Orioles Season Preview

Let’s take a break from the General Assembly session and the general madness of politics this week to take solace in the fact that Spring is finally here. Your defending American League East Champions take to the field Monday down in St. Petersburg for three games against Tampa Bay before coming back to Camden Yards to start the home schedule this Friday.

So how do the birds shape up this year?

Hitters: Most “experts” and “analysts” seem to believe that the Orioles will regress this year. Sure, it’s easy to make that assumption giving the fact that Nelson Cruz and his .271/40 HR/108 RBI headed off to Seattle this year. I don’t think though it’s really as much of a loss as others think it was. Cruz had a career year last year and, at the age of 33, probably won’t have many more years where he exceeds or even meets those totals. Sure, Cruz was probably good for .260/30 HR/80 RBI, but I’m more than delighted to let the Mariners pay him $14 million+ per year for it.

Nick Markakis was the other key loss over the offseason. Nick was a great Oriole and we’re sorry to see him go, but most of that was tied up in sentimentality more than it was statistics. The team made a strong financial commitment to Markakis in the past, and over the course of that contract he never hit more than 18 home runs, and only drove in 100 runs in the first year of the contract. He had decent numbers for a leadoff hitter, but didn’t steal bases and had a declining on-base percentage. Last I checked he was hitting .125 in Braves camp. Like I said sorry to see him go, but the Orioles made the right choice in letting him walk.

That being said, I see the Orioles offense rebounding this year over the long-term, for a few reasons:

  • Manny Machado should be finally healthy. If he develops into the player that we all believe that he can be, he should put up 20 homers, 80 RBI, and of course provide Gold Glove defense at third.
  • There is no possible way that Chris Davis is going to hit .196 this year. With his ADHD condition being properly accounted for this year, you have to suspect that he will return to his average for 2015. He hit .270 in 2012 and .286 in 2013. Even if he hits around his career average of .253, that’s 25 more hits for the season.
  • When J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters return from the shelf, they should return to their career expectations. Hardy’s home run production was down last year, and he found his stroke later in the season. Even if he hits 20 home runs again, that’s an improvement over 9. And Wieters was having a career year last year before the injury. They will help.
  • Travis Snider seems like a guy who is about to come into his own. He’s finally starting to put all the tools together and as a left-handed hitter playing in Camden Yards, should see his numbers go up.
  • The outfield situation in left field isn’t as dire as people think it is. Steve Pearce will see a lot of time out there (and as the DH), and while he almost certainly won’t hit .293 with 21 homers again, he should be provide consistent pop from the right-hand side. Alejandro de Aza is another guy who played well in September and should continue to develop as a hitter. And even if those guys don’t pan out, Dariel Alvarez and Henry Urrutia had good springs and can be brought up for Norfolk to fill the spot.
  • Delmon Young hopefully can carry over his hot fall, but doing so remaining in a limited role as a DH/PH.

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Pitchers: The Orioles came into camp with six starting pitchers for five spots. They leave camp with……six starting pitchers for five sports. Ubaldo Jimenez has had a pretty good spring, which is unfortunate in the sense that it will bump Kevin Gausman out of the roation (for now) when he is clearly the pitcher with the highest ceiling. This of course is a good problem to have if you’re a longtime fan who has lived through starting rotations that included guys like Omar Daal, Jason Berken, Rich Hill, Brian Burres, Chris Waters, Russ Ortiz, Jon Liecester, and others.

The real question is going to be whether or not Jimenez keeps it up during the regular season. If he can be consistent, that opens up other potential avenues for this team, particular if the Orioles need to move Bud Norris as a trade chip as we get closer to the July 31st trading deadline.

The bullpen should remain strong, with guys like Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, and Brad Brach on the back end. Left-handed relief does remain a concern. I’m less concerned with the loss of Andrew Miller (though we will rue the day we lad Eduardo Rodriguez, the 29th ranked prospect in all of baseball, get away) than I am with the fact that the left-handed bullpen help right now seems to be Brian Matusz and Wesley Wright. Wright was a decent signing, but he’s no Miller replacement. And Matusz has been stretched out this spring in an effort to make him available by trade to other teams. Matusz at this juncture has become a LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy) and even then his magic tends to only work on David Ortiz.

That being said, a team with only one problem on their pitching staff is a team in pretty good shape.

Intangibles: Buck Showalter is Buck Showalter, and that explains itself. There seemed to be a bit of hard feelings in the clubhouse after the Nick Markakis departure, but I doubt it will carry over into the regular season. The biggest question remains Dan Duqeutte’s long-term interest in sticking around in the front office. His contract may expire in 2018 but that certainly did not stop all of the conjecture and hub-hub about his potential move to Toronto, in exchange for prospects no less. At the end of the day, if Duquette wants to stay, he should stay. If he wants to go, the Orioles should facilitate that. I’d prefer guys who want to be here to be here, and guys that don’t want to be here not be here. But will this impact the team? No.

The rest of the Division: Tampa Bay took a step back, the Yankees got older, the Red Sox added Pablo Sandoval, and the Blue Jays made a lot of noise. At the end of the day, it isn’t like the American League East got a lot better this off season.

Prediction: The O’s missed a golden opportunity last year in the playoffs. The Royals are a team that we should have beaten. Instead, the O’s bats went quiet and they were swept out in a  hurry. That is not going to happen to this team this year.

My prediction: O’s win the American League East with a record of 94-68 and go on to defeat the San Diego Padres in the World Series.

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