Playing Pepper 2016: Baltimore Orioles

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Baltimore Orioles
81-81, third in the AL East
Last year’s Pepper

The AL East has been an interesting place the last couple of seasons and the Orioles have been in the mix of all of that.  After winning the division in 2014, they were right in the hunt again until Toronto set fire to the second half and just outpaced everyone else on their way to the title.  Chris Davis is returning, but will the club be able to handle the Jays, the Yankees, and a refortified Red Sox squad?

We’ve got three bloggers to tackle that question and others today.  Domenic Valada is the senior editor over at Birds Watcher and is contributing for his second straight year and third overall.  Follow him on Twitter @DomenicValada.  Then we have Jon Shepherd, founder and editor over at Camden Depot, making a return appearance (and the third straight year for the site to be represented).  He tweets @CamdenDepot.  Finally, making his Playing Pepper debut, we have Matt from Roar from 34, who has a Twitter handle of @Roarfrom34.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

BW: The Orioles’ offseason begins and ends with re-signing first baseman Chris Davis, who’s led MLB in homers two of the last three years. They were also able to keep reliever Darren O’Day, and catcher Matt Wieters accepted a qualifying offer. The only major free agent that they lost was pitcher Wei-Yin Chen. With the exception of pitching, they’ve done what they needed to do.

CD: The offseason was bittersweet. The Orioles ploughed through expected payroll limits and wound up about 40 MM above where they were last year. However, all that money spent has not gotten them all that much. They were able to lock Darren O’Day and Chris Davis into what are likely decline phases. You could argue effectively that the Davis deal is a kind of deal that should not happen anymore given the wasteland of broken dreams that elite contacts to 30 year old and over first basement have yielded. The club also went in at the end of the offseason and, at the time of this writing, appear to have locked in Dexter Fowler and Yovani Gallardo. Those two certainly improve the roster, but, when it is all said and done, the club looks to be somewhere between a 75 and 85 win club.

R34: The team did more than I or probably most anyone else expected. A franchise and an owner that have gotten dinged for being stingy went out and spent some of the biggest bucks of any team this offseason. Could some of that money been spent more wisely? Sure. But at the end of the day the Orioles have made things interesting and should be a competitive bunch.The offense will be fun to watch; the starting pitching, not so much. With the team having spent that much money, you’d like to be able to call them a contender, or even a favorite, to win they A.L. East. That’s not the case. However, the prospects for success are better than I would have initially anticipated. Thinking strictly in terms of 2016, I’d call the offseason a pleasant surprise.

C70: What’s the major weakness for this team?

BW: Starting pitching. If the O’s can get bounceback seasons from Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman, they’ll be in good shape. However that’s a big if. They would do well to add another starter before the season begins.

CD: The starting rotation is the clear weakness. Certainly not a strong point last year and replacing a solid 3 slot pitcher in Chen with a 4 slot pitcher in Gallardo is a step backwards. Not a large step backwards, but certainly a step. The club is depending on Ubaldo Jimenez to put up another solid average season like 2015 was and not the horror show of 2014, for Kevin Gausman to take that next step, and for Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to perform similar to what they did before 2015. Beyond those guys, the safety net at Norfolk looks questionable. Dylan Bundy may never be a starter and will definitely not be one this year. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson look like interesting backend arm, but no sure things. Beyond that, who is there?

R34: Unfortunately, it’s the starting rotation, which was the team’s Achilles heel last season when the O’s finished with a .500 record. They’ve since lost Wei-Yin Chen, their lone lefty and the top performer among the 2015 starters. Regardless of what happens with Yovani Gallardo (the phrase “pending the results of a physical” truly mean something in Baltimore), the rotation has not improved since last season. The Orioles will therefore need something unique to happen. Fans in Baltimore are hearing a lot about getting bounce back seasons from multiple starters. That’s one possibility. There’s also the possibility that he team puts a lot of runs on the board and then shortens games with its bullpen.

C70: Just how high is the ceiling for Manny Machado? After a strong 2015 what does he do next?

BW: The ceiling is as high as it can be. Machado is the best third baseman in baseball, and his production will only get higher.

CD: I think this is what Machado is. He is a 5-6 WAR player and should be that for the next 5-10 years. He is one of the best five players in baseball. It is difficult to exceed that.

R34: I honestly don’t know, but I’m thrilled to find out. After a fairly serious injury in 2014, Manny played in every game in 2015, hit 35 home runs, and, after a puzzling run of errors early in the season, turned in his more typical highlight reel defense at third base. With the recent acquisition of Dexter Fowler (“pending the results of a physical”), Manny won’t have to bat leadoff this season, although he was pretty solid when doing so last season. Manny is a legitimate star and ranks among the game’s best young players. It’s a genuine pleasure to have him playing in Baltimore. Even if he regresses a bit at the plate, as some projections have him doing, he’s the team’s best all-around player and a reason to tune into the game every night.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BW: Year-over-year, I’d say Matt Wieters. He only played half of last season, and he was getting back into the swing of things after Tommy Johns. So he has the biggest potential for improvement.

CD: Jonathan Schoop is the interesting one. His grip and rip tendencies calmed down as the season wore on last year, giving the appearance that he was actually coming into the batter’s box with an approach. The high end on him is Robinson Cano, but a Rickie Weeks trajectory would not be surprising. Of course, this is just looking at the positives.

R34: Two players come to mind: Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman. Schoop has the makings of a star and produced promising numbers at the plate during an injury-shortened 2015 season. He could become more of a household name around the majors given a full season of play. As for Gausman, the Orioles need him to make the greatest strides. He has lots of potential as a starter and could eventually become the legitimate ace this franchise so desperately needs. He got shuttled between the majors and minors last season and pitched both out of the pen and as a starter. He lacked a defined role. Given the O’s pitching limitations, he’ll have a clear role in 2016 and will need to start realizing his potential as a starter if the team is going to make any noise in the A.L. East.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BW: I can’t make a prediction until the roster is set. However I do think they’ll be competitive in the division and the playoff race. Does that mean they return to the post-season? It’s tough to say; but they’ll be in the mix.

CD: We have not put together our projections yet, but I can predict where I think our projections will be. I think the club looks to be a 82 win team (with Gallardo and Fowler in the mix). Club has about a 1 in 8 chance for playoffs and maybe a 1 in 40 chances as AL East Champs. It is a mid-division club.

R34: I’ll go optimistic. I expect the Orioles to contend for a Wild Card berth with about 85 wins and a third place finish in the division.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

BW: Of late the team that Orioles’ fans seem to dislike the most is Toronto. Jose Bautista‘s act of showing opponents up doesn’t play well with a group of grown men/professionals like the “Fighting Showalters,” and fans such as Orioles fans aren’t really thrilled with it either. Bautista and Darren O’Day have a tit-for-tat skirmish going back a few seasons, and it flares up almost every series. With Boston and NY having been neutralized over the past could of years, Toronto’s turned into a very heated rivalry. Plus there’s the whole Cito Gaston/Mike Mussina thing that goes back to the 1993 All-Star game!

CD: I am not really someone who gets angry at different sets of laundry. What I enjoy most is seeing guys perform beyond my own expectations.

R34: The Red Sox. After a considerable run of misery against Boston, including many ballpark takeovers that had Red Sox fans calling Camden Yards “Fenway Park South,” the Orioles have returned the favor recently. They’ve won the season series the past four years. Why not make it five? (Okay, there are some good reasons why not, starting with David Price, but I like to think the Orioles will send David Ortiz into retirement with another losing season versus Baltimore.)

My thanks to Domenic, Jon, and Matt for their thoughts on one of the other brands of MLB birds.  It seems likely that Baltimore will be in the mix yet again this year!

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