Now, I don't claim to be an expert on the Baltimore Orioles, but I should warn you that I've been watching Homicide: Life on the Street on DVD and I'm almost at the end of Season 4.
Here's what you have to remember about the Orioles: they're the enemy.
Never mind the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Rays. We know about them. Plans are in motion. Also never mind the Tigers and the unspeakable Brewers. They're the enemy too, but they're also in another division now, so there's some leeway there. But the Orioles... if the Jays aren't careful, they might let the Orioles up off the mat, when they clearly belong on the mat.
It's largely forgotten now, but the Orioles were the Blue Jays' first great nemesis. This was while the Jays were a crummy expansion team and the Orioles were the class of the league, of course, but even so, here was Toronto's record against Baltimore over those first few years:
That's worse than the Jays did against any other team during that time. (Next worst was against Boston, 29-57. The Orioles and Red Sox are the only teams the Jays didn't have a winning record against during any one season in that period.) I cut it off at 1983 because that was the turning point. In 1983, the Orioles won the World Series, but would deteriorate as a team after that, with only brief resurgences in 1989 and the late '90s. Meanwhile, the Jays were on the way up: 1983 was their first really good season, but they'd have ten more winning seasons after that; you may be familiar with the results. The famous game in which Tippy Martinez picked off three Blue Jays in the tenth inning was embarrassing, and (in my opinion) was the start of the "Blow Jays" era... but it was also the Orioles last hurrah against the Jays.
The Orioles had seven winning seasons against the Jays in seven years from '77 through '83. In the 27 seasons since, they've only managed seven more. (And there have been some years where the Jays have just destroyed the O's.)
And I don't want an eighth! Fifteenth. Whatever.
So what's the outlook? Well, the O's were in last place in the AL East last year with a 66-96 record last year, 19 games behind the Jays. Second worst record in the league. They scored 613 runs (3.78 per game, second worst) and allowed 785 (4.85 per game, second worst). So my first reaction is to say that, even if the Jays aren't as good this year as they were last year, they aren't any 19 games worse, so unless the Orioles get a lot better, fourth place is safe.
Unless, that is.
Does that ever happen? A team gets better by 20 games from one season to another? Sure it does. Seattle did it in 2009, going from 61 to 85 wins. (Of course, this can happen the other way, too: they dropped back to 61 wins in 2010. I don't expect that to happen to the Jays, but it's not completely out of the question.)
Okay, well, what are some things that might make the Orioles get a lot better? Basically comes down to two categories: improvements from young players, and acquisitions of players from outside.
Here are the Orioles' young players who might dramatically improve: Matt Wieters (C); Felix Pie, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Nolan Reimold (OF); Brian Matusz, Jake Arrietta, and Chris Tillman (SP). That's not bad: that's a catcher, a whole outfield complete with extra guy, and most of a rotation. Now, some of those guys are more likely to hit it big than others.
Wieters, for example. Wieters was supposed to be, I don't know, the next Johnny Bench or something, and it didn't happen last year. Instead, Wieters was just, you know, not terrible, especially for a catcher. But he's only 25 this year. Could he put it all together? Of course he could. Or Adam Jones. Here's a guy who's (also) 25, can play centre field, can hit okay (107 OPS+ last year), has some power; you have to be optimistic about a player like that.
Others, like Pie and Reimold... it seems the Orioles aren't expecting as much from them. They may get shoved out so that Luke Scott and Guerrero can play. Still, they're around, they're youngish, they have some talent. It's not impossible that they'll find themselves in the lineup and come through big time. Why not?
Then there's Nick Markakis. The only reason I included him on the list of players who might improve is that he's 27 this year and therefore theoretically reaching his peak. It's not realistic to expect that he's going to get better, because he's already real good. (Let me put it this way: if he doesn't get better, and the Orioles don't dramatically improve, it's not Markakis's fault for only being a good player; it's the fault of the non-good Oriole players.) But if, somehow, he did get a lot better, obviously that'd be a big plus for Baltimore.
Now for the pitchers. This is the big thing, to me: it looks like the Orioles may well have a better offense this year than last (see below), but if a few of the young pitchers can put it together, that could make quite a difference. At the moment the rotation looks like some combination of Jeremy Guthrie (32), Matusz (24), Arrietta (25), Zach Britton (23), Brad Bergesen (25), Tillman (22), and Justin Duchscherer (33). Guthrie's been decent for the Orioles, but at his age I'm not counting on him getting any better. Bergesen is young but, with low strikeout numbers, I don't really believe in him. Duchscherer has a few too many miles on him and is fighting a hip problem. Matusz looks like he just needs to improve his control to be reasonably good. Tillman hasn't shown much in the majors yet but has good numbers in the minor leagues, as does Britton. Arrietta keeps the ball in the park and is still young enough to improve. There's certainly the potential for Baltimore to find five useful guys in this crowd.
Here are the players the Orioles brought in in the off-season who might help: J.J. Hardy (SS), Vladimir Guerrero (DH), Derrek Lee (1B), and Mark Reynolds (3B). (They also brought in Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo. Best of luck to both of them, but I don't see either one having a major impact on Baltimore's season even if they pitch great.)
These additions don't get the Orioles any younger, which they could probably use, but they may contribute in the short term. Reynolds replaces Miguel Tejada at third and should hit better, although there may be a defensive cost. Similarly, J.J. Hardy replaces Cesar Izturis; Hardy will almost certainly hit a lot better and isn't bad defensively himself. Guerrero could still be good (he's 36) or he could fall off a cliff or anywhere in between; he's not necessarily an improvement over the guys he's replacing (mostly Pie and Corey Patterson, I guess), although he certainly could be. Lee is only a year younger than Guerrero and about equally likely to be an improvement over Ty Wigginton.
Remember Tampa Bay a few years ago? Everybody kept saying, "the D-Rays are getting better, they've got a lot of talent, this could be their year." And for quite a while, it didn't happen. Now, everyone was right: they did have a lot of talent, and they were getting better. But it was a long wait until it was their year. The Orioles could be in the same boat. The Orioles are kinda getting better, and they have some talent. It isn't going to be their year, but it could be more their year than last year was.
So the Jays have to step on them hard to prevent any progress from taking root. Here's what has to happen.
1. Paste the Orioles' young pitchers to the outfield walls. I trust I don't have to elaborate on this.
2. If the Orioles have to beat the Jays, let them do it with veterans. You know how people always say stuff like, "whatever you do, don't let Guerrero beat you?" Not this time. Now it's, "whatever you do, don't let anyone other than Guerrero beat you." The idea being, if the Orioles have a disproportionate amount of success because of their veterans, they may be deked into crippling their own youth movement, to their long-term detriment.
3. Test the infield defense. It might pay off. Bunt, steal, hit and run. Not because I'm a big fan of smallball, but this could be a weakness to exploit and a way to get into their heads. They deserve it!
It's quite possible that the Blue Jays could take a modest step back this year, and that the Orioles could take a similarly demure step forward. I still think Toronto can take them. And that's not just a consolation prize, either; these guys are worth beating. Any year the Jays finish ahead of the O's is not a wasted year.