When C.C. Sabathia snagged Matt Wieters' comebacker in Game 5 of the ALDS, my heart sunk. As he tossed the ball to first base the last remaining drop of 'Orioles Magic" dissipated into the New York night. An improbable magical season had reached it's end with a loss to it's richer, more star-studded nemesis in pinstripes. Disappointing yes, but a season 15 years in the making. The memories of Jeffrey Maier may be been unvanquished (they may have actually been resurrected when Nate McLouth launched a shot to right that seemingly grazed the foul pole only to be shot down upon video review), but these Orioles could walk off the field with their head held high no matter what the end result was. They spit in the face of conventional wisdom and sustained a run that many said was a statistical anomoly over the course of an entire season. You had to love these Orioles.
The 2012 edition of the Orioles rejuvenated a fan-base that was left in slumber over the course of 15 years. Naturally, this led many to wonder, what will the off season bring? What will Dan Duquette do for an encore? Sign a big name free agent? Swing a huge blockbuster? Maybe both? O's fans were salivating at the possibilities and the salivating was fueled even further by several media outlets (CBS, ESPN, MLBTR) linking the O's to the likes of Josh Hamilton & Adam LaRoche, who's bats would fit perfect in Camden Yards. Of course, this seemingly happens every year. Last year it was Prince Fielder, but this year Duquette had to do something. The fans clamored for it. Screaming from the rooftops that Peter Angelos dust off the old checkbook and open up the vault. Us long suffering Oriole fans were owed that much. Weren't we?
Well, here we are, January 9th and Josh Hamilton is an Angel. Nick Swisher is an Indian. Adam LaRoche is still residing down the Beltway in D.C. Duquette has stoodm pat this winter. While we were all chomping at the bit for the big name free agent or trade to come down the pipe, Duquette was quietly re-signing Nate McLouth, who had a career rejuvenation upon coming up from Norfolk to Charm City. The bank wasn't broken for Nate and hopefully that stands to be the carrot to keep McLouth hungry for more. McLouth's re-signing has proven to be the single biggest move of the Orioles off-season. Most of us in Orioleland have channeled our inner Norm MacDonald and have exclaimed "Wait, What?" throughout the off season with our moves or lack thereof.
Claiming Alexi Casilla off Waivers...."Wait, What?" Trading Robert Andino to Seattle for out of options Trayvon Robinson...."Wait, What?" Picking T.J. MacFarland in the Rule 5 Draft....."Wait What?" I can't even remember how we got Yamaico Navarro, but HOLY....."Wait What?"
You all see where I'm going. We've been on pins and needles all winter, but in all reality, the fact that Duquette hasn't gone out and landed the big name fre agent or traded for a superstar may exactly be what we needed. We all love to play General Manager, but in the end, we're not. Dan Duquette is. The fact that he has done little more than tweak the O's may say much more than we could possibly imagine. By not pulling the trigger and making a big splash, Duquette is telling the O's on the roster that he believes that this squad, as it is compiled now, is good enough to win again. And why shouldn't they think that? This Orioles team made the playoffs last year despite everyone saying that the collapse was going to commence at any moment, but we all know that it didn't. The extra innings record, the 1 & 2 run games record was just a bunch of malarkey. That was going to end to. Again, it didn't.
When I look at how the O's are put together now, what have we lost? Obviously Mark Reynolds, who turned in quite an admirable performance defensively after switching to first base and went on a tear after August 1 (especially against the Yankees), but a .221 batting average coupled with his lowest totals in homeruns, RBIs and runs scored since his rookie season and career low slugging % & OPS made him expendable. He loved being an Oriole and, from all accounts, was a great lockerroom presence, but was he ultimately irreplaceable? The answer is no.
When I look at our current roster, I think to myself, maybe Danny Boy is onto something here. Take a look at our potential starting line up. With Reynolds out of the picture, Chris Davis would likely move to first base. He's not a defensive wizard, but he's also nothing to sneeze at, plus we saw what he could do with the stick. Maybe Brian Roberts finally recovers and gives us a solid season and magically stays healthy. A move to the bottom of the order may do him some good as well. J.J. Hardy is as solid as they come and Manny Machado gave us a glimpse into the future and solidified the left side of the infield. With Wieters calling the games behind the plate 140 games a year, the infield looks pretty adept. Move to the outfield and you have Adam Jones in center, Nick Markakis in Right and McLouth in left. That as defensively sound an outfield as there is in the majors. Of course, we need to find a DH, but maybe Nolan Reimold and finally stay healthy and fill that role. God knows his odds of staying healthy would drastically improve if he shifted to DH 80% of the time. The kid can hit.
At the moment, the bench players may leave something left to be desired, who am I kidding, of course they do. Taylor teagarden will most likely be back to back up Wieters behind the plate. He's nothing to write home about, but he had his moments last year. Ryan Flaherty, despite the fact I almost came through my television screen in order to strangle him when he dropped an easy pop fly against the Yankees in New York, showed some promise and could be a decent utility guy. Alexi Casilla and Danny Valencia are low risk, moderate upside guys. Valencia is only a year removed from a 15 homerun, 76 RBI campaign. Wilson Betemit is Wilson Betemit and Yamaico Navarro is well, moving on. The bench is obviouosly a work in progress, we'll probably get another glimpse of Xavier Avery and L.J. Hoes again this year, maybe even a look-see of Jonathan Schoop. Who knows?
As for the pitching staff, our bullpen showed everyone what they were capable of last year, but lets start with a possible rotation. Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen are givens, albeit not ace material, maybe not #1 starter material, but solid nonetheless. Conceivably, if he had a great spring, I'd consider giving Chris Tillman the ball on opening day.He started to fulfill some of his promise last year as he went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA. I'd like to see what Miguel Gonzalez can do for an encore and if Zach Britton can bounce back from his shoulder issues of last year. Tillman, Hammel, Chen, Britton & Gonzalez, sure their names are household outside of Orioledom, but they don't have to be. They just have to be solid, with a pinch of spectacular. We know there'll be bumps. Of course, we're all begging for Dylan Bundy to come right out of the gate, but with the whole service time shenanigans, he could strike out every batter he faced in Spring Training on 3 pitches and I still don't believe he'd begin the year in Baltimore, but I hear Norfolk is great in April. He'd be much more suited for a mid-May call up, where he would just throw the O's on his back and single handedly bring us back to greatness, however unlikely that scenario may be. On top of that, there's still Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, T.J. McFarland and possibly even Tsuyoshi Wada in the rotation mix, although, I think Matusz & Hunter would be great in the bullpen. Speaking of which...
The 'pen all begins with Jimmy Johnson, solid all year with a couple of rough patches in the playoffs. That's the learning curve though when you're in uncharted waters against a team that historically won't die (God I hate the Yankees!). Johnson is one of the best, if not the best, in the business today. Pedro Strop was a revelation, although he wore down towards the end, but he was leaned upon quite a bit at the outset of the year. Darren O'Day was lethal. Troy Patton was great as well. Now add in the fact that Hunter & Matusz re-invented themselves quite capably in the bullpen and once again, this is a positiion of strength that may be need to be leaned upon and leaned upon heavily at times.
So with all the rumors that have swirled around and encapsulated this Orioles this winter, maybe we should take a step back and assess what we actually have. We have a group of mostly young players that went on the ride of a lifetime last year. They brought a baseball loving city back to life. They grew together and they won together. Winning brought them even closer. Losing to the Yankees was heart-wrenching, but it could be the catalyst to something even greater. Yes the Blue Jays pulled off the blockbuster deals. Yes the Red Sox made a splash in free agency. The Rays have developed a strong young core that has a knack for winning. And Yes the Yankees are of course the Yankees. That's all well and good, but these O's were special last year and there's no statisical analysis that says they can't be special again.
Many times, the most important moves you make are the ones you don't.