by Steven GoldmanIt is very, very early in the American League East, and anyone who advances too definitive an analysis of each team’s possibilities risks becoming the Norman Angell of baseball, declaring peace is at hand less than a year before the Archduke Ferdinand got his ticket punched.
Having said that, let’s throw caution to the wind and go sailing on the good ship Confirmation Bias: Prior to the season, SB Nation columnist Cliff Corcoran said that it was possible to look at every team in the division and make a case that it would win 85 games -- every team was about that good, but also that flawed. For the Rays, the presumed good included strong pitching and the presumed flaws a weak offense. For the Orioles, the positives were all-around depth and the negatives were anticipated regression from key players and the bullpen, as well as in one-run games.
So far, the offseason coming attractions have proved to be a decent representation of the movie. The Rays, hitting .205/.281/.288 as a team, are dead last in the American League in runs scored. They have hit five home runs as a team. Seven individual players have as many or more -- Chris Davis, the Orioles’ first baseman, among them. Normally, we might look at Tropicana Field and point out that it’s a pitcher’s park that will deflate the Rays’ stats at the best of times, but they’re hitting 251/.322/.364 at home versus .160/.239/.213 on the road -- it's not the park, it’s that the Rays are suffering from the equivalent of forgetting to charge their cellphones before leaving home.
They aren’t really this bad, of course; no team is. Having said that, we risk damning with Rays with faint praise – "not bad" is not the same as saying "actually good." Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are proven commodities. Matt Joyce has hit .270/.364/.493 against right-handed pitching over the last three seasons. Yunel Escobar has hit well for a shortstop at times in the past, and Kelly Johnson’s low batting average conceal good power and patience for a middle infielder. Desmond Jennings seems like a good breakthrough candidate after putting up numbers in the second half more in line with his minor league performances.
One of those baseball clichés that happens to be true is that it takes awhile for young, hard-throwing lefties to find their control. Moore appeared to do that in the second half last year, dropping his walks per nine from 4.5 to 3.6. Gio Gonzalez didn’t get his walk rate under four per nine until his fifth major league season, and he had to move over to the NL to do it; Clayton Kershaw got there in season three. It doesn’t always happen; some lefties never take that step forward. It seems odd to call a pitcher who struck out nearly a batter per inning with a 3.01 ERA after the All-Star break as a breakout candidate, but now we’re waiting for him to do it over a full season.
The Gil McDougald of the 21st century, and like his predecessor, it took the connivance of his manager to make him great. Once Casey Stengel realized McDougald was a great defender at second, short, or third and had an above-average bat at any of the three, he had an unbeatable weapon, a player who could help you stay above replacement level wherever you were weakest. Joe Maddon uses Zobrist the same way. In an age of constricted budgets and rosters choked by out-of-control kudzu relief specialists, asymmetrical platooning is an under-exploited way to do more with less -- but so far only Maddon seems to realize it.
A career .239/.286/.345 hitter, and not even the lightest-hitting backstop of his era -- Paul Bako and Mike Matheny had him beat. Molina’s pitch-framing skills are undoubtedly valuable to a team that lives on pitching, but you know the Rays would ditch their Molinas and Lobatons in a second for a more rounded starter. Consider: if the numbers are accurate and Molina has saved his pitchers 80 runs over the last five seasons, that translates to perhaps 1.5 extra wins a season. However, since Molina contributes almost nothing on offense, the net gain may be closer to zero. Being underfinanced means clothing yourself in burlap and pretending it’s silk.
The Orioles’ long years in the wilderness were marked by an almost total inability to develop pitching. From busted first-round draft picks like Adam Loewen and Matthew Hobgood to well-regarded prospects who just haven’t established themselves like Brian Matusz (now finding success as a reliever), Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton, young pitchers took their lumps but with the exception of Erik Bedard, didn’t evolve. Tillman, who came to the Orioles in trade for Bedard, appeared to finally get there last season, but from a high home run rate to a super-low .222 BABIP, to a barely-average strikeout rate, it’s very possible that this season he gives it all back.
In his last 50 games, going back to August 16 last season, Davis has hit a cool .328/.403/.733 with 21 home runs in 180 at-bats, or one every 8.6 at-bats. This Ruthian pace is not totally unanticipated in his career -- Davis hit .318 and slugged nearly .600 in the minor leagues, then got off track in the majors, pitchers using his poor selectivity against him. Still Davis is like Mark Teixeira (in the latter’s prime) in that he has so much power that even when he’s doing things fundamentally wrong the right things happen. He’s going to cool off at some point, but the Orioles might have an MVP candidate nonetheless.
Baseball’s Mr. Streaky is off to a crazy-hot start, a dropped fly that led to a loss to the Yankees notwithstanding. As much as any player in the game, he illustrates the mental aspect of the game, the gap between talent and execution when the head gets in the way. There is no other explanation for the way he mixes in months where he hits as well as anyone in the game with arctic cold snaps in which he struggles to get on base at a .300 clip. You get top-quality defense (even if the defensive metrics don’t like him), rising power production, and the peaks are so high you have a down-ballot MVP candidate even with the lulls. Still, if he ever finds consistency, look out.
The Orioles and Rays are rivals only in that they play in the same division. Both are former jokes of the A.L. East and while Orioles fans don't particularly like the Rays, most will always root for them over both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Never was this more evident than in game 162 in 2011 when "Let’s Go Rays" chants broke out at Camden Yards and the Orioles reacted to beating the Red Sox as though they were the ones going to the playoffs.
Maybe one day in the future, if both teams continue their success and Camden Yards and Tropicana Field find become overrun with fans of the other team, a rivalry will be born. But until then, the prevailing thought will be that if it can’t be us winning, it might as well be them. " - Stacey Long, Camden Chat
"I wouldn't call the Rays-Orioles rivalry as big as the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry, but it's definitely getting larger and larger each year. I always used to view them as a smaller AL East "rivalry" back when both the Rays were still called the Devil Rays, as both teams were horrible and they were fighting it out for fourth place on a yearly basis. When the Rays started winning, though, that rivalry took a backseat to the Red Sox (who I believe all Rays fans hate with a fiery passion), and I even found myself rooting for the Orioles on occasion.
But now that the Orioles are good as well...well, that changes things. I'd rather see the Orioles make the postseason rather than the Red Sox or Yankees, but not at the expense of the Rays. And considering how egalitarian the AL East is this year (in terms of talent, at least), it's on. I don't want the Rays to miss the postseason yet again, and the O's are standing smack in the way. Bring it, Birdtown!" - Steve Slowinski, DRays Bay