The Batlimore Orioles were pretty much roundly picked to finish last in the American League East. They went 14-9 in April, and we thought it was cute. They went 15-13 in May, and eyebrows raised a little bit. After a 13-13 June, people were breathing easier. and everything seemed normal after a 13-14 July. But then, the Orioles went 18-9 in August and 20-11 in September and October, and they were a playoff team for the first time in 15 years. In the ALDS, the Orioles played the Yankees tough in all five games, and probably should have won four of them. But alas, they fell in game five, and that ended a memorable season in the Charm City.
If you're new here (which about 90% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from the playoffs, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
What Went Right: Baltimore assembled their bullpen for 2012 in the absolute most correct way possible: with low cost, low risk young players and free agents. Their highest paid reliever was closer Jim Johnson at $2.625 million in his second year of arbitration. Four relievers on their playoff roster made under a million dollars each. Aside from that killer pen, the Orioles had some other highlights. Starting pitchers Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen were the two most dependable starters the Orioles had, and came at a low cost: Chen came from Japan where he was overshadowed by Yu Darvish in the posting process, and Hammel was acquired from the Rockies fro Jeremy Guthrie in a deal that became increasingly lopsided for the O's as the season progressed. Offensively, Adam Jones had the best year of his career while bashing 32 homers, Chris Davis took the next step towards being a regular by hitting 33 homers and striking out 30% of the time, and 20-year old rookie Manny Machado performed extremely well after getting called up in August, perhaps prematurely. Also, Nate McLouth of all people stepped up to have a great second half after getting released by the Pirates.
What Went Wrong: Nick Markakis was hurt and missed 58 games. Despite 22 homers, shortstop JJ Hardy had an extremely disappointing year with a .282 OBP. The team had issues at DH all year, including failed stints by Nick Johnson and Jim Thome. Brian Roberts played just 17 games, and made $10 million while doing it (and will make the same next year). Veteran reliever Kevin Gregg was awful, and earned himself a release. Randy Wolf was brought in during August to add a veteran to the pitching staff, and blew his elbow out.
Most Surprising Player: In a season of surprises, Chris Davis might rank as the biggest. Coming off of three straight seasons where he contributed negative fWAR to his team, Davis had a two win season in 2012 thanks in part to 33 homers, the highest total of his major league career. While Davis still posted crappy walk and strikeout rates, he was finally able to put it together for a whole season and not let a 30% strikeout rate get in the way of smashing dingers. A 25% HR/FB rate probably has a lot to do with that, but still, it's good to see him finally reaching his potential.
Most Disappointing Player: It's tough here. Kevin Gregg has been awful for awhile, Brian Roberts hasn't played a full season combined over the last three seasons. Despite a 2.8 fWAR season, I think I have to go with JJ Hardy here. A year after he put up 4.8 fWAR and bashed 30 homers for the first time in his career, Hardy took a step back by belting just 22 homers, which can be tied to a higher ground ball rate and a lower fly ball rate. Maybe it wasn't a huge disappointment, but for it to happen the season after he got a contract extension, I can definitely understand the sentiment of being angry with a .671 OPS from a guy getting paid $7.4 million.
Prospects Up: The scariest part about the Orioles organization in my mind is their farm system. Dylan Bundy turned himself into the best pitching prospect in baseball, eventually getting a September taste of the majors at age 19. Machado had a great season at 20, and was the team's starting third baseman for the last two months of the year. That's what happens when you don't miss on two straight top five picks in the draft. Past those two, there's Jonathan Schoop, who had a .710 OPS and 14 homers at age 20 in AA, and 2012 fourth overall Kevin Gausman, who flirted with going back to LSU but signed at the deadline, striking out 13 while walking just one in 15 pro innings. Nick Delmonico had a solid year in his first professional season, in A-ball. Xavier Avery looked like every bit of a fourth outfielder and pinch runner over his season with AAA Norfolk and the majors. LJ Hoes showed good plate discipline in AA and AAA, but his power still hasn't come along at age 22.
Prospects Down: Dylan's brother Bobby had a 6.25 ERA at AA, but didn't have terrible peripherals. 2011 second round pick Jason Esposito's first pro season as a flop in A-ball.
Overall: While this is still a young team, I don't think anyone would be truly surprised if they took a step back in 2013. The only significant free agents they have are McLouth and Joe Saunders. With a lot better luck in regards to health (Roberts, Markakis, Nolan Reimold to name three), I think the O's can definitely compete next year, and if their young talent (Machado, Bundy, Matt Wieters) keeps on rolling along, the Orioles of the mid-90s could be back.