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2014 Orioles Preview: Wild Card Contender?

Anthony Tynan

Anthony Tynan

Anthony Tynan writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The Orioles were within a game of the ALCS in 2012, but the franchise failed to take a step forward in 2013 while missing the playoffs with an 85-win season. A number of players matured into stars, while several others showed decline or otherwise disappointed. Chris Davis blasted his way to superstar status by leading MLB in home runs and RBI, Manny Machado emerged as one of the outstanding young players in the game, and Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy delivered another consistent season. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez held down the rotation, and a bullpen led by Jim Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Darren O'Day was one of the best in the league.

There were disappointments along the way. Nick Markakis continued his decline and was dropped in the batting order late in the season, and Matt Wieters has not figured out how to hit for average at the game's top level. Jason Hammel went from Opening Day starter to a swift exodus, while Jair Jurrjens, Freddy Garcia and Zach Britton failed to round out the rotation.

A $92 million payroll ranked just fourth in the division and the disparity will be extended in 2014 thanks to several high profile signs by the Yankees and Red Sox. The cash conscious Orioles were largely silent on the free agent market until a pair of signings in February, and the organization failed to sign key players to long-term deals. Instead several under-the-radar players will compete for significant playing time this spring.

The 85-win season was good enough for just a tie for eighth place in the AL with the Yankees. Any or all the teams that finished with a better record (Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Indians, Royals, Athletics, Rangers) could contend again in 2014. The limited ability of the front office to add talent in the offseason – whether due to budget constraints or lack of urgency – did not help this team's odds to return to the playoffs this year, although the late additions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz provided much needed boosts in the rotation and in left field, respectively.

Offseason Moves

Signed Nelson Cruz.

Cruz missed the final 50 games of the regular season due to his inclusion in the Biogenesis investigation, but still managed 27 homers and 76 RBI in just 109 games. Texas extended him a qualifying offer for 2014, which Cruz rejected, so he finds himself on the free agent market for the first time in his career. He's battled injuries in the past and will turn 34 in July, making him a poor choice for a long-term contract, but the Orioles were willing to forfeit a draft pick after signing Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal in February. He'll likely see time in left field and as the team's primary DH, with an opportunity to provide more power and depth to an already steady Baltimore offense.

Signed Ubaldo Jimenez.

Jimenez certainly picked a nice time for a rebound season as he caught fire in the second half (1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.7 K/9 in his last 13 starts) in what turned out to be the final year of his contract, after he rejected the $14 million option on his contract for 2014 after the season ended. Although it was an impressive stretch in the second half, he certainly took advantage of some lesser teams down the stretch (4-0, 1.09 ERA in six September starts) so tread carefully before totally buying into the bounceback. One of the biggest differences for Jimenez came in the form of a rebound in his strand rate. After carrying mark above 70 percent in three consecutive seasons with the Rockies, he flipped to 65.0% and 68.6% in 2011 and 2012 before a jump to 76.5% during his final year in Cleveland. The story here is largely unchanged. Jimenez has the potential to miss a lot of bats, but still has subpar control and will almost certainly experience stretches where he simply cannot find the plate. After signing with the Orioles, he'll return to a hitter-friendly home park where the volatility in his skill set could be amplified.

Signed Suk-min Yoon.

Yoon has been one of the top pitchers in South Korea and plans to move to MLB for 2014. The 27-year old is a three-time All Star and 2011 MVP who starred in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. However, he struggled in 2013 with a shoulder injury and was just 3-6 with a 4.00 ERA and a 76:28 K:BB ratio in 87.2 innings. He had 11 starts and 19 relief appearances. The Orioles signed him in February, presumably to work out of their bullpen, but the lack of rotation depth in Baltimore provides a clearer path to becoming a starter than he would have found in many other organizations.

Signed Johan Santana to a minor league deal.

Santana, who missed the last five weeks of the 2012 season due to lower-back inflammation, came to spring training slated to be the Mets' No. 1 starter and make 28-30 starts. So much for the best laid plans of mice and men, as Santana first was pushed back several weeks and then it was announced that he re-tore the anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder. Santana underwent season-ending surgery at the end of March. He suffered the same injury in September of 2010 and missed the entire 2011 season. No pitcher has had this surgery twice and managed to resume their career, but Santana will attempt to put the pieces back together in Baltimore, after signing an incentive-laden minor league deal with the Orioles in March.

Lost Brian Roberts to free agency, traded Jim Johnson to the Athletics for Jemile Weeks.

Baltimore chose to move on from the Brian Roberts era following four injury riddled seasons in a row. Then came the only major move the club made in the offseason when they traded Jim Johnson for Jemile Weeks. It was a cost saving move, capitalizing on a strong bullpen and shedding around $10 million from the payroll.

After an exceptional 2011 debut (.303 average and 22 steals) with the A's in 2011, Weeks became the biggest disappointment in the A's farm system. He was really bad in 2012 with the A's (.221 average), but bounced back in Triple-A in 2013, amassing a .271 average with a .376 OBP and 17 swipes. Weeks' defense at second base leaves a lot to be desired and it likely held him back from having another chance at the job despite the A's issues at the position. As a result, he only received a token callup in September thanks to his hold on a 40-man roster spot. Weeks is expected to compete with Ryan Flaherty for the every day job at second base, though Jonathan Schoop could also figure into the mix.

Traded Danny Valencia to the Royals for David Lough, signed Delmon Young, Quintin Berry and Jack Cust to minor league contracts.

The Orioles acquired Valencia and Alexi Casilla from the Twins last offseason for cash and turning Valencia into Lough could pay off big for the organization. After a little more than three seasons at the Triple-A level, injuries in the Royals' outfield finally gave Lough an opportunity. He appeared in 96 games for the Royals and batted .286 with five home runs, 33 RBI and five stolen bases over a total of 335 plate appearances. While he wasn't prone to the strikeout, whiffing just 15.5% of the time, he rarely drew walks and despite a favorable .326 BABIP, he was unable to get on base at more than just a .311 clip. Lough figures to be a favorite to win playing time this spring in left field and he can back up all outfield positions. He is also a candidate for right field duties if the club parts ways with Nick Markakis.

Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)

1. RF Nick Markakis
2. 3B Manny Machado
3. CF Adam Jones
4. 1B Chris Davis
5. DH Nelson Cruz
6. C Matt Wieters
7. SS J.J. Hardy
8. LF David Lough/Nolan Reimold
9. 2B Jemile Weeks/Ryan Flaherty

The top-six hitters should break camp in this order if Machado is healthy. Markakis was dropped as low as seventh in the order late last season, but without Nate McLouth on the roster he figures to return to the leadoff spot despite offering no speed at this point in his career. There are jobs to be won at the bottom of the order and things could go any which way depending on how spring training goes and whether the team decides to platoon any of those positions.

Projected Rotation

1. Chris Tillman
2. Ubaldo Jimenez
3. Wei-Yin Chen
4. Miguel Gonzalez
5. Bud Norris/Kevin Gausman/Steve Johnson/Brian Matusz/Zach Britton

The top three starters seem to have done enough to guarantee a rotation spot, though this is a pretty thin group. It's unclear if Jimenez or Tillman will get the nod from manager Buck Showalter on Opening Day. Norris appears to be the heavy favorite to land the final spot in the rotation. Gausman will definitely get a shot at some point this season, while Johnson has been good when healthy over the last two years. Matusz is supposedly going to be given a chance to earn a spot, but the former phenom should wind up back in the bullpen.

Closer: Tommy Hunter – Hunter figures to get the closing gig by default. The Orioles traded Jim Johnson to the Athletics, saw the Grant Balfour signing fall through, and didn't touch any free agents with closing experience. All of Hunter's advanced stats spiked in 2013 (7.1 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9) following an awful 2012 (5.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 2.2 HR/9). All of his pitches also saw spikes in velocity when comparing his previous two seasons, as Hunter threw three-to-four mph harder in 2013. The current weakness here is Hunter's struggles against left-handed batters, who hit .294/.322/.535 with 11 homers against him last season while righties hit just .140/.190/.154 (no homers). 

Key Bullpen Members: Brian Matusz has transitioned from a failed starter to one of the better left-handed relievers in the league. The Orioles may still be disappointed given Matusz was once a No. 4 overall draft pick who breezed through the minors and 51 good innings in 2013 does not provide much bang for the buck. At the request of Matusz, he will compete as a starter in spring training. There is sleeper potential for Matusz if he is a starter, but the Orioles may realize they are best served with him out of the bullpen. Further, his splits against righties, who hit .302/.375/.372 against him last season, reveal a major potential pitfall if he's overexposed in a multiple-inning role with a move back into the rotation.

Darren O'Day might get lost in Baltimore's slew of relievers, but with 3.6 WAR over the past two years he may be the best of the bunch. The submarine pitcher still does not provide a ton of value in most leagues unless holds are rewarded. O'Day only throws in the mid-80s, but his delivery appears to keep batters off balance. O-Day should enter 2014 in his usual setup role and he could get a crack at the ninth inning depending on the performances of Hunter and Matusz.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise

Buy Nick Markakis in a contract year, or finally learn a lesson and stay away?

Markakis enters a contract year and he will certainly be motivated to produce since the Orioles will be looking to extend Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman and perhaps Manny Machado. It looked like Markakis was a star in the making in 2007 and 2008 when he totaled 43 home runs and 28 steals with an average over .300 in just his second and third seasons. His .271 average, 10 home runs and one steal in 2014 mark career lows. One might argue that Markakis has to have bottomed out at this point and he could be motivated in a contract year. The problem is that his 1.52 GB/FB is his highest since his rookie year, yet he still managed to carry a 14.9% infield flyball rate after a previous career high of 9.7%. Speed is a non-factor for Markakis at this stage in the game and it seems he offers a ceiling of 15 home runs. Add in that he should occupy the top spot in the order and that limits RBI potential. Yes, he bottomed out, but there is no evidence that Markakis has the ability to bounce back.

Will any member of the rotation crack a fantasy roster in standard leagues and who should be targeted in AL-only and deeper leagues?

Aside for a slight uptick in his WHIP, Wei-Yin Chen's 2013 numbers were nearly a carbon copy of his 2012 season. That accounts for an oblique injury that caused him to miss some time in the middle of the season. Chen had more success with his secondary pitches, particularly his slider and changeup, and less success with his fastball in 2013 despite a slight increase in velocity across most of his pitches. The upcoming season will be a contract year for Chen, and he is a lock to make Baltimore's rotation, while his first two big league campaigns suggest that another year in the neighborhood of a 7.0 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 is likely.

Miguel Gonzalez came out of nowhere in 2012 and proved that he wasn't a fluke with his 2013 campaign. He is a solid middle of the rotation starter, though the Orioles could use him as high as their No. 2 given his recent results. Gonzalez maintained his velocity on all of his pitches in 2013 while winning 11 games. A 38.9% groundball rate leaves room for improvement, especially since Gonzalez carried a 6.3 K/9. Along with Chris Tillman and Chen, Gonzalez seems like a near lock to make the rotation entering 2014.

The Astros grew tired of Norris' inconsistency and shipped him to the Orioles in the second half. Norris struck out 57 in 50.2 innings, but a 4.80 ERA and 1.68 WHIP after the trade were not what the Orioles were looking for. A .333 BABIP suggests some bad luck, but Norris has had a line drive percentage over 21% each of the last three years, a level of hard contact that supports his elevated BABIP. The Orioles will have plenty of rotation competition this spring and for the first time in recent years Norris will have to pitch well in Grapefruit League action to secure a spot.

Chris Tillman and Manny Machado: Can they repeat?

Tillman capitalized on a strong finish to his 2012 season by finally putting things together and earning an All-Star selection in 2013. However, a 4.42 FIP for 2013 shows that caution should be exercised. Tillman allowed 33 home runs and had an 80.5% strand rate, which was sixth highest in the league. Tillman and A.J. Griffin were the only qualified pitchers in MLB who had an ERA under 4.00 and allowed more than 26 home runs. Nonetheless, on the heels of his quality 2013 campaign, Tillman is likely to be named the Orioles' Opening Day starter.

It was thought that Machado would take time to mature as a hitter, but instead he hit .310 in the first half and was on pace to break the MLB record for doubles. He's still not a finished product as shown with his 4.1% walk rate, a clear sign that Machado needs to develop more patience at the plate. Machado suffered an ugly knee injury in the final week of the season and needed surgery to repair a torn medial patellar ligament. Although he had the procedure in mid-October and there was no reported damage to his ACL or MCL, Machado is facing a six-month rehab window. As a result, he is in danger of missing Opening Day. Once Machado is ready to take the field again, he will be one of the more attractive options at third base, and over the next few years some of those doubles should begin to turn into home runs as he reaches his power peak.

Delmon Young, Jack Cust, Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Tyler Colvin, Ryan Flaherty, Jemile Weeks. All of these guys will compete for a starting job this spring. Which of them has sleeper potential, if any?

The smart money is on one or both of Reimold and Young to earn the majority of playing time and split playing time with David Lough in left field while Nelson Cruz serves as the DH. At second base, it is a dead heat for Flaherty and Weeks.

Neither Flaherty nor Weeks figures to be a strong hitter at the MLB level. Weeks offers speed, but Flaherty is a better defender and offers more pop. Flaherty may have a slight edge entering spring training, but there is no doubt the Orioles would rather fill their lineup card without Flaherty and use him as a super-utility player.

Young started out the 2013 season on a one-year contract with the Phillies, but hit .260/.307/.407 with eight home runs in 80 games. Rather than accept an assignment at Triple-A when the Phillies were out of contention and wanted to develop some of their younger players, he took to free agency. The Rays picked him up for the remainder of the season as an extra right-handed bat with power. He hit .258 with a .780 OPS in 23 regular-season games with the team that drafted him first overall in 2003. He had some clutch hitting in the postseason, but saw limited action overall. However, even with a good spring he may find himself in a platoon situation.

Reimold again had a large chunk of his season wiped out due to a neck injury. He had surgery in the second half and the Orioles tendered him a contract to give him another opportunity in left field. During the little bit of time he was healthy, Reimold struck out in 29.3% of his at-bats, easily the highest amount of his pro career regardless of level. His injury could have played a part in his poor contact rate, but there is no way to know for certain whether a healthy Reimold is a safer bet. Reimold has not put together a full season since 2010. If he can get regular at-bats there is power potential, as he had a .313 ISO in an abbreviated run in 2012.

Any cheap speed on this team?

Baltimore finished in the middle of the pack in 2013 with 79 stolen bases. They do not figure to come close to that figure with Nate McLouth's 30 steals gone from the roster. Adam Jones should figure in the low-to-mid teens. Of the remaining starters, David Lough had 26 steals at Triple-A in 2012, but he had 10 steals and was caught seven times at Triple-A and with the Royals. It should also be noted that the Royals were aggressive on the basepaths with an MLB leading 153 steals. Jemile Weeks is probably the fastest player on the roster and he played for an Oakland organization that historically discourages running. Weeks had 17 steals each of the last two seasons, so he could lead the team in steals if playing time permits.


The lineup stability of hitters two thru seven (Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy) is the team's best asset both at the plate and in the field. Four of them have All-Star and Gold Glove capability, likely with the exception of Davis's glove. Nick Markakis and David Lough also are plus defenders. The bullpen was one of the best in the game in 2013 with Johnson, Hunter, Matusz and O'Day. Johnson was the shakiest of the bunch, but losing him is still a hit to this group.


Outside of Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez, the rotation is not going to scare anybody. It will be interesting to see if the team can make a last minute push for one of the remaining starters and/or pull a trade during the season if the team is in contention. Left field, second base and designated hitter figure to house below average hitters, though there could be some sleepers (see below).

Rising: Tommy Hunter – Hunter's increased velocity softens the blow of losing Jim Johnson. Some may argue that this job is up for debate this spring, but Hunter has to be an immense favorite. Among his competitors, Matusz struggles against righties and O'Day does not fit the closing bill as a sidearm soft tosser, though O'Day's numbers are on level with anyone's the last two years. Hunter could offer the most bang for the fantasy buck on this team as he should be in the final tier of closers to come off the board.

Declining: Nick Markakis – Markakis suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013 with career lows nearly across the board. He actually produced a -0.1 WAR, marking the third consecutive year that his overall value has fallen, and the Orioles dropped him as low as seventh in the order late in the season. A second errorless season in the last three years might be a silver lining to Markakis, but not to his fantasy owners. Markakis enters a contract year and he will certainly be motivated to produce since the Orioles will be positioned to consider signing several other players. While he's still making contact at a steady clip, Markakis' .085 ISO last season was by far the lowest of his career.

Sleeper: David Lough – See "Offseason Moves" above.

Supersleeper: Henry Urrutia – Urrutia has a keen hitting eye, which helped him post a .913 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. Urrutia then took his act to the Arizona Fall League, where he slashed .377/.434/.551 with three home runs in 69 at-bats. A Cuban defector who signed in 2012, Urrutia's hit tool is more advanced than his power, but at 26 years old he should be ready to contribute sooner rather than later. The Orioles may still look to find a left fielder elsewhere, but Urrutia will compete with Lough and the oft-injured Steve Pearce and Nolan Reimold for at-bats in left field and at DH.

Top Prospects

Dylan Bundy, P – An elite prospect entering 2013, Bundy experienced elbow issues at the conclusion of spring training, which resulted in Tommy John surgery at the end of June. He'll be on the mend to begin the year but should return to minor league action around midseason. However, there is a very small chance that he contributes for the Orioles in 2014, especially considering the careful approach the organization took with his workload and development before the injury. The goal for Bundy will be to crack the big league rotation in early 2015.

Kevin Gausman, P – The Orioles wasted no time in promoting Gausman after eight Double-A starts, but he floundered as a starter, before returning to help as a reliever as the Orioles contended down the stretch. A closer examination of his advanced stats reveals reasons to be encouraged, as he carried a 9.3 K/9 in the big leagues. One issue for Gausman was his 18.6% HR/FB, a number that will certainly come down as he continues to get experience. However, he maintained the velocity for which he was touted, flashing a fastball in the 96 mph range. The Orioles figure to enter spring training with a bevy of rotation candidates, but with an impressive spring showing, Gausman should make the rotation. If he struggles, he'll start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Eduardo Rodriguez, P – Rodriguez continues to shoot up Baltimore's prospect chart after a year in which he topped out at Double-A as a 20-year-old. He throws three pitches and missed more bats after moving from High-A (7.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9) to Double-A (8.9 K/9, 3.6 BB/9). The Orioles are stocked with aging pitching prospects and Rodriguez is the only starter who might have a shot of making his MLB debut this season. Look for Rodriguez to begin the season in Double-A Bowie and possibly debut before the end of the season if he continues to pitch well in his ascent through the Orioles' system.

Hunter Harvey, P – The son of former MLB closer Bryan Harvey signed quickly after the draft and logged a good chunk of innings in the rookie leagues. Harvey more than held his own at both stops, using a fastball that sits in the low-90s (he could reach the mid-90s as he continues to advance), while a curveball and a changeup serve as his secondary pitches, both of which need work. Despite his youth, Harvey seems likely to get a full season at Low-A as a 19-year-old but could become a frontline starter, if everything goes as planned with his development.

Jonathan Schoop, 3B/2B – The Orioles would have liked for Schoop to be ready to compete for a job in 2014, but that does not seem likely. Schoop slashed just .278/.301/.396 at Triple-A before hitting just .177 in the Arizona Fall League, and his ceiling does not appear to be as high now as it used to be. Schoop could turn into an average MLB hitter, though his power is taking a step forward. Schoop hit 15 home runs in 2013, one more than his 2012 total despite 162 fewer at-bats. The Orioles are set for now on the left side of the infield with Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy, but an organizational hole at second base could open up playing time for Schoop sooner rather than later, if the team fails to acquire a more established option before Opening Day.

Henry Urrutia, OF – See "Supersleeper" above.