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Reasons to believe in the 2014 Orioles

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Maybe Baltimore fans can have nice things.

I don't want to toot my own horn too much, but last year I wrote a post just like this one and predicted that the Orioles would win 84-88 games. They won 85. And even though the 2013 season wasn't exactly all sunshine and rainbows, 85 wins was a damn sight better than the Orioles were expected to do on the heels of a 2012 campaign that many believed was fueled by statistical flukes and dumb luck. But don't think I'm too smart or anything, because I also predicted that Nolan Reimold would be a big contributor in 2013. No one's perfect.

But that was then, and this is now. Except, oh wait, both PECOTA and ZiPS are projecting the 2014 Orioles to win 78 games. Surely this must be a mistake, right? The 2013 Orioles won 85 games in exact accordance with their Pythagorean record (runs scored vs. runs allowed), and even got a tad unlucky in one-run games (thanks, Jim Johnson). And the rough outline of their offseason looks as follows:

  • Lost Johnson, Nate McLouth, Danny Valencia, Brian Roberts, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel (5.2 WAR in 2013 as Orioles)
  • Added David Lough, Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ryan Webb (8.6 WAR in 2013)

It's not that simple or clear-cut -- this is baseball, after all, so nothing is -- but that doesn't look like a team that ought to win 78 games, now does it? The Orioles have taken a core of productive players in their prime years (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman) and added pieces around the edges of the roster that directly addressed needs (DH, rotational depth). For every player who may have overperformed last year (Davis, Tillman), there's another player who woefully underperformed his career norms (Wieters, Nick Markakis) or is young enough that fans can reasonably expect natural improvement (Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman).

Do I think I'm smarter than the very smart people who put together projection systems? No, I don't, not even a little bit. But do I think those projection systems are limited in their utility? Yes, I do, just a bit. They often rely heavily on the last three years of stats, which, for players like Davis and Tillman who've reinvented core parts of their game, burdens their projections with a lot of white noise. A lot of them also look more at peripheral statistics more than results-oriented ones -- things like xFIP and BABIP -- but the Orioles seem to have collected some players (Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Darren O'Day) who may be showing the capability to consistently outperform their expected stats, based on factors other than luck (inducing weak fly balls, etc.)

There are no guarantees in baseball (just ask the Blue Jays), but the Orioles took a legitimately good 2013 squad and augmented it smartly. They're not built like an automatic playoff juggernaut, but they're built like a team in win-now mode that can easily secure a playoff spot if health and a little bit of luck break their way. I'd call them an 87-win team as constructed, which is well within the margin of error (or, let's say more accurately, the margin of baseball being insane and unpredictable) of a wild-card spot.

Mark will come up here tomorrow trying to dampen my enthusiasm and yours, but you shouldn't listen to him. Because without hope in mid-to-late March, what's the point of being a baseball fan, really? Orioles fans who hope for, or even expect, a contending 2014 squad aren't being delusional at all. And it's great to finally live in a world where that's true, isn't it?