It is fortunate for the Orioles that the 2014 season has opened with a burst of American League parity.
They lost five of their first seven games and displayed all manner of disturbing tendencies in the process, but they picked a good time to do it since no one else in their division -- or the rest of the league -- had managed to win more than four games heading into Tuesday.
So, in a way, the baseball cosmos was telling them not to panic. It’s only the second week, and they don’t have to look up very far from the outhouse to see the penthouse. It will only require a modest winning streak for everything to come back into balance, and they took a big first step in that direction by hammering the New York Yankees, 14-5, on Tuesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
That’s the only way to look at anything this early in the season, but that doesn’t mean there is no cause for alarm. The Orioles came back this year hoping to build on their offensive achievements of 2013, maintain their record-setting defensive excellence and extract a more efficient performance from their starting rotation.
Thus far, they are 1-for-3 in a rare baseball situation where a .333 average simply will not do.
The defense has remained stalwart, despite the wait for Manny Machado, and the frequent absence of backsore J.J. Hardy, but the offense was barely averaging three runs per game before Tuesday’s first big outburst, and the starting pitchers -- with the exception of Chris Tillman -- have struggled so badly that it won’t be long before people start asking when Kevin Gausman is going to get here.
Of course, it’s way too early for that, but it isn’t too early to wonder just how long the bullpen will hold up if the starters continue to require three or four innings of help on a consistent basis.
That was the major problem late last season, and getting more innings from the starting rotation was a major point of emphasis during a spring in which the organization went outside its comfort zone to sign Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract.
Jimenez eventually will help solve the innings problem. He’s a historically slow starter and has proven that in his first two games with the Orioles. But the overall performance of the four pitchers who follow Tillman in the rotation certainly does not engender confidence that the pitching staff will achieve an appropriate distribution of labor.
Through the first eight games, the bullpen has had to work at least three innings seven times. The only exception was the fractional inning required after Tillman’s terrific performance against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. Even with a big early lead Tuesday, Wei-Yin Chen struggled to get through the fifth to qualify for the win.
Normally, it wouldn’t be appropriate to trot out such a tiny sample, but it’s fair game now because starter efficiency was such a chronic problem last year, and manager Buck Showalter made it clear all spring that the club’s ability to compete in the tough AL East will depend largely on whether the starters can consistently get deep into games.
The situation has been magnified by the inability of the offense to take some pressure off the rotation. The Orioles led the major leagues in home runs last year and ranked among the game’s top five scoring teams, but the hitters got off to a painfully slow start, hitting just three homers and scoring just 22 runs (3.14 per game) before busting out to even the series with the Yankees.
They have faced a string of terrific starting pitchers in three series against the Boston Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees -- and run production has been sluggish throughout the league -- so no one had a right to expect an immediate offensive explosion. Factor in the absence of Machado and the injury to Hardy, and that’s a pretty good prescription for an uneven attack.
That lack of roster flexibility has been on display several times in the late innings, when Showalter has not been in a position to pinch hit Delmon Young or Steve Pearce because he is short a utility infielder.
We’ve known all along that the Orioles would face some challenges during the early weeks of the season. They’re still uncertain when Machado will return, and rookie Jonathan Schoop is still feeling his way around.
Perhaps one upbeat afternoon in the Bronx will get them moving hard in the right direction. Because there’s no telling how long the rest of the division will wait around for them to get it together.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts “The Week in Review” on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.