Playing Pepper 2014: Baltimore Orioles

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Baltimore Orioles
85-77, third in the AL East

After a surprising 2012 which saw the Orioles playing in the chill of October, there were some expectations for the club last season.  While they came back to earth some and weren’t able to repeat their playoff trip, back-to-back winning seasons isn’t the end of the world either.  Baltimore stayed in the wild card race picture for a while before finally coming up a few games short.  This offseason, the Orioles were mainly in the news for folks failing their physicals before landing Ubaldo Jimenez a couple of days ago.

So what team will we see this season?  The 2012 playoff version?  The 2013 slightly disappointing one?  Something in the middle?  If only we had people we could ask about such things!

Today we’ve got a couple of the Charm City’s finest taking a crack at the Playing Pepper questions:

Please note that Derek didn’t get a chance to update his answers to reflect the Jimenez signing.  Factor that in as you read about the offseason and other tidbits from the

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

CD: Typically, I would view an off season like this as a B-.  The addition of Ubaldo Jimenez strengthens what was a soft starting rotation.  He is in no way an elite talent, but he is a solid mid-rotation arm.  When you combine that with no peculiar deals for someone like Nelson Cruz, it is a rather respectable improvement of the roster.  That said, I am unsure what the long term approach is for this club.  Before adding Jimenez, the team was projected to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 77-82 games.  With him, that might shift upward by two games.  It seems to fit the model that Duquette put in play in 2012 and 2013, which is to create an 85 win team and hope for some fortunate circumstances.  As it stands, the team probably has a 1 in 10 chance of making the playoffs.  Before Jimenez, it was about 1 in 20.  The price for that is dedicated payroll (about 12% of the team payroll) for a mid-rotation arm that may be playing on a pretty mediocre team in two years.  To me, a move like this is one where a team is trying to squeeze everything it has left as opposed to a club with several promising young players.  In other words, I think in a vacuum the Jimenez deal makes sense, but I am unsure how much sense it makes within the competitive context of this team.  With that in mind, I give the team a C-.  No awful contracts, but the team is not a main player in the Wild Card discussion.  They will need help.

ESR: I give them a D. Things started off well enough – though cutting Jim Johnson wasn’t popular among many fans, paying that much money for a closer just isn’t smart for a team with a budget like the O’s have. However, we also thought they’d use the money they saved there to bolster another spot or two, and they really haven’t.

They needed a veteran pitcher. My preference would have been A.J. Burnett, but for whatever reason, either they weren’t interested, or he didn’t want to come here. Now they’re still talking about perhaps giving up their first round pick for either Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, but I don’t love the idea of giving up a pick, especially for either of those two guys.

If they do, their grade can move to a C. Regardless, they just didn’t do nearly enough to improve their solid core.

C70: Who is going to be the Opening Day starter and how will the rotation look after him?

CD: Chris Tillman has earned that role now regardless of whether they pick up anyone else.  Jimenez will be slotted behind him.  Behind those two?  I would expect Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris filling out the rest of the rotation.  Gausman is the more natural fit as the fifth starter, but the club is suggesting he could benefit from more time in the minors and working on his slider.  Eventually, injury or performance will push Gausman into the rotation for good.

ESR: Looks like Chris Tillman, who was the closest thing they had to an “ace” last year. Hopefully he can continue his improvement and learn to work deeper into games in 2014.

After Tillman, it’s a whole bunch of #3-4 starters. Assuming they don’t add anybody else, we’ll have Wei-Yin Chen (who’s almost a lock to spend some time on the DL), Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris (who was a bit disappointing after coming over from Houston at the trade deadline, but dealt with some injuries as well), with the fifth spot up for grabs between guys like Kevin Gausman, former failed starter Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and Korean signing Suk-min Yoon.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

CD: Spring training is an awful time to have a roster battle. The reps simply are not very useful as has been shown time and time again. Even exceptional performances do not serve as any useful prediction.  All of that said, I think the initial starting lineup is set barring injuries. The only position that has yet to be communicated to us is how the designated hitter position will be handled this year.

ESR: Probably left field. Nolan Reimold has always been my guy, but his inability to stay healthy (39, 87, 16, 40 games past four seasons) leaves me with zero confidence. Guys don’t just start staying healthy once they reach 30, you know?

They traded Danny Valencia to Kansas City for David Lough, who is the favorite to win the job. Lough was a 27-year-old rookie last year, but if he can improve upon his .286/.311/.413 line at the plate – he’s already a clear upgrade over Nate McLouth defensively – hopefully he can be a pleasant surprise.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

CD: Kevin Gausman will show that he is capable of being one of the best pitchers in baseball.  I expect somewhere in the 2 WAR range from him if he earns his promotion in the first month or two.

ESR: The obvious choice is Yoon, but nobody really knows what to expect. The scouting reports I’ve seen say that his fastball is very mediocre, and that he’ll make his money (or not) with his split/slider mix. That doesn’t sound like starter material to me, but we’ll have to say. Maybe he ends up as the closer and saves 45 games, or maybe he ends up as a mediocre set-up guy. It will be interesting to watch.

Dylan Bundy had a cup of tea in 2012 (pitched 1.2 innings in September), but then had elbow discomfort last spring and ultimately opted for TJS. Word is that Bundy could be an option for the big league club as early as June, but that seems very optimistic to me personally.

While I’d love to see it, I won’t hold my breath.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop is the other guy that could make an impact.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

CD: Not using any projection model, my gut tells me that they will finish around 80-85 wins, which will put them in competition for third in the division.  Keep in mind though that weird things happen in a season, like Chris Davis being able to introduce his bat to pitched balls.  That prediction really is combined with a plus/minus of ten games.  In other words, I would be surprised if they win the division as well as if they wind up with a top 5 draft pick.

ESR: Despite not improving noticeably during the offseason, the O’s strong core will keep them competitive. They had a lot of good luck in 2012 (93 wins) and a lot of bad luck in 2013 (85 wins). Let’s split the difference and say their luck evens out and they’ll go 89-73, finishing behind Tampa and Boston in the east.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

CD: Manny Machado is probably the answer everyone will give you and it is the only satisfactory answer. He really has yet to establish himself at the plate or on the bases, but watching his defense at third base is literally breath taking. For those in my generation, we only have a few grainy videos of Brooks Robinson for us to truly appreciate skill at that level. Ripken was different. He was efficient and used placement incredibly well (which cheated him out of many Gold Gloves). Manny is simply a sheer pleasure to watch even if you don’t understand or even like baseball.

ESR: Manny Machado, hands down. EVERYTHING else could be going wrong – starters getting chased in the fourth, bullpen imploding, everyone swinging for the fences and having no desire at all to just work a count and get on base – but at least we still get to watch Manny. We all feared the worst when he hurt his knee at the end of 2012, but fortunately the injury wasn’t as bad as originally feared. He may or may not be ready by Opening Day, but he’s in Florida taking batting practice, which is wonderful to see. Can’t wait to see him flashing the leather again.

My thanks to both Jon and Derek for their thoughts.  The Orioles are usually in a tough spot with that division, but it looks like it might be another fun season by the bay!

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