2014 AL East Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Buck Showalter's group must prove 2013 was the fluke, not 2012
02/26/2014 10:53 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Manny Machado hit .283 with an American League-leading 51 doubles in 2013.(AP)
The Baltimore Orioles broke a 15-year playoff drought in 2012 and took the Yankees to five games in an epic ALDS, but they didn't have nearly as much success in 2013. Will 2014 prove that the young Birds have arrived and last year was a blip on the radar, or will it show that they've already flown back south in the standings?

2013 Record: 85-77, tied for third in AL East
Manager: Buck Showalter (5th season, 4th full)
Key Additions: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RP Ryan Webb, SP/RP Suk-Min Yoon
Key Losses: SP Scott Feldman, OF Nate McLouth, 2B Brian Roberts, RP Jim Johnson

Offense: Is there an easy out in the Orioles' lineup? Most days it won't seem that way, and that starts at the top, where Nick Markakis - who led off on Opening Day last year, too - will likely take over. Markakis isn't a "true" leadoff man, but he hit .319 with a .352 on-base percentage in 34 games in that spot last year, and his .360 career OBP that will play well in front of Manny Machado. The young third baseman, who hit .283 with 51 doubles in his first full year, can only get better with Chris Davis (.286-53-138 last year), Adam Jones (.285-33-108), and potential steal of a free agent addition Cruz (.266-27-76) behind him in some order. Add in Matt Wieters (.235-22-79) and JJ Hardy (.263-25-76) behind them, and the Orioles could come close to matching last year's team total of 2012 just going one through seven. The last two spots will go to whoever ends up as the new left fielder and second baseman; the former battle will see a handful of guys, from trade addition David Lough to minor-league signees Delmon Young and Quintin Berry to perhaps prospect Henry Urrutia, looking to replace Nate McLouth, while Ryan Flaherty and trade addition Jemile Weeks (if he's healthy) will battle to see who replaces Roberts. Hot prospect Jonathan Schoop could work his way into that latter battle into a three-way runoff.

Rotation: In one week, the signings of Jimenez and Moon turned a winter-long rotation deficit into a surplus. If Jimenez has figured things out, then he and 2013 All-Star Chris Tillman will form a very strong one-two punch, with southpaw Wei-Yin Chin likely locked in thanks to his left-handedness. That means in theory that mid-2014 acquisition Bud Norris will battle with Moon and Miguel Gonzalez for the final spot, but Moon worked as a reliever in the KBO last year because of a shoulder injury, so if the O's decide that's his best spot this spring, the problem will be solved. No matter what, the surplus means that Kevin Gausman can learn some more in Triple-A and there's no temptation to have Tommy John rehabber Dylan Bundy do too much too soon, so give a win to the kiddie corps and their development. A wild card to watch here is former hot prospect Zach Britton; he's left-handed and now out of Minor League options, and one or both of those traits could help him inch his way into the battle.

Bullpen: The Birds shipped All-Star closer Jim Johnson to Oakland in the Weeks deal, so Tommy Hunter will likely take over as closer with Webb - who was, until mid-February, Baltimore's lone major-league free agent addition - as his set-up man. Beyond them, side-armer Darren O'Day, hard-throwing lefty T.J. McFarland, and more-than-lefty specialist Brian Matusz are back, and Troy Patton will be after he serves a 25-game suspension to start the year. Patton's suspension means the Birds could theoretically carry their rotation battle into the regular season by keeping Britton and/or the other odd man out in the bullpen for the first month or so, and there's still room for someone like minor-league addition Alfredo Aceves or Evan Meek to impress and win a spot.

Player to Watch: Davis and Cruz. David got a $7 million arbitration raise and must prove he was worth it, while Cruz - whose stigma from last year's Biogenesis scandal surely hurt his free agent value as much as the compensation tied to him did - must prove his numbers weren't all "enhanced" so to speak.

Why they will win: A little bit of hard work mixed with a little bit of luck. The Orioles fought their way to the playoffs in 2012 on the backs of both, the latter showing in their 29-9 record in one-run games. That record fell to 20-31 in 2013, and their overall win total decreased by roughly the same amount. Coincidence? Maybe, but it's clear that these O's live and die by the skin of their teeth…and with the AL East much improved, they're going to need more than that at times.

Why they will lose: Pick your poison: close games don't go their way again, Davis' numbers go down a lot and no one makes up the difference, Jimenez is the 2012 version of himself more often than not and/or Moon is overwhelmed, Hunter can't handle the closer's role and the bullpen implodes around him…any one (or more) of those problems could ground the Birds in a much-improved AL East.

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