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Orioles season preview: Can the Orioles surprise the American League East again?

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview The Orioles could win the World Series this year. Well, what else is new? Breaking down what changed, who's back, what could go right, and what could go wrong for the 2015 O's.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles could win the World Series this year. They probably won't, because only one team can win the World Series. That leaves 29 teams who won't win. A team can be good or great and still run into a better or luckier team somewhere on the way to a championship. The O's know this as well as anyone, running as they did into a luckier team in the ALCS, bringing a magical season to a screeching halt. They could win, though, which is more than Orioles fans could truthfully tell themselves through many dark seasons not too long ago.

There's never an easy time in winning the American League East, either. Last year's Orioles worked hard and played well to do so. It wasn't easy even though they won by 12 games. Maybe it was a so-called down year for the division as the O's trounced their way to that 12-game triumph over their nearest competitors. Funny how it's never a down year when the Yankees or Red Sox win the division. Maybe it wasn't a down year. Maybe the Orioles were just that good.

Few credited them for being so good. Fewer still give them much chance of repeating as champions, though the only significant on-field contributor to leave the team was Nelson Cruz. The usual haters buzz as they circle above, waiting to plummet down towards the surface and strafe the team, metaphorically speaking. Their aim has been off for the last three years.

They're picking us last again, which is beautiful.-Orioles manager Buck Showalter

The stars are otherwise all back. Some who were not significant contributors last year due to injury will be back: Manny Machado, returning from a knee injury; Matt Wieters, returning from Tommy John surgery; Chris Davis, who blames last year on a nagging oblique injury that he says is now healthy. If these three are good players for the 2015 Orioles, not many people save the sentimentalists will be sparing a thought for the departed.

Can they do it again? They did it once, so why not twice? Many things will have to go right to repeat as division champions. A solid starting rotation must continue to be so. A great bullpen must maintain its place among the best in the league. Reliever volatility being what it is, that's a tough thing to expect from what could prove to be almost the exact same group of players, minus midseason trade acquisition Andrew Miller, who will be in the back end of the rival Yankees bullpen instead.

On the other side of the ball, they will need a power-filled lineup to stay towards the top of the league. No one hit more home runs than the Orioles last year. The mile-high Rockies were the only team to come within 25. Cruz, who hit 40 of those home runs, is gone. You could take away his 40 home runs last year and the Orioles would have still been third in home runs in MLB. They could still have the makings of a great offense.

That's a lot that must go right for the O's to repeat. Each and every team needs a lot of things to go right. Perhaps this is the year there will be late October baseball at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Stranger things have happened.

CH-CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

Departures: Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller, Nick Hundley

Arrivals: Travis Snider, Rule 5 picks Logan Verrett, Jason Garcia (if either makes the team)

It's not exactly an overwhelming list of additions for the O's, especially considering their division rival Red Sox went out and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the likes of Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Cuban sensation Yoan Moncada. Then again, the Red Sox were 25 games behind the Orioles in the standings in 2014 last year. They were the ones with ground to make up.

The Orioles are content to give this whole thing one more ride with a core of players who've won 274 games over the past three seasons. They have 12 pending free agents. Win or lose, it'll be a different-looking Orioles team a year from now.

PROJECTED STARTING ROTATION (w/ 2014 Orioles stats)

Player Throws Games (Started) Innings Pitched ERA WHIP
Chris Tillman R 34 (34) 207.1 3.34 1.23
Wei-Yin Chen L 31 (31) 185.2 3.54 1.228
Bud Norris R 28 (28) 165.1 3.65 1.216
Kevin Gausman R 20 (20) 113.1 3.57 1.315
Miguel Gonzalez R 27 (26) 159 3.23 1.296
Ubaldo Jimenez R 25 (22) 125.1 4.81 1.516

That's six names. The Orioles are not likely to have a six-man rotation during the season, but how they're going to cut it down to five by the end of spring training is an open question. Could a pitcher like Gonzalez be ticketed for the bullpen? Will Gausman end up in Norfolk by virtue of being the easiest player to option to the minor leagues? Neither move would be heartening to Orioles fans.

Ubaldo Jimenez. Photo credit: Bob DeChiara, USA Today Sports

The presence of Jimenez, the Orioles' $50 million pitcher who is signed through 2017, is a complication to picking the five best starters purely on the merits. What they will do with him is another question mark facing the team.

Take him away from the picture and you have a rotation full of pitchers with low-to-mid 3 ERAs. That's not going to get them any Cy Young votes, but it is something that would be the envy of many teams. Three of these unremarkable starters went toe-to-toe with three Tigers Cy Young winners in the ALDS last year, facing a potent Tigers offense. We know how that turned out.

PROJECTED BULLPEN (w/ 2014 Orioles stats)

Player Throws Role Games IP ERA WHIP
Zach Britton L Closer 71 76.1 1.65 0.904
Darren O'Day R Setup 68 68.2 1.70 0.888
Tommy Hunter R Setup 60 60.2 2.97 1.104
Brian Matusz L LOOGY 63 51.2 3.48 1.316
Brad Brach R Middle 46 62.1 3.18 1.171
Ryan Webb R Middle 51 49.1 3.83 1.257
T.J. McFarland L Long 37 58.2 2.76 1.415

Others: Wesley Wright, Logan Verrett, Jason Garcia

As a general rule, relief pitchers are not as great as Britton and O'Day were last year in consecutive seasons. That just doesn't happen. Even good relief pitchers don't tend to be that good from year to year. If these two step in a more pedestrian direction, even while still being very good, that's a problem that this year's Orioles would have to contend with. If this occurs, will the rest of the relievers be able to be better to compensate for a step back from the back end?

It's possible the projected bullpen will not end up being the final bullpen. Wright is another lefty reliever who's signed to a $1.7 million contract, so he's not exactly DFA bait. Still, he'd probably only make the team if Matusz is freed in a trade to another team to pursue his destiny of winning a National League Cy Young award.

Verrett, picked in the Rule 5 draft out of the Mets organization, figures to profile as a long reliever. If he impresses enough, that could bump McFarland down to the Norfolk rotation. Garcia is from the Red Sox organization and has never pitched above High-A before. That's a long-shot to make a big league bullpen. If he did, that would probably mean someone got hurt or one of the middle relief tandem of Brach or Webb were traded or released.

PROJECTED LINEUP (by position, w/ 2014 Orioles stats)

Position Player G HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
DH Delmon Young 83 7 30 .302 .337 .442
C Matt Wieters 26 5 18 .308 .339 .500
1B Chris Davis 127 26 72 .196 .300 .404
2B Jonathan Schoop 137 16 45 .209 .244 .354
3B Manny Machado 82 12 32 .278 .324 .431
SS J.J. Hardy 141 9 52 .268 .309 .372
LF Steve Pearce 102 21 49 .293 .373 .556
CF Adam Jones 159 29 96 .281 .311 .469
RF Alejandro De Aza 20 3 10 .293 .341 .537

Platoon players: Travis Snider, David Lough
Bench: Caleb Joseph, Ryan Flaherty

It's hard to predict exactly what the Orioles will be doing with their starting lineup. They are tinkering with a lot of different things in spring training, including having Davis get some outfield innings. Pearce could play some first base. Snider, Lough, and De Aza are all left-handed outfielders. How are they going to work all of this out?

The brain trust of manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette surely have some kind of plan in mind. If they're right about its ability to work, then the Orioles will have found themselves yet another unconventional way to succeed in the present era of baseball. If it doesn't work, there will be a lot of midseason tinkering.

De Aza probably won't duplicate a hot September he spent with the Orioles. Does Pearce have a second strong season in him? Would his numbers decline if he was a full-time player rather than a part-time player? We can ask the same questions about Young, who went shopping for a multi-year deal on the free agent market but ended up back in Baltimore, where he delivered the greatest Orioles hit of the 21st century.

There will probably be a lot of midseason tinkering even if it all does work. That's how Duquette operates.

However, not many players on this team, hitters or pitchers, have options with which for Duquette to work his magic this year. Barring injuries, the roster may be the roster, for better or worse. For O's fans, it's hopefully better.

TOP PROSPECTS

Hunter Harvey - Picking in the middle of the first round, rather than towards the top, for the first time in 15 years, the Orioles grabbed this right-handed pitcher out of a North Carolina high school in the 2013 draft. There was no doubt he'd sign; he told reporters on an introductory conference call that he hated school and he'd been working his whole life to play professional baseball. The son of former MLB closer Bryan Harvey, the younger Harvey showed up in the Orioles system, flashed greater velocity than he had as an amateur, and quickly improved his stock with the prospect-industrial complex.

This year, Harvey's been invited to big league spring training. As he's never pitched above Low-A Delmarva, it's just for the experience. He's shown off a brand new splitter. Baseball Prospectus rates him the #20 prospect in all of baseball. His potential impact for the franchise won't be immediate, but there's hope that his future is bright.

...a plus-plus fastball, an elite cutter that some think could possess religious properties...-Fmr. Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks on Bundy (Dec. 2013)

Dylan Bundy - Rated as high as the #2 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America and MLB.com prior to the 2013 season, Bundy now has generated much more divided reviews since having to get Tommy John surgery in the middle of that season. BA has lowered him to #48, while MLB puts him #20. The BPro crowd are still believers, rating him as the #8 prospect, but there are still quesiton marks about if or how well his former arsenal will return now that we're approaching two years out from the surgery.

Bundy doesn't figure to have much impact on the 2015 Orioles season either. He's expected to start the season with Double-A Bowie and even if the Orioles find themselves needing a starting pitcher at the MLB level, Bundy would have to show them he's ready first. They would probably tap Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson from Norfolk instead. Bundy did not overwhelm in his first action after the surgery at High-A Frederick last year.

Though his short-term impact isn't large, Bundy returning to something close to the form that he showed when the Orioles drafted him #4 overall in 2011 would give the Orioles a potent weapon in the rotation going forward.

HATERS GONNA HATE

Current Odds (Bovada):
Orioles win AL East: 7/2
Orioles win ALCS: 14/1
Orioles win World Series: 33/1
Over/under win total: 82.5

Fangraphs W-L projection: 79-83
Playoff odds: 17.4%

PECOTA projection: 79-83

Offseason grade by Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe: D+
"They've sat far too still this winter while the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays have significantly revamped."

Offseason grade by The Sporting News' Jesse Spector: D-
"...dithering through a winter that included rumors of Dan Duquette leaving his GM post to go to Toronto has left the Orioles in a position where the roster looks set to enter 2015 worse than 2014."

Preseason Power Ranking by Grantland's Jonah Keri: 15th

THE GLASS HALF-FULL

Between Machado, Davis, and Wieters, the Orioles easily make up the lost production from the departure of Cruz. One or all of them gets serious consideration at the top of MVP balloting. A hodge-podge outfield consisting of some combination of Young, Snider, De Aza, and Pearce produces at a level beyond anything that Markakis could hope to achieve in Atlanta at this point in his career.


Chris Davis in better times. Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today Sports

Jimenez returns to the form that shows why the Orioles invested so much money in him, Gausman starts to tap into some of the elite potential that had him rate highly as a prospect, and the rest of the rotation continues to be solid or better. Britton, O'Day, and Hunter form a powerful trio at the back end of the bullpen.

The Orioles ride all of these things through the regular season, to another division title over their big-spending rivals, into the World Series and to their first championship in my lifetime.

THE GLASS HALF-EMPTY

The clubhouse, disgruntled at the business decision not to re-sign Markakis at any cost, falls apart. Multiple elbows or shoulders blow out. The Orioles do something stupid like send Gausman to the minor leagues while riding a terrible Jimenez for 25 starts or more. Davis is still bad this year because it turns out it wasn't his oblique after all.

Machado somehow requires a third knee surgery as Orioles fans sadly realize he'll be yet another Orioles prospect who might have had a great career. The entire bullpen explodes at once because that's what happens to relievers from year-to-year. They make another Scott Feldman-esque panic trade and give up on a struggling player too soon who goes on to blossom elsewhere.

They limp to a 75-win season and all the smug know-it-alls who've been wrong about the team for three straight seasons won't stop crowing about how they were right all along, the Orioles were just unsustainably lucky, even though they're wrong, but with an unsuccessful most recent season, there will be no telling those morons to shut up. Everyone good leaves in free agency. The Red Sox, Royals, or Nationals win the World Series.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Orioles tell PECOTA, Fangraphs, and all the rest to put it in their coffee and stir it for a fourth straight season.

That probably doesn't mean they'll win the World Series, or even necessarily a playoff series, because those things are hard even for good teams. With a returning rotation with another year under their belts, a pitching staff backed up by what figures to be an elite infield defense and a capable outfield defense once again, they're poised to surprise everyone who counted them out because they didn't make any splashes in free agency that they'd regret later. Another fun summer in Baltimore awaits.

My prediction: 89-73, with the Orioles on the road in the AL Wild Card Game

Although if they keep losing their way through the Grapefruit League with an anemic offense, even though it doesn't matter, in a couple of weeks I'll be singing a much different tune.