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Statistically, Orioles don't look like contenders — but there are moves to be made

'I'm glad we are at where we are at, but it's just a decent start,' Duquette says

By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

6:48 PM EDT, July 12, 2012

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No sport lends itself more to comparative statistical analysis than major league baseball.

Crunch the numbers in key areas, stack them up against the others in the league and simple conclusions can be made.

Doing this with the Orioles' first half of the season, in comparison to the other 13 teams in the American League, here's what can be gleaned:

These Orioles can't field or throw. They can't run. They can't get on base. They can't score with runners in scoring position. They strike out too much. They walk too little. They can't stay out of the double play. They allow too many home runs. Their rotation's ERA is skyrocketing and its innings pitched is plummeting. Their unflappable bullpen is shouldering too much.

And yet these Orioles hold one statistical trump card to contrast all the others. The only one that really, truly matters right now: .529. That's the fifth best winning percentage in the American League, which has them in second place in the competitive AL East.

More important, that winning percentage through 85 games is good enough for the newly created second wild card spot in the AL, meaning if the season ended today, these Orioles, warts and all, would be headed to the postseason for the first time since 1997.

"I'm glad we are winning more than we are losing," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "I'm glad we are at where we are at, but it's just a decent start."

The Orioles' 45-40 record is their best mark at the break since they were 47-40 and two games out of first place through the first half of 2005. That club suffered one of the most startling falls from grace in baseball history, finishing in fourth after the positive drug test of first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and the firing of manager Lee Mazzilli, among other indignities.

These Orioles almost assuredly won't face the same infamy as that version, but they are headed in the wrong direction as the summer heats up. After strutting through April with a 14-9 record, the Orioles were 15-13 in May, 13-13 in June and have started off July at 3-5.

"Everybody at this time of the year knows they've done some things good and things we've got to be better at," manager Buck Showalter said. "We've got some important times ahead of us if we want to stay competitive."

Showalter's club has lost nine of its last 13 and 13 of its last 19. The last time the Orioles were only five games over .500 this season was April 28, after their 23rd game. They kick off the second half Friday at Camden Yards against the resurgent Detroit Tigers, who have won five straight, are 6-2 in July and are starting to live up to preseason expectations.

The Orioles, however, were not supposed to be in this position, a legitimate playoff contender in mid-July after losing 90 or more games in each of the past six seasons. They had all kinds of questions entering the season — about their rotation, bullpen, corner infield defense and all-or-nothing offensive approach.

With the exception of a bullpen that has become the best in the AL, very few of those concerns have been allayed. The Orioles' defense has committed the most errors in the majors and the offense leads all of baseball in grounding into double plays, is last in stolen bases and has compiled the fourth most strikeouts while ranking 26th of 30 teams in on-base percentage and dead last in runs plated with runners in scoring position.

Meanwhile, the club is 26th overall in quality starts and starters' ERA, and 22nd in number of innings thrown by the rotation, which has forced the bullpen to log the fourth most relief innings in the majors. They've demoted three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to Triple-A Norfolk and have been without three-fourths of their primary outfielders — Nolan Reimold, Nick Markakis and Endy Chavez — for chunks of the season.

"No one wants to retool 60 percent of your starting rotation," Duquette said. "It's real tough to compete doing that."

So how are they clinging to a wild card spot?

Well, they have hit 106 homers in 85 games, the third most in baseball, and many of those have come at key times. And the bullpen's 2.75 ERA and 17 wins top all teams in the AL. And because the impressive bullpen has kept them in games, the Orioles have been outstanding in both one-run contests (16-6) and extra innings (9-2).

"We've been able to use the strength of our bullpen and guys have hit home runs late in games and we've been able to come through," Duquette said. "We've won the close games by shutting down the opponent with a strong bullpen and leverage that position by hitting home runs. We're going to need to clean up other areas of our game [in the second half]."

Their success late in games has bred a confidence that allows the Orioles to believe they can come back — a concept championed by Showalter. And, as the current poster boys for the old mantra, "the game isn't played on paper," they've made their rallies count.

But can it last in the second half?

That's something Duquette and Showalter are not taking for granted.

Duquette is actively scouring the trade and waiver markets, as he has done all season. He added veteran designated hitter Jim Thome to the mix in a trade with Philadelphia Phillies on June 30 to help boost the offense's on-base percentage and left-handed power output.

His current priorities are to bolster the starting rotation and add a table-setting hitter with a high on-base percentage.

The Orioles have been characterized by one MLB executive as "going hard" after Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke, who is widely considered the best pitcher potentially on the market.

They also will be kicking the tires of any other available veteran starting pitcher, whether it is high-end stock such as Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and the Chicago Cubs' Matt Garza or Ryan Dempster, or lower-end possibilities such as Arizona's Joe Saunders, Oakland's Bartolo Colon, Seattle's Jason Vargas or Houston's Wandy Rodriguez.

And if a leadoff type or a high-OBP hitter is being shopped — some players that could fit the profile include Philadelphia's Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco, Minnesota's Denard Span, Arizona's Justin Upton, San Diego's Chase Headley and the Chicago Cubs' David DeJesus — you can expect Duquette to be interested.

However, the Orioles likely will be limited in their ability to land one of the more coveted players that could be on the market — such as Greinke, Upton, Victorino, Headley — because their farm system is limited, and that would put them at a disadvantage in a bidding war.

The Orioles have two of the most heralded prospects in baseball in right-hander Dylan Bundy, 19, and shortstop Manny Machado, 20. Duquette has stopped short of saying anyone is untouchable, but he's made it pretty clear that Bundy and Machado are an integral part of the organization's future.

"They can be really good major leaguers for a really long time," Duquette said. "That's the way I look at it. I don't know that we want to send them to another ballclub for two months or 10 starts of a pitcher. I don't think that's the kind of trade we'd want to make, but we want to advance our team in the pennant race."

The rest of the farm system is void of sure-fire major leaguers. There may be some intriguing names, but none that would be a centerpiece of a major deal. The Orioles, however, could trade one of their so-called cavalry members that have not been able to stick in the majors, such as Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta or Zach Britton. But the trading partner would have to believe one of those pitchers will flourish away from the Orioles organization and meet their previous hype.

"The other teams will tell you if they like players enough to trade for them," Duquette said. "We have some really good players in our farm system. We'd like to have more."

Despite the team's wretched defense for most of the season, Duquette isn't specifically targeting an upgrade, though it could come if and when he acquires a table-setter. He thinks the current alignment can and will improve.

"We can do better catching the ball, better than we did in the first half," he said. "I don't think there is any question about that."

He also said he won't need to improve on the starting rotation if some of the pitchers already on the 40-man roster — Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Arrieta, Matusz, Britton, Tommy Hunter — perform to their capabilities. That will make life easier for Duquette, because with the additional wild card in each league this year and other changes to the collective bargaining agreement, there may be fewer sellers and more buyers as the deadline approaches.

"I think I have to find some of our solutions internally. There are options internally with starting pitchers," Duquette said. "We can help strengthen our team by that means if we get some stability from people we have here. I think that's really the best option to strengthen our team right now, because there a lot of teams in the race.

"We're doing everything we can to upgrade our team," he added. "We are in a pennant race at this stage of the year, and we'll do everything we can to make it stronger."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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