It was fairly obvious when the Orioles broke camp in April that they were not going to lead the American League in team ERA and fielding percentage. They didn't figure to be the most productive offensive team, either, which left plenty of room to wonder how they were going to be competitive in what was again expected to be one of the strongest divisions in baseball.
Who knew that the most important statistic in their unlikely playoff drive would be their TRM — total roster moves.
Okay, maybe not the most important. The terrific numbers that have been put up by the bullpen all year are right up there, too, but the way Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have mined their organizational roster to plug holes and overcome injuries has been nothing short of brilliant.
So far, the Orioles have made a total of 134 roster moves related to the 25-man and 40-man major league rosters. That number includes everything from trades and minor league recalls to disabled list assignments and waiver claims. You have to figure that most moves are paired with a corresponding transaction to make room for or replace a player, but that basically works out to some kind of roster exchange every other day to this point in the season.
"It's been great for morale,'' Showalter said on Tuesday. "Whether you're on the roster or not ... whether you were drafted in the fifth round or the 40th, if you do the job we're going to get you up here."
Remember, this was a team that was going to live and die by the performance of its nucleus of young starting pitchers, but every one of them — Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton — has spent significant time at Triple-A Norfolk. The rotation has only been able to remain viable because of the strong performance of newcomers Jason Hammel andWei-Yin Chen and the savvy way the front office has been able to use the Triple-A staff as a taxi squad to fill the frequent openings at the major league level.
The Orioles also needed to shore up their defense, particularly at the corner infield positions and left field. They struggled to fill all of those positions adequately for much of this season and still have the most errors in the major leagues and the worst fielding percentage. Only in the last few weeks has the defense improved substantially with the arrival of top positional prospect Manny Machado, defensive specialist Omar Quintanilla and Gold Glove outfielder Nate McLouth.
Of course, Showalter sort of predicted it would be this way. He said from the start that it would take improved depth throughout the organization to lift the Orioles off the floor in the tough American League East, and Duquette made it clear from the beginning of his tenure as head of baseball operations that he was open to signing or acquiring anyone who might make the club even a little better or a little deeper.
Some of those acquisitions raised eyebrows and some of them were gone in a heartbeat, but Duquette's bigggest moves have worked out well, and the ability of Duquette and Showalter to manipulate the organizational roster on an almost daily basis is a major reason why the Orioles are still standing as they head into the final week of August.
In essense, through some shrewd button-pushing, the O's have been playing for most of the season with the equivalent of an expanded September roster. How else do you explain their survival with a rotation that lost or demoted — at least temporarily — four of its original members during one three-week stretch earlier this summer?
Many of the moves have been minor and temporary, but the surprising arrival of unheralded pitcher Miguel Gonzalez went a long way toward stabilizing the rotation, and the early promotion of Machado clearly gave the team an emotional lift.
Maybe it's some kind of Oriole Magic, but at several critical junctures, moves that appeared to be desperate have also paid off big. The decision to bring up rookie Steve Johnson for a spot start two weeks ago got the Orioles a key win that helped them sweep a series from the Seattle Mariners. The recall of Britton for Saturday's start at Detroit, which did not appear justified by his recent performance, also resulted in an uplifting victory that put the club in position to win a road series against a very formidable playoff contender.
If you want to get a better sense of just how proactive Duquette and his staff have been, consider that the Triple-A Tides already have set an all-time club record for the number of players to appear in a Norfolk uniform in a season. Duquette hasn't hesitated to go outside the organization for help a number of times, but the ability to utilize the player development system so strategically has been a major key in the revival of the major league club.
"The most important thing is to know thyself,'' Showalter said, "and, as my dad always used to say, 'Never overlook an orchid while you're looking for a rose.'"
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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