The Baltimore Orioles could win the World Series this year. They probably won't win, but that's not what's important. Until a couple of years ago, even in the wildest dreams of Orioles fans, there was no way to envision that kind of triumph. The 2012 season changed everything. All things are now possible. Sometimes it seems like Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette was so fond of the 2012 Orioles that he just wants to try again to win with them. Maybe the third time would be the charm. The Orioles were dormant until after spring training began. Since then, the team surprised by adding free agent starter Ubaldo Jimenez as well as former Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.
The lack of action seemed characteristic of a cheap owner who would not spend what it takes to win. Before the Jimenez signing, the Orioles payroll was less than what they had at Opening Day last season, thanks largely to the trade of closer Jim Johnson, a fourth-year arbitration player. Now it seems as if there is a non-zero chance that Duquette just really, really believes in these guys, the core of whom won 93 games only two years ago. The signing of Jimenez was a welcome acknowledgment of the fact that the team needs an upgrade to have the best chance of continuing to compete at a high level. For better or worse, they've added Cruz to that mix as well.
Those 2012 Orioles won so many games almost in defiance of any kind of rational analysis. The PECOTA projection system pegged them to win 71 games. In winning 93, that team was more than two standard deviations from the mean. Given another shot in 2013, PECOTA projected 74 wins; the Orioles won 85, finding themselves once again beyond a standard deviation from the mean. In its third stab at the Duquette-era Orioles, PECOTA (pre-Jimenez and Cruz signings) projected 75 wins.
To vastly exceed their projection for a third straight season, the Orioles will once again have to leave the realm of the rational behind. Entertaining thoughts of their winning the pennant requires a similar departure. In the words of one Albus Dumbledore, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.
The first place where one can look for possible improvement is in right field, which will be manned by a now-healthy Nick Markakis. Though he played in 160 games in 2013, he was never himself due to offseason surgery for a herniated disc, batting only .271/.329/.356. He's spoken of having to make adjustments he's never had to make before. At 30, Markakis is not yet an old player. Returning to his 2012 level of production would be like an making impact free-agent addition without even going off of the 25-man roster to get it.
Our hope bus stops next at the starting rotation, a unit that presently looks to be made up of Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. That is a unit that doesn't have to do much to be better than last year's corps, though a year ago the same was true of the 2013 rotation compared to 2012's and they still managed to be worse, needing the likes of Freddy Garcia to start 10 games.
The trio of Tillman, Chen, and Gonzalez has shown over two seasons that they can be a solid, if unremarkable, core of a staff. Tillman, in particular, could help out if he continues to pitch well enough to trick managers into naming him to an All-Star team. Top prospect Kevin Gausman, who been labeled "a beast" from Baseball Prospectus, could develop into the ace that the Orioles will need to surprise their critics for a third straight season. Jimenez is now four years removed from placing third in the NL Cy Young. There were struggles in the two years after that, but Jimenez's second half ERA in 2013 was a 1.82.
A starting rotation that holds up its end of the bargain would avoid taxing the bullpen, which might find a way to anchor the team on the way to, if not quite the historic 29-9 record in one-run games of 2012, something better than the 20-31 of 2013. No one thought much of Johnson until he came out of nowhere to notch 101 saves in two full seasons as the team's closer. Could Tommy Hunter be the next surprise find at closer? For the pennant-winning Orioles team of our dreams, the answer is probably yes, with the rest of an unlikely cast of bullpen heroes falling in behind him. To say that this kind of thing must happen is foolish. To count on it happening, as Duquette seems to be doing, is madness. Yet the difference between insanity and genius is measured only by success. Duquette looks like a genius thus far.
After all, at the beginning of 2012, Gonzalez was a nobody and Nate McLouth was still on his way out of Pittsburgh. They became key parts of a team that will always have a special place in Orioles fans hearts. Prior to the 2013 season, everybody knew Chris Davis was a strong guy, but nobody pegged him for hitting 53 home runs. Everybody knew that Manny Machado would be pretty good defensively. That he was worth 35 runs in the field was still a surprise. If the Orioles are going to do this thing one more time, enough of these sorts of things will have to break their way to make it happen -- things like Matt Wieters finally breaking out offensively in a big way, like we dreamed about when he was drafted. Things like a washout on his way out of the league flocking to the banner of the Norfolk Tides, turning it around and boosting the big-league team, as McLouth did. Things like a player down to his last chance finding something magical.
Will that player be former Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty? The oft-injured Nolan Reimold? One-time top pitching prospect turned LOOGY Brian Matusz? Sure, it could be none of them. There are plenty of other articles to read about why the Orioles will lose. Many people wrote those articles over the last two years. Every one of them was wrong. This is the article about why the Orioles might win.
Maybe second baseman Jonathan Schoop could be the minor-league call-up to boost the team, as Machado did two years ago. Perhaps Eduardo Rodriguez will blow through Double- and Triple-A to the big leagues faster than anyone expected and find himself thrown into the rotation in the stretch run, which will turn out to be just where he belongs. Possibly Cruz will thumb his nose at everyone who thought he would have nothing left after his Biogenesis suspension and put together a season in line with his career totals.
Is any of it guaranteed? No, but neither was the acquisition of Jason Hammel in 2012 turning into one of the key parts of a winning team. That trade, which sent Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies, led to ESPN's Keith Law tweeting, "I do enjoy watching the contortions required to make this move anything other than absurd for the Orioles." Hammel contorted his way to holding opposing hitters to a .234/.302/.335 batting line in 2012.
At the beginning of the season for the Orioles, anything is possible. Orioles fans can really believe that now, rather than just tell ourselves that because that's what you're supposed to think in spring training. Anything is possible. Two years ago, the team was nine wins away from winning the World Series. Sure, some of the possibilities are bad. Injuries and ineffectiveness are always in the cards. Players you were sure would be rocks may have some fluke thing wipe them out for weeks or months. Some of the possibilities are quite good. Under Duquette, the Orioles have been skilled at finding ways to make more of the good possibilities a reality than bad ones.
It's daunting trying to follow Duquette's strategy until it starts to work. He will jump into every haystack that might hold a needle. He will dive in every dumpster looking for something good. He will drop into an abandoned mine, looking to strike long-forgotten gold. Then, just when you think this is all he does, he opens up the wallet and gives up draft picks to pluck the desperate free agents off the market.
Duquette might not always get what he wants, but he tries. So far, he also gets what he needs.