Today, the Orioles look to extend their lead in the AL East to five games over the Red Sox.

It’s been a long time since anyone has written that sentence, huh?

The Orioles are the biggest surprise of the season, and it’s not because their rise is less likely than those of the Rangers, White Sox or Diamondbacks. It’s because of the competition. For nearly a decade–since the O’s won the division in 1997–the AL East has been the domain of the Yankees and Red Sox, with those two finishing 1-2 in the division in every season since. With their gargantuan payrolls and star-laden rosters, the notion that any of the other three AL East teams could rise to challenge them was considered folly. In fact, the rare good “competitive balance” argument usually included the idea that the Orioles, Blue Jays and Devil Rays were at a disadvantage having to compete with both of the AL’s monsters.

With the Red Sox and Yankees both suffering from the effects of age, however, the Orioles have been able to ascend to the top of the AL East. No spring chickens themselves, the Orioles have made their run despite a series of injuries that, at various times, wiped out a starting outfield, a #1 catcher and the team’s best starting pitcher. Most surprise teams in early June have had everything go right; the Orioles have had a number of things go wrong and yet find themselves at 32-20 and atop the East.

It helps when you have far and away the best offense in baseball. The Orioles have a .304 EqA, lapping the field (the Yankees are second at .291). Their 277 runs scored is fourth in the AL, but within one good game of the league-leading Rangers. MVP candidates Brian Roberts (.368/.449/.642) and Miguel Tejada (.329/.371/.620) have paced the offense, having what may end up being one of the best years ever by a double-play combination. Getting that kind of offense up the middle–Javy Lopez and Luis Matos, when healthy, have also been assets–is a huge competitive advantage. The Yankees won four World Series this way.

Like those turn-of-the-century Yankees, the Orioles’ offense is weaker as you move away from the center of the diamond. While Melvin Mora (.297/.345/.495) has been productive, and both Rafael Palmeiro and Jay Gibbons shook off slow starts to become productive, the outfield corners have been the weak spots. That’s not such a bad thing; Sammy Sosa isn’t going anywhere, but you can usually find a corner outfielder in the trade market, and that’s where the O’s can look to upgrade from B.J. Surhoff if Larry Bigbie continues to scuffle.

Even if Roberts stops hitting like Rogers Hornsby, the Orioles are going to put runs on the board because they’ll put nine above-average hitters on the field once Lopez comes back. Scoring isn’t going to be the problem for this team, even if they just use a patchwork solution in left field. That’s the edge having great hitters up the middle gives you.

The Orioles’ pitching staff doesn’t inspire that kind of confidence. The rotation has been a terrific surprise, with Erik Bedard meeting optimistic projections, Bruce Chen resurrecting his career and no starter performing below replacement level. That formula–great offense, no terrible starters–can be a winning one, implemented most recently by the 2003 Braves. It helps to have a great bullpen, and there’s no question that the Orioles’ pen has been superior. B.J. Ryan and Jorge Julio have owned the eighth and ninth innings, while John Parrish and Todd Williams have provided no-name specialist help, pitching much better than the more famous and better compensated Steves Kline and Reed.

Despite the Orioles’ reliance on the bullpen, none of the four have an excessive innings or appearances figure, with Ryan and Julio on pace for 85 or so innings. Credit Lee Mazzilli for striking the right balance with a staff on which only Sidney Ponson is making big money, and virtually no one is known outside of Maryland.

The overperforming staff is the best reason to wonder whether the Orioles can continue to hold off $330 million worth of baseball players. Chen and Bedard have been legitimately good, but Bedard is on the DL, and neither pitcher has a track record of extended success or health. Rodrigo Lopez is a decent #3 starter. As good as Ponson and Daniel Cabrera have looked on their best days, both have ERAs above 5.00 and mediocre peripherals. There’s a real danger for implosion here, and with it, added stress on the bullpen and the offense.

The Orioles have some depth; Hayden Penn may not be the answer-his command isn’t ready-but longtime suspect Eric DuBose has been lighting up Double-A, and could return. Command prospect John Maine is also an option. Anything is better than putting James Baldwin in the rotation.

The Orioles don’t need another stopgap, though. They have plenty of those; what they could use is a top-tier starter, someone who can open a playoff series. With none on the horizon internally, a trade is the only option. Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie are going to have a difficult decision to make; the Orioles are a surprise, but it’s June and they have a four-game lead, and at some point you have to take that seriously. Even if this wasn’t supposed to be their year, if they were planning for a longer run starting in ’06, can you pass up what could be a rare chance to catch both the Sox and the Yankees in a down year?

The market for pitching is slim. The spate of long-term contracts for good young pitchers has reduced the pool, at least so far, to pitchers not much better than what the Orioles have on hand. As the year goes on, Andy Pettitte might become available, although his elbow, contract and style–do the O’s need another lefty who pitches more or less like Bedard?–make him a poor fit. The Orioles have talent to trade and can take on some money, but it doesn’t make sense to do so for someone like Jason Jennings or Paul Wilson. How Flanagan and Beattie navigate this problem will be a critical piece of the puzzle this summer; they’d be better off trying to upgrade an outfield corner than adding a starter who’s not much better than Cabrera or Ponson.

The thing to remember is that the Orioles’ performance is real: there’s less than a game’s worth of difference between their third-order record (per the Adjusted Standings Report) and their actual one, and they have a lead on the Red Sox no matter how you slice the data. This isn’t a fluke; the Orioles actually have a worse record in close games than they do in other ones, and only Roberts is playing far above his head. This is a contending team that has suffered its share of misfortune and is still playing .600 ball.

The real key might be games like today. With the unbalanced schedule, a team can play its way into a title by having a big year against its closest competition. The Orioles are 4-3 against the Red Sox and 5-1 against the Yankees so far, a far cry from their recent performances against the two. The Orioles haven’t finished above .500 against those two teams sinceā€¦1997, when they last won the AL East title.

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