10 Most Important Orioles Heading into the 2014 Season

Zachary Ball@MLBDraftCntdwnAnalyst IJanuary 17, 2014

10 Most Important Orioles Heading into the 2014 Season

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    While the front office still seems to think that the Baltimore Orioles will field a competitive team in 2014, there's no denying the impact players the team lost this offseason.

    Jim Johnson, dealt to the Oakland A's in exchange for a couple of minor leaguers and some financial relief, racked up 101 saves the past two seasons.

    Jason Hammel, who departed via free agency, was the team's most electric starter during the 2012 campaign and, despite his struggles in 2013, was a leader in the clubhouse and in a very young rotation. 

    Brian Roberts, who signed with the division-rival New York Yankees, hadn't played too much the past few years, but there's no doubt he was an exceptional veteran presence in the clubhouse.

    Nate McLouth, who signed with neighboring rival Washington Nationals, was a spark plug for the offense in both 2012 and 2013 and was one of manager Buck Showalter's favorite players.

    Scott Feldman, who signed with the Houston Astros, was the team's most consistent starter down the stretch last year.

    So who will step up and replace these players in 2014?

    On the surface, the front office, led by general manager Dan Duquette, hasn't done much aside from add a few bench players and relief pitchers, such as Delmon Young, Tyler Colvin, David Lough, Alfredo Aceves and Ryan Webb.

    Without a doubt, though, the most important players heading into the 2014 season will be those who were with the team last year.

    For the Orioles to be competitive and have a chance at winning the division, they'll need huge campaigns from just about every player on their active roster. The 10 players on this list, though, are the ones the squad will be the most dependent on.

10. Chris Davis, First Baseman

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    It's hard to do more for one's team than hit a franchise-record and MLB-leading 53 home runs, drive in an MLB-best 138 runs and finish in the top five in WAR, slugging, OPS, runs scored, runs created, extra-base hits and at-bats per home run.

    Still, if the Orioles are to overtake the two teams that finished ahead of them in the American League East, they'll need a repeat performance from Davis, who has quickly become one of the most feared sluggers in all of baseball.

    For starters, an improvement in his second-half performance would be greatly welcomed by Showalter and Co.

    Davis hit an eye-popping .315/.392/.717 in the first half, but he struggled to a .245/.339/.515 line after the All-Star break. His performance during the final month of the season (.216/.304/.451) was particularly disheartening as the O's fought to stay in the wild-card race. 

    Further improvement could come as his plate discipline continues to progress. Davis hit 31 of his 53 home runs and posted a 1.067 OPS during at-bats in which he took the first pitch, something he really worked at during last offseason.

    And if we're nitpicking, he could stand to work on his performance against a certain division rival that just so happened to win the World Series last year. He hit just .235 with strikeouts in 41 percent of his at-bats against the Boston Red Sox.

    Or he could just bash 53 long balls and drive in 138 runs again.

9. David Lough, Left Fielder

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    Arguably the Orioles' top offseason acquisition, David Lough will likely claim the left field spot that was split seven ways last season between Nate McLouth, Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, Steven Pearce, Chris Dickerson, Mike Morse and, for one game, L.J. Hoes.

    The 27-year-old appeared in 96 games for the Kansas City Royals last season, posting a .286/.311/.413 line. He showed more speed (four triples and five steals) than power (five homers), but he made his real mark on defense.

    Despite limited playing time, Lough was arguably one of the top defensive outfielders in all of baseball last year, a claim that's backed up by numerous reputable sources. Most notably, ESPN's Mark Simon named Lough one of the season's most underrated defenders.

    He hasn't particularly shown it so far at the big league level, but Lough has decent potential at the plate as well. He's cracked double-digits in home runs in four of his seven minor league campaigns and also hit over .300 and legged out at least 11 triples four times.

    The majority of those numbers came at Triple-A Omaha, where he's played his last 401 minor league games.

    If Lough could just put up similar numbers at the plate and on the basepaths to the seven-headed monster of 2013 (.251/16/42 with 28 steals) while providing Gold Glove-caliber defense, that would definitely qualify as a success.

8. Wei-Yin Chen, Starting Pitcher

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    With the offseason departures of Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen is now firmly entrenched as the team's most seasoned starter.

    Yes, Chen only has two seasons under his belt here in the States, but he also pitched eight years in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, making 2014 his 11th season as a pro.

    Last year, Chen dealt with major adversity for the first time since joining the Orioles. An injury to his right oblique sidelined him for nearly two months and limited him to just 23 starts—a year after leading the O's rotation with 32. 

    He also had offseason knee surgery. According to MASN's Roch Kubatko, the recovery is going slower than expected, and Chen appears unlikely to take part in a minicamp scheduled for next week.

    He finished the campaign with nearly identical stats to his debut season: a .500 record and an ERA just over 4.00.

    If the O's are going to overtake the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, they're going to need a career year from Chen. Pitching deeper into games and upping his game in the second half could go a long way towards a better showing this season.

    But first things first. He needs to prove he's fully recovered from the procedure on his knee.

7. Manny Machado, Third Baseman

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    Speaking of players recovering from injuries, third baseman Manny Machado appears to be on track to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, per Kubatko.

    That's something that seemed like a long shot watching the second-year pro writhe in pain on the field in St. Petersburg less than four months ago. According to Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, Machado is scheduled for an exam in Los Angeles this week, where he's expected to be cleared for normal baseball activities.

    The injury put a major dent in what was shaping up to be one of the most impressive campaigns by a 20-year-old in history. Not only did he make a run at the all-time single-season doubles record, but he also put on one of the best defensive displays of any third baseman ever. Coming from an organization that produced Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., both of whom manned the hot corner, that's high praise.

    Even with the injury, which robbed him of the final few games of the season, Machado finished with an MLB-best 667 at-bats, 51 doubles, 14 homers, 71 RBI and a .283 average. 

    On the defensive side, he paced the American League in assists, double plays turned, total runs saved, range factor and fielding percentage. His 32 runs saved was the second-best single-season performance in history by a third baseman, bested only by Robinson's 33 in 1968.

    Clearly, getting Machado back to start the season will be a major boost for the O's at the plate and on the field. Getting back and getting back to doing the things he was doing are two different things, however, and only time will tell if there's any rust to shake off.

    A repeat performance from the 21-year-old would go a long way to the O's rediscovering some of the magic that enabled them to get to the playoffs in 2012.


6. Chris Tillman, Starting Pitcher

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    Make no mistake, Charles Tillman pitched like a No. 1 in 2013.

    Building off of his impressive finish the year before, Tillman went 16-7, posted a 3.71 ERA, cracked the 200-inning mark and was named to the All-Star team for the first time.

    Still, several O's pitchers have put together such seasons over the years, including Erik Bedard, Rodrigo Lopez and Brad Bergesen, each of whom either regressed (Lopez) or fell off the face of the earth (Bergesen).

    Simply put, this year is the year for Tillman.

    If he can put together another All-Star-worthy campaign, prove his durability by once again cracking the 200-inning plateau, hold down a sub-4.00 ERA and continue to boost his K/9 rate—if he can do all of those things, the O's just might have solved what has seemingly been their biggest problem since Mike Mussina left town: the lack of a true No. 1 starter.

5. Kevin Gausman, Starting Pitcher

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    Kevin Gausman's 2014 season will likely go one of two ways.

    He'll start the season in the rotation, make 30-plus starts and pitch well enough to rank in the top three of the A.L. Rookie of the Year voting.

    Or he'll spend the year bouncing back and forth from Norfolk to Baltimore and, inevitably, from the bullpen to the rotation.

    You know, kind of like he did last year.

    If he has the former kind of season, the O's will have a real chance to dethrone the Red Sox atop the division.

    If he has the latter, though, the O's will have to, once again, rely on guys who are No. 4 and 5 starters to pitch like No. 2s and No. 3s.

    Simply put, the Baltimore rotation would be in great shape if Gausman put together the season everyone knows he's capable of.


4. Matt Wieters, Catcher

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    Over the past three seasons, Matt Wieters has averaged 22 homers and 77 RBI, twice been named to the All-Star team and won back-to-back Gold Glove awards.

    So why does it seem as though fans and experts alike are having to trumpet Wieters' defensive prowess as a reason why he can't be considered a disappointment?

    Maybe it's the enormous expectations he created for himself by destroying minor league pitching on his way to the big leagues. Maybe it's his low batting average (a combined .242 the past two seasons). Maybe it's his inability to get big hits when it matters (career .206 hitter with two outs and runners in scoring position.

    Maybe it's all of those things.

    Make no mistake, the O's can win their division with Wieters putting up the same kind of numbers he did in 2012 or 2013. But they could be one of the best teams in all of baseball if he can put together the kind of season he's capable of.

3. Nick Markakis, Right Fielder

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    It's no wonder ESPN's Scott Spratt labeled Nick Markakis "the most average player in baseball today" (Insider access required).

    After whetting our appetite with a tremendous four-year stretch (2006-09), the outfielder has settled into a stretch of mediocrity. 

    Markakis, who turned 30 after the 2013 season, has averaged 12 homers and 62 RBI the past four years, despite appearing in 160 games three of those four years. He's remained a doubles machine, averaging 32 over that same period, but he also saw his average dip to a career-low .271 last season.

    His WAR has taken a nosedive as well, from 7.5 during his peak to to 2.7 in 2011 to a dismal 0.1 last year.

    If the Orioles are to have a fighting chance next season, they're going to need a return from the old Markakis, the same one who posted a .306/.406/.491 line in 2008 while racking up an astonishing 17 outfield assists.

    If they could get the same player who excelled as a leadoff hitter before he broke his wrist in 2012, that would be even better, since they seemingly have no other alternative at the top of the order.

2. Tommy Hunter, Closer

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    The moment negotiations with Grant Balfour fell through, the pressure on Tommy Hunter began to build.

    Assuming the front office doesn't pull a rabbit out of its hat, it's likely to be Hunter getting the first shot at closing duties.

    Luckily for Baltimore, the hard-throwing right-hander spent all of last year in the bullpen serving as a late-inning guy. He even picked up the first four saves of his career.

    Still, being a fill-in closer for a few nights each year is completely different that the kind of pressure-packed situations that await Hunter.

    Thanks to his high-90s heat, he is really the only veteran who is well-suited to closing duties.

    The Orioles were in a similar scenario a few years ago, when Kevin Gregg ceded the closer role to Jim Johnson, who until then had been primarily a seventh- and eighth-inning reliever.

    That worked out, and Johnson put together an incredible run that included 101 saves over two seasons.

    Here's to hoping the team will hit the jackpot with another in-house candidate.

1. Ryan Flaherty, Second Baseman

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    Assuming the O's don't make an earth-shattering trade for a franchise second baseman and they don't hand the position over to the inexperienced Jemile Weeks, Baltimore will open the season with former Rule 5 draftee Ryan Flaherty in the starting lineup.

    This is both a good and a bad thing.

    It's good, because Flaherty has never really been given the chance to be an everyday player.

    He's appeared in exactly one season's worth of games over the past two years, spending time at just about every position on the diamond. While his average and on-base numbers don't wow you, he's popped 16 homers in 399 at-bats, which is roughly the same output the team got from Brian Roberts during his prime.

    Defensively, he's also an asset. In 93 games at second base, he's committed just three errors, good for a .992 fielding percentage. That mark would have ranked him fourth in all of baseball last year.

    Now to the bad.

    When Flaherty has played, he hasn't performed particularly well aside from the home runs. He's put together a .221/.279/.378 line in his two seasons and has just 13 doubles. He's also rocking a 25:105 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

    Do the O's have room in their lineup for another low on-base, strikeout machine?

    Who knows, maybe Flaherty will surprise and, given the chance to play everyday, he'll excel, producing 20-25 home runs and an average the O's can stomach.

    Either way, good or bad, he'll likely be the most important Oriole next season.