When speaking of the second half of the season, we are not actually talking 50% of the schedule. At the All-Star break this year, the Orioles will have 96 games in the books, with 66 yet to play. But in any event, what will be the critical elements for the Baltimore Orioles to return to the playoffs?
1. A Stabilized Starting Rotation
There is not an Orioles writer anywhere who will this week not be listing this pitching item as the #1 component for second half success. The Birds are proving the axiomatic truth that even if you have the best offense, it is difficult to win consistently without good starting pitching.
Exclamation Marks – Fans can feel pretty good about three of the current starters in the rotation. Wei-Yin Chen is back and is looking fully recovered and fresh from the prior injury. And Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez very consistently are providing good starts. Since July 4th of last year, Tillman is 20-6 and Gonzalez is 16-7. That is impressive.
Question Marks – Jason Hammel has battled injuries and a variety of circumstances in an attempt to return to the form of 2012. Though glimpses of the guy we remember are seen, more balls fly over the fence, and a bad pitch or two here and there turns the game around. The Orioles’ management hopes that Scott Feldman – acquired in the trade of Jake Arrieta – will prove to be a steady force every fifth game. His seasonal stats, while not amazing, would seem to portend such success … though his two starts so far for the Orioles have also been well short of amazing.
2. A Revitalized Bullpen
Baseball pundits everywhere said that the Orioles could never repeat the 2012 success in one-run games, games won when leading after seven innings, and in total bullpen performance. This has sadly turned out to be true. I don’t particularly subscribe to the “over-worked bullpen” theory – that the inability of the starters to go deep into games causes the bullpen to grow fatigued and therefore be less effective. I believe they have simply not been as good; and really, who could expect them to be? There is still plenty of talent in that pen, and they seem to be (mostly) returning to the kind of form one would expect.
The most critical piece of this revitalization is Jim Johnson. Though still leading the league in saves, the fact is that he has not been nearly as effective as last year. He has struggled much with command and single-handedly cost the Orioles a number of wins. Johnson is on pace to blow 10 saves and lose 11 games, and those are inconceivably disastrous numbers for a contending team.
3. Plugging Some Holes in the Dike
A Small Hole – The Orioles have a powerful lineup with little relief through six or seven of the spots in the batting order. Though Matt Wieters is the probable best defensive catcher in the game today, his offensive production is well below expectations. I am far from the only one to speculate that he is playing with more than his fair share of bumps and bruises from donning the tools of ignorance. He often grimaces on swings and pauses to stretch. Orioles fans should be thankful he will be able to rest over the All Star break.
A Medium Hole – There has been a rotating cast of characters at second base – all of them combining to have the lowest offensive production in the league for this position. But – and it’s a big “but” (no, not referencing a derriere) – there is now the return of Brian Roberts. Though it is going to take some extended time for fans to believe a corner has truly been turned, the early returns are encouraging. He has been making all the plays in the field as in the past, and as I write this on Saturday while the game is in process, he has turned on two pitches and drilled them hard for doubles.
A Big Hole – Also at the bottom of the league are the Birds’ stats for designated hitter. Even more characters have attempted to be the answer in this role – with very limited results. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Nolan Reimold. Along with hitting best only when he plays the field, he has not come through very well in DH opportunities. I’ve been among Reimold’s loudest and most ardent fans and must say it does not look like he is himself physically – which is the rap on him as an always-injured dude. Fans have really lost patience with him, and his days may be getting shorter.
4. Retaining the Strengths of the First Half
Great Defense – The Orioles have almost certainly the best defense in the game – starting five gold-glovers and a fellow named Manny Machado. There really are no holes. One could maybe say that Davis is pretty average at first base, but everyone else is among the very best, if not the best at their position.
Powerful Offense – Though good pitching sometimes shuts down the Orioles hitting, it is difficult to fault with what has been a powerful season of production from the lineup. It is great fun for fans to hear Elias Sports Bureau statistics about this and that – usually centered around Chris Davis in tandem with Machado – detailing how “_________ has not been done since ____” and then come names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roger Maris, or Ted Williams. There would seem to be no reason why this team should not continue to be a powerful offense throughout the remainder of the season.
5. Some Help from Just Over the Horizon?
Trades? – The Orioles would appear to be the classic team looking to add pieces – most likely starting pitching – before the trade deadline. Will Duquette do it?
Young Pitching? – Kevin Gausman could imaginably grow in his skills to yet be a piece in the second half. He has not thrown too many innings for a young guy, and if someone falters (which is very imaginable) Gausman might end up in the rotation.
Defection Connection? – Perhaps the most intriguing possible addition is Cuban defector Henry Urrutia. He has blown away pitching at both AA and AAA in this his first year back in baseball after time away dealing with status issues. What else is there for him to do? And with DH problems, could we see a similar “sea change effect” like Machado provided in 2012? Put me down as “calling” for this to happen.
The Orioles have in Buck Showalter one of the premier managers in the game. He is a players’ manager and has shown over his tenure to be especially adept at pulling the right strings at every turn over the final third of a season. Along with that, the Orioles have the rare experience of a unified, loyal, team-focused, peaceful clubhouse. This is a group that enjoys being together, winning together, and turning the page quickly after inevitable loses.
It remains a challenge for the Orioles to return to the playoffs. While certainly an improved team, they play in the best division in baseball. There are more than a couple things that need to go well over the final 66 games. But it is imaginable, and I’d give it odds of 50-50. They are going to need to log about 94 wins or more to do it, and currently they are on a pace to win 89.
Check out the Baltimore Orioles schedule for the second half of the season here.