The 2012 Baltimore Orioles were good for Baseball
The emergence of a once proud franchise back into playoff contention after a 15 year hiatus helped transition the American League East and the MLB landscape in general.
The Tampa Bay Rays have discovered how to contend year to year and do it in a prominent baseball division on a minimal payroll.
Baltimore figured out the formula last year, but just like the 2009 Rays, 2013 will be met with a lot of skepticism for the Birds even with a larger payroll.
Can Baltimore repeat?
Can they sustain the second half run which saw a 37-18 mark in August and September?
Will the first half team, they of a 45-40 mark with a -36 run differential show up?
Or will it be closer to the 29-9 in one run games team, the 16-2 extra inning bullpen and the +43 run differential after game 85?
First, let’s look at the criticisms:
The Orioles went 24-12 against these two division rivals and 19-17 against the Rays and Yankees.
Why is this important?
The Yankees and Rays have not become significantly worse this offseason while the Red Sox and Blue Jays will almost assuredly outpace the 2012 installments.
In a current schedule which sees 72 divisional matchups, a five or six game swing can be dramatic.
As previously stated, the Orioles were historic in close games, and close games are never a reliable statistic year to year.
Bullpens and relievers tend to fluctuate and adding to the mess, Baltimore did not have a bunch of proven arms to begin with.
Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Darren O’Day will have to repeat a spectacular collective 2012 performance and even then it would be unfair to expect the kind of close game success achieved.
It’s fair to question a team who really had two months of contender performance and four months of mediocrity.
While playing out of its mind, Baltimore still only managed an 8-9 record from August 1st on against the four other playoff teams and 15-12 overall against teams over .500. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not encouraging.
It is accurate to assume Baltimore will not own Toronto and Boston again next year and to assume the bullpen will regress, if even a little bit with at least one reliever (ask Raul Ibanez about that).
However, there are other factors which lead to Baltimore’s emergence over just luck and easy opponents.
Manny Machado‘s presence for a full season along with an actual set rotation will be the biggest factors.
Instead of starting the year with Jake Arietta, Chris Britton, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter being relied on for critical roles, standouts: Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman should mean more pitching like we saw in the second half.
It was those three who pitched Baltimore to the playoffs with the help of Wei-Yin Chen, who will return in 2013 as well.
Arietta and Britton represent pitching depth, Matusz may get the final spot in a young rotation and Tommy Hunter is the long man in the bullpen, much more suitable roles and a much deeper rotation than we were aware of on Opening Day last season.
Though the latter was an integral part of the playoff push, Wilson Betemit will likely slide over to Designated Hitter, Chris Davis will take over at first base full-time and the outfield is still loaded and deep with Nolan Reimold (and Nate McLouth), Adam Jones and Nick Markakis.
In addition to elite defense at third, Machado slugged seven home runs and 26 RBI in 202 plate appearances last season during a division chase.
With a more solidified rotation, a returning bullpen and an offense which should still be capable of matching the 712 runs in 2012, it would be silly to count the Orioles out of a stacked division where no team appears to be cut and dry favorites.
The A’s won a tight division and took out the two-time defending AL champion, Texas Rangers, along the way featuring a rotation of almost all rookies.
Oakland also scored 713 runs, the same type of offense Baltimore featured last year and will have again this season.
With a strong trio of pitchers in their first complete seasons in the Baltimore rotation, it will be pitching and a lot of familiar faces who will decide whether Orioles fans will be sleeping easy this time next season.