Man, it's a good thing the Baltimore Orioles are finally healthy. After losing Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries, and 2013 home run king Chris Davis to injury-related regression, the Orioles went into the tank and were unable to keep pace with their AL East rivals. The O's finished well behind the rest of the pack, but are looking to bounce back in 2015 now that everyone is healthy.
At least, that's the way the story should have gone. Teams don't get a combined 235 games out of three cornerstone players and finish the season 30 games over .500. They aren't supposed to win their division by 12 games. They certainly aren't supposed to do so without a player in the MVP or Cy Young conversations.
Yet, this is exactly what the Orioles were able to pull off in 2014. Wieters, Machado, and Davis faltered, but were picked up by Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz -- the only two Orioles to receive MVP votes -- and breakout wonder Steve Pearce. Their rotation was an above average unit with below average peripherals, posting a 3.61 ERA and the highest FIP-ERA differential in the American League. Their bullpen was able to withstand a mid-May closer change, and was bolstered by a midseason trade for Andrew Miller. The overall package became more than the sum of its parts, and the O's were all but an unstoppable force until they ran into the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS.
We know that the Orioles are a good team, a fact proven by back-to-back-to-back winning seasons. However, between losing Cruz, Miller, and Nick Markakis to free agency, and the re-addition of their injured stars, where do the Orioles stand in 2015? You don't want to overlook a team that so thoroughly dominated its divisional competition the season prior -- they were 47-29 against the AL East in 2014 -- but it's safe to question whether that type of performance is truly sustainable. Can the Orioles prove their doubters wrong once again in 2015?
The Orioles lost 54 home runs and 158 RBI from last year's lineup via free agency, and the new addition called upon to replace that production was... Travis Snider. The 27-year-old outfielder is by no means a savior, but he was a solid acquisition for the O's after hitting .264/.338/.438 with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. Snider is one of several players competing for playing time in the outfield, but he has a leg up on David Lough, who will start the season on the disabled list. Alejandro De Aza will get his fair share of at-bats, but the .877 OPS he posted in 20 games with the Orioles last September isn't likely to continue. Steve Pearce spent some time in left field last year, but his bat will determine how often he is in the lineup. The 31-year-old broke out in a big way last season, hitting .293/.373/.556 with 21 home runs in 383 plate appearances. If he can prove the 2014 season wasn't a fluke, this lineup could be dangerous. Centerfielder Adam Jones also had the best season of his career in 2014, accumulating 5.5 WAR. His walk rate bottomed out at just 2.8 percent, but he hit 29 home runs and had a 117 wRC+.
It's safe to expect Jones to keep hitting, but the Orioles also need first baseman Chris Davis to rediscover the swing that made him one of the most dangerous hitters in the game in 2012 and 2013. He strained an oblique in late April and wasn't able to do much after that, hitting just .196/.300/.404 in 525 plate appearances. The power and plate discipline are still there, so any uptick in batting average should pay big dividends. Davis will also see time at DH when Buck Showalter moves the lineup around, relegating Delmon Young to bench duty. Young, who delivered the knockout blow in Game 2 of the ALDS, hit .302/.337/.442 last season. Like Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos, O's second baseman Jonathan Schoop showed flashes of promise in an otherwise forgettable rookie season. Schoop hit .209/.244/.354 last year, but hit 16 home runs and played above average defense. We tend to forget that rookies are supposed to struggle, so a breakout performance in 2015 wouldn't be a surprise.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy will open the season on the disabled list, giving free agent signing Everth Cabrera a chance to regain the All-Star form he showed in 2013 before a PED suspension ended his season. Cabrera stole 81 bases in 2012 and 2013, and draws enough walks to make his speed a true asset. Hardy only hit nine home runs last year -- a major step back from three consecutive 20-homer seasons -- but won his third consecutive Gold Glove. Third baseman Manny Machado is coming off another knee surgery, but is still only 22 years old. He has been extremely effective when healthy, posting 9.8 WAR in just over 1200 career plate appearances. If he is able to withstand a full season, Orioles fans should expect numbers close to the All-Star campaign he had in 2013.
Catcher Matt Wieters will also begin the year on the DL after having Tommy John surgery last June. He is expected to stay in extended spring training before beginning a rehab assignment, but his overall timetable is still an unknown. Position players don't typically take as long to come back from Tommy John as pitchers, so an April return isn't out of the question. Caleb Joseph was a solid replacement for Wieters last season, throwing out a league-leading 40 percent of base stealers. Joseph doesn't have Wieters' offensive upside -- he had a .618 OPS in 275 plate appearances -- but was still worth 0.8 WAR in his limited playing time, roughly a two-win pace.
One of the big reasons for the Orioles' success in 2014 was the health of their starting rotation. They only used seven starters last season, and lefthander T.J. McFarland only started one game. All six of the pitchers that started the other 161 games are back in 2015, led by righthander Chris Tillman. The ace of the Orioles' staff has been pining for a contract extension this spring, and it's hard to say that he doesn't deserve it. Tillman worked over 200 innings for the second consecutive season last year, allowing a 3.34 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. His 4.01 FIP wasn't quite as sparkly -- this will be a theme with this Orioles staff -- but he cut down his home run rate significantly. Tillman also shut down the running game, allowing just one stolen base in four attempts all year long. Righthander Kevin Gausman is the most exciting starter of the group thanks to a mid-90s fastball, but he appears to be the odd man out after a subpar spring. The buzz is that he will head to the bullpen for the time being, not the minors.
If Gausman is to replace anyone in the Orioles' rotation, it would be the high-priced Ubaldo Jimenez. After a stellar end to the 2013 season, Jimenez collapsed in 2014, allowing a 4.81 ERA in 125 1/3 innings. He and Gausman were the only ones to have a lower FIP than ERA, a surprise considering he walked 13.9 percent of the batters he faced. Jimenez has three years and $38.75 million left on his contract, but the Orioles were not shy about tucking him into a long relief role when he was struggling towards the end of 2014. Miguel Gonzalez played with fire like no other pitcher in baseball last season, posting a 3.23 ERA that was 1.67 runs below his 4.89 FIP. No pitcher had a larger differential last season, and only one other -- Nationals righthander Doug Fister -- had a 1.5-run difference. Gonzalez's main issue is allowing too many home runs, which will happen when you're a fly ball pitcher that calls Camden Yards home. Ironically, he had a higher ERA on the road last season.
Lefthander Wei-Yin Chen led the Orioles' rotation with a 3.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year and was one of two non-McFarland starters to have a FIP below 4.00. He has lowered his home run rate since allowing 29 home runs in his rookie season, but still gave up more than one home run per nine innings in 2014. Chen, who turns 30 at the end of July, will also be a free agent at the end of the season. Righthander Bud Norris was one of the Orioles' heroes in the ALDS, outdueling David Price at Comerica Park in Game 3 of the series. He wasn't quite so good in his next start, but this is how Norris operated for most of 2014. He had 10 starts with zero or one runs allowed, and 11 with four or more runs allowed. The "boom or bust" performance was enough to win him 15 games, second-most on the team (behind Chen).
The Orioles' bullpen got plenty of praise after they helped dismantle the Tigers in the ALDS, but a lot of the love was directed at Buck Showalter's management rather than the individual performances provided. Zach Britton helped stabilize the bullpen after Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez knocked Tommy Hunter out of his closer role in early May, allowing a 1.65 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 76 1/3 innings. He was 37 of 41 in save opportunities, and only allowed one run after August 15. Darren O'Day is one of the best setup men in baseball and has no problem mowing down right-handed batters with his sidearm delivery. He was also able to subdue lefties in 2014, holding them to a .633 OPS. Lefty Brian Matusz was almost traded to the New York Mets this spring, and should fill a middle relief role if another team doesn't come calling soon. Hunter is also still in the picture, and he deserves credit for getting back on track last year. After June 1, Hunter allowed a 1.83 ERA and a .479 OPS in 44 1/3 innings.
Down on the farm
With Kevin Gausman officially graduated to the major leagues, the Orioles' system took a slight hit relative to other teams on this year's farm system rankings. Their shallow system ranks among the bottom third of baseball, though they have enough impact talent to stay a tier above the dregs of the league. Dylan Bundy appears to be fully healthy after having Tommy John surgery in 2013. The 22-year-old was once considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, and is fast approaching that title after an encouraging finish in 2014. Hunter Harvey is another power arm with potential ace upside, but he is a few years further away from the majors than Bundy. There isn't much in the way of positional talent, but they have a couple of nice young pieces already at the big league level in Machado and Schoop.
Player to watch: Chris Davis
Whether you call him Crush, Thor, or some other name hinting at superhuman strength, know this: Chris Davis has some serious power. He hit 26 home runs and posted a .209 ISO in 2014, and this was a major drop-off from what he did in the previous two seasons. Of course, a .196 batting average also had something to do with that, leading to a 94 wRC+ in 525 plate appearances. The Orioles need Davis to get back on track if they are to replace the Nelson Cruz-sized void left in the middle of their lineup. Davis still demonstrated good plate discipline last season, walking 11 percent of the time. However, he might have been a bit too passive, swinging at a career-low 46.9 percent of pitches he saw. If he goes into attack mode and returns to form, the O's might be AL East favorites.
Once again, projection systems are down on the Orioles. PECOTA projects them for 79 wins and a last place finish, while Fangraphs gives then a 17.9 percent chance of making the postseason, also last in their division. However, after bucking the trend for three consecutive years, it seems the Orioles know something that the computers don't. Another 96-win season probably isn't in the cards, but the Orioles should be in the thick of the AL East race if Wieters, Machado, and Davis are effective. They won't beat up on their own division like last year, though, and might end up on the periphery of the playoff picture if the injuries start to pile up again.