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The Quest for 81: Bad Bounces in Birdland

Coming into this year, things were looking up for the Baltimore Orioles. With a young pitching staff that had shown signs of maturing over the second half of the 2010 season and a lineup boosted by free agent veterans like Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, it wasn’t inconceivable that the Orioles could shoot to break .500 for the first time since 1997. While they were still stuck in the challenge AL East, the O’s made it clear this off season that they’re no longer a team to gloss over — competing for the playoffs was still a few years away, but they could still serve as spoilers and make other teams fight for the wins.

Well, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. The Orioles entered today with a 32-37 record and a -42 run differential, sitting 2.5 games behind the fourth-place Blue Jays — who, by the way, are currently at .500. While that’s far from a horrible place to be, just about everything that could go wrong for the O’s this year has gone wrong.

I mean, just look at this list of misfortunes:

• Free agent acquisitions Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero have both looked like they are on the last legs of their career. Guerrero’s walk rate has shrunk its lowest ever rate (2.6%), while Derrek Lee’s power has all but disappeared in the AL (.105 ISO). The two of them are being paid a combined $15 million, but have so far combined for only 0.1 WAR. At least they’re only one year rentals, right?

Brian Roberts, who was supposed to come back from an injury-riddled 2010 season and be a catalyst for the O’s offense at the top of the order, has only played in 39 games so far this year. He’s been on the DL for a couple weeks now with post-concussions symptoms, and there’s still no set timetable for his return. And when he’s played, he’s only managed a .276 wOBA.

Nick Markakis has continued his decline into mediocrity, flashing a horrible .292 wOBA while only managing 11 extra base hits on the year. Even if he never lived up to the promise he displayed when he was given his 6 years, $66 million contract, he was still 17% above average at the plate last season. This year? He’s been 21% below average.

Brian Matusz was supposed to be their emerging staff ace, but he’s suffered through some injuries this season and has only managed to pitch 17 innings so far. And during those innings, he’s struggled with his command and has allowed four homeruns while walking 9 and striking out 11.

• The bullpen was supposed to be one of their team strengths this season with the additions of Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo, but both those pitchers have posted FIPs in the high 4s. Mike Gonzalez has returned from his injuries last season, but he’s still had a longball problem, allowing seven homeruns in just 23 innings. What, you mean to tell me relief pitchers are difficult to predict? Never!

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s been an overall rather disappointing year for the O’s so far this season. But if you consider the amount of bad luck they have had, it’s pretty impressive that they’ve still managed to fall only four games short of .500. If a few players regress from their starts and things start to come together for them, they could easily finish the year over .500 and give their fans a fun season.

Of course, some things have gone well for the O’s. Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta have both emerged as legitimate major league starters — with Arrieta showing some much-needed improvements in his strikeout rate this year — and J.J. Hardy has been one of the O’s most productive shortstops in recent memory (1.5 WAR, .233 ISO). Matt Wieters has increased his power and average from last season, and although he still hasn’t lived up to expectations, his production is great to get out of the catching position.

But what good is a .500 record if there isn’t much hope of taking that a step further next year? If I were an O’s fan, I’d be keeping my eye firmly placed on how Matusz, Britton, and Arrieta perform going forward. Pitching will take a team far, and a large portion of their franchise’s future depends on how these young pitchers continue to develop.

In Birdland, the Quest for .500 continues. For their sake, let’s hope the charge is led by their pitching staff.