One of the biggest overachieving teams in 2014 was the Baltimore Orioles. A lot of credit has to go to manager Buck Showalter, who I think is without a doubt the best manager in baseball right now. Ninety-six wins is very tough to top, or even match. In fact, I do not have a single team winning any more than 95 games this season. Add in the loss of free agents Nelson Cruz (.271, 40, 108) and Nick Markakis (.276, 14, 50) and I think this is a club that will have a tough time duplicating their great 2014 season.
Offensively, the Orioles have to find away to replace the power of Cruz and the leadership of Markakis. Travis Snider (.264, 13, 38) comes over from the Pirates and for those looking at the glass at half full, Snider seems like the type of player Buck can get the most out of. I still think Markakis is the better player, but Orioles fans will have to wait and see what Snider is made of. Other than that, the Orioles did not make any other additions. All-stars Manny Machado (.278, 12, 32) and Matt Wieters (.308, 5, 18), injured much of 2014, are expected to make up for some of the lost numbers. 1B Chris Davis, who hit 53 HR in 2013, saw his OPS drop 300 points and his batting average drop 90 points last year. He was then suspended for the use of Adderall and has one game remaining to serve at the start of next season. However, he has approval to use the drug for this coming season. Will a healthy Machado and Wieters and a rejuvenated Davis prove to be enough to offset the loss of last season’s primary corner outfielders? In an ideal world, yes. But I think it is impossible to expect all three to be at their best, especially with Wieters just 8 months removed from Tommy John surgery.
Alejandro De Aza (.252, 8, 41) came over from the White Sox towards the end of last season and is expected be the everyday LF. Snider is in right with Adam Jones (.281, 29, 96) in center. Jones, without a doubt, is the best player on this team. Davis (.196, 26, 72) is at 1B with Jonathan Schoop (.209, 16, 45) playing 2B. JJ Hardy (.268, 9, 52) is back after signing an extension avoiding free agency and Machado at 3B. Steve Pearce (.293, 21, 49) was one of the better offensive stories last season and because of that, the Orioles think they have their DH. The only issue I have with Pearce is the fact that he had not shown that kind of HR power in several years, even at the minor league level. If he hits 30 HRs, I’ll tip my cap. I just do not see it in the cards.
My lineup looks like this: De Aza LF, Machado 3B, Jones CF, Davis 1B, Hardy SS, Wieters C, Pearce DH, Snider RF, Schoop 2B. I do like the Orioles bench which features infielder Ryan Flaherty, OFs Delmon Young and David Lough and C Caleb Joseph. In addition, I like the fact the team brought back Nolan Reimold, a one time top prospect, to compete for some time in the OF and at DH.
Showalter always seems to get the best out of his pitchers, even without some of the more dominant and well known arms. Zach Britton, who had made just 2 MLB relief appearances prior to 2014, had a very good season (3-2, 1.65, 37 saves, 71 games) as the team’s closer. Darren O’Day (5-2, 1.70, 68 games) was a dominant late game reliever that nobody talked about. RHP Tommy Hunter (3-2, 2.97, 60 games) and LHP Brian Matusz (2-3, 3.48, 63 games) provide some depth. LHP Wesley Wright (0-3, 3.17, 58 games) comes over as a free agent from the Cubs and RHPs Ryan Webb (3-3, 3.83, 51 games) and Brad Brach (7-1, 3.18, 46 games) round out the ‘pen. Hard thrower Steve Johnson could be a dark horse candidate to play a prominent role in the Orioles bullpen. I can see him becoming the 8th inning guy nobody thought about coming into the season.
The Orioles starting pitching is led by Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34, 34 starts), Wei Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54, 31 starts) and Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65, 28 starts). RHPs Miguel Gonzalez (10-9, 3.23, 26 starts) and Kevin Gausman (7-7, 3.57, 20 starts) could round out the rotation with top prospects Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey close to being ready. This leaves RHP Ubaldo Jimenez out of the picture. Ubaldo had a solid 2013 season (13-9, 3.30, 30 starts for Cleveland) and parlayed that into a 4 year, $50 million deal with the Orioles. I think it will be interesting to see how things play out with Jimenez, with a trade likely out of the question unless the Orioles want to pay a significant portion of his remaining contract. Can he be a reclamation project as a reliever? I think that will be up to Ubaldo, who is known to have a bit of a temper.
I think it is a safe bet to say the Orioles won’t duplicate their 2014 season. Can they win the AL East? One of the major factors of winning a division is to be able to beat the teams in your division. The Orioles did that last season. However, I think the Blue Jays and Red Sox are much better and the Orioles have regressed. The one wild card is the pitching, which will surprise nobody if it overachieves. Having Buck in the dugout is going to win you games you would otherwise lose. Las Vegas has the Orioles O/U at 82 1/2, which I think is a fair number (remember, they won 96 games last season). I still take the under, 79-83, 4th place in the AL East division. I just do not have enough faith in guys like Snider and Pearce and really don’t know what to expect from Machado and Wieters coming back from major injuries.