It’s here…it’s finally here. After months of waiting, opining, conjecturing, prognosticating, and speculating – Opening Day is upon us. The off-season ended with a bang after months of rumors and tease with the signings of Suk-Min Yoon, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Nelson Cruz. Some familiar faces are gone. Some new faces are hoping to become familiar. The best positional prospect in the organization will be on the Opening Day roster, the best pitching prospect not too far behind. However, now it’s time to look forward. With that in mind here is the 2014 Season Preview.
First Base: Chris Davis
The only issue surrounding Chris Davis is one of regression. He had such a stellar 2013 season that everyone everywhere is questioning whether he can replicate that performance. My favorite Chris Davis stat from last season is that he had a .348 ISO (Isolated Power, which measures a hitter’s ability to hit for extra bases); the next highest .ISO was Miguel Cabrera at .288. It is unlikely Chris Davis can produce at that rate again. However, he has had a great spring power-wise and all reports are that he is locked in once again. Chris Davis will be the starting first baseman all season long.
Second Base: Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty
Second Base has been a thorn in the side of the Orioles for a couple of seasons now. Injuries and poor performance have given some of the worst production in the league at the position over the past couple of seasons. Going into spring training Ryan Flaherty had the hold on the job, however with Manny Machado going on the DL and Johnathan Schoop raking, the picture has become murkier. Schoop is going to be on the Opening Day roster and will play while he is on the big club. The return of Machado may send Schoop back down, but for now he is in the picture. Expect a platoon between Schoop, Flaherty, and utility man Steve Lombardozzi between second and third base with two playing and one riding the pine each game.
Third Base: Manny Machado, Ryan Flaherty, Johnathan Schoop
The job is Manny’s when he returns. However, until that happens, Flaherty and Schoop will switch off with Steve Lombardozzi possibly pitching in. When Manny returns, the concerns for third base go way down. Manny had an excellent first season batting, with some troubles in the second half, and an all-time great defensive season. The Platinum Glove award winner has a stranglehold on third base.
Shortstop: J.J. Hardy
The steady rock that is J.J. Hardy returns for another year. The only question surrounding the shortstop is that of extension talk. Hardy remains great with the glove and a great value with the bat at his position. Hardy will play another 150+ games at shortstop (hopefully).
Left Field: David Lough, Nelson Cruz
Another position on the field that has been one of consternation for Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter is Left Field. Two new candidates will look to fill the position this season. Trade acquisition David Lough looks to be the starter against Right Handed Pitchers and a late-inning defensive replacement. Lough has top-end speed, plays plus defense, and has a decent bat. It Nelson Cruz appears will be patrolling Left Field against Left Handed Pitchers against my strongly held wishes. Cruz has a high strikeout rate, low walk rate, and lots of power with the bat and a bad game defensively. Cruz and Lough will split the games with Lough playing a majority of the time at the position.
Center Field: Adam Jones
Jonesy returns as the face of the team. Everyone knows the kind of player Adam Jones is. Fans and some media personality love to complain about the defects in his game, however he still stands out on the field and in the batter’s box. Jones will be the everyday centerfielder.
Right Field: Nick Markakis
2014’s highest paid Oriole, Nick Markakis, will look to rebound in what is effectively the last season of his contract. Markakis has had to deal with injuries and the Orioles have had to deal with ineffectiveness for multiple years running. Markakis, after a long overdue healthy off-season, has put on muscle and reports from Spring Training are great. He will play right field every day.
Catcher: Matt Wieters
Matt Wieters’ defensive game has never been better. His offensive game has clear holes. Wieters is unlikely to turn into Joe Mauer, but a better season at the plate is definitely a possibility. Wieters will be the starting catcher.
Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz, Delmon Young
Delmon Young will be the designated hitter versus left handed pitchers and that is his sole role on the team. He can and should produce in that role. Young however does not have a strong hold on that role. Steve Pearce has a shot at surpassing Young if Young underperforms. Nelson Cruz will be the DH versus right handed pitchers and basically has no threat on the roster for that role.
Bench: Steve Lombardozzi, Steve Pearce, and Steve Clevenger
The three Steves will comprise the bench starting the season. Expect lots of turnover amongst these positions as Dan Duquette has been known to manipulate the bottom end of the roster like crazy. Lombardozzi will be the utility man, Steve Pearce the 4th outfielder, and Clevenger the backup catcher.
Starting Rotation: Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris
The starting rotation was pretty mediocre last season and if the Orioles hope to win more than 85 games this year it will have to be better. Veterans have been added and the depth is actually quality depth this season. Opening Day starter Chris Tillman will look to cement his status as a solid big league pitcher coming off an “all-star” season. Ubaldo Jimenez, the number two starter, will try to capture and hold onto whatever allowed him to produce at such a high level last season. If Jimenez can be the pitcher he was in 2013 for 2014, the Orioles rotation looks a whole lot better. Wei-Yin Chen will try to stay healthy and try to figure out the seventh inning this season, other than that, Chen is who he is. Gonzalez continues to produce and continues to amaze in his ability to get outs, nothing different should be expected this season. Bud Norris has a tenuous hold on the fifth spot in the rotation with Kevin Gausman and others nipping at his heels. Norris concerns me, but he has put up a solid spring and will have time to cement his role as the fifth starter. The rotation as a whole should be better and if a couple of things break right, could be very good.
Bullpen: Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day, Ryan Webb, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Evan Meek, Josh Stinson
The bullpen also disappointed last season. The magic of the 2012 team was held up on the bullpen preforming great in the late and close high leverage situations. The 2013 season was a different story in similar situations. Tommy Hunter looks to replace bullpen stalwart Jim Johnson as the closer. Expect Buck to have a quicker hook with Hunter than he did with Johnson if Hunter consistently falters in the ninth. O’Day, Webb, and Matusz are solid locks to be on the roster all season long and should be effective relief pitchers. Britton, Meek, and Stinson earned their spots in Spring Training and could lose them just as quick. Solid bullpen depth at Norfolk should mean that if any one of those three under-performs, they have a quick ticket off the roster. The bullpen, in my mind, is the weakest section of the team with a lot of unknowns remaining—as most bullpens have. The bullpen could be great, it could be awful, and the volatility of relief pitchers creates a hard situation to predict.
Obviously, all of these predictions and previews are based upon a lack of injuries—a risky assumption. Also obviously, predicting a record for a 162 game baseball season is relatively foolhardy. Regardless of those two facts, The Orioles can contend for the division and the playoffs if three things happen. One, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters need to produce better than they did last season at the plate. Two, Manny Machado and Chris Davis cannot regress greatly. Three, the starters are able to stay in games longer and the bullpen is able to perform well late and close. If those three things happen, the Orioles will be contenders. I predict a season record of 88-74 (+/- 5), wildcard contender, and possible playoff team.