2014 Team Preview: Are the Baltimore Orioles good enough to compete in the AL East?

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Orioles look like sure-fire contenders in any other division, but their pitching may not be enough in 2014.

Earlier this offseason, many pundits -- myself included, if I count as a pundit -- questioned the Baltimore Orioles' lack of Hot Stove activity. The team had multiple holes to fill after a distant third place finish in 2013, yet seemed content with filling them internally. This can sometimes be a valid option, but the Orioles' candidates to fill the open rotation and DH slots were either under-prepared or under-talented. Then, general manager Dan Duquette got the green light to spend some coin, and he swiftly landed Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. Unfortunately, the late spending spree might not be enough in a rough-and-tumble AL East.

Manager: Buck Showalter (5th year)

2013 record: 85-77, t-3rd in AL East

SB Nation blog: Camden Chat

Other Orioles coverage: Baltimore Sun, School of Roch, Camden Depot

First series vs. Tigers: April 4-6 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

While he may not be an actual question mark in the Orioles' lineup, the most interesting conundrum in Baltimore this summer is "who is Chris Davis?" Is he the Asgardian demi-god that took over baseball in 2013 or simply another high power, high strikeout first baseman good for 25-30 home runs a year? His splits from last season suggest a combination of the two, as he hit just .245/.339/.515 with 16 home runs -- still a near-40 homer pace -- after the All-Star break. Across the diamond, Manny Machado led the American league with 51 doubles en route to a .283/.314/.432 sophomore season. His .647 second half OPS and offseason knee surgery are valid reasons to temper expectations in 2014, however.

They will definitely hit, especially if Chris Davis shows us that he truly is Thor in baseball form.

Up the middle, JJ Hardy continued to be an extreme pull hitter that the media overrates while advanced metrics turn a blind eye. Of his 25 home runs last year, 24 went to left field. In a vacuum, his .322 wOBA and 99 wRC+ were nothing to write home about. Speaking of vacuums, Hardy continued to play excellent defense at the toughest defensive position on the diamond, earning his second consecutive Gold Glove. He has been worth 10.3 WAR over the last three seasons according to Fangraphs and I'm having a hard time arguing against that logic. Meanwhile, prospect Jonathan Schoop -- not pronounced like it looks, unfortunately -- is making a whale of a case to be the team's starting second baseman on Opening Day. Schoop is hitting .500/.526/.833 through his first 10 Grapefruit League games. Given his upside and his competition (Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks), there is no reason to deny Schoop a shot.

The outfield was given a shot in the arm offensively when Nelson Cruz signed a one year, $8 million contract in late February. Cruz will probably be the team's DH on most days, but will play left field against left-handed pitchers. This thought may drive Orioles fans nuts, but incumbent right fielder Nick Markakis has been just as bad defensively in recent seasons. Unlike Cruz, Markakis' offensive abilities are swiftly evaporating. He had the highest infield pop-up rate of his career last year, and his ground ball rate -- good for pitchers, not for slow hitters -- was nearly 47%. In center, Adam Jones continued to be awesome in 2013. He followed up his breakout 2012 season with another four-win year, made his third All-Star team, and set career highs in home runs and RBI. The only thing that may stop him in 2014 is fatigue, and not the baseball kind; his wife was scheduled to deliver their first child yesterday. David Lough and Nolan Reimold will also be in the outfield mix.

Matt Wieters gave the O's a small scare yesterday when he rolled his ankle while running the bases. He will probably miss about a week, but should otherwise continue being the defensive stud he has been in each of his five seasons. His overall offensive production has dipped since a monster 2011 season, but 22 home runs in each of the past three seasons from the catcher position is still quite valuable. He donned the tools of ignorance in a whopping 140 games last year, leaving us to wonder who his backup will be. Steve Clevenger, a left-handed hitter that had 15 plate appearances last year, is the most likely candidate to collect a $500,000 paycheck for eating sunflower seeds.

Rotation

The Orioles' starting staff was awful at a lot of things last year, but keeping the ball in the ballpark was a particular bugaboo. They allowed the most home runs and had the highest home run rate in the American League, which led to the fourth-highest ERA and highest FIP in the league. Oddly enough, Chris Tillman had one of the higher home run rates on the team, but led the staff with 16 wins and a 3.71 ERA. He also led the staff in strikeouts and innings pitched, resulting in his first career All-Star appearance. He and left-hander Wei-Yin Chen tied for the team lead with 2.0 fWAR. Chen was nearly the same pitcher in 2013 that he was in 2012, but an oblique strain limited him to just 137 innings. With the arms coming up through the system, Chen's status in 2015 -- he has a $3.75 million team option lingering -- will likely depend on how well he pitches in 2014.

Giving a four year contract to a pitcher as volatile as Ubaldo Jimenez seems risky, but the Orioles sorely needed a pitcher this talented in their organization. He isn't the ground ball machine that he was for a couple of years in Colorado, but induces enough grounders to keep people from worrying about any homer troubles in Camden Yards. He endured some rough times over the better part of three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, but increased his contract value exponentially with a 1.82 ERA and 2.17 FIP in the second half of 2013. His 3.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio was far better than any full season in his career, so it is unreasonable to expect this dominance to continue. However, he should be a big upgrade over the likes of Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, or anyone else that would have spent time in the rotation.

Jimenez's impact will be felt elsewhere in the rotation as well. For instance, Miguel Gonzalez can finally be the back-end starter that his talent level indicates he is. He posted a 3.25 ERA in 2012, but an 82.6% strand rate and 4.38 FIP suggested that regression was in order in 2013. Instead, he outperformed his FIP by a wide margin for the second consecutive year, posting a 3.78 ERA in 171 1/3 innings. The fifth starter spot will be a battle between Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman, though Norris' name has been floated around in trade rumors. Norris came over in a deal with the Houston Astros last season and is due $5.3 million in 2014, but Gausman is the young prospect with a world of upside. He got hit around at times, but showed flashed of dominance -- a six inning, one run outing against the Tigers in his third start comes to mind -- and struck out a batter per inning.

If the Orioles' rotation does not improve on their 2013 production, I don't like the odds of their bullpen picking up the slack. Gone is Jim Johnson, who recorded consecutive 50 save seasons in 2012 and 2013 despite middling peripherals. In his place is Tommy Hunter, a former starter who follows Johnson's "don't walk anyone" mantra. Submarine righty Darren O'Day held right-handed hitters to a .483 OPS, but doesn't have the chops against lefties to hold down the closer's role. Brian Matusz led the team with 1.0 fWAR, but met his match this spring in a bag of peanuts. Ryan Webb put up a decent ERA in Miami last year, but some iffy peripherals show why he was non-tendered by the Marlins this offseason.

Player to watch: Tommy Hunter

Calling a closer the "player to watch" is an invitation to keep an eye on the entire bullpen. Between the Grant Balfour physical fiasco and the trade that sent Jim Johnson to Oakland, the Orioles' bullpen looks poised to take a monumental drop from the outfit that backed the surprising 2012 playoff run. Hunter posted a 2.81 ERA and 3.63 xFIP in 2013, a huge improvement from his failed attempt at holding down a starting gig in 2012. His 0.99 WHIP was impressive, but his fly ball tendencies in a hitter friendly park are not. Regardless of how he gets it done, the Orioles need Hunter to lock down the ninth inning in 2013 in order to stabilize an already shaky bullpen.

Outlook

There are some question marks on this roster (especially on the pitching side) but as the 2012 Orioles showed, flawed teams can make playoff runs too. They will definitely hit, especially if Chris Davis shows us that he truly is Thor in baseball form. The most enticing thing about them is the young pitching talent making its way through the system. It is not out of the question to think that both Gausman and Dylan Bundy could be in the rotation if the O's are in contention come August. However, it may be too much to expect the current pitching staff to successfully navigate the AL East for four months, especially with the Yankees' shocking decision to have an offense on their roster. The O's have a decent-sized window, but might be a step away from contention in 2014.

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