2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Is there enough pitching here to get the O’s back to the playoffs?

The Orioles make their bones with the bat. They ranked fourth in the AL in runs last season, and they did it with power. Lots of  homers — first in the league — lots of doubles and the AL’s third highest slugging percentage. Adding Nelson Cruz to that lineup well only help things. While we’re many years removed from people making Chuck Norris jokes about Matt Weiters, there is still the potential there for him to have a breakout offensive season that turns him into an MVP candidate. Chris Davis is unlikely to match his otherworldly 2013, but he is still a force in the middle.

So, as almost always seems to be the case, Orioles fans are asking if there is enough pitching here. My gut feeling: it’s better, but it’s not quite enough.

Adding Ubaldo Jimenez is a gamble, but not a dumb one. He has been decent at limiting homers and that’s key in the AL East. Chris Tillman is solid. Bud Norris doesn’t knock anyone’s socks off, but Kevin Gausman and/or Dylan Bundy could contribute in Baltimore this year if the back end of the rotation falters. It’s not the best rotation in the AL East — it’s in a dogfight to even make it to third best in the division — but there are enough moving parts here where things could turn out better than expected.

But when you are in the toughest division in baseball, moving parts with upside aren’t all that comforting. if the O’s make the playoffs this year it will be because multiple guys in the rotation exceed expectations. That could easily happen. I just don’t think people get rich betting on things like that, and I won’t bet on it here.

What else is going on?

  • The bullpen is worth watching too, of course. A huge strength for the team’s 2012 playoff run, it took a step back last year and this year is in real flux. The departure of Jim Johnson and the aborted signing of Grant Balfour means that Tommy Hunter is likely to get most closing opportunities. That could work — I fail to believe that closing is some genetically-determined ability possessed by True Closers only — but it’s possible we see a lot of guys getting save chances this year.
  • Outfield defense might be interesting. Delmon Young made this team and Buck Showalter has made it clear that he and Nelson Cruz will play outfield, not just DH. Indeed, the presence of both pretty much means one will have to a lot of the time if they don’t wish to waste a roster slot. Balls to the gap should be fun. Hope Adam Jones has put in his time on the treadmill this spring.
  • With Brian Roberts gone, second base is going to be a fun position to watch in Baltimore. Last week’s trade to obtain Steve Lombardozzi could mean that he gets a lot of time there. The Nats learned last year that making Lombardozzi an everyday player is not the key to happiness, however. Ryan Flaherty will probably cover third base until Manny Machado comes back from injury, but once he does, he could see a lot of time there which, yuck. I’d love to see Showalter hand the job over to prospect Jonathan Schoop. The club will likely say he needs more seasoning in the minors, however. Which you should read as “needs less service time in the majors.”
  • This is, overall, a young team. Cruz may be an old man, but many key players on which the Orioles rely are on the rise, not the decline. Machado is 21, Schoop is 22, Kevin Gausman is 23, Chris Tillman will turn 26 next month, Dylan Bundy  in April), Britton (26), Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Matt Weiters are still only 28. Upside is there for many, and it makes 2014 just one of many chances to break through.

Prediction: I like what the Orioles have going here. And I think that they could surprise and challenge for the wild card. I just think that their pitching is too uncertain and their division too tough to predict that with confidence. They may make me look like a fool — and I know other HBT writers think they’ll be way better than I have them — but I have them neck-and-neck with the Yankees for third place, and quite possibly Fourth Place, AL East.

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.