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Can the Orioles blame injuries for their middling start?

The Orioles haven't had their offense or defense at full strength all season. Can the club say that's the cause for their .500 ball?

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles have basically scuffled their way through April and May, hovering a few games above .500 throughout the young season.  Because baseball is baseball, the causes for this are a mixture of the expected and the unexpected.  As expected, the bullpen has been an adventure and Tommy Hunter was not fit to be a full-time closer.  The starting rotation has been flyball-happy and prone to short outings.  The offense is not particularly adept at getting on base.  These are things that were known about the Orioles going in to 2014.

But on the unexpected side, the team has had trouble keeping its offensive and defensive core on the field.  Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters have all spent time on the DL already, and the three have yet to start in the same ballgame this year.  These three, along with the uninjured Adam Jones, are essentially the core that everything else on the roster has been built around.  They combined for 13 WAR last season -- so is their absence to blame for the Orioles failing to build a lead in a weakened AL East?

There is, of course, an argument to be made that every club deals with injuries, and even key injuries, and in fact Dan Duquette is constantly talking about depth for exactly that reason.  But depth will only take you so far when Machado is on the DL and J.J. Hardy deals with a minor injury, and you suddenly find Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty and Steve Lombardozzi ALL in your starting infield for consecutive days.  That's not depth, it's trouble.

There's also an argument that the unexpectedly mammoth offensive contribution of Nelson Cruz offsets any losses from the roster.  But the team signed Nelson Cruz to supplement what they thought they had, not to replace it.  And the rotating injuries to key hitters have made it harder to keep Nelson Cruz where he belongs (at DH) rather than reducing his value by allowing him to put on a glove.

Of course, while the team has struggled to field its expected hitters and fielders, the rotation has been surprisingly steady -- not necessarily in results, of course, but from a health perspective.  The Orioles have used absurd numbers of starters in the last two seasons, and so far in 2014, the intended starting five have made all but a single start in the team's first 50 games.  That's no small feat, and it can't be ignored in assessing the impact of the other injuries.

Lastly, it's tough to assess the true impact of Wieters' injury, which also happens to be the one that looms largest right now, with his fate for the season still unknown.  Wieters contributed only 0.5 WAR to the club last year, but a lot of his possible value comes from his work with the pitching staff, the dreaded "stuff that doesn't show up on a stat sheet."  It's tough to assess whether this has really hurt the club -- after all, the rotation does seem to be about what they're expected to be, even without Wieters.

For every point, there's a counterpoint on the issue of the Orioles and their injuries.  Ultimately, it would be tough for the club to fairly "blame" injuries for their so-so record.  None of these injuries is a complete and total blow to the team's fortunes for its entire season to date.  They've had enough depth to mitigate the worst effects of injuries, and to get past all but Wieters' DL stint without sliding out of contention.  On the other hand, it would be fair to argue that the injuries so far have easily cost the team 2-3 wins, which is basically the difference between a .500ish ballclub stuck in the middle of the AL East pack and an AL East leader with a small cushion.

Each game that has turned on an errant play at third base during Machado's absence, or a poor Caleb Joseph at-bat during Wieters' rehab, is a game that the Orioles could've picked up on their rivals.  And for a team that looks to be part of a tight race, that matters, even if it's not the only or even the biggest factor.  The health of the roster isn't a fatal blow, but so far, it's been nothing to sneeze at, either.