Baltimore Orioles: 3 up and 3 down

Some trends are simply unrepeatable, and the Baltimore Orioles learned that first hand in 2013. The O’s were easily 2012’s breakout team across all of MLB, snapping a string of last-place finishes and losing-record seasons to blaze their way into the postseason.

The buzz leading into 2013 was that they simply wouldn’t be able to maintain their stellar play in 1-run games (25-8 in ’12) and extra-innings wizardry (16-2). And the critics couldn’t have been more accurate. The Orioles played in a stunning amount of 1-run games a season ago, 51 to be exact. They were just 20-31 in these contests. Their winning percentage in 1-run games dropped from 75.8% to 39.2%. Ouch. And they were a solid 8-7 in extra-inning games, but nothing close to the 16-2 mark from 2012 in a similar number of games. The end result was an 85-77 record and a 3rd place tie in the AL East with New York.

But it’s not all bad news in Birdland. They have risen to two straight +.500 winning seasons on the strength of an impressive core of offensive talent. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, and JJ Hardy form a crew that can hit with any team in the big leagues. Baltimore’s 745 runs scored ranked 4th in the American League and their 212 homers were 1st by a wide margin (Seattle was 2nd at 188). The recently added Nelson Cruz will only further balloon these numbers.

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The problem, however, is on the other side of the ball. The team-wide ERA of 4.20 ranked 23rd across all of baseball. The starters managed just a 4.57 mark, 4th worst in the business.  GM Dan Duquette tried to puff up this unit by adding Bud Norris late last year and Ubaldo Jimenez this offseason. The resulting unit remains a substantial question mark. Throw in their fast and loose play with the closer position over the past few months and the outlook only becomes more unclear.

Chris Davis

Chris Davis

3 Up

Best Case Scenario for 2014

This offense has the framework to be one of the best in the game and if they can get the pitching to come along for the ride, then a wild card season could be in the works. And if they find a way to sneak into the postseason and the bats catch fire, who knows where this thing could end up. But as of now, their top end is likely a wild card and early postseason exit.

Most Important Orioles

2015 will be the final arbitration-eligible year for Chris Davis at which point he’ll hit the open market and become a very wealthy man. Whether he stays in a Baltimore uniform remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has raised his level of play from a head-scratching strikeout artist from his days in Texas all the way to an MVP-level talent. Not many players can push Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera statistically but that’s what the sweet-swinging Davis did in ’13. 53 homers and 138 RBI’s are big numbers and every great offense needs a masher in the middle. Davis is the guy. His 199 K’s are still a concern for potential regression but he has clearly found a way to hit around them.

Chris Tillman is the most sure-thing in the O’s rotation but Ubaldo Jimenez is the most important. Buck Showalter might get much needed help near midseason if Dylan Bundy can stay on the recovery track after Tommy John surgery. But Jimenez, slightly more so than Tillman, has the potential to put up an elite season on the mound. After an electrifying effort in 2010, Jimenez was a mess in ’11 and ’12. In 2013, his 2nd full season in Cleveland, he was able to reclaim some of his mojo with a 3.30 ERA and 194 K’s in only 182.2 innings. He parlayed that into a 4-year, $50M deal from the pitching-desperate O’s. In order for this team to play with the big boys in the East they cannot afford to have Jimenez backslide to his poor performances of ’11 and ’12. By and large, he will make or break this rotation.

Potential Breakout Players

The offense is well-established with few vacancies but Jonathan Schoop has a chance to hit his way onto the roster at some point this season. Schoop has played all over the infield in the minors but will get a look at 2nd base in Baltimore. He’s just 22 and has good pop at the plate, hitting 14 minor league homers in each of the past two seasons. Last year he pulled that trick in just 309 at-bats. Not that the O’s need any more power but with Jemile Weeks possibly the frontrunner for the 2nd base gig, you have to figure Showalter will be dialing Schoop’s number before too long.

Last year in this section I predicted a breakout from Chris Tillman, this year I’m giving the honors to Bud Norris. It was his good strikeout numbers in Houston that attracted teams to his name at last year’s trade deadline. Baltimore won out and got very little in return. In nine starts with the O’s he posted a 4.80 ERA and horrific 1.68 WHIP. Last year was the first season in his career in which he allowed over a hit per inning and his control declined once he arrived in Baltimore. Entering his age-29 season I expect improvement in both of these departments. He has never fulfilled his promise but an ERA in the low 4’s and 160+ K’s would suit the Orioles just fine and be a huge bonus in stabilizing this rotation. Norris’ upside isn’t anywhere near that of what Kevin Gausman can provide however. Hopefully the O’s don’t keep Gausman in the bullpen. The guy is a starter and potentially a really good one as soon as this year.

Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters

Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario

As it seems to be every year, the AL East is a man’s division. Boston brings back the defending World Series champions. Tampa Bay is always right there at the end of the season and the New York Yankees are vastly improved from a season ago. Heck, I even expect the Blue Jays to be better in 2014. With all of that said, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see this team finish 4th in the division, and if things really spiral out of control with the pitching staff, last place isn’t too far behind.

Areas of Concern

If the names of expected starters Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris inspire confidence in your mind then I’ll ask you to put down that black and orange Kool-Aid you’ve been pounding all offseason. Even Jimenez comes with his own set of question marks. Dylan Bundy could come to the rescue, but then again, he might not make it back that quickly. And if he doesn’t, then the next man up becomes a guessing game. I love Kevin Gausman’s arsenal but he struggled mightily in 2013. That said, in an ideal world he logs at least 20 starts for the O’s in ’14. He can be a difference-maker if he gets his footing. A top 4 of Jimenez, Tillman, Bundy, and Gausman, firing on all cylinders, could make for an intriguing late-season push from Showalter’s crew. But there are a few too many ‘ifs’ here for my comfort level.

Beyond the starting rotation, the overly reliable Jim Johnson is out as closer. Tommy Hunter is likely next in line but is completely unproven as a 9th inning man and needs an out pitch against left-handed hitters in a bad way. And if it’s not Hunter, then who will it be? Lots and lots of questions.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2013

Orioles fans had high hopes for Nolan Reimold coming into 2013 but he once again couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t hit when he was in the lineup. Again, the offense is in good hands and any contribution from Reimold would be a bonus at this point. His playing time might be scarce with the additions of Cruz and David Lough. But even in a part-time capacity, Reimold has mid-teens power potential and provides solid offensive depth, if he can stay on the field that is.

On the hill, both Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez took small steps back in the production and health departments after strong rookie seasons in 2012. Showalter needs this pair to pitch above their pay grade every 5th day for this team to threaten the top of the AL East.

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