"Pangloss deceived me cruelly when he said that all is for the best in the world."
- Voltaire, Candide
It seems that most Oriole fans believe some form of dark magic works against their beloved squad to produce the worst case scenario at all times. Prospects will fail, free agents will falter, and injuries will nag and sap all the ability from promise. Dark times lay both ahead and behind for a fandom blinded by the morass of shadow. Despair becomes the normal, failure becomes the only option, and depression becomes a too familiar friend, like an old tattered blanket offering protection from the cruel draft of reality. In the face of this, the best remember that it is still a game, and humor becomes a shield against disappointment. They gather together day after day, for a community can suffer hardships greater than can the individual. Together, they laugh bravely through their collective misfortune. And in the mists of sorrow those few brave souls unwilling to give in entirely, unwilling to give up on their colors to the gathering forces of evil, still wait in the darkness together for their fortunes to change. Perhaps, even though they may not be admit it to each other, or even to themselves, they dream that it can happen, that it will happen - and maybe even soon. Or perhaps they have come to accept their lot.
But I do not accept this. I do not believe that the Orioles are cursed. I will not allow my spring to be ruined by doubt and disgust. I will not give up before we have begun. I do not want to be pleasantly surprised when we win 75 games. I'll save my disappointment for September when we only win 87. Because I believe the 2012 Orioles can do better than that. And for that reason, I continue to buff my resolve with all the power of meaningless Spring Training stats and cherry-picked projections from the already forgotten winter, to offer my Panglossian vision of the true best case scenario.
It has been stated that the best case scenario for the 2012 Baltimore Orioles is a record of 82-82. Even most fans deny that possibility, saying best case is no more than 72 wins. Some have stated that we would be pleasantly surprised if the Orioles avoid 100 losses. The belief is that the pitching is bad, the defense is worse and the hitting is (at best) average. The farm system, other than three prospects at least a full year away, will offer no help. And of all the players in camp are out of options. In my last fan post I offered up an idea about the age of the team mattering. That we should expect improvement from the hitters based on age alone was already explored, so I will avoid talking about that specific aspect in this post. What I will stick to this time is players' ability based on other people assessments.
On the rare occasion someone tries to find a bright spot on the 2012 Orioles, the usually point to the bats. Returning four 20+ Home Run guys (Reynolds, Hardy, Jones and Wieters) and with another three that have cracked 20 before in the majors (Markakis, Johnson and Davis) and others that have done it in the minors or combined (Reimold, Flaherty) the power is there. Even our backup catcher Teagarden hit 12 Home runs in just 123 plate appearances in AAA last year. Home runs won't be a problem. Getting guys on base when they are hit, that of course, will be the difference between this year and last.
As long as he stays healthy, Nick Johnson will be a huge help in this department. If he splits time at First Base and DH this year he will essentially be replacing Vlad and Lee from last year. His career OBP of .401 is certainly preferable to last years' .302 (Lee) and .317 (Vlad). Right now the assumption is that Chris Davis will get the other half of those at bats. Chris Davis, as we all know, has a career OBP of .301, which is not good. Sure, we can say if we average the two (Johnson/Davis) it's still better than the Lee/Vlad average from last year, but Chris Davis is not on the team for his OBP. He is here to hit home runs. Baseball Prospectus 2012 said this about him: "If he can avoid injury setbacks, he is a good candidate for a Carlos Peña style breakout...He has the raw power of Thor, and that will be the tool to carry him." When I was a kid I wanted to be Thor when I grew up. I still want to be Thor when I grow up. Say it with me, THOR! That's what I want from a first baseman. I say we burn the name Mjölnir on his bats and head out to Eutaw Street with our orange gloves to give him a nice clear target.
If you want less legend and more science for my faith in Davis, take a look at his September splits from last year. Granted, a very small sample size, but even though he was dealing with a partially torn labium and a sports hernia, in 21 games he had a slash line of .301/.341/.434. Not bad for battling 2 injuries. Think what he could do when he is healthy.
On the other side of the infield and from the other side of the plate is last year's MLB leader in home runs per contacted ball, Mark Reynolds. Last year's .266 BABIP is well below his career .305 BABIP. He has cut down on his strikeouts in both the last two years and he came into camp svelte and ready to make last year's defensive nightmare a distant memory. Or a recent memory. Whatever, a memory. All anyone wants to talk about is his horrible defense, and with good reason, it was legendarily bad. But he has a ton of power, and if he continues to cut down on his strikeouts he can be one of the best offensive third basemen in the league.
Combined, our corner infield is finally what corner infielders should be, a huge source of power. These are the guys that can change the game with one swing of the bat. They stress out opposing pitchers knowing that any mistake they make will become a souvenir. But what about the middle? It all starts with Matt Wieters, which I won't need to go into any detail on since he is so loved by all Oriole fans, but Baseball Prospectus did say, "If Wieters can maintain the gains he made last year, he could settle in as a .285, 25-home-run type with league average walk rate. Throw in his good defense, and Wieters is well on his way to becoming the star catcher the Orioles were hoping for." At shortstop, JJ Hardy was finally allowed to pull the ball again and in the process pulled 30 over the fence. Adam Jones set career highs in homers, doubles and steals, and if he can be a little more patient he can turn into a great centerfielder. If there was a gun to my head and I needed to make a pick for one Orioles player to have a breakout season this year and become elite, it would be Adam Jones. He has always had the physical tools and according to Buck has done everything he can to make himself a better player. He has to stop chasing pitches outside of the strike zone, but if he does, according to Baseball Prospectus, he could "hit over .300 or bash 30-plus homers." That's what I would like to see this year.
As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. And that responsibility is to get men on base. That's where the remaining corner outfield spots, 2nd base and DH come in. Right fielder Markakis has a .365 career OBP, which is the same exact number Reimold had in his '09 season (the only time he had over 400PA). Gone is Luke Scott's .301 OBP and Pie's .264 OBP. As we have seen, our DH hopeful of Nick Johnson is an OBP machine. The other leading DH candidate, Betemit, has career OBP vs right handers of .348, higher than any OBP on the team last year other than Markakis. Our weak spot here is probably second base. Andino's career OBP is just .302, though he did post a .327 last year. If he could improve a little it would be pretty good from our #9 hitter. The other options of Flaherty and Antonelli are too unproven to speculate on, but Antonelli did post a .393 Obp in AAA last year...
Put it all together and what do you have? The makings of a feared lineup. There's nothing like an opposing pitcher looking at Thor in the batter's box, Jesus on the on deck circle and another Thor in the hole. Especially with the bases juiced and no out. Sure, one of them will strike out. Heck, maybe two of them will. But the one that doesn't, look out!
Last year we had an average offense, right around the AL average of Runs, BA, OPS, OPS+, Hits, and most categories were either average or above average except for one notable exception. The Orioles OBP was below average and about 30 points below NY and Boston. That is something that it seems has been addressed in the offseason, and will provide a huge boost to the 2012 Orioles. With an increased OBP, the Orioles offense will move into the top tier of the American League.
Brian Matusz in 2010 had a good season. He is going to improve on that this year. I'm not looking for him to improve on last year; last year will just be a cautionary tale of the greatest sophomore slump of all time (and setting Matusz up for hopefully his only comeback player of the year award). I'm looking for an improvement on 2010 numbers. I believe he will become the staff ace this year. That's not to say he would be the ace on another team, but I think he will become what other teams would consider a solid #2 pitcher. I'm looking for an improvement on the 2010 numbers to the tune of 180+ IP, sub 4 ERA.
He will be followed by two Jeremy Guthrie clones in Jason Hammel and Tommy Hunter. They are innings eaters who don't get many strikeouts but can be serviceable starters. I call Jason Hammel a Jeremy Guthrie clone only because others have and he was traded for him. I don't know, something about FIP, I don't really get that. I'll probably get a pass on that one. Everyone will probably skip over the fact I mentioned him anyway since I mentioned Tommy Hunter in the same sentence. I'm sure everyone thinks I'm crazy for saying Tommy Hunter is a Jeremy Guthrie clone, as they seem to hate Hunter (and still love Guthrie). Possibly some residual Koji trade sentiment. But I didn't say Hunter is the new Jeremy Guthrie, Baseball Prospectus did. BP said this about TH: "Hunter has the potential to become the new Jeremy Guthrie for the O's...the uncanny resemblance to Guthrie continues as Hunter boasts as almost identical repertoire: an 11-to-5 curve, a two-seamer, a change, and a cutter that behaves a bit like Guthrie's slider." Fact is he doesn't strike out a ton of guys but doesn't walk many either, and while he will give up a few home runs he can turn into a solid pitcher for us. If not for a groin injury right at the end of Spring Training last year he may not have even been available to us as he was slated to be a part of Texas' rotation. With Guthrie 2.0 and 2.1 we have two unspectacular yet potential sub 4 ERA inning eaters. As you are all aware, we had no sub 4 ERA starters last year. This year, we have 3.
After these top three we have Chen, Tillman, Bergesen and Arrieta. All young pitchers that will compete for the 4th and 5th spot in the rotation. Best case scenario (remember, that's what we're doing here) is that Tillman finally realizes his potential, figures it out and becomes lights out. But even I'm not that crazy. What I would like to see is some consistency, low 4 ERA with a bunch a strikeouts and innings per start. I would love to see him have a season to build from in the future. Maybe he's a mid-season replacement this year, but hopefully it's the start of six seasons and a movie. Chen looks good so far, and Arrieta seems much better now that he lost the elbow weight, but let us not get ahead of ourselves here. We're talking about the 4th and 5th starters, and whomever they end up being, just a solid low 4 ERA would be huge. The key is going late into games, giving the bullpen as few opportunities as possible.
As for the bullpen, it's a bit of a quandary right now. Lots of options, but not a lot of options to be excited about. I don't think we have a true closer, but right now, if closer by committee/best pitcher per situation is not employed, hopefully JJ continues where he left off last year. Best case scenario, we trade Kevin Gregg. Bullpen instantly improves.
A top tier offense and respectable pitching will win you 90 games. Last year we had an average offense and miserable pitching. Both will improve, and overall it will seem like the team is making huge strides, even if in reality these are all mostly small improvements. It's just that these small improvements are happening across the board that will be the difference. I get it; this is the best case scenario. All possible, but not all probable. However, this is not inconceivable. None of this is dream the impossible dreamland. It's not as if I am saying that every Oriole will perform better than they did last year. Some will get injured or regress for some reason or another. Some just aren't that good, or don't really have any upside at all, basically replacement level players. But the 2012 Orioles do have talent. They have players with high upsides and lots of potential flaws. The best case scenario requires that all (or at least most) of these things come together at the same time. I understand that this is not a common occurrence. It's not something that you are supposed to expect to happen. But it is something that does happen. It is something that you can hope for. And if you can't have hope in spring training then when can you?
I don't ask anyone to mortgage their house on a world series bet. I don't ask anyone to throw away all they know about the game and blindly believe that good things will happen no matter what. And I'm certainly not saying that winning 90+ games is a forgone conclusion. What I am saying is that losing 90+ is not a forgone conclusion either. This team has talent and lots of potential. This team can win. I will not accept that the best case scenario is failure. It's March dammit, and I'm going to believe, because this team is worth believing in. There is promise and possibility that I haven't felt in years. I actually can't remember the last time I had this much faith in the Orioles before the season. I can't even explain it. Maybe I have finally gone insane. But I don't want to hide under that blanket anymore. I'm tired of living in the shadows. It's springtime, and I want to feel the sun on my face.
It's March dammit, and I'm going to believe...