By Marc Normandin
The Baltimore Orioles have already been eliminated from the playoff race, which on the surface means the 2013 season is less successful than 2012. Last year, the O's made it to the postseason for the first time since 1997, snapping one of the lengthier streaks of futility in the majors, but there's plenty of reason to believe it won't take them very long to reach October baseball once more, despite this season's supposed setback. That's because, unlike a year ago, the production of the Orioles is for real, and is a base from which to work from.
Don't take that to mean that last season's success means nothing -- those wins, and the subsequent postseason appearance, are both in the bank and very real. The way they won, though, was always going to be difficult to repeat. They only scored seven more runs than they allowed, which suggested that they should have finished much closer to .500 than to the 93 wins that earned them a postseason berth. They were a staggering 22-9 in one-run games, good for a .710 win percentage that would mean 115 wins over a full season were it their win percentage over a 162-game season. They were 16-2 in extra inning games, many of which are included in those one-run contests, and that's how they ended up with 11 more wins than their pythagorean record suggests they should have.
It was luck, but not entirely unearned luck. Their bullpen, as a unit, posted a 3.00 ERA and went 32-11, good for a .744 win percentage. The league average for those two figures: 3.67 and .514. The Orioles 'pen was great, but it's difficult to be that great all the time. This year, when they've posted a far more standard 3.51 ERA, the club is 8-7 in extras, and just 17-31 in one-run contests. Even with that huge difference year-to-year, though, from an unsustainable record to one that's a bit unlucky, the Orioles have managed to post an overall winning record.
They've done this thanks to legitimate steps forward from key contributors. The most obvious of these is the major league home run leader, Chris Davis, who has hit .286/.369/.632 in his second full campaign with the Orioles. He was plenty useful in 2012, posting a 121 OPS+, but he's been one of the league's top hitters this season: while he might not set an O's franchise record for dingers every year, there is real improvement from his game thanks to changes in his swing mechanics, and he's now hit .290/.370/.639 with 67 homers since mid-August of last season. He's one of the better middle-of-the-order threats out there, and the O's have him under control through 2016.
There's also Manny Machado, who showed up late in 2012 to help the O's down the stretch, but stepped up his game this year in his age-20 season, his first full campaign in the majors. Machado has hit .283/.314/.432, good for an OPS+ of 100. It might not seem like much, but he's one of only 37 players ever to manage that in his age-20 campaign, and one of only 60 ever to qualify for the batting title at that youthful age. The potential here is massive, and that's saying something about the league-leader in doubles who has 21 homers before his age-21 season even begins -- assuming, of course, that the leg injury he suffered this week in Tampa Bay isn't as devastating as it looked like it might be at the time.
There are some areas of potential concern in the lineup, such as Nick Markakis' down year, and Matt Wieters' production dropping precipitously in his age-27 campaign, when he should have been breaking out. With that being said, though, the Orioles managed to get to where they are even with these issues -- should Wieters or Markakis, or even both of them, manage to recover their form in 2014, the lineup will be that much more potent, especially in concert with the expected development of Machado.
Optimism is just as easy to find on the pitching side of things. Chris Tillman continued the success of his partial 2012 season, reaching not just 100 and 150 innings for the first time ever, but over 200. He made the All-Star team, struck out 2.6 times as many as he walked, and posted a 116 ERA+. As he has in the past, he still gave up too many homers, and that merits watching going forward, but even FanGraphs, which uses adjusted ERA metrics for wins above replacement, saw Tillman as an above-average hurler.
Miguel Gonzalez wasn't quite as good, but the fact that he was able to produce an above-average campaign for the second year in a row, rather than crashing and burning as was suspected he would, is a positive development. He's still not quite out of the woods in that regard, but now he has 269-2/3 innings in the majors behind him, so it's at least a little believable that he's more successful than his peripherals indicate.
Wei-Yin Chen missed time with injury, but produced at about the same rate as last year otherwise, giving the Orioles another quality mid-rotation option that they had been missing in the past. He's not a free agent until 2018, so they have that kind of production under control for the foreseeable future. While Bud Norris isn't likely to be more than a back-end option for the Orioles after he was acquired from the Astros, at least he's not expected to fail as miserably as some of the pitchers they've rolled out there in the past.
Speaking of failure, it's hard to be encouraged by anything resembling a pitching prospect on the Orioles, given the disappointing-to-date careers of highly touted arms like Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and until recently, Tillman. That being said, though, Kevin Gausman's issues in 2013 can at least partially be attributed to the fact he's all of 22 and entered the year with 61 innings as a professional under his belt. He was also Baseball America's 26th-ranked prospect, and will be given opportunities to show off that potential as soon as next year. When Dylan Bundy returns from Tommy John surgery and works his way back to the majors, he'll be able to give the Orioles the boost they were expecting from one of the game's very best pitching prospects in this season. If one or both of them can take steps forward, the Orioles will likely see an improved rotation in a division that requires it.
Admittedly, that's a bunch of ifs when you combine hoping for a Wieters and Markakis rebound with not one but two Orioles' pitching prospects actually reaching expectations. It's less of an if than the idea of them taking a legitimate leap forward from their lucky 2012 was, though, and while October baseball isn't on the calendar for them this year, they're working from a better base than they were this time a year ago. That's something to celebrate, even without a repeat postseason berth.