With a 45-40 record heading into the All-Star Break that exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations, the Orioles are one of the feel-good stories of the season so far. While it’s nice to enjoy the thought that if the season somehow ended right now and still had playoffs, the O’s would qualify as the second wild card, let’s not kid ourselves, either: the Orioles are perched right on the edge of the abyss that’s all too familiar to fans since 1998.
Heading into the second half, the Orioles have three big problems. Their starting rotation is, at best, 3/5 question marks. Their offense, despite hitting a lot of home runs, is among the worst in all of baseball. Finally, their defense, barring any unexpected acquisitions, is mostly a mess.
The O’s are 11-6 in games started by Jason Hammel. They are 10-7 in games started by Wei-Yin Chen. These two were among the best pitchers in baseball over the first two months of the season, and still have above-average results in terms of ERA. In the 2011 season, the Orioles did not have a single pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA and now they have two. Neither Hammel nor Chen will win the Cy Young Award, but they have been and look to continue to be pleasant finds for the team.
The problem with the rotation is the rest of it. The detritus of the rotation, now ensconced in Norfolk, consisted of three of the worst starters in baseball: Jake Arrieta (worst starter ERA in the AL), Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. Blessedly, they have been replaced. Their failure was recognized as unacceptable and they were banished from the major league roster. However, their replacements bring in uncertainty with no guarantee they will be any better than the players they’ve replaced.
Two names we know will fill out the rotation are Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez. Tillman had a great start in Seattle. The Mariners offense is one of the few that’s worse than the Orioles’. He was sent to Bowie to clear a roster spot for a few days and make a start on regular rest. You might have thought he would continue to dominate an AA lineup, but he actually gave up three earned runs in 3.1 IP. He did look like a different pitcher, one with more zip on his fastball and better off-speed pitches. We can’t count on him as the answer yet.
Gonzalez had a great start against a much-better hitting team in the Angels. Still, we run into the same problem of not being able to extrapolate from that one good start that he will keep being a good starter. This is the same pitcher who washed around the minor leagues and had to be signed by the Orioles out of the Mexican League. That doesn’t happen by accident. There is the chance the O’s found him and taught him the right secret at the right time, but again, it’s not a sure thing.
The fifth starter could be either Dana Eveland or Zach Britton. No one seems to know which. We should expect Eveland to continue to look like a guy we don’t want to see starting games for our favorite team. Britton is another unknown with potential to be decent and also potential to be awful. He has made seven starts in AAA to the tune of a 4.87 ERA, not exactly numbers that scream for a call-up.