Will Hitting Flip the Birds in the East?
Can you remember the last time the AL East standings did not read, from top to bottom: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, and finally the lowly Devil Rays? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have trouble recalling – it's been a while. The last time the standings read differently at season’s end was after the 1997 season, a.k.a. the year the Marlins won their first World Championship. The AL East has not budged in six seasons. Not since the two newest teams were introduced. Six seasons! Carlos Quintana didn’t even last that long in the majors! Forget somebody beating out the Yankees! When will there be any movement within the division?
The hope in my heart is that 2004 will be the year that the Sox finish in first place. But with the Orioles spending money like it’s the year 2000, I thought that the Orioles were positioning themselves to move up in the standings. Yes, in this offseason, they have signed Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez, but even if they also manage to pick up any combination of Rafael Palmeiro, or Pudge Rodriguez (even Vlad), their pitching staff will still be below average. Unfortunately, the Birds are spending their money in all the wrong places.
Last season, the Orioles finished fourth in the division, but this placement is deceptive. In fact, when teams’ run differentials are “adjusted for the quality of their opponent's pitching and hitting”, the Birds should have finished dead last (read: below the Devil Rays). When using these adjusted stats in order to better compare to the rest of the league, the Orioles end up with 745 Adjusted Equivalent Runs Scored and 834 AEQ Runs Allowed. What does this tell us?
Well frankly, it tells us that the 2003 Orioles had many problems that the Orioles of 2004 will have to deal with. Their Adjusted Equivalent Runs Scored was better than only 3 AL teams (Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Detroit), revealing a 2003 offense deficient in run production. Their Adjusted Equivalent Runs Allowed was higher than all but 4 AL teams (Kansas City, Detroit, and Texas). Sadly, the Birds also have one of the worst pitching staffs in the AL (remember, we can’t blame overexposure to the potent Sox and Yankees lineups in the east because these stats have been adjusted for league-wide comparison). Throw in the fact that their Defensive Efficiency was second to last in the league, and you get a team with many problems…problems not necessarily solvable by acquiring a few top-of the line bats.
With Vladimir Guerrero receiving (and favoring?) a new offer from Florida and the Mets offering more than the Orioles, it appears that Baltimore may be out of the running for the best free agent in some time. Let’s be optimistic and assume that they make a couple more major additions by signing Pudge Rodriguez and Sidney Ponson (which many not be too far fetched). Will they have the players to compete in the East?
Pitching-wise, we must first consider that right now, Baltimore has lost its three best starters from the beginning of last season in Ponson, Jason Johnson, and Pat Hentgen (who joined the division rival Blue Jays). This is not to say that Patty will duplicate last year’s numbers or that Jason Johnson is even as comparable to Jeremi Gonzalez, but where is the Orioles’ dedication to pitching? Yes, they are poised to overpay Ponson and return him to their rotation, but expecting better pitching from the Orioles would be a mistake. They should end up allowing about the same number of runs next season, if not more.
Assuredly, the Orioles will score more runs this year than they did last. But even if they score 150 more runs in 2004, they will end with AEQRS/AEQRA numbers similar to the Blue Jays and not close to the Red Sox and Yankees. They are likely to win more games than they lose, but their lack of pitching will prevent them from competing in a major way. They could have a solid season, but anything better than 80-85 wins would be a major surprise. Adding runs scored and subtracting runs allowed will bring Baltimore closer to the Blue Jays’ numbers (86 wins) than anybody else's:
2003 Blue Jays..............879.................833
In fact, with the pitching they’ve lost over the course of last season and this winter, I would not be surprised to see the Orioles become a team like the Rangers – scoring a surplus of runs but allowing even more than in 2003.
The Orioles’ mistake has been spending heavily on hitting and (for the most part) disregarding their substantial pitching problems. It is easier to improve a team’s lineup than pitching staff, but a more well-rounded approach would have put them in a better position to compete in their division in 2004. As it looks, they still may be able to shake up the AL East, but only by competing for a third-place finish.
A dedication to pitching simply has not been present during this off-season. After six fourth-place finishes in a row, I understand that management is desperate for big names and expectations to keep fans filling into Camden Yards. They made some major moves, but they may have made the wrong ones. But there's still time. Prove me wrong, Jim and Mike! Go out there and sign Greg Maddux! It will be tough competing in the East, but let’s shake it up, eh?
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