Baltimore Orioles 2014 Preview

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Solid core may not be enough to compete in tough AL East

The Orioles made big strides over the past two seasons, even without qualifying for the playoffs last season, but they appear to have taken a step backward, even considering the late flurry of roster upgrades heading into spring training.

Two years after posting a winning record and making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, the Baltimore Orioles look like a team that’s destined to finish closer to the bottom of the AL East than the top. The rotation lacks innings-eaters, the back end of the bullpen lacks a proven closer, and it’s anybody’s guess who will bat leadoff or play second base. The Orioles have a nice core group of players, one of the best in baseball, but that’s probably not enough to put them ahead of the big spenders in their own division. Or even ahead of the Rays.


Rotation 

Chris Tillman is the undisputed ace of this staff after winning 16 games with a 3.71 ERA last year and being chosen to the All-Star team. But he may have more help this season. Ubaldo Jimenez, signed just before spring training, won 13 games for Cleveland last season after putting together a terrific second half. Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris are pretty much assured spots in the rotation. Chen, who missed two months with an oblique injury, is the likely No. 3 starter behind Tillman and Jimenez. He just needs to maintain his effectiveness past the sixth inning. Gonzalez seems to benefit from extra rest, which isn’t always available to him. Norris was bothered by elbow stiffness in September. The fifth spot could go to lefthander Zach Britton, who’s out of options, but he’ll need to earn it, as well as have one of the others slip. Former first-round pick Kevin Gausman has an outside shot at making the rotation, but he’s probably still a year away. The club would like him to have another solid season at Triple-A.


Bullpen 

The Orioles backed out of their two-year, $15 million agreement with Grant Balfour following his physical, leaving Tommy Hunter as the likely replacement for closer Jim Johnson, who posted 101 saves the past two seasons. Hunter has four career saves, all of them in 2013. It’s a gamble. There are quality setup men in Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal after the Marlins non-tendered him. The club believes in Suk-Min Yoon from Korea enough to sign him to a three-year deal. He has enjoyed success in Korea and in international competition. He could be a huge boost by providing quality innings for starters who last only five innings. Two other righthanders acquired during the offseason, Brad Brach and Edgmer Escalona, might be competing for one spot. Brian Matusz dominates lefthanders and struggles mightily with righthanders, earning him the designation of lefty specialist. Troy Patton is the other lefty in the pen, but he’ll sit out the first 25 games while serving a suspension for a second positive test for amphetamines. The Orioles have lots of candidates for the long relief spot, including Josh Stinson and Britton, both out of options.


Middle Infield

J.J. Hardy is a certainty at shortstop despite all the trade rumors swirling around him over the winter. He’s in the final year of his contract, and the Orioles want to talk about an extension for him. He’s topped 20 home runs in three consecutive seasons and gives the team Gold Glove defense. He’s the infield leader. Second base is a riddle after Brian Roberts left via free agency. Former Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty is the leading candidate to replace him, but he’ll have to beat out Jemile Weeks, who was acquired from the A’s for Johnson. Jonathan Schoop might be the long-term solution, but he’s expected to begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.


Corners 

Manny Machado won a Gold Glove in his first full season in the majors, and his first full season at third base. He pretty much dazzled on a nightly basis, and any talk of moving him to shortstop, his natural position, has been tabled for now. After suffering a serious knee injury last in the year, he’s spent the winter trying to make himself ready by Opening Day. If he’s still a bit gimpy in April, Flaherty will likely hold down the fort at third. But Machado will be sorely missed both offensively and defensively. Chris Davis finished third in AL MVP voting after belting 53 home runs and driving in 138 runs. He also was a finalist for a Gold Glove at first base after looking so bad at the position in 2012. The Orioles are set at the corners, but Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar will try to stay on the roster as a backup at both positions.


Outfield 

Center fielder Adam Jones won his third Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger Award after totaling 35 doubles, 33 homers and 108 RBIs. He’s played in 162 and 160 games the past two seasons, respectively, so he can add durability to his impressive résumé. Nick Markakis is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $15 million this year. The Orioles hold a $17.5 million option for 2015, but it’s not likely to be exercised. Markakis remains a plus-defender, but he posted a career-low 24 doubles, 10 homers and .685 OPS. He must rediscover his power. Nate McLouth is gone, having signed a free-agent deal with the Nationals, and David Lough is expected to replace him in left field. Lough, acquired from the Royals for infielder Danny Valencia, finished eighth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He’s a plus-defender who hits lefties much better than McLouth. Nolan Reimold, recovering from a second surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck, could platoon with Lough. Henry Urrutia is raw defensively and better suited to DH. The Orioles also signed former Giants outfielder Francisco Peguero and will give him a shot to win a job.


Catching 

The Orioles haven’t made any progress in signing Matt Wieters to an extension. He’s two years away from free agency and a Scott Boras client. This may not end well. In the meantime, Wieters continues to provide stellar defense behind the plate, and he’s got 20-plus homer power. However, his average slipped to .235 and his OBP to .287. That’s a concern. Baltimore native Steve Clevenger, acquired from the Cubs last July, is the frontrunner to back up Wieters. Johnny Monell, acquired from the Giants, is on the 40-man roster and will try to unseat Clevenger.


DH/Bench

Baltimore waited until the final hour in the offseason to jump into the free agency fray. The club signed former Ranger Nelson Cruz in addition to Jimenez as teams were assembling in Florida and Arizona. Cruz provides a huge boost at DH. Last season. the Orioles were among the worst in the league in production from the extra hitter. The Orioles lack a backup middle infielder if Flaherty is starting at second base. He could slide over to shortstop if the Orioles keep Weeks and put him at second. Almanzar will be given every chance to stick on the 25-man roster, but he’s limited defensively. He’d have to serve as a backup at the infield corners. Lough and Reimold may end up sharing left field and the fourth outfield spot. With the signing of Cruz, Urrutia may be the odd man out. He’s limited defensively and Cruz won’t leave him many at-bats at DH. Outfielder Steve Pearce is out of options, and the Orioles will try to find a spot for him. They like his bat, though his skill set is too similar to Reimold’s. Can they both exist on the same roster?


Management

The Orioles have posted a winning record in Dan Duquette’s two seasons as executive vice president of baseball operations. They made the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997. His specialty is depth moves, which prove valuable at times but don’t appease a frustrated fan base that’s still waiting for a big signing or trade. The Johnson deal with the A’s was extremely unpopular with players, and manager Buck Showalter couldn’t have been celebrating it. Showalter is one of the best managers in the game — few if any operate a bullpen any better — but he can only do so much. Will he grow frustrated with the Orioles’ refusal to spend money and regret signing that extension? The club’s reputation took another serious hit with the Balfour fiasco, raising questions over how much owner Peter Angelos is calling the shots.


Final Analysis 

The Orioles made big strides over the past two seasons, even without qualifying for the playoffs last season, but they appear to have taken a step backward, even considering the late flurry of roster upgrades heading into spring training. The Orioles have an outstanding nucleus of players in Jones, Markakis, Machado, Hardy, Davis and Wieters. Most clubs envy the Orioles for rolling out that group each night. But the rotation has too many guys who can’t regularly work into the late innings; Hunter is no sure thing at closer; and making Flaherty the starting second baseman weakens the bench. At some point, the only way to keep pace in baseball’s toughest division is to make a big acquisition.

Lineup
RF    Nick Markakis (L)    
Could bat in leadoff spot by default and is a career .329/.375/.441 hitter atop the order.
3B    Manny Machado (R)    
Orioles still confident Machado will be ready by mid-April, if not Opening Day, after undergoing knee surgery.
1B    Chris Davis (L)    
Team MVO led majors with 53 home runs, 96 extra-base hits and 370 total bases.
CF    Adam Jones (R)    
Had 30 home runs, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in same season for first time.
DH    Nelson Cruz (R)    
After serving a 50-game suspension for his connection with Biogenesis, Cruz rejected Texas’ $14.1 million qualifying offer and settled for eight million from the O’s.
C    Matt Wieters (S)  
 Coming off career-low .235 batting average and .287 OBP, but his defense remains superb.
SS    J.J. Hardy (R)    
Exceeded 20 homers for a third straight season and won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
LF    David Lough (L)    
Placed eighth in AL Rookie of the Year voting with Royals after hitting .286.
2B    Ryan Flaherty (L)    
More valuable in a utility role but might be forced to start as Brian Roberts’ replacement.


Bench
OF    Nolan Reimold (R)    
Limited to 56 games past two seasons with injuries and two surgeries to fuse vertebrae in neck.
INF    Jemile Weeks (S)    
Will compete for second base job after arriving in Jim Johnson trade with A’s.
C    Steve Clevenger (L)    
Local product acquired from Cubs with Scott Feldman in Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop trade.
OF    Henry Urrutia (L)    
Cuban import may be caught in numbers game and begin the season at Triple-A while working to improve outfield skills.
INF    Michael Almanzar (R)    
Rule 5 pick from Red Sox replaces Danny Valancia as right-handed corner infielder/DH.


Rotation
RH    Chris Tillman    
Emerged as staff ace after winning career-high 16 games and logging 206.1 innings.
RH    Ubaldo Jimenez    
The free agent from Cleveland posted a 1.82 ERA in 13 second-half starts.
LH    Wei-Yin Chen    
Tends to lose effectiveness after sixth inning, as evidenced by 10.57 ERA in seventh last year.
RH    Miguel Gonzalez    
Was 7–3 with a 3.48 ERA in first half and 4–5 with a 4.22 ERA in second half.
RH    Bud Norris    
Was 4–3 with a 4.80 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) after trade with Astros.


Bullpen
RH    Tommy Hunter (Closer)    
Leading in-house candidate to be closer despite only four career saves, all coming in 2013.
RH    Darren O’Day    
Righthanders batted .154 against club’s top setup man, but lefties hit .309.
RH    Ryan Webb    
Orioles signed former Marlins sinkerballer to two-year, $4.50 million deal.
RH    Suk-Min Yoon    
The Orioles singed the native of Korea to a three-year deal that guarantees him $5,575,000 and could be worth more than $13 million.
RH    Brad Brach    
Spot opens up for former Padre if Hunter is needed to close; struck out 31 in 31 innings pitched in ’13.
LH    Brian Matusz    
Lefty specialist prefers to start but is hurt by righthanders’ career .305 average.
LH    Troy Patton    
Will miss first 25 games while serving suspension for second positive test for amphetamines.
RH    Josh Stinson    
Possible swingman is out of options; allowed one earned run in 11.1 relief innings.
LH    Zach Britton    
Former top pitching prospect (third-round pick in ’06) is out of options and fighting for roster spot.


2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Harvey, RHP
The son of former major league closer Bryan Harvey was the third consecutive righthander taken by the Orioles in the first round, joining Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Harvey was an easy sign out of Bandys High School in North Carolina, making it known before the draft that he had little interest in going to college (he didn’t even commit to a school). Harvey’s youthful face and slender build make him appear as though he’s in middle school, but he pitched like a pro, allowing five earned runs in 25.1 innings, with six walks and 33 strikeouts. The Orioles split his time between the Gulf Coast League and New York-Penn League, and he could advance to Low-A Delmarva in 2014. He’s still got a few years to go before joining any rotation conversations in Baltimore.

Top Prospects
RHP Kevin Gausman (23)
Will compete for a rotation spot after 2013 debut (3–5, 5.66 ERA) but could start at Triple-A and wait his turn.
RHP Dylan Bundy (21)
Didn’t pitch last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery but could return to the staff in the second half of the 2014 season.
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (20)
Went 10–7, 3.41 ERA in 25 starts at Class A Frederick and Class A Bowie.
INF Jonathan Schoop (22)
Played five games with Orioles in 2013 but likely everyday second baseman at Class AAA Norfolk in April. Could get call-up if Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks struggle.
LHP Tim Berry (23)
From 50th-round pick to spot on the 40-man roster after posting 3.85 ERA in 27 starts at Class A Frederick in 2013.
C Michael Ohlman (23)
Put on 40-man roster after hitting .313/.410/.524 with 29 doubles and 13 homers at Frederick.
C Chance Sisco (19)
Second-round pick in 2013 draft batted .371/.475/.464 with 11 RBIs in 31 games in Gulf Coast League.

Beyond the Box Score
Simple formula The Orioles drew 2,357,561 fans to Camden Yards last season. Why is this important? It’s the first time since 2005 (2,624,740) that their attendance rose above 2.3 million. All it took was two straight winning seasons.
Glove love The Orioles had six finalists for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award: Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters. That’s the most of any club in baseball. Hardy, Jones and Machado won, pushing the Orioles (67) past the Yankees (65) for most by any AL team.
Silver rush The Orioles led the majors with three Silver Slugger winners — Davis, Hardy and Jones, who each received their first award. The three winners were the most in a single season in Orioles history, and the first since DH Aubrey Huff in 2008.
Doubling up Jones and Hardy were two of four players in the majors to win Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards in 2013. They joined Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt and St. Louis’ Yadier Molina.
Going Yards The Orioles hit 115 home runs at Camden Yards, the third-most in club history behind 127 in 2012 and 121 in 1996. The 115 homers at home led the majors by 13 over the Cubs. The 232 total home runs hit at Camden Yards set a record, passing the 229 hit in 1996.
Mistake-free The Orioles’ 119 errorless games set a major-league record, surpassing the 2008 Astros (113 in 161 games) for most since 1900. They committed 54 errors to set a major league record for fewest in a 162-game season, surpassing the 2003 Mariners (65). The Orioles also led the majors with a .991 fielding percentage to break the 2007 Rockies record of .989.
Hit parade The Orioles were the third team in baseball history to have four players with at least 105 hits at the All-Star break, joining the 1954 Cardinals and the 1969 Reds. For the Orioles, Machado had 128 hits, Jones 117, Markakis 108 and Chris Davis 108.  
All hands The Orioles hit into a triple play in the eighth inning of an April 12 game at Yankee Stadium. The scoring went 4-6-5-6-5-3-4, the first time that every infielder got a putout or assist in a triple play since the Cubs on Aug. 8, 1985. It was the 18th time in Orioles history that they hit into a triple play.

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