2015 Baltimore Orioles: Are they the best of a bad lot?

Wally Bunker

Wally Bunker was a big-leaguer by age 18, a 19-game winner by 19, a world champion at 21 and retired by 27. Like some of his pitches, it all happened pretty fast. Bunker became an Oriole after just 99 innings — he pitched more in the minors on the way out. As a rookie in 1964 he had his best season, winning 19 games (19-5) with a 2.69 ERA, 161 hits allowed in 214 innings and a .595 OPS against. He was second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting — his lone vote deprived Tony Oliva of being a unanimous pick — and 12th in the MVP voting (Oliva was fourth) with 23 points. Bunker was so popular that, according to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin “proclaimed the Memorial Stadium mound ‘Baltimore’s Bunker Hill’ and christened it with a handful of earth from the real site in Boston.” Bunker won 10 games in each of the next two seasons, as the Orioles won the AL pennant in 1966. At age 21, he started Game 3 of the World Series and blanked the Dodgers 1-0 on six hits, fanning six, backed by Paul Blair’s home run. It was part of a stretch of 33.1 innings in which the Orioles shut out the Dodgers, sweeping the Series. Injuries plagued Bunker, limiting him to 19 starts over the next two seasons (he had a 2.41 ERA in 71 innings in ’68), and he was drafted by the expansion Kansas City Royals. Bunker started the Royals’ first game (Lou Piniella led off and played center field; perhaps it’s a good thing Bunker was a ground-ball pitcher), which another Orioles ’66 Series hero, Moe Drabowsky, won in 12 innings. Bunker was the Royals’ best pitcher in their first season, going 12-11 with a 3.23 ERA in a staff-high 222.2 innings (Drabowsky was 11-9 with 11 saves in 98 innings out of the pen). Bunker was 2-11 in 1970, and 2-3 with a 5.01 ERA in seven games in ’71. Career numbers: 60-52, 3.51 ERA, 206 games, 34 complete games, five shutouts, five saves, 1085.1 innings, 976 hits, 569 strikeouts, 100 ERA+, .680 OPS against, 7.5 WAR.

On deck: The Orioles didn’t have a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, and whoever it might have been should feel lucky. The Orioles have drafted well, but not fortunately. Their 2012 first-rounder Dylan Bundy had Tommy Johnn surgery and hasn’t pitched well since, his ERA hitting 4.78 in Class A last year. The Orioles sent him back to the minors after a rugged spring training in which Bundy apparently lacked control and finesse. Whether it’s the surgery or unrealistic expectations, Bundy is looking more and more like a fantasy that’s never going to match the reality. Hunter Harvey, the Orioles’ 2013 first-round pick, last summer was where Bundy was three years ago — overwhelming Class A hitters. He fanned 106 in 87.2 innings, making 17 starts, and earned time in spring training this year, where he looked better than Bundy. Harvey fanned four and allowed just one hit in three innings. Then he took a ground ball off his leg, which broke it, and he’s out for up to six weeks.

Trivia: The Orioles once had four 20-game winners in the same season in 1971. Who was the last Oriole pitcher to win 20 games? Answer below.

What he said: Orioles manager Buck Showalter on Pat Connaughton, the team’s fourth-round 2014 draft pick who has led Notre Dame’s basketball team to the final eight: “I want to see (Connaughton) get eliminated as soon as possible. I’m just being frank. Not in a bad way. That’s how I feel, looking at everything from the Orioles angle.” What he meant: “Way to use your timeouts, Coach.”

Outlook: You wouldn’t think a team that starts Caleb Joseph (.618 OPS), Jonathan Schoop (.598, 13 walks, 122 strikeouts) and Ubaldo Jimenez (.737 OP against, 77 walks in 125.1 innings) could win a division title. You also wouldn’t think they’d try to do it again.

And yet here the Orioles are, starting Schoop, starting Joseph while Matt Wieters heals, apparently moving Kevin Gausman out of the rotation to make room for Jimenez, if not his $50 million contract. If it worked one season, the Orioles believe, it can work again.

Last year’s Orioles hit 211 home runs — 16 by Schoop and nine by Joseph — and won 96 games (six by Jimenez), most in 17 years. This year’s Orioles are a lot like last year’s, only, they hope, healthier. Without Nelson Cruz and his 40 home runs, they’d better be.

Last year’s division title seems a testament to manager Buck Showalter, who was manager of the year for the third time, and who has managed teams to 98 more regular-season wins than losses. Unfortunately, so does the postseason, where the Orioles were swept by the Royals. It’s the fourth time Showalter’s team lost in five playoff series, and the third time his had the better record (though the ’95 Yankees were just percentage points better than the Mariners).

You manage too well in the regular season and people expect more in the postseason.

It might be that Showalter had extracted every last win he could from last year’s team, which by October had lost Wieters (elbow) and Manny Machado (knee) to injuries and Chris Davis to PED suspension. Put them in the lineup instead of Joseph, Ryan Flaherty and David Lough, and maybe the Royals’ bullpen isn’t as dominant.

It could be that Showalter is to managers what the Oakland Athletics are to MLB teams — blessed from April to September and cursed in October.

Or it could be that the 2014 Orioles were a product of their environment. Three of the Orioles’ four AL East rivals regressed by 42 games, and only the Blue Jays improved, if mostly because they won just 74 games in 2013. Last year was the first time in the wild-card era that neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox were in the playoffs, and even the Rays, who had won 90 games or more in five of the six previous seasons, had their first losing one since 2007.

The Orioles were certainly good in 2014, but their competition wasn’t.

That’s not a long-term strategy, but it might be for the short-term: the Orioles seem to be depending on it again for 2015. Their starting pitching is competent but not dominant, their bullpen good but not as good as the Royals. Their lineup, when Machado and Wieters are both back, is above average and can hit homers and play defense, but it’s top heavy and the corner outfielders might be Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider, perhaps with a platoon of Delmon Young. That’s a whole lot of Nick Markakis by other names.

The AL East used to be the super conference of MLB. Now it’s a mid-major, and instead of scheduling the cupcakes, its teams might be the cupcakes.

The Orioles were good enough to win the division convincingly last year. They’ll be fortunate if they can win it at all this year.

Trivia answer: The last Oriole pitcher to win 20 games was Mike Boddicker (20-11) in 1984. No Oriole has won more than 16 since Mike Mussina won 18 in 1999. Mussina won 19 in 1996 and 1995 — the latter season was cut to 144 games because of labor issues. Mussina was also 16-5 after 112 games in ’94 when a strike ended the season. The only pitcher other than Mussina to win more than 16 games since Boddicker was Jeff Ballard, who won 18 in 1989.

Team song: Louis Armstrong: I’ve Got The World On A String

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