Season’s greetings, baseball fans. The long winter has finally thawed (though we saw some snow in the Baltimore/Washington area yesterday) and baseball has finally begun. Opening Day is like Christmas for seamheads all over the world, and with this special holiday in mind, I made a Christmas wish list for the 2014 Orioles. With a team that appears to be on the cusp of potentially great things this year, a few nice gifts could make the difference between a season where the team finishes around .500 and a season where the team is in contention for an AL East crown and possibly a World Series berth.
- Nick Markakis Rebound
Statistically, Nick Markakis was one of the Orioles’ worst offensive players last year, posting a career-worst OPS of .685. He was also the highest paid Oriole. That is not a good combination. In 2014, Markakis needs to be the producer he once was. With nearly 20 pounds of muscle added in the offseason, a rebound season for Markakis could give the Orioles a versatile hitter they could bat anywhere from first to sixth. An uptick in Markakis’ power and a rediscovery of his ability to simply get on-base would make the Orioles possibly the most formidable lineup in the American League.
- Ryan Flaherty Breakout
Ryan Flaherty will begin the season as the Orioles’ starting third baseman until Manny Machado returns, when he would either fall in to a starting second base or utility role. Regardless of his eventual role, it’s a good possibility that Flaherty will see a significant number of at-bats in an Orioles uniform this year. The Orioles hope that the same Ryan Flaherty that hit for a serviceable .240-plus average and 10 home runs in the second half of 2013 shows-up instead of the guy that barely exceeded a .100 average for the first two months of the year. If Flaherty continues to track upward and replicates his second-half numbers, he could provide surprising pop and production at the back end of the lineup to accompany his valuable glove.
- Matt Wieters OBP Increase
Matt Wieters was not a good hitter last year. If you subtract a few feet from his some of his 22 fence-clipping home runs in 2014, Wieters’ offensive production was just downright bad. A key to the Orioles improving on their below-average .313 team on-base percentage will be Wieters improving on his abysmal .287 figure.
- Chris Davis Contract
The obscene 10 year/$292 million deal signed by Miguel Cabrera earlier last week seems to reduce the possibility that Chris Davis will sign an extension with the Orioles. Most people doubt the Orioles willingness to sign any player to a contract of that length or that value. Davis seems primed for a great 2014 season, even if it doesn’t replicate his historic 2013. His price isn’t going down. If the Orioles want to keep Davis beyond next year, a deal needs to get done before the price rises further. Hopefully, it’s a deal that won’t commit the Orioles to 10 years like the Cabrera contract – 10 years is far too long for a guaranteed contract – but Davis needs to be here. There’s no other power threat like him in the Orioles’ system, and only a few in all of baseball.
- Manny Machado Recovery
The Orioles and Machado are doing the right thing by taking a patient approach with the recovery of the third baseman’s knee. The last thing the Orioles need is to jeopardize their future and slow a star’s progression by letting Manny play to early. Redskins fans know the risk there. When Manny comes back, the Orioles need him to be the same solid defensive player he was and his comfort moving side-to-side plays a big factor in that.
- Healthy Johan Santana
A healthy Johan Santana could be a tremendous mid-season boost to an Orioles pitching staff that already seems stacked with consistent, if not spectacular pitchers. In a best case scenario, the Orioles would be able to stash Santana in the minor leagues making rehab starts until he’s needed to replace one of the team’s original five starters or serve as another lefty in the bullpen. Santana also has playoff experience, which pairs well with his versatility and makes him a qualified candidate for the postseason roster if needed.
- Pitching Prospect Progression
Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are future of the Orioles. This is the year that their impact will begin to be felt throughout the AL East. The two young pitching studs taking the next step toward stardom could give the Orioles the flexibility to replace struggling members of the rotation or bullpen with either of these aces-in-waiting. Even though Gausman will begin the season in AAA and Bundy will continue to rehab from Tommy John surgery, expect both to contribute to the Orioles at some point this season.
- Ubaldo Jimenez Consistency
As with Flaherty, the Orioles are hoping for the Jimenez that showed up in the second half of 2013 as opposed to the first half, or previous year, for that matter. When he’s on his game, Jimenez has proven that he can be one of the more dominant in the game. Repeating his complicated delivery and controlling his electric stuff will be key for Jimenez in 2014.
- Tommy Hunter Improving Splits
Left-handed batters hit nearly .300 against presumed new Orioles closer Tommy Hunter in 2013. If Hunter wants to hold the ninth-inning duties in 2014, the progression he showed with his off-speed pitches in spring training needs to carry over to the regular season and give him another weapon against southpaws.
Hope everyone in Birdland has a wonderful day. For those heading to the game — travel safe, avoid traffic, get there early and be loud! Some encouraging words: the Orioles are 11-3 on Opening Day since 2000. Let’s put one in the WIN column today.