2014 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

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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 2014 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Is there enough pitching here to get the O’s back to the playoffs?

The Orioles make their bones with the bat. They ranked fourth in the AL in runs last season, and they did it with power. Lots of  homers — first in the league — lots of doubles and the AL’s third highest slugging percentage. Adding Nelson Cruz to that lineup well only help things. While we’re many years removed from people making Chuck Norris jokes about Matt Weiters, there is still the potential there for him to have a breakout offensive season that turns him into an MVP candidate. Chris Davis is unlikely to match his otherworldly 2013, but he is still a force in the middle.

So, as almost always seems to be the case, Orioles fans are asking if there is enough pitching here. My gut feeling: it’s better, but it’s not quite enough.

Adding Ubaldo Jimenez is a gamble, but not a dumb one. He has been decent at limiting homers and that’s key in the AL East. Chris Tillman is solid. Bud Norris doesn’t knock anyone’s socks off, but Kevin Gausman and/or Dylan Bundy could contribute in Baltimore this year if the back end of the rotation falters. It’s not the best rotation in the AL East — it’s in a dogfight to even make it to third best in the division — but there are enough moving parts here where things could turn out better than expected.

But when you are in the toughest division in baseball, moving parts with upside aren’t all that comforting. if the O’s make the playoffs this year it will be because multiple guys in the rotation exceed expectations. That could easily happen. I just don’t think people get rich betting on things like that, and I won’t bet on it here.

What else is going on?

  • The bullpen is worth watching too, of course. A huge strength for the team’s 2012 playoff run, it took a step back last year and this year is in real flux. The departure of Jim Johnson and the aborted signing of Grant Balfour means that Tommy Hunter is likely to get most closing opportunities. That could work — I fail to believe that closing is some genetically-determined ability possessed by True Closers only — but it’s possible we see a lot of guys getting save chances this year.
  • Outfield defense might be interesting. Delmon Young made this team and Buck Showalter has made it clear that he and Nelson Cruz will play outfield, not just DH. Indeed, the presence of both pretty much means one will have to a lot of the time if they don’t wish to waste a roster slot. Balls to the gap should be fun. Hope Adam Jones has put in his time on the treadmill this spring.
  • With Brian Roberts gone, second base is going to be a fun position to watch in Baltimore. Last week’s trade to obtain Steve Lombardozzi could mean that he gets a lot of time there. The Nats learned last year that making Lombardozzi an everyday player is not the key to happiness, however. Ryan Flaherty will probably cover third base until Manny Machado comes back from injury, but once he does, he could see a lot of time there which, yuck. I’d love to see Showalter hand the job over to prospect Jonathan Schoop. The club will likely say he needs more seasoning in the minors, however. Which you should read as “needs less service time in the majors.”
  • This is, overall, a young team. Cruz may be an old man, but many key players on which the Orioles rely are on the rise, not the decline. Machado is 21, Schoop is 22, Kevin Gausman is 23, Chris Tillman will turn 26 next month, Dylan Bundy  in April), Britton (26), Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Matt Weiters are still only 28. Upside is there for many, and it makes 2014 just one of many chances to break through.

Prediction: I like what the Orioles have going here. And I think that they could surprise and challenge for the wild card. I just think that their pitching is too uncertain and their division too tough to predict that with confidence. They may make me look like a fool — and I know other HBT writers think they’ll be way better than I have them — but I have them neck-and-neck with the Yankees for third place, and quite possibly Fourth Place, AL East.

Zack Cozart thinks the way the Rays have been using Sergio Romo is bad for baseball

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The Rays started Sergio Romo on back-to-back days and if that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. Romo, of course, was the star closer for the Giants for a while, helping them win the World Series in 2012 and ’14. He’s been a full-time reliever dating back to 2006, when he was at Single-A.

In an effort to prevent lefty Ryan Yarbrough from facing the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup (Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton), Romo started Saturday’s game, pitching the first inning before giving way to Yarbrough in the second. Romo struck out the side, in fact. The Rays went on to win 5-3.

The Rays did it again on Sunday afternoon, starting Romo. This time, he got four outs before giving way to Matt Andriese. Romo walked two without giving up a hit while striking out three. The Angels managed to win 5-2 however.

Despite Sunday’s win, Cozart wasn’t a happy camper with the way the Rays used Romo. Via Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic, Cozart said, “It was weird … It’s bad for baseball, in my opinion … It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.”

It’s difficult to see merit in Cozart’s argument. It’s not like the Rays were making excessive amounts of pitching changes; they used five on Saturday and four on Sunday. The games lasted three hours and three hours, 15 minutes, respectively. The average game time is exactly three hours so far this season. I’m having trouble wondering how else Cozart might mean the strategy is bad for baseball.

It seems like the real issue is that Cozart is afraid of the sport changing around him. The Rays, like most small market teams, have to find their edges in slight ways. The Rays aren’t doing this blindly; the strategy makes sense based on their opponents’ starting lineup. The idea of valuing on-base percentage was scoffed at. Shifting was scoffed at and now every team employs them to some degree. Who knows if starting a reliever for the first three or four outs will become a trend, but it’s shortsighted to write it off at first glance.