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2014 Season Preview: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles played the waiting game this offseason and they played it well, but it may not be enough to push them into contention in the AL East.

After riding an incredible 29-9 record in one-run games to 93 wins and the playoffs in 2012, the demon Regression reared its ugly head and the Orioles dropped back to an 85-77 record last season. Led by breakout star Chris Davis, and his league-leading 53 home runs, the Orioles offense was solid, but also extremely top-heavy, with most of the production coming from Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy. Their bullpen lost some of the magic it had in 2012, but it was still excellent. On those strengths, they managed to hang around in the playoff picture for most of the season, but even with the acquisition of Bud Norris at the trade deadline, the Orioles lacked the starting pitching talent necessary to run with the likes of the Red Sox and Rays.

Baltimore entered the offseason with two members of that rotation heading into free agency. The addition of Bud Norris during the season gave them an internal replacement for either Jason Hammel or Scott Feldman for the coming season, but it did not offer much of an upgrade. Top prospect Kevin Gausman got rocked in his first taste of the majors, signaling that he might need more development time if he is to emerge as the top-of-rotation arm many experts believe he can be. The Orioles other top pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy, fell to Tommy John surgery last season, setting back his development time-table. With no rotation help from the farm on the way for the upcoming season, the 2014 Orioles needed some immediate upgrades.

Rather than moving quickly and locking up a starter like Matt Garza or jumping into the bidding frenzy for Masahiro Tanaka, the Orioles decided to take an uber-patient approach to the offseason that bordered on inertia. Rumors connected to them to many high profile free agents but few of those rumors ever moved beyond a vague connection. This approach appears to have yielded some positive results, but the few minor additions the Orioles have made do not look like enough to change their place in the middle of the AL East pack.

Losses: Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman, Jim Johnson, Brian Roberts, Nate McLouth, Michael Morse, Tsuyoshi Wada, Francisco Rodriguez, Chris Snyder

Prior to final days of February, the biggest move that Duquette made was to send closer Jim Johnson to the Athletics to replace Brian Roberts and the carousel of replacement players that have served at second for the Orioles over the past three seasons with buy-low candidate Jemile Weeks. After looking like a star on the rise with a .303/.340/.421 line in his rookie season in 2011, the 27-year-old hit .221/.305/.304 as a sophomore and lost his place in the majors for most of the 2013 season. He had little trouble with Triple-A pitching last year, however, hitting .271/.376/.369 in 614 minor league plate appearances, so there is still hope for his bat. The Orioles obviously believe he can be the solution at second and if that is case, the price of a good-but-not-great closer like Johnson is a fair one, if not a bargain.

The loss of Johnson would have been far less significant if the Orioles had gone through with their initial plan and signed free agent reliever Grant Balfour. However, after reaching a deal with the former-Athletics closer, the Orioles took issue with the results of Balfour's physical and backed away from the Australian righty. They kicked the tires on Fernando Rodney but balked at his sticker price. Tommy Hunter will move up from the eighth inning and take over the closer role in Baltimore, leaving the hole left by Johnson essentially unfilled as the year begins. The Orioles bullpen has been a real strength for the team over the last two seasons, but their failure to replace Johnson could be an issue in 2014.

Additions: Nelson Cruz, Jemile Weeks, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ryan Webb, Francisco Peguero, Edgmer Escalona, Suk-min Yoon

After trading for Weeks and rejecting Balfour, the Orioles retreated into the background. They sat out of the Masahiro Tanaka bidding completely. Throughout late January and early February, vague rumors surfaced connecting them to Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, but those whispers did not amount to anything until February 21, when they signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. After surrendering their first round pick to sign Jimenez, the Orioles thought little of sacrificing another to get Cruz on a one-year, $8 million deal. Both players have enough question marks around them that they could each be confused for the Riddler, but these deals will hardly break the bank.

If he doesn't revert back to the dismal numbers of his 2012 season, Jimenez should give them the rotation help they needed and there is still enough upside remaining in his once-electric arm to offer some hope of even more. If he all he gives them is a consistent 180 innings worth of league-average results he should still be worth the money Baltimore has committed to him and as long as he can locate his fastball, he should be able to provide that much.

Cruz is comes at an even greater discount thanks to the heady combination of draft compensation and a steroid suspension. The 33-year-old is a liability in the field and with no other stand-out tools on offense, the minute his power wanes, he will need to find a new profession. That is isn't likely to happen in 2014, however. Camden Yards is a great place to be a right-handed power hitter, and the Orioles don't need to worry too much about his looming decline at the price they are paying.

Players to Watch

Even with the addition of Jimenez, the starting rotation is still the biggest weakness for the Orioles. Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez are a capable mid-rotation starters and it is possible that Chris Tillman will build off a strong 2013 and become something more than that, but the Orioles lack a dynamic arm at the front of the rotation. Dylan Bundy might become that in the future, but Kevin Gausman will get to make his case this year. His 5.66 ERA last season in five starts and 15 relief appearances doesn't inspire much confidence but given the 47 2/3 inning sample size, it would be a mistake to let it fool you. There was plenty to like about his work last season. He struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.5. Home runs were the main issue and comparing that ugly ERA to his 3.04 xFIP shows just how dramatic that issue was. If xFIP proves to be the more predictive of the two stats, Gausman could very well be the top starter by the end of the year.

Chris Davis finally arrived in 2013, hitting 53 home runs and slugging .634. It was an incredible season and there are many reasons to believe it wasn't simply a fluke. Besides crushing every baseball foolish enough to cross his path, Davis also showed a far better sense of what crossing his path means. He posted a walk rate (10.7 percent) that was a full three percent higher than his career rate, thanks to far fewer swings at pitches out of the zone and as well as a decrease in swings on pitches in the zone. Davis may never top 50 home runs again, but he should still be a force at the plate. It is clear that he is a much better hitter than the player who broke in with Rangers in 2009 and 2009, but he may not be quite as good as his 2013 batting line suggests. Strikeouts were still a major problem for him and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his improved approach if he hits an extended slump.

Finally, the biggest question for the Orioles this season is Manny Machado. In his first full season, the 21-year-old stood out on both sides of the ball. He began the year hitting doubles at a torrid pace and was eying the Earl Webb's single season doubles record by mid-summer. He slowed down in the second half but still finished with a batting line of .283/.314/.432/ and 51 doubles, which was good enough to lead the American League. His glove was spectacular at third. Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved and Total Zone all credit him with saving the Orioles more than 30 runs in the field last year. His stellar season ended almost as badly as a season can end, however. On September 23, Machado stumbled as he crossed first base and tore up the ligaments in his knee. Following offseason surgery, he will start the season on the DL, though he does appear to be making a full recovery so far. Before hurting his knee, Machado was one of the most dynamic young players in the game and the Orioles need him to be that once again this season and beyond.

Best Case Scenario

If everything goes right, the Orioles could compete for the AL East title, but everything is a bit more than typically goes right for a major league team. Still, if Chris Davis continues to pummel baseballs with impunity, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy hit plenty of dingers and play top notch defense, Manny Machado returns from knee surgery as the same player he was in 2013, Matt Wieters makes a Yadier Molina-esque leap as a hitter, Nelson Cruz refuses to go quietly into that good night, the bullpen shrugs of the loss of Johnson and remains a serious weapon in the late innings and every single member of the rotation pitches to their ceiling... yeah, if all that happens, the division title is within reach.

More realistically, the Orioles best chance at the playoffs is in battling for a wild card spot. There is a talented young core on offense here and the supporting cast is passable, but not particularly impressive. The rotation lacks an ace and maybe even a true number-two starter, but Chen, Tillman, Jimenez, Gonzalez and Norris are all capable of giving them quality innings and better-than-average results. With a powerful offence and a strong bullpen behind them, the Orioles starters don't have take over every game, they just have to keep Baltimore in the running. Practically everything would have to go for the Orioles to take the division, but the Wild Card is definitely within their reach as long as they stay healthy and the rotation holds up performance-wise.

What Could Go Wrong

As talented as the Orioles core of position players might be, they are still a risky bunch. Prior to the start of his breakout during the 2012 season, Chris Davis had produced negative wins above replacement in parts of three seasons in the majors. Hardly anyone expects him to simply revert back to his 2009 batting line of .238/.284/.442 over 419 plate appearances, but severe regression is far from impossible. The injury that ended Machado's 2013 season could have a lasting impact on his mobility. Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy can't afford to lose any power if they are to remain impact bats. Matt Wieters struggles against lefties are rapidly becoming epic and he may need to abandon switch-hitting or become a platoon player. The supporting cast around these players is risky as well and if Davis, Jones, Machado, Hardy and Wieters struggle, players like Nelson Cruz and Jemile Weeks won't be able to do anything to save the offense.

Though there are concerns around core position players, they are nothing compared to worries around the rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez was an above-average starter in 2013, but he was dreadful in 2012, with a 5.40 ERA and a walk rate that was approaching five batters per nine innings. Without a standout starter in the group, the Orioles need plus performances from multiple sources in the rotation. They can't afford guys like Chen, Gonzalez and Tillman taking any step in the wrong direction this season if they hope to stay in the playoff hunt.

Final Thoughts

Baltimore's patience this offseason seems to have worked out great, helping them get below-market deals on necessary upgrades like Cruz and Jimenez, but it could have just as easily been a disaster. It is difficult to tell how much the results here are a product of foresight on the part of Duquette and how much was simply good fortune. Baltimore has the makings of competitive team in place, but they won't take over the AL East without building a strong group around the stars they have now and the ones they have on the way. At this point, it is hard to tell if Duquette and his team are up to that challenge. In 2012, the Orioles reminded us all that a sustained lucky streak can carry a team from the middle of the pack to the playoff. Right now. Baltimore is still counting on too much luck to be considered a true contender. They are close, but they aren't necessarily getting any closer.