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Can the Orioles Have a Winning 2011? (Part 4: A New Hope)

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A couple of months ago I was sitting in a bar in Baltimore, meeting with a bunch of other Oriole bloggers and talking baseball. It was a good way to beat the winter blues a little bit and get out and meet some of the other good folks hiding behind the internet, not to mention a chance to talk Orioles baseball to some of the most informed, obsessed kinds of people. Eventually I asked the group if any of them thought a winning Orioles season was something with a relatively good probability this summer.

There was only one yes, and it came from me.*

*This is apparently untrue, as at least one other blogger from our happy hour meet-up - Chris Stoner - is also on the bandwagon. Whoops! Stacey totally does not think the Orioles are any good, though. All she gave was a sheepish shake of her head.

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Two autumns ago, the Orioles were in the Bronx on one of those awful nights that you just try to live through and forget about. It was raining, it was cold, the Yankees were about 40 games ahead of Baltimore in the standings late in the season, on their way to their 20-whateverth championship. Chris Tillman, rookie, had given up a first-inning three run home run to Alex Rodriguez, and it was 3-1 to start the bottom of the third. Oh yeah, and to lead off the inning, Derek Jeter had just broken the Yankees' all-time hits record.

Flashbulbs popped. Raindrops fell. The Yankees amassed at first base. The crowd jeered and chanted in revelry. The drunks in the Mohegan Sun sports bar in centerfield were whooping. I was standing in my school's poolhall, gritting my teeth, pretending not to care, and scratching the cue ball. Chris Tillman? Who knows? Who knows what goes through a guy's head in a time like that. He was a rookie, struggling to keep the center. It seemed very much as if things were falling apart.

But then, in a sea of suck, it felt like I heard a single harmonious chord. Nick Swisher came up to hit next and Chris Tillman embarrassed him on what has stuck in my head as the single most wonderful pitch I have seen in the past five years at least. Tillman didn't fall apart; he struck out eight batters. The Orioles rallied and won 10-4. It felt to me - and it still does in a way - like the first soft note of our future coming together. It felt like something I needed to remember.

Of course, this wasn't the first time I had been overly impressed with a pitching performance in New York. It wasn't the first thing I had foolishly proclaimed to myself as "the start of the future". I am ultimately just a dumb rube, clutching to hope. One quiet note doesn't make a symphony. Blind squirrels, and all that.

And then there was Buck. You all know this story so very well: the Orioles were on pace to allow 884 runs last year, but then suddenly the pitching and defense got exceedingly better when Buck Showalter took over as manager at the beginning of August, and they ended with just 785 runs allowed. In particular, the starters moved from a pace of 600 runs allowed to what would be a pace of 392 runs allowed over the full season. They ended the season with a total of 527 runs given up.

Some of that was the defense and luck, as starter ball-in-play average dropped from .308 under Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel to .249 under Buck. Some of it was also Jeremy Guthrie and the departed Kevin Millwood having late season surges. And some of it was perhaps thinned out competition due to the schedule and/or September call-ups. It was a relatively small sample size. There are a lot of caveats.

It was still, at the end of all of that, the first time in forever that the Orioles had young, talented pitchers not only not collapsing at the tail end of the summer, but leading a run prevention renaissance. To wit, from August 1st onward Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen combined for 35 starts and 213.1 innings with a drop of about 3 runs off their earned run average and a drop of about a run in fielding independent pitching*.

*Again: I'm thinking that the defense got really hot over those two months and single-handedly won a huge chunk of games for the Orioles. Can they do that again next year? I don't expect they will, but it's distinctly possible in my mind that "The Buck Effect" is about defense. Then again, it feels like defenses always tighten up when a new manager is hired. Who knows?

The quartet of pitchers combined for around 500 innings in 2010. Dropping a run off their collective ERAs (which is what you'd expect if they can maintain the fielding-independent improvement as a group) amounts to about 55 fewer runs allowed. In my mind the goal, on the road to a winning season, for the rotation is a 50 run reduction. The late-season crescendo of the young pitchers feels like just that: a prelude to something good and loud.

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The development of Matusz et al. is not the only change coming to the rotation this summer. As I noted before, Kevin Millwood is taking his mentoring talents - along with his 116 runs allowed, 5.10 ERA, and 4.86 FIP - back to the Millwood Ranch and Spa. His starts will instead go to some combination (depending on health and effectiveness) of Justin Duchscherer (who was great on the rare occasions when he did pitch over the past three years, but that was at least one surgery ago, and in the pitcher's paradise of Oakland), top prospect Zach Britton (who was phenomenal in the minors last year), and the aforementioned Chris Tillman. I would also suspect the middle relievers in the bullpen will get some of Millwood's innings.

Can those four components out-pitch Millwood's 2010? Well, it's not a very high bar. Of the five regular starters last season, Millwood had the highest ERA and he was only worsted by Bergesen's FIP. I don't really have any insight at all into how Duchscherer, Britton, and Tillman will pitch in 2011 (though I am in particular very excited to see Britton pitch), but I sort of feel like Millwood's levels are the floor of my expectations.

There is also a safety net of sorts when you consider David Hernandez's terrible eight starts last summer. Make no mistake about it: the Orioles' rotation was one of if not the worst in baseball last year, even with the mysterious and powerful Buck Showalter Effect. There is a ton of room for even modest improvement for the 2011 starters, and there is a ton of potential in those starters to get the Orioles over the hump.

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So, after all of the words and talk and postulations and blah blah blah, can the Orioles have a winning 2011?

It's obviously going to be a long season, with unexpected developments and trades and injuries and career years and so on. To make up the 172 run gap between what the Orioles scored and what they allowed in 2010 is a tremendously large task. But I keep coming back to sheer level of talent on this team, and how the young pitchers have primed themselves, and the seemingly stabilized and strengthened coaching staff...and I say yes. Yes they can.