This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.
Today we look at the Orioles, whose 2014 playoff run was cut short by a four-game sweep at the hands of the Royals. You know they’re itching to get back and right the ship. But with the pieces they’ve lost, do they have the firepower to do it?
Projected Lineup: LF Alejandro De Aza, 3B Manny Machado, CF Adam Jones, 1B Chris Davis, DH Steve Pearce, RF Travis Snider*, SS J.J. Hardy, C Matt Wieters, 2B Jonathan Schoop
Projected Rotation: RHP Chris Tillman, LHP Wei-Yin Chen, RHP Kevin Gausman, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Miguel Gonzalez
* new additions
There aren’t many believers in the Orioles this year, mostly because their offense has lost considerable thump. You’re probably proclaiming that with the hole left by the departed Nelson Cruz, last year’s MLB home run leader, there’s no way the team can make up that lost production.
I’ve got some news for you: home runs don’t win ballgames.
Especially when they come from a guy who strikes out 140 times a year and gives back half the runs he drives in when he plays the outfield.
Yes, home runs are sexy, but Cruz was not that valuable. In terms of overall WAR, teammate Steve Pearce (6.0) was more than a full win more valuable than Cruz (4.7), despite playing in 57 fewer games.
In fact, Pearce is the guy who will benefit most from Cruz not lumbering around in left field any more, because now Pearce will be guaranteed a spot in the lineup every day.
Not that the amazing year he had last season shouldn’t have already warranted the playing time. When Pearce became an everyday player on May 1, the Orioles were 12-12. From that point on, they went 84-54 and coasted into the playoffs. Tell me he’s not the team MVP.
It may look like the O’s didn’t engage in any major signings this offseason, which is true. But that’s only because they’re getting Matt Wieters and Manny Machado back from season-long injuries, and that alone is like a winter of splurging in free agency.
Wieters is critical to the team’s success. He was in the midst of a breakout season last year before his elbow blew out. He’s a guy who can mash 25 homers a year on offense while gunning down 25 runners a year on defense. There’s no way the Orioles can even dream of contending without him behind the dish.
You may worry about Machado’s newfound label as being “injury prone”, but he may be stronger than ever this season. Just remember that he’s now got two brand new knees to play on, which basically makes him an android. He’ll be fielding grounders and hitting gap shot doubles with robotic agility and grace. So don’t be surprised when he becomes one of the more consistent hitters in baseball this year, because if there’s one thing robots are good at, it’s being consistent.
The Orioles’ starting rotation is the same group who led the team into last year’s playoffs with a 2.88 ERA after the All-Star Break. The fact that they don’t have a true ace isn’t a crutch, and has become more of a calling card for the staff. That any of the five starters can go out and win a ball game at any time is something these guys thrive on.
Chris Tillman is the workhorse, and with over 200 innings in each of the past two seasons, he’s a guy they count on to go deep into games. His numbers may not be the flashiest, but he does his job. The Orioles won 24 of Tillman’s 34 starts in 2014, which shows his proficiency in keeping the score close and the damage to a minimum.
They’ll also be excited to see what Kevin Gausman can give them for a full season, and there’s even the chance that 22-year-old phenom Dylan Bundy gets called up to the majors at some point this year.
What remains to be seen is the role Ubaldo Jimenez will play this season. The Orioles have him under contract for three more years, so they have to do something with him, but there doesn’t seem to be an available spot in the rotation.
The main reason Jimenez has been so terrible in recent years is his velocity. His fastball has dropped from an average of 96.1 mph five years ago to just 90.5 mph last year. That drop makes me wonder whether the best spot for him might actually be the bullpen.
And to be honest, the bullpen could use his help. With Andrew Miller gone, the O’s have lost one of their major late-inning arms. This means that guys like Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter will be counted on more late in games, which opens up a spot in middle relief for my boy Ubaldo! And call me crazy, but I think if he threw as hard as he could for just one inning, he could get some people out.
There’s even a precedent right in the O’s bullpen: Matusz was a failed starter who averaged 88 mph on his fastball in 2011. The O’s moved him to the ‘pen, and his velocity jumped to 91 the next year, resurrecting his career. It’s not crazy to think the same thing could happen with Jimenez.
You can never count out the Orioles. Their defense, timely hitting, and Buck Showalter’s managing pretty much guarantee that they’ll be in the hunt. But I think regression back to the mean will stop them short of a playoff run this year.
Projected Finish: 85-77, Third place in AL East