Baltimore Orioles Preview

The Baltimore Orioles didn’t make it back to the playoffs last year after their surprise run to the Division Series in 2012. But the Orioles did win 85 games in baseball’s toughest division and established that the turnaround under manager Buck Showalter is on a firm foundation. How far can that foundation go in the new season? That’s the question our Notebook Nine, the nine key talking points about the Orioles will seek to shed light on…

*One thing I don’t understand is why Las Vegas has been so down on the Orioles. Last season their Over/Under on the win futures was 79—this off a 93-win playoff year. Now, even with two straight winning seasons under their belt, the betting number for Oriole wins is 81—essentially it’s an even question on the Strip of whether the Orioles will even win more than they lose.

*Chris Davis and Manny Machado are the juice on this team at opposite corners of the infield, but there are question marks. Davis might not hit 53 home runs or slug .634 again, but he can be expected to do 33 and .501, the 2012 numbers and that’s sufficient. What Davis did last year was lift his on-base percentage to .370. Is the OBP here to stay? The 21-year-old Machado has to come back from a horrible knee injury at the end of the season. He’ll return on Opening Day or close to it, but the good people of Baltimore need only look an hour south to the Redskins and RG3 to know these things don’t always go smoothly.

*Davis’ model of adding consistent on-base percentage to his power game has to be emulated by several other players in the everyday lineup. Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy can all hit the ball out of the park and into the alleys—all three have averaged at least 25 home runs a year each since 2011—but none of three get on base consistently. That can mean some long droughts when the ball isn’t flying.

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*Baltimore needs Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis to have comeback seasons at the plate. Wieters offers great value at catcher regardless of how he hits, but another Oriole who does more with home runs than he does at getting on base, also saw his power dip last season. Markakis, after being steady and consistent in right field from 2007-12, had a bad year. He does have an excuse—an injured wrist that kept him out of the ’12 postseason might not have fully recovered. Markakis needs to establish quickly that it was an injury hangover, not the onset of decline, that caused his 2013 woes.

*Overall, this team just needs another bat in the lineup and it’s underscored by the situation at DH. Nolan Reimold showed some potential in 2011, but injuries have limited him since. He’s slated to be the everyday DH. That just won’t cut in a division where your rivals trot out David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano or even Matt Joyce in Tampa Bay. You can’t tell me the Orioles can’t at least find someone as good as Joyce to take this spot. If Reimold can’t be that guy, I don’t expect Showalter and GM Dan Duquette to sit around too long waiting.

*I really like the Oriole starting pitching. There’s no clear-cut ace, but Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have established themselves as consistent starters with ERAs in the high 3s, and with both still in their twenties, each could have a higher upside. Wei-Yin Chen can be up and down, but he’s a nice #3 or #4 starter. Bud Norris was acquired at last year’s trade deadline and he’s another arm who can, at minimum be a stabilizing back-of-the-rotation arm and he’s young enough to have an upside.

*This steady foundation was strengthened by bringing in free agent Ubaldo Jiminez from Cleveland. We know Jiminez is a steady horse and good for 200 innings, and that alone is something Showalter hasn’t had in Baltimore. After bad years in 2011-12, Jiminez regained his form last year and won 13 games with 3.30 ERA. The Orioles also have possibilities at both ends of the age spectrum—Kevin Gausman showed promise as a top prospect last year and at minimum can start the season in the bullpen. The Orioles also took a flyer on Johan Santana, whose career has pretty much been shot by shoulder problems. But the former Cy Young winner might make it back by June and he’s been effective when physically able to pitch. I wouldn’t suggest Oriole fans count on him, but the structure of the rotation makes it clear they don’t need to.

*Jim Johnson is gone after consecutive 50-save seasons and the closer’s gig is open. Tommy Hunter will get first chance at the opportunity. There are also rumors Norris could be shifted into this role depending on how Hunter does and how things shake out in the rotation. There’s no denying this is a big question mark in spring training.

*Those question marks extend through the rest of the bullpen, where only Darren O’Day can be counted on. Options include Brian Matusz and Ryan Webb, who have shown themselves to be competent. Ultimately though, Showalter has demonstrated himself supremely competent in this area, and I would expect him to figure out the bullpen. The big issue is going to be how long it takes for pitchers to find their roles.

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I’ve touched on lot of question marks here, but there’s frankly fewer questions regarding this Oriole team than there was either of the last two seasons. Which is why I’m glad to take the Over 81 on the win futures. My real debate is whether to pick this team to make the playoffs or even win the AL East, given that this is the best Opening Day starting rotation Showalter has had in his tenure in Charm City. I’ll settle on that com March 31 when the season opens. For now, just know that this team is again underrated coming into the year.