We're more than two years into the new Orioles era, the one where you can say, "first-place Orioles" without giggling. The Orioles moved from the bowels of the AL East to lucky win-by-a-run curiosities for a season, and a lot of folks figured they'd slide back into the swamp. Instead, we're here saying "first-place Orioles" without giggling. They became a team to take seriously a year or two ago, and we didn't even notice the tipping point.
Here's what fascinates me about this year's Orioles team, though: They should be better. They should be a lot better. Let's explain by comparing the Orioles to the other divisional rivals over .500.
The Yankees are hanging around, implausibly, for an easily noticeable reason: They're drastically outperforming their run differential. Brian Roberts is enjoying a dead-cat bounce, and Brett Gardner is having his best season, but it's that run differential that's separating them from, say, the Cubs. They're getting lucky and, as the 2012 Orioles showed us, they don't have to stop getting lucky because we're loudly pointing this out.
The Blue Jays aren't as good as they were early in the season, and they're probably not as bad as they've been over the last month. But the reason they started so hot was because everything that went wrong last year was going right this year. Mark Buehrle was freakishly unhittable; Melky Cabrera was the same player who won the All-Star MVP in 2012; Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were both healthy and hitting as well as they possibly could. The Blue Jays were following an obvious "What would make the Blue Jays good?" template.
In both cases, you can look at the Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs pages and say something like, "Well, if you told me that was going to happen ..." You can do that with just about any first-place team before the season.
"Who's your pick for the AL West?"
"Thinking Rangers. They have depth, and Choo is great. Prince Fielder's going to love Arlington."
"Except everyone on the team is going to get hurt in an industrial accident, and the A's are going to score the most runs in the AL."
"Well, if you told me *that* was going to happen ..."
The well-if-you-told-me-that-was-going-to-happen test is a good way to explain how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with a team keeping up their successful season. Have a lot of positive points that are essentially synonyms for "Endy Chavez hitting .350"? Watch out. Have a lot of positive points that translate to "The players who had the potential to be good are almost all doing so"? That team is fortunate, sure, but probably legitimate.
The Orioles are having a bizarre well-if-you-told-me-that-was-going-to-happen season.
Well, if you told me that was going to happen (Good)
- Nelson Cruz hitting like an MVP candidate
- Nick Markakis staying healthy
- Steve Pearce doing extremely well in a limited role
- Delmon Young doing well in a limited role
It's an underwhelming list for a first-place team, with Cruz's surge the only one really worthy of a spit-take. Look at the other side, now.
Well, if you told me that was going to happen (Bad)
- Ubaldo Jimenez pitching horribly
- Miguel Gonzalez regressing
- Chris Tillman regressing
- Kevin Gausman going to the minors
- Tommy Hunter losing his job
- Chris Davis being ordinary
- J.J. Hardy trading home runs in for singles
- Manny Machado performing adequately for a 21-year-old, no more, after having missed the first 25 games
- Matt Wieters missing most of the season
- Second base being a production wasteland
- David Lough being a disaster of an acquisition
Pretend it's March, and you have a greasy, older Biff Tannen presenting those lists to you. What's your prediction for the Orioles after seeing those lists? That's the recipe for a 90-loss Orioles team, easy. If the Orioles were going to contend, it was going to be because Davis and Machado were All-Stars, because the pitching was solid 1-through-5, possibly with Gausman breaking out.
Look at how much has gone wrong for the Orioles. Look how much can still go right.
Davis and Machado can start hitting. Hardy can find his power stroke. Any of the pitchers can turn the corner and be a little better, even if just to 2013 standards. More than any of that, though, the Orioles can patch a lot of their problems in the trade market. Second base is an easy fix, and there are at least three targets (Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley, and Daniel Murphy) worth pursuing. There isn't an obvious rotation spot up for grabs, but there's an opportunity there before July 31, too.
The Orioles came into the season with a lot of obvious talent, but only one of the expected stars is doing star things (Adam Jones). Yet they're here. They're the first-place Orioles, which is not only something we can say without giggling, but something we might get really used to.