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Complete Baltimore Orioles 2014 Season Preview

Alex SnyderContributor IIMarch 26, 2014

Complete Baltimore Orioles 2014 Season Preview

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The 2014 Major League Baseball season is approaching.

    In less than a week, fans will get to see the vast majority of MLB teams throw their first pitches of the season. Excitement will be in the air, as a new baseball season means a fresh start for each team and renewed hope for every fan base.

    For the Baltimore Orioles, a division rivalry continues as they open on March 31 at home against the Boston Red Sox. Opening the season against the defending World Series champion is never an easy task, but this Orioles team, led by manager Buck Showalter, has never shied away from a challenge.

    Orioles fans are looking forward to a season in which they expect their team to be competitive after some serious moves late in the offseason by executive vice president Dan Duquette.

    These Birds are looking to prove themselves in the tough AL East, a division they're seemingly always counted out of. But with each team possessing strengths and ability, the division is anyone's to grab.

    If you're an O's fan, this is your one-stop spot to read everything you need to know about your team going into the regular season.

Spring Training Recap

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Record: 12-8

    The Orioles maintained a winning record through the spring, hovering around the top of the standings for all of March. While spring training stats and standings mean virtually nothing, it's always nice to see your team have a strong spring going into the regular season.

    The team was pretty lucky in avoiding catastrophic injuries in spring training. There don't appear to be any injuries that will affect a player going into the regular season. The team's pitching has stayed intact, helping to give the O's plenty of depth going into the regular season.

    Many players on the roster found success this spring, most notably second baseman Jonathan Schoop, catcher Steve Clevenger and pitchers Eddie Gamboa and Evan Meek. Many players have impressed, few have disappointed, and overall the performances of the players have been strong.

    O's fans hope a strong spring training is a glimpse at what the future may hold.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    As stated previously, the O's were fortunate that they didn't suffer many injuries during spring training camp.

    Outfielder David Lough battled neck stiffness throughout spring training and was shut down for 48 hours as a precaution. He since appears to have moved on from that small issue and has been playing in spring games once again, looking to be ready when the season starts on Monday.

    Nick Markakis dealt with some tendinitis in his left shoulder, though the outfielder claims that it's nothing serious and it's "just a little spring training arm soreness."

    Nloan Reimold, another outfielder, will start the season on the disabled list, it was announced on Wednesday. Recovering from his second neck surgery in as many seasons, Reimold has had trouble looking up while playing the outfield.

    Manny Machado (pictured) did experience a setback rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. Scar tissue breaking up inside the knee prevented him from running for a few days. But on Thursday, he was cleared to continue his rehab.

    The team announced on Sunday that Machado will not be ready on Opening Day, and that he will start the season on the 15-day DL.

    O's manager Buck Showalter told reporters that Machado being on the opening day roster is "not realistic," per MASN Sports' Roch Kubatko.

    "He's miserable in a lot of ways," Showalter said. "Quite frankly, he likes our guys, but he's tired of watching."

    It's a logical move, as he hasn't even had any time in spring games. Nobody would want to see Machado rushed back only to end up hurting himself all over again. When it comes to healing injuries, patience always pays off in the long run.

Lineup Preview

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Nick Markakis, RF

    Manny Machado, 3B

    Adam Jones, CF

    Chris Davis, 1B

    Nelson Cruz, DH

    J.J. Hardy, SS

    Matt Wieters, C

    David Lough, LF

    Jonathan Schoop, 2B

    In terms of who Showalter pencils into the lineup on an everyday basis, I believe his lineup card will look something like this.

    Markakis appears to be the best option at leadoff, and while he doesn't have blazing speed, he has a great batting eye and good on-base skills. Behind him, Machado and his doubles are expected to be in the 2-hole whenever he returns to action, which we'll revisit in a minute.

    Newcomer Cruz is slotted fifth to provide serious protection for the O's two top threats—Jones and Davis. Hardy bats sixth and Wieters seventh, providing serious pop heading into the bottom third of the order.

    Lough serves as a solid bat near the bottom of the order, with good speed and decent average and on-base skills. Schoop will bat ninth and play second base as he's doing everything he can to force the hand of Showalter and Duquette. The 22-year-old rookie appears to be the team's best option at second base going into the season.

    With Machado opening the season on the DL, O's fans could see Ryan Flaherty Alexi Casilla, newly acquired Steve Lombardozzi or Rule V pick Michael Almanzar at the hot corner, but not in the 2-hole. Showalter will be forced to mix things up a little bit in Machado's absence.

    We could see a return of Hardy to the second spot in the lineup, or David Lough could bat there on days that he plays, which are expected to be against right-handed pitchers. When Machado returns, Lough would be moved to one of the bottom two spots in the lineup, or could even bat leadoff.

    As the Boston Red Sox are expected to have Jon Lester, a lefty, start for them on opening day, the Orioles' lineup probably would be tweaked with Cruz replacing Lough in left field and Delmon Young taking over as the DH.

    Markakis, RF

    Machado, 3B

    Davis, 1B

    Jones, CF

    Cruz, LF

    Wieters, C

    Hardy, SS

    Delmon Young, DH

    Schoop, 2B

    Again, that's what a typical lineup against lefties could look like throughout the season. With Machado out early in the season, it's even more likely that Hardy takes over the 2-spot against lefties, with any of the four guys I mentioned above replacing Machado at third base.

    You'll notice two changes with this lineup against left-handers: Davis and Jones are flip-flopped, as are Hardy and Wieters. As Davis is a left-handed batter and Jones is a right-hander, it only makes sense to bat Jones third against lefties and Davis fourth. Similar logic applies to Hardy and the switch-hitting Wieters, who is better from the right side of the plate, batting .281 in his career against lefties with a .344 OBP.

    Young could potentially make the roster as the DH against lefties because, like Wieters, he hits very well against left-handed pitchers (.303 average and .341 OBP).

    I actually published a piece on this exact topic just a few weeks ago, so if you want to read even more on the subject, you can find that here.

    In regard to the team's bench, it will likely look as follows:

    Ryan Flaherty, Utility Infielder

    Delmon Young, DH

    Steve Clevenger, C

    Steve Pearce, DH/1B/OF

    On Tuesday, Showalter informed both Flaherty and Clevenger that they had made the Opening Day roster, meaning Flaherty is quite possibly the starting third baseman until Machado returns.

    Beyond that, though, is pure speculation.

    The team could take Young up north because of his great bat against lefties. However, he is on a minor league deal so they could easily send him down if they feel another player is more deserving.

    Pearce is in a similar situation. The team doesn't exactly need him, but the right-handed hitter is one of few options to back up Davis at first base and can also hit lefties well. He's a scrappy, hard-nosed player who tends to find his way into the O's plans and has done a solid job when called upon.

Rotation Preview

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Chris Tillman, R

    Ubaldo Jimenez, R

    Wei-Yin Chen, L

    Miguel Gonzalez, R

    Bud Norris, R

    The Orioles have given the Opening Day nod to right-hander Tillman (pictured), rewarding him for last year when he went 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 206.1 innings. Jimenez is slated to make his Orioles debut the following day against the Red Sox in the team's opening series.

    Chen lines up to be the third guy, posting a 4.04 ERA in 329.2 career innings, all coming over the last two seasons with the O's. Showalter seems to want a lefty arm in the middle of the rotation rather than the back end.

    Gonzalez has posted an ERA of 3.58 in 276.2 career innings, all coming over the last two seasons with the Birds. His ability is there, and the team must like the idea of him kicking off the series in Detroit as opposed to closing out the series against the Red Sox.

    Norris and his power arm fit nicely at the back of the rotation, giving the team a strong No.5 guy who could potentially be much better than other No. 5 pitchers he'd be going up against.

    That's the most logical starting five O's fans can expect to see going into the season.

Bullpen Preview

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Ryan Webb, R

    Brian Matusz, L

    Josh Stinson, R

    Evan Meek, R

    Zach Britton, L

    Darren O'Day, R

    Tommy Hunter, R

    The O's bullpen will be a combination of guys retaining their spots from last season along with guys who are out of minor-league options. Newcomer Ryan Webb posted a 2.91 ERA in 80.1 innings with the Miami Marlins last season. 

    Matusz will reprise his role of lefty specialist and multiple-innings guy, giving the O's some flexibility. Stinson, who is out of options, has looked sharp this spring. He has pitched seven innings, allowing one unearned run while striking out seven.

    Meek, a 2010 All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates, has impressed this spring, giving up just one run and two hits in seven innings.

    O'Day (pictured) has been one of the best setup men in baseball over the last two seasons, and he'll be returning to that role for the 2014 campaign. Hunter is expected to be anointed the closer after a strong 2013 season.

    Kevin Gausman and Eddie Gamboa, who are having strong springs and arguably deserve roster spots, will likely be stashed in the minors as they have options left on their contracts, providing the O's with quality depth.

Prospects to Watch

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Jonathan Schoop, Second Baseman

    As all Orioles fans know by now, Schoop (pictured) has had one heck of a spring. The 22-year-old bulked up over the winter and has put on a show since the first day of spring training.

    He led off by hitting a home run in each of the team's two intrasquad games prior to the start of the Grapefruit League season. In spring games that actually "count," Schoop has batted .400 with two homers, seven RBI, and four doubles in 35 at-bats.

    Schoop is obviously the best candidate to go north and start at second base on Opening Day, but he may not due to the options remaining on his contract and the O's overflow of second base candidates. They may also want to keep him in the minors for a couple of months to retain another season of control over his contract.

    However, it's safe to say he'll be in the majors at some point this season. And when that happens, watch out.

     

    Kevin Gausman, Starting Pitcher

    Gausman is in the same boat as Schoop—making a fantastic impression during spring training but perhaps finding himself in the minors simply because of an overflow of candidates.

    This spring, Gausman has pitched 11 innings to a 2.45 ERA, allowing seven hits, four walks, and striking out 13. A slight change in his delivery and some corrective contact lenses have helped the talented, young righty this spring. The team hopes that improvement can carry over to the big league level when the time comes.

    Like Schoop, Gausman surely will be in the majors this season. It just depends on when. And when he arrives, he'll look to give the team's pitching staff a huge boost.

     

    Mike Wright, Starting Pitcher

    Wright will like start the season at Triple-A with the goal of forcing his way up to the majors by season's end. The O's would surely love to have a scenario where they would have to make room on the roster for the right-hander.

    Last season, Wright pitched to a 3.11 ERA between 143.2 innings at Double-A Bowie and 6.2 innings at Triple-A Norfolk. He's steadily improved the last three seasons, and the O's hope he can develop into at least a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

    For now, he'll be at Triple-A. But he'll be doing everything he can to make his way to the bigs this season. He'll be interesting to watch this year and beyond.

     

    Dylan Bundy, Starting Pitcher

    The young righty probably won't be able to make a huge difference this season as he's still recovering from Tommy John surgery. But upon his healthy return, he'll likely spend some time in the minors before being a late-season call-up, probably in September.

    No one can deny Bundy's talent, but the team would be wise to take it slow with him. Bundy could help the team very late in the season, but don't expect him to be a huge difference-maker until at least the 2015 season.

Breakout Candidates

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Along with any of the previously mentioned Prospects to Watch, here are some potential breakout candidates for the Orioles.

     

    Bud Norris, Starting Pitcher

    Norris believes he can be a better pitcher than he was last season for the Orioles.

    In fact, the stocky right-hander believes the true Bud Norris hasn't even arrived in Baltimore.

    In this February piece featured on MLB.com, Norris states that the elbow soreness he experienced in September of last year hampered his ability to pitch as effectively as he's capable of.

    I came over in a whirlwind. It was a crazy time for me in my career, and I was excited for it, but to really have this offseason to refresh my mind and everything else and take care of those nagging things I had at the end of [last] season, I'm really excited to show this team and this city what I can do.

    Maybe Norris can be an X-factor for the club this season. The team would surely welcome him stepping up and becoming an even better pitcher.

     

    David Lough, Outfielder

    Lough had a solid rookie campaign for the Kansas City Royals last season, batting .286 with a .311 OBP while stroking 17 doubles, smacking five homers and totaling 33 RBI in 96 games.

    Lough isn't the major difference-maker at the plate like Jones and Davis, but he's a very nice complementary player with a solid bat, good speed, great baserunning ability and a very good glove. The team is excited to see what he can do this season, and many fans seem intrigued by the 28-year-old.

     

    Zach Britton, Starting Pitcher

    Once considered a top prospect, Britton (pictured) has struggled the last two seasons and now is out of options. But battling for a roster spot this spring, the lefty has made quite a good impression.

    In 10.1 spring innings, Britton has given up one earned run, six hits, four walks, and tallied 10 strikeouts. While there may not be room for him in the starting rotation, he could find himself in the bullpen serving as a left specialist, long man or even a closer should Tommy Hunter struggle in his new role.

    Plus, Britton is sure to find himself starting some games in the majors as long as he keeps pitching well. As Showalter is known for saying, these things usually find a way to work themselves out.

Top Keys to Success

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Everyone knows that the O's can hit the long ball. They led the majors last year with 212 home runs, 24 more than any other team. Baltimore also can field it, making the fewest errors (54) of any team in history over a 162-game schedule.

    But there are a couple of key areas where the team is going to need to improve to return to the postseason.

     

    Pitching

    The Orioles have made strides with their pitching over the last few seasons, adding quality depth and helping players already on the roster improve. The team lacks a true ace, though, making life a little bit tougher in the AL East.

    Chris Tillman appears to be on his way there, breaking out big for the Birds over the last two seasons. He went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA over 86.0 innings in 2012, then 16-7 with an ERA of 3.71 in 206.1 innings last season. While Tillman isn't a true ace just yet, he's the obvious leader of the rotation and has developed into a very good pitcher.

    Outside of Tillman, the O's have some solid but unspectacular starting pitchers in Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. These are the kind of guys who any team needs to fill out their rotation, but belong at the back of a strong rotation.

    Recognizing the need for pitching, the O's added Ubaldo Jimenez (pictured) on a four-year, $50 million deal this winter, hoping that he'll help Tillman in stabilizing and leading the rotation. The O's are banking on getting the pitcher who rediscovered himself last season, and not the one who lead the league in losses along with an ERA over 5.00 the year before.

    The team lost a key bullpen cog when it dealt closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in a salary dump, but they added Ryan Webb this winter, a one-inning guy who had a great year with the Miami Marlins in 2013. They've had plenty of strong competition for bullpen spots during spring training, and if those guys step up this season, the bullpen should be fine.

    As is the case every season, the team's success hinges greatly on their unproven pitching staff.

     

    On-Base Ability

    The O's hit tons of homers last season. The problem was that there was never anyone on base when those homers were hit.

    The O's were 19th in baseball in OBP last year, posting a very mediocre .313 mark. They need to do better than that, especially considering that the top two teams in MLB in OBP (Boston and Detroit) met in the ALCS last season.

    Getting on base leads to runs being scored. It's that simple. The O's best OBP guy in 2013 was Davis, at .370, and he was usually rounding the bases. After that was Nate McLouth at .329, and he's since signed a two-year pact with the Washington Nationals.

    A team makes things happen by getting on base. The O's are going to have to do better in that regard if they want to reach the playoffs, especially if their pitching isn't going to be the best in the league.

Previewing the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Series

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Orioles open the regular season against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards in Baltimore. As stated previously, Chris Tillman will get the start for the O's while Jon Lester is assumed to get the nod for the Red Sox.

    Tillman has no prior experience pitching on Opening Day while Lester would be making his fourth consecutive Opening Day start. That could make a difference, but it also could mean absolutely nothing.

    For game two, the O's have tabbed Ubaldo Jimenez. While the Sox have yet to officially announce their rotation, John Lackey would follow Lester should they stay true to their spring rotation.

    And for the last of the three-game set, the Sox have Felix Doubront lined up behind Lackey, while the O's will have Wei-Yin Chen making the start.

    It should be a great series. While the Sox appear to have a better rotation on paper than the O's, both teams have deep, stacked offenses that are capable of scoring tons of runs on any given day, regardless of the opposing pitcher. Watching these teams stroke timely doubles and key home runs against each other will be great fun.

    To me, one of the most intriguing late-innings matchups to keep an eye out for is Brian Matusz versus David Ortiz. Matusz has dominated Ortiz throughout his career, giving up just one hit in 20 at-bats against the slugging DH while striking him out 12 times.

    I honestly don't believe either team will get swept during the opening series, but it's a tough call declaring who will take two out of three from the other team.

2014 Baltimore Orioles Season Outlook

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Orioles head into 2014 with all of the same important pieces they had in 2012 and 2013. Fans can expect guys like Adam Jones, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, etc. to continue to do what they've been doing.

    The success of the team will hinge on the pitchers, the team's on-base ability, and the new additions. The team need its pitcher to take the next step and the new guys to be strong complementary pieces.

    The O's have an offense that's too potent and and a defense that too top-notch for the team to not compete. They'll almost certainly be right in the thick of things throughout the season. The real question is whether they can win a division so deep in quality.

    Every team in the AL East, other than Toronto, has a chance to win the division. The Red Sox are defending World Series champions, the Yankees are reloaded, and the Rays are the Rays. Taking the division crown will be no easy task.

    But the Orioles can do it. The team is talented enough and the organization is deep enough for them to maintain continued success throughout the six-month grind of the regular season. Of course, they'd have to have some things break their way, but doesn't every team that achieves success?

    And while I believe the O's can win the division, I also believe it's more likely that they would grab a wild-card spot. Each team in the AL East will get smacked around during the regular season, but ultimately the deepest team will win the division. To me, that team is Tampa Bay.

    Therefore, I predict that the O's will finish second in the AL East at 91-71 and win a wild-card spot, then go on to defeat their wild-card opponent and move on to the ALDS.

    Wherever the team finishes the season, though, it's sure to be a fun one for Orioles fans.

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