So, Orioles... how've you been this year? Haven't checked in with you
since the preview I wrote last year. People were expecting a lot from
you, maybe even a fourth-place finish in the East, ahead of those
overrated Blue Jays.
The Orioles actually did improve a bit from 2010 to 2011. Their win total climbed from 66 to 69, which is almost imperceptible, but they also improved their offense from second-worst in the league to middle-of-the-pack. (Of course, their pitching also went from second-worst to worst, so whatcha gonna do.)
Last year I mentioned a whole list of young players who might develop for the Orioles: Wieters, Pie, Jones, Markakis, Reimold, Matusz, Arrieta, Tillman, Britton, Bergesen. Well, Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nolan Reimold did improve, and Nick Markakis remained productive, but none of the pitchers really did much, unless you want to say Zach Britton did.
So really there's less to fear from the Orioles this year. Some stuff they were hoping for happened and it didn't get them to 70 wins. Since then they've lost Vladimir Guerrero, Luke Scott, and Jeremy Guthrie, all of whom helped them last year, and they haven't been replaced by anybody scary. I mean, sure, you can say that Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen might help out on the mound, or Nick Johnson will put it all back together and make the team as a DH or something, but really there haven't been any gamechangers.
Dan Duquette took over as GM of the Orioles this offseason. There was no consensus that this was a brilliant move by Peter Angelos. Duquette has been a successful GM before, but that was a decade or two ago. He may be able to get the job done, or he may be yesterday's man. Or he may be able to get a job done, but not the Orioles job, which is notoriously tougher.
Duquette's got his work cut out for him: Baseball America ranked the Orioles' organizational talent 21st out of 30. 21st is nothing to be proud of, but it's not hopeless... except that the other four teams in the division, the teams Baltimore is chasing, are all well ahead of them (Toronto 5th, Tampa Bay 8th, Boston 9th, New York 13th). The Orioles do have some good prospects, RHP Dylan Bundy and SS Manny Machado the two biggest names among them, but nobody to be worried about anytime soon.
And then there was the Korea thing. On the one hand you have to give Duquette and his people a bit of credit for trying stuff. They signed Kim Seong-min, a young South Korean pitcher, out of high school, and apparently violated some rules in doing so. As a result, the Korean Baseball Association banned all Orioles scouts from KBA events in South Korea, which in turn got the Commissioner's office ticked off with the Orioles. You know, for embarrassing Bud Selig, and stuff. So the signing was overturned, and the Orioles were fined, but apparently Baltimore is still trying to push it through. Which is a lot of trouble to go to for a guy who may not be all that great in the first place.
I don't point out this amusing chain of events because it affects how the Orioles are going to play in 2012. It doesn't. It does suggest, though, that maybe the Orioles' front-office problems have not yet been completely solved, and that they are not yet back on the road to competitiveness. You don't hear about Friedman or Anthopoulos or Cashman or Cherington doing stuff like this.
The success the Orioles had with their offense is the kind of success that's hard to maintain. With Markakis and Wieters and Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy and Jones, they'll hit for some power. Getting on base will be more of a challenge, though, and most of the players in the O's lineup should be at their peaks right now, or possibly thirty seconds past their peaks. (I except Wieters and Jones.) So: average hitting, maybe a little below average.
There's room for improvement on the pitching side, though. The Orioles pitching last year was so bad that you'd expect it to be better this year even if it's only because of a dead-cat bounce. But that's not even fair to the O's; so many of their starters are young guys that I'd be surprised if one or two of 'em didn't emerge as worthwhile in the next year or two. (That includes Tommy Hunter, acquired midseason 2011, but not Jason Hammel, who might eat innings but is a bit old to fit into this category.)
So, overall, I'd have to say that I expect the Orioles to win about as many games this year as they did last year. Nothing they've done gives me any reason not to think that. This won't be true forever, but I do expect it to be true in the near future. And if it changes, we should have plenty of advance warning.
Of course, no analysis of the Orioles' 2012 outlook would be complete without a mention of the Baltimore bullpen.