Expectations for the 2012 Orioles: Low and lower

The Orioles may actually have a chance to exceed expectations this year. That is because it sure seems expectations for a season have never been lower in recent memory.

Maybe the fans will be wrong, as many were last year when they predicted a .500 finish and some were even talking about the team being a playoff contender. The Orioles were coming off a 34-23 finish the year before and the young pitchers had excelled down the stretch. Vlad Guerrero was signed and most of the fans seem very excited about that development.

But we all know what happened after an exciting 6-1 start. The Orioles finished in last place for the fourth year in a row, going 69-93. The club has not finished even as high as fourth since 2007 or third since 2004. Just about any O’s fan can cite the current run of losing seasons at 14 in a row and that 1997 campaign was also the team’s last playoff appearance.

Right now, doom and gloom carry the day. If the season turns out the way many fans seem to think it will, it could be a long summer following the team. Usually, as opening day approaches, hope springs eternal. But some Orioles fans right now couldn’t find hope if they were provided a detailed map.

The fans are not wrong to feel this way. Even though some of the pessimism can wear you out, I can understand why it is there.

I wonder if any fans see any reasons at all for optimism or any reasons at all to follow the season, even if they feel certain it won’t come close to ending in a playoff berth.

Clearly, it seems that several things have to break right for the Orioles to even have a shot at a .500 record. But I won’t rule it out yet, even without chugging any Kool-Aid. Here are some reasons the Orioles might be better than expected in 2012.

* The young pitchers could take a step forward. This may have a better-than-not chance of happening. Now healthy, I can forsee Jake Arrieta taking a nice leap forward this year, pitching to a low four or better ERA and giving the club 170 or so innings. He seems very upbeat about his elbow now that bone chips have been removed - not just the ability to pitch pain-free, but the increased flexibility that should especially help in getting the spin he needs on his breaking pitches.

Zach Britton is plenty capable of pitching to an ERA better than last year’s 4.61. Late last season, Buck Showalter said that some of the best development for young pitchers takes place in the offseason. He meant that after they get to the majors, they really get to see and know what it takes to have success there after that first full season. They take that into the winter and into season two in the bigs. Both Britton and Arrieta will benefit from last year, I believe.

As for Brian Matusz, who knows what to expect? But if he comes into this year in better shape and also has an injury-free year, I would think he has a decent chance to pitch more like the 2010 Matusz we saw that went 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA.

* The offense, in terms of runs scored, ranked seventh in the American League last year with 708, which was 15 runs fewer than the AL average. I can see a little uptick in runs scored. It could come in the form of a better year from Nick Markakis and/or if one or both of Nolan Reimold or Chris Davis get regular playing time and take a step forward. The offense would also benefit from Matt Wieters and Adam Jones building on last year’s success.

The Orioles finished fourth in the league in homers last year. Now they need to get more runners on base ahead of the power guys.

* The bullpen could be improved with the additions of Matt Lindstrom and Luis Ayala. The ‘pen could also benefit in getting a full season from some pitchers that looked good late last year like Pedro Strop, Zach Phillips and Troy Patton.

The biggest improvement could come in the ninth inning where Jim Johnson is likely to take over the closer’s job full-time from Kevin Gregg. Gregg recorded a save in just 22 of his 29 chances last year while Johnson went 7-for-7 when he was made closer in September.

* Showalter’s previous three teams have all made a big improvement from his first to second full season with those clubs. The three teams made a combined 65-win improvement for an average increase of 21.6 wins per club. That is a huge gain.

His Yankees won 76 games in 1992 and then won 88 in 1993, and that was the smallest improvement for a Showalter second-year team. Arizona went from 65 to 100 wins in 1999 and Texas from 71 to 89 in 2004.

Will Buck be able to add to that magic with the 2012 Orioles?

As a reporter, there are always storylines to cover and players worth tracking, even on a second-division club. But how will this season go for the fan base?

What is your take?: Does some hope spring eternal for you or do you feel the doom and gloom that others do? Can the club approach .500 ball? If you do think the club can improve, where will the improvement come from? If you see a bad season ahead, what are your biggest concerns and reasons for that?

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