With Orioles closer Zach Britton agreeing to a $3.2 million contract on Wednesday, it was a reminder of just how far the left-hander has come over the last 12 months.
The sinkerballer entered last year’s spring training out of minor-league options and not even assured of a roster spot, but the 27-year-old instead emerged to become one of the best closers in the American League. Britton wasn’t the only breakout performer for the 2014 AL East champions as journeyman Steve Pearce hit 21 home runs and posted a hefty .930 on-base plus slugging percentage, but the Orioles will be looking for at least one or two players to emerge unexpectedly if they’re to advance to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
With that in mind, below are six candidates who could fit that description of “breakout performer” in 2015:
RHP Kevin Gausman
Skinny: The 24-year-old did a fine job establishing himself as a legitimate major league starter last year by going 7-7 with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is predicting Gausman to take a major leap in 2015, which would have him vying for the top spot in the rotation along with Chris Tillman. The 2012 first-round pick’s high-90s fastball and split-fingered changeup are nasty pitches, but further developing his circle change or slider would make the 6-foot-3 right-hander downright scary. After pitching 166 2/3 innings including the minors and the postseason last year, Gausman could still face a slight issue with an innings limit, but that would mean he’s having great success in the rotation.
2B Jonathan Schoop
Skinny: The Curacao native played Gold Glove-caliber defense as a rookie, which is why he stayed in the lineup despite a .209 average and a .598 on-base plus slugging percentage. Schoop showed promising power with his 16 home runs, but his plate discipline (13 walks in 481 plate appearances) must improve to make him a more dangerous offensive option. Considering he had only 270 at-bats at Triple-A Norfolk in 2013, Schoop’s offensive struggles weren’t surprising, but his .191 average in the second half was lower than his .221 mark in the first half. Beyond the natural progression of a young player, the Orioles hope his .749 OPS in August and improved patience in the playoffs (three walks in 24 plate appearances) were signs of better things to come.
OF Travis Snider
Skinny: The Orioles didn’t give up much for the 27-year-old outfielder, but they hope his strong second half for Pittsburgh in 2014 is evidence that things have finally clicked for the 2006 first-round selection after years of disappointment. Considered a solid fielder, Snider hit .288 with nine home runs and posted an .880 OPS in 188 plate appearances in the second half to help the Pirates to a postseason appearance. A left-handed hitter with power potential profiles well playing his home game at Camden Yards, and it appears likely that manager Buck Showalter will give Snider every opportunity to win the starting right field job. If the 2014 version of Snider comes to Baltimore, it would go a long way in easing the pain from the departure of Nick Markakis.
OF David Lough
Skinny: Many wrote off the speedy outfielder after he hit only .159 in the first two months of 2014, but Lough quietly batted .337 over his final 99 plate appearances, which obviously came sparingly over the final four months. The 29-year-old will be right in the mix with the likes of Snider, Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce, and Delmon Young for a corner outfield job this spring, and his speed gives an added dimension that the roster sorely lacks. No one questions his ability in the field as he was regularly a late-inning defensive replacement last year and manager Buck Showalter places a high premium on defense, giving Lough an edge over his competitors if he can prove his strong second half at the plate was a sign of his true ability and not just an aberration.
OF Dariel Alvarez
Skinny: The 26-year-old Cuban native has been discussed a great deal by the Orioles this offseason as the organization raves about his strong throwing arm in the outfield. He walked only 21 times in 564 plate appearances split between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk, but Alvarez showed good power with his 55 extra-base hits in the process of being named to the 2014 MLB Futures Game. Outsiders aren’t as high on Alvarez as a major league prospect as the organization is — his advanced age is a factor — so it will be interesting to see how quickly he might receive an opportunity in the majors should the projected cast of corner outfielders fail to get the job done.
RHP Mike Wright
Skinny: The 6-foot-6 right-hander is all but certain to begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk, but Wright has been regularly mentioned by Showalter over the last year or two as a pitching prospect to watch. The 2011 third-round pick struggled at Norfolk for much of last season until his final seven starts when he posted a 0.95 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. Wright possesses a low-90s sinker along with a solid slider and a changeup, a repertoire that makes him a fringe starting candidate who is probably better suited to pitch out of the bullpen in the majors. The Orioles wouldn’t appear to have a relief role for him going into the season, but he’s a darkhorse candidate to get the call should the 25-man roster suffer injuries in the rotation or the bullpen in 2015.