of O’s fans pause, of course, but it seems smart given how uncertain the AL East is right now.
  • The bullpen was an obvious strength last year, and part of the reason it had to be was that the rotation was not one. Wins don’t matter a heck of a lot, but only one starter won ten games or more last season, and that’s just kinda odd for a playoff team. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and … Jair Jurrjens? Jake Arrieta? Field? Aren’t gonna scare anyone. A couple of someones in that group need to pick up the slack from the bullpen this year. I know many will clamor for Dylan Bundy to come in and save everyone, but it’d be a surprise to see him in the majors before September if he appears in the bigs at all this season. He’s really a 2014 guy, methinks.
  • The offense has some nice top-end-for-their-position talent in Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy and Matt Weiters, but it’s not an especially deep and potent group. Nick Markakis is healthy again and the O’s need him to return to his old form. A full season of Brian Roberts would be nice, but after so much time lost it’s hard to count on him being the Brian Roberts of old. Manny Machado has a ton of potential and a lot of room for improvement, but he’s still a baby. There’s a decent chance that Chris Davis and Nate McLouth remember that they are Chris Davis and Nate McLouth and do not replicate their second half production this year. In other words, the offense is a mixed bag.
  • Wilson Betemit got hurt on Monday and is going to miss at least the first two months of the season. The O’s will miss his production — he hit .302/.357/.502 with 10 homers in 255 at bats against right-handed pitching last season — but it’s worth remembering that he missed most of the end of last season and all of the postseason too, so Baltimore is not in uncharted waters here.

So how are they gonna do?

Like anyone else in this crazy division I could see them winning it all or see them finishing fifth. Sorry, I know that’s a copout, but that’s where the AL East is right now. We’ll call them: Fifth Place, American League East, but please don’t think of that as some sort of damnation. I just say that because Matthew already did the Red Sox and Rays and predicted them fourth and second, respectively, I did the Jays and picked them first, and I’m gonna do the Yankees and have a hard time picking them last ever. Take this preview for what comes before and consider the actual prediction to be the least committed prediction ever.

Report: Teams reluctant to gamble on Cliff Lee

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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In Saturday’s column for the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo suggests that free agent Cliff Lee is seeking a guaranteed major league deal between $6 and $8 million plus incentives. That is turning some otherwise interested teams away, as the lefty is still recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow. Lee hasn’t pitched since July 31, 2014.

Last month, Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker said the pitcher would need “a perfect fit” to pitch in 2016. He also noted that Lee has begun a full offseason throwing program.

In his most recent season, Lee compiled a 3.65 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 12 walks in 81 1/3 innings for the Phillies. The Phillies had signed him to a five-year, $120 million contract in December 2010 but declined a club option for the 2016 season, instead buying him out for $12.5 million.

Orioles reconsidering signing Yovani Gallardo

Yovani Gallardo
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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In an article for MASN on Friday, Steve Melewski noted that the Orioles were reluctant to forfeit their first round draft pick (14th overall) in order to sign free agent starter Yovani Gallardo. The club is now reconsidering its stance and rechecking the right-handers medicals, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports.

Gallardo, who turns 30 on February 27, posted a 3.42 ERA with 121 strikeouts and 68 walks over 184 1/3 innings for the Rangers last season. The Rangers had acquired him in a trade with the Brewers, sending Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel, and minor leaguer Marcos Diplan to Milwaukee.

Gallardo has posted an ERA below 4.00 in six of his last seven seasons. He remains unsigned into February, however, because his strikeout rate has rapidly decreased with each year since 2012. Per FanGraphs, that rate was 23.7 percent in 2012, then went to 18.6 percent, 17.9 percent, and 15.3 percent progressively. Some of that may have to do with diminishing fastball velocity, as Gallardo’s 90.4 MPH average marked a career low among his eight full seasons with at least 100 innings pitched.

The Orioles lost starter Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Marlins, and the back end of their rotation is highly speculative with Kevin Gausman, Mike Wright, Odrisamer Despaigne, and Tyler Wilson. Adding a veteran like Gallardo, even if he is apparently declining, may be stabilizing.

Freddy Garcia is calling it a career

Screenshot 2016-02-07 at 10.16.43 AM
Elsa/Getty Images North America
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MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez passes along word from the Dominican Republic that right-hander Freddy Garcia will hang up his cleats for good after Sunday’s Caribbean Series championship game.

Garcia will start that game for the Tigres de Aragua out of Venezuela. He’s taking on Mexico’s Venados de Mazatlan.

“Venezuelan fans are expecting something good from Freddy and so is everybody,” said Tigres de Aragua manager Eddie Perez, who also serves as the bullpen coach for the Atlanta Braves. “Knowing that it’s his last game is going to make it very special. We all hope he pitches a really good game so he can retire in a good way and bring the title for Venezuela. Everybody who is rooting for Venezuela expects him to do well.”

Garcia’s last major league game was in the 2013 postseason. The 39-year-0ld will finish with a 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 6.4 K/9 in 2,264 career regular-season innings. He had a 3.26 ERA in 11 playoff starts, winning a World Series title with the White Sox in 2005.

Video: 2016 will be a season to remember

Carlos+Correa+Houston+Astros+v+Arizona+Diamondbacks+Ctyu5RiU3SWl
Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
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MLB.com put together this very cool video montage reviewing the 2015 season and setting us up for what should be a wild 2016. Young stars, veterans chasing milestones, unpredictable divisional races.

It’s so close to spring training. Let’s do this.