As Jay detailed earlier this week, despite some premature pronouncements about the Rays' decline in the wake of Carl Crawford's departure, the American League East is going to be as tough as ever in 2011, if not more so. The Rays aren't going away (they never were). The Red Sox have been identified as the favorite in the division by no less an authority than the Yankees general manager. The Blue Jays will not only continue to be pests in the coming season, but they have finally turned their ship around in the wake of general manager J.P. Ricciardi's dismissal. Looking at Kevin Goldstein's list of the Jays' top 20 prospects on BaseballProspectus.com, I noticed that 13 of the 20 have been brought into the organization during new GM Alex Anthopoulos's 16 months on the job. That the Jays' system was practically barren certainly helped Anthopoulos accomplish that, but that the Jays now have one of baseball's best farm systems, a strong young rotation, and have shed both the Alex Rios' and Vernon Wells' contracts, should put a bit of fear into the rest of the division.
Then there are the Orioles. The O's have been pests to the Yankees or Red Sox for a season here or there (9-9 against Boston last year, the same against the Yankees in 2007, 10-9 against Boston in 2004, etc.), but they haven't won 80 games since 1997, have finished above fourth place just once since then, have finished in last place ever since the Rays rose to the top in 2008, and haven't won 70 games since 2006, when they won exactly that many. There's a very good chance that the Orioles will finish last in the division again in 2011, but if they do, it should be with a win total comfortably over 70, and it's not impossible to squint at the Orioles 2011 roster and see an 80-win team, even in this stacked division.
The Orioles' turn-around has been slower than the Blue Jays' seems likely to be. Andy MacPhail, the architect of the Twins' two world championships and the long-time Cubs CEO who oversaw that franchise's return to respectability in the '90s and early 2000s, was hired to head the Orioles' baseball operations in June 2007, but despite an impressive influx of talent and a pair of successful, high-profile trades (of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada), the team has lost more games in each successive season under MacPhail. I thought that trend would reverse itself last year, but the O's again scuffled, due in large part to disappointing seasons from nearly all of those young players.
The season wasn't a total bust, however. In late July, MacPhail fired manager Dave Trembley and coaxed Buck Showalter back into the dugout for the first time in four years. Showalter has an impressive track record of effecting short-term improvements in teams. In his three previous managing stints, Showalter's teams improved by an average of 21 wins in his second season at the helm. The Yankees' 12-win improvement from 76 wins in 1992 to 88 in 1993 was actually the least of those improvements. He won 100 games with the Diamondbacks in the second year of their existence in 1999, and won 18 more games with the Rangers without Alex Rodriguez in 2004 than he won with him in 2003.
In Baltimore, Showalter's impact was even more immediate. The Orioles had gone 32-73 (.305) in 105 games under Trembley and interim manager Juan Samuel, going 3-14 in Samuel's final 17 games as skipper. They then went 8-1 in Showalter's first nine contests and 34-23 (.596) overall under Buck. To put it another way, the Orioles had more wins in Showalter's 57 games at the helm than in their previous 105.
Of course, it's difficult to discern to what degree we can really credit Showalter for that turn-around. We can't quantify his impact as a motivator and leader of men, and the things we can quantify seem more like the product of good timing than anything else. Principally, the O's got Brian Roberts, Mike Gonzalez, and Jim Johnson back from injury right around the time of Showalter's arrival and dumped Miguel Tejada right before it. Roberts returned on July 23, just a week before Showalter took over, and solidified second base, which had been manned by Ty Wigginton, Julio Lugo, and Scott Moore for most of the season, on both sides of the ball. Showalter took over on August 2, just after the non-waiver trading deadline, and thus never had to play Tejada, who was traded to the Padres on July 29 after hitting .269/.308/.362 and playing a brutal third base in his return to Baltimore. Gonzalez, who was signed to be the team's closer but hit the DL after just three appearances in April, returned on July 22 and opponents hit .165/.258/.252 against him from that point through the end of the season. Johnson, who briefly closed for the team in 2009 after George Sherrill was traded, returned from a four-month absence on August 28 and posted a 1.62 ERA over 16 appearances.
As the above suggests, the big change under Showalter was the Orioles' ability to prevent runs. With the infield defense solidified by Roberts and rookie third baseman Josh Bell and the bullpen fortified by Gonzalez, Johnson, and Koji Uehara (who made just six appearances prior to June 29 and was installed as the closer by Showalter with tremendous results in mid-August), the Orioles allowed nearly two fewer runs per game under Showalter than they did before his arrival. Failed Rookie of the Year candidate Brian Matusz was the primary beneficiary in the rotation, going from 3-11 with a 5.46 ERA prior to Showalter to 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA under him, thanks in part to a 60 point drop in his opponents batting average on balls in play. They also scored a few more runs thanks to Roberts' return, a solid finish to a disappointing season by Adam Jones (.319/.372/.470 after August 3), and a strong September from Nick Markakis (.344/.391/.500).
That was all very encouraging, if a bit fluky, but the Orioles have made a number of modest upgrades during the offseason that could help them hold on to those gains in Showalter's first full season at the helm (and first season with is own coaching staff, which includes familiar faces such as Willie Randolph as his bench coach, Mark Connor as his pitching coach, newly former Pirates skipper John Russell as third base coach, and hitting coach Jim Presley, who served in that capacity under Joe Girardi with the Marlins in 2006).
Last winter, MacPhail, properly recognizing his team had not chance to actually contend in the division, rolled the dice on low-risk, low-reward veteran stop-gaps such as Tejada and Garret Atkins (a total bust who hit .214/.276/.286 before losing the first-base job in June and being released in July). This winter, he's taken a similar approach, but with players who are both better fits and more likely to repeat their past successes.
Despite the more notable feats of his other two infield imports, 28-year-old shortstop J.J. Hardy could well prove to be MacPhail's greatest addition for 2011. Swiped from the Twins, who didn't realize what they had, Hardy was the best shortstop to switch teams this offseason. Yes, he's a streaky hitter and a bit injury prone, but he's an upgrade on incumbent Cesar Izturis on both sides of the ball. Improving on Izturis's .230/.277/.268 performance at the plate (in 513 plate appearances! Ye gods!) is easy, but John Dewan's plus/minus system rated Hardy above Izturis in the field as well last year. Hardy was worth more than three wins more than Izturis in 2010 according to Baseball Prospectus's WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player, which combines offense and defense), and that was despite playing in just 101 games. If Hardy plays a full season, you can round that up to a four-win improvement if not more.
For third base, MacPhail traded a pair of right-handed relievers to the Diamondbacks for Mark Reynolds, a deeply flawed, but still valuable player. Reynolds is best known for being the first man to break the 200-strike out barrier, doing so each of the last three seasons, topping out at 223 Ks in 2009, but he's also emerged as a Three True Outcome hero in the process, walking 159 times over the two seasons and popping 76 home runs over the same span. Over the past two seasons, 53 percent of Reynolds' plate appearances have ended in a walk, home run, or strikeout. He's a sub-par defensive third baseman, but he's better than Tejada at the hot corner, and he's been worth three or more wins above replacement each of the last two years per WARP. He's also entering his age-27 season and is signed at reasonable salaries through 2012 with an $11 million option for 2013.
At first base, MacPhail went older, but significantly better than Atkins, bringing in Derrek Lee on a one-year, $7.25 million contract coming off a disappointing age-34 season split between the Cubs and Braves. Lee remains a fine defender at first base, and showed some life late last year by hitting .287/.384/.465 down the stretch for the Braves. Lee had a nice comeback season in 2009 and has hit .293/.375/.493 since his fluky near-MVP campaign in 2005. He's more than worth that one-year gamble.
Add those three to a healthy Roberts, who played in just 59 games last year, and the Orioles have upgraded all four infield positions since last year. To that you can add in the annual list of wishful thinking: perhaps center fielder Jones (25) and right fielder Markakis (27) can build on their strong finishes to 2010, perhaps this will be the season that catcher Matt Wieters (25) delivers on his fading promise, and, hey, left fielder Felix Pie (26) might still be something, too, right?
Also in the hope chest are Matusz, and fellow incumbent rotation prospects Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta. Further down, Zach Britton, who, per Kevin Goldstein, was described as one scout as "a left-handed version of Brandon Webb" (the pre-injury Webb, I assume). Those young arms aren't as far along as Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil are for the Blue Jays (with Kyle Drabek also ahead of Britton in the 2011 rookie category), but the talent is there, and they still have Jeremy Guthrie on hand as a veteran anchor, making their rotation far from the embarrassment it has typically been over the last decade.
Behind that starting unit is a bullpen that has brought back free agent Uehara and added former Marlins, Cubs, and Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg, giving the O's a back four, with Gonzalez and Johnson, comprised entirely of one-time major league closers, with Gonzalez as the lefty and Japanese veteran Uehara as my pick to hold on to the the ninth inning based on his great work last year (38 Ks against one walk in 27 2/3 innings under Showalter and 13 of 15 save chances converted, the two exceptions both coming against the Yankees). Uehara didn't issue a single walk in his last 26 1/3 innings last year, but struck out 35 over that span.
Taking a look at the projected roster, this lineup isn't scary, but it's not particularly inviting for opposing pitchers either:
S - Brian Roberts (2B)
L - Nick Markakis (RF)
R - Derrek Lee (1B)
L - Luke Scott (DH)
R - Mark Reynolds (3B)
R - Adam Jones (CF)
S - Matt Wieters (C)
L - Felix Pie (LF)
R - J.J. Hardy (SS)
A second-half rotation that like this could inspire similar optimism in Orioles fans:
L - Brian Matusz
R - Jeremy Guthrie
R - Jake Arrieta
L - Zach Britton
R - Chris Tillman
Add a bullpen capped by Uehara, Gregg, Gonzalez, and Johnson with Jason Berken, who had a solid 2010 campaign in relief after moving out of the rotation, and perhaps rookie righty Pedro Beato, a hard-thrower who had similar success upon moving to the bullpen in Double-A last year, and the Orioles no longer look like pushovers. That doesn't necessarily mean the Orioles are going to get above fourth place in 2011, but it's still bad news for the rest of the division.