Nick Markakis - Baltimore Orioles right fielder

Everyone seems to agree that the Baltimore Orioles have had one of the most disappointing offseasons in baseball. Many questions about the 2014 O’s remain unanswered. Here are my top ten:

1. Who Is The Closer?

The biggest attention grabbing question of the offseason is one that I find myself worried the least about. The Orioles traded Jim Johnson to the Athletics then backed out of their deal with Grant Balfour. Now everyone is left wondering who pitches the ninth inning, but I’m much more concerned about those five guys pitching the first six or seven.

Baltimore has expressed interest in Fernando Rodney, though it appears that talks have stalled between the two sides. As of now, the newly off the market (sorry ladies) Tommy Hunter appears to be the top candidate. Big Game pitched to a career-low 2.81 ERA over 86.1 innings pitched in 2013 posting a 0.985 WHIP, 7.1 K/9 and 4.86 K/BB. By comparison, baseball’s saves leader, Johnson, posted a 2.94 ERA over 70.1 innings pitched in 2013 with a 1.280 WHIP, 7.1 K/9 and 3.11 K/BB.

2. What Will The Orioles Get Out Of Nick Markakis in 2014?

Nick Markakis finds himself in the final year of his six-year, $66 million contract with the Birds. At the time I exulted the Orioles locking up their talented young right fielder to such a deal, now I can’t wait for them to get out from under it. Markakis will make $15 million in 2014 (it hurts just typing that, imagine signing the check) and has a club option of $17.5 million in 2015 (that ain’t happening).

We’ve seen Markakis’ power numbers dip over recent seasons. He declined from a 20 home run hitter in 2008 to a guy that hit just ten last season. Additionally, Markakis’ doubles have also decayed (45 in 2010, 31 in 2011, 28 in 2012, 24 in 2013). Markakis went from a 7.5 WAR player in 2008, to a 2.9 WAR in the first year of his contract in ’09. Last season he posted a -0.1 WAR.

So what type of year will Markakis put together in 2014? Will the 30 year old rebound into the .300 hitter the O’s thought they were signing six years ago? Will he get a crack at leadoff with Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth gone?

3. Have The Orioles Properly Replaced Nate McLouth?

Dan Duquette has certainly attempted to replace Nate McLouth, who signed a nice two-year, $10.75 million deal with the Nationals, with quantity in David Lough, Francisco Peguero and a presumably healthy Nolan Reimold (if such a thing in fact exists). I’m just not certain of the quality said O’s options in left field.

McLouth posted a .272/.342/.411 slashline against right handed pitching last season, but just a .209/.283/.357 mark against southpaws. In 335 plate appearances with the Royals last season, Lough posted a .286/.311/.413 slash and 2.7 WAR (the highest among AL rookies). But much about Lough remains unknown at the big league level entering his 28 year old season.

The same can be said of Peguero, a career .200/.217/.289 hitter in just 46 plate appearances in the big leagues. Reimold became a fan favorite in 2009 when he came up to the big leagues and hit 15 home runs over 104 games, but he’s never been able to repeat it.

Ryan Flaherty - Baltimore Orioles second baseman

4. Are Ryan Flaherty And Jemile Weeks Enough At Second Base?

Brian Roberts in pinstripes. It just isn’t right.

I became more of a fan of Ryan Flaherty after I watched him progress last season. After a big spring training, Flaherty started the season swinging out of his shoes and attempting to hit for a bit more power than he was probably capable of. When he settled in at the plate, he proved to be a competent bottom of the order hitter (.296/.337/.580 in 86 plate appearances in the nine hole). More than anything though, Flaherty proved to be an above average defender at second base posting a .993 fielding percentage (.985 league average), 4.91 range factor per 9 (4.64 average) and 4.32 range factor per game (4.62 average) over 65 games.

Weeks’ defense isn’t as strong, but I’m eager to see if he can get back to those 2011 totals he posted at the plate with a new team.

5. What Do The Birds Do At DH?

Henry Urrutia? Steve Pearce? Who DH’s for the O’s?

Personally, I would like to see Showalter use the designated hitter role to help give some guys a day off every now and then. There’s no reason that Matt Wieters should catch 1,201 innings in 2014. Adam Jones and Chris Davis also need a few more days off.

Right now the O’s options at DH are less than appealing. They weren’t last season either though. O’s DH’s hit .236/.290/.418 last season (17th in MLB). Some offseason rumors have them linked to Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales, both candidates for the job. Either guy will cost the O’s their first round pick however.

Cruz’s strikeout totals over the past two seasons (140 and 109 respectively) are enough to scare me away from his services and I’m just not sure Morales is really the guy you want to surrender a draft pick for.

6. Are The Orioles Seriously Going With This Starting Rotation?

And so we’ve reached my biggest concern of the offseason. It doesn’t matter what else the Orioles do this winter, if they don’t address the starting rotation. Yeah, I like A.J. Burnett, but is even he enough to make them a 90 win team again?

When people tell me they feel confident in the Orioles current rotation I feed them this glaring statistic: O’s starters posted a 4.57 ERA in 2013 (27th in Major League Baseball). Yeah, there’s lots of work to be done.

Is Chris Tillman going to have another career year? Can Wei-Yin Chen handle 30+ starts? What is Miguel Gonzalez? There are far too many questions about this rotation for me to feel confident in the team as a whole in 2014.

7. When Will Manny Machado Be Ready?

It was one of my New Year’s Resolutions for the Orioles and it’s worth repeating again, do not rush Manny Machado. There’s no sense in hurrying him back from his torn medial patellofemoral ligament and risking another injury.

With that said, what is the Orioles plan if Machado isn’t ready come opening day? How do you replace a 6.5 WAR player who happens to be (one of?) the best defending third basemen in the game?

Matt Wieters and Chris Davis - Baltimore Orioles

8. Can The O’s Keep Chris Davis And/Or Matt Wieters?

Two Scott Boras clients. Two guys who hit free agency after the 2015 season. Can the Orioles afford to sign both Chris Davis and Matt Wieters? Do they want to keep both players?

Buck Showalter often praises the work Wieters does with the Orioles pitching staff and his countless innings behind the dish, but the statistics say that Wieters is a struggling switch hitter (.235/.287/.417) and one of the worst pitch framers in baseball. He did however throw out 64 percent of base runners attempting to steal last season.

No one expects Christopher Lyn “Crush” Davis to hit 53 homers again in 2014, but is he a 40 homer guy? A 30 homer guy? Will he come close to that mark again? If Davis starts strong, the O’s should push hard to keep him in Baltimore before he hits the open market.

9. Have The O’s Gotten Worse This Offseason?

I see this one on Twitter and get asked a lot about the disappointment of the Orioles offseason. Last year, they won 85 games. Given the Yankees improvements (imagining they strap a Brinks truck to a military aircraft and fly it to Japan to sign Masahiro Tanaka) and assuming the Blue Jays perform better in 2014, I think the Orioles are a worse team right now than they were in 2013. They need starting pitching help, a designated hitter and bench depth.

Chris Davis won’t repeat 2013. Chris Tillman likely won’t either. They’re an injury away from slipping far out of contention. These next few weeks of the offseason are crucial.

10. What Kind Of Awesome Throwback Uniforms Will The O’s Wear During Their 60th Anniversary?

On a more light-hearted note, I hope the Orioles wear some kick ass unis to celebrate the big 6-0. Pull out the all orange pumpkins, the ’67 angry bird and the script “B” hats.

Which uniforms do you want to see this season?

Image Credit: Keith Allison, Keith Allison and Keith Allison