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March 14, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Baltimore Orioles Can Win the World Series

by Clay Davenport

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Will talks with Clay about the Orioles' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

PECOTA says the Orioles should finish 72-92, last place in the division. How can they possibly have a chance to win the World Series? Here's how.

Let's start with two of the Orioles' biggest problems, the Yankees and Red Sox. The rules say there can be, at most, two teams from any one division in the playoffs. Since PECOTA projects these two gorillas to finish 93-71, 21 games ahead of our hero-birds, you can see that we have a problem. It just wouldn't do to pull all manner of rabbits from hats to get the Orioles up to 88 wins, only to still spend their October on the golf course because these two both managed to win 89 or more.

Any credible scenario for fans to put on their "O" face is going to require that at least one of these two teams crashes and burns. Both of them have expensive, aging rosters, ripe for a staggering pile of cash spent on the DL. Both are relying on a Japanese import in their rotation, and it may be that the people who think they can tell you how well a player will do in the States from what they did on another continent are delusional at best, and subversive at worst. They could be a couple of fresh toads, a la Hideki Irabu. From the Orioles' perspective, even one toad will do, thank you.

If the Orioles are to reprise their glorious "Why Not" campaign of 1989--albeit with a happier ending than stepping on a nail- -it will be their pitchers who carry them.

They have started this spring out on the right foot. Through Monday's games, four of their starters have combined for two runs allowed in 21 innings (we won't talk about the fifth one). Erik Bedard has pitched nine innings to date, the equivalent of a masterful five-hit, one-walk, seven-K masterpiece. The notoriously wild Daniel Cabrera has six strikeouts, no walks, and no runs in five innings of work. Adam Loewen allowed a run in four innings, but has also struck out nine. Even Jaret Wright is scoreless through three. There were a lot of hopes for the Oriole staff last year, in the afterglow of hiring Leo Mazzone away from the Braves. That didn't work out, but just maybe it wasn't Leo's fault. The World Baseball Classic made a mockery of normal spring work routines, and no other team lost as many players to the WBC as the Orioles. This time last year, Bedard and Loewen were running off to join the Canadian team, and Cabrera was a rocket arm in the Dominican bullpen. Since-departed starters Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen were starting for Mexico and Panama, respectively. Mazzone was left with Kris Benson and a pile of Triple-A fluff, and leaving Oriole fans to ponder the question--why bother hiring a great teacher if all of the students are going to go away?

Let everything that was expected from Baltimore's pitching last year show up this year, when Mazzone has had plenty of time to work with his charges, and the rest of the league is going to be in trouble. Bedard has already shown us glimpses of star talent, for extended periods in both 2005 and 2006; it takes no great stretch of imagination to see him putting up two big halves instead of just one. Cabrera too has shown glimpses of a star, albeit more fleetingly than Bedard--his near no-hitter against the Yankees being the one gem that everyone looks at to prove his ability. It is a lot easier to harness existing ability than it is to create it from scratch, after all. Adam Loewen was the coveted Top Prospect in baseball just a few short years ago--let that talent break out on the league!

One thing they should be able to count on--a bullpen that is worth going to, rather than one to run from. We ran a chart in the Cleveland chapter in Baseball Prospectus 2007 highlighting how bad the Indians were in transition innings, when the pen takes over from the starter within an inning. They were next to last--ahead of only the Orioles, whose relievers had a 19.9 WHIP when taking over for starter. No, I did not accidentally add a "1" to that, it really is nineteen point nine. The Oriole bullpen was twenty runs below average in their first partial inning of work. Big money was spent to bring in Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, and Chad Bradford, who have proven themselves more than capable of fronting a big-league bullpen. They'll join Chris Ray, the young closer who was really the only person worth bringing back from last year's fiasco, to give the Orioles great depth in the middle to late innings. From weakness, strength.

By comparison, the hopes required on offense are less daunting. There are three particular goals that stand out.

Keeping Miguel Tejada on his current Hall of Fame track. Tejada has given the Orioles more than 34 WARP-3 in his three seasons, a peak performance that puts him in the top dozen shortstops of all time. A fourth is a virtual requirement for the Oriole offense to function at a level that gets him into the postseason; his proven ability to carry a club on his back will be an asset once they get there.

Watch Nick Markakis make the jump from rising star to star. The Orioles' right fielder had a perfectly good .284 EqA last year--a .249 learning experience in the first half, and a .304 application of skills in the second. Just having him hit at .304 for an entire season would be worth an extra 25 runs over last year, to say nothing about the possibility of him building even further upon that foundation.

Get the good Aubrey Huff back. From 2002 to 2004, Huff averaged a .306 EqA and 103 runs a year; over the last two years it's been more like .276 and 78 runs, entirely ordinary figures for a corner player. Last year's left fielders combined for a .249 EQA, worst in baseball, and Huff has the demonstrated ability to make a 50-run increase possible.

It is still early in spring, but so far Markakis is hitting .440 and Huff is right behind him at .409. The pitchers are doing great, the Red Sox can't figure out who their closer is, and Igawa and Matsuzaka have both been knocked around. It's all coming together, Oriole fans. Perhaps the final touch would be a case of photophobia to a certain owner, causing him to remain shuttered in his office beyond the right field fence, blinds drawn, distant and brooding--but I guess then he'd have to be a judge, and not just a lawyer.

Will talks with Clay about the Orioles' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3
(5.7 MB)

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