There are two narratives for the Orioles this spring. The first is a traditional spring training narrative -- you know, everyone's in the best shape of their lives, lockers full of powdered donuts, that sort of thing. The second is a persistent media narrative about the Orioles' failed offseason and the flukiness of their 2012 campaign (you know, one-run games, extra-inning games, crazy bullpen success, that sort of thing). There's a scarcity of objective voices picking the Orioles to repeat their playoff push in 2013. And I may not be an objective voice, but I'm finding myself going into the season as a believer (for the record, this happened before pitchers and catchers reported, though that certainly didn't abate my true belief).
The prevailing narrative on the Orioles starts with their 2012 Pythagorean record (82-80, based on the fact that they only outscored their opponents 712-705). Their 93-win campaign, it follows, was mostly smoke and mirrors, the result of one-run wins, extra-inning wins and a shutdown bullpen. These sorts of factors don't normally portend long-term, repeatable success for a franchise, the naysayers point out. Look at the 2007 Diamondbacks!
The naysayers have a point, but it's an incomplete one. The team they're talking about basically stopped playing a little more than halfway through the season. The Orioles in May-July got outscored 487-436, but came out 55-49, based primarily on the "lucky" factors above. Those Orioles played horrible infield defense, gave 34 starts to Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta (combined 5.80 ERA as starters), batted Wilson Betemit against lefties (96 PAs, .405 OPS) and had no left fielder to speak of -- so it was no wonder that their just-above-.500 record was fluky. It's a wonder, though, that a lot of the folks looking at the 2012 team can't split out this part of the story from the rest of it.
The August-October Orioles showed no remorse in seizing upon a lucky start. With 58 games to play, and starting out above .500, the team made a meaningful overhaul. They promoted Manny Machado, Nate McLouth and Chris Tillman, all of whom addressed immediate needs. The found a defensive niche for Mark Reynolds at first base. They acquired Joe Saunders. With stability on defense and in the rotation, the August-October Orioles went on a 38-20 tear, and backed it up by outscoring their opponents 276-218 (a 35-23 pythag, within a much more reasonable margin of their actual record).
The 2013 Orioles come into the season without Reynolds and Saunders, but overall they resemble the August-October team much more than the April-July one. And while 58 games may scream "small sample size" to some, there's no reason that the first 104 games of 2012 say more about the 2013 Orioles than the ones actually played by this year's players. And let's not forget, most of those players will be improving with age.
The 2013 Orioles still have some marks against them. There is no way the entire bullpen repeats its 2012 performance. It's just not possible. What the Orioles can reasonably hope, though, is that Jim Johnson and Darren O'Day can still be shutdown guys in the 8th and 9th innings, and one of Troy Patton, Luis Ayala or Pedro Strop can hold down the 7th when needed. The team should score more runs, and hopefully will not demand as many quality innings from tertiary members of the bullpen.
The Orioles also need continued rotational stability. Buck Showalter recently said that there were 12 guys in spring training vying for spots in the starting rotation, which speaks well to the team's depth, but managing that rotation (after Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen) will probably take a short leash and a few iterations. If no one grabs those jobs forcefully, the team could spend some time flailing.
Still, I'm confident heading into 2013, and that's more than the spring training headrush talking. Would I feel better if the Orioles had added a bat or a predictably decent third starter? Yes, I would. But I still think we as fans are looking at a team that we can pencil right in for 84-88 wins. People are looking at this club through the wrong lens right now. A few more good breaks or a key midseason acquisition, and the Orioles are right back in the wild-card hunt. It's going to be a good season.