The American League East is jammed packed with four teams within 2 ½ games of each other and the division has a “flavor-of-the-week” quality. Boston and New York have each had runs in first place, with the Red Sox still there. Tampa Bay has gotten very hot of late. Churning along almost unnoticed, like a horse in the middle of the pack at nearby Pimlico Racetrack, is the Baltimore Orioles.
Baltimore comes into Monday’s games at 32-25 and have slipped into second place. The Orioles had a lot of doubters coming into this season. Their heavy reliance on the bullpen and one-run wins during the surprise playoff drive of 2012 were seen as sure signs of a fall to earth in 2013, given the fickle nature of those two attributes. But while Baltimore has had predictable adversity in both areas this year, they’ve compensated with continued improvement elsewhere and continue to win games.
AN OFFENSIVE BARRAGE AT CAMDEN
It’s the offense that’s the prime reason for the Orioles’ success, in particular hitting the ball for power. They’re second in the American League in runs scored, and are first in slugging percentage. It’s no secret who the biggest reason for this is, and that’s first baseman Chris Davis.
With a league-leading 20 home runs, an on-base percentage of .440 and a surreal slugging percentage of .749, Davis is the only player in the American League who’s even in shouting distance of Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in the MVP race, as noted in this weekend’s MLB coverage. And while we talk up Cabrera’s chances at a repeat Triple Crown, don’t overlook that Davis is second to the Tiger third baseman in both batting average and RBIs.
Manny Machado is on the opposite side of the infield and last September’s hot prospect is becoming 2013’s rising star. With a .363/.506 stat line for on-base percentage & slugging percentage, Machado might end lurking in the MVP discussion himself before the year is out. He doesn’t have the big home run totals—five on the year—but with 25 doubles, Machado drives the ball into the alleys, gets on base and plays a sharp defensive third base in a town where the legacy of Brooks Robinson is still very much appreciated.
It speaks to the depth of the Oriole offense that we’ve listed the two most productive players thus far, and haven’t even gotten to centerfielder Adam Jones, who’s posted a solid .340/.521 line. The good news for Baltimore is that Jones is capable of lifting that OBP even higher, something that can compensate when Davis’ numbers temper a bit.
Jones is flanked in the outfield by Nate McLouth, at .372/.432 and Nick Markakis, putting up a .355/.455 after returning from the broken thumb that sidelined him for the stretch drive and postseason last year.
The players that need to improve most drastically in the Oriole lineup are Matt Wieters at catcher and J.J. Hardy at short. Each has hit some home runs—seven for Wieters and a healthy twelve for Hardy—but there’s not enough consistent contributions to really impact the offense on a daily basis. If I were a betting man, I’d put my chits on Wieters to pick up the pace, whereas Hardy’s track record makes me less confident in him.
A BULLPEN HICCUP
Jim Johnson has struggled in the closer’s role this year after an impeccable 2012 season. He’s coughed up four save opportunities already and the ERA is up there at 4.67. If I’m looking down the road, I think there’s reason to be hopeful—Johnson’s blown saves came in succession, something that does tend to happen to closers—in a job where the margin for error is narrow, it’s the equivalent of a blackjack player who suddenly sees the table go cold for a bit. Johnson’s track record as a good closer going back to 2009 make it likely he’ll return to form.
The Orioles have quality setup men in front of him. Tommy Hunter, a converted starter, is having a fantastic year with a 1.74 ERA, and reliable vet Darren O’Day also has a sub-2.00 ERA. Brian Matusz is at 3.18, and this trio gives Buck Showalter plenty of chances to build the bridge to the ninth inning.
By normal standards, the Baltimore bullpen measures up well. But it doesn’t when compared to this same unit last year, when they were so deep it seemed Showalter might be better off just having a series of pitchers work two innings at a time. The fact it’s a more “normal” pen this year is fine, but it means the starting pitching has to be more consistent. And that’s been a problem.
STARTING PITCHING NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
The combined ERA of Baltimore starting pitching is only 12th in the American League, and we can start by looking at the performance of Jason Hammel. After emerging as the team’s #1 starter a year ago, Hammel has a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez haven’t been bad, at 4.26 and 4.33 respectively, but given they’re both young and had good second halves last year, more has to be demanded.
Wei-Yin Chen is the best pitcher and his trip to the disabled list didn’t help matters, especially given that he was pitching well, with a 3.04 ERA in eight starts. Baltimore got surprise help from veteran castoff Freddy Garcia, who’s put up a 3.57 ERA in his six trips to the post, but the Orioles need Chen back healthy and effectively. Fortunately for Showalter, it looks likely his ace will return in the early part of this month.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Chen isn’t the only prominent Oriole whose return from the disabled list looks imminent. Nolan Reimold is also supposed to be back, and while his left field job has been lost to McLouth, Baltimore has a need at DH that Reimold could fill. Pedro Strop, whose bullpen work was so important last year, is expected to return. And later in the month, it looks like Brian Roberts will be back at second base. While I don’t think we should get overexcited about Roberts’ return, given his troubled health history of the last few years, second base is a big liability this season and anything Roberts can give will help.
Baltimore’s current path, of relying on power to cover up for starting pitching isn’t sustainable, but it’s also reasonable to expect some improvement in the latter area, and to think that Johnson’s worst days of the season are behind him. At the start of the season I had the Orioles begged for the mid-to-high 80s in wins and the second wild-card spot. Nothing has taken place this season that would change my mind.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL East: The Yankees are in a free-fall, and the problems with their offense are catching up to them. The Yanks are now 12th in the league in runs scored, behind the Houston Astros. As long as C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera are in the house, I don’t expect the bottom to fall out, but the narrow margin of error this pitching staff has really becomes apparent if any of the arms start to look human.
AL Central: Detroit and Cleveland are both slumping, and the Tigers still hold a half-game lead over the Tribe. The beneficiary has been Minnesota, who’s moved up to a respectable 25-29 and within 4 ½ games of the lead.
AL West: Oakland is coming on strong and now within two games of front-running Texas. The battle for this division title, and the accompanying battle between the runner-up here and the #3 AL East team for the last wild-card promise to be exciting all the way through.