September 5, 2012

Orioles Magic

It is September 5th and the Baltimore Orioles are tied with the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East. If I had told you this in April you would laugh in my face and think I have no business writing an article on baseball. Despite my Oriole fanhood, I would have thought it was ridiculous too.
Typically going into the season I am optimistic about the Orioles. I typically say to myself, “This is the year our young players develop and we put together a winning season.” They always make a couple of moves in the winter that I think are just enough to put the team over 80 wins. In 2004 the Orioles acquired Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Miguel Tejada. I was unbelievably excited because Tejada was a former MVP and Lopez was coming off a good season. Of course some of the younger players took a step back and the Orioles finished below 80 wins again. In 2011 they had a few good pitching prospects come up to start the season. Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman were all supposed to be 15 game winners. With those guys coming up and the offseason acquisitions of Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee, and Vlad Guerrero I thought 2011 was going to be the year. Unfortunately, Arrieta got hurt, Matusz and Tillman took steps back, and Lee and Guerrero vastly underachieved.
That brings me to 2012. This was the first season in a few years that I did not feel good about the O’s. Their big offseason move was trading Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. Our rotation was once again relying on young pitchers like Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Wei-Yin Chen. We had holes at second base and left field and a young bullpen. I was expecting a 60 win season at best.
Since April the Orioles have completely proved me wrong. Jason Hammel was one of the top ten pitchers in the American League in the first half and Chen was right behind him. Adam Jones came out playing like a MVP candidate and our bullpen was unhittable. I was excited but remembered that the Orioles started out similar last season.
Then things went south. Matusz, Arrieta, and Hunter got shelled every start and were all sent down to the minor leagues. Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis got injured leaving major holes in the outfield. At the All Star break, sports analyst like Michael Wilbon and Dan LeBetard said that the Orioles would come back to reality and quite frankly I agreed with them.
Once August came around the Orioles flipped a switch. The Orioles we see now are a totally different team than the Orioles even in June. They made a few small moves such as signing Nate McLouth, trading for Omar Quintanilla, and picking up a pair of lefty pitchers Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf. Also made moves like Mark Reynolds to first base instead of third where he had the worst fielding percentage in baseball in 2011. Moves like moving Brian Matusz to the bullpen because he pitches significantly better against lefties.
The reason the Orioles are winning is because they are one of the most balanced teams in baseball. The O’s don’t really have any stars, but instead have a bunch of good players who all contribute. Nick Markakis is not a star, but has the highest OBP in baseball since returning from injury in July. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez are not stars but reliable starters with low ERA’s. They have the best bullpen in baseball led by Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. And finally they have Manager of the Year favorite Buck Showalter who has turned this team around in an incredibly short period of time.
The Orioles have not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 1997. This looks like the year that they finally do it. The Orioles have finally earned the respect of baseball analysts, opposing teams and most importantly their fans. If things continue the way they are going, expect to see the black and orange contending for years to come.

Michael Huntley