Two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles were a team on the rise, finishing two games behind the Yankees in the AL East with a 93-69 record and making the playoffs for the first time since 1997. After beating the Rangers in the Wild Card Game and losing to New York 3-2 in closely contested ALDS, the future looked promising for the O’s.
Instead of contending in 2013, the Orioles regressed, finished 12 games behind the first-place Red Sox and missed the postseason with an 85-77 record. What went wrong? Simple: They had one of the top offenses in baseball (only four teams scored more than their 745 runs), but their starting rotation was one of the worst with a 4.57 ERA.
The signing of Ubaldo Jimenez is expected to improve the rotation, and the late signing of another big bat in Nelson Cruz means the Orioles should be even better in 2014. Yet, given the strength of the AL East from top to bottom, are these moves enough to earn a trip to the postseason?
The Orioles led the majors last season with 212 home runs — 24 more than runner-up Seattle’s 188. Expect even more power this year with the services of Cruz, who compiled 27 home runs and 76 RBI in only 109 games before his 50-game PED suspension. Leading the way in 2014 is AL Home Run King Chris Davis, whose memorable season of 53 homers, 138 RBI and OPS of 1.004 may be hard to top. Still, the power supply should surge behind Davis, with contributions from center fielder Adam Jones (.285, 33 HR, 108 RBI), shortstop J.J. Hardy (.263, 25 HR, 76 RBI) and catcher Matt Wieters (22 HR, 79 RBI). Although his offensive numbers declined over the past four years, Nick Markakis is a lock in right, while Nolan Reimold, David Lough and Cruz will platoon in left and share DH duties.
Good news for emerging superstar Manny Machado (.283, 14 HR, 71 RBI): His knee is healing faster than anticipated, and he appears to be “getting close.” However, he went on the DL Sunday and wisely cautioned reporters that the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and he will take as long as is necessary to get back into the lineup. Holding down the hot corner until Machado’s return — which could be anywhere from a few weeks to a month or so — is Ryan Flaherty, who was expected to take over second base from the departed Brian Roberts.
With Flaherty sliding over to third, the battle for second appeared to be between rookie Jonathan Schoop and Jemile Weeks, acquired as part of the trade that sent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland A’s. However, the Orioles roster continued revolving Monday when 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez was traded to the Detroit Tigers for 25-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, whose arrival may delay the Schoop era a little while longer. Steve Clevenger, on the other hand, was named the backup catcher when his chief competion, Johnny Monell, was demoted to make room for Lombardozzi.
Pitching was the Achilles’ heel last season, and Orioles fans have to wonder if the front office did enough to secure a postseason trip. Chris Tillman is the No. 1 starter after winning 16 games and compiling an impressive 2.63 K/BB (179/68) last season. Despite a so-so spring Jimenez and his four-year, $50 million deal is slotted at No. 2, while lone lefty Wei-Yin Chen has secured the No. 3 spot. Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris complete the rotation, but manager Buck Showalter has yet to determine who will fill which spot at the end of the rotation.
Signed to a minor league contract in the offseason, Johan Santana could be a steal if he regains form after multiple shoulder surgeries. The two-time Cy Young winner is on pace for a June 1 return which could help solidify the rotation if he’s effective.
After Johnson was traded and the Grant Balfour free-agent debacle left the Orioles without a bona fide closer, former starter Tommy Hunter will be the first in the bullpen to tackle the closer role. Since he didn’t earn a spot in the starting rotation, lefty Zach Britton becomes a flexible middle-innings and spot starter option. Another lefty, Brian Matusz, along with righties Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb also have secured bullpen roles.
Opening day lineup
1. Nick Markakis, RF
2. Ryan Flaherty, 3B
3. Chris Davis, 1B
4. Adam Jones, CF
5. Nelson Cruz, DH
6. Matt Wieters, C
7. J.J. Hardy, SS
8. David Lough/Nolan Reimold, LF
9. Jemile Weeks/Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
This is where Orioles fans start salivating because the pitching prospects down on the farm could be with the big club during the 2014 season.
Dylan Bundy, a former first-round pick with the mid-90s fastball, is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and should be back in the system around June. Another former first-round pick, pitcher Kevin Gausman, got a cup of coffee last year and should get the call within the first month or two, which could greatly improve the rotation.
Others to keep an eye on include Eduardo Rodriguez, a southpaw from Venezuela won 10 games on two levels last year, Hunter Harvey, Tim Berry and Mike Wright. On the offensive side, watch for catcher Michael Ohlman, who won the Carolina League batting (.313) and slugging (.524) titles.
It could be a very long year in Baltimore if the pitching doesn’t deliver for a second year in a row. The Orioles should score a lot, but will it be enough? The cavalry may come in the form of Schoop, Bundy and Gausman as midseason replacements, which could make the Orioles more competitive as the year progresses. Still, it’s difficult seeing the Orioles leapfrogging the defending Word Series champion Red Sox, a much-improved Yankees team or the always scrapping and winning Tampa Bay Rays. Another 85-win season is reachable, but it won’t be enough to make the postseason.