Baltimore Orioles 2012 Season Preview

BALTIMORE, MD - J.J. Hardy #2 of the Baltimore Orioles slips and falls after swinging and missing a pitch during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

A Field Guide for the Baltimore Orioles:

1. They recently lost an exhibition game to the Manatee-Sarasota State College of Florida Lancers
This is not a fabrication, not a ruse. It's also not entirely fair to bring up. The Lancers were using Orioles pitchers in the game, so it was almost like an intrasquad game. And it was just an exhibition. Anything can happen in a single baseball game. It's not fair to pluck an isolated exhibition game and make too much of it.

But you giggled, didn't you? You tittered a little bit at thought of the Manatee-Sarasota State College of Florida Lancers holding on for nine innings against the Orioles. It's a legit community-college baseball program, so it's not like the batters were going up to the plate holding the wrong end of the bat, but the idea of the Manatee-Sarasota State College of Florida Lancers beating the Baltimore Orioles is humor that threatens to transform into poetry.

That's where the Orioles are right now. Bad enough for long enough to be a cheap, unfair punchline, regardless of the context.

2. The winning pitcher in that game, an Orioles pitcher, is going to go on the disabled list
Of course he is. The Orioles bought a condo on the disabled list, and that's where a lot of their pitchers rent a room. Tsuyoshi Wada is going to start the season on the DL after being impressive in his final start. Zach Britton is starting the season on the DL. Jake Arrieta was on the 60-day DL last year. Brian Matusz missed a chunk of last year because of an oblique tweak. Young pitchers are volatile, fragile things. But the Orioles' young pitchers have been like caricatures of young pitchers, overblown stereotypes of the pitfalls of relying on young pitching.

Not that Wada counts as a young pitcher (he's 31), but of course he's injured. That's just something that happens to the Orioles, whether because of awful luck or systemic failures that I'm not privy to.

3. The team traded for Dana Eveland and then designated him for assignment
Oh, they didn't trade good prospects for him, but they still traded a 21-year-old and a 24-year-old for him. Dana Eveland is something close to a replacement-level pitcher. The Orioles probably shouldn't be trading anything but cash for him in the first place. But they a) did and b) decided that he wasn't worth the spot on the 40-man roster a couple of months later.

It's a mostly meaningless sequence of events. But you can attribute all sorts of meaning to it if you squint. This was a move made by the new management team. Not the old one. It felt very Orioles.

4. They still get to keep the young pitching around and see if it pans out, you know
I was strangely bullish on the Orioles last year because I'm a fool. But also because I was optimistic about their young pitching. Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton were all fine young pitchers with varying degrees of short-term promise and long-term potential. And maybe they still are. Matusz had a season last year that was like something out of a Greek myth. Injuries, warts, diminishing velocity, demotions … it was like he stole the secret of fire from Mt. Olympus. Or at least the secret of the DVR.

But he's back. Or, at least, his velocity is. Matusz needs his velocity and command to succeed -- even more than the typical pitcher. Matusz might have the most potential of the young Orioles pitchers; he also had one of the worst seasons in major-league history last year. This spring, Matusz threw 28 innings, walked four and struck out 27. He didn't allow a home run. Sure, it's still the spring, and those numbers don't mean much. But they couldn't be more encouraging.

Tommy Hunter could still be a valuable back-of-the-rotation starter. Chris Tillman was optioned to start the season, but he is still highly thought of. Wei-Ying Chen isn't exactly a prospect, but he's an interesting talent who had good numbers in Japan. Jake Arrieta is probably the most discouraging Opening Day starter in the land, but he's still loaded with potential, and his strikeout rate took a step in the right direction last year.

Their hopes last year had everything to do with their young pitching. Their hopes for the future still have everything to do with their young pitching.

5. They hit a little bit last year, and could do so again this year
They had a team OPS+ of 100. They scored 708 runs, just under the league average. They hit 191 homers, good for fourth in the A.L. Look at the first five hitters in the projected lineup:

Nolan Reimold - LF
J.J. Hardy - SS
Nick Markakis - RF
Adam Jones - CF
Matt Wieters - C

Not a stinker among them. All of them young(ish). Some of them (all of them, with the possible exception of Reimold?) worth building around. The bottom part of the lineup contains a DH who should play third base, and a third baseman who should DH, but both Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit have some offensive value. Chris Davis is like Dave Kingman without all that contact, but his minor-league numbers will always offer hope that he'll be something more.

This isn't a situation like the Pirates or Astros, where the team is busy figuring out which permutation of players will help them improve the fortunes of the franchise. The Orioles have a decent idea. They're just waiting for those young pitchers. Aaaaany day now.

6. This is the longest article on the Orioles that you'll ever read
Call it an educated guess.

7. The Orioles will finish fifth in the American League East
Only because they can't finish sixth. But that's not entirely fair. The image of the Orioles as a completely floundering franchise -- the kind that would lose a game to the Manatee-Sarasota State College of Florida Lancers, for example -- is a bit too harsh. They're a rotation away from being a competent team. Just like my Corolla is a set of hoverjets away from being a hovercar. But the Orioles did a smart thing: they signed two low-risk, low-cost options in Wada and Chen to test out this year. They can give them a test drive at the same time they continue to sift through their young pitching.

There have been much, much worse Orioles teams of recent vintage. There have been hopeless Orioles teams, where it looked like the way out of last place was some sort of International League relegation. This is not one of those teams. When it comes to Orioles history, this is the first-place team of last-place teams.

That's of little consolation right now, but it could be worse.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Tough to complain too much about a team that was mostly set around the diamond not making a big move just for the sake of making a big, meaningless move. If there's one nitpick, it's that they traded Jeremy Guthrie for a pitcher who has about a one-percent chance of being around for the next good Orioles team. Maybe they could have kept Guthrie or saved that spot for someone who has a five-percent chance?

Wild Card
Nick Markakis was perfectly acceptable last year. But he can be much, much better. He's the player the Orioles locked up as their beacon of hope for the future. He's been perfectly acceptable. Seems like he can break out one of these years or just disappear into a Ben Grieve-scented mist.

Vague Predicitions
They'll finish 13th or 14th in ERA again, but they'll have a much better idea of which pitchers should be in the rotation for the future. There will be at least one or two positive developments in the rotation, but it'll still be a rough group of pitchers to watch.

Previous team previews

Boston Red Sox
Chicago Cubs
Chicago White Sox
Cincinnati Reds
Colorado Rockies
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Miami Marlins
Houston Astros
Kansas City Royals
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels
Milwaukee Brewers
Minnesota Twins
New York Mets

New York Yankees
Philadelphia Phillies
Oakland A's
Pittsburgh Pirates
Seattle Mariners
San Diego Padres
Tampa Bay Rays
San Francisco Giants
Texas Rangers
St. Louis Cardinals
Toronto Blue Jays
Washington Nationals

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