Matt Wieters had a terrific April last year before being sidelined with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, a procedure typically reserved for pitchers. Backups Nick Hundley (now on the Colorado Rockies ) and Caleb Joseph handled the pitching staff capably, but neither brings as much with the bat. Though Wieters is starting the year on the disabled list, we expect a return to form, with Joseph as his backup.
There’s nowhere to go but up. In 2014, Chris Davis struggled mightily, hitting only .196 as he dealt with an oblique injury. Adding insult to injury, he was suspended for amphetamine use just as the team was about to enter the postseason. The test turned up for Adderall, for which he previously had a medical exemption; this year he has an exemption for Vyvanse, another ADHD medication.
Twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Schoop has tons of potential, and he showed a bit of that last year with his excellent glove work and 16 home runs. But it’s pretty clear he lacks the strike-zone discipline needed to fully realize his talents. While Schoop has had a nice spring, we wouldn’t be surprised if he was sent down to AAA Norfolk for more seasoning and the second-base job was handed to Everth Cabrera , a late signee who possesses the on-base skills of a leadoff hitter, something the Orioles lack.
Signed to a three-year contract extension just before the American League Championship Series (ALCS), J.J. Hardy is as steady as they come. While it’s troubling to see him begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder problems, there’s reason to expect more of the same: Gold Glove defense and a solid bat. Hardy’s power dropped considerably last year as everyone pitched him on the outer half of the plate, but the shortstop proved adept at poking singles to right field.
Manny Machado has all the talent in the world, but there’s still a lot that remains unknown. Near the end of 2013, the young third baseman, seemingly destined for superstardom, tore a ligament in his left knee. He got surgery, rehabbed, and then returned the following year in May. His first month back was a struggle at the plate, but he eventually found his stroke, only to suffer a similar tear in his right knee in August. If both knees work as they should, the sky is still the limit for the 22-year-old. We’re bullish.
This position was a mishmash of Delmon Young, David Lough, Nelson Cruz , Alejandro De Aza, and Steve Pearce last year. With the departures of Cruz and Nick Markakis opening up two holes, manager Buck Showalter has plenty of opportunities to cycle guys in the corner outfield and designated hitter spots. We expect Young, who was a terrific pinch hitter and got regular starts in August, and De Aza, a late-season acquisition who started 20 games in September and October, showing nice pop and flashing a good glove, to split the primary role.
Adam Jones , the Orioles’ vocal leader, has been a force in the middle of the lineup. While it’s clear Jones was none too pleased the Orioles failed to re-sign his good friend Markakis, the center fielder is still going to go about his business. Look for another year of gliding to tough balls in the outfield, 25+ homers, and 80+ RBIs. With Jones having a bit of a chip on his shoulder, we wouldn’t be surprised if he upped it to his 2013 levels of 33 bombs and 108 RBIs.
Plenty of Orioles fans were devastated when the team failed to re-sign Markakis, a lifelong Oriole and one of the team’s most consistent hitters and fielders during his nine years on the team. But statistically speaking, Travis Snider and Markakis are a wash, according to a Jan. 28 analysis by Fangraphs. Pearce was a beast last year, but it’s more likely he’ll regress to the mean. Even so, those two (and you can maybe even throw De Aza into the mix) should put forth a season of above-average production.
Among Pearce, Snider, De Aza, and Young, Showalter should be able to piece together a decent season of, say, 10-15 homers and 70-plus RBIs. But Cruz and his 40 home runs and 108 RBIs they are not.
Greater outfield depth leads to more options coming off the bench. Whoever’s sitting out in the group of corner outfielder and DH candidates should make for a nice pinch hitter. In addition to that, infielder Cabrera offers speed and the ability to draw a walk, and Jimmy Paredes, who starts the season on the disabled list, was the hottest hitter in camp this spring and should give some extra power.
Chris Tillman is the ace of the staff, putting up two consecutive seasons of 200 innings, a sub-3.75 ERA, and double-digit wins. He was especially nasty in the second half of 2014, going 6-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 14 games. We’re thinking he’ll build on that and really establish himself as a top-flight starter in the majors. The Orioles are reportedly talking about an extension with Tillman, and it’s no surprise why.
Wei-Yin Chen, likely the lone lefty in the starting rotation, really established himself last year, winning 16 games and pitching to a sub-4.00 ERA for the first time in his career. We’d take that again and have no reason to expect anything different.
Still one of the best diamonds in the rough uncovered by Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette, Miguel González had another terrific season, posting a 3.23 ERA in 159 innings. The righty has been consistent over three years, and there’s no reason to start thinking he’s a fluke now. González might start the year in AAA, because he has options remaining, but we suspect he’ll be back fairly soon if he ever gets sent down.
Much like Davis, Ubaldo Jiménez has nowhere to go but up. After signing a four-year $50 million deal, the righty was extremely disappointing, posting a 4.73 ERA in 22 starts and eventually being left off the ALCS roster. But the Orioles have too much money tied up in Jiménez to cast him off to the bullpen. He’s going to get every chance, and if you look at his May and June numbers, before he suffered an ankle injury, and spring training outings, there’s a glimmer of hope.
There are two guys deserving of the last spot in the rotation, Kevin Gausman and Bud Norris , and while Norris will open the year in the rotation, we’re giving the edge to Gausman over the long haul. The 24-year-old righty starter has a ton of promise and was crucial in the stretch run last season. If all the pieces come together, he could establish himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game.
After struggling as a starter, lefty sinkerballer Zach Britton proved to be an absolutely filthy reliever, saving 37 games and pitching to a 1.65 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. With Britton’s heavy sinker touching the high 90s from the pen, he should be similarly dominant as closer.
OK, Darren O’Day blew it in the ALCS. Move on. Let’s not forget the sidearm pitcher has been incredibly consistent in his three years with the Orioles, and last year was his best season yet. Even if he regresses a little, O’Day will still be a great bridge to Britton.
Tommy Hunter was atrocious as the closer, eventually giving way to Britton. But he quietly rebounded nicely in setup work and lowered his ERA to 2.97. Without having the burden of closing, he should be solid in middle relief.
Wesley Wright put together a nice season for the Chicago Cubs last year, pitching 58 games (but only 48.1 innings) to a 3.17 ERA. The lefty’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was much better against lefties than righties, so expect Showalter to use him as a specialist. But it’s far from likely he’ll come close to the shutdown relief of Andrew Miller .
Brad Brach set career marks in wins, ERA, and WHIP. It seemed the key was cutting down on the walks—3.6 per nine innings is another personal best—and the 28-year-old reliever should have a successful 2015 campaign if he can replicate that.
Though deserving of a far better fate, Norris will probably end up as the odd man out of the rotation at some point during the season, even though he had his best year for wins, ERA, and WHIP. Gausman is the future and Jiménez will get the chance to justify his contract unless he completely implodes. Norris will get some starts, but we imagine he’ll eventually end up in the pen.
There are two other interesting cases in Brian Matusz and Jason Garcia. The lefty Matusz, who is entering his seventh year with the team, has flourished since being converted from a starter to a reliever. But the O’s were dangling him as a trade chip throughout the spring, and there’s still a chance he could get dealt. A Rule V pick from the Red Sox organization, Garcia has an electric fastball but no experience above A ball. He’s made the Opening Day roster, but if he gets roughed up in the majors, don’t be surprised if the Orioles cut him loose, in which case he would be returned to the Red Sox.