One month into the 2015 season, the Orioles have hovered around the .500 mark while remaining firmly in the American League East hunt.
Below is a look at the biggest surprises of the first month of action:
1. Ubaldo Jimenez becoming the Orioles’ best starting pitcher
Much of the starting rotation and bullpen struggled over the opening month of the season, but the maligned Jimenez was the club’s best starter, posting a 2-1 record with a 1.59 ERA in his four starts. After simplifying his mechanics late last season, Jimenez steadily improved during spring training and saw that continue into the regular season where he’s walked only eight batters in 22 2/3 innings, a significant improvement from the 5.5 walks per nine innings he issued last season. It was an unusual month for the 31-year-old as he was inexplicably ejected from a start at Fenway Park and pitched in the first empty-stadium game in major league history, but the results have been a pleasant surprise for manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles.
2. Jimmy Paredes emerging as a key member of the lineup
It was one thing to see Paredes hit well last September when the Orioles enjoyed a comfortable lead in the AL East and to follow that up with a strong spring, but who would have guessed the 26-year-old would become the everyday designated hitter and occupy the No. 2 spot in the order? Paredes’ .994 OPS is second on the club behind the scalding-hot Adam Jones, and he has collected nine extra-base hits in 56 plate appearances. Showalter has credited Paredes’ aggressive but professional approach — he’s walked only once this season — at the plate and will continue to pencil his name into the lineup until Paredes proves he shouldn’t. His defensive limitations hinder lineup flexibility, but the Orioles aren’t complaining about the offense Paredes has provided, especially with key contributors sidelined.
3. Matt Wieters still not being close to returning — and that being OK
The three-time All-Star selection caught six innings in an extended spring training game Tuesday, but he still isn’t catching on consecutive days, leading you to believe his return will be much closer to June than anyone would have expected a couple months ago. The good news is Caleb Joseph hasn’t made the Orioles miss Wieters too much as he’s hitting .286 with two home runs, seven RBIs, and an .836 on-base plus slugging percentage. Despite a slow start trying to control the running game, Joseph has stopped 33 percent of stolen-base attempts after gunning down 40 percent in 2014. I wrote before the season that it would be problematic if Wieters returned as a shell of himself defensively, but it’s clear the Orioles have slowed the pace of the veteran catcher’s rehab and Joseph’s strong play has made it easier to endure.
4. Steve Pearce starting games at second base
The 32-year-old has yet to approach his 2014 level of production, but Showalter using Pearce at second base illustrates how badly the injury bug has bitten the middle infield with J.J. Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, and Ryan Flaherty all on the 15-day disabled list. Fortunately, Hardy and Flaherty appear primed to return as early as this weekend, which will bring normalcy to the shortstop and second base positions. With Pearce and Jimmy Paredes seeing time at second base, Everth Cabrera may find himself in the minor leagues after posting a .464 OPS as the everyday shortstop in Hardy’s absence. Considering they’ve gotten below-replacement-level offense at shortstop and have used a carousel of options at second base, the Orioles should probably feel pretty good about their 12-12 record over the first month.
5. The Orioles playing an empty-stadium game and a “home” series at Tropicana Field
The unrest in Baltimore certainly disrupted the Orioles’ schedule, but Showalter, Jones, and the rest of the club handled the distractions with appropriate perspective while reflecting on the bigger issues facing the city. Playing a game in an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards and then traveling to Tropicana Field for a “home” series against the Tampa Bay Rays was less than ideal for all parties, but the Orioles went 3-1 over that stretch. It’s the latest example of how prepared and focused Showalter has kept his players over the last few years, a major reason why the Orioles are aiming for their fourth straight winning season and third playoff appearance in four campaigns. You only hope a packed Camden Yards welcomes the Orioles back to town on May 11.