After a rollercoaster offseason, one in which the club traded away baseball's save leader before redeeming itself with late season acquisitions, fans were optimistic that Oriole Magic would return to Camden Yards once again. However, a slow start to the season has brought a sense of urgency to the Baltimore faithful.
While still early, if the Orioles are to recapture the magic and return to the playoffs for the second time in three years, the following circumstances must fall in their favor.
As I noted last week, the month of April is statistically the most difficult month of the season for the Birds. In fact, the Orioles' entire schedule is widely-considered the toughest in baseball. Over the first two series, the O's managed only two wins against the American League's best, Boston and Detroit. Outside of two stellar outings from starter Chris Tillman, the Orioles' pitching staff struggled against the two best offenses in the American League. Over the six-game stretch, the staff allowed 28 runs on 68 hits, a recipe for disaster.
On the bright side, the schedule seemed to have lightened up as the O's traveled to New York. Ranked among the worst teams in many offensive categories in 2013, the Orioles hoped the Yankees would provide a lessened-challenge than their previous opponents. While the opening game of the series did not go as planned, a 4-2 loss, solid starts from Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez in the final two matchups gave the Orioles their first series win of the season.
The schedule fails to become easier in the foreseeable future, as the Orioles continue their string of six-consecutive divisional opponents with visits from the Blue Jays and Rays, before traveling to Boston for the first time this season. Not to mention, of their remaining opponents this month, all but the Royals finished in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency. Luckily, the rest of the division has had an equally difficult start to the season, with the Orioles a mere game out of first place.
|April 2014||2013 Record|
|at Red Sox||97-65|
|at Blue Jays||74-88|
The only way for the Orioles to manage such a schedule is for the team to match its own offensive output from a season ago. Until Tuesday's breakout against the Yankees, the Orioles had managed only 22 runs over 7 games. A measly three runs a game will not win many games, no matter how many aces you have on staff. On Tuesday, however, the Orioles showed glimpses of the offensive firepower fans long for in their 14-5 victory over the Yankees. The 20 hits recorded were by far a season high, but the offense seemed to relapse in the series finale. Outside of a three-run shot from Jonathan Schoop in the second inning and a two-run ninth, Wednesday night's output was similar to the first seven games of the season.
Some Orioles, specifically first baseman Chris Davis, will have a tough time equaling their offensive production from a season ago, simply due to regression to the mean. Davis, who crushed a career-high 53 home runs in 2013, has yet to hit one out of the park this season. In comparison, Davis hit six homeruns in the same nine-game span one year ago. With such high expectations, Davis will likely field most of the blame for the Orioles’ lack of offensive production, but in reality, roughly 35 home runs for Davis should be welcomed by O’s fans.
If the series against the Yankees is any indication of an offensive breakout for the Birds, expect some fireworks in the upcoming matchups with Toronto and Tampa Bay. In fact, Davis’ historic 2013 season kicked off with three-consecutive games with a homerun against the Rays.
In the thick of the playoff race in early August, 2012, the Orioles put all their chips on the table and promoted top-prospect Manny Machado from Double-A. Since journeymen Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit struggled to lock down the hot corner, the Orioles front office felt that the franchise’s future was now.
With the 20-year-old from Miami in the lineup, the Orioles would finish the season with a 93-69 record and make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Although the youngster was tasked with playing third base instead of his natural shortstop position, Machado’s glove and timely hitting lead the Orioles to a 33-18 record down the stretch. Showing flashes of Brooks Robinson on the corner, Machado won his first-career Gold Glove award in 2013, also receiving the Platinum Glove award as the best overall defender in the American League.
Unfortunately, the 2013 season ended abruptly for Machado when he suffered a torn medial patellofemoral ligament in his left knee as he was running out a single and awkwardly stepped on first base. Machado originally feared that the injury was career-threatening, but thanks to a successful surgery and a strict rehab regiment, he has been participating in baseball activities in recent weeks. Although he was placed on the 15-day disabled list to start the season, Machado is now eligible to come off when called upon. However, it’s unknown whether Machado will need or request a rehab stint in the minor leagues before returning to the big league club.
What we do know is that when Machado returns, the job is his. In the meantime, however, manager Buck Showalter has had to shuffle players at the hot corner. Former Rule 5 pickup Ryan Flaherty, although a regular at second base, has taken his fair share of grounders at third, while prospect Jonathan Schoop has also made appearances, leaving recent pickup Steve Lombardozzi to fill in at second base. Flaherty has also played shortstop in relief of JJ Hardy, who has suffered from back spasms in recent days.
While the fill-ins try to replicate Machado’s production, it’s obvious that the Orioles miss their young superstar. In recent days, both Schoop and Lombardozzi have made costly baserunning mistakes, something Machado's maturity beyond his age would not allow him to do. In close contests with the Yankees on consecutive days, both Schoop and Lombardozzi were picked off at second base. Even though neither factored into the final tally, scoring opportunities are not something that the Orioles can give away, as their downfall a season ago was batting average with runners in scoring position.
Defensively, Machado’s absence is also evident. In the same game that he was picked-off at second base for leading too far, Schoop was out of position at third and allowed a double down the line to lead off an inning. Again, this mistake did not affect the outcome, as the Orioles had a significant lead at the time, but such an error can and will hurt a team in crunch time. While his range may be limited from his injury, it is likely that Machado would have made the diving stop and made SportsCenter’s Top Plays that night.
In 2012, Machado was statistically better than the players he replaced, averaging 2.8 assists and putouts per nine innings, compared to the 2.15 from Reynolds and Betemit. Additionally, Machado was responsible for only four errors in 47 games, while others committed 24 errors over 115 games. It can only be assumed that Machado’s return will have a similar effect on this year’s Orioles, who desperately need the superstar to return to his pre-injury form.
While the schedule continues to be a hassle, as is expected in the toughest division in baseball, the Orioles have reason for optimism. A series win over the Yankees, which included a breakout performance from designated hitter Delmon Young and the rest of the offense, will give the squad confidence as they return to Camden Yards for a pair of divisional matchups.
It may have taken two weeks into the season, but it seems as if the Orioles’ bats have arrived from Sarasota and are here to stay. If the offensive output can outshine the struggles on defense until Manny Machado and JJ Hardy can return to health, the Orioles should remain in contention for a division crown.
As for Machado, according to multiple reports, he has been jogging on a pool treadmill, but has yet to resume running bases. Machado has previously told reporters that he won’t return until his knee is 100%, which could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. On the bright side, Machado will return this season, giving the Orioles a much needed boost at the plate and in the field. If his return can mimic his promotion in 2012, nobody will remember the subpar start to the season.