The Orioles Attempt To Take Down Goliath
At the beginning of April, there was little reason to believe that the Baltimore Orioles would be anything but a last place team. This was not a new occurrence as the O’s hadn’t put up a winning season since 1997. Aside from the inescapable feeling of hope at the beginning of the year, my expectations for the 2012 season as an Orioles’ fan were pretty grim. Once former Vice President of Baseball Operations Andy McPhail resigned after the 2011 season, the Orioles offered Blue Jays’ Assistant GM Tony LaCava the job. LaCava declined, stating that he would rather stay in Toronto, but many speculated that he was apprehensive to work with the notoriously difficult owner of the Orioles, Peter Angelos. After LaCava bowed out, the O’s struggled to find a suitable candidate for the job. They eventually landed on Dan Duquette, former GM of the Boston Red Sox, who had been out of Major League Baseball since 2002.
With a major league roster lacking in talent, a minor league system lacking in depth, and a general manager who had been out of the loop for a decade, it looked like the O’s were destined for several more years of losing. Duquette made pitching a major priority in the offseason after the O’s had a major league high 4.92 ERA in 2011. Instead of signing an elite pitcher through free agency, Duquette set a precedent of quantity over quality by acquiring a plethora of low-cost arms. Many of these acquisitions have already been forgotten, but a few of them have ended up being instrumental in the Orioles’ success. Jason Hammel, who was acquired in a trade that sent Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado, has vastly outperformed expectations, posting the highest FIP of his career (3.29). Wei-Yin Chen, a Taiwanese lefty who signed for three years and $12 million, has been the most consistent starter for the O’s throughout his rookie season, and has been worth 2.3 WAR. Darren O’Day, claimed off waivers, and Luis Ayala, signed to a one year, $925,000 contract, have combined to be worth almost two wins as middle relievers in a surprisingly effective bullpen. These low-cost moves, along with solid performances from pitchers left over from McPhail’s tenure, have led to the Orioles ERA to drop to 4.05 this season. Not great, but a lot better than the previous year.
While the top performers on the pitching staff were brought in by Duquette, the success of the offense can be attributed to players brought in by McPhail. Adam Jones found his power stroke (.219 ISO), and has an excellent shot at his first 30-homerun season. Matt Wieters continues to provide stellar defense behind the plate, while also improving his walk rate to 10.2%. JJ Hardy might be the most underrated defensive shortstop in the league, and his power is a huge asset at the position. Nick Markakis had his best wRC+ (124) since 2008, and had he stayed healthy he would have likely been a three-win player. Add in decent performances by Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds and you have a solid core of players that were in place before Duquette was handed the reins.
As the Orioles battle the Yankees for the AL East crown in the final weeks of the season, many people will credit Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter for putting this perennial loser in position to take down Goliath. Many would argue that the real reason the Orioles are contending has more to do with McPhail than Duquette, and many still will argue that the O’s success is more good luck than anything else. In truth, it’s likely a combination of the three, but does it really matter? As a lifelong Orioles’ fan, I could care less if the O’s are winning because of McPhail, Duquette’s savvy moves, or if Buck Showalter happened across a magic genie this offseason and wished for a postseason berth. This team has left a generation of fans not knowing what it means to have a winning team in Baltimore. The circumstances surrounding their success will become increasingly insignificant as the O’s get closer to achieving what small market teams strive for every year: to take down Goliath.