It's only May, but the Baltimore Orioles are in first place. The last time the Orioles were atop the AL East through May 7 was in 2005, when Baltimore was 20-9 on the strength of a .292/.347/.481 team line, and an exceptional start from Erik Bedard in the rotation. After Monday's drubbing at the hands of the Rangers, the O's are 19-10, tied with Tampa Bay, not far removed from taking two-of-three from the Yankees, and sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway.
It's not fair to say we should have seen this exact situation coming, but there's a good chance that, just the same, we undersold the Orioles. It's easy to do, too, since they haven't given us a reason to do anything but for years. Cue flashback.
The Orioles failed to win 70 games once again in 2011. They were a joke for most of the year, even when they were doing well: part of the reason Boston's September collapse was so tortuous was because so many losses came against a Baltimore team everyone knew they should have been beating. They remained a joke this winter, when they couldn't secure a general manager until Dan Duquette, out of the game for a decade, entered the picture. His regime started off with the same laughter-inducing qualities as those who came before, thanks to the team getting banned from scouting in South Korea.
It's hard to believe now, given what's occurred since spring training 2011, but there was reason to hope that 2011 was going to be different for the Orioles. They had improved defensively over the last half of 2010, jumping from the back of the pack in Defensive Efficiency at the midpoint to #15 in the league by the time the year closed out. Under Buck Showalter, hired when the Orioles were 32-73, Baltimore went 34-23, best in the AL over the last 57 games of the year.
Then 23-year-old Brian Matusz, the team's most intriguing young pitcher, had taken a step forward in the second half. The staff as a whole was less prone to explosion under Showalter, allowing a 693 OPS while the hitters backed them up with .265/.317/.390 (707 OPS). The bullpen still needed help, and the lineup wasn't doing enough to make their impressive finish a long-term thing, but for the first time in a while, there were reasons to feel positive about the Orioles' future.
Baltimore signed a few players to bolster their chances and make a .500 season a possibility. The oft-injured Justin Duchscherer was an obvious risk, but was also a talented arm with some upside. Combined with Matusz, the under-appreciated Jeremy Guthrie, and Baltimore's mix of pitching projects and prospects (Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen), the Orioles looked like they might have a full and productive rotation for once.
The lineup added Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, a healthy Brian Roberts, Derrek Lee, and Mark Reynolds to the mix. Reynolds was a defensive liability, but he could hit. Guerrero was overpaid, but the team had a need at DH, and he was still capable of filling it. Hardy came cheap in a trade with the Twins, and even if he didn't return to form, was a worthwhile addition at a position of weakness -- the Orioles had been giving Cesar Izturis heavy playing time at short. Roberts had missed 100-plus games in 2010, but had produced when on the diamond. Lee was far from his best days, but Ty Wigginton led the Orioles in playing time at first in 2011. Upgrade by default.
The bullpen saw the addition of Kevin Gregg, and expected more from Mike Gonzalez and Jim Johnson, who threw just 24 and 26 innings in 2010, respectively. Given the pen's performance the year before, even Gregg's Proven Closer assistance was welcome.
This wasn't a team that was looking to win the AL East, but it did look like a club that could finish at .500, even in the tough AL East. On paper, the rotation, defense, and lineup should have all been capable of average or better production, and if just a few things went right, Baltimore would have a winning record for the first time since 1997.
But there, as there always seems to be with Baltimore, is the rub. Nothing went the Orioles' way in 2011. Matusz showed up to spring training with diminished velocity and less bite to his stuff, and that resulted in just 49 innings over 12 starts, and a record-setting homer rate. Arrieta showed flashes of ability throughout the year, but injuries limited him, both on the mound and by keeping him off of it. Tillman made just 13 starts before the plug was pulled on that experiment once again. Reliever Alfredo Simon was forced into action in the rotation, and the most polite thing you can say about that is that he out-pitched Tillman.
Britton had your standard rookie season in the AL East, with shutdown appearances followed by beatdowns. Besides Guthrie, this ended up being the most productive stint of any Orioles starter. Duchscherer? He didn't even get to throw an inning in 2011, with his injuries getting the better of him before the year even began.
The lineup held up its end of the bargain, finishing with an OPS+ of 100, but the hitters had their own problems that limited them. Lee was even less impressive than expected, and just to pile on, he mashed after he was traded to Pittsburgh. Roberts had a concussion that held him out for 122 games, forcing Robert Andino to be the everyday second baseman rather than infield depth. Luke Scott, so important to the offense a year before, dealt with shoulder issues that required surgery, and hit all of .220/.301/.402 when on the field. This is an offense that could have been much, much better than it was.
The Orioles were a joke in 2011. But they weren't supposed to be. To this point in 2012, we're being reminded of that. The lineup is once again hitting, but this time, Chris Davis has joined the party. Davis was acquired in the 2011 Koji Uehara deadline deal after failing to break into the Rangers' lineup. His bat -- and his results -- have been more explosive with the O's. It's early, but this might be an example of a lottery ticket working out for Baltimore for once.
The rotation lost Guthrie, but Jason Hammel has been healthy, and therefore effective, in his stead. His 3.5 K/BB would lead the rotation, if not for Arrieta, who has shown control that has been missing since 2009. Wei-Yin Chin, one of Duquette's international signings who was a huge question mark entering the season, has been acquitting himself to this point, with a 2.1 K/BB and 147 ERA+. Matusz is still trying to recapture his form, and Tommy Hunter hasn't been productive, but the rotation looks a lot messier than in years past. Even if it's a little over its head right now, thanks to early-season samples. (Arrieta, we're looking at you and those walk rates.)
There's a non-zero chance the Orioles keep winning -- sometimes teams get lucky and stay healthy, even simultaneously. However, it's far more likely that they start to slide down the standings with more time. Unlike in past years, though, this is an Orioles' team that could finish with winning record in spite of that, one who could make this season something to build on. It's possible we weren't wrong to think the Orioles would play well in 2011. We were just a year early on things going their way.