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Excitement In the Air
JOE SHEEHAN
May 28, 2012
The Orioles' fast start? A bit of fool's gold. But these are not Birds of the same old feather. Just wait another year or two
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May 28, 2012

Excitement In The Air

The Orioles' fast start? A bit of fool's gold. But these are not Birds of the same old feather. Just wait another year or two

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There are people of voting age along the Chesapeake who have no memory of the Orioles as a flagship major league franchise. Last season Baltimore finished under .500 for the 14th consecutive year, a team record even if you include its days as the St. Louis Browns, one of the AL's most destitute organizations in the first half of the 20th century.

So it's at least reason for hope that the Orioles had the best record in the AL at the quarter turn, a 27--15 mark largely driven by the long ball and strong play in close games. The Orioles led the majors with a 6--2 record in extra-inning games and, thanks in part to a surprisingly strong bullpen, had an 8--3 record in one-run contests. That doesn't explain all of their success, though. Through 42 games Baltimore outscored opponents by 14 runs and would be an early-season success story even if it was .500 in close games.

Statheads will argue that hitters, as a whole, enjoy their prime years from the ages of 25 to 29. If you're building a roster, you would do well to have as many players as possible in this range. Through Sunday the Orioles had gotten a whopping 79% of their plate appearances from players 25 through 29. Foremost among the group is Adam Jones. The 26-year-old centerfielder showed signs of development in 2011, hitting a career-high 25 homers. Jones has 14 homers and a .610 slugging percentage this season, more than one of every four of his fly balls has left the yard—a ratio, it should be added, that is unsustainable—and he would be an AL MVP candidate in a world without Josh Hamilton.

Jones and three of his peak-age peers (26-year-old catcher Matt Wieters, 28-year-old rightfielder Nick Markakis and 29-year-old shortstop J.J. Hardy) form the core of an offense that has relied almost entirely on power to rank fourth in the league in runs scored. The O's are just 12th in the AL in OBP, but they lead the league with 64 home runs, are third in doubles with 76 and rank fourth in slugging at .439.

The leads created by all these homers are being protected by a pen that, like many recent successful bullpens, is unheralded and inexpensive. Righthanders Luis Ayala (1.64 ERA) and Darren O'Day (1.27) are cheap veterans picked up in free agency and on the waiver wire, respectively, over the winter. Flamethrowing righty Pedro Strop (1.14 ERA) was acquired last August from Texas for reliever Mike Gonzalez. Jim Johnson has been the on-again, off-again closer since 2009, never quite able to hold the job thanks to his frequent injuries and low strikeout rate. This year he allowed just two runs in his first 19 2/3 innings and led the AL in saves through Sunday, with 15.

It is important to separate what has happened in Baltimore from what is likely to continue to happen. The Orioles' offense, saddled with that low OBP, probably will regress as their home-run-per-fly-ball rate slips from a majors-high 16.6% through Sunday to the 11.3% (ranked sixth) they had with basically the same group of players in 2011. Four anonymous relievers will probably not go the whole year with a 1.25 ERA. The team's defense, which is among the worst in baseball, will bite them in close games. The Orioles will be challenged by the toughest division in the majors and will—like other recent Baltimore teams that also started strong—be hard-pressed to finish above .500.

But there are reasons to be excited. That age 25--29 group will be 26--30 next year, when they are all under club control. And only Jones isn't under control for '14. By then the team could be bolstered by what may be the top two prospects in baseball right now. Righthander Dylan Bundy, 19, the fourth pick in last year's draft, didn't allow a run in his first eight starts as a pro: Over 30 innings at Class A through Sunday he had a ridiculous 40-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And shortstop Manny Machado, the third pick in the 2010 draft and also 19, was hitting .266 with a .365 OBP and a .420 slugging percentage as one of the youngest players in Double A. The Orioles also have the fourth pick in this year's draft; odds are they will end up with a polished college starting pitcher who can move to the majors quickly—someone like Stanford righthander Mark Appel or LSU righty Kevin Gausman.

Dan Duquette, who had been out of the game for a decade, seemed an odd hire as general manager last winter, but now he looks like an inspired choice. He hasn't spent a lot of money, but he's brought in the likes of Ayala, signed under-the-radar lefthander Wei-Yin Chen (3.35 ERA) out of Taiwan and traded for starter Jason Hammel (3.12) and reliever Matt Lindstrom (1.29). His moves won't always work out so neatly, but Duquette's focus on mining untapped markets for talent is one way to challenge the AL East payroll behemoths he has to beat to reach the postseason.

Baltimore's season isn't just about 2012. When the strikeouts begin to pile up at the plate and there aren't enough of them from the mound, when the one-run games start to fall the other way and the extra-inning affairs end in losses, there will still be reasons to think the Orioles have turned the corner. They have a core of major league talent at the right age to build around, two fantastic prospects on the way and a G.M. with an aggressive approach to making the team better. Hang in there, Baltimore. Your time is coming.

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