This is the second of a four-part Baltimore Orioles Preview for the 2014 season. The disclaimer is that I do not necessarily see the team in all of the glowingly positive tones as it is presented here today, though many of these specific hopes could eventuate. Yesterday I wrote a projection from the opposite, negative perspective about all that could go terribly wrong. Tomorrow will feature a balanced view, which is a combination of those things I both fear could go poorly and that which I truly anticipate to go well with this Orioles team. The final article will be a projection for the AL East.
It could fairly be said that this 2014 Orioles team enters the season as the best outfit in black and orange since the playoff teams of 20 years ago, and maybe even back to the great era of the 60s and 70s Robinsons squads.
After a long offseason of little movement and massive fan discontent, a rash of three signings of Suk-min Yoon, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Nelson Cruz entirely changed the mood to one of reasonable optimism for a championship-contending outfit. Along the way, fruit is being harvested from a number of what, at the time, appeared to be lesser acquisitions of Dan Duquette. Along with a core group of players that is perhaps the strongest in MLB, there is every reason to anticipate a fantastic season for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles return the top power hitter in the game in the person of Chris Davis. Here is a player who is at the pinnacle of his career and is poised for another great season. Even when he misses squaring a pitch solidly, his strength is enough to carry that ball in a high fly over the fence.
The Orioles also return the top defensive player in the American League with third baseman Manny Machado. Though the Birds will have to wait just a couple of weeks for his arrival, the franchise is thankful to have averted a potentially devastating injury at the end of the 2013 season. Only age 21, Machado will be a fixture on the left side of the Orioles infield for some years to come. The sky is the limit for this unusually gifted young man.
The rest of the core features the solid play of J.J. Hardy on both sides of the ball – the gold glove at shortstop, and the best power hitter at that position in the league. The same two-sided description could be assigned as well to catcher Matt Wieters – who is the point of origin for the best defense in decades and the foundation for controlling a vastly-improved stable of pitchers.
And the heart of the team patrols the vast regions of center field in the person of Adam Jones. The cornerstone of the Orioles, Jones has become a consistence force in the lineup by hitting for average and power – being established as among the best players in the sport. He too is at the pinnacle of his career and brings to Baltimore not only his athletic talents, but his gracious and enthusiastic persona that makes the Orioles’ clubhouse perhaps the envy of all MLB.
Though the remaining element of the core – Nick Markakis – had an off year in 2013, it is understood that the past two years have featured a series of production-diminishing health incidents, not the least of which was becoming a target for the formerly big dude from New York – you know, the guy with pinpoint control. But Nicky is angry here in this last year of his contract; he’s had a beastly offseason and solid spring training, so … look out AL!
Three big holes were filled in the lineup for DH, 2B, and LF. As much as the fans loved Nate McLouth and hated to see the hustling guy go down the Parkway to DC, they are going to twice as much love a better version in the speed and hustle of David Lough. And the former, long-time Orioles player at second base, who shall remain nameless in this document because of his pinstripes outfit, has been more than adequately replaced by a group of young players – perhaps even this season introducing to Baltimore the best position player in the O’s developmental system, Jonathan Schoop. He has certainly earned the chance from his spring season. And at DH, the Birds have acquired one of the premier bats in all of baseball – Nelson Cruz, a hitting machine.
Certainly the starting pitching has been an Achilles heel for the Orioles, but there is hope for that to change. Finally, one of the “cavalry” arrived last year in Chris Tillman, who will be the opening-day starter. Following him will be the $50 million kid in Ubaldo Jimenez, who was practically unhittable at the end of 2013 while carrying the Cleveland Indians. Wei-Yin Chen returns with his knee repaired, as does Bud Norris with his shoulder rested and a great spring season under his belt. Miguel Gonzalez will bring his steady, unshakeable consistency, while hoping to extend his innings-per-outing. Just lurking over the horizon are names like Kevin Gausman, Steve Johnson, and Dylan Bundy.
The Orioles will sadly miss former closer Jim Johnson, missing as well the nine blown saves that went along with all the good outings. Nobody saves them all, except Jesus – although he is not on the roster. Tommy Hunter is however; and he is the perfect personality for a closer – a mixture of crazy, fearless, and forgetful.
The rest of the bullpen looks primed to return to the awesome form of 2013. Nobody looked nastier in spring training than Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz is likewise dirty nasty on left-handed hitters. Ryan Webb was a total steal from the Marlins … what were they thinking? Darren O’Day has great stats, and add to the number a couple of guys with lights-out spring training performances – Evan Meek and Josh Stinson. If they falter, at the end of the Norfolk/Baltimore expressway is Brad Brach and Suk-min Yoon, while 25 days into the season Troy Patton will be available.
Add this all together in the capable hands of the Buckmeister, the new eyes of the pitching and bullpen coaches, and the old and comfortable slippers of Kirby and Russell, and this is poised to be a great year to remember. Maybe even Johan Santana can be the winning pitcher for the seventh game of the World Series.
So, can it all be this good? Remember, there is a disclaimer at the top. Come back tomorrow for the balanced view of what is truly a reasonable expectation.