Commentary: O's are legit, but need to strengthen rotation

So we convened at a local eatery for a high-level sports staff meeting this week when, sometime between the inhalation of the mozzarella sticks and the arrival of the burgers, someone posed the question, "Are the Orioles a legitimate threat to win the World Series this year?"

Fair question.

Last year, of course, was as much fun as it gets for fans. After 14 sub-.500, often unwatchable seasons, Baltimore got back to the playoffs. Still, not even the most fanatic of fans - probably, privately, not even the players - believed it was a championship outfit. And after so many one-run and/or extra-innings wins, it was fair to wonder if it was all a bit of a fluke.

As we arrive at the mid-point of the season later this week, it's become obvious the Orioles weren't a fluke. They're right around 10 games over .500 and, even playing in a brutal division that had not a single losing team as of Saturday morning, they'd be back in the postseason if the season ended today.

So the Orioles are legit, at least in terms of being a winning team. Quite possibly in terms of being a playoff team. But are they a championship team?

They have a championship lineup. They led the majors by a pretty wide margin with 101 home runs entering Saturday's game. They also led in slugging percentage. They ranked third in batting average and runs scored. They're even among the leaders in stolen bases. They don't walk much and they never, ever hit triples. Other than that, it's a powerful and versatile batting order that might be baseball's best.

They also have a championship defensive team. They lead the majors in fielding percentage, having allowed the fewest unearned runs in the game, and their 25 errors through Friday have them on pace to shatter the team record and break the major league mark for fewest miscues in a 162-game season. Five of their starters have Gold Gloves sitting at home on shelves and a sixth (Manny Machado) had better start making room.

They have (at least) a top-five player in the game at catcher (Matt Wieters), first base (Chris Davis), shortstop (J.J. Hardy), third base (Machado), center field (Adam Jones) and right field (Nick Markakis) - and left fielder Nate McLouth is doing a good impression of one.

Despite their recent struggles, they also appear to have a championship-caliber bullpen, headed by major league saves leader Jim Johnson. They have solid situational relievers in Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz and Troy Patton. Strong-armed Pedro Strop is an albatross, but just try to find a staff that doesn't have a weak link.

Which brings us to the starting pitching. Not championship caliber. Not even close.

Orioles starters began Saturday having allowed 75 home runs. That's 13 more than any other rotation in baseball. It's three times as many as Cardinals starters have allowed, even though Cardinals starters have tossed a ton more innings. The Orioles have the fourth-worst starting ERA in baseball at 4.78. They rank near the bottom in batting average against, WHIP and walks allowed.

The rotation is holding them back. They lead the league in No. 4 starters. With only mid-level starting pitching the Orioles would be comfortably atop the AL East. But management made no significant offseason additions to what was also a bit of a weakness last season.

Perhaps Dan Duquette & Co. believed Jason Hammel was a bona fide ace based on his 118 innings in 2012 despite evidence to the contrary from 2006-11. Perhaps they thought Jake Arrieta was a major-league starter despite plenty of evidence to the contrary from 2010-12. Perhaps they thought Wei-Yin Chen would have another perfectly healthy season. Wrong on all counts.

Clearly they thought top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman would be able to step in and help when needed. But Bundy has been hurt all year and Gausman didn't look ready when called up.

A lot has changed about baseball in more than a century, but one thing hasn't: From Cy Young's Boston Americans in the very first World Series all the way through the Matt Cain/Tim Lincecum San Francisco Giants in recent years, some really good starting pitching is pretty much always present on a championship team.

Between now and the trading deadline, Duquette must make up for his offseason oversight and add a game-changing starter. No, it probably won't be Cliff Lee (although if the Phillies fall out of the race, it would be criminal negligence not to at least make a strong pitch for him). The two most-often mentioned names are the Cubs' Matt Garza and the Marlins' Ricky Nolasco. Neither is Lee, but either would be an upgrade for a rotation badly in need of one.

Legitimate chances to win it all don't come along often. When you're close, as the Orioles are, its worth parting with prospects to try to make it happen. Simply assuming if it doesn't happen one year it'll surely happen the next is foolhardy. Just ask the Washington Nationals.

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