2014 MLB Season Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Orioles

It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air. 

With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fair in 2014, division-by-division. 

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (85-77 last year)

Starting Line-Up

C: Matt Wieters (27) – 148 games, .235/.287/.417, 22 HR, 79 RBI, 59 runs, 104 strikeouts, 88 OPS+, 0.4 bWAR

1B: Chris Davis (27) – 160 games, .286/.370/.634, 53 HR (led MLB), 138 RBI (led MLB), 103 runs, 199 strikeouts, 165 OPS+, 6.3 bWAR All-Star, Silver Slugger, Finished 3rd in MVP voting

2B: Jemile Weeks (27) – 8 games, .111/.111/.111, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 3 runs, 5 strikeouts, -37 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR (with Athletics)

3B: Ryan Flaherty (27) – 85 games, .224/.293/.390, 10 HR, 27 RBI, 28 runs, 19 walks, 83 OPS+, 1.0 bWAR

SS: J.J. Hardy (31) – 159 games, .263/.306/.433, 25 HR, 76 RBI, 66 runs, 27 doubles, 97 OPS+, 3.7 bWAR All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger

LF: David Lough (28) – 96 games, .286/.311/.413, 5 HR, 33 RBI, 35 runs, 4 triples, 96 OPS+, 2.7 bWAR Finished 8th in ROY voting (with Royals)

CF: Adam Jones (28) – 160 games, .285/.318/.493, 33 HR, 108 RBI, 100 runs, 136 strikeouts, 115 OPS+, 4.4 bWAR, All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Finished 13th in MVP voting

RF: Nick Markakis (30) – 160 games, .271/.329/.356, 10 HR, 59 RBI, 89 runs, 24 doubles, 86 OPS+, -0.1 bWAR

DH: Nolan Reimold (30) – 40 games, .195/.250/.336, 5 HR, 12 RBI, 17 runs, 10 walks, 57 OPS+, -1.1 bWAR

Good News:

Chris DavisThe good news for the Orioles is that they had a good lineup in 2013 and didn’t lose any key pieces.  In 2013, the Orioles were 5th in the MLB in runs scored and led the league in HRs due, in part, to having three silver sluggers on the roster.  The only starters the Orioles lost were Nate McLouth and Brian Roberts.  Roberts, 36, has struggled with injuries that have kept him from playing more than half a season in any of the last four years, during which time he has combined for a bWAR of -1.8.  McLouth was the leadoff man in 2013 but his .329 OBP and 1.6 bWAR, while not bad, are very replaceable.

Adam Jones had one of the best seasons of his career, scoring his second best AVG, HR, Slugging, OPS+, doubles, stolen bases, runs, and setting a career high in RBI.  The best news, is that at 28 years old, there’s no sign of regression.  Jones’ BABIP was in line with his career average, and he had the lowest walk rate and highest strikeout rate in 5 years and still put up those numbers.

Chris Davis led the majors in HR and RBI in only his second year as an everyday player.  It’s hard to imagine there won’t be some regression since his ISO of .348 and .648 slugging seem inhuman.  That being said, his .336 BABIP is only 1 point higher than his career average and he did have some seasons in the minors posting ISO numbers over .300 (including 48 games in 2011 at AAA where his ISO was .456).  Davis also had a walk rate of over 10%, leading to an OBP of .370, and neither stat is too inconsistent with what he did in the minors.  Even with some minor regression, Davis should be a lock for 40+ HR.

The last of the Silver Sluggers is J.J. Hardy who turned things around after a rough 2012.  Hardy lowered his strikeout rate from 14.9% in 2012 (and 16.2% in 2011) to 11.3% in 2013 which led to a 25 point increase in AVG and 24 point rise in OBP.  Hardy also won his second straight Gold Glove, posting a 6.0 UZR and 8 DRS, and those were half as good as he did the year before.

Although Nick Markakis had a rough season in 2013, there’s a good chance it was just an off year.  Markakis set career lows in almost every offensive category but he had otherwise been very consistent his entire career.  In 2011, he significantly lowered his strikeout rate (from 13%+ to 10.5%) and that improvement he has kept steady over the past 3 seasons.  Still, even if there is no return back to his old self, a OBP of .329 and an OPS+ of 86 won’t kill you.

Some of the younger players on the team are worth keeping an eye on.  David Lough finished 8th in Rookie of the Year voting with the Royals.  Despite having a really bad walk rate (3.0%), Lough managed to have a .286/.311/.413 line with a 96 OPS+.  The biggest thing Lough brings to the team is his defense, he had a 27.3 UZR/150 with 15 runs saved.  Ryan Flaherty brings little to the plate but also helps out a lot on defense, he had a UZR/150 of 14.1 with a DRS of 3 at 2B.

Flaherty likely won’t be too much of a liability since he’s just a placeholder for when Manny Machado returns from the DL.  There currently is no timetable for his return although it should not be too long into the season.  In 2013, Machado’s 2nd big league season, he went to the All-Star game, won a Gold Glove, and finished 9th in MVP voting while leading the major leagues in doubles.  If that’s not enough, Machado’s defense was impeccable, scoring a ridiculous 31.2 UZR and 35 DRS in 2013.

Bad News:

Jemile WeeksIf there’s a flaw in the Orioles lineup, it’s their defense.  Chris Davis has a UZR of -5.5 and a DRS of -7 in his career at 1B.  Jemile Weeks put up terrible defensive numbers with the A’s (UZR/15 of -11 and a DRS of -14 in 2012) making the right side of the infield pretty weak.  Despite winning a Gold Glove, Adam Jones has actually not recorded positive numbers for either UZR or DRS since 2009 and Markakis has not done so since 2008.  This means that as strong as the left side of the field is defensively, the right side is quite weak.

All things considered, when your biggest lineup flaw is your defense, things aren’t too bad.  There are some minor concerns offensively though.  As mentioned, Flaherty is not scaring anyone with a bat in his hands, but luckily he should end up being a bench player.  Matt Wieters, who is one of the better defensive catchers, hasn’t really hit as well as once hoped.  Three of the past four seasons have seen him bat below .250 with strikeout rates over 18%.  Wieters has some good power, and his extremely low BABIP from 2013 suggest an increase in AVG, but a career .319 OBP isn’t ideal.

Aside from his poor defense, Weeks also represents a huge question mark offensively.  He only has 4 career HRs and his 2 seasons with any real playing time in the majors were very different stories.  In 2011, he posted .303/.340/.421 with 22 SB 26 doubles and 8 triples.  He followed that up in 2012 with .221/.305/.304 and 15 doubles with 16 SB in more games played (he did still hit 8 triples).  Weeks played only 8 major league games last season so there’s no way to know what to expect from him.  He did post very good numbers in AAA the past few years so hopefully he can bring those skills to the majors but he could also be someone who just never quite pieces it together.

Nolan Reimold has only played more than 40 games twice in his five year career.  His career OPS+ of 103 shows he’s not a huge liability at the plate but he’s only a career .252/.327 hitter with a rough strikeout rate of 20%.  He’ll be the DH so he won’t need to play defense, which is good since his numbers aren’t very good.

Overall the Orioles have a lot to like about their lineup with only a few rough spots at the plate.  Their defense is the biggest concern but as bad at the right side is, the left side of the field plays pretty outstanding defense.

Bench

1B/OF Steve Pearce (30) – 44 games, .261/.362/.420, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 14 runs, 15 walks, 111 OPS+, 0.5 bWAR

IF Alexi Casilla (29) – 62 games, .214/.268/.295, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 15 runs, 9 SB, 52 OPS+, 0.5 bWAR

C/1B Steve Clevenger (27) – 12 games, .217/.250/.261, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 2 runs, 39 OPS+, 0.0 bWAR

OF Delmon Young (28) – 103 games, .260/.307/.407, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 30 runs, 78 strikeouts, 97 OPS+, -0.9 bWAR (with Phillies and Rays)

Skinny:

The Orioles bench is a bit of a mixed bag.  Steve Pearce, a career .238 hitter, has bounced around between teams over the years but is far from intimidating at the plate.  He has never played more than 61 games in a season but is coming off one of his most productive years.  Pearce was able to end up with an OBP of .362, although being 42 points above his career percentage means it’s hard to tell whether this is a sign of him learning patience or just a one time thing.  Pearce may platoon against lefties, who he has a .351 OBP against with a wRC+ of 116.

Alexi Casilla struggled a lot in 2013, possibly due in part to a .247 BABIP (his career average is .280).  However, Casilla has a career OBP of just over .300 and an OPS+ of 73 which means that even with some positive regression, he’s not someone the Orioles are going to want to rely on; he does have a career bWAR of 4.1 in 8 seasons after all.  Casilla does not have much experience playing 3B (only 31 innings) and is a very average SS, but he has improved his defense at 2B over the past few years, saving 19 runs over the past 2 seasons at the position.  With his limited hitting abilities and inability to bring much defensively, Casilla may find himself being sent down to AAA once Machado comes off the DL.

Steve Clevenger only has 83 games in the majors so he’s a bit of an unknown.  He’s certainly never been a power threat and his OBP in the minor leagues was never anything too impressive.  Clevenger has been averse to getting on base in the major leagues, with a line of .204/.262/.279.  It’s not hard to imagine those numbers improving, they certainly can’t get much worse, but he appears to be a well below average hitter and average behind the plate at best.

Delmon Young is the best offensive option off the bench for the Orioles.  While not an imposing force, Young has a career OPS+ of 98 and has decent power which should make him a decent pinch hitting option.  However, Young’s success in weighed down by his atrocious walk rate (4.2%) and his strikeout rate appears to have gotten worse (17.9% career, 21.6% in 2013).  To make matters worse, Young is a very poor defender, he had a pitiful UZR/150 of -22.2 and -10 DRS just in 2013.

No one on the Orioles bench would provide much value as an everyday player but Young and Pearce can handle coming in to face LHP.  The rest of the guys won’t kill them but the bench isn’t exactly deep.

Starting Rotation

Ace: Chris Tillman (25) – 33 games, 16-7, 3.71 ERA, 206.1 IP, 7.8 K/9, 2.63 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP, 113 ERA+, 4.4 bWAR All-Star

#2: Wei-Yin Chen (28) – 23 games, 7-7, 4.07 ERA, 137 IP, 6.8 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP, 103 ERA+, 1.8 bWAR

#3: Bud Norris (29) – 32 games, 10-12, 4.18 ERA, 176.2 IP, 7.5 K/9, 2.19 K/BB, 1.49 WHIP, 98 ERA+, 2.0 bWAR (with Astros and Orioles)

#4: Miguel Gonzalez (29) – 30 games, 11-8, 3.78 ERA, 171.1 IP, 6.3 K/9, 2.26 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP, 111 ERA+, 2.0 bWAR

#5: Kevin Gausman (23) – 20 games, 3-5, 5.66 ERA, 47.2 IP, 9.3 K/9, 3.77 K/BB, 1.34 WHIP, 75 ERA+, -0.3 bWAR

Good News:

Chris TillmanThe Orioles have built a very young staff with a lot of potential.  Chris Tillman has improved each season since 2010 earning his first full season as a starter in 2013 which resulted in a career high in his K/9 rate. Tillman saw his innings jump from 86 to 206.1, and he handled it well, posting an ERA+ of 113.  While he’s not a true ace, at least not yet, he should anchor the young staff.

Wei-Yin Chen was only able to start 23 games in his second MLB season but performed pretty well.  He finished 4th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 and put up very similar numbers in 2013.  Although it would have been nice to see some more improvement, Chen did improve his HR% and and his BB% while putting up almost the same ERA despite a much higher BABIP.

Miguel Gonzalez is someone that O’s fans should be very excited about.  Gonzalez was 2nd on the team in games started in 2013, posting an ERA+ of 111 in the process.  What’s nice to see was how consistent his numbers stayed between his rookie year and 2013.  Gonzalez had his WHIP, H/9, HR/9, BB/9, and K/9 all within 3 points from the year prior.  He even had the exact same BABIP each year.  If Gonzalez is going to end up as the #4 starter for the team, that’s a great spot for him.

It’s still not certain but early projections are for Kevin Gausman to take over the #5 role in the rotation.  Gausman was the first pitcher taken in the 2012 draft and earned his way into the rotation in 2013.  Although he struggled in his first action, the 23-year-old is currently ranked as the 31st best prospect according to MLB.com and is supposed to have one of the best change-ups in the minor leagues.  Since he will only operate at the back end of the rotation, there shouldn’t be too much pressure on Gausman which could give him an opportunity to break out.

Bad News:

Without even getting into specifics, the Orioles simply lack an ace of the staff.  Tillman has taken some steps forward and if he takes another step forward this season, he could be that ace.  However, the entire staff is very inexperienced which could be a problem in big games, especially in a division with some big bats.

The Orioles parted ways with Jason Hammel who was far from a stud, but did have better numbers than newcomer Bud Norris who struggled in his appearances with Baltimore last season.  Norris, who had been with the Astros all of his career, starting in 2009, has only put together one season with an ERA+ over 100 (and it was exactly 100).  He and Tillman are the only “veterans” of the staff which isn’t a huge confidence boost.

Overall, there is a lot of talent on the staff but no one who really wows you.  Even if Tillman steps into the role of the ace, there’s still no one who qualifies as a strong #2 option.  If the Orioles are going to stay competitive, they’ll need their young rotation to really step up in 2014.

Bullpen

Closer: Tommy Hunter (27) – 68 games, 6-5, 2.81 ERA, 86.1 IP, 4 saves, 21 holds, 7.1 K/9, 4.86 K/BB, 0.99 WHIP, 150 ERA+

Set-Up Man: Darren O’Day (31) – 68 games, 5-3, 2.18 ERA, 62 IP, 2 saves, 20 holds, 8.6 K/9, 3.93 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP, 194 ERA+

MR: Ryan Webb (27) – 66 games, 2-6, 2.91 ERA, 80.1 IP, 4 holds, 6.0 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP, 133 ERA+ (with Marlins)

MR: Brian Matusz (26) – 65 games, 2-1, 3.53 ERA, 51 IP, 18 holds, 8.8 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP, 120 ERA+

MR: Edgmer Escalona (27) – 37 games, 1-4, 5.67 ERA, 46 IP, 7 holds, 6.7 K/9, 2.43 K/BB, 1.44 WHIP, 78 ERA+ (with Rockies)

MR: Brad Brach (27) – 33 games, 1-0, 3.19 ERA, 31 IP, 2 holds, 9.0 K/9, 1.63 K/BB, 1.77 WHIP, 108 ERA+ (with Padres)

LR: Steve Johnson (26) – 9 games, 1-1, 7.47 ERA, 15.2 IP, 1 hold, 11.5 K/9, 1.54 K/BB, 1.72 WHIP, 57 ERA+

Skinny:

Tommy HunterIt’s hard to predict how a bullpen is going to perform but the Orioles appear to have a good news, bad news situation.  Tommy Hunter projects to start as the team’s closer.  Hunter, who bounced around between the majors and minors for most of his career as a starter, took a role out of the bullpen for the first time in 2013.  Hunter was stellar, improving his strikeout and walk rates, and posting an incredible ERA and WHIP.  Should Hunter repeat last year’s numbers, he would be a great closer for the Orioles.  His career walk rate of 2.02 BB/9 makes him a great 9th inning guy but the .249 BABIP in 2013 means he’s likely due for some regression.

Even if there are questions about Hunter, the set-up role is in great hands with Darren O’Day.  O’day finished his first season with the Orioles in 2012 with a great ERA+ of 185 and a WHIP of 0.94.  In 2013, his strikeout, walk, and home run rates all got worse from the prior season and yet O’Day improved his ERA.

There are a lot of imports to the pen including Ryan Webb from the Marlins, Edgmer Escalona from the Rockies, and Brad Brach from the Padres.  Ryan Webb is the most promising of these and he will likely serve as the 7th inning man ahead of O’Day.  Webb had his best season in terms of ERA, 133 ERA+ in 2013 with a career 118 ERA+, but he has too many walks (3.16 BB/9) and too few strikeouts (6.3 K/9) to fit the classic closer role.  When it really comes down to it, all you care about from your pen is not letting in runs and Webb has been good at that his entire career.

Escalona must be happy to get out of Coors Field but he represents a weakness for the Orioles.  During the past two seasons, he recorded an ERA+ of 78 in each.  The high HR% which gets inflated when pitching for the Rockies should make his ERA improve but his career xFIP is 4.70 so expectations should be low.

Brach makes an interesting addition who can punch out a lot of hitters but walks too many as well.  His ERA shows that that combination works pretty well for him, or at least it did in pitcher friendly San Diego against the NL West.  Brian Matusz is a well known name for Oriole fans after he failed at becoming the next big pitcher out of the minors.  During the 2012 season, they finally gave up on his as a starter and sent him to the pen.  The move worked as he set career bests in almost every pitching category including an ERA+ of 120.

All in all, the bullpen is like most major league pens, it has some solid anchors but also some glaring weaknesses.  The biggest concern might be at the closer role where no one on the team has much experience in save situations.

Notable Players on DL

3B Manny Machado (21) – 156 games, .283/.314/.432, 14 HR, 71 RBI, 88 runs, 51 doubles (led MLB), 99 OPS+, 6.5 bWAR All-Star, Gold Glove, Finished 9th in MVP voting

Top 10 Prospects (Baseball Prospectus)

1. RHP Kevin Gausman

2. RHP Dylan Bundy

3. RHP Hunter Harvey

4. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez

5. 2B Jonathan Schoop

6. RHP Mike Wright

7. LHP Tim Berry

8. RHP Zach Davies

9. C Chance Cisco

10. OF Josh Hart

Skinny:

As mentioned above, Gausman is currently projected to start the season as the #5 starter which means he’ll have the most immediate impact on the team.  Although Dylan Bundy is one of the better prospects, he required Tommy John surgery which set back his emergence as a full time starter and is not expected to make the team until 2015.

Eduardo Rodriguez may be the next man on the list to play in 2014 as MLB.com reports him as being just a few steps behind Gausman and Bundy.  That gives Rodriguez a chance to crack the rotation mid season if any of the starters struggle or get injured.

The rest of the prospects on the list aren’t good enough to crack the top 100, which isn’t that surprising since so many of the Orioles star players are rather young.  The biggest weakness on their team is their starting pitching so having backup options in the minors could be key to their chances in 2014.

Season Projection:

The Orioles’ 2014 season largely hinges on their pitching staff.  The starting lineup is full of some really strong hitters which should keep them in contention for being in the top 5 in runs and home runs again.  The rotation has a lot to like but with so many young arms it can be a bit of a bumpy road.  Hopefully, any of the issues they may have can be cured by their surplus of pitching prospects.

Overall, it’s a strong team with a lot of very talented young players but they do play in a tough division.  They probably can improve from the 2013 campaign but to win the AL East, they’ll need the entire rotation to play close to their ceilings.  Ultimately, I think the Orioles will be a team most won’t want to play against but they’ll fall a bit short of winning the division.

Projected Record: 88-74, 3rd in AL East

8 thoughts on “2014 MLB Season Preview: Baltimore Orioles

  1. “If there’s a flaw in the Orioles lineup, it’s their defense.” Seems legit. Because any team with 5 Gold Glove nominations and the fewest errors of any team in the history of baseball just a year ago with very little turnover in the starting lineup clearly has defensive questions on the field

    • In Alex’s defense, there was no Gold Glove winner more undeserving last year than Adam Jones, who has been a negative defensive center fielder every year since 2009. J.J. Hardy isn’t necessarily unworthy, but he wasn’t one of the three best shortstops last year, and shouldn’t have won either the Gold Glove or Silver Slugger (Jed Lowrie, unquestionably, had a much better year at the plate than Hardy).

      Also, I wouldn’t go off players being finalists for Gold Gloves as any sort of measuring stick for team defense. Eric Young Jr. was a finalist for left fielders last year, despite being a very average outfielder.

    • If we know anything about baseball, it’s definitely that those who get votes always make the right choices. Also, errors are definitely the best measure of a team’s defense.

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