Opening day is without a doubt the Christmas of the MLB season. Baseball fans finally will get to see if Santa brought them a trip to the playoffs or a trip to their division’s basement by watching actual games, rather then read the endless speculative articles by sports columnists. With that said, I am going to take one final swing at 2014 Orioles predictions (I’m sorry).
The Orioles’ additions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, and subtraction of Jim Johnson and Nate McLouth will add new problems and resolve some old ones. Who is the closer? How will the lineup work out? Will the pitching hold up? All these questions funnel into the final question about the 2014 season: Will the Orioles make the playoffs? So, I will try my best and predict the answers to these questions while I still have time.
Who will be the closer? Jim Johnson will be a tough act to follow. With two consecutive seasons of 50 saves, Johnson established himself as one of the premier closers in the league. Unfortunately, his nine blown saves may have been too much for the Orioles to overcome in 2013. His inability to securely close games out, combined with the $10 million due in salary arbitration for the 2014 season made him expendable for the Orioles. They shipped him to Oakland for infield depth, attempted to replace him via free-agency, and ultimately decided to go in-house for their replacement. As I previously posted, Tommy Hunter will be an adequate replacement. I think he has the stuff (physically and mentally) to be an efficient closer. However, his numbers against LHBs makes me cautious when making projections for him. I think he will start off well, but begin to struggle a bit as he pitches on back-to-back-to-back nights. I don’t think that Buck Showalter will have as long a leash for Hunter as he had for Johnson, which might leave the door open to someone like Ryan Webb or even Bud Norris getting save opportunities later in the year. I think the ninth inning will be smoother for the Orioles in 2014 regardless of who gets the call now that Showalter can be flexible with the closer spot, and also because I think the lineup will create more leads of four or more runs, lowering save opportunities.
How will the lineup fair? Great. It’s is the easiest question of the bunch for me to predict. Anybody with a 6th grade education would be able to look at this lineup and project it to be a top-five offense. In 2013, the Orioles ranked fourth in runs in the AL and first in home runs. In addition to that lineup, the Orioles added a bonafide slugger in Cruz to fill out the DH spot that was a revolving door of disappointment in 2013. He will likely slot in behind Chris Davis, which should offer Davis some protection. As for Davis, the reigning MLB home run champion, he will again put up gaudy power numbers but on a lesser scale. In 2012 when the Orioles made the playoffs, he “only” hit 33 homers. He doesn’t need to hit 50 bombs for the Orioles to be good. He is a beast of a man that just needs to put the bat on the ball to hit it out. Davis should end the year with just over 40 home runs. I think the Orioles will score around 790 runs and lead the league with somewhere around 220 homers. My only concern offensively is speed, as Brian Roberts and McLouth are now gone.
Will their pitching hold up? Ugh. This is the toughest aspect of the Orioles’ season to project. Tillman finally put together the type of season fans had been looking for since he was traded to Baltimore from the Seattle Mariners. He is the ace of the staff, and I think he will continue that in 2014. He could have approached 20 wins last season had he not felt the wrath of the inconsistent bullpen, which hopefully won’t be the case this season. The addition of Jimenez will be very important to the Orioles’ rotation, I believe. However, I don’t think he will perform as well as he did in 2013 for the Cleveland Indians. I think his ERA will sit somewhere around 4, but I think he will eat some innings and pitch well in big games. Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris will pitch decently, but I think that Wei-Yin Chen could be the weak link for the Orioles. Chen was solid in 2013 with limited playing time, but it became clear that the workload that he was taking on had started to wear on his arm. After the All-Star game, Chen’s ERA was a 4.90 for the rest of the season. Considering those poor numbers have continued in Spring Training, I just don’t feel extremely confident him. Overall, I think the rotation will be better than last year, but still not at the level of Boston or Tampa Bay, or even New York. I think that Gausman might be the ace in the hole for Baltimore to take the next step pitching wise, but he needs to wait for a spot to open up before he can contribute.
Will the Orioles make the playoffs? My Opening Day high combined with my optimism for this team makes me feel like they will make the playoffs. I think that David Lough and Nelson Cruz will make this lineup even more formidable, and I think Manny Machado will make it back in time to continue his offensive contributions. This team’s hitting and defense are their strengths and will be what carries them to the playoffs. In the AL East, it wouldn’t surprise me if they missed out, but I am extremely confident in this lineup and think that their pitching isn’t bad enough to hold them back. They will likely make it as one of the Wild Card teams in 2014 on the back of their elite power hitting lineup. Thank you for reading one last speculative based article before the season starts, and please feel free to take one last crack at the 2014 Orioles predictions in the comments below. Happy Opening Day, Orioles fans.