Are the Baltimore Orioles for real? Breaking down MLB's most surprising season

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The Baltimore Orioles were not supposed to be good this year. They definitely were not supposed to contend this deep into the season for a playoff spot. Heck, they weren't even supposed to be competitive once we got past April. It looked like it would be another miserable, soul-sucking, 100-loss season in Baltimore, the kind of year that makes baseball fans question its commitment to a sport that plays almost every day for six months -- especially since the Orioles had such seasons in 2018 and 2019 and 2021.

Before the season, ESPN ranked the Orioles 30th (last) in its preseason power rankings, predicting a record of 58-104. The Athletic ranked the Orioles last in its own edition. FanGraphs' preseason projections had the Orioles as the worst team in the majors.

The most interesting move the team made in the offseason: Moving back the left-field fence.

"In truth, the Orioles still have too many shortcomings to isolate just one of them," wrote Brad Doolittle in our preseason preview. "Since the Orioles lost the 2016 AL wild-card game, they've dropped 104 of every 162 games they've played. With a rebuild that long -- more than a half-decade -- the bad news is that the 2022 season just looks like more of the same."

Oh, I'm not exonerating myself. I was on the "Orioles will be awful" bandwagon as well. The best-case scenario, I suggested, would be 70 wins.

I was wrong. We were wrong. Everybody has been wrong.

To our credit, even general manager Mike Elias didn't necessarily believe in his team, trading away closer Jorge Lopez and designated hitter Trey Mancini at the trade deadline and citing the long odds it would take the Orioles to beat to make the playoffs. The focus remained on the future, not the present. "This is a decade-long window that I think is opening up, and I couldn't be more excited about it for Baltimore, for the Orioles, for these guys," Elias said at the time. "And it was the most important thing to us that we prioritize this long window that we feel is ahead of us, among all other considerations."

Yet here are the Orioles, still competing for a wild card -- even while playing in the majors' toughest division -- as we head into the latter stages of August, trying to become one of the biggest surprise teams in recent history. In the wild-card era (since 1995), the best year-to-year improvement came from the 1999 Diamondbacks, who went from 65 wins as an expansion team to 100 wins -- a 35-win increase. If the Orioles can get to 88 wins, they'll be 36 wins better than last season.

But those Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson as a free agent, and he won the Cy Young Award. They acquired outfielders Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, who combined for 60 home runs and 214 RBIs. The Orioles signed Jordan Lyles and Rougned Odor.

So how in the name of Spenser Watkins and Terrin Vavra and Joey Krehbiel are they doing this?