by Patrick Smith
Depending on who you listen to, the 2014 Baltimore Orioles are going to be:
American League champions
Tyler Kepner of the New York Times predicted that the O’s would beat Detroit in the American League Championship Series, but lose to St. Louis in the World Series. And Paul Sullivan of Tribune Newspapers has Baltimore finishing last in their division, behind Toronto.
I’m hard-pressed to remember a team harder to figure than this year’s Orioles. Much is made of the urgency to win now, given the contract situations of a couple of their stars. And much was made of the Orioles off-season acquisitions, the big-slugging outfielder Nelson Cruz and the established starting pitcher Ubaldlo Jimenez.
Here’s what we know.
The Orioles will hit many baseballs very high and very far. They led the majors in home runs last year – by a lot – and have only added more muscle in Cruz and the formerly weird Delmon Young. (The O’s might be the last stop on Young’s Second Chance Tour. His transgressions include throwing a bat at an umpire and getting charged with a hate crime after a bizarre anti-semitic rant. He is said to have put that unpleasantness behind him.)
The team will also play terrific defense. Baltimore set a record in 2013 for fewest errors committed in a season. They made spectacularly difficult plays, they made easy plays. They pretty much made all the plays they needed to make. No reason to think they’ve suddenly lost the ability to catch and throw. So yes, expect another good year in the field.
And here’s what we don’t know.
Despite their longball prowess, the O’s aren’t particularly adept at getting on base. Modern baseball experts agree that, over the course of the incredibly long baseball season, the ability to reach base – any way you can – is the most important skill a batter can have. A guy who doesn’t hit much but who can cajole a base on balls out of a pitcher is a valuable commodity. The Orioles on-base percentage is middle-of-the-pack and, unless they all suddenly learn to work the count, too many of those exciting homers will drive in only the men who hit them, rather than a parade of baserunners.
And despite their superior fielding ability, there are some balls that simply can’t be caught. The Boston Red Sox employed a particularly lethal combination of getting on base and cranking home runs last year, winning them the World Series. Just a few more walks per week would change everything for the Orioles.
The starting pitchers look promising, if not exactly fearsome. The bullpen should be able to hold leads, at least until the ninth inning, which used to be Jim Johnson’s territory. He’ll now ply his trade in Oakland, after a surprising trade. Tommy Hunter, the burly, hard-throwing former starter, will likely be Buck Showalter’s ninth-inning go-to.
Showalter knows what he’s doing. He’s shown that in his time here. It’s easy to forget the litany of sorry managers who shared the Camden Yards first base dugout with the sorry talent during the 14-year drought that ended in 2012. Showalter’s a big-time manager and, alongside front office smart guy Dan Duquette, knows how to maneuver a roster so that nothing is wasted.
Can Baltimore win the American League East this year? Sure they can. Their talent stacks up as well as anyone’s. But baseball’s punishing season and cruel schedule – half their season is against the toughest division in the game – is why betting on baseball is such a bad gamble.
Maybe being hard to predict isn’t such a bad thing. When you win, you can still point to the people who said you’d lose. And when you lose, you can point at them too.