The Baltimore Orioles had the kind of regular season in 2014 that gives men, women and children around baseball future hope for their teams. On paper, the Orioles were a mediocre team that many predicted would be lucky to break even, but they wound up blowing away their competition and winning the division by 12 games. Granted, the American League East last year was a shell of its former self with super-powers like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox toppling like Jenga towers. This year’s Orioles team looks awfully similar to last year’s surprise team, but it’s unclear where this team will end up.
The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and midseason trade acquisition Andrew Miller to free agency. They dabbled in pursuing some of the bigger names available, like Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Colby Rasmus, but in the end, they went the “cost-effective” route and added a few odds and ends from around the league (Everth Cabrera and Travis Snider, while re-signing Delmon Young) to help fill the roster holes. When you win 96 games with a mediocre team, it’s understandable if you decide to try to do more of the same. However, the rest of their division looks like they might try to win some games this season with the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays having made significant improvements.
One area of improvement for the Orioles looks to be the health of two of their best players. Manny Machado looks to be at or near 100 percent at the season’s start and by all accounts is back to his old productive self at third base — even promising a few more stolen bases this year. Catcher Matt Wieters is on schedule to be back from Tommy John surgery by opening day, but they are taking it easy on him. The return of these two All-Stars alone should account for any offense lost to free agency. It’s going to be a bit of a juggling act with the lineup, but too many hitters is a much better problem than not enough.
The last few years, the Orioles have lacked a true ace starting pitcher, and with their prolific offense, the team sets up more like a beer league softball team. Chris Tillman is the default “ace” but he and fellow starters Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen all ranked in the 25-30 range for American League pitchers. However, this team setup clearly worked last year — so much so it looks like the Red Sox are putting out a similar “mediocre pitchers plus huge offense” team. The team is still stuck with Ubaldo Jimenez, but Kevin Gausman looked solid last year and has more room to improve. And don’t be surprised if one or both of the Orioles’ minor league starting pitching prospects (see below) comes along and helps make a difference before the season is over.
Last year, the Orioles had one of the best bullpens in baseball with almost an entirely no-name cast. Zach Britton went from being a starting pitcher bust to a late-inning sensation, and he should be the closer this season as well. This is the aspect of baseball management that really separates Buck Showalter from most of the morons that run major league teams, because Showalter is one of the few managers who actually makes a significant difference in his team’s performance. Sure, you can blame some of the team’s success on luck, but how many years in a row do the Orioles need to outperform their projections before we start acknowledging that Showalter elevates his teams in the regular season — much like Bruce Bochy finds a way to elevate his mediocre San Francisco Giants teams when they squeak into the playoffs.
Opening day lineup
Alejandro de Aza LF
Manny Machado 3B
Adam Jones CF
Chris Davis 1B
Matt Wieters C
Steve Pearce DH
J.J. Hardy SS
Travis Snider RF
Jonathan Schoop 2B
Chris Tillman SP
The Orioles farm system is in the bottom third of the league, and it’s likely to get even worse this year. But that’s a good thing because it would mean that potential pitching aces Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey get promoted to the big league squad. Despite the barren Orioles minor leagues, these two are probably the best one-two punch of starting pitcher prospects that any team has. That’s pretty sweet for a team already loaded on offense, and we’ll just ignore the fact that the Orioles traded away potential third ace Eduardo Rodriguez to the Red Sox for the Andrew Miller rental.
The team won 96 games when the were projected to win 79 last year. And this year, all the projection systems have the Orioles coming in at around 77 or so. But I doubt these projection systems have a Showalter setting that increases every player’s ability beyond expectation at the plate, in the field and on the mound. So, what do you say we split the difference and say this team will win 87 games, making it into the playoffs as a wild card. You might disagree, but do you really want to bet against Showalter? I didn’t think so.