The last four seasons have been very successful for the Orioles. A division title, two ALDS appearances, one ALCS appearance, and no losing seasons is considered successful, even if its been somewhat frustrating at times. But with that success bring expectations, and questions. Last season's team turned in the worst performance since 2011. There will be a lot of pressure on this team to do better and return to the playoffs...but aside from just the win total, what other things will we be watching for this season?
1. Can Chris Tillman bounce back?
After a few years of putting up good numbers, the Orioles' Opening Day starter came back down to Earth a bit in 2015. It's possible this is what prevented the Orioles from signing him to a long-term deal, as was the rumor last offseason. Although it is worth noting that with Tillman, we shouldn't set our expectations that high. Fangraphs calculated an fWAR for him of 1.9 last season, the same as 2013. The difference between the two seasons though had to with his ERA and home runs allowed. While in 2013 he gave up a lot more home runs, he otherwise kept his ERA in check. Last season he allowed fewer home runs, but still had a pretty high ERA. He also pitched less than 200 innings for the first time since 2012.
What we'd really like to see is a repeat or improvement on 2014, when he got up to 2.4 fWAR. That's not the difference between a playoff team and one sitting at home, but it was his best season. Also, with Tillman a free agent after the 2017 season you can be sure the Orioles will be looking for a some kind of sure sign that they can depend on him for several years and lock him up before he hits the market.
2. Will Adams Jones keep it up?
Prior to the Chris Davis signing last week, Adam Jones owned the largest contract in Orioles history. Despite that, he's still been a huge bargain for the team. But as he enters his age 30 season, when a lot of players start to drop-off, can he keep it up? It wouldn't be crazy to see a drop in his hitting (especially power) or in his fielding. Playing center field might be the most physically demanding position during the game, how will Jones handle the effects of aging? Camden Chat's own Ryan Pollack did a great article trying to project his performance last year.
The good news is that Jones beat Ryan's projection of a .330 wOBA for 2015 (he got .334) but the difference isn't that far off and I bet that was fueled by the surprising hot start Jones had in 2015. So what did Ryan project for 2016? A still respectable .322 wOBA, putting him in line to be like 2013's J.J. Hardy. That's good! But will Jones continue to beat that projection model or will he fall under it?
3. Will this be the end of the road for Dylan Bundy?
For years, Dylan Bundy has teased Orioles fans. How good can he be? When will he get here and be the starter we need? But his Tommy John surgery in 2013 put a hold on that excitement. Now, out of options, the Orioles will be forced to keep Bundy on the 25-man roster unless he gets hurt again. This may not be hard - he was shutdown in the Arizona Fall League with elbow tightness. I'm guessing even the slightest hint of pain and Bundy finds himself on the DL. No doubt the Orioles would send him back to the minors if they could. But if he can't cut it this year, what happens? Will the Orioles finally be forced to part ways with him, or will he prove he can stay healthy AND that he has the stuff to be a major league pitcher?
4. How will the O's fare as they are more and more Dan Duquette's team?
OK, not technically a question but, while 2011's (the season before Duquette was hired) starting roster featured some guys who are since long gone, there are a lot of familiar names still here from the Andy MacPhail tenure, too - Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman. Even Nolan Reimold and Chris Davis were on that team. All these guys are still here, many because Duquette made a choice that resulted in their remaining.
Jones and Hardy have received extensions from Duquette. Britton's conversion to closer came in the Duquette era. Wieters received the qualifying offer, and Davis, of course, just re-signed. He's made his mark with his own signings too, like Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and now Hyun Soo Kim. Most of the Orioles real prospects were drafted by Duquette's staff, as was Kevin Gausman, no longer really a prospect, but still an important piece for this season.
The Orioles have yet to have a losing season under Duquette. As each year goes by, his vision has more influence over the team. Will the O's be able to stay mostly in the win column in Duquette's fifth full season?
5. Who will be the surprise of this season?
The 2014 Orioles had Steve Pearce, and in 2013 I'd argue it was Chris Davis. One problem with last year's O's team is that nobody really had that breakout. Who will break out and surprise us this year? It's certainly possible there won't be any breakout stars, but what if instead we got something like an MVP for Manny Machado or a Cy Young for Kevin Gausman? I'd take it.
There's certainly a lot of other things that will keep us intrigued this season. The answers to these questions will go a long way towards determining whether or not the O's can get themselves back into the playoffs, or at least in contention to the end.