AL East Preview: Baltimore Orioles

The Winter of Eternal Waiting concluded with the Orioles doing exactly what most thought they needed. General Manager Dan Duquette upgraded the rotation by signing Ubaldo Jimenez. He added to a bullpen by signing Ryan Webb and Evan Meek. The lineup was bolstered by the addition of Nelson Cruz and David Lough. The bench was deepened with the late spring acquisition of Steve Lombardozzi and the value free agent signing of Delmon Young.  In all, Duquette improved the club that is coming off of an 85 win season and a third place finish.

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The 2014 American League East projects to be tougher than ever. The Red Sox are entering the season as the defending champion and even though they didn’t really improve, they are still talented enough to compete. The Rays feature their deepest team in years. The Yankees reloaded. The Blue Jays have the most questions, but the offense is powerful and the rotation has two solid anchors at the top that will allow the Blue Jays to be competitive.

The Orioles are often, and accurately, described as having the best core of offensive players in the division. They are a club that features a legitimate 40 home run hitter in Chris Davis, an advantage that cannot be overstated in this new era of declining power hitters. Adam Jones is in the middle of his prime seasons, while JJ Hardy, Matt Wieters, Cruz, and Manny Machado–once he returns–help form one of the most powerful lineups in the sport. And, because of Duquette’s moves, the Orioles are deeper in pitching than they have been in years. The proof is in the fact that once relied upon starters such as Zach Britton and Brian Matusz are in the bullpen while number one prospect Kevin Gausman will begin the year at triple-A despite a lights out spring. With a powerful offense, an elite defense, and an improved pitching staff, the Orioles enter the season amongst the contenders of the American League. With the knowledge that the Duquette-led Orioles have no problem acquiring players during the season, the organization is in a good position. Do they have enough to compete in the American League East?

 

The Good

Legitimate Power

Last season, the Orioles led the American League with 212 home runs. They were also third in doubles, leading to the fourth best slugging percentage in the league. There is every reason to believe that they can repeat that performance. Many are calling for a serious regression season for Chris Davis. The 28 year old did have a decline in the second half of the season, but he did finish with 53 home runs and another 42 doubles. The likelihood of another 50 home run season slim, but Davis has shown improvement in each of the past three seasons. His power surge was not entirely unexpected and is within his skill set. His walk rate has improved from 5.2 percent in 2011 to a career best 10.6 percent in 2013. While he has maintained his 30 percent strikeout rate–one of the highest in the league–Davis has shown increased patience each season, posting a swing percentage of 57 percent in 2011 down to 51 percent last season. His approach has improved as he is one of the more disciplined hitters in the sport. Davis will supply elite level power.

Flanking Davis is a solid core of power hitters. Adam Jones won’t walk much, but he is coming off of his second consecutive 30 home run, .490+ slugging season. JJ Hardy has hit at least 22 home runs in each of the past three seasons. While Matt Wieters hasn’t developed into the offensive star many thought, he is a 20+ home run hitter. Nelson Cruz has hit at least 22 home runs in every season since 2010. Prospect Jonathan Schoop is another power threat at second base. In all, the Orioles will line up with six power threats. Once Manny Machado comes back, they could have seven of their nine hitters as 20 home run+ hitters. No team in the division has that type of power.

Rotation Depth

Kevin Gausman had a tremendous spring and is one of the Orioles best pitchers. Yet, he is starting the season in the Minor Leagues. That is a tribute to the depth the Orioles have created. Chris Tillman will once again lead the rotation following his breakout 2013 season that saw him pitch 206.1 innings to a 3.74 ERA while posting a 21.9 percent strikeout rate and an 8.1 percent walk rate. Tillman improved as the season wore on, leading to a swing and miss rate with pitches in the strike zone of 13.4 percent. Tillman was helped by the Orioles’ elite defense as his 4.42 FIP, but he is durable with good peripheral statistics.

There might not have been a better pitcher during the second half of the 2013 season than Ubaldo Jimenez as the right hander led the Indians to the playoffs with his remarkable second half run of 13 starts, 84 innings, 69 hits, 100 strikeouts, and 1.82 ERA. While Jimenez won’t be that guy for the Orioles, he is a durable strikeout pitcher capable of giving 200 better than league average innings and posting a strikeout rate around 18 to 20 percent. Jimenez struggled in 2011 and 2012, but he was still able to make all of his starts, pitch innings, and give near league average results. 2013 saw Jimenez return to being better than that and 2014 should be more of the same–200 innings, 20 percent strikeout rate and a 3.75 to 4.00 ERA. That’s an improvement for the Orioles as they now have two durable pitchers atop their rotation.

The rest of the rotation is filled by Wei-Yen Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. While they aren’t household names, Chen has been successful–4.04 ERA in 55 starts– when he has been able to take the ball during his two years in Baltimore. Gonzalez has been even better, compiling a 3.58 ERA in 43 starts over his two seasons. Norris is a high strikeout pitcher who projects to be a solid fifth starter in the division. And, if anyone falters, Kevin Gausman is waiting.

The Orioles don’t have a dominant rotation, but they do have five solid starters who should pitch well enough to allow the powerful offense to score enough runs to win.

Elite Defense  

Last year, the Orioles had a +17 defensive runs saved rating and a +39.9 UZR, which allowed them to rank second in the American League according to defensive WAR. They might be able to do even better this season because of the addition of David Lough in left field. The entire American League East plays above average defensive according to the metrics, but the Orioles profile as the best defensive club in the division. It is a major strength considering the lack of strikeouts the pitching staff generates.

Versatility

The entire roster is versatile on a number of levels. Ryan Flaherty can play any position in the infield at a high level. Steve Lombardozzi is an above average utility player. David Lough can play any position in the outfield. Offensively, Steve Pearce offers a power bat against left handed pitching. The everyday lineup features four left handed batters and a switch hitter, giving opposing pitching staffs matchup problems.

The bullpen also gives some versatility as Britton is capable of multiple innings. Darren O’Day is tough on right handed hitters. Each pitcher gives a different look, giving the Orioles a bullpen that could have the ability to mix and match well.

 

The Questionable

Bullpen

Despite the versatility, the bullpen does have questions. Tommy Hunter, who hasn’t been told he is the closer just yet, hasn’t closed over a full season. Darren O’Day has to show he is better than just a right handed specialist. Evan Meek and Josh Stinson will need to contribute. Buck Showalter will have to guard against burning Ryan Webb out. Last season, the Orioles bullpen ranked a mediocre 9th according to bullpen WAR, despite pitching the fifth most innings in the league. The relievers had 5th worst strikeout rate and just the ninth best FIP.

The improved rotation should ease the burden a bit, but of all the aspects of the team, the bullpen has the most questions. The group may very well answer those questions because of its versatility and pitchers capable of pitching multiple innings, but they lack the quintessential strikeout pitcher and the track record to be considered reliable.

Strikeouts

It wasn’t only the relievers who couldn’t strike batters out. As a whole, the 2013 Orioles had the third worst strikeout rate in the league, beating only the Twins and Astros. While strikeouts aren’t the only important aspect of a staff, the extreme lack of strikeouts puts an inordinate amount of pressure on a defense. The Orioles do have an elite defense, but if balls are continually put into play, the odds of problems increase.

Getting On Base

The Orioles may be the most powerful club, but they are one of the worst in terms of getting on base. The 2013 version got on base at just a .313 rate, ranking just 10th in the league. This was not addressed this offseason as no new Orioles hitter is an on base threat. Nelson Cruz’s last three years of on base percentages are as follows: .312, .319, and .327. David Lough is coming off a season with a .311 on base percentage. Delmon Young has never been an on base threat and Jonathan Schoop fits right in with the all power, low on base guys that the Orioles have. Home runs are great, but they are better with more runners on.

Most Important Player

Ubaldo Jimenez has to be more of the pitcher he was last year than the one who struggled through the 2011 and 2012 season. If he is the former, the Orioles have a legitimate top-two. If he returns to being the frustrating pitcher who can’t find the plate and serves up the home run on a regular basis, the Orioles’ chances of finishing closer to fifth are better than finishing in first or second. The Orioles need 200 innings with a high strikeout rate from their biggest free agent acquisition if they are to truly compete.

Under the Radar Player

JJ Hardy doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Not many realize that his 25 home runs tied him with Troy Tulowitzki for the Major League lead for home runs by a shortstop. His 11.3 percent strikeout rate was fourth best amongst starting shortstops. His .322 wOBA ranked fifth best. Defensively, his 8 defensive runs saved was fourth best in Major League Baseball. By most defensive metrics, Hardy was the fourth best defensive shortstop in the sport. He enters his walk season, looking for his last big contract.

Farmhand to Know

Gausman is the Orioles’ best prospect and will make a great impact this season. Dylan Bundy is on the rehab trail and could be an asset during the month of September.

Breakout Player

The core of the team is pretty much all “broken out”. Manny Machado’s talent is off the charts, but he is coming back from an injury. He’ll improve. The player with the best chance of a breakout is catcher Matt Wieters. 2013 was a lost season on the offensive side of things, but as the switch hitting catcher enters his age 28 season and looking towards a free agency payday, could finally be the 30 home run hitting catcher many foresaw a few years ago. A .260/.330/.490 season with 30 home runs isn’t all that unrealistic.

Likely Scenario

The Orioles will be in the thick of the pennant race from day one. The Rays may run away a bit from the rest of the division, but the Orioles are every bit as talented as the Yankees and Red Sox. With the team that projects to the healthiest and have a General Manager who isn’t afraid to add during the season, the club will fight for a playoff berth.

Final Prediction

The Orioles win 88 to 90 games, finish in second or third place in the AL East, but snag the second Wild Card.

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About the author


Gary Armida  

Gary Armida is a Father to the best little girl in the world. After that, he is a writer who has been covering Major League Baseball since 2007. During that time, Gary operated FullCountpitch.com, one of the first independent online sites that gained Major League Baseball media credentials. Over the years, he has covered two Winter Meetings and has written feature articles for a variety of outlets while interviewing Major League personnel such as Rick Peterson, Jason Giambi, Zack Wheeler, Jeff Luhnow, Jack Zduriencik, Michael Bourn, and many others. In addition to his work at BSL, Gary contributes to USA Today Sports Weekly and maintains his personal site, garyarmida.com, that serves as his portfolio as well as a place for additional content.


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