This is the first of a four-part Baltimore Orioles preview for the 2014 season. The disclaimer is that I do not see the team in the negative tone as it is presented here today, though any of these specific fears could eventuate. Tomorrow I will write a preview from the entirely optimistic fan’s viewpoint, followed with a third piece that seeks a realistic and balanced view of what we might expect from this club. The final article will be a projection of the AL East.
So I’m sitting here in my Eeyore costume preparing to think dark thoughts about the Orioles in the spirit of the cheerful baseball enthusiast, author, and news commentator George Will, who said, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”
Besides that, it has been proven in a study by the American Psychological Association that pessimists tend to live longer, in that it encourages people to live more carefully by taking health and safety precautions. So … that’s what I’m doing here with the Orioles.
So here we go. There is a lot to worry about with this version of the Baltimore Orioles. But even I, in this gloomy writing mode, have to admit to great gains over the past two seasons. Yet does not the drop-off last year prove that the 2012 season was all the fluke that Cashman said it to be? It is an anomaly – his word – for a team to go 29-9 in one-run games. The 20-31 of 2013 is more Orioles-esque, and this 2014 team could be argued to be less prepared for close contests after trading away the best statistical closer in baseball over the recent set of years.
Talking about pitching, let’s start with the rotation. Baseball writers everywhere start their evaluation of the Baltimore Orioles by referencing this cast of five characters – and not because it is a strength. While admitting that the Orioles can hit more long fly balls than anyone else, they also give up just as many … so the starting pitching is the ending point for a team that can’t truly compete as constructed.
Think about this rotation. Yes, Chris Tillman had a breakout year. Can that really be repeated? Not likely, if you consider that he fails often to get deep enough into games. His pitch counts elevate with a constant litany of foul balls. And his spring training did not look crisp. Even if he repeats last year, that is just 20% of the rotation.
Orioles fans are excited that the team broke with long-time patterns of not signing long-term pitching deals. But here is one for $50 million over four years to a guy who has pitched a lot of consistent innings, yes … and Ubaldo Jimenez had a nice finish last year. But he goes through long funk periods of 5.00 ERA+ … and his numbers against the AL East are atrocious. And this is an answer?
Next is the only left-hander in the mix – Wei-yin Chen – who is now way in over his head! Pitchers from Asia are suspect on their endurance, and the league has Chen figured out. The same may well be true of Miguel Gonzalez – a nice kid who had a nice run. But he’s a four-innings quality guy most nights. Over his career, opponents batted .215 in innings one to four, but in the 5th through 7th innings hit .278, including .342 in the 7th alone. And the fifth starter, Bud Norris, did not have numbers in Baltimore that resembled Houston; but then again, Houston was not playing AL East teams 76 times in a season.
So, all these starter issues result in the bullpen necessarily pitching too many innings. There is encouragement in Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Josh Stinson having a good spring, but none have sustained successes – apart from Matusz’ excellent numbers against lefties – especially those with the last name of Ortiz. But really, who is honestly going to close for the Birds? Tommy Hunter you say? He of the career .294 BA against by lefties? How long can the Orioles stay in contention until rounds of trial and error settle this?
There is no doubt that the Orioles have a defense that is among the best ever, and amazingly it has been improved, if anything. But, how far does great defense take a team? The Orioles preach it and live by it. But apparently they die by it also. It is nice to have, but how far did the statistically greatest defense ever in the history of the game take the 2013 Orioles? Yes, 85 wins.
And that defense begins with catcher Matt Wieters. He controls the basepaths – Just.Don’t.Run! But, he is increasingly deadly in OBP on a deadly team for OBP. Yes, the homers are nice, but the descending batting average is not. Can this repair? If it was going to repair, would it not have happened by now? Will having a better replacement in Steve Clevenger honestly give him enough relief to make a difference?
Thinking now through the rest of the order … can Chris Davis really have anything close to the marvelous season of 2013 with 53 homers and 138 RBIs? Even if he hits a commendable 40 / 125 it will translate to something like three or four less team victories. And Adam Jones had a powerful season, but can it improve or is he at the pinnacle of his game? He continues to chase the low-and-away pitches and seldom takes walks – back to OBP … which brings us to J.J. Hardy. Another Orioles with an improved season – but still, could there really be more production than what has been given?
It is great for the Orioles that young star Manny Machado had the wondrous season of 2013, and greater yet that his injury at the end of the year did not prove career-altering. But Manny is going to come back after an offseason of rehab, and it would be improbable and unrealistic to hope he can do what was done last year.
Nick Markakis is coming off his worst season ever. Will his offseason workout regimen and competitive spirit prove the naysayers wrong who believe the drop-off is due to diminishing skills rather than health and injury recovering issues.
The other holes to be filled at 2B, LF, and DH are speculative. Will Ryan Flaherty or some combination of a host of other possibilities really upgrade the situation since the decline of Brian Roberts turned a traditional strength into an annual weakness? And will David Lough actually produce beyond the reasonably good numbers of Nate McLouth? And while the historic talent of Nelson Cruz is beyond the DH statistics of the recent Orioles’ past, it would not honestly take much to register an improvement.
Good pitching can stop good hitting, and that can happen to the Orioles on a regular basis given the talented arms they will face; while at the same time, their uncertain roster of a dozen arms may not be able to keep pace. In this scenario, we may expect another season where over 50 different players will suit up for the Birds, with many having ridden the Norfolk and Baltimore rail line.
Remember, there is a disclaimer in the first paragraph. See you tomorrow for a different angle.