Baseball on the Beltway got a big lift in 2012, as both the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs and stretched their Division Series showdowns to the full five games. The Orioles’ arrival was more surprising than the Nationals, but with giants in each dugouts—Davey Johnson in D.C. and Buck Showalter in Charm City—you had to know each organization would get it done eventually. Now they have the tougher task though, which is to make the second act of success. Let’s take a look at both the O’s and Nats as they prep for 2013…
Washington: Most people are expecting Washington to repeat in the NL East and it’s because of the quality of their pitching. Stephen Strasburg will get a full season this year, with the foolish shutdown controversy now behind him. Add Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman and they anchor Washington’s rotation with three legitimate Cy Young candidates. In addition, Washington acquired Dan Haren from the Angels to replace the departed Edwin Jackson. Haren’s ERA jumped to 4.33 a year ago, but coming to the DH-less National League will help that and he’s made at least thirty starts every year since 2005. Then you throw in Ross Detwiler, the 27-year-old who would be the prize young arm with most teams, but is almost an afterthought in Washington. The bullpen now has Rafael Soriano to close and the setup team is deep and good. This is a staff with no weaknesses.
It’s scoring enough runs to keep the Nats competitive in a division that includes Atlanta and Philadelphia that will be their defining issue. Ian Desmond popped 25 home runs, as the young shortstop showed why Washington was uninterested in Jose Reyes on last year’s free agent market. Bryce Harper posted a .340 on-base percentage and .577 slugging in a dynamic rookie year, while Ryan Zimmerman has established himself as a steady offensive force at third base. The question marks are what the Nats will get from Jayson Werth, whether Adam LaRoche can repeat his .343/.510 season, and whether Denard Span is as good as a lot of people seem to think. I’m optimistic on Werth, but less so on LaRoche and Span. But any kind of split decision among these three hitters, combined with the offensive core, and then added to the pitching staff will put Washington in the playoffs again.
Baltimore: The Orioles’ pitching isn’t as heralded or even as good as their Beltway cousins, but Baltimore does have an underrated rotation. Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman came on in the second half of last year and will be in the rotation from the outset this time around. Asian import Wei-Yin Chen established himself as a consistent major league starter, and Jason Hammel had a good first year in Baltimore. Even if Hammel slips from his 3.43 ERA of last year, or can’t overcome the injuries that bedeviled him down the stretch last year, the advantage of having Gonzalez and Tillman rolling from Day One will make up for that.
The bullpen was one of the best, if not the best, in the game last year and even if Jim Johnson doesn’t repeat his 51-save performance, he’s been a very good reliever going back to 2008 and isn’t going anywhere. Pedro Strop is a talented young setup man, and then you mix in Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz, giving Showalter plenty of options from the sixth inning on.
Just as is the case in D.C., the issue will be offense. The Orioles have young stud third baseman Manny Machado from the outset, and the 21-year-old slugged .445 after being called up in the second half of last season. Nick Markakis is healthy again, as is Nolan Remold in the outfield. Adam Jones has established himself as a bona fide star in centerfield, though I’d like to see him improve that .334 on-base percentage.
Our big question marks here will be the health of Brian Roberts—he’s fine right now, but after back problems and concussions for the past couple years, how long will he hold up? J.J. Hardy has hit 52 home runs over the last two years, but his batting average and ability to draw walks is a significant liability. Nate McLouth resurrected his flailing career here after a midseason trade last year. Can he regain his 2009 form for a full year? And can Chris Davis hit 33 home runs again, and will Matt Wieters elevate his production beyond the .329/.435 stat line he put up last year?
I’m mostly pessimistic on a lot of these questions, although I’d give McLouth and Wieters the best chance of answering affirmatively.
HOW MANY WILL THEY WIN?
As we’ve done throughout the spring MLB coverage here at TheSportsNotebook, let’s answer the question of how Baltimore and Washington will fare against their Over/Under win props posted in Las Vegas. The Orioles are listed at 79, with the Nationals at 92.5.
The Baltimore number is crazy. I understand that the raw number of games they won in extra innings and by one run make them every sabermetrician’s candidate for a big drop-off. But do you mean to tell me that I can take a team that won 93 games last year, take the Over and still win the bet if they come in under .500 at 80-82. Yeah, I’ll take my chances. Furthermore, while there is definite truth to the notion that winning close games is the toughest way to win consistently, it’s easily overlooked that Baltimore became a much stronger team in the second half of last year, thanks to the emergence of the starting pitchers discussed above. To the extent they caught a luck wave, it was in the first half of the season. Finally, if you have a team with a deep bullpen and a good manager, is it really just a statistical fluke that they win a disproportionate number of close games? I’m not saying the Orioles are going to win 93 again, but I certainly think they’ll be the mid-80s and in the playoff conversation.
Washington is a tougher pick. I hate picking Overs on these nigh numbers, but I think I’m going to make an exception here. The Nats’ pitching is so good that I can’t see them winning fewer than 90 games, and I could easily envision them going into the 98-100 range. That gives me more room on the Over side of the number, so that’s where I’m going.