Thursday, July 12, 2012

Worried about the Orioles in the second half

I didn't expect the Orioles to win many games this season. In fact, I thought they were going to lose at least 100 and be one of the worst overall teams. Instead, the O's have gotten some very strong first-half performances, and they've put together a 45-40 record at the all-star break.

Unfortunately, a division like the AL East in unrelenting, meaning there are still plenty of games left against the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, who all have records of at least .500 or better. Also, with a -36 run differential -- the third-worst mark in the American League -- the O's have more wins than they probably should have, meaning they've been lucky. There's no guarantee that luck continues in their 77 remaining games.

Though his numbers have come down somewhat over the last few weeks, Adam Jones is hitting .289/.330/.534, which would be the best offensive season of his career if he continues to hit for that much power. The O's also locked Jones up with a long-term deal of six years, $85.5 million, which means he'll be in Baltimore through 2018 unless he's traded. Some were worried about owner Peter Angelos's recent unwillingness to spend money, but Jones's contract is the largest contract handed out in O's history. The deal was mostly lauded by fans and baseball analysts alike.

Besides Jones, Matt Wieters is having a nice year, hitting .247/.327/.431 and offering his typically strong defense behind the plate. Many expect better offensive numbers from Wieters, though it's fair to point to his .267 BABIP and note that he's been somewhat unlucky and may be due for a few more hits to drop in.

After Jones and Wieters, though, there isn't much to get excited about. J.J. Hardy is playing solid defense at shortstop, but he's struggling mightily at the plate, posting an on-base percentage of .262. I'm not sure that's being discussed enough. And he's doing that while hitting second in the lineup, which is far from ideal. Even more so than Wieters, Hardy has been unlucky (.233 BABIP), but the O's are going to need much more production from him if they're going to continue to win games. Nick Markakis was recently activated from the disabled list, and he should help the lineup. Still, he was hitting .256/.333/.452 in the first half, which is decent but certainly not great. And obviously the team's other regular hitters -- Wilson Betemit, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, Jim Thome, Robert Andino, etc. -- don't strike that much fear into opposing pitchers. It also doesn't help that Nolan Reimold's lost for the season, and Brian Roberts might be as well.

Maybe that's why Dan Duquette has said that the O's need "to address the on-base percentage at the top of [the] lineup." There's no question that he's right. But it's important to note that Duquette is also exploring the possibility of dealing for another starting pitcher and has already traded two lower-level prospects for Thome. Since the O's most likely are not as good as their record indicates, trading any decent-to-great prospects away to win right now might not be a very good idea. Obviously no O's fans want to see the team trade Dylan Bundy or Manny Machado away, though the odds of that happening are slim to none. But would it even make sense to trade someone like Jake Arrieta or Xavier Avery for a rental starter or outfielder? I guess that simply depends on who that player would be, how he performs in Baltimore, and whether the O's keep winning games. Duquette is in a difficult position, particularly since the O's haven't finished with a winning record since 1997. They haven't even won more than 70 games since 2005. And if the O's do somehow finish with a winning record, it'll be a minor miracle since most people figured they'd be absolutely horrible.

And, as noted above, since the hitting isn't likely to improve all that much, it's going to come down to pitching -- something to also be concerned about. According to FanGraphs' wins above replacement numbers, the three best pitchers for the O's have been Jason Hammel (2.6), Jake Arrieta (1.6), and Wei-Yin Chen (1.1). Arrieta's inclusion is surprising, but his peripheral stats suggest he's been better than his 6.13 ERA indicates. (For more on Arrieta and not giving up on him yet, see this FanGraphs article from yesterday.) But besides Hammel and Chen, there isn't much to get excited about -- and there's also no guarantee that Hammel and Chen continue to pitch this well. Can a collection of starters, including Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Miguel Gonzalez, Dana Eveland, Tommy Hunter, and maybe Zach Britton or someone else, pitch well enough to get the job done? The depth of that list seems deeper than in seasons past, but if they aren't effective, it doesn't matter that much.

The bullpen also seems like it's due to regress a little bit, even with its AL-leading ERA of 2.75. Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, Jim Johnson, and Luis Ayala have all been very good. Collectively, they don't walk many batters (2.78 BB/9), but they don't strike out a ton either (7.2 K/9). They also have the third-highest left-on base percentage (80.3%) in the majors. Still, they get a ton of ground balls (49%) and don't give up many home runs (0.87 HR/9), which are both very good things. So even if the bullpen isn't quite as good, it should still be the best part of the team in the second half.

Team fWAR ranks:

Batting: 5.7 (last)
Starters: 5.8 (21st)
Relievers: 2.6 (9th)
All pitching: 8.4 (17th)
Fielding: -13.1 UZR (24th)

So, yeah, not overly positive numbers. Some O's fans are optimistic -- and good, I'm glad they are, because I like that. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about how this team will finish the season. They have a few key weaknesses, and a couple of mid-season trades won't rectify that.