Baltimore Orioles Season Preview: Contenders or Pretenders?
After 15 years of futility, the Baltimore Orioles have finally fielded a competitive team over the past two seasons.
In 2012, the Birds overcame a mediocre run differential by having extreme success in one-run games to reach the postseason. Once they got there, the Orioles, led by Joe Saunders, defeated Yu Darvish and the mighty Texas Rangers in the inaugural AL Wild Card Game before dropping the ALDS to the Raul Ibanez and the New York Yankees in five games.
In 2013, the O’s improved their run differential, but unsurprisingly failed to repeat their performance in close games. Closer Jim Johnson led the league in saves for the second season in a row, but he also led the league in blown saves with nine.
The Orioles could contend again this season, and GM Dan Duquette made offseason moves that support that notion. The Birds decided to surrender their first-round pick to sign Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year contract, then also surrendered their second round pick to sign OF/DH Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal. Further additions of OF David Lough, P Suk-Min Yoon, and P Ryan Webb support the notion that the Birds are in embodying the “win-now” mindset and expect to be in the thick of the AL Pennant race this summer.
Is this a reasonable expectation for the Orioles this season? Let’s see how the 2014 team stacks up around the diamond.
Chris Davis enjoyed an MVP-caliber 2013 campaign, hitting a whopping 53 home runs, which led the league. And it wasn't particularly close. Repeating his elite power numbers despite his propensity for the strikeout may be difficult, but even with a 30% K rate, Davis should be able to knock at least 40 balls out of the park in 2014. He is a poor defender, but barring another acquisition, will not see much time at DH.
Jonathan Schoop’s name may be somewhat of a surprise, but I believe he will receive the most playing time of any Orioles’ second baseman this season. If Schoop’s elite spring training is not enough for him to secure the job, a solid performance in AAA should have him with the parent club by midseason at the latest.
Upon arrival, Schoop, whose ceiling is similar to a Neil Walker profile, could hit .250 with 20 home runs. That is much better than what Weeks or Flaherty could offer, so when Schoop is ready the job will be his.
J.J. Hardy enters the last year of his current contract with the Orioles, and remains one of the more underrated and productive players in the American League. Sure, he refuses to take a walk, but a .250 average, 20-plus home runs and Gold Glove defense is certainly stellar production from a shortstop. There have been rumors of the Orioles talking to Hardy about an extension, which, if the price is right, would help extend the Orioles’ window of contention.
Once he fully recovers from offseason knee surgery, Manny Machado will man the hot corner for the Orioles again this season. When he's on the field, he is arguably the best defender in the American League with a developing bat that could be equally as valuable as his defense in a few seasons. It's unlikely that Machado will be ready for Opening Day, but once he returns, assuming his knee is fully functional, Machado will reclaim his place as one of the best young players in the league.
Speaking of Opening Day, it's possible and maybe even probable that two listed infield reserves, Ryan Flaherty and Steve Lombardozzi, will find themselves penciled in Buck Showalter’s lineup that day. Flaherty’s versatility makes him a useful player for the Birds, but he does not hit enough to merit a starting position.
Lombardozzi, recently acquired for veteran non-roster invitee Alex Gonzalez, will likely begin the season as the second baseman, but is best utilized in a utility role, as he can also play third base and the outfield. The flexibility of these two reserves will be extremely useful for Buck Showalter, especially while Machado is on the DL and if Schoop opens the season in the minors.
The final infielder and potential odd man out is Jemile Weeks, who enjoyed an elite rookie season in 2011, but has struggled in the two ensuing seasons. If he can come close to repeating his 2011 performance, he will pose the biggest long-term challenge to Schoop at second base. Finally, it's worth noting that the Orioles have expressed interest in Mariners’ second baseman Nick Franklin. Schoop’s hot spring has quieted these rumors recently, but if no internal option proves worthy of the job Franklin is the most likely external solution.
Outfield and DH
The loss of LF Nate McLouth via free agency left a hole in left field, but the Orioles filled that hole by dealing 3B/DH Danny Valencia to the Royals for the underrated outfielder David Lough. Underrated? Yes. I bet you didn't know that Lough led all AL Rookies in WAR last season. His bat is solid, with an expected line of a .270 AVG, 10 home runs, and 10 steals. But his real value comes in the field. Lough is seen as a platoon bat, but the left handed hitter actually hit for a higher average against same side pitchers in 2013, albeit in only 65 plate appearances.
Though Lough is the favorite for the left field position, he will face a significant amount of competition. Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia, offseason acquisition Francisco Peguero, injury plagued Nolan Reimold, and returning outfielder Steve Pearce could all see significant time in left field should Lough falter or underwhelm.
All-Star Adam Jones remains one of the best outfielders in the game, providing good average and power, decent speed, and solid up-the-middle defense. There's no reason to believe that he won't produce another All-Star caliber season in 2014. Jones will hit in the middle of the order, play almost every day, and reward many teammates with pies in the face after walkoff victories.
Nick Markakis returns to right field, where he looks to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing 2013 campaign. Lack of power was the biggest issue in 2013, though his defense continued to be far below average. Markakis was once consistently the best player for the Birds, but he has fallen as others have risen, so the longest tenured Oriole is now relegated to the role of a complimentary player.
Free agent signee Nelson Cruz may also see time in the outfield, but as anyone watching Game 6 of the 2011 World Series can attest, it's ideal to keep his bat in the lineup and the glove off of his hand. Cruz will benefit from his cozy new home field in Baltimore, and can be expected to hit roughly .260 with 25 home runs. For a team with abysmal DHs in 2013, Cruz’s bat will be a nice addition to the lineup.
Clearly the Orioles won't carry four outfield reserves, but I included each of these players to show the depth and competition that the Birds have, specifically in left field. Urrutia projects to hit for the highest average of the four reserves, but is still raw in other aspects of the game and could use more minor league seasoning. Steve Pearce is a safer play, offering experience with the big league club and some power, but is a very similar player to Nelson Cruz.
Francisco Peguero, a favorite of Duquette, was highly touted as a prospect, but never had the chance to prove himself in the Majors. However, he may have to wait a bit longer to get his chance with the O’s and appears ticketed for AAA once returning from the DL. Nolan Reimold may be the most likely of these four to begin the season with the Major League club, where he has shown promise but injuries have prevented him from ever establishing himself. This may be his last chance to do so with the Orioles.
Perhaps 2014 will be the season where Wieters finally puts in together offensively, but maybe it's time to accept the fact that he is an elite defender who can hit for power but not average. A switch hitter, Wieters is much better from the right side (.282 vs .214), which has called for some to suggest that he abandon switch-hitting. I haven't heard of any plans for him to do so, which means that we can expect another season of a sub-.250 average with 20-25 home runs. However, that level of offensive output coupled with his tremendous defense still makes Wieters one of the better catchers in the league.
Acquired from the Cubs in the Feldman trade last summer, Clevenger is above average defensively but has posted poor offensive numbers in his MLB career thus far. However, he will likely not be called on very frequently as Wieters, who played in 148 games last season, is the poster boy for durability among catchers.
This is where the question marks begin. Can Chris Tillman really front a rotation that can legitimately compete in the AL East? Which Ubaldo Jimenez will show up in Baltimore? Will Chen, Norris, and Gonzalez prove to be anything more than back-end guys? If given an opportunity, can Zach Britton prove himself as a capable starting pitcher? How will Gausman fare and when will he be called upon?
To be fair, this rotation does have upside. If the dominant Jimenez shows up all year, if Gausman lives up to his massive hype this year, and if Tillman, Chen, and Gonzalez can compliment the top two with quality seasons, then this rotation could be pretty good. However, this is the best-case scenario and isn't probable.
Chris Tillman won 16 games and made the All-Star team last season, but is far from an ace. He has vastly outperformed his FIP during the last few seasons, which is often a sign that regression is imminent. A mere .269 BABIP and an 80.5% strand rate will add to this, so unless Tillman repeats his good fortune in these categories we can expect his ERA to rise to around 4.00.
Ubaldo’s ERA’s over the past four seasons are as follows: 2.88, 4.68, 5.40, and 3.30. Which Ubaldo will show up this season? No one, probably including the Orioles management, knows the answer. He could be anywhere from an outside Cy Young candidate to the next Albert Belle in Baltimore. Was it worth $50 million and a first-round pick to find out? Time will tell.
Wei-Yin Chen has been the model of consistency during his first two years in the states, posting ERAs of 4.02 and 4.07 during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns, respectively. He isn't a superstar, but a quality arm on a team-friendly contract has substantial value in a league where Scott Feldman received a three-year, $30 million dollar deal. Chen fits the profile of a number four starter, but will be expected to fill the third slot in the Orioles’ rotation or possibly the second if Jimenez falters.
Following Chen will be Miguel Gonzalez, one of Dan Duquette’s prized undervalued acquisitions. Plucked from the Mexican League, Miguel Gonzalez has an inspiring backstory about perseverance and overcoming obstacles (he was also good friends with the late Nick Adenhart), but should regress on the mound this season. He has posted ERAs of 3.25 and 3.78 during his first two years in Baltimore, but has also posted FIPs nearly a full run higher. Expect an ERA in the low-4.00s from Gonzalez this year.
Bud Norris, acquired from the Astros at the 2013 trade deadline, is another back-end pitcher who is solid but unspectacular. His fastball-slider combo is effective against right-handed hitters, but Norris’s struggles against lefties have limited his ceiling. Some have suggested that Norris could be moved to the bullpen once Gausman claims a spot in the rotation, where his stuff could play up and he could be similar to current closer by default Tommy Hunter, but these rumors have been shot down recently.
Zach Britton has seemingly been shuffling between Baltimore and AAA Norfolk forever, but now that he is out of minor league options he is likely to stay on the roster as a swingman. Britton offers little upside, but could be a capable replacement pitcher in the event of an injury or ineffectiveness. He does not strikeout many batters but features a quality sinker that results in a lot of ground balls.
Finally, the name on this list with the most hype is top prospect Kevin Gausman. The fourth-overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, Gausman made his MLB debut last year and will certainly contribute at some point in 2014. Gausman initially debuted as a starter, but was probably rushed to the Majors and struggled at first. He returned later in the year in a relief role, where his numbers were much better. Gausman will be a starter from this point forward, where his high-90s fastball, elite changeup, and improving breaking ball should lead to a long and successful career atop the Birds’ rotation.
Ever since the trade of Jim Johnson to the Athletics and the failed signing of Grant Balfour, the MLB community has been wondering about the state of the back end of the Baltimore bullpen. While this is a competent group of relievers, most of them, especially the better ones, are best used against hitters of the same handedness.
Tommy Hunter and Darren O’Day are effective against righties, but tend to struggle against lefties, while lefties Brian Matusz and Troy Patton are the opposite. The newly acquired Ryan Webb has been called a Jim Johnson 2.0 due to his extreme groundball tendencies, but guys who get non-tendered by the Marlins generally don't become good closers the next season. Brach is a sixth inning guy at best, and Britton is a long reliever so they will not be seeing any save opportunities this year.
Taking a closer look at Hunter’s splits, it would not be a surprise to see opposing managers send lefty after lefty to the plate against Hunter this season. Last year’s wOBA against statistics tell the whole story. Hunter dominated right-handed hitters, holding them to a .162 wOBA, but lefties crushed him to the tune of a .369 mark. He will have to improve on this mark if he wants to successfully replace Jim Johnson.
Submariner Darren O’Day is in line to be the primary setup man for the Birds, while Brian Matusz figures to get the call against tough lefties in key spots. The lefty Patton and righties Webb and Brach will handle middle relief duties, with Britton beginning the season as a long reliever and spot starter.
This crew is solid in middle relief, but the real question mark is going to be Tommy Hunter. If he thrives as the closer, Duquette will look like a genius for trading Johnson and reallocating those funds elsewhere in Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, but if not, then this could be a lost season for the Birds. The past two seasons in Baltimore have proven the importance of winning close games, and if the O’s want to defy the odds and make run at the playoffs, they are going to need to find a way to close out close games.
State of the Farm System
The Orioles have a very top-heavy system, with little depth outside of the top four arms and future second baseman Jonathon Schoop. However, when the top four arms are as talented as Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Hunter Harvey, and Eduardo Rodriguez, one can overlook a lack of depth.
Gausman, who debuted in 2013, figures to play a key role near the top of Baltimore’s rotation, possibly as soon as this season. Bundy is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery but if he returns to his pre-Tommy John form he could become the best pitching prospect in professional baseball. That is not an exaggeration.
Hunter Harvey, the Orioles’ most recent first round pick, is much farther away from contributing but also has tremendous upside as a potential number two starter. The final piece to this quartet, Eduardo Rodriguez, is close to being MLB-ready as a solid mid-rotation starter. He lacks the upside of the other three but is also a very safe prospect and should be a useful pitcher on the Baltimore staff for a long time.
Schoop, who leads the rather unimpressive crop of position players, should seize the second base gig in Baltimore as soon as Opening Day this season. He offers solid defense and above average pop from a middle infielder, though there are concerns about his batting average.
Other than Schoop, OF Josh Hart and C Chance Sisco are the highest-rated position player prospects in this system. Hart is a great defender and potential leadoff hitter, while Sisco is a catcher with plus power. Both Hart and Sisco were high school players taken in the most recent draft meaning they are far away from the Major Leagues, but they could see their stock rise with strong showings in their first full seasons of professional baseball.
The Orioles also used their top three picks to upgrade the MLB club during the past calendar year. They received a competitive balance pick from the draft lottery, but sent it to Houston in the Bud Norris trade, then lost their first and second round selections upon signing Jimenez and Cruz respectively. Upon the impending graduations of Gausman, Bundy, Rodriguez and Schoop during either this season or the next and the lack of high draft picks, this system could be awfully thin relatively shortly.
While it would be unfair to simply write the Orioles off, they are certainly not favorites in 2014 and it would be a surprise to see them in the playoffs. Our algorithms project the Orioles to have a record of 79.16 and 82.84, which seem to be on the conservative end of the range of outcomes for their 2014 campaign.
That 80-win figure seems to imply that Chris Davis will regress, Tommy Hunter will fail as the closer, the bad Ubaldo will show up, and collection of guys outperforming their FIPs will all stop doing so at the same time. Sure, this could happen and might even be the most likely scenario for the 2014 season in Baltimore, but there is also the “what if” factor, that if the aforementioned things instead go right, this could be a very good club.
Maybe the good Ubaldo shows up and fronts a rotation where Tillman, Chen and Gonzalez continue to outperform their FIPs. Maybe Gausman comes up midseason and does his best Michael Wacha impersonation. Maybe Chris Davis takes the next step by cutting down on his strikeouts, increasing his walks, and reminds us of Jim Thome in his prime. Maybe Tommy Hunter is the next guy to prove that one does not need prior closing experience to be effective and thrives as the closer.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of ifs, maybes, and possibilities with this team. The range of potential outcomes is greater than that of most other teams, but included in that range is a possibility of everything coming together and this team making a run at the World Series.
This is obviously not the most probable scenario, but Orioles fans do have reason for optimism despite the projections. They beat the odds in 2012, then fielded a better club in 2013, finishing with a worse record. Will their offseason improvements get them back into the playoffs? Don’t bet on it, but it is within the realm of possibility.