As everybody knows by now the Orioles are off to a great start this season (22-14, T-1 AL East), but the big question is whether or not the O’s can sustain this level of success for the entire season and beyond. Personally I don’t think the O’s will continue to play at this level and continue to keep this winning percentage up for a 162 game season but I do believe that they will be a solid team and certainly have had a very promising start. Let me start with the pros of the Orioles season thus far and their future.
Whether or not the O’s maintain the high level of success that they have enjoyed so far, I certainly believe that this first month and a half has been crucial for the future and has really helped define us. Before the season one of the big questions was do we trade Adam Jones? Do we get whatever value we can for our best players and blow everything up in an effort to rebuild again like we did when Andy Mcphail started here. In an article that I wrote regarding the Adam Jones question (http://www.beltwaysportsblog.com/2012/02/15/what-should-the-orioles-do-with-adam-jones/), I answered by basically saying that if I were to make the decision on whether to trade or re-sign Jones, it would depend on how successful the team was this year and how our players progressed so I could judge if we needed to go into rebuilding mode and trade Jones or if we could use Jones and possibly be a contender in the coming years. I’m not sure that we are necessarily a contender this year but from what I have seen thus far we are starting to figure out the pieces that are on the team now that we can use for the future.
Buck Showalter often talks about how of the 25 players on the roster he wants to find out how many “nuggets” there are. By this he means that he wants to find out how many guys can be a part of this team in the future when they want to contend for a championship. That is where I think this first month and a half has been the most important. As for positional players I think that we have developed definite nuggets in Wieters, Hardy, Jones, and Markakis. Those are the guarantees for me, each of these guys is an above average to very above average player at their position and all of them have at least 5 good years left (most of them more than that) barring injury. The other two positional players that I would have as one tier below them but still players that I believe are nuggets for the future are Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino. Both players still have a little bit more to prove as they haven’t been consistently good at the major league level for an extended period of time (especially Reimold), but if they continue to play the way they have and their games continue to progress as they have I believe these guys will be very solid players for us this year and for years to come. The one guy who I still have as a question mark is Chris Davis. He is still young and has the chance to become a nugget but right now he doesn’t make consistent enough contact for me and isn’t a good enough fielder to make up for his low average that he will most likely produce. Anybody who has read this blog before knows that I can’t stand Reynolds as a baseball player and will be glad to see him go after this year. Not only can he not hit worth a darn but he has got to be the worst fielding 3rd basemen in the league. At worst though I still firmly believe that for the next 5+ years we will have our C, 2B, SS, LF,CF, and RF all covered and I believe that if we can get some sort of stud power hitter at the one of the corners (obviously easier said than done) we will have one of the best lineups in the league for years to come.
As for the pitching staff things are still somewhat unclear because unlike the positional players they only play every 5 days so they don’t have many starts under their belts but still from what I have seen I am very encouraged. The two biggest surprises of the year (other than the bullpen as a whole) has been the production of Jason Hammel and Chen (don’t feel like typing his first name). Both of these guys have been very good for the Orioles thus far and I see no reason why it would change. Obviously it very well could because pitchers are very unpredictable but both these guys have been very dominant thus far. One thing that I really like about the O’s starting staff is that none of these guys are 30 years old left which means they all have at least 5+ years of good baseball left in them as well. If I was to choose “nuggets” out of the starting staff for the future right now I would go with Arrieta, Chen, and Hammel. These guys have all been effective thus far and like I said are all still very youthful. I think that a combination of Matusz, Britton, and Hunter all still have to earn their spots as nuggets but right now I would think that Britton has the best chance at that once he returns from injury but we shall see. Either way though with those 3 and most likely at least one of the latter 3 hopefully earning nugget status at some point, I think the future is very bright for the Orioles starting pitching staff (and that is not even including in a couple of years with Mr.Bundy is up here).
As far as the bullpen goes, they have obviously been fantastic and other than a couple of duds (Gregg and Berken), based on performance thus far they would almost all have to be considered “nuggets”. Unfortunately with bullpen guys they seem to be very inconsistent from year to year. I would have to see a whole year of good consistent pitching from these guys before I would consider them “nuggets” but the one guy that I believe has earned that status is closer Jim Johnson. He was very good in the set up role and now have been very good in the closer role. I hope that he will be the anchor of our bullpen for years to come. The other guy that I really like is our set up guy Pedro Strop. He hasnn’t had a ton of time at the major league level but has been productive when up here and was dominate in the minor leagues. If he keeps his up for a couple more months I would definitely be willing to grant him “nugget” status. Like I said though, I love how the bullpen has produced thus far but I am going to have to see a bigger sample space before I am willing to commit to them for the future.
Now that I have addressed how our success so far bodes well for the future and I guess I should probably answer my original question: Can the Orioles keep this up? My answer to that question is probably not. While I don’t think that they will continue this level of success (even though I will root like hell for them to do so), I do believe that they will finish around and I would actually predict above .500 for the first time this century I believe. I think this is the best pitching staff and lineup that we have had in years. I do have my doubts however that we can continue to keep up this same pace.
As far as the pitching goes we have been pretty excellent. The bullpen has been absolutely ridiculous and you really can only expect a decline from them. It’s not that I expect them to be terrible or anything but they really can’t be better than they have been so they can only get worse. The big question will be whether our starters Chen and Hammel can continue to be very effective. I don’t expect them to have ERA’s under 3 all year but if they can keep it under or around a 4.00 ERA then I think we will be an above .500 team. Even though our hitting has been great, our pitching has been the difference this year in my opinion and I am not sure we are going to keep that up for an entire season but I certainly hope that we do.
As far as the hitting goes, we have been one of the top offensive teams in the league. The middle of our order has been killing it and I expect that to continue all year. My only problem with our lineup is that we have a few too many holes. With Reimold out we almost always have a weak hitter at the LF, 3B, DH (ironically), and partially 1B (Chris Davis very inconsistent). That is really 4 spots in the order that I expect to be outs every time they come up. Some games they surprise and have good days but day in and day out they don’t produce. It is okay for a lineup to have one or two spots like that but 3 or 4 I don’t think is going to cut it. Obviously once Reimold comes back it will be down to 3 spots that aren’t productive but it’s very important for Chris Davis to find his swing and be a productive bat at first base for the O’s. The ideal situation would be for Reimold to come back healthy and for Roberts to return to health at some point in the season and return to hopefully somewhat of the player that he was before. It would be great to be able to put him back at 2nd and move Andino over to 3rd. That way you would have one more productive bat in the lineup and improve in the field greatly with Andino taking Reynolds spot. I doubt Roberts will ever return to full strength especially this season but it would certainly be ideal for the O’s.
Really the worst part of the season for the O’s has been their fielding. Somehow they are only the 2nd worst fielding team in the big leagues behind the Giants but they have been really terrible. Specifically Reynold and Betemit at 3rd base has been really horrible and it has gotten to the point where if there is any sort of ball hit to 3rd, I am just expecting something bad to happen which is pretty terrible for a major league team. It hasn’t cost us a lot of games yet but this team isn’t talented enough to be able to give teams extra outs and it will certainly start costing us soon if we don’t get it fixed.
So while I don’t necessarily think that the Orioles are going to keep up this torrid pace that they have set at the beginning of the season I also don’t think that they are just going to completely fall apart. Like I said if I had to make a prediction today I think that the O’s finish a few games above .500 but it really all depends on how their pitching staff holds up because the middle of our order will produce some runs. I will be very interested to see what the Orioles do around the trade deadline. Obviously it depends what their record is but if they still have a winning record in a couple of months and are still alive for one of those 5 playoff spots do they become buyers? Haven’t seen that in a while. I personally think the O’s are one ace and middle of the order bat (1st or 3rd basemen) away from being a legitimate contender. The problem with the trade deadline is that we have to trade away some guys to get those pieces. We don’t have a ton of ammo in the minors and I doubt we would be willing to trade Machado and certainly not Bundy so we would have to give up major league pieces in order to get those guys which would obviously weaken our team. That is still a long ways off though and this start has been very encouraging for the Orioles fans, not only for this season but for the future as well. I have my doubts that they will be able to keep this up, but I sure hope they can because it has been a fun month and a half thus far in birdland.