Baltimore Orioles: Most Important Stories to Watch in Spring Training
Spring training is typically an exciting time to be a baseball fan. It is a midwinter reminder that better things are on the way. As an Orioles fan, however, over the past decade-and-a-half, spring training hasn't always been the winter blues buster it should be.
There simply was not much reason to get excited about the Orioles the past 15 seasons. A losing April, followed by a losing May, followed by a...well, you get the idea. It is hard to get excited about a new season, when a losing season is almost certainly assured.
Last season was supposed to be the same way.
Ninety losses were a foregone conclusion. But then something special happened. The Buckle Up Birds flipped the script and rose from the ashes to win 93 games and secure the franchise's first playoff berth since 1997. Now, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, the Orioles have given their fans a reason to pay attention to spring training and revel in the potential of the upcoming season.
As winter's icy grasp loosens, keep an eye on these most important developing spring training stories that will go a long way to determining the Orioles' fate in 2013, but more importantly, get excited about the season, because the Birds are back baby!
Will the Rotation Hold Up Again?
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The first four spots in the Orioles starting rotation appear set in stone barring horrendous springs by the top four incumbents. Jason Hammel, Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez were a large reason the Orioles rotation was able to carry the team into the playoffs.
The Orioles will be counting on Hammel to duplicate his strong first half of a year ago over the course of a full season. He will need to stay healthy. Tillman was a revelation a year ago, finally giving the Orioles more than unfulfilled potential. Some would say he got lucky last season with an extremely low BABIP, but it takes more than luck to get hitters to hit the ball into the teeth of the defense.
Chen faltered a bit down the stretch in his rookie year but was the Orioles' most consistent starter. Gonzalez emerged from the Mexican League to post very good numbers in his first season in the bigs.
Hammel, Tillman, Chen and Gonzalez posted very solid numbers a year ago, but can they do it again? Last season was the first successful season that each of these pitchers experienced at the major league level, with Chen and Gonzalez being rookies. The Orioles have had pitchers experience initial success, only to fall back to earth once the league figures them out.
Remember Josh Towers? Or the enigmatic Daniel Cabrera?
The Orioles will not post a winning record in 2013 without quality starting pitching. Spring training is not always the best time to make judgements on starting pitching, as starters do not typically pitch deep into games or face hitters more than once. Look for the Orioles' starters to work on controlling their pitches and attacking hitters as they regain comfort on the mound and round into shape.
Now, what about that fifth spot?
Who Will Claim the Fifth Starting Rotation Spot?
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The fifth spot in the Orioles rotation is up for grabs. Contenders for the last starting spot include Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jair Jurrjens. Each of the first four names on that list have started games for the Orioles in the past with little success. All were at one time seen as a top-flight major league prospect.
Jair Jurrjens is the most intriguing name on the list. The former All-Star who posted a 47-32 record between 2008 and 2011 is in the Orioles camp with a minor league contract. When healthy, Jurrjens is a potential ace. Unfortunately, he has not been able to stay healthy the past two years. If healthy, Jurrjens should win the fifth spot.
Where does that leave the other pitchers fighting for the spot?
Hunter and Matusz are likely destined for the bullpen, as both pitched extremely well in relief in the heat of the pennant race last season. If Jurrjens stumbles, Britton will likely claim the spot in the rotation, with Arrieta the odd man out.
The spot will not necessarily go to the pitcher who posts the best spring training statistics. Yes, spring training success will play a huge role in determining who earns the spot, but manager Buck Showalter will be looking at many different factors.
Ultimately, the fifth spot will go to the pitcher who shows he can make pitches when it matters, exhibits good command and is not afraid to challenge hitters. I believe the Orioles did their homework on Jurrjens. He may begin the season as the fifth starter, but by the end of the season, expect him to be pitching like an ace.
Will the Bullpen Dominate Again?
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The Orioles bullpen may have been the No. 1 reason behind the Orioles' dramatic 2012 turnaround. Gone are the days of Jorge Julio and George Sherrill. The Orioles bullpen may be the team's best unit and is no longer the liability it was during Baltimore's long stretch of losing seasons.
The Orioles' success in close games last year has been well documented. Many see their historic record in one-run and extra-inning games as a fluke and simply pure luck. I do not, however. That record was driven by relievers getting outs and making big pitches in crunch time.
The bullpen was kept intact during the offseason with all key members returning. The bullpen could actually be even better this season if Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz start the season in relief as I expect they will. The former starters excelled in the late innings during last season's pennant run and bring added heat to the pen.
While it may be foolhardy to expect another 29-9 record in one-run games, the Orioles bullpen will anchor the pitching staff once again. In Jim Johnson, the Orioles have one of the game's most dominant closers. The front office has surrounded him with very capable set up men, and Buck Showalter has showed he knows how to use them.
Can J.J. Hardy Handle the Two Spot?
Buck Showalter penciled J.J. Hardy into the No. 2 spot in the batting order 150 times last season. Hardy, the All-Star shortstop with 30-home run potential, showed he may not be the right man for the job. Hardy's power numbers were exceptional for a No. 2 hitter, but he did not do all the little things required of a two-hole hitter.
Hardy batted only .238 a year ago. If he is to continue in that spot, that number, along with his walk rate must go up. The No. 2 spot in the lineup is often discounted. It does not receive the glory of the leadoff or cleanup spot but it is just as important. The No. 2 hitter must be a table setter.
I believe Buck Showalter will continue using Hardy in the second spot in the order, but he must take a more patient approach at the plate this season. The Orioles struggled to score runs last season and became too reliant on the home run ball at times, largely due to the inability of the top of their order to get on base consistently. If Hardy cannot handle the spot, Showalter must shuffle his lineup.
Is Brian Roberts Healthy?
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This is one of the questions that has been haunting the Orioles for years. Once seen as a premier leadoff hitter and potential face of the franchise, Roberts has not been able to stay on the field for a full season since 2009 as head, neck, hip and abdominal injuries took their toll. Roberts has worked diligently to get back on the field, and appears as healthy as the Orioles could hope heading into this season.
If Roberts is able to stay healthy, he gives the Orioles the leadoff hitter they were missing last year. At his best, he is a doubles machine capable of stealing 50 bases. Time will tell if his injuries and time away from the game have sapped him of his skills.
With Roberts at the top of the lineup, Showalter has many more options. He will not have to bat Nick Markakis leadoff. Although Markakis handled the role well last year, Roberts' speed brings a much-needed dimension to the position. I believe Markakis is ideally suited for the second spot. He is an on-base machine who can be counted on to make solid contact.
This would free up Showalter to shuffle Hardy down in the order and removes the possibility of seeing Nate McLouth hit any higher than the bottom third of the order. Both Hardy and McLouth would benefit from hitting closer to the bottom of the order as their inability to make consistent contact will not be so magnified.
All these lineup changes hinge on one thing: Brian Roberts' health.
Are the Phenoms Ready?
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The Orioles have two mega prospects waiting in the wings. Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy are the future of this franchise and both contributed in meaningful ways during last season's pennant race.
Machado will start the season as the Orioles third baseman. He showed an uncanny ability to handle the hot corner last fall in his first extended time playing the position. He also acquainted himself quite well at the plate too. Orioles fans must remember that Machado is still a 20-year-old, wet behind the ears.
He had not risen above Double-A when the Orioles summoned him to the majors. Last year, he did show he was ready to handle major league pitching, but expect growing pains this year as pitchers develop a scouting report on him. Like most youngsters, he must learn patience at the plate. The power is obvious and it is not unrealistic to expect over 20 home runs from him this year.
Dylan Bundy is the ace Orioles fans have been waiting for since Mike Mussina left town. There is no way, however, he can be allowed to open the season in the major leagues. Bundy would best be served joining the Orioles in August or September to join the bullpen after a full season of starting in the minors.
The Rays took a similar approach with David Price and it is now paying huge dividends. Young pitchers cannot be rushed, as the trail of broken down arms from Adam Loewen to Matt Riley reminds Orioles fans. No matter how well he pitches this spring, Bundy should not start the season with the Orioles. I expect Showalter and GM Dan Duquette to make the right call.
Will the Orioles Make a Trade?
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The Orioles had a quiet offseason, with management preferring to pass on an underwhelming free-agent class. The primary focus of the offseason was retaining the team's own free agents, a strategy I support. According to The Kansas City Star, the Orioles did kick the tires on Kansas City's Billy Butler, a player I believe would be an excellent fit for the team's lineup.
The Orioles certainly have assets to move should they decide a big bat would greatly improve their chances of making the playoffs this season. The Royals probably will not be eager to move Butler any time soon given their acquisition of James Shields. There will be other targets available for the Orioles, especially given their trove of young pitchers.
Much of this trade speculation depends on how well Chris Davis handles first base. If he shows he can be a passable fielder, the Orioles will likely not be in the market for a first baseman given Davis's prodigious power.
Another player to watch when speculating on the Orioles' entrance to the trade market is Nolan Reimold. Reimold is a big bopper who has not been able to stay on the field. If healthy this year, he should provide enough offense out of the designated hitter spot.
The Orioles will have assets to trade should they so desire. Several of their top pitching prospects will not make the rotation and may even begin the season in Triple-A. Depending on their performances this spring, Duquette may decide it is time to sell high on Arrieta or Britton and bring in a big bat that would help make one-run games a thing of the past.