Orioles Win the American League East, Now What?

On Tuesday night, the Orioles secured the top spot in the American League East for the first time since 1997, ensuring their place in the 2014 playoffs. They did so by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2 in front of a raucous (if not quite sell-out) crowd in Baltimore. Ubaldo Jimenez (he of the 4.90 ERA and 14.0% BB rate) picked up the win, throwing 5 innings, giving up only 2 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 6 batters. Of course he also walked 4 batters, which Orioles fans have come to expect when Jimenez takes the mound. The night itself seemed to sum up the 2014 Orioles well, as not only did they get an unexpectedly good (ok, not good, but decent) performance from Jimenez, but all 8 runs were driven in by players who weren’t expected to make a significant impact this year, and some who have only been on the team for a couple of weeks. Jimmy Paredes and Nick Hundley each drove in a run, while Alejandro De Aza and un-sung hero Steve Pearce drove in 3 a piece. Here’s a fun fact, De Aza has produced more fWAR with the Orioles in 12 games (0.7) than he did in 122 games with the White Sox (0.6). The late August trades Orioles GM Dan Duquette made for De Aza and Kelly Johnson may have flown under the radar at the time, but could prove to be very valuable to the team, especially in light of the Chris Davis suspension.

So what happens now? Well, clinching the AL East this early (they still have 11 games to play) allows them to rest some players and line up their rotation (however they want to do that) for the ALDS. Actually, they’ve clinched so early, they still have some time to evaluate and decide what they’re best playoff rotation will be. All five of their starters (including Jimenez, although before last night he hadn’t started a game since August 16) have pitched extremely well in the second half of the season, allowing only 51 earned runs in 180 innings (2.55 ERA). They’ve all pitched well, which makes the playoff rotation decision a difficult one (should they decide to use a 4-man rotation), but it’s a good problem to have.

With the division title secured, the team could also look at any young players and give them a brief audition and some experience playing in the major leagues. They did exactly that yesterday by selecting the contract of minor league first baseman Christian Walker.

Walker started the year in AA and excelled, hitting .301/.367/.516 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 411 plate appearances before getting called up to AAA in mid-July. He didn’t perform quite as well in AAA, hitting .259/.335/.428, but he wasn’t overmatched either. Walker is strictly a first baseman, so his bat will have to carry him in the big leagues, and many evaluators don’t seem to think that it will, with questions as to whether he’ll hit for enough power (those questions may have been silenced a bit after this season, as his .201 ISO between AA and AAA was easily a career best). It will be interesting to see how he performs over a small sample in the big leagues and if he can begin convincing the team to let Chris Davis walk when he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. In somewhat ironic fashion, if it wasn’t for Davis’ suspension, I doubt Walker gets called up for a September cup of coffee.

Other than that, all the Orioles can do is let the rest of the season play out and see who they’ll face in the ALDS. They’re currently 3 games behind the Los Angeles Angels (who have the AL West all but wrapped up) for the best record in the league. It’s obviously not impossible for the Orioles to pass the Angels and secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but with only 11 games to go, it is improbable. Because of that, at the moment it looks like they’ll play the winner of the AL Central. Currently, the Tigers hold a 1.5 game lead over the Royals. If Kansas City wants to catch them, they’ll have to take advantage of a 3 game series with the Tigers starting on September 19. If they don’t, there won’t be much hope of a central division championship, as the Tigers finish their season against the White Sox and Twins (combined .440 winning percentage).

The Orioles would probably rather play Kansas City than Detroit (if only just based on the perception that Detroit is the better team), although they have a losing record against both teams in 2014. They were especially bad against Detroit, losing 2 out of 3 in Detroit in April, and followed it up by getting swept by the Tigers at home in May (going 1-5 against them overall). Of course, since they played each other so early in the season, both teams have improved with mid-season acquisitions, so one shouldn’t read too much into those previous match ups.

So enjoy the last 11 games of the season, and keep an eye on the weekend series between Kansas City and Detroit. The Orioles have provided the gift of worry-free baseball with more than a week to go. Appreciate them and this time to relax and hope that they keep us on the edge of our seats for the entire month of October.

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