2015 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 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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Diamondbacks 4, Braves 1: 🎶Stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me . . .stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before . . .🎶

Sorry. Just waylaid by this Braves bullpen. Nothing’s changed. It’s enough to make a shy, bald, Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder. Me watching the game: 🎶 I drank one. It became four. And when I fell on the floor I drank more.🎶

Christian Walker hit a two-run homer in the seventh off of Chad Sobotka, who, didn’t get an out and who has given up five runs in his last two outings. The Diamondbacks have won four straight.

Nationals 4, Giants 2: Patrick Corbin took a one-hitter into the eighth inning and ended having allowed only one run on two hits while punching out nine. Not literally, though. If he punched out nine guys he’d probably be arrested.

Tigers 9, White Sox 7: Detroit ends a five-game skid. Nicholas Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera led the way, with the former going 3-for-4, the latter 2-for-4 and both driving in two runs. Dustin Peterson and Grayson Greiner also each drove in two, but they don’t get to be characterized as “leading the way” because baseball has a pretty strict seniority system and if you get too loosey-goosey with it you got a big hassle with the union and I’ve already had too many fires to put out this week, OK?

Blue Jays 7, Twins 4: Randal Grichuk, who got all “play the game the right way” on Tim Anderson on Wednesday, hit a homer. After which he gently laid his bat down parallel to the base line, assumed an expression which suggested mild pleasure but copious humility and then stoically ran the bases at a speed which reflected his obvious reverence for players past, present and future. I’m assuming at least.

Here’s what he actually said:

“I’ve never been one to flip a bat or do anything like that. I run out of the box always. I’ve hit some pretty far homers and I’ve sprinted out of the box like it was a wall-scraper. It’s just who I am. (Other) guys are different.”

Someone give that guy the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Justin Smoak and Teoscar Hernández hit home runs too. No word on whether Grichuk silently judged them afterwards. The Jays took three of four from the Twinkies.

Royals 6, Yankees 1: Homer Bailey — Homer Bailey? — yes, Homer Bailey held the Bombers to one run over six. Jorge Soler and Ryan O'Hearn hit dingers. New York got four singles in the game. That’s it. I guess with the Red Sox and Cubs being off someone had to step up and satisfy the “big money teams stinkin’ up the joint” quota for the evening.

Dodgers 3, Brewers 1: Before the game Dave Roberts announced that Julio Urías would head to the bullpen after this start since the Dodgers will soon be getting a couple of veteran pitchers back. Then Urías goes out and tosses six one-hit shutout innings while striking out nine. There are teams that would kill to have the sort of depth that would allow this kid to be shuffled off to long relief after a start like this. Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy homered in a winning cause. Christian Yelich homered in a losing cause.

Orioles 6, Rays 5: Joey Rickard drove in the winning run in the 11th inning with an RBI double. To even get him up to bat required Chris Davis to hit a two-out RBI single, and I wonder what the odds of that happening were. RIckard himself was no sure bet to play the hero here after coming into the game on an 0-for-15 skid, but he reached base five times and drove in two on the night. Dude used to be a Ray, too. Or at least in their system. Baltimore swiped him from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft. Here’s another killer for the Rays: Tommy Pham, who was 4-for-5 with two driven in, was on second base with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the score tied but . . . got picked off while trying to steal third base. Ouch.

Rockies 6, Phillies 2: Ryan McMahon homered twice and had five RBI. Kyle Freeland pitched six scoreless innings but had to leave with a blister, so that’s worth watching. Colorado was won four in a row.

Mariners 11, Angels 10: The M’s had a 10-2 lead heading into the seventh and totally blew it when the Angels scored seven runs on seven hits in the seventh and got a David Fletcher homer in the eighth to tie things up. Seattle rallied in the ninth, though, with pinch hitter Jay Bruce singing in Mitch Haniger for the winning margin. Before all of that messiness the M’s bottom of the order, in the form of Omar Narváez and Ryon Healy, combined to drive in nine. Healy homered twice. Narváez hit a three-run shot. Speaking of shot, all the pitchers in this one probably should’ve been.

Reds 4, Padres 1: Joey Votto led off in this came, which was odd, and he hit a homer to start the game. Padres starter Chris Paddack said after the game that he “thought I could blow a heater by him.” Bless his heart. Fernando Tatís Jr. led off too, which is also new, and went 2-for-4. Tucker Barnhart and Jesse Winker also homered, helping Cincy snap a four-game losing skid.