5. Baltimore Orioles
2012: 93-69, 2d place, 2 games back, wild card winners
2013 projection: 79-83, 5th place, 14 games back
Was last year a fluke? The Orioles had a Cinderella season and played in the postseason for the first time in 15 years. The bullpen was the star as Buck Showalter’s easy-going bunch cruised to a 29-9 record in one-run games and posted a 16-2 mark in extra innings in 2012. Unlike years past, the O’s did not fold when the going got tough, going 37-18 in August and September to qualify for the playoffs, where they beat the Rangers in the wild-card game playoff and took the Yankees to five games in the divisional series before it all came to an end.
What’s changed? Third baseman Mark Reynolds, who had 23 home runs and 69 RBIs in 2012, became a free agent and signed with the Indians. Manny Machado, the 20-year-old who made an immediate impact with Baltimore when he was called up last August, will be the full-time third baseman to start the season. Machado hit .262 with 17 extra-base and 26 RBIs in 191 at-bats in his rookie season.
Jim Thome, the 42-year-old slugging DH who hit three homers in 28 games with Baltimore at the end of last season, won’t be returning. The versatile Wilson Betemit, who chipped in with 12 homers last season, is slated be the designated hitter.
Second baseman Robert Andino signed with the Mariners as a free agent in the offseason. Orioles veteran Brian Roberts, who had season-ending hip surgery in August, is expected to be ready to play second in 2013. Over the last three seasons, Roberts has played in only 115 games because of concussion issues.
The starting pitching staff will start the season with a different look from the 2012 rotation. The Orioles will get the benefit of having Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman ready to start the season instead of relying on Jake Arietta, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz to match up with better-armed competition as they did last year.
Veteran lefthander Joe Saunders, who came over from the Diamondbacks in August, was granted free agency in October.
What’s stayed the same? Baltimore banged out 214 home runs and scored 712 runs last season and nearly all of the Orioles’ big boppers are retuning. DH Chris Davis, who led the wild card champs with 33 home runs, is expected to move over to first base.
Budding star outfielder and 2012 MVP candidate and Gold Glove winner Adam Jones and his 32 homers will be batting cleanup.
Right fielder Nick Markakis, who played in only 104 games last season due to a fractured thumb, should be back for a full season. In more than 420 at-bats leading off last season, he hit .298/.363/.471 with 28 doubles and 13 home runs.
General manager Dan Duquette re-signed 31-year-old outfielder Nate McLouth, who hit .268 with seven homers after coming over from the Pirates, for a tidy $2 million
Outfielder Nolan Reimold, who showed early power last April, should also be back healthy for a full season after suffering from a herniated disk that landed him on the DL for most of 2012.
Catcher Matt Wieters, who belted 23 bombs in 2012 in addition to taking home a Gold Glove award, is back behind the plate along with Luis Martinez, selected off waivers off Texas, as part of the back up plan.
2012 AL Gold Glove award winner J.J. Hardy returns at shortstop with Brian Roberts at second base.
On the mound, righthander Jason Hammel is the de facto staff ace. After spending the previous three seasons in Colorado, Hammell went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts for Baltimore last season.
Wei-Yin Chen impressed many in his first MLB season. The lefty went 12-11 in 32 starts, logging a 4.02 ERA.
Chris Tillman was 9-3 in 15 games started with a 2.93 ERA. The 24-year-old was impressive in his fourth season and should be effective in the middle of the rotation.
Miguel Gonzalez, who stepped up with a strong performance against the Yankees in last season’s ALDS, finished the year 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts.
Lefty Zach Britton or righty Brian Matusz could land the fifth starter spot unless Duquette acquires another pitcher before the start of the season. Jake Arrieta and Dylan Bundy could also help the rotation at some point.
The bullpen was the cornerstone of the Orioles success in 2012, led by Jim Johnson’s team-record 51 saves. Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, Steve Johnson, and Luis Ayala, all with sub-3.00 ERAs in 2012, will also be returning.
Let the regression begin. There won’t be as many days in the playoff race for Duquette’s club in 2013. Duke hasn’t done much to improve the Orioles this offseason and may be relying on the bullpen to carry the team again. The rotation remains a relative weak spot for Baltimore, which rolled out 12 different starting pitchers in 2012. The bet here is that the breaks don’t go Baltimore’s way and the O’s fall on hard times as the bullpen can’t repeat its greatness and the competition catches up them. Even the lowly Red Sox pass them by.