There’s a pervading sense of excitement among Orioles fans early in this 2012 season. With the team sitting at 16-9, coming off of winning two of three in Yankee Stadium, there is plenty of reason for optimism. But — there’s always a but — that optimism comes with a dose of reality. After so many disappointing years, it’s hard to fully commit to this current Oriole group staying competitive over the long haul. Even more unrealistic? The team staying in and winning the American League East. While the odds are clearly stacked against Camden Yards hosting postseason baseball for the first time since the Clinton administration, here’s a very, very recent blueprint of a postseason team that Baltimore resembles in many ways.
The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks were a wretched baseball team. At 65-97. with a -123 run differential, they were non-competitive in the National League West.
Although they employed a no-nonsense, old-school manager in Kirk Gibson and a young nucleus of talented players (Justin Upton, Chris Young, Miguel Montero, Stephen Drew, Ian Kennedy), wins were hard to come by. One of the biggest culprits for the lack of success was a bullpen that ranked among the worst ever assembled. Led by such luminaries as Juan Gutierrez (56.2 IP, 5.08 ERA), Aaron Heilman (72, 4.50), Esmerling Vasquez (53.2, 5.20), Chad Qualls (38, 8.29), and Sam Demel (37, 5.35), the Arizona bullpen literally torched any chance the team had of competing in the late innings. Playing in an abnormally tough NL West — all four competitors had at least 80 wins — Arizona finished 15 games back of the fourth place Colorado Rockies and 27 off the pace of the eventual World Champion Giants.
Within a year, everything changed out in the desert. From 65-97 to 94-68, Arizona made the worst-t0-first leap and won the National League Western division in 2011.
Their superb turnaround was orchestrated by first year general manager Kevin Towers, the former architect of division and pennant winning teams in San Diego. While his inaugural off-season planned seemed destined to hurt the club in the short term, it helped to strengthen the organization by leaps and bounds. Mark Reynolds, the 40+ homer, 200+ strikeout pitcher was shipped to Baltimore for hard throwing David Hernandez. J.J. Putz, a journeyman ex-closer, was signed to join him in the back of the bullpen. Instead of splurging on aging, costly veterans, Towers banked on the continued growth of the young nucleus, expertise of Kirk Gibson on the bench, and focused more attention on building up the farm system to compete in 2013 and ’14. Clearly, the planned worked. Justin Upton had a breakout, MVP caliber campaign. Miguel Montero established himself as one of baseball’s best power hitting catchers, Chris Young patrolled the outfield like a star, and Ian Kennedy found his command and ran off a four month streak of dominance. The bullpen went from extreme liability to outstanding strength. The Hernandez-Putz combo dominated batters in the 8th and 9th inning to a tune of a 1.42 ERA and 56 saves in 127.1 IP.
While the turnaround in Arizona is atypical of a baseball rebuilding effort, it’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the 2011 Diamondbacks and the 2012 Orioles.
First, Dan Duquette –architect of division and pennant winning clubs — was brought into clean up an organization coming off a 69-93 (-152 run differential) campaign, 12 games worse than the fourth place team in the division. His off-season moves where criticized, but he spoke of added depth and competition to the pitching staff. The offense wasn’t upgraded with household names because Duquette believed in the young players on the roster improving from last season. The bullpen — and pitching staff as a whole — was dead last in the American League in ERA in 2011. As the competition and names changed over the winter, so have the results. The manager was kept in place because of a belief in his baseball acumen. Perhaps most importantly, though, the division could be changing overnight. Just as the NL West seemed overly competitive for a young, improving Diamondbacks team to overtake last year, the AL East looked that way coming into this spring. Now? It’s the best division in the sport — all five teams have a positive run differential — but maybe lacking the 95+ win team(s) expected earlier. Tampa Bay lost MVP candidate Evan Longoria for 6-8 weeks, New York has injuries in the pitching staff, most notably the loss of the great Mariano Rivera, Boston sometimes looks like a below .500 team, and Toronto is still learning to win.
Can the 2012 Orioles replicate the success of the 2011 Diamondbacks? Probably not. The climb is still very steep and slippery along the way. But there are reasons to believe.
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