Did the Baltimore Orioles Have a Successful Season?

The Baltimore Orioles won just 69 games in 2011. Thanks in part to a strong bullpen and a breakout season by Adam Jones, the Birds upped their win total to 93 in 2012 and lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in five games.

Coming off the heels of their first postseason berth in more than a decade, Orioles fans were rightly excited for baseball to resume this spring. Would the team build on its 93 wins and second place finish in the AL East? Would the club prove that they were real competitors, not just a flash-in-the-pan aided by a Red Sox team that turned out to be a punching bag?

Bullpen

The Orioles famously went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012, a tremendous feat for any team. Even with a strong bullpen that sort of record is heavily aided by luck. Small victories are difficult to pull off, which is why so many teams build around the closer as the one guy they trust to protect a lead when it counts.

Orioles’ closer, Jim Johnson, saved 51 games last year, leading the league in saves, while Brian Matusz emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen as a lefty specialist. Essentially every move Buck Showalter made with his pitchers worked as well as he could have hoped.

Fast forward a year and Jim Johnson, while still very good, blew 9 saves on his way to a second-straight 50 save season.

Orioles magic in one-run games evaporated. Going 20-31 in one-run games this season, the O’s didn’t have the same type of success as last year. Finishing with an 85-77 record, six games behind the second place Rays, the same number of additional saves blown by Johnson over the 2012 season, and the O’s would have been in the battle royale with the Rays, Rangers, and Indians for the Wild Card.

Rotation

A deep rotation wasn’t a strength of the 2012 team or the 2013 incarnation. Given the margin of their loss, one more good starter could go a long way for the Orioles.

Chris Tillman stepped up in a big way this year throwing over 200 innings of 3.78 ERA baseball. The righty struck out just under eight batters per nine innings and walked three batters per inning. That’s not ace level performance, but over the last few seasons the Orioles have seen Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and others fail to hang on to a rotation spot, so Tillman is a step in the right direction.

Jason Hammel, last year’s rotation leader, posted an ERA just under five in an injury-shortened 2013 season.

Dylan Bundy, the O’s pitching phenom, who made a brief debut down the stretch in 2012, missed the entire season trying to rehab before sucumbing to Tommy John surgery, putting his future in doubt for the 2014 season as well.

Offense

First baseman Chris Davis did everything he possibly could, and more, by putting up a monster season. 53 home runs, 43 doubles, an OPS over 1.000, 103 runs, and 138 RBI set the pace for the former Rangers prospect. It took Davis a few years to get adjusted to the majors, but when he put things together the result was nearly unbelievable. If he can duplicate even eighty percent of this performance in 2014, the Orioles will be back in the mix for a playoff berth.

Manny Machado, who turned 21 in July, had a big first half (.310/.337/.470) followed by a second half slump (.240/.277/.370). While he ended the season with an injury scare, the hope is that the third baseman escaped with a prescription for rest and rehab rather than surgery.

Conclusion

Was this a good season for the Orioles? Probably. With the emergence of Chris Tillman, the power of Chris Davis, the continued presence of Matt Wieters, and only scratching the surface of what Manny Machado can do, Baltimore is in position to continue building.

Had this season come before the breakout of 2012 things would look better for the fans, but this year’s Orioles were better, but not luckier, than last year’s model.

General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have breathed new life into a team that sat along the bottom of the standings for too long. The Red Sox and Yankees aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and the Rays are too well built to ignore, but the Orioles can use the new playoff format to make their push. And with just a little bit of luck, they might be back in the postseason next year.

 Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Dan Duquette Finally Back in Baseball as Orioles GM: What’s Next?

In a year where it seems like every team has been hunting for a general manager, dozens of names have been tossed about: former GMs, assistant GMs ready to take over for their current team or accept a promotion with another team, and long-rumored potential candidates like Kim Ng. One name that didn’t get much attention until he emerged as the front-runner in Baltimore: former Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette. After nearly a decade away from a management job in Major League Baseball, Duquette has returned to rebuild a Red Sox rival in a tough AL East.

End of an Era

Dan Duquette was the last GM of the Yawkey ownership and failed to end the championship drought while the team was still owned by the family. During the eight seasons between 1994 when he won the job and 2002 when he was fired, Duquette’s teams went 656-574, reaching the playoffs three times and taking home one AL East division title. Duquette drafted Nomar Garciaparra and Kevin Youkilis, although the latter didn’t reach the majors during Duquette’s time in Boston. He acquired Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe in trades. He brought Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to Boston, and for what it’s worth, eventually freed the team of clubhouse cancer and dinosaur denier Carl Everett. These moves built the foundation that the Red Sox would transform into some of the greatest teams to take the field under John Henry’s ownership.

On the other hand, Duquette draftee Justin Duchscherer was traded for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and plucky  shortstop David Eckstein was lost on waivers to the Angels. Duquette also failed to sign Mark Teixeira, a move which could have altered the fortunes of the early 2000s Red Sox tremendously.

Overall his tenure in Boston was nothing to sneeze at, and maybe, had the Yankees not gone on such an amazing run at the end of the last century, one of Duquette’s teams could have gotten lucky and made a run at a World Series. With Pedro and Nomar in their primes, a few breaks in the Sox favor could have changed history.

However, the Red Sox string of second place finishes and their inability to make it past the ALCS during Duquette’s reign left the fans wanting more. The bad taste surrounding Duquette’s time in Boston would be forever tied to one moment in 1996 when the GM said these words: “The Red Sox and our fans were fortunate to see Roger Clemens play in his prime and we had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”  The twilight of his career. Those words would sting Red Sox Nation while Clemens took his skills to Toronto, New York, and Houston, winning Cy Young awards along the way and made Duquette look foolish.

Today we know that part of Clemens’ rejuvenation was fueled by performance enhancing drugs. While this may be of little consolation to Duquette, it at least partially validates his assessment of Clemens in the mid-90s.

When John Henry’s ownership group completed their purchase of the Red Sox there was still a lot of work to be done before Henry could really make the team his own. In his behind the scenes book about the Red Sox, Feeding the Monster, Seth Mnookin describes the Duquette days as “needlessly combative.” Henry said the secrecy surrounding the team was worrisome and that under his control the Sox would be “committed to being open and having open lines of communication” in response to stories about minor league pitching coaches worrying about being fired if they spoke to the press. The money quote from a reporter Henry relayed to Mnookin: “Get out your broom and sweep out the Duke.” When Duquette reached the end of the road in Boston, he landed hard.

After Boston

The aftermath for Dan Duquette was not as welcoming as the GM shuffle that has taken place this year. The former Red Sox and Expos executive found himself shut out of the exclusive network of Major League Baseball. In America. Duquette was part of a team that formed the Israel Baseball League. The league lasted just one season, 2007. However, Israel, denied a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, will be participating in the 2013 WBC. At the very least, the effort helped baseball gain traction in another country, while graduating several players to other professional baseball leagues.

Now that Dan Duquette is back in the helm of a team, time will tell if the executive can rebuild a historic franchise. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Weiters form the core to build around. Uber-prospect Manny Machado looms on the horizon, and the O’s have a stable of pitching prospects who have struggled with injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

With a three-year contract in place, Duquette has his work set out for him, the AL East is a tough division with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays battling each other for playoff contention, and the Blue Jays are pretty good too. The next wave of prospects should arrive during Duquette’s tenure and if he can surround them with some excellent under the radar pickups while drafting well, the Orioles could make enough progress to keep him around long enough to see his team be competitive.

The ultimate wild card: the Orioles have money. Baltimore was in on the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes a few years ago and it wouldn’t be impossible to see them surface as a mystery team for Prince Fielder or even Albert Pujols. At the end of the day, Duquette may leave his mark on baseball as an Oriole, rather than a Red Sox.

 

Cross-posted from Sports of Boston