Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.
The Big Question: Can the Orioles replace the big bats they lost?
The Orioles had a quiet offseason. Which would be fine for a defending division champ coming off a 96-win season if they hadn’t lost their best hitter and, arguably, their third best hitter in the offseason. Here I’m talking about the DH, Nelson Cruz and their everyday right fielder for nearly a decade, Nick Markakis. OK, calling the 2014 version — let alone the post-surgery 2015 version — of Nick Markakis a “big bat” may be stretching things a bit, but in the two of these guys they lost their two most durable players who were 1-2 in on-base percentage on the club and who combined for 1,388 plate appearances, 54 homers and 158 RBI.
That’s a lot to lose, without a lot brought in to make up for it. The only real addition: Travis Snider. Which is actually pretty OK. Snider is past the point where his once can’t-miss-prospect status matters much, but he did show last year that he can be a solid guy, at least against righties. Not great, but solid, and at age 27 there’s a chance he builds on his nice second half of 2014 and finds a way to put together a nice couple of seasons.
But the real answer to that question is not about who they brought in, but who they get back: Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and, for all practical purposes, Chris Davis.
Machado missed half the season with a knee injury. Wieters missed all but 26 games due to Tommy John surgery. Machado, however, is healthy again and, having already shown he can handle big league pitching at ages 20 and 21, his return to the lineup will be a welcome one. Wieters may start the season a bit late but, assuming no hiccups in his recovery, should be back for most of the year. His arm may be a question mark at the moment but he was hitting the cover off the ball when he went down last year.
Davis may be the most intriguing of the returning triumvirate. He managed 26 homers last season despite a putrid average and OBP, and his suspension for Adderall was the moldy icing on the garbage cake. He claims now that his troubles last year were due to a strained oblique that is now healthy and he has a therapeutic use exemption for the Adderall, which he claims helps his focus. That remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see how he could get much worse than he was in 2014.
So, Cruz and Markakis gone, Snider, Machado, Wieters and an improved Davis in? There are a decent amount of “ifs” in there, but yeah, that’ll do.
What else is going on?
- While the bounce back candidates are something to wish on, O’s fans had best prepare for a candidate for regression. Steve Pearce was a godsend for the O’s when Machado and, later, Davis went down, hitting .293/.373/.556 with 21 homers in 102 games. You think that’s happening again? Think again. Also maybe think about whether, if Pearce falters, Showalter has the will power to avoid playing Delmon Young more than he should. Young was pretty spiffy last year, but he was also used sparingly. The more Young is used in 2015, the less the O’s plans have gone according to expectations.
- The rotation remains a strength in 2014. A thousand “can the Orioles win without a true ace” columns were written last year and a thousand more are likely to be written this year, but a team can do just fine without one of those true ace-types as long as they have four or five good pitchers like the O’s have in Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman.
- Oh, a name was missing from that list, was it? Yes, it was: Ubaldo Jimenez. Nope, last year’s biggest acquisition doesn’t crack this rotation if reasonable expectations hold. But sure, Jimenez could bounce back and be useful. If so, wonderful. Especially in a day and age when pitchers drop like flies. But he doesn’t have to in order for the O’s to be successful, and that’s a nice luxury for everyone who doesn’t have to sign his checks.
- The Orioles’ bullpen has a lot of moving parts at the moment, including Rule 5 additions and guys without options. But they also have a lot of talent and Buck Showalter has shown that he is the absolute best in the business dealing with the moving parts of a major league bullpen. Really, that’s been the story of this club for the past several years and gives the O’s a big advantage over teams with young, low-experience managers who never had to, you know, learn how to manage bullpens, which is just as much art as it is science, it seems.
Prediction: A lot of uncertainty here, but let us not forget that there’s a lot of talent too. I didn’t even mention Adam Jones above, and he’s pretty great. The defense up the middle is nice. The rotation, as mentioned, is solid. And the O’s have one of the best managers in the game. In a division where everyone else is either down or dealing with some key injuries that should still make them the favorite to win it. First place, AL East.