Carroll County Times

Commentary: Jumping on the Birds' bandwagon

Make room. I'm climbing aboard the Baltimore Orioles' bandwagon.

It's been a long time for me. I'm not sure I'm even in the right place. I've been writing negative columns before Opening Day since the end of the Clinton administration.

And I couldn't have been much more negative. Sometimes readers got mad at me. They got madder because I was always right.

At least until that magical 2012 season, when the Orioles seemed to win every one-run or extra-inning game and had their first winning record and postseason appearance since 1997.

The expected regression took place last season. But progress isn't always linear. And that step back last year only set up a leap forward this year.

This is a good team with the potential for more than good. It would be the consensus favorite in at least three divisions. Even in the beastly American League East, Baltimore figures to be in the mix.

Scratch that. The Orioles will win the division. That's what people say once they're on the bandwagon.

The Orioles' lineup is as potent as any in baseball. No, Chris Davis isn't going to hit 53 home runs again. But, with the added protection of Nelson Cruz, would anyone be surprised if he hits 40?

Everyone has added motivation. Cruz certainly wants to prove he can have a big year without an assist from chemistry. Matt Wieters is coming off a sub-par year. Nick Markakis is playing for a contract. Adam Jones wants to show he's a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. Manny Machado will feel a need to show he hasn't lost a step after knee surgery.

The starting rotation is at least as good as it's been in years. Chris Tillman just about has us convinced he's an ace. Ubaldo Jimenez has the potential to dominate hitters for weeks, even months, at a time. Wei-Yin Chen has been solid when healthy. If either Bud Norris or Miguel Gonzalez falters, Kevin Gausman looks ready to take over a primary spot in the rotation for the next decade or so.

The bullpen lacks a closer, but closer is the most overrated position in sports. Jim Johnson is good at what he does, but his nine blown saves were a huge reason the Orioles faded from the playoff race last season. Tommy Hunter or a closer-by-committee, utilizing everyone in a deep-looking 'pen, should be able to get the job done and the seventh and eighth innings should be in good hands, lefty or righty. Wieters and a defense that was among the best in baseball history last year will help every starter and reliever be just a little bit better, allowing them to get away with a few bad pitches that might've been costly with a different catcher or shortstop or third baseman or center fielder.

As usual, the AL East looks loaded. It will be no surprise if all five teams win between 80 and 95 games. But, regardless of what some national pundits are saying, there are no locks. Tampa Bay doesn't have a great offense and if the Rays are around .500 on July 4, will anyone be surprised to see them trade David Price?

Boston won it all a year ago, but lost some key figures from that team and might not have everything go right this time around.

New York is old. No two ways about it. Sure, the Yankees could summon one more big run. They could also be a high-priced disaster.

Toronto was a huge disappointment last year and didn't do much to improve.

Much could go wrong in Baltimore, too. Davis' production could drop by half. Jones could go all year without a walk. Wieters could really be a sub.-250 hitter. Jimenez could revert to his 2011-12 form. The back end of the rotation could struggle and the current prospect cavalry could be as underwhelming as the group from about four years ago. Hunter & Co. could have everyone missing Johnson by mid-April.

And, of course, there's a chance Machado won't be Machado all year. That's not a scenario any fan wants even to consider, but it's possible.

Still, I'm not worried. I'm jumping on with both feet, predicting the first AL East title for Baltimore in 15 years and maybe, just maybe, a lot of exciting games deep into October.

So make room on the bandwagon. I'm all in.

Of course, the thing about a bandwagon is, it's easy to jump off if things start to go wrong.