In 2012, the Orioles surprised everyone, including themselves, by making it to the AL Division Series with an injury-riddled lineup and a rotation of castoffs, none of whom except Wei-Yin Chen made more than twenty starts. Buck Showalter turned out to be the perfect manager for this club; a brilliant in-game tactician and non-nonsense perfectionist, he arrested the culture of losing that had hung around Baltimore for over a decade and made his players a lot tougher. Can they repeat their magic trick in 2013? Let's start by looking at the lineup:
RF Nick Markakis (L): .297/.369/.457, 16 HR, 3.3 WAR
SS J.J. Hardy (R): .254/.306/.422, 22 HR, 3.6 WAR
1B Chris Davis (L): .286/.340/.532, 31 HR, 1.8 WAR
CF Adam Jones (R): .287/.334/.505, 27 HR, 14 SB, 4.4 WAR
C Matt Wieters (S): .262/.341/.448, 22 HR, 5.4 WAR
3B Manny Machado (R): .256/.315/.419, 15 HR, 14 SB, 3.7 WAR
DH Nolan Reimold (R): .263/.340/.456, 17 HR, 1.3 WAR
LF Nate McLouth (L): .237/.326/.400, 14 HR, 14 SB, 1.3 WAR
2B Alexi Casilla (S): .251/.311/.331, 2 HR, 17 SB, 1.8 WAR
Markakis is the team's best overall hitter by a long stretch, and it was all the more amazing that the Orioles pushed their way into the playoffs with him missing the last third of the season. He will be back, and his high walk rates and doubles power make him the best possible fit for the leadoff spot. Hardy completely forgot how to walk last year, turning in an OBP of .282, but he did finish tied for second on the team in total bases with Davis. Davis finally had a full season approaching what his talent suggests he is capable of, posting his best slash line since his 80-game rookie campaign of 2008 and adding 33 home runs (although he still struck out 169 times). Jones likewise posted a career high in home runs in his age-26 season, and he adds some value as a baserunner also. Over the past two seasons, Wieters has started to deliver on the offensive promise that led to some spectacular Matt Wieters facts, but he still needs to get on base a touch more, and he certainly has the power potential to exceed twenty-two home runs in the Camden Yards bandbox. Machado was called up after a brief apprenticeship at AA Bowie to fill the Orioles' hole at third base, a position he had played twice in his life. He responded with outstanding defense and just enough offense as a teenager to validate Baltimore's decision; this year he should keep the job full-time, although it would be best for both player and team for him to move back to shortstop soon. None of the bottom three are likely to provide much in the way of offense, although McLouth resuscitated himself from a dreadful two and a half years to provide Baltimore with some presence at the bottom of the order.
Defensively the Birds are pretty solid at most spots, with a couple of holes. Machado is the best of the bunch; he should eventually be a top-flight shortstop, but for the moment is a top-flight third baseman who sometimes makes heady plays like this. The guy blocking him, Hardy, is above average, although not at the same level as his eventual successor. Wieters, a giant of a catcher (6'5", 240), has deservedly won consecutive Gold Gloves; he handles the staff well, keeps everything in front of him, and has a strong arm. Markakis, a former pitcher, gives the team a cannon and adequate range in right, while McLouth, exposed in center, can handle left well. Jones is overrated as a center fielder; he's athletic and graceful but makes poor reads and gets bad jumps, forcing him to make more difficult-looking catches than he should given the small confines of his home yard. Defense is about all that Casilla has ever offered, and Davis is solid enough at first. This team will need their gloves, because the pitching staff is made up of guys who don't strike out a ton of batters.
LHP Wei-Yin Chen: 193.0 IP, 154 K, 57 BB, 3.92 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 2.2 WAR
RHP Chris Tillman: 188.0 IP, 155 K, 72 BB, 4.31 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 1.7 WAR
RHP Miguel Gonzalez: 174.0 IP, 138 K, 56 BB, 3.67 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.5 WAR
RHP Jason Hammel: 161.0 IP, 122 K, 58 BB, 4.30 ERA, 4.06 FIP, 2.9 WAR
LHP Zach Britton: 97.0 IP, 72 K, 41 BB, 4.08 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 1.5 WAR
Chen was a rookie last year who emerged as Baltimore's only consistently healthy/productive starter, which makes him the ace by default in 2013. Of the other guys, Tillman has the highest ceiling, and actually produced at a much higher level in his fifteen starts last year than the projections suggest; he had a 2.93 ERA and struck out 66 batters in 86 innings with only 24 walks. Gonzalez and Hammel were also effective in limited use last season, and both should be so again. Whoever is in the fifth spot (Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta are all possibilities) is likely just holding down the fort until top prospect Dylan Bundy, all of 20 years old, takes their place. Bundy is one of the most-polished high school righties to come along in years, if not decades, and was good enough last year to jump from A-ball to high-A to AA to the majors.
If the Oriole rotation was patchwork last year, the bullpen was terrific, with Jim Johnson headlining a cast that included Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, and Troy Patton, all of whom return for an encore. This is a difficult team to predict. On the one hand, they out-performed expectations by eleven wins last season, coaxing a playoff appearance out of an expected .500 group, so some regression is expected. On the other hand, the majority of this team consists of players either entering or squarely in their expected primes, with a pair of precocious 20-year-olds thrown in the mix. Among key figures, only McLouth (31), Wilson Betemit (31), and Ayala (35) are older than 30, and there are a dozen of that same group who are 27 or younger. Still, the Orioles will once again have to fight for everything they get, and in the American League East, that might not be quite enough to earn them a second consecutive playoff appearance.