First Place in Birdland: The Baltimore Orioles Hunt for a World Series

As this past February was drawing to a close, the Baltimore Orioles were in Sarasota preparing for Spring Training, their fan base was bickering over a disappointing off season, GM Dan Duquette was searching the leftovers of the free agent market and Nelson Cruz was sitting in the Dominican Republic, weighing his future.

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A cold, empty Camden Yards eagerly awaited what the 2014 season would bring.

Things sure have changed in Birdland, as the Orioles have the biggest division lead in baseball (7 games at this moment) and Nelson Cruz, the man without a home in February, is tied with Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Abreu for the league lead in home runs.

After a 2012 season that saw the O’s win the first ever AL Wildcard play in game and take the Yankees to 5 games in the ALDS, last season was a big let down. Baltimore finished 8 games over .500, missing the playoffs and losing their franchise third baseman Manny Machado to a flukey yet gruesome injury when he awkwardly stepped on first base legging out a hit and dislocated his knee.

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Manny Machado warming up prior to a game at Nats Park. A welcome site for Orioles fans.

This year, Camden Yards has been rocking as Machado returned and Cruz has been met with plenty of “CRUUUUUZ” chants with each successive home run he’s hit. We will review Camden Yards at some point, but if you haven’t been and you like baseball, you MUST go to a game here. It’s a fantastic ballpark experience.

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Camden Yards: The modern day MLB cathedral.

So, where did the Orioles go right? A franchise that toiled in the cellar of the AL East for the better part of 17 years doesn’t just run into a couple good seasons. Big league baseball lacks the parody of the NFL, so for mid market teams to succeed, they have to draft well and spend wisely to compete with the deeper pockets of baseball’s major players.

The right moves, we feel, started back in 2009 when the O’s locked up Nick Markakis to a lucrative, long term deal. Markakis is a nice hitter, and some of you maybe be wondering why we pin point this signing. The Adam Jones highway robbery trade did occur one year earlier, when they acquired Jones and several other players for basket case starting pitcher Erik Bedard. This proved to be one of the most lopsided trades of the past 15 years.

The Jones trade aside, teams that are perennial losers get to a point where they need to draw a line in the sand. Only so much losing is acceptable. That Jones trade needed a partner willing to part with him. Nick Markakis, a career .292 hitter, was property of the Orioles prior to the splashy contract they extended him (6 years/66M). A losing team had to finally wake up and decide to keep one of it’s own, even if they needed to pay over budget. Until a team makes that stand, they are a pit stop for players, searching for big league at bats and a better opportunity.

The Markakis signing expressed to the rest of the team and the fans that the O’s were serious about winning. With Adam Jones in place, there was finally some semblance of a base to build around, even with losing seasons piling up.

Next up for the Orioles, was the skipper. 2010 started with Dave Trembley filling out the lineup card and ended with Buck Showalter leaving ESPN to return to a Major League dugout. Buck is one of the best managers in baseball, period. Tactically, he’s always in control. His decision making is impeccable, especially with his bullpen management.

Other pieces have fallen in place in Baltimore. Guys like J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis have joined the club via free agency & trade, and produced big numbers, Davis’ 2014 campaign aside. Matt Wieters is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball and has a bat to boot; the fact the O’s have thrived this year with Wieters on the shelf with elbow surgery is a testament to their depth. The sign of any team of destiny is a rookie playing out of his mind, unexpectedly. Well catcher Caleb Joseph fits the bill in Wieters absence, hitting a home run in five straight games recently.

Another underrated part of the Orioles success has been their bullpen. Zach Britton has moved to the closer role with fantastic results and Darren O’Day (OOOO’Day, O’Day, O’Day, O’Day!!) has baffled hitters with his funky submarine delivery he brought over from Texas via the University of Florida. Showalter’s bullpen has been one of the most overused this season, due to spotty starting pitching, and has a very respectable 3.25 ERA and .237 BAA.

That brings us back to the Cruz signing. Sitting on the market until late February, with the sting of a 50 game PED suspension in 2013 freshly inked to his resume, Cruz settled for a 1 year/8M contract in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun reported that he had potential offers from Seattle and Texas, but chose to make the move to Baltimore and prove himself on a one year deal. Whatever you think of his past, Cruz has been the steal of free agency. He’s a great change of pace from the several guys they have locked up for long term deals. An aging vet on a team friendly deal, looking to prove himself and get one last payday. Even if this is his only year in orange and black, we’re sure O’s fans won’t mind.

That’s the thing with free agent pickups, it’s a crap shoot in certain respects. You have a team, and then you introduce a foreigner, an outsider. The O’s were having a terrible off season, capped off with the embarrassing Grant Balfour “just kidding” signing. Then Cruz fell in their laps and lit up the AL in 2014. Was Dan Duquette being patient while he waited for the market to settle? Or did he back himself into a corner, relying on a one-outer to hit his straight flush? Does it matter? In an uncertain game, the Orioles paved the way for 2014 by resigning what they had and trading when the market was soft. Teams of destiny need to hit those one-outer’s every once in awhile, perhaps this is the Orioles year to make their hand when all the chips are in the pot.

Photos by Taylor Adkins

 

 

 

 

 

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