There weren't too many, if any prognosticators, who picked the Baltimore Orioles to win the American League East. But the last two-and-a-half months of the season, they have been far and away the best team in the division, if not the entire American League, and have built the largest division lead of any team in baseball at 14 games over the New York Yankees.
The O's aren't really an overnight success. Buck Showalter took over as manager about two-thirds of the way through the 2010 season replacing the fired Dave Trembley. They showed signs of a turnaround going 34-24 under their new skipper, but the next year, 2011, they tumbled to a 69-93 mark and were starting to look like a team trapped in its own mediocrity.
Enter Dan Duquette who was hired in early November of 2011 to take over as general manager. Buck Showalter was actually part of the committee that chose him. But Duquette wasn't necessarily their first choice. Toronto Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava reportedly turned them down and three other current general managers, Andrew Friedman (Tampa Bay Rays)
Jerry DiPoto (Los Angeles Angels) and Rick Hahn (Chicago White Sox) were at least approached. All were said to question
the commitment to spending what it took to win of the sometimes tempestuous owner, Peter Angelos.
Under the Duquette-Showalter combo, the Orioles made a 24-game improvement from 2011 to 2012, finishing that 2012 season at 93-69 and earning a Wild Card berth to end a string of 14-straight losing season. There was a bit of a slip back in 2013 to 85-77 and the team missed the playoffs. Then came the big breakthrough this year with 92 wins, and still 10 games to go, and the second-highest victory total in the MLB to the Angels' 95.
So, how was this team put together? Well, let's stress off the top that a number of key pieces were in place before Duquette and Showalter even arrived, but the Orioles have crafted meticulously with a combination of top draft picks, sharp trades, international signings and even Rule 5 draft picks.
The O's, at my count, have five of their own first-round picks either on their roster or on the DL right now, including
right-hander Kevin Gausman (fourth overall in 2012,) lefty reliever Brian Matusz (the fourth-overall pick in 2008,) long-time right fielder Nick Markakis (seventh overall in 2003,) injured third baseman Manny Machado (third overall in 2010) and catcher Matt Wieters (the fifth-overall pick in 2007), who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. That's quality drafting, but expected of a team that finished so low in the standings for so long.
They also have former first-round picks aquired from other organizations, such as utility man Kelly Johnson, infielder Ryan Flaherty and journeyman outfielder Delmon Young, who went first overall to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2003
On the international front, the O's signed 22-year-old second baseman Jonathan Schoop out of Curacao as a free agent in 2008. They landed right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, who was pitching in Mexico, in March of 2012 as a free agent. Then, the best international signing of the bunch, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, a 16-game-winner this season, who came over Taiwan later in 2012.
Reliever T.J. McFarland was a Rule 5 draft pick-up from the Cleveland Indians in 2012 and the aforementioned Flaherty was a Rule 5 claim from the Cubs in 2011. Steve Pearce, who destroyed the Blue Jays in two games this week, was a waiver claim from the New York Yankees in 2012.
Relievers Evan Meek and Ryan Webb were both unsung free agent pick-ups over the past two off-seasons.
Then, there are the key trades. In February of 2008, the O's shipped Canadian-born lefty Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners for a package of five players, that included Adam Jones, who's blossomed into a star centrefielder, and right-hander Chris Tillman, who's done a stellar job in the Orioles' rotation this year. That deal was a steal and easily one of the worst in Mariners' history.
Last year at the July 31st deadline, they picked up right-hander Bud Norris from the Houston Astros for two prospects and a competitive balance draft pick. Norris, who looked like a back of the rotation pitcher with the Astros, has won 14 this season at Baltimore.
Then there was this one - in late July 2011, the O's sent lefty closer Koji Uehara to the Texas Rangers for now suspended
slugger Chris Davis and reliever and sometimes closer Tommy Hunter. There have been other lesser deals including picking up outfielders David Lough and Alejandro De Aza and reliever Brad Brach and then things like having a third-round draft pick from 2006, Zach Britton, turn into a top-notch closer this season.
Finally, we come to the two big free agents signing the O's made back in the spring. Sure, signing veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (5-9) looks like a horrible decision now, but Baltimore more than made up for that by signing OF/DH Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million pact. He should be right in the running with the Angels' Mike Trout for the American League MVP.
When you boil all of this down and throw in that Showalter wins wherever he goes and Duquette's teams
have made the post-season five of the 11 years, maybe we shouldn't be asking why the Orioles won the East. But why not? Showalter is a solid choice for American League Manager of the Year for a third time and Duquette could well be Executive of the Year, an award he also won in 1992 with the Montreal Expos and in 1995 with the Boston Red Sox.
- The Angels have to be holding their breath over the condition of rookie right-hander Matt Shoemaker. He has an oblique strain and having already lost righty Garrett Richards for the season, losing Shoemaker could seriously damage their World Series hopes. Interesting that the plug in guy in the rotation right now for skipper Mike Scioscia is Colby Rasmus's brother, Cory.
- The other night, the Kansas City Royals played the longest nine-inning game in franchise history at four hours and 16 minutes, losing 7-5 to the White Sox, ut the amazing thing about that game was two of KC's flame-throwing relievers, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, both had lengthy scoreless innings streaks broken.
Herrera had gone 31 innings without giving up a run and Davis was at 31-2/3 innings. That bullpen, anchored by closer Greg Holland, is a big part of the reason why the Royals are now holding the first Wild Card slot in the American League, a half-game up on the crumbling Oakland A's. The Royals, of course, have the longest post-season drought in the MLB, not having made it since they beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Ser