Now that we are in the new year, my hopes are revived that baseball cannot be too far away. Only 17 more days until FanFest, 40 days until pitchers and catchers report, 51 days until the first spring training game, and 89 days before the season begins. This sounds manageable, in spite of the weather.
So let me start off 2013 on a positive note, stating my highest hopes for the new season. I’ll come back in two days with the opposite – my biggest concerns facing the coming campaign.
Even with the residual skepticism about the genuine quality and sustainability of the Orioles 2012 season—fueled also by a sense of non-movement by Dan Duquette over this winter, certainly there has to be greater interest and optimistic hope than at any point in the past 12-15 years. This hope has the legitimate foundation of these numbers: 93-69. Anyone who suggested this final record a year ago would have been laughed off the internet or out of a sports bar as a ridiculous dreamer who was drunk on Orioles propaganda.
Fueling my hopes are:
- That the five-man core of the Orioles is both offensively and defensively sound. By this core, I am referring to Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis. That is a serious list of gloves – four gold-glovers and a stud rookie with a rifle arm. And offensively there is plenty of pop in this group. It is a solid nucleus in every way.
- That Nolan Reimold is going to come back with a beast season. I remain a believer in #14 and continue to think that he is an incredible talent looking for a place and circumstances to see it bloom. The besetting injuries he has suffered could have happened to anyone, and I do not believe he is uniquely prone to such. I understand that this flies in the face of common Orioles perceptions.
- That the bullpen will remain a team strength. There is no reason to believe this will significantly change. Though 2012 was so great as to be almost unrepeatable, there is no basis to expect the list of Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton, and Darren O’Day to not be very solid. Yes, Strop fell off as the year went along. But he was used so much in the first half that surely the season caught up to him a bit. But without Strop’s work the first four months, the Orioles don’t win 90+ games. The starters will be likely better this year, preventing a recurrence of any bullpen overuse. If Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz are added as middle inning long men, this is a formidable group (not to mention Chris Davis!).
- That the Orioles will have better than average starting pitching. The ERA and other pitching stats for the Orioles’ starters in the final two months were among the best in the game. Wei-Yin Chen had a great first year of learning to pitch in America. Jason Hammel is settled now and will have a full and solid year. Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman had the sort of stuff that can be repeated turn after turn, toward the end of regularly giving the team quality starts. Between Steve Johnson and a host of other possibilities (or perhaps the signing of Joe Saunders), there is insurance for a regularly strong staring corps of personnel.
- That the Orioles retain a winning and healthy clubhouse. This starts with the leadership and interpersonal skills of Buck Showalter. There will be less turnover this season than there has been in other years. The 2012 team had one of those rare clubhouses where pretty much everyone liked being together and working together. That is rare, even on championship teams.
- That Chris Davis will assert himself with a monster breakout year that establishes him as one of the premier power hitters in the game. He is not far from that right now. He was tied for 8th in the AL with 33 homers – doing that in only 139 games. By comparison, Robison Cano’s 33 round-trippers were hit in 161 games.
- That there is organizational depth and good new young players on the horizon. With pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, that horizon might be closer than it at first appears. The Orioles have figured out a winning way of making the AAA team serve the needs of the parent club.
No, not all of these items will work out as well as written here. But none of these items are beyond imagination. Besides, as in 2012, storylines we cannot now imagine will become a part of the equation.
It is too much to say that the Orioles will win the AL East title and capture playoffs victories beyond that. But it is exceedingly reasonable to expect the 2013 Orioles to be contenders throughout, even as divisional foes have improved their rosters on paper. But the games aren’t played on paper. They are played in real life with Buck Showalter watching and pulling the strings, and heroes like me behind the scenes telling him what to do!
Here’s looking toward a good new year!