As of September 3, the Orioles have a 80-52 record, good enough for first place in AL East. They hold a 9.5 game lead over the Yankees and are projected to be a shoo-in for the playoffs. This is likely to be their first time capturing the division title since 1997, when they went 98-64 under Davey Johnson. Unlike the team from 17 years ago, which projected to finish well, the 2014 Baltimore Orioles did not excite as much.
Many projections felt that, while the Orioles' lineup could turn out powerful, Baltimore's pitching was not good enough to survive in a tough division. The general consensus was that the Red Sox and Rays had more balanced, powerful teams. Well, the two teams that many picked to headline the division are now in the cellar: the Rays are in fourth at 67-72, the Sox sit last, with a record of 61-77.
Going from a team thought to finish third to a division leader means some offseason moves must have clicked to make differences. The biggest offseason deal for the Orioles was signing starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. Jimenez, plagued by diminished velocity and subpar command, has produced a 0.3 fWAR in 114.1 innings pitched. Despite one big contract being ineffective, the team added several pieces and made decisions that have turned out well. Here are some.
Opting for internal starting pitching options
The Orioles knew that searching for pitching solutions from free agent and trade markets would cost them. They were willing to put a $50 million gamble on Jimenez, which, given the righty's history of brilliance and inconsistency, could have gone either way. And so far the experiment has not been pretty. However, the Orioles did not make another major move in forming the 2014 rotation. While none of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, or Bud Norris have been elite, their FIPs have settled in the 4.00 range. And thanks to the team's elite defense, all of these pitchers' ERAs have settled in the high 3.00's, which all seem serviceable in the AL East.
Kevin Gausman, their first-round pick from 2012, has been learning his way around the big leagues and has posted a 3.45 FIP in 89.1 innings pitched -- very encouraging from the young flamethrower that could carry the rotation in the future. Even though his strikeout rate dipped from 9.25 K/9 to 6.65, he has not been allowing as many meatballs, decreasing his homers allowed rate from 1.51 HR/9 to 0.50. With his youth, first-round pedigree, arm strength, and command, Orioles fans have plenty to look forward to from Gausman.
Another arm in the rotation is the right-hander Miguel Gonzalez. In his Major League career, the righty has outperformed his peripherals (3.59 ERA and 4.65 FIP) and this season is no different: Gonzalez carries a 3.61 ERA and 5.16 FIP in 127.0 innings pitched. His FIP and high left-on-base percentage (83.7 percent) suggest the he may have been luckier than others, but the Orioles are not complaining about his work as a starter with that $529,000 salary.
The Orioles' rotation may not be the fanciest, but it is cost-effective. The aforementioned five pitchers earn $10.9 million combined. In 2014, around a month before the season's end, the starters have performed to $42.1 million worth of value according to Fangraphs metrics. Not a bad return, eh?
Nelson Cruz and...Steve Pearce?
After serving a 50-game suspension for being involved in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drugs scandal, Cruz hit free agency as an unpopular man. Sure, the outfielder had displayed .200+ isolated power, but to many evaluators' eyes, that was it. He was a liability with the glove, did not walk particularly much, and, of course, the suspension gave a hit to his stock. Cruz did not find a home until February 24, when he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles.
In 2014, Cruz has not been all that different from his reputation, but he has stayed healthy and has shown his best offensive output (129 wRC+) since 2010, garnering 2.7 fWAR. As of September 4, he is tied with Marlins' outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for the MLB lead in home runs with 36, a career-high. Labeled as a candidate for a disaster deal back in the winter, Cruz turned out to be cost-effective for the Orioles.
Outperforming Cruz in a much shorter period of time is the first baseman/outfielder Steve Pearce. In his age-31 season, Pearce has bloomed into a fine player, courtesy of good coaching. His prior records did not indicate that he would have the kind of season he is having in 2014: 3.8 fWAR in 85 games with 147 wRC+. That fWAR ranks second on the team to centerfielder Adam Jones (4.8 fWAR). The Orioles had Pearce in 2013, and he got some playing time in the majors, though he was not impressive (0.8 fWAR in 44 games). They re-signed him on December 3, possibly looking him as a bench bat.
Fun fact: the Orioles designated him for assignment in April, and the Blue Jays claimed him...but he re-signed with Baltimore later, again. The rest is in the storybooks.
Trading Jim Johnson
I don't know if anyone thought Johnson was going to turn into a pumpkin this season. Well, he did. In 47.1 innings pitched, he recorded a dreadful 5.28 FIP and -0.7 fWAR, while earning $10 million. Fortunately for the Orioles, he was someone else's problem. Even though the return from the Athletics was not great, (Jemile Weeks only played three games with the Orioles) the team avoided the catastrophic meltdowns by Johnson and discovered Zach Britton.
The lefty proved to be a great choice: 1.86 ERA with a ridiculous 78.6 ground ball percentage in 67.1 innings pitched. The Orioles boast the seventh best bullpen fWAR in baseball and having Jim Johnson around would have been detrimental both in performance and finance.