(EDIT: You can see the full five parts of the project here.)
1. What’s the Orioles’ ceiling in 2012? What has to go right to win the division?
I guess theoretically, their ceiling could be winning the division. It might require strategically placed meteors to the Bronx, Boston, and St. Petersburg, though. Realistically, the Orioles ceiling is probably just a winning record, something like 86 wins at the very best. And even then, it would take a lot to get that far. Brian Matusz is going to have to regain his fastball and improve off of his horrendous 10.69 ERA from last year. Matusz, Chris Tillman, and and Jake Arrieta are going to have to show the skills that they showed in the minor leagues. Zach Britton will have to improve on his strong rookie season (2.5 fWAR as a 23 year old). Some combination of Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Wei-Ying Chen will have to pleasantly surprise. And that’s just the rotation.
I don’t really see the bullpen as too much of an issue, as I don’t expect the Orioles to have too many leads. Ideally, someone will take Kevin Gregg though.
The line-up could be fairly solid. Nick Markakis will ideally regain the form that saw him put up 6.3 fWAR in 2008. Adam Jones will learn some patience and have a break out season. J.J. Hardy plays like he did last season, but doesn’t get injured. Matt Wieters continues to improve off of last year’s All Star season and becomes one of the game's best catchers. Mark Reynolds moves to first base (or DH) and continues to hit while not giving back every run in the field. Brian Roberts returns successfully from his concussion, possibly generating some trade interest. Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold prove to be above-average regulars. Really, the line-up is less of a worry than the rotation, as there at least seems to be more potential (or at least, more certain potential, if that makes sense).
On the farm system front, Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado continue to make strides in their development, the new front office has a highly successful draft, and several prospects are brought in by trading away any veterans that won’t be able to help the next time the Orioles are contending.
If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But if even a majority of these things go right, I’m not sure it will be enough to be a winning record. That won’t mean the season isn’t a success though.
2. What’s the team floor for this season? What has to go wrong for the Orioles to miss the playoffs?
Worst case scenario, the Orioles have an Orioles-type season, I suppose. They draft poorly, neglect their farm system, all potential goes unfulfilled, players get hurt, they hold onto players at the peak of their trade value for no adequately explained reason (coughLukeScottcough). But, I mean, if I expect that, is it really a worst case scenario?
Okay, how about this? Matt Wieters retires to become a hermit, Mark Reynolds decides to double down and field with a frying pan all while being inexplicably kept at third base, J.J. Hardy breaks his everything and misses the rest of all-time, Brian Matusz somehow does worse in the ERA department, Dylan Bundy accidentally murders Manny Machado (or vice versa), the Orioles get kicked out of Korea (oops), Kevin Gregg continues to pitch for the team; I could go on and on.
3. How do I see the division playing out? Is there a team that I’m afraid of?
Well, the second one is easy. I’m terrified of the Orioles taking down the Orioles. That is not a typo.
I obviously expect the Orioles to finish last in the division, if you couldn’t tell. I expect the Blue Jays to finish fourth more out of habit. I don’t think they have enough right now to challenge the Big Three, but I see them as a dark horse. If enough goes right, they could make a run.
I expect the top of the division to be the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in some order. The Rays, as of right now, are the one I see as weakest, but the also have the most upside with all of their young talent. Big years from Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, and Jeremy Hellickson could make them even more formidable than last year. I think the Red Sox are, on paper, the second best team in the league. Injuries could hold them down like last year, but I think that was more of a fluke than anything else. That obviously leaves the Yankees in first, although they’re sort of the anti-Blue Jays. A lot could go wrong, and a lot of players could suddenly age very hard, but the safest assumption is to not predict an extreme scenario. Also, I expect those three teams to account for three of the (now five) playoff spots. Yep, it should be an exciting year at the top of the AL East. Here’s hoping the Orioles can join in the fight soon.