The third of my five part series on the AL East. I’m picking the Orioles to finish third in the AL East. In case you missed them, my Red Sox preview and my Tampa Bay Rays preview.
Off-season summary: The Baltimore Orioles had a very
horrible off-season in which they did absolutely nothing successful off-season that saw them address three of their biggest needs: starting pitching, designated hitter, and outfield. Early in the off-season, the Orioles traded 2013 September hero Danny Valencia to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder David Lough. The rage began to increase as fan favorite Nate McLouth was signed by the Washington Nationals. The off-season rage built up as noted screamer and all-around angry man closer Grant Balfour failed his physical with the Orioles. This was heightened by the fact that earlier in the off-season, the Orioles traded incumbent scapegoat for the 2013 season closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for Jemile Weeks. The rage built up until February 17th, when the Orioles officially signed pitcher Suk-Min Yoon from Korea and agreed to a 4 year $50M deal with Ubaldo Jimenez. The rage died down. The rage officially died on February 22nd when the Orioles announced a one year deal with PED user witch who should be burned at the stake outfielder/DH Nelson Cruz. With the death to the rage that consumed Orioles fans came the birth of optimism. So in short, the Orioles went from “worst off-season ever” to “awesome off-season” in one week. The Orioles have completed their off-season by trading for utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi.
Strengths: The Orioles lived and died by their lineup in 2013, which is hilarious if you think how much they relied on their pitching (both the rotation and bullpen) in 2012. The Orioles lineup in 2014 will probably be even better. The Orioles now have three guys who will probably hit over 30 HRs: Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis. They should get 20+ home runs from JJ Hardy and Matt Wieters as well, and Manny Machado should build on his strong 2013 campaign.
Another strength of the 2014 Orioles should be their defense. Assuming David Lough and Nolan Reimold split LF duties and Cruz is the full-time DH, 7 of the 8 position players will be plus defenders (only one who wouldn’t be one: Nick Markakis). The infield could be the best defensive infield in the AL, with Wieters behind the plate, Davis at first, Ryan Flaherty at second base, Hardy at shortstop, and Machado at third base.
Weaknesses: Though the Orioles did sign Jimenez and that definitely helps out their starting rotation, their rotation is still a sizable concern. Chris Tillman and Jimenez should be a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. After that, it gets a bit dicey. Holdovers Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris can all be penciled into the rotation, though there are concerns with each of them. Chen has moments when he looks brilliant, and moments when he looks awful. Gonzalez is a solid pitcher, but has had durability issues each of the past two seasons. Norris allows a lot of home runs and struggles to get through 6 innings. The Orioles rotation might get some help from prospect Kevin Gausman, who will probably start the year in AAA, and super prospect Dylan Bundy, though he wouldn’t be able to contribute until late in the season. If Gausman can develop a more consistent slider and work on adjusting to hitters, I wouldn’t be shocked if he replaces the worst of Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris. I wouldn’t rule out Yoon as a possibility to replace one of them as well.
While the Orioles bullpen should be very good, there’s one lingering question. Who’s the closer? Right now, the front runner is probably Tommy Hunter. There are obvious concerns with Hunter closing, such as his inability to get lefties out and his tendency to allow home runs. With that said, I’ve seen teams find closers from out of nowhere, so hopefully the Orioles will have that luck as well. And I’ve seen far worse pitchers than Hunter wind up being solid closers. The Orioles do have guys like Ryan Webb and Darren O’Day who could also close.
I see two big concerns with the lineup. First of all, Flaherty should probably not be the everyday second baseman, but here we are in late February and he’s projected to be the starting second baseman. Secondly, on base percentage is something that the Orioles don’t do too well. That was an issue last season, and it looks like it will be an issue this season.
X-Factor: Nick Markakis is coming off an injury-ridden 2012 and a very sub-par 2013 (possibly due to injury). If Markakis can return to his 2012 level of production and stay healthy, he gives the Orioles a guy who
outright refuses to smile is a very reliable leadoff hitter who can work counts and consistently get on base. Who knows, maybe that could rub off on the rest of the Orioles. @DJC_Sports believes that Nelson Cruz and Ryan Flaherty could be X-factors, and I agree. Cruz could be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Orioles lineup. Flaherty finished strong last year, and considering how bad he was from April to May, it’s a minor miracle that he wound up being a 1 WAR player. If Flaherty can be a 3 WAR player (which is not out of the question with his power and defense), that would mean a lot for the Orioles.
Reasons To Watch This Team: The number one reason to watch the Orioles is their broadcast crew. If the broadcast crew is Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer, you will be thoroughly entertained by the duo. Yes, Thorne has a tendency to mispronounce names and not know what’s going on at times, but he makes up for it with his quick wit and terrific chemistry with Palmer. The Orioles will have a very exciting lineup, so that’s another huge reason to watch the Orioles. If/when the Orioles call up pitching prospect Kevin Gausman, he could be a huge difference maker in the rotation. Finally, you can watch the Orioles attempt to make manager Buck Showalter smile.
Biggest Question: Will the lineup hit well enough to off-set the lack of pitching? From what I’ve seen this spring training, I think that the lineup will certainly hold up their end of the bargain. I think that the pitching is going to be better than most people think. Will their pitching be stellar? No. But it should be good enough.
Best Case Scenario: The lineup improves and the rotation pitches well. The Orioles return to the post-season, and Orioles Magic takes the MLB by storm as the Orioles follow the foot steps of the 2010 San Francisco Giants and win the World Series.
Worst Case Scenario: 2013 all over again. Different cast, same story.
Overall outlook: The Orioles will definitely challenge for a playoff spot and for the division title as well. While the Orioles aren’t as good as the Red Sox or Rays on paper, games are not won on paper, they are won on the field. If the Red Sox and/or Rays falter, the Orioles are in a very good position to take advantage of that.