It’s funny how we annually try to pinpoint absolutes in assessing what must go right or what cannot go wrong for the Orioles to have a successful season.
There are very few absolutes on which you can count over the course of a 162-game schedule. Look no further than last year to realize just how true that can be.
You might have predicted last spring that nearly everything needed to go right for the Orioles to win their first American League East title in 17 years. Instead, they endured the absence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for most of the year, another season-ending knee injury to Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado, and an abysmal campaign from 2013 home run king Chris Davis that ended with a 25-man suspension for Adderall use.
If given a preview of only those subplots last spring, you would have been more inclined to predict a 96-loss campaign as opposed to 96 victories and winning the division by a dozen games.
You just never know and that’s what makes it fun, as manager Buck Showalter would say.
With that reality in mind, below is a stab at five things that must go right for the Orioles in 2015:
1. Starting pitchers continue to outperform their metrics
It’s no secret that many statheads and projections haven’t liked the Orioles over the last three years and for good reason. They haven’t looked the part of other winners in the 21st century as they hit home runs but don’t get on base at a high rate and their pitching doesn’t rely on the strikeout, which is one of the most expensive commodities in the game.
But where the Orioles excelled in 2014 was a starting rotation that took advantage of an exceptional defense behind it. Starters didn’t strike many out (11th in the AL) and walked too many (fourth-most in the AL) — the intense struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez certainly skewed the latter ranking — but pitching coach Dave Wallace preaches to his pitchers to trust their defense, which they did with great success as the season progressed.
After the All-Star break, the Orioles posted a starter ERA of 2.98 after a 4.09 mark in the season’s first half. Their starter strikeout numbers even improved from 6.5 to 7.4 per nine innings pitched.
Many are predicting a market correction for the Orioles pitching after they ranked third in the AL in ERA but only 11th in fielding independent pitching (FIP), which eliminates factors a pitcher can’t control such as his defense. The good news is Baltimore starters figure to once again have Gold Glove-caliber fielders behind them.
The starting pitching continuing to find success is the single-most important factor needed for the Orioles to not only preserve the bullpen for the later months but to contend for another playoff berth.
2. Manny Machado takes a (healthy) step forward
The questions about Wieters’ health will likely linger for much of the season, but the Orioles proved they could win without their All-Star catcher last season and Caleb Joseph has shown an ability to handle himself well from a defensive standpoint. Machado possesses the highest upside of any player in a lineup needing to replace Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.
He’s already proven himself to be a Gold Glove defensive player, but his 68 extra-base hits in his first full season in the majors as a 20-year-old suggest the sky is the limit in terms of offensive potential. You have to chalk up 2014 as a lost year considering he was still working his way back from the first knee injury and went down again when he was finally hitting his stride at the plate in the second half.
Unlike Wieters, Machado’s health hasn’t been an issue all spring as he’s running better than ever with two healthy knees and has benefited from his first full spring since 2013. Yes, you have to hold your breath that health won’t again become a concern, but there have been no reservations so far.
Beyond staying in the lineup, Machado taking a step forward with the bat would go a long way in quelling any concerns about Baltimore’s offensive potential. He doesn’t need to put up MVP-caliber numbers, but many facets of his game hint that it’s possible in the future if he can stay healthy.
3. Steve Pearce proves he isn’t a one-year wonder
In watching Cruz and Markakis depart via free agency, the Orioles are clearly counting on the best story of the 2014 season to provide a productive sequel in his first full year as a regular. Many spent the winter trying to explain Pearce’s breakthrough at age 31, with explanations ranging from better health and finally receiving an extended opportunity to improved swing mechanics and an uncanny ability to hammer pitches up in the zone.
Expecting a repeat of his .930 on-base plus slugging percentage from a year ago would be asking too much, but his patience alone makes him a good candidate to once again be productive and help fill in the gaps left behind by Cruz and Markakis. His versatility in being able to play good defense at first base as well as at the corner outfield spots is extremely valuable for Showalter over the course of a season.
You should never look into spring training stats too much, but five homers and a .951 OPS in the Grapefruit League indicate the former journeyman isn’t resting on the laurels of 2014.
4. Chris Davis looks more like the hitter he was in 2012 and 2013 than last year
No one expects Davis to hit 53 homers like he did two seasons ago, but the Orioles need much more than the .196 average and .704 OPS he provided last season.
The question has been asked over and over about how Baltimore will replace Cruz’s 40 homers from a year ago, and the truth is that Cruz himself was highly unlikely to do that again in 2015. Still, the Orioles need to make up that production with Davis having the opportunity to contribute a great deal to that puzzle.
The increased use of the shift isn’t going away, which won’t do any favors for his batting average moving forward, but Davis insists that the oblique injury he suffered last April hindered his power all season. The 29-year-old has talked about bunting on occasion to offset the shift, but his power returning to at least his 2012 level (33 homers and a .501 slugging percentage) is more valuable than obsessing too much over his batting average.
With free agency looming, will the real Davis emerge? The Orioles would benefit greatly if the guy from a couple years ago resurfaces.
5. Another diamond in the rough emerges this season
In 2012, it was Miguel Gonzalez and Nate McLouth. Last year, Pearce and Joseph provided contributions that no one would have predicted.
If the Orioles are to return to the postseason for the third time in four years, they will inevitably need an individual or two to come out of nowhere to pay dividends. It’s the reason why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette brings in so many minor-league free agents, journeymen, and players who make you say, “Who?” on a yearly basis.
Could it be former first-round pick Travis Snider building on a hot second half with Pittsburgh last year?
Is the returning Nolan Reimold finally going to stay healthy enough to contribute at some point this season?
Will Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia make the club and use his lively arm to become a better-than-expected contributor in the bullpen?
Does a strong finish to last season and a terrific spring carry over for Jimmy Paredes?
Or are we likely speculating about someone who isn’t yet with the organization?
It’s easy to laugh now at the aforementioned possibilities, but stranger things have already happened over the last few years.