"The same team the city of Baltimore got behind is coming back." - Dan Duquette
In the midst of a snoozer of an offseason, Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations gave the above quote in an interview with MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli. The whole thing is linked above, and if you didn't see it yet, it's worth reading, because it's indicative of another one of those differences that a year makes. Before last season, Duquette was asked point blank whether he thought the O's were a .500 team, and he said no. This year, the response is more like, "Remember last year? Let's do that again!"
There are worse things you can do than double down on a 93-win team. For instance, you might double down on a 66-win team like the 2010 Orioles, counting on a bunch of players to improve. When they don't improve much, you get the 69-win 2011 Orioles. There are even fewer changes with this year's Orioles compared to those two seasons.
Among players who had at least 150 PA for the Orioles last year, the only departures are Robert Andino, Endy Chavez, and Mark Reynolds. Among pitchers who threw at least 40 IP for the Orioles, the only one who is gone is Kevin Gregg. Joe Saunders may or may not return. Whether or not he does, the top 13 pitchers in innings pitched for the 2012 O's are still with the organization. Eight of the ten hitters with the most PA figure to begin the 2013 season on the O's as well.
We have debated, ad nauseum, reasons why the O's may be due for regression. Bullpen volatility, the evening out of luck in one-run games, the possibility of players like Nate McLouth and Miguel Gonzalez being one-hit wonders. Yet it's easy to forget the reasons why some aspects of the team could be as good, or better. There are young players who one can reasonably believe will improve - dream on Chris Tillman! Why not? - and players entering or moving through their primes who could also be as good or better. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and even Chris Davis give us reason to think positively for 2013.
"Some of these guys in the middle of the lineup - Jones, Wieters, Davis - they are 26, 27. Those guys should continue to improve. That's a legit middle of the order." - Duquette
When I first read this quote, I thought, "That's insane!" Last year's surprise success notwithstanding, this is still the Orioles. We can't possibly have nice things, can we? The idea that the above-named players could constitute a legitimate middle of the order seemed ridiculous. And yet, the Orioles were one of only five teams in the AL that had two teammates with a slugging percentage over .500 - and they were the only team in the AL East to manage this. 27 players in MLB had 30+ homers last year and two of them were on the Orioles - Jones and Davis.
Is it insane to believe that Jones and Davis can come close to their success from last year? Is it crazy to believe that Matt Wieters will take a step forward at the plate and really add another punch to the 3-4-5 segment of the lineup? What about a full year from Markakis, who looked to be rebounding from a couple of disappointing seasons before a couple of hit-by-pitch-related injuries shortened his season? Or even the enigmatic Nolan Reimold? Note that you don't have to believe, like Steve Melewski does, that Reimold will hit over 30 home runs in order to think he'll contribute to the O's this year.
Suddenly you're talking a potential 1-5 in the order, and we haven't even thought about Manny Machado's sophomore season or J.J. Hardy potentially rebounding. Of course, not everything will go according to the most optimistic possible scenario - it didn't even happen this way for the 2012 O's - but the idea that most of these players will meet reasonable expectations is not completely insane. There is a combination of potential and track record to give you reason to believe that things could even improve over last year.
With the rotation, you have to be a bit more of a dreamer, but you don't have to squint too hard to see where it might even constitute a strength. Tillman may have finally figured out the whole pitching in the big leagues thing. Hammel gave plenty of reason - when healthy - to believe that adding the two-seam fastball to his repertoire made him a different pitcher than he was in Colorado. Wei-Yin Chen was solid, and if he's more adjusted to the MLB rotation schedule, could be even better. Miguel Gonzalez ended the season with quality starts in eight of his last ten games, and seemed to relish in a big game atmosphere.
As with the hitters, it's not likely that every one of these players will hit sunny projections. There could be injuries or ineffectiveness, but we know from last year that Duquette scours the world for any potential diamond in the rough - and he's done the same this offseason as well. Not only that, but as we saw with Machado last year, Duquette and his front office won't be shy about promoting a top prospect like Dylan Bundy or even Kevin Gausman if they believe that's the best option to improve the club.
"...this ballclub we are talking about improved last year during the season more than any other ballclub in the big leagues." - Duquette
After being used to the sweater-vested optimistic obfuscations of Andy MacPhail, there is a reflex to discount a statement like this from a team's GM. After all, what's he going to say? "Yep, everyone else got better, and we didn't. Things will probably suck this year." Not likely.
The thing about Duquette's quote above is that he's absolutely right. We saw this with our own eyes. Around the trade deadline, Andrew and I were talking on Camdencast about how the Orioles would have to either get better or start losing. We both thought they would start losing. Then they brought up McLouth and Machado and Saunders, Davis and Reynolds spent September destroying pitches, and the O's got better.
Is that enough to make it a good season for the 2013 Orioles? There's still a lot of ifs at play, and we haven't even considered the serious overhaul that was made to the roster of the Blue Jays, making the division an even tougher place to play. The Yankees had an injury-plagued down year (by their standards) and could be better. The Rays and their endless stream of young pitching will always be dangerous.
Much of the world spent much of last year assuming that Duquette was insane. This started before he was even hired, when ESPN's Keith Law made the famous declaration that no one with self-respect would take the Orioles GM job. It continued as he tinkered at the margins, assembling and constantly changing a team full of misfits.
Still, as the saying goes, "The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success." The 93 wins of Duquette's 2012 Orioles puts quite a bit of distance between that insanity and genius, enough to tentatively give him the benefit of the doubt, even through a quiet offseason.
Duquette has doubled down on that team. They are a year older - and are young enough where that's a positive - and they have a year of experience playing tight games, and playoff games. It could all still go horribly awry, but a second surprising season is not out of the question.