When we last left Buck Showalter and the battling Baltimore Orioles, they were celebrating and partying on the field like it was 1979. Showalter's pesky crew went 5-1 against the Red Sox in the late stages of September, playing the spoiler role perfectly. The way the club reacted to its dramatic victory on that fateful final Wednesday, you'd have though the Orioles just won the AL East Conference Tournament and were heading into the playoffs on an automatic bid.
Things don't work that way, of course — not in baseball, and not in the rough-and-rumble AL East. Let's reestablish the facts of life facing the Orioles in this division: the Yankees and Red Sox have all the resources, the Rays have brains and an overflowing base of talent, and the Blue Jays have an up-and-coming star in the GM's chair. The Birds have finished last in this division for four straight seasons and they haven't seen a winning record since 1997. It's hard to imagine a harbor renaissance coming for 2012.
But hey, that's all window dressing. We're just in it for the numbers. There are some Birds worth buying in fake-baseball 2012, and that's what we're here to discuss.
Who's the man for the ninth inning?
Mercifully, it doesn't look like Kevin Gregg will be closing this year. The Orioles are still holding onto the veteran reliever — they really should have dealt him last summer for even the slightest of offers — but he doesn't have a trustable profile for a high-leverage job. Gregg converted just 22-of-29 save chances last year and the stats just get worse after that: 4.37 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 40 walks against 53 strikeouts, seven homers allowed. He turns 34 in the middle of the summer, and I can't imagine he'll be cashing a big-league check for much longer.
Right-handed sinkerballer Jim Johnson is five years younger than Gregg, and he'll probably get the first look in the ninth inning. Johnson doesn't miss a lot of bats (just 58 strikeouts in 91 innings) but he throws strikes (2.76 K/BB) and he keeps the ball on the ground (a sparkling 61.5 percent GB rate). There's more than one way to succeed in the ninth inning; rather than trying to blow everyone away, why not focus on hitting the zone and forcing them to beat you with a run of batted-ball luck? If you're looking for saves on a budget, Johnson looks like an outstanding choice. His early rank over at Mock Draft Central is a downright affordable (ADP: 222).
A lot is made of the hitter-friendly AL East, a graveyard for pitchers. How does Oriole Park at Camden Yards fit into that theme?
If you wind up in the bleachers of Baltimore this summer, bring a glove (well, bring a glove for your kids — it's kinda cheesy for an adult fan to glove it in a major-league ballpark). Camden Yards has settled in as a reliable home-run park for several seasons now.
Let's go to the Park Index numbers, courtesy of the invaluable 2012 Bill James Handbook. A grade of 100 in any category is neutral; if you go higher, it favors the offense, and if you go lower, the pitchers will appreciate it:
As the grid shows, the souvenirs have been flying out of Baltimore for a while, but otherwise this isn't an offensive party. Scoring was an eyelash below par last year and it's been good, but not crazy, in the two prior years. Mostly, you want to get your hitters to this park because the ball carries well and the seats aren't too hard to reach. Be ready with your best barehand catch.
To borrow the timeless Brad Evans question, J.J. Hardy: Man or Muppet?
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Hardy's 30-homer comeback season looks legitimate to me; I fully expect him to bring most of the stats back for 2012. It's not like we haven't seen this power before — he clubbed 50 homers for the Brewers in 2007-08 — and there wasn't anything funky in the splits (he hit 15 homers home and away, and didn't have much of a platoon difference). Staying reasonable healthy and getting out of Minnesota's giant yard did wonders for Hardy's confidence, and his bottom line. You can currently land him at Pick 144 in the world of make-believe, but I expect him to get slightly pricier as draft seasons rolls along.
When do those 20-somethings turn into stars? Are we there yet?
We might never get there with Nick Markakis, I'm afraid. Nick the Stick slugged a paltry .406 last year and had mediocre production stats despite playing a full season. After handling left-handed pitching well in 2010, he dipped to a .261/.330/.298 line against them last year. He's also coming off abdominal surgery and might miss the opening few weeks of spring training. I won't be surprised if it takes him several months to get back to his normal stroke; he'll be buried on my mixed-league draft board.
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Adam Jones had an interesting, if sometimes maddening, Age 25 season. His homers spiked to a career-best 25 and he showed some improvement on the bases, if we can take anything from a 16-steal sample. But he was a negative defender by all metrics, and his on-base skills haven't grown at all (.319 career OBP). Most of his pop comes in the friendly Camden confines (he slugged .551 at home last year, .379 on the road) and he still hasn't gotten the hang of left-handed pitching, platoon advantage to the side (he slashes .253/.303/.370 against them). I'll sign off on last year's numbers, but I'm not pricing in any improvement.
Matt Wieters looks like the buzziest item in the bat rack, especially if you focus on his bang-up second half (14 homers, .504 slugging, .840 OPS). He had a strange handedness split last year, despite being a switch hitter (righties owned him, lefties couldn't get him out), but that trend didn't show up in his first two seasons. He's ready to step up to the stardom level.
Anything else on The Wire I should know about?
Brian Roberts is still dealing with post-concussion issues, a major concern given how far we are removed from the 2011 season. … There was talk of Mark Reynolds shifting to first base with Chris Davis playing third, but the plan for now is for Reynolds to open camp as the third baseman. Reynolds committed 26 errors at third last year. "We think Mark is a lot better than he's shown statistically," Showalter told MLB.com. "I think he's going to come in [to camp] lighter and little more nimble." Perhaps Showalter can use the Easter Bunny at third if Reynolds kicks the opportunity again. … No one really knows what happened to Brian Matusz last summer. Was he hurt? Suffering in confidence? Badly in need of a creased cap? I'll wait to see several quality starts before I consider him for any mixed-league roster. Last year's velocity dip lends credence to the injury whispers, but even if he's healthy in 2012, the division is a monster (the Rex Sox and Yanks were 1-2 in runs scored last year, while the Blue Jays were sixth). … Nolan Reimold was a surprise star in September, posting a .281/.395/.578 slash with five homers and six steals. That should be enough to get the left-field job into 2012, but you know the Orioles; they might mess this up with a late veteran acquisition. They've been mentioned as a possible bailout location for Alfonso Soriano. If Reimold turns into the opening day starter, I'll be tempted to give him some post-hype love into his Age 28 season. One for the sleeper page. … The Orioles dipped into the international market for a depth arm, landing lefty Wei-Yin Chen on a three-year deal worth around $12 million. Chen is projected to be a middle-to-back end starter, not a star. If you're an expert with foreign-stat translations, here's your link of interest. … The cartoon Oriole is coming back for the 2012 season, as part of the team's revamped uniform. Smiles everyone, smiles.
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