The recent history of the Baltimore Orioles has been full of surprises and defied expectations. In a similar fashion to their 2012 miracle, the O’s made the playoffs last year when few people, this writer included, thought they were capable of it. I remember looking at the team and thinking that they hadn’t made any major offseason improvements, and thus would probably be stuck in neutral. Neutral, my ass. Baltimore went on to win their first AL East title since my tenth birthday, running away from the field with a 12-game margin over the second-place New York Yankees. The Orioles took advantage of a weakened division and overachievement by some key players to roll up 96 wins, 13 more than I projected. The O’s kept it going in the playoffs, sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series before falling to the Kansas City Royals in one of the most maddening playoff series I’ve ever watched. In all four games, I thought the Orioles played well enough to win, but the Royals were just a little better or luckier. Regardless, the fact that the O’s were even in the American League pennant conversation was a major accomplishment.
In looking at the team this year, I have…kind of a similar impression as last year. Baltimore lost several key free agents, including Nelson Cruz, the 40-homer man that drove the offense. They also lost steady outfielder Nick Markakis and consistent reliever Andrew Miller without picking up much in return. But other players coming back from injury could plug some of the holes. Let’s break it down.
While the losses of Cruz and Markakis are a blow to the offense, they don’t look so bad when you dig into the numbers. Cruz signed a 4-year, $57M contract with the Seattle Mariners, and Markakis signed a 4-year, $44M deal with the Atlanta Braves. Add in that both players are on the wrong side of 30 (they will be 38 and 35, respectively, when their contracts are up), when hitters’ skills tend to decline, and it appears that both their new teams drastically overpaid to acquire them. If the Orioles would’ve had to pony up that kind of cash to keep them, maybe it’s in their best interests that those players left.
Also, third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters are returning from injuries that kept them out for large chunks of the year. While neither of them will replace Cruz’s power, they will at least ensure that any drop-off the O’s suffer won’t be nearly as steep. Machado was having his best season at the plate when he went down, and I’m thinking he could be a 25-30 homer guy if all goes well. Wieters should chip in too, though his stats have been slipping since his breakout 2011 season (he was worth only .5 Wins Above Replacement in 2013, his last full season), so I’m hoping he can keep his batting average and on-base numbers up. If anything, he’ll be a marked upgrade over Caleb Joseph, who put up putrid hitting numbers in Wieters’s absence.
The team also hopes to benefit from a return to form from first baseman Chris Davis. He followed up his “Crush Davis” performance in 2013 with only 26 homers and a terrible .196 average and .300 on-base percentage. While I don’t think his 2013 performance was a fluke, I think he may have pressed too hard at the start of the season trying to duplicate the previous season and never really recovered. While he posted a respectable .260 average in April (albeit with only 2 home runs), it dropped precipitously after that, to a low point of .161 in August. He also got an extra kick in the face when MLB suspended him for 25 games for using amphetamines, which he will finish out at the start of this season. Time will tell if he can rediscover his hitting stroke with a fresh start to the year and hopefully less pressure. I don’t think he’s as good as his 2013 season, but I have a hard time believing he’s as bad as his 2014 season.
Aside from Machado and Wieters, the Orioles’ offense still looks strong. Centerfielder Adam Jones continues to hum along. You can usually pencil him in for a .280 average and 25-30 homers. Steve Pearce was a surprise breakout player, chipping in 6.0 WAR in just 102 games. He probably won’t play at that kind of a torrid pace over a full season, but even if he can just produce those numbers again over a full season, he’ll be an asset. Shortstop JJ Hardy also showed that age hasn’t caught up with him just yet, and is still good for around 3 WAR per season. DH Delmon Young was another pleasant surprise, hitting .302 in around a half-season’s worth of games. I hope the Orioles continue to use him in a complementary role. All told, Baltimore scored 705 runs last year, good for eighth in baseball. While they probably won’t eclipse last year’s numbers (certainly not the 211 home runs, which were 25 more than any other team!), I don’t think they’ll drop as far as some are expecting.
The O’s enter the season with much the same rotation as they had last year, with Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez taking turns. Kevin Gausman will likely round out the staff as a fifth starter. All of those pitchers except Gausman won at least 10 games last year, and all of them posted an ERA between 3.23-3.65. That all adds up to a workmanlike staff. The Orioles’ starters kind of reminds me of Virginia’s basketball team; no true stars, but a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The only thing that worries me here is depth. I have no idea who would step in if one of these pitchers got hurt, and while most of them have avoided injuries the past few years, it only takes one tweak of the elbow to compromise the rhythm of their starting rotation. Perhaps Dylan Bundy, who was thought to be the next great Orioles prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery, can crack the Show and make a few starts. He did post a 3.27 ERA in 4 starts in the minors last year, though those were in Class A ball, so I’m not sure how he’d fare against stiffer competition. He’ll begin the season with the AA Bowie Baysox, so we’ll see soon.
Notably missing from the starters group is Ubaldo Jimenez, last year’s big acquisition who flamed out in 22 starts, posting an ERA of nearly 5.00. Jimenez’s bad season can probably be partially attributed to a decline in velocity, as his fastball hovered in the low 90s for most of the year, though it did tick up after he was moved out of the rotation. If he can sustain his power-pitching ways, he could contribute there.
Zach Britton finally figured it out last year, emerging as a great closer behind his nasty sinker. Britton rolled up 37 saves and a 1.65 ERA as part of one of the best bullpens in the majors. The loss of setup man Andrew Miller will hurt, as he posted even better numbers than Britton. But Darren O’Day, who recorded 25 holds and a 1.70 ERA, should make a fine setup man. Tommy Hunter is also a good option, even though his audition in the closer’s role didn’t quite work out. Converted starter Brian Matusz can also eat some innings in a pinch if the others are resting.
Slick fielding has been one of Baltimore’s calling cards since Buck Showalter took over as manager, and I don’t expect that to change. The O’s ranked second in baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures how well each fielder covers his “zone” of the field against the average player. They also ranked third in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, which as the name implies measures how many runs a team’s fielders gained or cost them. Manny Machado is probably Baltimore’s best fielder, but this is a team effort, with JJ Hardy (10 runs saved), Adam Jones (8.3 UZR) and others making contributions as well.
Buck Showalter remains as coach, and I don’t think any Oriole fans are sad about that. Showalter has been the main architect of the team’s renaissance in recent seasons, and has handled them well despite recent roster turnover. Scott Coolbaugh joins the team as hitting coach, and Dave Wallace returns as pitching coach.
Because Baltimore lost key pieces and didn’t really add anyone of note (unless you count DH/OF Travis Snider, who did have a career year last year so who knows), many analysts aren’t expecting much from them. But I have a feeling they’re going to exceed expectations again, because that seems to be a regular occurrence. And in examining the stats, I don’t view the team as significantly weakened from last year, with the returns of Machado and Wieters at least partially offsetting the departures of Cruz and Markakis. The AL East is also fairly weak again this year, though the Red Sox and Blue Jays have improved. I think their offseason additions are a bit overrated, while the Yankees and Rays are in disarray. I’ll peg the over/under for Baltimore’s wins at 86, still a somewhat conservative prediction but more than what most are expecting. I think we’ll sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card entry too.
Around the league, I like the Cleveland Indians to come out of the AL, as they have a well-rounded lineup and pitching staff and seem to finally be putting it all together. The LA Angels and Seattle Mariners could be threats too. In the NL, the Washington Nationals are the obvious favorite with their historically good starting rotation. The Dodgers and Cardinals could give them a challenge. For my World Series winner, I’m going to go out on a slight limb and predict the Indians. They have a battle-tested manager in Terry Francona, and with parity at an all-time high in MLB, many teams can harbor realistic dreams of winning it all. I just don’t trust Washington to get it done, as they have struggled in the playoffs for a long time, and the track record of teams that dominate the regular season isn’t great in the playoffs lately.