When the Baltimore Orioles arrive for workouts in Sarasota, FL., they'll feature a core of talent that has won 178 games over the last two seasons.
Considering that the franchise hasn't had consecutive seasons with as many victories since 1996-1997, optimism should abound for the 2014 Orioles.
Yet, due to a confounding offseason, middle-of-the-pack payroll and the loaded American League East, the Orioles don't enter spring as one of baseball's most talked about rising teams.
In reality, second- and third-place finishes, respectively, over the last two years is a major accomplishment for a franchise that finished fourth or fifth in the AL East for 13 of the previous 14 seasons.
While the Orioles may seem to be a team unwilling to go the extra mile for glory, there's reason to be excited about the 2014 season in Baltimore.
Can they realistically compete in the AL East? With the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays all looking like 85-plus win teams, it won't be easy.
The next six weeks will give Orioles fans a glimpse as to what their team will look like in April.
As the roster descends on Ed Smith Stadium, here's a spring training preview for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
Where do we begin?
With the right offseason moves, the 2014 Baltimore Orioles would have been a trendy pick to emerge from the difficult AL East, return to the postseason and make serious noise in October.
Unless names like David Lough, Brad Brach, Ryan Webb and Delmon Young profile as the right offseason moves, don't expect previews to roll out with the Orioles picked to win 90-plus games.
Instead of what the Orioles did, the offseason has been about what they haven't done.
Namely, augment the starting rotation, replace Jim Johnson in the bullpen after a trade sent him to Oakland, upgrade at second base and find a legitimate designated hitter.
MLB Depth Charts has a full offseason recap, but the main event of this winter won't be found: Grant Balfour's contract snafu. After agreeing to a deal to bring Balfour aboard as the new closer, the Orioles backed out due to concerns about a physical.
If that was an isolated event, few would have paid it much attention.
Instead, it's part of a troubling pattern that goes back years, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. That pattern includes another issue with a physical this winter, leaving free-agent outfielder Tyler Colvin out of Baltimore's 2014 plans.
After settling arbitration cases, per Adam Berry of MLB.com, with both Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, the Orioles carry a payroll of less than $80 million.
Calling out the Orioles for being frugal is easy. Understanding why their owner and front office act this way is harder. Jonah Keri of Grantland dug deep, uncovering the root of the problem in Baltimore.
Of course, a lack of big-ticket moves entering spring doesn't mean the team won't make a splash before opening day. In Keri's piece, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette suggested that the offseason work isn't done quite yet, despite the doom and gloom surrounding the offseason.
“We’ve got a budget where we can compete in the East,” Duquette said. “We operate within the market. That’s the right way to go about it. We put significant resources into the current team, into re-signing guys. A lot of guys are getting raises because they’re doing well. Through careful reinvestments, we’ve built a contending team, and we’re confident we’ll do that again this year.”
Despite a lack of activity, a healthy Orioles squad can win in 2014.
Of their slew of ascending players, two injury situations should be monitored in Sarasota: Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy.
Machado, a 2013 American League All-Star, emerged as one of the brightest young players in baseball last summer. On the path to a 6.5 bWAR campaign, the 21-year-old third baseman entered the conversation of the most promising young players in baseball.
Unfortunately, the phenom experienced a difficult end to his year.
When Machado landed awkwardly on first base during a late-season game in Tampa, it looked like the type of leg injury that could cost him an entire season.
While Opening Day may be a lofty goal, Machado is progressing well, per ESPN. According to Dr. Neal ElAttrache, Machado has been cleared for baseball activities as camp opens.
By July, pitching prospect Dylan Bundy could join him in Baltimore.
If the Orioles don't upgrade their rotation with a veteran, Bundy's arrival back from Tommy John surgery and rehab could be a significant boost to Buck Showalter's rotation.
According to Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun, Bundy is on schedule after undergoing elbow surgery last summer.
“It's a tough question, whether you're ahead of schedule or not on schedule, because different players come back at different times,” Bundy said. “It just kind of depends on your work ethic and whether you have setbacks when you get back on a mound. But I'd say I'm on schedule so far, and I'm happy with it.
“Everything's great. I'm throwing without pain for the first time in a year, so that's always a positive.”
The former fourth-overall draft pick owns a 2.08 ERA in 103.2 minor-league innings.
Led by one of the best managers in baseball, Buck Showalter, the Orioles have a diligent and well-prepared coaching staff.
This winter, a pair of changes were made on the pitching side. By inking pitching guru Dave Wallace and former Braves special assistant Dom Chiti, the Orioles added two of the best pitching instructors in baseball.
As Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun pointed out, Chiti, hired as the bullpen coach, will likely do much more than just tell relievers when to warm up. In conjunction with new pitching coach Dave Wallace, the Orioles added a duo to help re-shape a staff that ranked 23rd in team ERA last season.
Per Encina's column: "Chiti has worked across so many levels – coaching, scouting, player development, Latin American operations – that he brings vast and valuable experience to the Orioles' staff. And don’t expect him to be a bullpen coach who simply picks up the phone and gets relievers up. He will work closely with Showalter and Wallace in developing the Orioles’ pitching."
The rest of the staff, per the official team website, features former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick as a special assignment coach.
1. Nick Markakis, RF
2. Ryan Flaherty, 3B
3. Chris Davis, 1B
4. Adam Jones, CF
5. Matt Wieters, C
6. J.J. Hardy, SS
7. Nolan Reimold, DH
8. David Lough vs. Delmon Young vs. Quintin Berry, LF
9. Jemile Weeks, 2B
Steve Clevenger, C/1B
Steve Pearce, 1B/OF
Alexi Casilla, IF
In 2013, Baltimore's offense hit 212 home runs, best in the American League.
Of those, 86 came off the bats of Chris Davis and Adam Jones. While the two middle-of-the-order bats would be important to any lineup in baseball, they are vital in Baltimore.
Part of the reason for the dependency on Davis and Jones: Regression, or lack of progression, from two homegrown stars, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters.
From 2006-2010, Nick Markakis posted an .831 OPS and 19.3 bWAR. Over that five-year span, only two other right fielders in the sport—Alex Rios and Ichiro Suzuki—had a bWAR of at least 19 and an OPS over .790. Over the last three years, the now 30-year-old outfielder has watched his OPS plummet to .749.
Matt Wieters has become an All-Star caliber catcher, but owns a 98 OPS+ during his five-year stint as Orioles catcher. Unless he takes a leap in 2014, the Orioles fifth-place hitter is a below-average offensive performer.
When Manny Machado returns from injury, a third star-level hitter could continue to develop around Davis and Jones. Until that occurs, the burden will fall on the shoulders of Baltimore's sluggers.
Projected starting rotation:
1. Chris Tillman, RHP
2. Wei-Yin Chen, LHP
3. Bud Norris, RHP
4. Miguel Gonzalez, RHP
5. Kevin Gausman, RHP vs. Zach Britton, LHP vs. Alfredo Aceves, RHP vs. Brian Matusz, LHP vs. Steve Johnson, RHP
Be honest: You would be much, much more excited about this group if, say, A.J. Burnett or Ervin Santana joined before the start of the regular season.
While that scenario is possible, don't discount the man standing atop the projected starting rotation in Baltimore: Chris Tillman.
The former Seattle Mariners prospect emerged in 2013, pitching to a 3.71 ERA, racking up 4.4 bWAR and surpassing the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career.
Over the last two years, Tillman has pitched to a 3.48 ERA in the rugged AL East. That feat shouldn't be glossed over when discussing the best young pitchers in the game.
Heading into 2014, Tillman could become a perennial All-Star and fixture atop the hill to start the season for this franchise. During a conversation with Rich Dubroff of CSN Baltimore, Tillman seemed excited for that chance.
“I’d love to be. It’s kind of a big deal for anybody. I’ve watched in the past guys get the news that they’d be the Opening Day starter, and it’s been special for them,” Tillman said.
CL: Tommy Hunter, RHP
SU: Darren O'Day, RHP
SU: Ryan Webb, RHP
MID: Brian Matusz, LHP
MID: Edgmer Escalona, RHP
MID: Brad Brach, RHP
LR: Steve Johnson, RHP
In Baltimore's bullpen, the situation is fluid.
With Steve Johnson and Brian Matusz both part of a cast of characters competing for a spot in the rotation, projecting the day-by-day bullpen for Buch Showalter is a fool's errand.
Furthermore, 22 different pitchers made relief appearances for the Orioles last season. In 2012, on the path to a 93-win season, Buck Showalter once again summoned 22 different names out of the bullpen.
Throughout all the changes in the Orioles bullpen, one name remained a constant: Jim Johnson.
Now, after an offseason trade landed the durable, sinkerballer in Oakland, the Orioles will hand their closer role to Tommy Hunter and hope the pieces around him work. If they don't, this franchise has shown little reluctance to switch roles and redefine their bullpen on the fly.
When camp opens, keep an eye on Brad Brach.
The 27-year-old righty, acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres, per MLB Trade Rumors, has the stuff to be a late-inning star. However, Brach's career has been slowed by poor control (5.1 BB/9).
If the new pitching instructors in Orioles camp can refine his delivery, the Orioles will have a very solid reliever.
In Baltimore, the present-day roster is solid. The future, however, can be much more.
Led by Dylan Bundy's progress from Tommy John surgery, the Orioles have prospects that can make a big impact in 2014 and beyond. This spring, keep an eye on Bundy's throwing program, RHP Mike Wright and LHP Tim Berry.
Clearly, Bundy's ascension and health headlines this group.
If, and it's always a big if with young arms, the now 21-year-old can rediscover the stuff he had while mowing down the minors in 2012, the Orioles will dream of a future hard-throwing ace atop their rotation.
In Wright and Berry, Orioles general manager Dan Duquette spoke highly of their pedigree and progress to Grantland's Jonah Keri. Per Keri's column on the Orioles' offseason: "The GM said we could see Mike Wright, the Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013, making the majors soon, with Tim Berry, a left-hander who garnered good reviews in the Arizona Fall League, not far behind."
According to MLB.com, some see Wright as a future reliever in Baltimore. With a bullpen in a constant flux, Wright's help could be needed there soon.
When Duquette spoke to reporters at the Delmarva Shorebirds' annual hot stove banquet, he had this to say when asked about lefty Tim Berry's chances to pitch in the big leagues this season: “The thing about the Orioles, I think our fans are starting to recognize that we have a lot of good young pitchers on the horizon," per The Salisbury Daily Times.
When a young pitcher doesn't burst onto the scene by striking out 14 batters in a game or winning the Rookie of the Year award, the player can be easily forgotten.
For Orioles fans, heed this advice: Cast aside doubt after Kevin Gausman's inauspicious (5.66 ERA) debut season.
Instead, focus on the process. Although the former top-five draft pick didn't dominate in his age-22 season, the talent and tools for success were evident. In 2014, they could help him become a breakout star.
According to Fangraphs, the average velocity on a Kevin Gausman fastball in 2013 was 95.9 miles per hour.
To be fair, some of that was enhanced by 15 relief appearances. While it's unlikely that the hard-throwing righty can sustain that kind of velocity as a staring pitcher, his arm is capable of greatness.
Last year, among all qualified starting pitchers, not one averaged a 95.9 MPH fastball.
Not Matt Harvey. Not Jose Fernandez. Not Stephen Strasburg. In fact, only eight—Harvey, Strasburg, Fernandez, Andrew Cashner, Jeff Samardzija, Wily Peralta, Homer Bailey and Justin Verlander—even averaged 94 MPH on their fastball.
Gasuman is still years away from realizing his true potential, but there's reason to believe that a star-level pitcher was hiding behind a porous ERA and difficult first season in the majors.
Left field battle: David Lough vs. Delmon Young vs. Quintin Berry
Despite debuting at an advanced age, 26, David Lough made an impression on baseball last year.
It's hard to call a 28-year-old with a career OPS+ a "late bloomer," but the Orioles may have found an adequate replacement for the free-agent departure of Nate McClouth.
In reality, Lough, Young or Berry are all below-average choices to start in left field. None are stars now or ever will be. Yet, as a trio, they could work to complement each other.
Lough is an excellent defender. Young has power, especially against left-handed pitching. Berry is a tremendous base stealer.
When the dust settles, expect Lough to take the field with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis as the Orioles' starting outfield. Why? Listen to what general manager Dan Duquette had to say about his acquisition, per Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun.
“We've been working on this [trade] for a while,” Duquette said. “Lough had a good year this year. He got some votes for Rookie of the Year. He can play all three outfield positions. He's a good hitter, he's got good speed, he's a good defender.”
No. 5 starter battle: Kevin Gausman, RHP vs. Zach Britton, LHP vs. Alfredo Aceves, RHP vs. Brian Matusz vs. Steve Johnson
Bleacher Report's roster expert, Jason Martinez, highlighted these battles last month.
When he included "others" in the mix for this rotation spot, it was likely meant as an admission of how unpredictable this battle truly will be in Sarasota.
Unless the Orioles make a move for a veteran starting pitcher, nearly a dozen major- and minor-league arms can stand up to accept the challenge and vie for a spot in Buck Showalter's rotation.
If Kevin Gausman can display the type of velocity and pedigree that he showed in spurts last season, his talent will be too overwhelming to send back to Triple-A.
What is your biggest concern about the Baltimore Orioles as spring training begins?
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