SweetSpot: Chris Tillman

video Matt Wieters will miss the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While it's certainly a tough blow for the Orioles, it's hardly a season-ending blow for them.

Despite his respected reputation and two All-Star appearances, Wieters is a good player, not a great one, especially last season when he hit .235/.287/.417. That's not criticism; there's a lot of value in being a good player. He had been off to a great start in the 26 games he played, hitting .308/.339/.500, but that was well above his career norms and way above what he did last season, obviously. There was little reason to expect Wieters to keep hitting .300 all year.

Baseball-Reference valued Wieters at just 0.5 WAR in 2013. He was better in 2011 (4.9) and 2012 (3.5). FanGraphs had him at 2.4 WAR last season, but similar totals in 2011 (4.5) and 2012 (3.9). Let's say last year was just a bad year and that Wieters is roughly a four-win player. That's hard to replace; good two-way catchers don't exactly fall off trees. The other three catchers the Orioles have used -- Steve Clevenger, Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley -- have combined to hit .184 with no home runs and 12 RBIs. That's pretty bad, certainly about replacement-level offense if not below. Collectively, the three have been worth minus-0.3 WAR heading into Monday's game, according to Baseball-Reference.

Throw it in the mixer and those three should provide at least replacement-level performance, possibly better depending on how Hundley does, if he gets to play. Last year with the Padres Hundley produced a batting that was basically a replica of Wieters', especially when you adjust for parks: .233/.290/.389. The Orioles will take that. Anyway, we're talking about a lot of possibilities and variables here, but the difference in value could be four wins, or it could be one win.

So Wieters' injury hurts, and that's without recognizing that there may be some relative intangibles we risk missing here. StatCorner.com has rated both Joseph and Hundley as better pitch framers than Wieters in 2014. Wieters didn't rate well last year in pitch framing. It's possible the Orioles don't less anything defensively and actually improve with Joseph.

Anyway, I would argue the Orioles have other issues as important or more so if they're going to chase down the Blue Jays in the AL East.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Gail BurtonThe Orioles have to hope Manny Machado starts producing like the star they expect him to be.
1. Manny Machado has to start hitting and fielding better. We know what he did last year, hitting .283 with 14 home runs and a league-leading 51 doubles. We know he played Gold Glove defense at third base, deservedly winning with what the defensive metrics said was one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman (the eye test agreed).

My gut says he'll improve in both areas from where he's at now, especially as his knee continues to get better after he injured it late last season. I do worry about the overaggressive approach at bat and the inability to lay off breaking stuff off the plate, but he also has a low .265 average on balls in play compared to .322 last year. His line-drive rate is actually higher than last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (23 percent to 20 percent). He hit .757 on line drives last year but is hitting .531 this year. The MLB average is .675. That looks like some bad luck to me.

Defensively, he's making 3.07 plays per nine innings this year; he made 3.05 last year. His error rate is up, but you have to dig deep into the metrics to figure out why he's not grading out near as well this year as last year.

2. Chris Tillman needs to get people out. Maybe he's not an ace but he's supposed to be the Orioles' No. 1 starter and he's 5-4 with a 4.80 ERA and impossible to figure out. On May 16 he pitched a shutout; his next start he gave eight runs and got three outs. On May 31 and June 10 he allowed one run each time; in between those two games, he again got just three outs. In his last start on Sunday he gave up three runs in seven innings but didn't record a strikeout.

Here's the concern: His hits and walks are up from last year, while his strikeouts and home runs are down. Overall, however, the package is similar: He had a 4.42 FIP in 2013 and is at 4.61 this year. He managed to outperform his FIP in 2012 (2.93 ERA) and 2013 (3.71 EA), but isn't doing so this season. Regardless, a staff leader can't afford five-inning starts let alone one-inning starts.

3. Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy: Where's the power? Last year, with Davis hitting 53 home runs and Hardy 25, the Orioles clubbed 212 long balls, the most in the majors. That was the basis of their offense. They don't walk much (next-to-last in the AL last year and last year this year), so they have to the ball over the fence to score runs. Davis has 11 home runs (he did miss 15 games) while Hardy is sitting on zero. Overall, the Orioles are on pace to hit 36 fewer home runs that last year, and that's with Nelson Cruz playing the Chris Davis role with an MLB-leading 21.

4. Big hole at second base: Baltimore's second sackers are hitting .245 with a .289 OBP. Buck Showalter loves Ryan Flaherty's defense and rookie Jonathan Schoop has some potential, but this position was an issue last year and remains a problem. An upgrade -- like trading for Arizona's Aaron Hill? -- is a possibility.

5. Ubaldo Jimenez: The big wild card. Among 99 qualified starters, he's No. 99 in walk rate. His walk rate is 13.5 percent, up from 10.3 percent last year and way up from the 7.8 percent in the second half of last season when he went on the great roll with Cleveland, his first consistent stretch since he began the 2010 season red-hot for the Rockies. Who is the real Ubaldo Jimenez? I'd suggest that what he has done over most of the past four seasons is a better barometer than three months.

What's it all mean? The Orioles are clearly a team with some fatal flaws: They don't walk so they are too reliant on hitting home runs; they lack a No. 1 to lead the rotation; and now they potentially have a hole at catcher. That's without mentioning the bullpen, which lost Monday's game in the eighth inning.

Look, this team could get hot, for all sorts of reasons: Davis goes on a tear, Machado improves, Tillman or Jimenez get straightened out, the bullpen settles down. But right now, the Orioles are 35-34 and that's what they look like to me: a .500 team.

A night dominated by starting pitchers

May, 17, 2014
May 17
Earlier on Friday, one of baseball's best young pitchers, Jose Fernandez, underwent Tommy John surgery. Martin Perez, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Brandon Beachy and a list of far too many players have also been victimized by the same elbow injury. Just two months into the baseball season and it's growing hard to find teams that haven't been affected by this year's rash of pitching injuries.

After these surgeries, we're seeing more and more teams rely on their sixth starter, their seventh starter, and at times pitchers that we've hardly heard about. Just two days ago, the Yankees sent Chase Whitley to the mound after he had made just 14 minor league starts. And despite the talent level of pitchers seemingly declining with every subsequent injury, pitching in baseball has hardly taken a hit. We're seeing a ton of these no-names pitch better than some of the big-money starters of just a decade ago.

In 2013, starting pitchers owned an average 4.01 ERA, a 3.95 FIP, an 18.9 strikeout percentage, and a 7.4 walk percentage. This season, numbers have improved to an average 3.85 ERA, a 3.85 FIP, a 19.7 strikeout percentage, and a 7.5 walk percentage. I've seen and heard a handful of theories to explain baseball's evolution toward lower run totals. Some say that shifts significantly help pitchers save hits, while others say that the steroid era has ended and with it the home run boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Whatever you believe, there's no denying that even with a plague of injuries to very talented pitchers, more and more young starters are emerging in their place.

With the weather warming up and pitchers continuing to build arm strength, Friday night featured some prime examples of starter dominance. We saw a handful of shutouts, and even some complete games to go along with them. Teams like the Red Sox, Royals and Rangers were held to no runs. Starting pitchers dominated the night.

Max Scherzer was perhaps the most predictable success of the night, however, it came against the reigning World Series champion Red Sox. Despite a 47-minute rain delay, Scherzer and Jon Lester pitched following the weather stoppage and both succeeded. Lester's five innings of four-hit and one-run ball just wasn't good enough to overcome Scherzer's six innings of shutout stuff. While we expected a pitching duel from both starters, their success through a rain delay and against such daunting offenses was somewhat unforeseeable.

Perhaps one of the night's most stunning performances came inside baseball's toughest pitcher's park. Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies allowed just two baserunners all night, and didn't give up his first hit until the seventh inning. He ended the night with seven shutout innings, five strikeouts and 11 groundouts with no flyouts. Inside Coors Field, that is nearly the perfect strategy, keeping the ball on the ground or simply avoiding contact all together. After a dominant 2013 and a sour start to 2014, De La Rosa has now put together six consecutive quality starts.

Then there was Chris Tillman, who pitched a complete-game, five-hit shutout to shut down the Royals. Though he didn't dominant Kansas City's lineup with strikeouts (he had just three strikeouts while he walked just one), he showed a great command of the strike zone and induced weak contact with his four-seamer. Tillman now owns the lowest ERA (3.34) in the Orioles' rotation, beating out Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Reds' rotation, which projected to include Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani in the offseason, is now showcasing Alfredo Simon, a career reliever prior to this season. But Simon has emerged as far more than adequate, and after pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings with eight strikeouts against the Phillies, the right-hander now owns a 2.45 ERA over his first eight starts of the season.

Yet the strongest performance of the night came by a 23-year old right-hander who's hardly a household name in the prospect scene. Drew Hutchison, who has spotted lofty peripherals all season, finally put together a brilliant performance for the Blue Jays against the Rangers. Entering the game, Hutchison owned a strong 9.73 K/9 ratio, a 2.98 BB/9 ratio and an outstanding 3.14 FIP. The problem with that was he also had a 1-3 record with a 4.37 ERA. On Friday, Hutchison dominated the Rangers with a complete-game shutout. He allowed only four baserunners and finished with six strikeouts. He outdueled Rangers ace Yu Darvish and it only took him 105 pitches to finish off Texas.

There were a handful of other great starts on Friday, as baseball is slowly evolving towards a pitcher's game. Even with the injuries taking a toll on countless teams, it feels like young and unexpected starters are taking to the scene faster than ever.

Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.
1. Back in spring training, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish admitted he was working on a few minor tweaks on his mechanics in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the nerve problem in his lower back and buttocks area that arose last September. Whether that had anything to do with the stiff neck that had sidelined him since March 16 and forced him to miss his Opening Day assignment remains unknown, considering the dubious nature of the original rationale for the neck issue ("I slept on it wrong," Darvish said).

In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.

He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.

"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."

While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.

The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.

Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.

2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.

Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCano seems to be embracing his role as a leader in Seattle.
The bad news for the Brewers, of course, is Ryan Braun's thumb injury, which he now says hasn't completely healed from last year when the injury sapped his power and eventually forced him to the disabled list (before his suspension). He had two singles on Sunday to raise his average to .150 but he doesn't have an extra-base hit in (the small sample size of) 21 plate appearances. Remember, when Braun was putting up monster numbers in 2012 the Brewers led the National League in runs scored. If they're going to contend for a playoff spot, they better hope this thumb issue doesn't linger.

3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.

All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.

4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.

The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.

5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).

Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.

6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.

The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter is now No. 8 on the all-time hits list, but the Yanks need power.
7. Derek Jeter passed Paul Molitor for the eighth place on the all-time hits list. In many ways, the two are identical matches as hitters, with short, compact swings and both loved to go to the opposite field. Jeter has a career line of .312/.381/.446 with 256 home runs while Molitor hit .306/.369/.448 with 234 home runs. Molitor's adjusted OPS is slightly higher, at 122 versus Jeter's 117. Molitor struck out 10.2 percent of the time against a league average of 14.7 percent during his career; Jeter has fanned 14.7 percent of the time against a league average of 17.4 percent.

Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).

8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.

9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.

10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.

As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.

Would adding Johan Santana help O's?

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
This is getting talked up on Twitter as very close to happening: Johan Santana could be an Oriole.

If so, I love it. I love it even if it subsequently turns out that he has nothing left and that his towering stack of injuries has robbed him of his ability to pitch effectively for any length of time. I love it because you won’t know that for sure until you check him out. If the O’s take that chance, more power to them.

For most of the last month, Santana has been promoting and throwing bullpen sessions to advertise both that he’s still alive -- after missing all of 2013 and 2011, as well as a big chunk of 2012, people start to wonder -- and that his arm is sound. Since he has been touching only 80 on the gun, it’s hard to say he’s all the way back.

Even so, the Orioles are one of the teams that can’t just afford to take a flyer on him. They have to if they want to take themselves seriously. Not because of what Santana is now, but because of what he might be if he can come back to some fraction of his former self. Think of it as a latter-day John Tudor play: If he’s healthy enough to pitch, chances are he’ll be good enough to help you win.

Does Johan Santana have anything left?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,258)

Why does that matter for the O’s? Because after you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, Baltimore has lunch-bucket types, guys who might make a nice No. 4 in anybody’s rotation: Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris at the least, plus Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, if you’re feeling generous. Top prospect Kevin Gausman will eventually pitch his way past that crowd of mediocrity. But over 162 games and especially early on, that mediocrity and depth will have value, keeping games in reach for Chris Davis & Co. while giving Buck Showalter enough talent to work with until Santana and Gausman are ready to contribute.

Why them, and why later? Because in a perfect-world, blue-sky scenario where the Orioles contend, you don’t want to wind up in the postseason having to start Norris. Gausman might give the Orioles a key front-end starter down the stretch, perhaps playing as large a role for them as Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole did for their teams last year. Running up some combination of Santana and Gausman, Jimenez and Tillman? Now we’re talking, not just about a team that might get to the one-game wild-card play-in but a team that might have the starting pitching to win a division series.

So credit the Orioles if they’re willing to roll the dice. It isn’t like Peter Angelos can take all of his tobacco lawsuit money with him, and for the O’s -- and their fans -- there’s no time like the present.

If Santana gives us some fraction of that world-beating pitcher who won two Cy Youngs, just call me greedy, because it’ll be fun to watch.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some quick thoughts on Monday's results and a look forward to Tuesday.

Inning of the day: I wrote about Ned Yost's tactical errors in the ninth inning of the Royals' 4-3 loss to the Indians. According to coolstandings.com, the Royals' playoff odds are down to 5.2 percent. By the way ... the Indians are only four back of the Tigers in the loss column. They have no games remaining with the Tigers so that hurts their chances, but the AL Central isn't over quite yet.

Argument of the day: Buck Showalter and Joe Girardi had a nice little war of words, Girardi apparently upset that Orioles' third-base coach Bobby Dickerson was trying to steal signs from Yankees catcher Austin Romine. That little flare-up overshadowed the more important news of the night: The Orioles beat the Yankees 4-2 behind a strong effort from Chris Tillman, who improved to 16-5 with a 3.66 ERA. The one flaw on Tillman's season ledger is 29 home runs, but some of that is a Camden Yards effect -- he's allowed 22 home runs at home, just seven on the road, where his ERA is a run lower. If the Orioles get into the wild-card game and can line up their starter, you have to think it would be Tillman.

Pitching performance of the day: Gerrit Cole outdueled Yu Darvish 1-0, clinching a winning season for the Pirates and handing Darvish his third 1-0 loss of the season, the most since Orel Hershiser lost four such games in 1989. ESPN Stats & Info breaks down Cole's superb outing, the best of his rookie season.

Most important win: While the Pirates' win was big from a psychological standpoint after getting swept by the Cardinals over the weekend, the Indians and Orioles picked up an important half-game on the Rays.

Most important loss: The Royals. They're now 4 back of the Rays and 2.5 back of the Orioles and Indians. If 90 wins is the line to get into the playoffs, they have to go 15-3 the rest of the way.

Awards watch: Max Scherzer had his worst start of the season in a 5-1 loss to the White Sox and Chris Sale, pushing his ERA to 3.01, seventh-best in the AL. Scherzer is still the Cy Young favorite with his 19-3 record and league-leading WHIP and high strikeout total, although Sale now has a healthy lead in WAR (but an 11-12 record), 7.1 to 5.5.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Clay Buchholz versus David Price, Red Sox at Rays (7:10 ET). After missing three months, Buchholz returns to the Red Sox rotation. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before going down, but looked shaky in a couple rehab starts. Price is coming off six-run and four-run outings on Tampa's recent road trip.

Player to watch: Francisco Liriano, Pirates. An interesting matchup here as well against Martin Perez. The Rangers are scuffling, having lost seven of 10. Liriano has run hot and cold of late, with four scoreless starts in his last nine, but a 10-run game and four-inning and three-inning outings mixed in.

Hey, it's not like Adrian Beltre hasn't been stiffed for the All-Star Game before. Back in 2004 when he was with the Dodgers, he was hitting .315 with 22 home runs and 56 RBIs at the break but didn't make the All-Star team, getting squeezed out at third base by starter Scott Rolen and backup Mike Lowell. Beltre would put up even bigger numbers in the second half and finish second in the MVP vote. But he wouldn't make his first All-Star Game until 2010 in his one season with the Red Sox after leaving the Safeco Field dungeon.

After putting up big numbers the past two seasons for the Rangers, Beltre finally played his first postseason games since that '04 season and, not coincidentally, finally began escaping the "most underrated" label. Amazing what playing for a playoff team will do for your reputation. People have even started viewing him as a potential Hall of Famer, given his reputation in the field and the possibility he'll reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. He's just 34, aging well and on track for another terrific season. He went 4-for-4 with two home runs and five RBIs in Tuesday's 8-4 win over the Orioles, and suddenly, his season totals are 20 big ones and 52 RBIs to go with his .319 average.

He won't be going to Citi Field next week for the All-Star Game, however, which isn't an insult as much as a matter of the luck of his happening to play the most loaded position in the majors right now: third base, American League, at which Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado made the All-Star team. As a result, Beltre, Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson will get to spend a few days fishing.

Beltre is in a little different station this season: With Josh Hamilton gone, you can make the case that Texas is Beltre's team. Well, not in the sense that he owns the Rangers team, but in the sense that he's the guy of whom opposing pitchers will say -- if they actually say such things -- "We can't let this guy beat us." Beltre never has really had to be "the man" on the Rangers before, but without Hamilton and with this Rangers team scoring half a run per game fewer than last season, it's hardly the same power attack we saw in Texas in recent seasons.

However, Beltre did beat the Orioles on this night. He led off the second with a home run as Zach Britton tried to get ahead with a first-pitch, middle-of-the-plate 90 mph fastball. Beltre doesn't miss middle-of-the-plate fastballs, and he crushed this one 411 feet to center field. After surrendering a single to Beltre in the fourth, Britton tried to sneak a 1-0, middle-of-the-plate fastball past Beltre, or maybe figured he'd be taking. Bad idea. Beltre was sitting on that high fastball and tomahawked it on a line to left for a three-run homer. In the seventh, the Orioles had learned their lesson and intentionally walked Beltre. He added an RBI single in the ninth.

Pitchers try to work Beltre outside -- he's pretty much a dead-pull hitter for power, as only two of his 20 home runs have gone to the right of center field (including his first one Tuesday, which went just to the right of center). But he still hits for a good average on pitches on the outside part of the plate, hitting .311 on the season due to his ability to drive the ball to right-center for base hits and doubles. And if you miss over the plate, he can punish you.

Britton's inability to locate those fastballs pinpoints the larger issue with the Orioles: Their rotation remains a big question mark. The Rangers pounded new acquisition Scott Feldman on Monday. Britton now owns a 4.76 ERA and, after getting no strikeouts against the Rangers, has just 12 in 34 innings. He's not going to succeed with that ratio, and while his fastball has adequate velocity, he's just not the same promising left-hander of a couple of years ago.

The Baltimore rotation now sports a 4.85 ERA, 27th in the majors, and even the spectacular hitting from Chris Davis and all-around brilliance from Machado won't be able to mask that over a full 162 games. Orioles starters allow the most home runs per nine innings, and while some of that is a Camden Yards effect, it's a staff that gives up a lot of fly balls and doesn't register a lot of strikeouts. That can work in the spacious outfields in Seattle or San Francisco, but it's not going to work very well in Baltimore. Wei-Yin Chen returns Wednesday for his first start since May 12, and the Orioles are desperate for him pitch as well as he was before straining his oblique.

Chen's return essentially bumps Britton from the rotation, which now looks like Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Jason Hammel and Feldman. If the Orioles can keep those five guys healthy -- they've used 13 different starters -- and Chen pitches well and Hammel starts pitching like he did last season, maybe that's enough, even lacking an ace. But I get the feeling the O's will need Davis to keep hitting a lot of home runs.

It was 86 degrees in Baltimore on Wednesday night, the ball was flying and we had one of the most exciting games of the season, a 9-6 Orioles victory over the Washington Nationals and one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, including a six-run rally in the seventh inning.

Here are 30 thoughts/observations/random tidbits on the game ...

1. Chris Davis. It was Chris Davis T-shirt night at Camden Yards and he didn't disappoint, slamming his 18th and 19th home runs, going 4-for-4, scoring three runs, driving in three, selling pretzels between innings. After his second home run, the camera panned to him a few moments later in the dugout, his helmet off -- and if you ever want to know the look of a man in the zone, Davis had it. Sort of part-bemused, like he was reliving the moment, part-amazed, like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, eyes wide, soaking it all in.

2. Electric atmosphere. As the Orioles announcer said, it had the feel of a Friday-night college crowd, with a buzz going all game, the fans exploding after each hit during Baltimore's big seventh. Baseball at its best.

3. Last season, it seemed Orioles fans were a little reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as the support -- at least as shown in attendance figures -- was slow to get going, certainly understandable after years of losing. Looks like the support is getting back to levels we saw in the mid-1990s, when you couldn't get a ticket to an O's game.

4. Davis versus Miguel Cabrera. For all the attention that Cabrera has rightfully been generating for chasing the Triple Crown again, Davis is having the better season at the plate:

Davis: .359/.447/.755, 19 HR, 18 2B, 50 RBIs, 1.214 OPS
Cabrera: .368/.444/.656, 15 HR, 13 2B, 59 RBIs, 1.099 OPS

5. Of course, as one Tigers fan tweeted to me the other night, let's see the numbers at the end of the season.

6. Still.

7. Fifteen players have slugged .700 in the first half since 2000, but only two since 2009: Albert Pujols in 2009 (.723) and Jose Bautista in 2011 (.702).

8. This isn't the same Chris Davis who had a big breakout season last year, when he hit 33 home runs. Last year, he struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 6.6. This year, those figures are 21.9 and 13.2. A man with his power and better control of the strike zone is a scary proposition. OK, so maybe he's not a .359 hitter, but he's not doing it by accident.

9. Manny Machado hit another double. That's 24. He's on pace for 73. The record is 67, set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb.

10. He doesn't turn 21 until July. That's Machado; Webb is dead.

11. Will it upset everyone to suggest that Machado -- with his brilliant defense at third -- has arguably been as valuable as Davis and Cabrera? I mean ... he's hitting .332/.365/.517 and has more range than Meryl Streep. Baseball-Reference wins above replacement leaders, American League, entering Wednesday: Machado 3.4, Dustin Pedroia 3.0, Cabrera 2.8, Davis 2.7. FanGraphs: Machado 3.1, Davis 2.9, Cabrera 2.9, Mike Trout 2.9.

12. It's a legitimate argument if you can look beyond RBIs.

13. Ryan Zimmerman, have a day. Tough to hit three home runs -- he homered his first three times up -- and get upstaged, but that's what happened. Is it fair to say that Zimmerman is one of the most important players in the National League? With the Nats' offense struggling -- although a little better of late -- it desperately needs a second big bat behind Bryce Harper. Zimmerman has to be that guy, or maybe Adam LaRoche. Or, preferably, both. Zimmerman's throwing troubles have been an issue all season, although also better of late.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyChris Davis' second homer of the night, a two-run blast, gave the Orioles their final margin.
14. Davey Johnson's beard. Google it. Let's hope the Nationals turn this into a promotional event down the road.

15. Jordan Zimmermann was due for a bad game, but did make some bad pitches. Davis' first home run was off a slider over the middle of the plate. Nick Markakis' home run came off an 0-1 fastball that Kurt Suzuki wanted in but was also over the middle of the plate.

16. Both were hit to the almost identical location in right-center -- in fact, you can see the same guy in the white tank T-shirt reaching for both homers.

17. Steve Pearce's two-run shot off Zimmermann just cleared the fence in left-center. On another night, with a little more luck, it's maybe three long outs to the warning track.

18. Davis' second home run, off an 0-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard, was the most impressive of the night as he showcased his huge raw power, with an easy, almost one-handed swing. How strong is this guy? This one landed near where T-shirt dude was sitting as well, except he must have been off in the beer line this time around.

19. Zimmermann hadn't walked a batter since May 8. So now he has 10 in 11 starts. Terrible.

20. The Orioles can hit. That's 10 or more hits in 27 of their 53 games.

21. The Nationals' bench was supposed to be a big strength heading into the season, but it's been a weak spot. Roger Bernadina did homer, but he's hitting .149. Tyler Moore is hitting .149. Chad Tracy is hitting .170. Steve Lombardozzi is hitting an empty .234. And they've had to play a lot, accumulating more than 300 plate appearances among the four of them so far. Along with struggling Danny Espinosa, they're a huge reason the Nationals are just a game over .500.

22. Remember when Nate McLouth was washed up?

23. He's 17-for-18 in steals. The O's lead the American League in home runs and are tied for the lead in stolen bases. When's the last time that happened?

24. I'm sure Orioles fans were a little nervous when Jim Johnson entered for the save in the ninth, considering his last outing in Toronto on Sunday -- his fourth blown save and fifth loss. But he had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, albeit against the bottom three hitters.

25. Tommy Hunter was unfair in the eighth inning. He threw a 100 mph fastball to Moore followed by a two-strike curve that Moore missed. No chance.

26. I still don't know what to make of Chris Tillman. Four home runs tonight, 11 over his past five starts. Yes, four of those games came at Camden, but he's going to continue having gopher ball problems with such a low ground-ball rate (37 percent on the season).

27. A Beltway Series would be fun in October. Nearly happened last year, but I think the Orioles will need to make a deal for a starting pitcher. I mean, Freddy Garcia goes on Thursday.

28. Buck Showalter can manage my team.

29. I still think second baseman Ryan Flaherty can produce some offense. He returned to the Orioles lineup' and had two hits. I'm less confident about Espinosa.

30. How do I get one of those Chris Davis T-shirts?

Here's the thing about baseball in 2012: The difference between the best teams and the worst teams isn't all that extreme. The New York Yankees, for example, have outscored their opponents by 99 runs. The Minnesota Twins, with one of the worst starting rotation in recent memory, have been outscored by 114 runs. That's 213 runs, which is significant, but maybe not as large as you might imagine. The Twins have played 129 games, so we're talking about 1.7 runs per game. What's 1.7 runs? A double here, a single there, an extra walk here, one play made on defense. It's not that much, but those three or four plays a game add up over 162 games.

This gets us to the Baltimore Orioles, the team that won't go away. For the past couple of months, most analysts have predicted them to slowly slide out of the playoff chase, especially those of us who look at the numbers. We kept to their negative run differential: It will catch up to them eventually, we said. The talent base isn't there; they won't keep winning all these one-run games; their luck will run out.

Well, it's late August and the Orioles have 34 games remaining. Forget what us so-called experts predicted -- they're still in the race; they're 3.5 games behind the Yankees; and if the season ended today they'd be playing the Oakland A's in the wild-card game. And they're still getting outscored on the season ... by 39 runs.

But here's the deal: A month ago, the Orioles were 52-49 and 8.5 games behind the Yankees. Their run differential at that time was minus-63. Since then they've gone 19-8 and outscored their opponents by 24 runs -- or nearly one per game. There's nothing that screams fluke about what has happened over the past 30 days. The Orioles might have lucked into a 52-49 record but at this point they're for real.

One reason for their improvement has been the emergence of Chris Tillman, the tall, talented right-hander for whom it seems the Orioles have been waiting since Bush 43 was still president. After struggling in 2009 (5.40 ERA) ... and 2010 (5.87 ERA) ... and 2011 (5.52 ERA), Tillman didn't make the Opening Day roster. He was sent down to the minors leagues, cleaned up his motion so it became more over the top. His fastball, which had averaged 90.5 mph in 2010 and 89.5 mph in 2011, has now averaged 92.8 in 2012, with good downhill plane generated from his 6-foot-6 frame.

On Tuesday night at Camden Yards, the Chicago White Sox looked clueless against Tillman, who pitched seven one-hit innings on the way to a 6-0 Baltimore victory. He did walk four but the White Sox couldn't measure his fastball, which he threw on 68 of his 109 pitches, a much higher percentage of fastballs than he normally throws (about 45 percent entering the game). He mixes in a curveball, slider and changeup, which he started utilizing more often late in the game. In other words, a classic approach since the days of rock-strewn infields and baggy wool uniforms: Establish the fastball early and then mix in the offspeed stuff.

The only hit off Tillman was Dayan Viciedo's infield dribbler in the fifth inning that J.J. Hardy couldn't field cleanly. Tillman actually said he didn't have his Grade A stuff on this night. "There were plenty of games where I had better stuff," he said. "There were some spurts there when I kind of got out of whack." Tillman had walked just 15 batters in his first nine starts.

Tillman's emergence -- he's now 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA -- symbolizes how the Orioles have revamped their rotation over the past month. Gone are Jake Arrieta (6.13 ERA), Brian Matusz (5.40 ERA) and now Tommy Hunter (5.95 ERA), to be replaced by the newly acquired Joe Saunders, who will start in Wednesday's series finale. Jason Hammel, the team's ace the first half, will also make a rehab start this weekend and could return to the rotation on Sept. 6. Arrieta, Matusz and Hunter combined to start 54 games -- and allowed five or more runs in 22 of them. Those are three main culprits behind the team's run differential. Well, that and the fact that Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds are no longer attempting to play third base.

Watching the Orioles the past two games, I've gotten a little bit of that "destiny" feeling. Lew Ford, out of the majors since 2007, homered both nights. Nate McLouth hit the big two-run home run Monday and added three hits Tuesday. As a Mariners fan, it reminds me of the miracle 1995 season, when the M's rallied from a 12.5-game deficit in late August to win the American League West. The team featured memorable big moments from guys such as Alex Diaz and Doug Strange and a way-past-his-prime Vince Coleman.

The Orioles are 24-6 (a .800 winning percentage) in one-run games, which would easily be the best record in one-run games during the wild-card era (the 2003 Giants went 28-12, a .700 mark). In fact, that would be the best of any team since 1901 -- the 1981 Orioles went 21-7 (.750). Of the top 10 one-run records from 1996 to 2011, eight of the teams made the postseason.

Team of destiny? Maybe, just maybe.

Thanks to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for research help.

OriolesJoy R. Absalon/US PresswireIt's almost September, and the Orioles have plenty of practice celebrating a last out.

Zach Britton's gem O's latest surprise

August, 19, 2012

The Orioles are the team that won’t go away. For months now, they’ve been predicted to, expected to, and they have no end of excuses for why they’re supposed to be long since out of the expanded wild-card picture already. Injuries, run differential, relative anonymity plus generally underwhelming performances from most of the people you have heard of -- the Orioles are supposed to be goners.

They aren’t gone, but they might be going places. On Saturday, it was Zach Britton’s bend-don’t-break stylings that were their latest “that’s not really possible, is it?” feat. Seven shutout innings against the Tigers make for some sort of Saturday night special, not bad for the latest transient solution in Buck Showalter’s constantly fixed-up rotation.

Go by appearances alone, and it seemed like Britton had no business matching zeroes with the Tigers’ Rick Porcello, allowing nine baserunners to Porcello’s four through the first six innings. But three 6-4-3 double plays were enough to keep his head above water. Porcello had retired 11 men in a row heading into the seventh, but so what? A pair of dink singles and Chris Davis’ three-run shot later, it didn’t matter what Porcello had done beforehand or how good he looked doing it, because the O’s had a decisive lead thanks to Davis’ just-enough bit of bopping, making Britton a winner.

That in itself might be a bit of a surprise, considering that Britton’s shot at pitching this year was no sure thing in March, when shoulder surgery seemed likely. But opting for platelet-rich plasma (or PRP) treatments put him on the shorter road to rehab, and he’s been the skippable, sometime-fifth starter for a team that barely goes a week without having to change something in its rotation.

The Orioles have managed to keep the identity of their rotation’s third or fourth or fifth starter a matter of a near-weekly surprise to everyone, including themselves. Some of that has been a matter of effective roster management by general manager Dan Duquette: Early in the season, the Orioles could afford to flip the optionable Tommy Hunter back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, rostering him only when they had to. Despite that time spent shuttling back and forth, it says something about Baltimore’s lot that Hunter is now second on the team in total starts because almost everyone queued up ahead of him has broken down or pitched his way out of a job.

This yo-yo role Britton found himself in on Saturday, as he was called back up into the latest breach in the rotation after already blowing his initial call-up after the All-Star break, getting clobbered in five of six starts. In the Orioles’ ad-hoc rotation, he was back up because he was on the 40-man roster and had four days’ rest, and little else -- he was four days removed from getting chewed up by Charlotte, pitching through a split nail on his pitching hand.

Britton briefly dealt with the burden of being blown up too soon as a sign of better times to come in the spring of 2011, after he notched a quick eight quality starts in his first 10 turns as a rookie in the big-league rotation. But just like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, his success didn’t last -- Britton managed just five starts of six innings or more and three runs allowed or less in his last 18 turns in 2011, putting him well on his way toward a new entry on the Orioles’ list of mound disappointments. But like every other expectation for an Orioles setback, it seemed to merely set the stage for this latest improbable bit of heroics.

Where the rotation woes of the Yankees or the Red Sox get featured prominently, the Orioles have been scrambling all season. Only Chinese import Wei-Yin Chen has lasted the season. Chen plus Britton, Hunter, former Mariners prospect Chris Tillman and journeyman Miguel Gonzalez represent the latest front-five confection in a rotation that has already had to use 10 starters. Every day, the four non-Chens are all pitching for their jobs, because Jason Hammel is on the mend and due back in another two weeks.

Contenders aren’t supposed to start TBD in three or four rotation slots this late in the season, are they? But this comes on top of their playing TBNL in left field. Davis was briefly their answer there, but so was Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery and Steve Pearce. They’re down to a Nate McLouth-Lew Ford platoon that would be entirely plausible if we were talking about a contender -- in the International League.

All of which is part of what makes the Orioles so entertaining. As they scrape to keep pace with the Rays in the wild-card chase, it might be hard to call them the underdog, but that’s only if you keep your eyes peeled on payrolls. It’s easy to root for the Rays -- every statistically savvy smart kid goes fanboy on sabermetrics’ poster team. And they’re supposed to beat Baltimore -- they’re supposedly smarter, and stocked up on the really good players you already know, like Evan Longoria and David Price. And yet the Orioles still will not go away. Fun, ain’t it?

Mike TroutKelvin Kuo/US PresswireRyan Roberts might do a little dance, but it's Mike Trout who has a steal to celebrate.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
First base: Ohh, Baltimore. On the latest edition of SweetSpot TV, Eric Karabell and I discussed whether the Orioles should be buyers at the trade deadline. We agreed they shouldn't. Monday's game is a good example of why. Long-time prospect Chris Tillman had looked good in his season debut before the All-Star break, taking a one-hitter into the ninth against the Mariners. But that game was in Seattle so had to be taken with a cautionary optimism. Against the Twins on Monday Tillman failed to get out of the first inning, throwing 49 pitches, giving up five hits and two walks. The Twins went on to a 19-7 victory.

Look, there are two key numbers for the Orioles. The first is their 46-43 record that now has them half a game out of the wild-card lead currently shared by the Angels and Tigers. The second is their minus-55 run differential, second-worse in the AL to the Twins. The record is nice, but the run differential is a better indicator of team quality and future performance. With Jason Hammel now sidelined following knee surgery, Wei-Yin Chen is the team's only dependable starter. The offense ranks 11th in runs, 11th in OPS and 12th in OBP. Right now, it's a team with a good bullpen and not much else. And the bullpen may be starting to break due to its heavy workload. Hold on to your prospects, Orioles. Your future is not 2012.

Second base: Halladay returns. Roy Halladay returns from his shoulder injury to start for the first time since May 27. Halladay's average velocity on his fastball, sinker and cutter was down from 91.1 mph in 2011 to 89.4 before he was shut down, so that's one thing to watch tonight. Hitters had also been more successful attacking the cutter. After batting .206 against it in 2011, they are hitting .277 against it 2012. This is reflected in how right-handers were having more success against him as seen in this heat map:

HalladayESPN Stats & InformationRight-handed batters had been more effective against Halladay in 2012.

Halladay takes on Dodgers rookie Stephen Fife, who will be making his major league debut. Fife is a 25-year-old right-hander, a third-round pick in 2008. His numbers at Albuquerque aren't inspiring (4.53 ERA), 66 strikeouts in 97.1 innings, but that's a tough place to pitch. He allowed just five home runs, so if he keeps the ball down maybe he can keep the Dodgers in the game.

Third base: #Yosted. I asked on Twitter why Salvador Perez was batting ninth for the Royals when the Mariners were starting lefty Jason Vargas. Since returning on June 22, Perez had been hitting .373/.383/.644. In limited time a year ago, he hit .484 against left-handers. You can make the case he's the Royals' best hitter against left-handed pitchers. Anyway, I got a bunch of feedback like "you must be new here" and "#boomyosted." As it turns it, Ned Yost actually explained his lineup in this notebook item from the Kansas City Star. It's a gem, including "I don’t want to hit Sal ninth, but I don’t have any other spot to hit him at this moment." Go, Royals.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. The Cardinals scored three runs in the ninth off Brewers closer John Axford to win 3-2 (leading Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to say Axford may lose his job as closer). How big was the win for St. Louis?
The second half of the baseball season is upon us, and while a weekend game in July still counts the same as one in April, the stakes are clearly becoming greater now. More than half the games are done. Pennant races are getting intense. The pending trade deadline will also shake things up. So, let’s start a new Friday SweetSpot blog entry where we preview the upcoming weekend and note interesting things to watch for!

1. There are more than five series in which each team is a legitimate playoff contender, but the most interesting one to me is Bobby Valentine’s Boston Red Sox heading to Tampa Bay. The Red Sox have managed to overcome a mess of issues on and off the field to win more than they’ve lost. Outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are nearly back from injury. However, the team collapsed last September because of the pitching, and this weekend Franklin Morales, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett are scheduled to start. Would it surprise you if any or all of them threw seven innings of shutout ball or was pounded for seven runs in three innings? Nope, wouldn’t surprise me, either. I’m certain Joe Maddon feels better about his trio of Jeremy Hellickson, David Price and James Shields, but his Rays can’t match the Red Sox offensively. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Sox and Rays eventually met for a one-game playoff ...

2. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies might have already run out of time to turn things around, but it’s a compelling team to watch because of the potential trade options (Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence) and the hobbling older gentlemen trying to spark the offense (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard). Naturally, the Phillies open the second half at Coors Field, a cruel joke for a team 29th in baseball in relief ERA (only the New York Mets are worse). Don’t be shocked if Hamels gets bumped from Sunday’s outing because he’s scheduled to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers the next day against the very same Phillies. Or he could be signed to a new five-year contract extension by the Phils for $120 million by then.

3. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball features the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Hmmm, haven’t these teams had some issues getting along in the past few seasons? Weren’t a few Reds displeased to be left out of the All-Star Game by the former Cardinals manager? Yes, I believe that’s the case! Right-hander Johnny Cueto brings a fancy 2.39 ERA and chip on his shoulder into the Sunday night outing against right-hander Jake Westbrook, but let’s look past the hostility and perceived slights and remember each team is good enough to represent the NL in October and host, ahem, Game 7 in the Fall Classic.

Three stats to watch:

8.38 ERA, 2.27 WHIP: Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish is 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA. However, in two outings against the lowly Seattle Mariners (Saturday’s foe), he’s allowed 10 runs (nine earned) in 9 2/3 innings, with 12 hits, 10 walks and 10 strikeouts.

6.75 ERA, 1.81 WHIP: Manager Ozzie Guillen says he’s going by committee in the ninth, rather than rely solely on right-hander Heath Bell and his brutal stats, which is fine until he changes his mind. It’s not like Ozzie has a veteran like Matt Thornton looming to go to. Keep an eye on Steve Cishek, but Bell will get another chance.

0.00 ERA, 0.48 WHIP: Baltimore Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman has made only one start, beating the Mariners (but was throwing harder after changing his pitching mechanics, now coming more over the top). If his team is going to stay in the race it'll need better starting pitching than provided in June (5.45 ERA). Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Tillman are scheduled to face the Detroit Tigers.

Enjoy your weekend!
Matt WietersJor R. Absalon/US PresswireMatt Wieters made his first All-Star appearance in 2011. Now, about the rest of the O's ...
Back in 1997, the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs for the second straight season, winning 98 games and the AL East title. They led the American League in attendance and outdrew the Yankees -- who were coming off their first World Series title since 1978 -- by more than 1.1 million fans.

It was an old team. But they re-signed Brady Anderson and Harold Baines as free agents. They signed Joe Carter and Doug Drabek. The '98 Orioles had the highest payroll in the majors, the last team before the Yankees to hold that honor. Every regular in the starting nine was 30 or older. Predictably, things fell apart. Anderson hit .236. Carter was awful. Cal Ripken was old. Drabek went 6-11 with a 7.29 ERA. The Orioles plunged to 79-83, the farm system was essentially in shambles and they haven't been over .500 since.

In recent seasons, the Orioles were finally starting to develop some young players. Nick Markakis reached the majors in 2006 and hit .291 as a rookie. The next season, he hit .300 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs as a 23-year-old. Before the 2008 season, the Orioles acquired center fielder Adam Jones and pitching prospect Chris Tillman from the Mariners for Erik Bedard. Meanwhile, that summer 2007 No. 1 pick Matt Wieters was tearing up the minors, hitting .355 with power and walks. In June, Brian Matusz was the fourth overall selection in the draft. He'd reach the majors a year later.

That was going to be the foundation: Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Tillman and Matusz. Throw in veterans like Brian Roberts and Jeremy Guthrie and the Orioles looked strong up the middle with a potentially solid rotation. Instead, the team has now lost 90-plus games six seasons in a row. Managers have come and gone. Attendance ranked 11th in the AL in 2011. New general manager Dan Duquette must rebuild in a lethal AL East.

But does he even have core to build around? Let's take a quick look at those five guys.

Nick Markakis: After his strong age-23 showing, he looked like a future star. His OPS+ was 121. Since 1980, other age-23 outfielders who posted an OPS+ in the range of 115 to 130 include Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson, Harold Baines, Rafael Palmeiro, Andruw Jones and Carl Crawford, to name a few. But Markakis didn't improve much. In 2009, his walk rate plummeted from 14.2 percent to 7.9 percent. One blog did a five-part series trying to analyze what happened. In 2011, at age 27, often a player's peak season, Markakis slugged a career-low .406. In January, he underwent surgery to repair abdominal muscles. He's still a good player who never misses a game; he just didn't turn into that 30-homer, 100-walk monster to anchor a lineup.

Matt Wieters: After tearing up the minors, Wieters was everyone's No. 1 prospect for 2009, a cross between Johnny Bench and Joe Mauer. Wieters has developed into one of the better catchers in the game and at 26 may yet improve with the bat. But based on his .262/.328/.450 line of 2011, Wieters appears to be more of a complementary hitter on a playoff team (albeit very valuable production for a catcher).

Chris Tillman: A tall, projectable Class A pitcher when the Orioles acquired him, he shot onto the prospect radar after a strong showing in Double-A in 2008 (154 strikeouts in 135.2 innings). But it hasn't clicked at the major league level (5.58 ERA in 36 starts). He's not 24 until April and still on the 40-man roster, but running out of chances.

Brian Matusz: He looked like a rotation after a strong rookie season in 2010 that included a 2.18 ERA over his final 11 starts. He had a nightmarish season in 2011, so awful I don't even want to print the numbers for fear of giving you night sweats. He had a strained intercostal muscle in spring training and his velocity was down after returning. Maybe it was the injury, maybe it was an odd mental block. Roy Halladay had such a season early in his career and turned out pretty good. But we have no idea what to expect from Matusz moving forward.

Adam Jones: In his ESPN Insider piece Insider comparing Yoenis Cespedes to other young center fielders, Kevin Goldstein wrote, "Jones' 2011 campaign generated considerable buzz in the industry. 'He's just starting to take steps forward,' said an American League scout.'" Really? He posted a .785 OPS; in 2009, he posted a .792 OPS. His walk rate was 4.5 percent as a rookie in 2008; it was 4.7 percent last year. His extra-base hit percentage was basically the same as its always been. Defensively, he rates from subjective "highlight-reel spectacular" to more objective "the defensive metrics don't think he's all that." I'm not a scout, but statistically, he's been the same player for three years. Regardless, here's the bottom line: A guy with a .319 on-base percentage cannot be the centerpiece of your lineup.

So where does all leave this Duquette?

Maybe I've been a little cruel to the guys above; don't get me wrong, there are a lot of positives in that group. I just don't think Wieters, Jones and Markakis are going to be the three best players on Baltimore's next playoff team. Jones, in particular, is a risky bet: He has two years left until free agency, so Duquette will have to make a decision on signing him to a long-term contract. (Read more about Jones' future here from Camden Depot's Jon Shepherd.) The Orioles aren't saddled with too many bad contracts, so that's another positive: Markakis is signed through 2014 for $43 million -- not a bargain but not a team-killer; Roberts still has two years at $10 million per year; shortstop J.J. Hardy is signed for three more years at a reasonable $7.4 million per season.

While Duquette will place a bigger emphasis on international scouting (where the Orioles have lagged behind for years), they do have two prime prospects already in pitcher Dylan Bundy and shortstop Manny Machado, two of the top 10 or 15 prospects in baseball. I suspect that on the next Orioles playoff team those two will have to be the best players. A top three of Bundy, Machado and Wieters with second-line players like Markakis, Jones, Matusz and Zach Britton is a good starting point.

Now Duquette just has to figure out the rest.
Buck Showalter's arrival as Orioles manager last season was a booster shot of competence for a franchise that had been allowed to deteriorate for far too long, a sense that the organization and its place in the game mattered again. There were several dramatic walk-off wins and a 34-23 finish to the year. Now at 30-33 this season, the team has reached that point in the discussion that goes, "The Orioles are on the upswing. Yes, but ... they have a long way to go." The key is the attentive cultivation of a young pitching staff and Showalter knows harvest time is still a ways off.

"These guys are sharing a lot of the first-time things together," he told me. "They come with different backgrounds and different makeups, they're not all robots. The AL East is relentless, it's a tough place to develop young pitching but I'll tell you one thing: If they get through it they'll be as mentally tough as anyone. We'll have some good and bad while we get some seed on the ground."

[+] EnlargeBrian Matusz
Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireBrian Matusz was dominant in his last eight starts of 2010, but he's been hampered by injuries this year.
An immediate concern is 24-year-old Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. In his final eight starts last season, Matusz went 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA and allowed just 29 hits in 46 innings. However, Matusz missed the first two months of this season with a painful intercostal strain in his rib area and retired only four batters in Sunday's 9-6 loss to Tampa Bay, allowing four runs and five hits while walking four. In three starts since his return from the DL, Matusz's WHIP is 1.78.

The biggest issue is a dramatic dip in Matusz's velocity. Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run on an 86-mph fastball. Matusz's fastball Sunday was consistently between 85 and 87 mph and never higher than 89 mph. Matusz insisted after the game that he's 100 percent healthy. Both Damon and Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters that Matusz isn't throwing as hard as he has in the past, with Maddon adding that he thinks Matusz isn't fully healthy.

"He's basically just starting out in spring training," Showalter said. "He's not where he's going to be. He came out of camp as our second starter and the challenge was not to rush him back."

Zach Britton, a 23-year-old lefty, was too impressive this spring to leave behind and by May 1, Britton was 5-1, 2.63. In seven starts since, however, Britton is 1-3, 3.65 and with 82 innings already worked toward a cap of approximately 180, the Orioles will skip Britton's scheduled start on Tuesday in an effort to slow his workload so he's available to pitch in September, a step the organization will likely take several more times. "I had a talk with him after his last start," Showalter said. "I told him, 'I know you'd like to go 25-0 but it's not going to happen. A guy with 30 or 35 starts may go out there with all his bullets only 10 times a year. It's those other 20 starts when you learn to pitch in the big leagues. What are you going to do to defend yourself and keep us in the game?' That's the reason you love the kid, he expects perfection."

[+] EnlargeJake Arrieta
Kim Klement/US PresswireJake Arrieta has gotten off to an 8-3 start this season.
A bright spot has been 25-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta. In Friday's 7-0 win over Tampa Bay, Arrieta threw 72 of his 98 pitches in the outer third of the strike zone or further outside, the highest percentage of his career. Sixty of his 71 pitches to left-handed hitters were away as lefties went 1-for-12 against him. It was a clear sign of progress. "Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be," Showalter said. "A pitching coach can't make a visit after every hitter or two so they have to understand and figure out by themselves out there what's going on."

There are no shortage of young rotation candidates and the Orioles are making sure the list keeps growing. Brad Bergesen, 25, and Chris Tillman, 23, struggled and were sent to Triple-A Norfolk, where Bergesen is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA. In last week's amateur draft, Baltimore used 15 of its first 30 selections on pitchers, including seven of its first 10 picks. Showalter explained the organizational philosophy this way: "Very few teams can sign a No. 1 starter or trade for a No. 1 starter. We have to grow and develop our own. That's why most of our picks were pitchers. Once you have pitchers you can always go out and get bats."

The Orioles used the fourth overall pick to take the first prep player selected, Dylan Bundy, a high school pitcher from Oklahoma whose father built a baseball field in the family backyard. As a senior, Bundy went 11-0 with 158 strikeouts and only five walks in 71 innings. "We can't draft a safe college pitcher," Showalter said. "We have to take the guy who has the best chance to get to the front of our rotation. Try as you may, you can't screw up the good ones. We think he has as much upside as anybody in the draft. We have to out-evaluate and out-work. You have to trust your evaluations and we like where we are in the process."

Yes, the Orioles are on the upswing but they have a long way to go.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Top five reasons why Thursday's Baseball Today podcast , hosted by myself and the energetic Mark Simon, is a can't-miss:

1. The played some of a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, but it didn't count. But stuff did happen! Which players should be happy ... and sad?

2. Not a bad season debut for Chicago White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy. We discuss some of the players we're rooting for, including Peavy.

3. Which current pitcher would be the best at darts? OK, I'm serious. Simon's got the answer.

4. Eric Hosmer wasn't the only impressive Kansas City Royals player at Yankee Stadium Wednesday, and the Yankees did something they had never done in their history in that game.

5. Who are the best hitters on fastballs of varying speeds ... some interesting names top the list.

Also: Excellent emails, discussing sample sizes and closers getting wins; Simon says Bill Gallo impacted his youth; we discuss shortstop defense, a very famous Yankee turns 86 and the immortal Kenny Greer, all on Thursday's Baseball Today!
Eric Karabell and Keith Law joined forces on Thursday's Baseball Today pod. Be sure to check it out ...
  • Are the Mets better than we think? Keith says not with that pitching.
  • Jeremy Hellickson's first start was solid, but Tampa lost again. So did Boston. When is it no longer a fluke?
  • Is Alex Gordon for real?
  • Ubaldo Jimenez goes on the DL.
  • Which MLB pitchers have four elite pitches?
  • You won't believe who the No. 1 player in fantasy is right now.
  • Thoughts on Scott Kazmir's decline, the four-man rotation, what happened in 1990, discussion of middle relief and Chris Tillman.