Forget Angelos, the Albert Belles of the world, or draft picks in the mold of Billy Rowell. The end of 14 consecutive losing seasons and an era of incompetence, which had driven the Orioles into the cellar of the AL East, is on the horizon.
Admittedly, the bullpen, comprised of many recycled relievers, has wildly overachieved. Jim Johnson, for example, has blown just one save, and shortstop-turned-reliever Pedro Strop has posted an ERA of 1.67. In the second half, the bullpen will likely regress not only because of its unproven track record but also because of its tremendous workload. Expect the relievers, who so often bailed out the starting pitchers for much of the first half, to be more inconsistent in the second half.
Nevertheless, the expected struggles of the bullpen should be offset by an improved rotation in the second half. Sinkerballer Zach Britton returns to the rotation this week, for instance. The 24-year old left-hander was the most consistent starter for the Orioles in 2011 through the month of June. Unfortunately, an increased workload forced Britton to the disabled list for much of the second half of last season, yet his arrival should bolster a struggling pitching staff. The timing of Britton’s return can almost be considered an acquisition at the trade deadline. Thus, Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette should feel less inclined to acquire another pitcher. Consider that Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz both have ERAs north of 5.00; therefore, Britton’s 4.61 ERA in 2011 would be a marked improvement.
Jake Arrieta, moreover, should pitch much better. Although he won’t perform like the Orioles’ prototypical Opening Day starter, Arrieta’s 6.13 ERA isn’t an accurate reflection of his performance in the first half. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.01, a statistic used to calculate ERA based on the league average mark of BABIP, better indicates Arrieta’s true value.
Offensively, the Orioles have relied heavily on home runs. Despite consistently ranking in the league’s bottom third in batting average, OPS, and Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the O’s have the fourth-most home runs in baseball. The return of Nick Markakis should bolster the Orioles’ power numbers. Although not a home run hitter, Markakis replaces weak-hitting rookie Xavier Avery in the lineup and should hit for average.
The importance of a fast start to the second half cannot be understated. The difference between a few wins and losses could determine whether the O’s are buyers or sellers at the July 31 trade deadline. With a 45-40 record, Baltimore currently holds the second wild card spot and trails New York by seven games in the AL East. Several teams, however, are right on the Orioles’ heels in the wild card race, including the Tampa Bay Rays. Led by manager Joe Maddon and a terrific pitching staff, the Rays are just one-half game behind Baltimore. The Red Sox, Tigers, Blue Jays and Indians aren’t far behind either.
The Orioles’ schedule through the end of July, fortunately, isn’t overwhelmingly difficult. After the current three-game home stand against the Tigers, the Orioles have an eight-game road trip, consisting of a four-game series against the lowly Twins and another four-game series against the Indians. Baltimore then hosts Tampa Bay and Oakland in consecutive three-game series. The Orioles conclude the month with two games at the Yankees, part of a three-game set which extends until August 1.
Clearly, the Orioles are presented with perhaps their best opportunity since 2005 to end the franchise’s losing streak. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters have emerged from productive secondary pieces to legitimate franchise players in 2012. They should continue to lead the team offensively. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel (whose sore right knee remains an issue), maybe the most unlikely top two starters in baseball, should balance an often shaky rotation. Granted, the Orioles will face stiff competition in the second half, but Buck Showalter has shown a knack for motivating the O’s in the months of August and September. Given some luck, particularly on the injury front, during the final two months of the season, the underdog Orioles have an excellent chance of making the playoffs as the second wild card team.