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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 6, Nationals 4: Carlos Gómez hit the big blast here, socking an eighth inning, go-ahead three-run homer. This after the Nats themselves had come behind following Dave Martinez getting ejected. Maybe there’s something to the whole idea of the Nats playing better without Martinez, but it’s trumped by the unreliability of the Washington bullpen, who would probably even make Casey Stengel look bad. So it would seem, at the moment anyway, the conditions for testing that idea are scientifically are not optimal. Washington should probably fix both of those things, though. Maybe they’ll have something if the season is not already lost by now.

Now let’s watch Carlos Gomez (a) lose his shoe running first to third; and (b) be all Carlos Gomez-y on that home run trot:

Pirates 14, Rockies 6: Pittsburgh was leading 8-0 when the Rockies put up a six-run sixth to make things interesting, but a big seventh featuring homers from Josh BellBryan Reynolds and Starling Marte put things back out of reach. Josh Bell on the season: .339/.408/.718 and he’s on pace for 55 homers and 162 RBI. Holy Moly.

Yankees 6, Orioles 5: New York took a 5-1 lead into the eighth and it looked like another cakewalk, but the O’s at least made it interesting with a four-run eighth to tie things up. Brandon Hyde sent reliever Mychal Givens out for the top of the ninth and . . . it didn’t go well. Well, it went well at first, as Givens struck out the first two batters he faced. Then:

If I’m an Orioles fan I suppose I’m happy that game-losing rally didn’t come via even more dinger — at least in the ninth; Clint Frazier and Luke Voit homered earlier — but I suppose that’s cold comfort. Hell, at this point of the season if I’m an Orioles fan I probably want dingers because the infamy of shattering the all-time single season home runs allowed record is gonna be a season highlight. Of sorts.

Red Sox 8, Blue Jays 2: Close for the first two thirds of the game but, unfortunately for the Jays, we usually play three-thirds in this game. Boston scored two in the sixth, one each in the seventh and eighth and then opened up with a three-run ninth to make this one not-so-close. Sox starter Ryan Weber allowed one run over six to give a breather to a bullpen which pitched in a thirteen inning game the night before and Steve Pearce homered and had three RBI. The highlight of the game, though, came from a Jays player. Watch Vlad Jr. through out Rafael Devers from his butt:

Marlins 5, Tigers 2: Make it six straight wins for the Marlins. This one was particularly fun for the Fish and particularly gutting for the Tigers, as Detroit took a 2-0 lead into the ninth only to see reliever Shane Greene cough up all five of the runs Miami would score on the day. First an RBI single to Neil Walker to made it 2-1. A few batters later Ron Gardenhire intentionally walked Curtis Granderson to load the bases, setting up Garrett Cooper for his two-out grand slam. Cooper hit his first big league dinger on Wednesday, so I guess he’s getting the hang of this game. That’s nine straight losses for Detroit. Could’ve been ten as they were trailing in a game against Oakland last weekend that got suspended. Of course it probably feels like 25.

Phillies 9, Cubs 7: Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto homered and Andrew McCutchen had two hits and two RBI as a fairly wild series ends up in a split. Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber homered for Chicago but Jon Lester was kinda shaky. Philly has won five of seven.

Braves 5, Giants 4: Austin Riley hit a game-tying home run in the eighth and then drove in the go-ahead run in the 13th with an RBI single. The kid just got called up nine days ago but he’s already got five homers in those nine games while hitting .389/.421/.833. Someone tell him this game at that easy. Riley and Ozzie Albies each had three hits and Tyler Flowers homered too. The Braves have won 10 of 13 and have pulled to within a game and a half of Philly.

Twins 16, Angels 7: The Angels probably would’ve preferred another rainout. No dice, though, and as it was they gave up eight — 8! VIII! — homers to the Twins. Four of those were surrendered by Matt Harvey, who couldn’t get out of the third inning and whose ERA ballooned to 7.50 on the season. So, um, yeah, that whole experiment has not worked out too well. As for the dingers: Miguel Sanó and Jonathan Schoop went deep twice while C.J. Cron, Max KeplerJorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario had a homer a piece. It was the second time this year Minnesota hit eight homers in a game. The Twins are on pace for 324 homers. The all-time record was set by the Yankees last year with 267. Minnesota is likewise only the second team to hit eight homers in a game twice in a season. The last was the 2005 Rangers. Which, yeah, every game these days sort of feels like old Rangers games. Not that that’s really a compliment, aesthetically speaking. Indeed, longtime readers will know that I tend to default to “1990s-2000s Rangers” as a shorthand for rather boring, offense-heavy baseball. Not that Twins fans should mind, of course.

Rays 7, Indians 2: The “highlight” of this one was a Kevin Kiermaeir inside-the-park homer which was, in reality, a real drag of a play given that it only happened because Tribe outfielders Oscar Mercado and Leonys Martín slammed into each other and got hurt:

Each of the outfielders would stay in the game, thankfully. Both for their own sake and because the Indians are probably one injury or cold streak away from activating Cory Snyder or Albert Belle or someone to play outfield. The Rays got more conventional homers from Tommy Pham, Avisail García and Willy Adames.

White Sox 4, Astros 0: Lucas Giolio went the distance, spinning a four-hit shutout while striking out nine to help the Chisox earn a series split. That’s two straight complete games for Giolito. The last one was a rain-shortened four and a half inning number, but CGs are rare these days. He should own it.