I talked to a major league scout Friday whose territory is strictly the American League East and whose opinion I really respect.
He's always been pretty spot on with his assessments, so I was curious as to what he thought about what has happened with this division since the postseason ended. I'm going to warn you, Orioles fans, he's not sold on your club.
In fact, if rosters were set today, the scout said he'd predict that the Orioles finish fourth in the AL East in 2013, just above the Tampa Bay Rays. It could have been worse. He initially had the Orioles in last, but changed his mind and flip-flopped them with the Rays.
Now, to be fair, this scout also predicted the Orioles would be the worst team in the division last March, and they ended up winning 93 games and taking the New York Yankees to the fifth game of the American League Division Series. So he isn't perfect. And, we all know, it's just one man's opinion.
This is his order of prediction of finish if the rosters stay relatively the same going into next season: 1. Yankees. 2. Blue Jays. 3. Red Sox. 4. Orioles. 5. Rays.
Even though age is a major factor with the Yankees, he still doesn't think they can be discounted. He loves what the Blue Jays did so far this offseason – adding Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, among others – and thinks they are a shutdown closer away from winning the division.
A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and the recent free-agent acquisitions of Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster will allow the Red Sox to at least return to contention. And he believes the loss of starter James Shields, and a lack of a consistent or proven offense, could sink the amazing payroll-starved Rays to the bottom of the division.
As for the Orioles, the scout thinks there are several players – Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, specifically – who will have a tough time repeating their outstanding 2012 seasons. And, unless the club can add a big bopper in the middle of the lineup before Opening Day, he thinks the Orioles just don't have enough firepower to compete if they can't rekindle their extra-inning and close-game magic.
"Baltimore hasn't done anything to better their club [this winter], and most people agree they played over their heads last year," the scout said.
"Jim Johnson had an unbelievable year. Do you see him repeating that? That good? I don't," he continued. "Pedro Strop had an unbelievable year, but in the last two or three weeks Buck didn't use him, he lost confidence in him. Do I see Pedro Strop having a 1.50 ERA for four months? No. I don't see Miguel Gonzalez repeating. You look at Jason Hammel's starts last year and compare them to where he was before. I mean, they had a lot of guys play over their heads last year and they haven't done anything [this offseason]. I hope I'm wrong. They were a great story."
That assessment changes some if the Orioles pick up a legitimate slugger, but the scout doesn't see that player left of the free agent market.
"They need, in my opinion, a middle-of-the-order hitter to help protect Adam Jones. That's what they really need. I haven't looked at a list lately, but I don't know who is out there they could get," the scout said. "Nick Swisher? He'd be a nice piece, but I'm not sure that's the real big bat you are looking for. They need someone that can hit 40 [home runs] for them."
It's not all dismal, Orioles fans. The scout believes what Dan Duquette and the Orioles' brass have been saying all offseason: There is a market for the so-called cavalry: Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman.
"There would be some people interested in those four guys. It's just so hard to get good young pitching that's under [team financial] control for four or five years," the scout said. "And people are not ready to give up on guys like them with those kinds of arms."
Each club, will look at those players differently, and they probably won't get you a future All-Star slugger in a one-for-one deal, he said. If forced put them in order of whom he would want the most, his list is: Britton, Arrieta, Tillman and Matusz. Frankly, he said he'd be tempted to put Arrieta atop the list, simply based on potential talent, but isn't sure he could do it.
"I can't figure the guy out; he has got really good stuff. He just hasn't shown the consistency."