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: Orioles expected to replace Buck Showalter

Buck Showalter
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Orioles manager Buck Showalter is not expected to retain his position with the club beyond the 2018 season, according to multiple reports from Jon Heyman of Fancred and Bob Nightengale of USA Today Sports. Nothing appears to be finalized just yet, however, and the Orioles have yet to address rumors of Showalter’s impending departure or news of a possible contract extension for general manager Dan Duquette.

Even so, it’s been a year of near-unprecedented disaster for the 62-year-old skipper, who helped lead the team to a 44-108 record prior to the outcome of Friday’s series opener against the Yankees. With the Orioles’ 108th loss — a 4-6 heartbreaker against the Blue Jays on Tuesday — they tied the 1937 St. Louis Browns for the second-most losses in a single season, eclipsed only by the 43-111 record of the 1939 Browns. As they have just 10 games remaining in the regular season, this year’s team has no chance of climbing out of last place in the AL East and may well finish with the worst record in the AL to boot.

While the Orioles’ missteps don’t bode well for Showalter’s future in Baltimore, he’s brought far more good than harm to the organization over the last eight and a half years. He assumed the managerial position from interim manager Juan Samuel in the middle of the team’s 2010 season and guided the club to five winning seasons and three postseason appearances in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Entering the 2018 season, his record sits at 666 wins and 677 losses, the winningest mark by any of the team’s skippers since Earl Weaver wrapped his 17-season run with the team in 1986. Whether the Orioles believe Showalter is capable of recovering from two consecutive losing seasons and returning the team to their former days of glory (and the occasional division title) remains to be seen, of course, though there’s plenty to recommend him as they prepare to advance a full-scale rebuild over the offseason.