All the talk at the Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline a month ago was centered around the bold acquisitions made by the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers, with the A’s acquiring Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox and the Tigers acquiring David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. While Oakland and Detroit have had their share of struggles since acquiring their lefty aces from the cellar of the American League East, another team has quietly risen to the top in the American League. It’s hard to quietly do anything with all the power the Baltimore Orioles have in their lineup, but they have much less hype than the other good teams this year, and they were built by a group just as eager to prove themselves as Billy Beane.
Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette and field manager Buck Showalter have both earned reputations in the game of baseball as being he guys who can take a bad team and make them a playoff team, but will lose their job before they take a step further and become a real championship contender. Duquette was previously the GM of the Montreal Expos, where he built the best team of the strike-shortened 1994 season after trading for a dynamic and diminutive relief pitcher named Pedro Martinez from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and turning him into a starter. Later, as GM of the Boston Red Sox, Duquette would trade for Pedro again, just as Martinez was entering the epic prime of his pitching career. Duquette also acquired Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, and signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez in free agency. Duquette was fired when the current Red Sox ownership group bought the team, and the narrative spun was that Duquette was the buffoon who let Roger Clemens leave as a free agent, when The Rocket had a solid decade of pitching at a high level left to do, but that was the Steroid Era, and conventional wisdom was being proven wrong all the time. With the team Duquette had already built, his replacement, Theo Epstein, inherited a much easier situation to turn around quickly than the one Epstein currently has to deal with in Chicago, because Duquette had already done most of the leg work in getting the Red Sox back to the World Series. It took Duquette ten years to get another GM position in Major League Baseball, but he has a pretty good thing going in Baltimore right now.
Buck Showalter managed the New York Yankees in the early 1990s, but was fired in 1995. In 1996, Joe Torre led the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1978, and they would go on to win it again in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and win the American League Pennant two more times in 2001 and 2003, helping Torre land in the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this summer. After New York, Showalter managed the National League expansion franchise, the Arizona Diamondbacks, but was fired in 2000. In 2001, the D-Backs, led by ace pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, were the team that knocked off the Yankees in a thrilling seven game World Series. Showalter managed the Texas Rangers from 2003 to 2006, but did not have a team with World Series potential. In 2010, he was hired by the Orioles, and has helped them get better and better. Right now, he and Duquette seem to make a really good team, and against all odds are running away with the AL East Division Championship.
Every team goes through adversity over the span of a 162 game regular season, but the Orioles have certainly had more than their fair share, but keep on winning. In a year when exciting young third baseman Manny Machado has taken a step backwards in his development and maturity, and they lost star catcher Matt Wieters to season ending Tommy John Surgery (a rare procedure for a catcher, but they have to make as many throws as the pitcher, so I guess it makes sense), they keep finding ways to score and keep finding ways to win. They’ve certainly been helped by the struggles of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays this season, but saying that the division is weak would discredit what the O’s have done this year.
They may not have the starting pitching of Oakland or Detroit, but the Baltimore Orioles certainly have as good a lineup as any team in baseball. Even without Wieters, they have a deep core of hitting that includes Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Nelson Cruz. Those are four professional hitters that will make any pitching staff earn their money.
The thing about baseball is that it’s not all about pitching (and that’s why you hardly ever see a cleanup hitter traded away by a playoff team in the middle of the season, even if you’re getting a pitcher like Jon Lester in return), and it’s not all about hitting. It’s not all about the advanced statistics, and it’s not all about old school baseball wisdom all the time, either. You have to find a balance, and even then, something can go wrong. The beautiful thing about baseball is that it can’t be scripted, and you can have the best team all year, but be out of it in three games if the bats go cold. It’s all about getting hot at the right time, and while there’s still a month before the playoffs, it’s looking like Baltimore is the hot team in 2014. They’ve been through a lot, but this isn’t the year for the Orioles to be making excuses. They have plenty of solutions.