2013 Opponent Preview: The Baltimore Orioles are out to prove that 2012 was no fluke

USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles didn't have a great run differential in 2012, but they still made the playoffs with a 93-69 record in large part thanks to an excellent bullpen and homer-happy offense. Can they repeat the magic in 2013?

The Baltimore Orioles surprised a lot of people -- including possibly themselves -- by winning 93 games and pushing the New York Yankees to the brink of playoff elimination last season. Many analysts are quick to point out the Orioles' +7 run differential as a predictor of regression in 2013, but the Orioles themselves aren't buying it. After a strong spring, they are poised to make another run at the AL East crown and prove that 2012 was the real deal.

Manager: Buck Showalter (4th year)

2012 record: 93-69, 2nd in AL East

SB Nation blog: Camden Chat

First series vs. Tigers: May 31-June 2 @ Camden Yards

Lineup

Somehow, some way, second baseman Brian Roberts will likely be in the Orioles' lineup on Opening Day. Roberts has only played in 115 games since 2009, but was one of the best players on a number of bad rosters through the mid-2000s. Roberts is likely no longer the career .284/.356/.421 hitter he was prior to his injury problems and post-concussion symptoms, but any shadow of that production will be a massive upgrade over the .213/.273/.323 that Orioles' second basemen hit in 2012.

Based on Spring Training lineups used by Buck Showalter thus far, it looks like Roberts will hit second behind fellow injury-prone stud, right fielder Nick Markakis. Markakis was in the middle of a monster second half last year when a CC Sabathia fastball broke his left thumb, ending his season. Had he been able to play down the stretch or in the ALDS, the O's might have made things more interesting for the Tigers in the next series.

Adam Jones, fresh off a Gold Glove-winning season at the plate, will be looking to repeat his 32 home runs and 82 RBI in the middle of the Orioles' order. If Markakis and Roberts can get on base frequently, he might approach the 100 RBI mark for the first time in his career. Ditto for first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Matt Wieters, the other two sluggers in the middle of the lineup. Davis had the breakout season in 2012 that Texas Rangers fans were hoping for since 2009, hitting .270/.326/.501 with 33 home runs and 85 RBI. Wieters is one of the best young catchers in baseball and might garner some MVP attention if he can improve at the plate. Taylor Teagarden, who hit a walk-off home run to beat the Tigers last July, is the backup catcher.

They won't surprise anyone this season, but then again, they won't have to: the Orioles are legit.

JJ Hardy and Manny Machado will form one of the slickest-fielding left sides of any infield in baseball, though their numbers at the plate might not contend with some of the other dynamic duos in the game. Hardy has hit 52 home runs in the past two seasons, but has an on-base percentage of just .294 in an Orioles uniform. Machado had a respectable .739 OPS in 202 plate appearances last season as a 20 year old, but opposing pitchers are going to wise up to the youngster very quickly. This might be a rough year at the plate for the budding star.

Now that Wilson Betemit will spend some time on the disabled list (more on that below), Nolan Reimold will likely be the full-time DH to start the year, though I would wager that Buck Showalter will use Wieters as a DH more often this season now that Mark Reynolds' departure has shifted Davis to first base on a full-time basis. Reimold hit a massive .313/.333/.627 in 2012, but in only 69 plate appearances. McLouth's final 2012 numbers weren't great, but that was largely due to an abysmal .140/.210/.175 showing in 34 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His .777 OPS with the Orioles was much more respectable.

Rotation

Jason Hammel escaped pitcher's purgatory to put up excellent numbers in 2012, establishing himself as the staff ace heading into this season. He was just 27-30 with a 4.63 ERA in three years for the Colorado Rockies and his home/road splits weren't quite as severe as you would expect, but there were definite signs -- xFIP, namely -- that Hammel was better than his numbers suggested.

Wei-Yin Chen was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last season, winning a team-high 12 games with a 4.02 ERA after coming over from the Japanese Pacific Coast League. Chen's peripherals suggest some regression might be on the way in 2013, especially if that 42.1% fly ball rate doesn't come down to earth (pun intended). Still, his numbers were impressive, and it will be interesting to see what adjustments he makes during his second big league season.

Chris Tillman ended 2012 with a bang, winning nine games in 15 starts for the O's after July 1st with a 2.93 ERA. A 6'5" righthander, Tillman showed impeccable command when pitching to left-handed hitters, walking just nine in 196 plate appearances last year. His overall success was buoyed by a .221 BABIP, which won't stay that low for long if he continues to allow line drives at a 21% rate with a fly ball rate above 40%. Still, many experts like the 24 year old's chances of having a big season in 2013.

Miguel Gonzalez quietly burst onto the scene with the Orioles last season, winning nine games in 15 starts with a 3.25 ERA. He had the misfortune of being matched up with Justin Verlander in his second career start, but held his own, allowing three runs in 5 2/3 innings. His lone postseason start was an excellent seven-inning performance against the Yankees that the Orioles eventually lost, one of the few games that the bullpen let slip away throughout the season.

The fifth starter position has been a battle royale all spring long, with as many as six or seven pitchers vying for one rotation spot. The finalists are Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, T.J. McFarland, Steve Johnson, and former Tiger Jair Jurrjens. Based on spring stats alone, Arrieta is the clear winner, but as we all know, the decision isn't quite that simple. Matusz is a former first round pick and, based on the number of chances the organization has given him in the past, will likely get first crack at the job.

Prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman both impressed during their time in camp -- Gausman, especially -- but neither will likely begin the season with the big league club. Bundy has already been optioned, while Gausman pitched in his final Spring Training game yesterday. There's a small chance that the O's could surprise everyone and bring Gausman north as the fifth starter, but I don't know that he has outperformed Johnson or Arrieta.

The bullpen that led the Orioles to a 29-9 record in one-run games and 16-2 record in extra inning games last season returns mostly intact in 2013. Jim Johnson saved a league-leading 51 games last year in large part thanks to Luis Ayala, Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, and Troy Patton holding slim leads all season long. The Orioles' bullpen led baseball with a whopping +13.86 WPA (win probability added), nearly double the second best total.

Spring Training storylines

The Orioles' lineup was dealt a minor blow on Monday when Wilson Betemit suffered a right knee injury while attempting to steal second base against the Boston Red Sox. Doctors have diagnosed the injury as a grade 2/3 PCL sprain, which is about the best the O's could have hoped for when Betemit's knee hyperextended -- bent the opposite way it's supposed to, in layman's terms -- with his cleat planted firmly in the ground. For what it's worth, my initial thought was an ACL tear, which would have been the end of Betemit's season. The "official" timetable on Betemit's return is six to eight weeks, but I'd estimate closer to mid-June.

Aside from that, the Orioles' spring has been met with a lot of optimism, and for good reason. Manny Machado is a year older and wiser and the rest of the team is relatively healthy. The rotation in particular is in better shape than at the end of last season with Jason Hammel fully rested and ready to go. The O's have played well, earning the Grapefruit League's best record at 18-8 with a much healthier run differential (+23) than they had after 162 games in 2012 (+7). This has caught the attention of ESPN's Buster Olney, who likes the O's to win the AL East.

Player to watch: Jason Hammel

The entire rotation could be mentioned here, but Hammel's sudden success in 2012 takes the cake over the rest of the young staff. He was limited to just 118 innings in 20 starts due to a knee injury, but made them count. He was 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA/3.29 FIP/3.46 xFIP and racked up 113 strikeouts and 2.8bWAR. The jump in his strikeout rate and ground ball rate in 2012 is a bit curious, but his .291 BABIP and nearly identical home/road splits don't suggest "one year wonder" to me.

Outlook

Some Orioles fans are unhappy about the lack of activity during their offseason, but judging by some of the moves made by their divisional counterparts -- actually, just the Yankees -- standing pat might have been a winning strategy. The bullpen probably won't have the same incredible record that it did in 2012, but the offense and rotation will improve, especially if players like Roberts, Markakis, and Hammel can stay healthy. They won't surprise anyone this season, but then again, they won't have to: the Orioles are legit.

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