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Friday, February 14, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Wild on Sports
MLB 2014 Team Preview: Baltimore Orioles
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: Although they missed the playoffs by a pretty wide margin, these Orioles were actually better than the previous year. Baltimore consolidated its gains from the previous year, whose “Pythagorean” record (based on runs scored and runs allowed) was only 82-80, enjoyed breakout seasons from Chris Davis and Chris Tillman, and may have a genuine homegrown superstar in third baseman Manny Machado. Still, it wasn’t good enough. Management made minimal changes over the previous winter and were left scrambling for mid-season reinforcements.

Winter Grade:
Coming: David Lough, Ryan Webb
Going: Jim Johnson, Nate McLouth, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel, Brian Roberts, Danny Valencia, “K-Rod” A second (really a third) straight offseason of bare bones window-dressing from a team on the cusp of contention is a major disappointment. Last year it almost made sense because it was hard to know the “true” talent level of the team, but after 2014 we know this roster is good for 81-85 wins or so. Instead, Baltimore has watched their immediate competitors make drastic changes (and improvements) while their largest winter expenditure to date was on a middle-reliever who was non-tendered. To add insult to injury, Baltimore botched two publicized free agent signings, cancelling contracts with Grant Balfour and Tyler Colvin (injury concerns) and ruffling feathers in the process.

 What a difference a day makes! This week the Orioles finally started spending, and the results should have Baltimore fans giddy. Suk-Min Yoon and Ubaldo Jimenez are too very risky but very high-upside pitchers, and to be able to acquire them this late in the offseason allowed them to become somewhat of a bargain; Jimenez is getting paid barely more than Ricky Nolasco, who is an inferior pitcher. Losing the draft pick compensation for Jimenez hurts, but it is worth the gamble, as he led the AL in ERA over the second half of the season after rediscovering some fastball velocity and improving his command. Yoon signed for a much lower contract but two years ago he was considered to be a comparable talent to Hyun-Jin Ryu, and while subsequent injuries raise the possibility that his effectiveness could be limited (hence the underwhelming contract), the success of recent Asian imports should give the Orioles hope. Also, Baltimore has done a very good job identifying talent in this way, acquiring Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen under the radar. What does this mean for their playoff chances? Quite a bit; they should be very competitive in the AL East, as they have the rotation depth (if not the upside) to match up reasonably well with Boston, New York and Tampa. Chris Tillman, Jimenez and Bud Norris should be a fine 1-3 but they now have quite a few tasty options in the back end of the rotation and have the ability to mix and match. One of Yoon, Gonzalez and Chen will be a long-man until injuries strike; but also the Orioles have more options with top prospect Kevin Gausman. They can keep him starting in AAA, waiting until he is more polished to unleash him on the league, or they can use him as a bullpen ace. Their pitching should be better than last year, and will help offset any potential decline in production from Chris Davis or Manny Machado.
New winter grade: B

Wild Card(s): Midseason acquisition Bud Norris has some breakout potential. Nick Markakis has had an up-and-down career but claims last year’s disappointing numbers were injury-related.

Key Contract Years:
JJ Hardy, possibly Nick Markakis who has a $17.5 million option for 2015.

Kevin Gausman, a top pick from 2012, had a misleading 5.66 ERA last year in limited time with Baltimore; he struck out plenty of batters (9.3 K/9) and showed excellent control in the minors. He’s a solid bet to improve this season and fill in a rotation spot. Two dark horses for playing time on the field are Jonathan Schoop, an infielder whose numbers don’t wow but he’s always been young for his level, and older Cuban signee Henry Urrutia, who hit .347 in the high minors but who looked unimpressive in 24 games with Baltimore at the end of the year.

Key Questions:
Do they have enough pitching to compete with the rest of the division?
Will Manny Machado’s knee injury sap his mobility all year?
Who plays second base?
Was last year the real Chris Davis or will he lose that extra power and patience again?
Can David Lough hit enough to play every day?
Who is their new closer?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Baltimore has some top-tier pitchers in Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, but the latter will probably miss all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The system is thin overall but their excess pitching depth could be used to bolster the bullpen or allow them to make some more mid-season acquisitions.

2014 Prognosis: Possible Contenders
They have the talent on hand to be competitive, but they don’t play in a vacuum, and could be buried in the strong AL East, especially if a few key injuries occur, as Baltimore doesn’t have much position player depth. This isn’t just a academic question; Manny Machado’s knees could be the difference between a wild card birth and last place.


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