MLB: Birds look to continue surprising success in weaker AL

Spring training is always a time of new hope for baseball teams, but for local MLB team the Baltimore Orioles, it’s only the continuation of the excitement that has held over from last season for previously beleaguered fans.

Prior to a Game 5 loss to the New York Yankees in the ALDS that ended the wild ride for the Orioles, the team had not experienced a winning season since 1997. For those keeping track at home, that’s when Middletown High School seniors were only 2 years old.

The success has created a revitalization of the previously unmatched baseball culture in Baltimore, as fans gathered en masse to support the group of underdogs that was masterly branded by team PR representatives as the “BUCKle-up Birds,” paying homage to the turn-around orchestrated by manager Buck Showalter.

Coming into spring training, there are still many that are skeptical of the Orioles’ success, calling their unprecedented record in one-run games a ‘fluke’ and citing the Baltimore’s run differential to prove their point.

First baseman Chris Davis’ cameo as a pitcher during the May 6 sixteen-inning win in Boston may have been a fluke. But those who are not Yankees or Red Sox fans would be stretching the truth by saying it wasn’t good for baseball. Who wants to see the same two teams be victorious every time? Maybe that’s why the NFL surpassed the MLB as America’s sport, because of a level playing field. What a concept.

Seriously though, everything about Adrian Gonzalez’s swing-and-miss on a Davis floating curve makes me smile.

But I’m here today to be a realist, too; though I might be promoting a reality that the big-market sports media can’t seem to accept. The Yankees’ aging roster is finally starting to catch up with them. The Red Sox are in ruins, and it’s going to take the team a while to climb out of the rubble. The Rays are competitive, but just traded away their top-of-the-rotation starter, James Shields; leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays, with their newly rebuilt roster of superstars as a formidable opponent.

I’m not getting cocky. It’s called being cautiously optimistic. The Orioles certainly have their flaws, but the team also has some unconventional advantages. Without further ado, here are the positives and negatives I noted so far from the news coming out of Sarasota.

Positives:

  • The rise of several more gritty, underdog players this spring: Showalter has established that if a player plays hard out on the field; he has a chance to snag a place on the team. Much of the O’s success last year was attributed to the fact that no one’s roster spot was safe. According to data obtained by masnsports.com, the Orioles used 52 players throughout the course of last season. This spring’s additions to the surprising players list are Conor Jackson, Russ Canzler, and Jason Pridie, all of whom are non-roster invitees. Each has had between 20 at 30 at bats, and are fighting for one of the highly contested bench spots. \

Jackson has produced the flashiest numbers, posting a .370 average with two doubles and three HRs, but Pridie has shown that he could provide some stability in the fourth outfielder spot with a .286 average and 8 RBIs.

Showalter likes Canzler’s abilities as a back-up at third base, and is starting to give him more playing time. Keep in mind that Trayvon Robinson, who was acquired in Robert Andino trade with Seattle, is still competing for a spot on the bench, and Wilson Betemit, who is still owed around 6 million, is sure to get a place.

To me, this race is one of the most intriguing storylines this spring, because it shows that not only are the Orioles building depth, but that there will be plenty of the same competitive spirit in 2013 as there was last year.

  • B-Rob back to normal?: For the past two seasons, Brian Roberts has been out of the mix for the Orioles due to a string of concussions that had lingering effects, and then most recently a sports hernia. His presence has been sorely missed, as the O’s have tried a number of solutions, like Nate McLouth and Andino (who, as mentioned earlier, is no longer with Baltimore) that haven’t worked out that well.

The only exception is Nick Markakis, who hit for a .365 average when batting leadoff. In my humble opinion, Markakis was only a temporary fix, as he best fits the profile of a number two hitter: he still has a good on-base percentage, but having speed is not as critical for him, and his power and double totals can help score the leadoff hitter.

That brings us back to Roberts. Having Roberts atop the lineup is better than any alternative, even if he isn’t 100 percent back to his former self. Fans must remember, when he was at his best, Roberts was one of the top leadoff hitters in the game; usually hitting for a .280 average and producing about 40 doubles and 20 or so steals.

 Even if he has only produces 70 percent of those numbers, the Orioles will still improve, based on statistics that show that the O’s leadoff hitters collectively produced a .264 on-base percentage last season.

  • On paper, it’s looking good: Spring training records are not what a team lives or dies by, but they do count for something. Currently, the Orioles have an 11-5 spring training record, good for first in the Grapefruit League.
  • Before discounting the validity of this argument, consider that all of the 2012 playoff teams except for the Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds are in the 8th place or better in their respective spring league. The O’s have accomplished this without Adam Jones, who is playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and Markakis, who has been resting for the past two weeks after being diagnosed with a small disc herniation.

Drawbacks:

  • Injury bug plaguing Markakis: As stated above, Markakis hasn’t exactly started his season on a high note. He is hoping to rebound from last year’s campaign, which saw him face three surgeries—abdomen, wrist, and left thumb—the last of which prevented him from competing in the playoffs.

It is clear by now that Markakis is one of the team’s key players, consistently producing one of the top on-base percentages and averages for the Orioles from an offensive standpoint, and providing spectacular defense in right field (which he finally was recognized for in 2011, a few years late in my opinion) to round out his value.

 It would certainly be a crushing blow to the team if he experiences similar issues this year, but so far doctor’s opinions have confirmed that Markakis will be ready for the start of the season on April 22.

  • Fifth starter issues: As always, the issue of pitching still remains, albeit it is less significant than it has been in the past. This year, the main confusion stems from the sheer number of candidates. There are guys like Zach Britton, Jake Arrietta, T.J. McFarland, Brian Matusz, and former All-star Jair Jurrjens that are all trying out for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Though there is lots of quantity, I’m starting to doubt the quality. I had high hopes for Jurjenns, (9.53 ERA, 9 hits surrendered in 5.2 innings pitched) who I thought would be a steal for the O’s, but a lackluster performance so far this spring and emerging information on the state of his knee has made me doubt his dependability.

McFarland has been similar in his underperformance (6.35 ERA, 8 hits surrendered in 5.2 innings pitched) as he was the favorite to be the fifth starter at the beginning of spring training.

I think that Matusz stays in the bullpen as a left-handed reliever, leaving Arrieta, Britton, and Steve Johnson to battle it out. Not the flashiest candidates, but still prospects that have shown promise.

 The other factor to remember here is the possibility of top prosepects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy being brought up later in the season, as their spring training has shown that they are capable of pitching at a higher level. However, the Orioles are wise in promoting their development by staying with the in-house options for now.

It’s hard to know how the O’s will go about matching last year’s unprecedented performance, but the 2013 season looks to be one filled with more exciting storylines and the hopes of a promising future. Stay tuned, Birdland.