When the Baltimore Orioles came out of nowhere to make the playoffs in 2012, many analysts thought they’d crash back to Earth in 2013, maybe even post a losing record. I didn’t quite believe this, and predicted that their win total would fall from 93 to 85, but they would still be a competitive team. Turns out I hit this prediction square on the head (let’s not talk about my World Series forecast…), as the Orioles finished exactly 85-77. But that was only enough for a tie for third in the meat grinder that is the AL East. They also did not replicate their screaming success in close games from 2012, going 20-31 in one-run games and 8-7 in extras in 2013. In order for the Orioles to start making noise in the playoffs consistently, some improvements and retooling were needed in the offseason. Let’s examine their offseason moves and see what they mean for the upcoming season.
The Orioles were remarkably quiet for most of free agency, not bidding for key players on the market such as Robinson Cano or Masahiro Tanaka. The O’s got active at the eleventh hour though, nabbing rightfielder Nelson Cruz from the Texas Rangers. Cruz has been a remarkably consistent player for the past 5 years or so, consistently hitting around .260 or .270 (with one nice little .318 outlier in 2010) and posting 25-33 home runs. His on-base and slugging percentages have fluctuated more, but he’s a good addition to the lineup. My only concern is that he’s on the wrong side of 30 (33), and that’s when age starts to catch up with a lot of players. I think the team would be wise to use Cruz as a DH occasionally, maybe alternating him with David Lough, another new acquisition, at that spot, as they didn’t get much out of their DHs in 2013. Cruz joins an outfield that already includes Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Jones is All-Star caliber, and Markakis is a solid player trying to rebound from a drop-off in offensive production last year.
The Orioles’ infield is still solid, but unfortunately must deal with the loss of the steady Nate McLouth in the leadoff spot as well as veteran second baseman Brian Roberts. But there are still plenty of pieces here, such as first baseman Chris “Crush” Davis, who mashed a historic 53 home runs, breaking Brady Anderson’s team record of 50 in 1996. He wasn’t just a home-run hitter either; his OBP and OPS spiked last year, and he was worth 6.4 more wins than the average first baseman, according to sabermetric analysis. Third baseman Manny Machado also continues to impress with his dazzling fielding and good hitting, but will likely miss the start of the season after a traumatic knee injury near the end of last year. Ryan Flaherty will likely hold the position down until Machado returns, then battle Jemile Weeks for the open second base spot. Catcher Matt Wieters will look to get on base a little more this year after his average slipped to .235 and his OBP to .287. Shortstop JJ Hardy is getting a little long in the tooth himself, but his stats improved from 2012 to 2013, and he remains another All-Star in the O’s batting order.
Pitching, specifically starting pitching, has been Baltimore’s Achilles Heel ever since they fell from grace in 1998, and that’s still true today. For this reason, I wish they’d held onto Scott Feldman, one of their trade deadline acquisitions from last year. While Feldman wasn’t an all-world pitcher, he was a steady, veteran presence that the O’s could’ve used on their staff to help tutor their young pitchers.
That aside, the O’s have a bona fide ace in Chris Tillman, who won 16 games and posted a nice 3.73 ERA. If he can allow a few less homers (33 last year, most on the team) and go deeper into games, he could be a 20-game winner. Miguel Gonzalez is not far behind Tillman, as he won 11 games and posted a 3.78 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. He could also stand to go a little deeper into games, to avoid taxing the bullpen.
But after Tillman and Gonzalez, the rotation is full of question marks. Wei-Yin Chen suffered a drop-off in his sophomore season, and deadline acquisition Bud Norris had similarly so-so stats. I’ll be interested to see if he can match his 10.13 K/9 figure with the Orioles, but that stat could very well have been inflated by a small sample size. Other prospects for the rotation include Kevin Gausman, who tore up the minor leagues but has struggled in MLB so far, and perpetual teaser Zach Britton. The O’s also picked up veteran Johan Santana on a minor-league contract, and anything he can give them would be a bonus.
But perhaps the biggest question mark is offseason pickup Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez had a magical 2010 season, winning 19 games with a 2.88 ERA and finishing third in Cy Young voting… for the Colorado Rockies! But he has never come close to that standard, failing to post an ERA below 4.00. Until last year, that is. He was better able to miss bats and held opposing batters to a .239 average, his best mark since 2010. If Jimenez can simply develop into a reliable No. 3 starter, that would go a long way toward improving the Birds’ standing in their division.
The bullpen lost closer Jim Johnson in a trade with the Oakland A’s, so Tommy Hunter will take over the role. Hunter and Darren O’Day are a good one-two punch in relief, as both recorded ERAs under 3.00 and were worth more than two wins above replacement. Josh Stinson may be ready to take a bigger role as a setup man, and former starter Brian Matusz will continue to search for some consistency. The Orioles’ defense is still among the best in baseball, as they finished first in MLB in fielding percentage and sixth in Defensive Efficiency Rating.
The Orioles are again led by the indefatigable Buck Showalter, whose trend of turning around teams and leading them to sustained success has continued in Baltimore. Pitching coach Dave Wallace will have his work cut out for him as he tries to improve this staff, while hitting coach Jim Presley just needs to keep the train moving.
I’m not yet convinced that this team is much better than last year’s team. The offense is loaded with power, but not as much patience at the plate. The O’s were only 12th out of 15 AL teams in pitches per plate appearance, so they could do well to swing away a little less frequently and hit for average more often. It’s also difficult to believe Davis will replicate his amazing season. The pitching staff has definite potential, but a lot of things have to go right (Tillman & Gonzalez improve, Jimenez pitches like the second half of last year, somebody emerges as a third and fourth starter, Hunter holds down the closer spot, etc.). The return of minor league phenom Dylan Bundy could help down the stretch, but he was sidelined by Tommy John surgery last year and wasn’t ready for the majors even at his best. I’m going to set the bar a little lower this year, and put the team’s over/under on wins at 83. They could easily overshoot this number if things work out, but I think it’s the most likely total.
MLB as a whole is fairly wide-open this season, so I’m a little baffled as to who to pick for the World Series. I like the Texas Rangers to come out of the AL, who bolstered their already well-rounded team by signing Prince Fielder. The LA Dodgers also look like as good a pick as any in the NL. I’ll go with the Dodgers in this matchup to win it all.