Baseball's Toughest Division is Wide, Wide Open [FanIQ AL East Preview]
2B Brian Roberts
RF Nick Markakis
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
1B Chris Davis
SS J.J. Hardy
LF Nate McLouth
3B Manny Machado
DH Wilson Betemit
RHP Jason Hammel
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Jair Jurrjens
Closer: RHP Jim Johnson
Key Losses: 1B Mark Reynolds, DH Jim Thome, 2B Robert Andino, SP Joe Saunders, OF Endy Chavez
What do you for an encore after a magical season that no one thinks you can repeat? If you’re Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette, you stand pat with almost the same roster that won 93 games and the Wild Card game. Almost no one outside of Baltimore thinks the Orioles can contend again. By run differential, they were really a .500 team last year, and their near unprecedented extra inning and one-run game records are almost certain not to be repeated. Those stats scream that 2012 was fluke, but it must be noted that the O’s went 48-29 in the second half with a run differential that indicates it was “real.” It was very much a different team late in the season.
As you can see, everyone in the projected lineup was an Oriole last season. Adam Jones is the key as he turned into a stud in 2012 (albeit one I wish would take a walk a little more). The offense as a whole has a good bit of power, returning two 30 homer guys and two 20 homer guys, but with the exception of Markakis, isn’t very patient, as shown in the ALDS. Brian Roberts used to be able to take a walk, but he hasn't been healthy in years, and even if he does play, it’s no guarantee he'll be anything but a shell of himself. At the infield corners, Chris Davis will try to be this year’s Mark Reynolds and not be completely useless defensively at first base while hitting home runs and striking out a lot, while Manny Machado looks to make more advances at the plate. He might not look it quite yet, but at 20, Machado still has superstar potential. Unfortunately, other than Machado and possibly Matt Wieters, this is not a lineup with room to grow as presently constructed.
Heading the rotation for now is Jason Hammel, who was a revelation after being traded to Baltimore and spiking his strikeout rate to a career high. If he can keep that up, and if his knee is finally healed, he’ll literally be the best Oriole starter since Mike Mussina. Chen also was new last year and was also a surprise, and looks to be an above average pitcher. Tillman, meanwhile, finally showed his #2 starter potential in the big leagues, although with a .221 BABIP last year, the concern is that he was just lucky. Miguel Gonzalez, meanwhile, is another Oriole who came out of nowhere and must prove 2012 wasn’t a fluke. Jurrjens was picked up after the Braves non-tendered him. If he remains as bad as he was in 2012, the O’s will trot out one of their ghost of prospects past in Zach Britton or Jake Arrieta. There aren’t any stars in this rotation, but it’s still much better than most recent Oriole rotation vintages, and help is on the way.
The strength of last season was the bullpen, which like the rest of the team, is mostly in tact from a year before. Jim Johnson isn’t your typical closer in that he doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but his 95 mph sinker is good for inducing a lot of ground balls (except against Raul Ibanez in the ALDS *sigh*). The primary set-up man is Darren O’Day, who is the rare submariner who can get lefties out as well as righties. Pedro Strop is your flamethrower, who struggled down the stretch and has issues with free passes. Even failed starter Brian Matusz found his niche last season as a LOOGY. Realistically, the bullpen won’t be as lights out as in 2012, but the talent is there to at least get close to that level.
As you can see by the projected record, I’m siding with those that say the Orioles will regress. Too much went right last year for regression not to happen, as much as I don’t like that. However, what I do know is that last season created hope for long suffering Orioles fans, and that when things go wrong this year, Duquette will find cheap talent on the fly to patch the holes. Last year is something I and the rest of Birdland will never forget, and even if this year is a step back, being an Orioles fan finally doesn’t feel depressing.
Projected Record: 75-87
Down on the Farm: This is a very top heavy farm system, but what a top of the line it is. SP Dylan Bundy is the consensus top pitching prospect in the game. Still just 20, Bundy came out of high school as polished as any prep pitcher ever. He’ll likely start the year in AA, and could be in the bigs for good as early as 2014. SP Kevin Gausman, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, doesn’t quite have Bundy’s potential, but he does project as a #2 starter, and the LSU product could see Camden Yards at some point this year. IF Jonathan Schoop is the O’s best position player prospect now that Machado has graduated, and was last seen playing very well for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
Those are my picks and predictions for the AL East? What are yours? Who will come out on top of what might be the hardest division to predict?