The Baltimore Orioles won the American League East division in 2014. They were set for a disappointment in 2015 after losing top free agents Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. The Orioles got some very good pitching in 2014, but it seemed like the starters like of succeeded in mirrors. Chris Tillman, who won 13 games and pitched to a 3.34 earned run average, slipped to a 11 win, 11 loss, 4.99 ERA in 2015. Bud Norris won 15 games and had a 3.65 ERA in 2014, he pitched so poorly that the Orioles released him in 2015 and he finished the season in the San Diego Padres bullpen. Last off season, I made my case why the Orioles should have added another starting pitcher, particularly one who could lead or be a part of the top of the staff. The Orioles did not and Tillman, Norris and Miguel Gonzalez (9-12, 4.91) all had bad seasons like many predicted. The one bright spot in the starting rotation was Wei-Yin Chen, who was 11-8, 3.34 in just over 191 innings for the Orioles last season. Unfortunately, Chen himself left as a free agent to join the Miami Marlins in what was one of the best team free agent signings of the off season. The Orioles brought in Yovani Gallardo (13-11, 3.42, just over 184 innings pitched) from the Texas Rangers and after the extremely thorough physical examination (the Orioles are known for failing physicals for reasons other teams would not), renegotiated his contract for two seasons and a guaranteed $22 million.
The Orioles biggest addition, though, was the re-signing of free agent first baseman Chris Davis (.262 batting average, 47 home runs, 117 runs batted in, 100 runs scored, .923 on base plus slugging) after a long, tenuous process. The signing of free agent Pedro Alvarez (.243, 27, 77, .787) and earlier trade for outfielder Mark Trumbo (.262, 22, 64, .759) should make up for some of the power lost last off season when Cruz went to Seattle and Markakis went to Atlanta. The Orioles also brought back Matt Wieters, somewhat unexpectedly, after the catcher accepted the team's qualifying offer. They also maintained their solid presence in their bullpen by bringing back right hander Darren O'Day (6-2, 1.52, 82 Ks in just 65 innings).
The Orioles offense should improve this season. Not just because of the additions of Alvarez and Trumbo and the return of Davis and Wieters, but because of the emergence of star third baseman Manny Machado. Last season was nothing short of spectacular as the 22 year-old played in all 162 games, hit .286 with 35 home runs, 86 runs batted in, 181 hits, 102 runs scored and finished with a .861 OPS. It is scary to think that Machado may be able to take his game to another level this season, an occurrence which might change this writer's outlook on the entire team for the season, Wieters hit 20 home runs each season from 2011-2013 before his Tommy John surgery cost him most of the past two seasons. All Star Adam Jones (.269, 27, 82, .782) will be back in center field and is the face of the franchise. Shortstop JJ Hardy (.219, 8, 37, .564) returned from an injury himself last season and struggled to return to the form that saw him hit 77 home runs from 2011-2013. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop (.279, 15, 39, .788) is just 24 this season and has a little room to grow. Hyun Soo Kim (.326, 28, 121, .979) comes over from the Korean Baseball Organization to play left field and likely platoon with longtime farmhand Nolan Reimold (.247, 6, 20, .738).
The Orioles bench will consist of utility players Jimmy Parades (.275, 10, 42, .726) and Ryan Flaherty (.202, 9. 31, .631). Joey Rickard hit .321 and OPSed .874 in the minors last season and will get some time spelling Trumbo in the outfield. Caleb Joseph, the team's backup catcher, proved last season that he should get more of a look as a starting player. Look for the Orioles to use Joseph a lot early to preserve Wieters for the long season. Kim, Trumbo and either Joseph or Wieters will probably get some time at designated hitter with Alvarez spelling Davis occasionally at first base. While Machado seems likely to play nearly every inning at third base once again, the team has no shortages of players who can play third including Parades, Flaherty and Davis. While Alvarez and Trumbo have played the position, neither is likely to play third, even in cases of desperation.
The Orioles bullpen will once again be solid with a couple of the game's best relief pitchers, Zach Britton (4-1, 1.92, 36 saves, 79 Ks, just under 66 IP) and O'Day. Brian Matusz (1-4, 2.94, 56 Ks, 49 IP) and Brad Brach (5-3, 2.72, 89 Ks, just over 79 IP) are better than average, giving the Orioles a solid seven through nine. I would expect a big improvement from Jason Garcia, despite the fact that he was just optioned to the minors. Taken in the Rule 5 draft from Boston (through Houston), Garcia possesses a strong arsenal that makes for a quality reliever. Left hander TJ Macfarlane and righty Chaz Roe will likely round out the Orioles bullpen. Lefty Cesar Cabral and righty Pedro Beato also have a chance to make the team.
I saved the worst for last when discussing the 2016 Orioles. The bullpen could be great and at the very least, will be better than most. But what is a good bullpen on a team that lacks the starters to get them there. I spoke a little bit about Gallardo earlier, who is a suitable replacement for the loss of Chen. However, the Orioles projected number two and three starters, Tillman and Gonzalez, both digressed last season and need to bounce back or the rotation looks bad. Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman (4-7, 4.25, 103 Ks, just over 112 IP) could be a key to the mix. If he reaches his original potential, the before mentioned three can all slide down. Ubaldo Jimenez (12-10, 4.11, 31 starts) was serviceable and will be a forth or fifth starter and right hander Michael Wright will attempt to provide some insurance. Look for the Orioles to add a back end of the rotation starter for some depth before the spring ends. They would also be wise to explore a trade for a dependable one through three.
Looking at the Orioles farm system, the first player I would like to profile is Garcia. The minor league starting pitcher becoming a hard throwing late game reliever has become a thing and a healthy Garcia is a strong candidate to fit the build. Dylan Bundy could make the team as a reliever this season but is best suited for AAA to start the season. Garcia and Bundy are expected to join Britton as starters who end up serving a prominent role in the bullpen. First baseman Christian Walker is major league ready but is without a position to play in Baltimore. He hit 18 home runs in Triple- A last season. Hunter Harvey is battling some elbow problems once again and is questionable for the start of the season. He probably needs another full minor league season before the Orioles can think about putting him in their beleaguered rotation. Another to consider is right hander Mychal Givens. The 25 year- old struck out 79 in just over 57 innings last season at Triple- A Bowie.
The signings of Gallardo and Alvarez put the Orioles in a better position than they were in a month ago. They need to get a lot out of Tillman, Gonzalez and Gausman if they expect to contend at all. A bad rotation could take its tole on the bullpen as great as it is. Trumbo and Alvarez add some thump to an already above average offensive unit and they are lucky to be managed by one of the best in Buck Showalter. Showalter has a pulse on this team and they will continue to over achieve for him. However, I look at the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox and I simply see a better assembled group of players. Perhaps the Orioles can surprise with a good start and ride that into a long season like they did in 2014. I do not see it though. I see it far from being a disaster, though, and that is why I look at the Orioles as an 81-81 team. That is what they finished at a year ago and that is a half a win above where Las Vegas put them at 80.5.