Digging Deep

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Orioles make only two moves this winter for pitchers.  Let’s say they pick up Luis Ayala’s option (a near certainty) and resign Joe Saunders (a very likely possibility).  It seems likely that the organization will also seek a reliever or two but let’s leave the pitching moves to just those two for right now.  Here is what the pitching depth chart might look like.

Major League Starting Rotation

Jason Hammel (R)

Wei-Yin Chen (L)

Miguel Gonzalez (R)

Chris Tillman (R)

Joe Saunders (L)

Major League Bullpen

Jim Johnson (R)

Darren O’Day (R)

Pedro Strop (R)

Luis Ayala (R)

Troy Patton (L)

Brian Matusz (L)

Tommy Hunter (R)

Norfolk (AAA) Starting Rotation

Zach Britton (L)

Jake Arrieta (R)

Steve Johnson (R)

Dylan Bundy (R)

Disabled List

Tsuyoshi Wada (L)

Talk about depth!  At Norfolk the O’s could theoretically have a 27 year-old and two 25 year olds with varying Major League successes already under their belt in the starting rotation.  Not to mention a 20 year-old uber prospect in Bundy.  When Wada is ready, he will most certainly rehab in Norfolk and could even be left down their longer as necessary, as he does have minor league options remaining.  If the O’s secured another reliever to allow Matusz to start in Norfolk, then . . . well, you get the idea.  The pitching depth is pretty good right now and could be increased even more by a couple of other moves this winter.

The 2012 season served as a lesson – or at least it should have – on the importance of depth within an organization.  If every team stayed healthy and performed to their expected level each season, our predictions in March would match up with the standings at the end of September nearly every time.  The reality is that players do get hurt and players do under-perform expectations.  When these things happen, teams have to reach down deep for replacements – journey men are signed, career minor leaguers are called up, unfinished prospects are rushed to the majors, or the organization simply sticks with the under-performing player because they have no other options.  That is what we expect to happen.  Teams that have 110-win potential on paper can whether these storms and still win 95-100 games.  Teams built to win 90 games on paper might find themselves with a sub-.500 record after replacing injured and under-performing players.

By and large, the Orioles managed to sidestep this problem during the 2012 season.  In fact, one could argue that the opposite happened!  The replacements – in some cases – performed better than we might have expected the players they were replacing to perform (see: Gonzalez, Miguel).  Hunter, Matusz, and Arrieta are ineffective?  No problem, the O’s will just replace them with Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Joe Saunders, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, and Randy Wolfe to solid (and sometimes great) results.  Nick Markakis breaks his thumb and Nate McLouth steps right in as the leadoff hitter.  Mark Reynolds moves to first base and Wilson Betemit gets injured so the Birds just call up Manny Machado to play a great defensive third base and provide solid offensive production.  It was all about depth.  The O’s were able to weather storms by replacing players with players of equal or greater production.

Some would argue that is no way to build a team.  On some level, I agree with that statement.  In a perfect world, it makes sense to find 25 players that are so good that even when a few eventually under-perform or suffer injuries, the rest of the team is good enough to pick up the slack.  It is much harder – much more cumbersome certainly – to find 25 players and then 27 additional backups that can step in as needed.  If an organization can make that work, however, then why not?

I understand that there were far more factors to the Orioles winning 93 games during the 2012 season than having a treasure drove of player depth.  It was a big and very significant contributing factor nonetheless.  Based on the comments from Dan Duquette, there is a very good chance that the Orioles head to Sarasota in February with largely the same cast of characters that comprised the 2012 squad.  If that team is going to repeat the successes of the 2012 team, then either a lot will have to go according to plan or more likely, the O’s will have to once again lean heavily on their depth.  At least from the pitching side, they seem to be have a good base to be able to do just that.