The Baltimore Orioles went from a relatively quiet offseason to striking while the iron is hot, highlighted by landing their biggest free agent starting pitcher signing in franchise history and practically waiting out the market to sign another power hitter to make a very good lineup even more dangerous.
With the addition of pitcher Suk-min Yoon as well, the upgrades give the team a new dynamic, upgrades to battle with the top dogs of the AL East and it has fans buzzing all over Birdland.
The AL East is certainly no cake walk, and it goes without saying that a lot will have to go right for the Orioles to get to the World Series and win for the first time since defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983.
In this, the 60th year of Orioles baseball, here are things that need to go right for the orange and black to win their fourth World Championship since 1954.
Ubaldo Jimenez Is Worth Every Penny Of The $12.5M He’ll Get In 2014
The Orioles made their biggest free agent splash since signing Miguel Tejada before the 2004 season and the biggest ever for a starting pitcher when they inked the 30-year old right-hander to a four-year deal.
The team gambled on waiting well into spring training to sign Jimenez and it took the extra year to snag Ubaldo away from the Toronto Blue Jays. The signing is a risk for a guy who’s had his share of up-and-down seasons between the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians.
He gives fans glimmers of hope as a possible bargain after he posted a 1.82 ERA in the 2nd half of 2013 which led the AL, and posted an even better month of September going 4-0.
More importantly, he pitched into the seventh inning or better in three of his six September starts, (and at least six innings in the other three) walking just seven batters and striking out 51 over his last 41 ⅓ innings.
Jimenez has the pitches capable of fanning hitters and last season, he posted his career best strikeouts per nine ratio.
According to Steve Melewski of masnsports.com, he averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings to finish seventh among MLB starters in 2013, ahead of pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. That’s impressive.
How he’ll fare in the AL East is something to watch and I think he’ll be up for the challenge. There are things that will help Jimenez’ cause in being a winning pitcher in 2014 for the Orioles:
He’s allowed a shade under 1 HR/9 for his career and in a hitters park like Camden Yards (which allowed the fourth most HR’s in 2013, per ESPN’s Park Factor), will be absolutely crucial to his numbers in ‘14.
His increased usage of off-speed pitches and less reliance on his fastball as he showed more in the 2nd half of last season will play into his high ground ball rates, in addition to playing behind a defense that posted the 11th best DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in 2013 according to The Fielding Bible, just ahead of both the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox respectively in that category.
Tommy Hunter Adjusts To The Closers Role Just Fine, Thank You
Can Tommy Hunter have success as the Orioles closer in 2014? He’ll have to in order for the O’s to win the AL East and take it all the way to a World Series championship.
All offseason, the closer saga gripped Baltimore. The team traded Jim Johnson and his $10.5M salary to the Oakland Athletics and were in hot pursuit of FA closer Grant Balfour to replace him. The team initially signed Balfour to a two-year deal in December but backed out of it after injury concerns to his wrist and knee according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, and not his shoulder as first reported. The team then made a play at FA Fernando Rodney but he ultimately signed a deal with the Seattle Mariners.
Everyone cried foul that the Orioles wouldn’t ever again sign a top FA after letting this happen, but they had legitimate concerns and the team got two of the better FA’s money could buy, but that’s besides the point.
The fact is, the O’s had a closer waiting in the wings that can likely handle the pressurized situation and its Tommy Hunter.
Much like Johnson – a former starter in the minors, turned reliever – Hunter was once a starter in the bigs too. He even pitched out of the pen in the minors to begin his career (albeit a very small sample size) and now he’ll get the opportunity to close games for Buck Showalter.
No one really knew if Johnson could handle closing before he saved 101 games in two seasons and Hunter will get every chance to show he’ll follow the same path.
Hunter moved to the bullpen late in 2012, regaining a few MPH on his fastball and becoming more effective with his control, of course that’s needed when you’re looking to get three outs and a victory. He did save four games for the Birds last season as Jim Johnson went through big time struggles. But, he was not successful getting left-handed batters out, as they hit .294 off Tommy.
When you dig a little deeper into the numbers though, luck played a role in his splits in ’13.
According to FanGraphs, Hunter allowed a .369 wOBA last season, but saw a lower walk rate against lefties than righties while striking them out less. His trouble area and the most interesting stat is that all 11 home runs he allowed in ’13 were against left-handed hitters.
In the end, the unlucky factor should go away and an improvement against left-handed batters should happen with such a disparity against them last season. Increasing his strikeout rate and limiting the home run ball late in the game against left-handed hitters in the lineup or off the bench will go a long way too. If that happens, Hunter could save 30 to 35 games for the Birds in 2014.
Jones, Davis and Cruz Become The Most Dangerous Middle Of The Order Trio In Baseball
Buck Showalter will have quite the dilemma (not a bad one to have) when writing out this lineup in 2014. Because it’s such a deep lineup, there’s a good chance new power hitter Nelson Cruz could bat sixth (Adam Jones would bat fourth and Chris Davis bats fifth) if David Lough were to bat leadoff facing RHP and that is scary to think on a regular basis.
Davis’ projected 2014 output all fall closely together according to FanGraphs, but of course show regression after his monster 2013 season where he broke the O’s single season home run record, hitting 53 out of the park. This is to be expected as the average should stay in the .270 range with 40 HR’s.
The numbers, however, don’t take into consideration the impact Nelson Cruz adds to the lineup, so there’s a good chance Davis’ numbers don’t drop too far. I’d expect an uptick in both RBI and runs scored this season.
Jones hit 33 home runs last season, largely impacted by Davis’ productivity and I think that will continue in 2014. The Orioles center fielder has taken a step forward each year since 2011 with his bat and he’ll be right in the middle of the best lineup thus far in his Oriole career.
Only FanGraphs has Jones getting close to ’13 numbers and I think his run scoring totals will be very close to the last two seasons (103 and 100 runs respectively). Jones strikes out a fair amount, but his BAbip (.314 last season) may go even higher if he gets more pitches to hit this season. As we know, Jones has the propensity to feast on mistake pitches and that likely won’t change either.
On the regular, Jones, Davis and Cruz will be bunched somewhere in the middle of an O’s lineup and that spells trouble to a lot of pitchers especially if the top of the order gets on base.
One candidate could be Nick Markakis who batted leadoff 34 times in ’13, batting .319 and scoring 19 runs. If Manny Machado is healthy and ready to go by Opening Day, he’ll bat second, and the table setters could find themselves scoring a hell of a lot of runs with the big bats following them.
J.J. Hardy (77 home runs in three seasons) and Matt Wieters (22 last season) are no slouches either when it comes to hitting a home run. There’s not many hitters that you can pitch around in this lineup and with a trio that hit a combined 113 home runs last season (Cruz hit 27 with Texas last season) the potential is there for some massive numbers between the three which only helps the overall strength and potency of the lineup.
In Addition To The Big Guns, The Supporting Cast Of Hitters Step Up
Way back in the early goings of the offseason, the team’s major acquisitions were trading for David Lough from the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Athletics sending Jemile Weeks to Baltimore in exchange for former O’s closer Jim Johnson.
Now, the two aforementioned players in addition to Ryan Flaherty will be looked upon to support the rest of this dangerous lineup and if they can, things could get very interesting in an already jam-packed AL East.
David Lough isn’t someone to rave about, but the O’s bring him in to replace the defense lost after Nate McLouth signed a two-year contract with the Washington Nationals. He’ll likely split time in LF in some sort of platoon with Nolan Reimold and newly signed Nelson Cruz as well. Lough has played just 116 major league games, but got on base at a decent clip in the minor leagues and can swipe a bag or two, stealing 26 for the Royals AAA-affiliate Omaha Storm Chasers in 2012.
The team hopes Jemile Weeks can rewind to 2011 when he showed potential in Oakland playing 97 games and hitting .303 with a OBP of .340. He also stole 22 bases and played reasonably well in the field as the team’s second baseman. He’ll have competition there with incumbent Ryan Flaherty who himself is making leeway with his progress at the major league level.
The O’s are looking for Ryan Flaherty to take the second base job and run away with it after long time second baseman Brian Roberts signed with the New York Yankees in late December. The former Rule 5 selection has shown flashes of potential and I’ve been impressed more so with his glove and range at second. His bat was slow to come around early in 2013 and he was demoted to AAA-Norfolk on May 18th. After he returned on May 29th, he batted .276 in 55 games and did a nice job in the bottom of the order.
The importance of the bench and role players will be keys to success in 2014 after the O’s had five players play at least 150 games in 2013. The team wore down as the season progressed, so the moves made by Dan Duquette will allow Buck Showalter to mix and match and keep guys fresh throughout the season.
The Orioles Take Care Of Business In The AL East
Quite simply, if the O’s expect to win a World Series for the first time in 31 years, then they’ll have to take care of business in the AL East. Last season, the Boston Red Sox finished 44-32 in the East en route to 97 wins and the World Series championship.
In recent years, the Orioles have fared better against AL East foes, winning 43 games in 2012. Last year, they slipped somewhat, winning only 36 games. However, they won season series against the Red Sox (second year in a row) and Blue Jays in 2013.
Manager Buck Showalter has rid this organization of its losing mentality. That hasn’t been acceptable for some time now.
The locker room understands the value of beating your divisional opponents. It certainly plays on the psyche of each member of the clubhouse.
The importance of consistently beating the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays of the world during the season will be a huge boost because if the O’s make a long playoff run, they’ll likely meet one of these teams down the line when it matters the most.