So are we done with the jokes about "pending physicals"? Maybe? Ok, probably not. However, The Orioles have reported to Spring Training down in Sarasota so that should give the internet something else to talk about.
It was a rough winter for the Birds. To recap. they were "all in" and "interested" in wooing all sorts of players to Baltimore, but in the end very little got done. The major additions to this point seem to be OF David Lough from Kansas City, RHP Ryan Webb from Miami, and Korean import RHP Suk-Min Yoon. While OF Nate McLouth made his way down the beltway to DC, 2B Brian Roberts headed to the Big Apple, and closer Jim Johnson packed his bags for Oakland.
Executive Vice-President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette has said he would be comfortable with a payroll around $100 million. With the soon-to-be signing of Yoon, Baltimore should be sitting around $85 million; there is room to grow. But let’s just say the shopping is done. How will this team shape up?
If we go by the national pundits, the Birds of Baltimore are going to have a long, humid summer by the inner harbor. Sports Illustrated and USA Today each gave the team a "D" grade for the work they had done to this point. The consensus is that the front office is failing to provide the powerful young core with competent pieces around them. That argument may be valid but to me the team actually seems like it is built better than the 2013 version
Second base was a vacuum of suck-age this past summer in Baltimore. So, why have some been so amazed that Brian Roberts is no longer in orange and black? This position is sure to be better in 2014 and a big reason is Buck Showalter.
To anyone who watches Orioles coverage on a regular basis and stays tuned in to see the manager speak after games it becomes fairly obvious who some of his "favorites" on the team are. Ryan Flaherty is one of those favorites. In the past Flaherty has gone through ugly droughts at the plate where curveball after curveball is chased into the dirt. Yet Showalter believes in this guy, with good reason.
Depending on which site you reference, Flaherty had a WAR of at least 1. That was in limited and sporadic playing time. Add to that, he was by far the most capable defender at second base all season. This time around, the job is his to lose. Jonathan Schoop is up and coming but he needs more time in Norfolk. Flaherty starting, Roberts in New York, leads to second base being upgraded.
A much tougher pill to swallow for fans has been the departure of Nate McLouth. I can’t lie. The guy was exciting to watch, especially in April and May of last year. But after that he started to remind us of why we picked him out of the bargain bin a few years ago. The guy struggles against lefties and seems to lose the ability to steal bases as the season wears on. And with a price tag of $5 million per season he was a necessary casualty.
Enter David Lough. No worries, I didn’t know who the hell he was either at this time last year. But I did my research. For some reason the Royals saw past everything about Danny Valencia, apart from his numbers against lefties, and unloaded a 2013 Rookie of the Year candidate into our laps.
On the surface, a McLouth for Lough exchange looks pretty even. McLouth had a 2.5 WAR, Lough had a 2.4. Both are scrappy guys who play good defense. Both are listed at 5’11 and 180 lbs for crying out loud.
Here’s the difference. Lough is 28 and has 5 more years of team control. His arm and defense are markedly better than McLouth’s. That WAR he put up happened in just 96 games. And, here’s the best thing, Lough hits righties and lefties just as well. Teams can’t just throw a LOOGY out there and get away with it. In fact, he does just a tick better against lefties. Though this is a close one it appears that left field has been upgraded.
Now we move on to the more tricky positions to argue for; the starting rotation and the bullpen. I’m not about to tell you the rotation is improved. It’s not. Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel received rotation spots with the Astros and Cubs, respectively. At the moment, the Opening Day starter will surely be Chris Tillman followed by Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. Bud Norris looks to be a favorite to land a spot while the 5th starter is completely up for grabs.
Ya wanna know who else could start a game for the Orioles? Just about anyone on the 40 man roster and then some. Quite honestly, most teams have a revolving door at the back of their rotation. No, it’s not an ideal scenario but it happens a lot. Players underperform or get hurt and have to be replaced. Baltimore will be no different.
The hope here has to be that Kevin Gausman emerges in Spring Training or early April as the guy. Endless articles can be written about this team but Gausman is the X-factor. He is well able to put together a Chris Tillman-esque season and guide this team to fall baseball.
The only major free agent left that I can see be brought in is Ervin Santana. That would be a heck of a boost but it’s a commitment I don’t see Baltimore wanting to make. It would be for fairly big money and multiple years. You may have heard the O’s have a few pending free agents of their own that they would like to ink up.
However, the bullpen is a different story. I view it very differently than many others. The obvious void is at closer. Jim Johnson has gone west and taken 100 saves with him. But I am in the party that thinks closers can be "made". Or, here’s a wild idea, why not assess each 9th inning individually and send out a pitcher who fits that situation best? Matusz against a tough lefty, O’Day or Hunter for the righties. To me, blown saves won’t be any bigger of an issue this coming season than they were in years past.
As for the middle innings, they seem to be in even better hands. It will be a transition as Troy Patton will be suspended for the first 25 games and Tommy Hunter may move to the closer role. However, O’Day and Matusz will be steadying forces there and Ryan Webb looks to be steal. Webb is Johnson-esque with his sinker and should prove to be a valuable pick up. Outside of that, the Baltimore bullpen will resemble many other major league ‘pens. It will be thrown together with some non-roster invitees and maybe a familiar face (perhaps Alfredo Aceves).
It’s no secret that the Orioles haven’t been the most active participants in this offseason. There are holes in the roster. Ok fine, the rotation looks kinda like swiss cheese. But this will be a good team. Playoffs good? I’m not so sure about that. But don’t be surprised if they surpass their 85 wins from 2013.