Buck's Birdies: A Baltimore Orioles preview

"I got your back, bro." - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

A look ahead at the second opponent on the 11-game road trip

Offense: Nick Markakis - RF, Steve Pearce - LF, Adam Jones - CF, Nelson Cruz - DH, Chris Davis - 1B, J.J. Hardy - SS, Manny Machado - 3B, Jonathan Schoop - 2B, Caleb Joseph - C

Nick Markakis is still only 30 years old, which seems surprising since he's been the same, stagnant player for what feels like forever.  A stellar age-24 season in 2008 in which he drew 99 walks and hit 20 home runs made the expectations soar, but he's regressed in both departments since then.  Markakis hits for average and has mid-teens home-run power.  He's a fine player and a good choice to hit near the top of a lineup due to his ability to get on base, but Orioles fans have been left wondering what might have been.

Steve Pearce was one of Pittsburgh's top prospects during the darkest years of that organization. He's currently Baltimore's resident small sample size hero. Typically a lefty masher hit-sorta-gooder, the right-handed Pearce has done plenty of damage regardless of pitcher handedness this season. In all likelihood, this is pretty fluky, but it's sort of a fair claim to say that Pearce has never really had an extended shot. He's played in the majors every season dating back to 2007 and has yet to see his 1,000th plate appearance. It's interesting to contrast him with, say, Dayan Viciedo, a hitter with the same career OPS+ who has over 1,500 plate appearances in about half the service time.

So far, Nelson Cruz has had the best season of any Baltimore hitter this year. He's slugging close to .600 and that's after he cooled down a little bit with the power numbers in June. Cruz hit 13 home runs in May and has been a .300 hitter, making him a run-producing force for the Orioles. His PED suspension last season was a key facilitator of the Alex Rios trade. One has to ask though, if we're looking at the "clean" Cruz in 2014, what's the point of the drugs?

Adam Jones draws very few walks and defensive metrics don't agree with any of his three Gold Gloves, but other than those two dings, there's not a lot negative you can say about his play. Jones can hit for average and power and add value on the basepaths. Though not typically a man of extreme platoon splits, Jones' overall line has been buoyed by a .408/.475/.718 line against left-handers this season, with an OPS against righties of close to .650.

Chris Davis hit 53 home runs last season, but in April of this year, he mustered just two. This made plenty of Orioles fans uneasy, but the power has made a comeback since then. Though his overall line has been disappointing, the 28-year old is very much still the same player. He's just been the victim of a .270 BABIP. "Victim" might seem extreme, but that figure is far below his norms because when you hit the ball as hard as Chris Davis, fielders tend not to catch it all that often.

J.J. Hardy's batting average is .288 as of this writing, which would represent a career high for him if the season ended today.  He's also been stellar defensively, per usual.  From 2011 to 2013, no shortstop in baseball hit more home runs than Hardy's 77. Before we pencil him into the All-Star Game and start thinking about some down-ballot MVP votes, we must take into account that Hardy's home run on Saturday put him in a tie with ... Leury Garcia. Hardy's power outage has been as mysterious as it has been damaging for a 31-year-old in his walk year.

In early June, Manny Machado made the baseball world abuzz by yelling at Josh Donaldson, hitting Oakland A's catcher Derek Norris twice with his backswing while showing little remorse, and throwing his bat down the third base line at the end of his swing. The flak he's received for his actions has been something of a distraction from the fact that Machado has been miserable at the plate this season. Though he missed all of April, Machado has just six doubles to his credit when he led the league last season with 51. It's been quite a bit of adversity for a guy who made an All-Star team and found himself on MVP ballots last year. He's an elite defensive third baseman that truly deserved the 2013 Gold Glove, but Machado has barely been better than replacement level so far in 2014.

The bottom two slots in the Orioles' lineup are really hurting them. Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty have split time at second base and have provided roughly equal, awful production. Schoop has received the majority of the playing time and through 228 plate appearances, he's had the same amount of walks as beanballs, with seven apiece.  That walk rate is sixth-worst in the majors, so if he stops getting drilled so often, there's room for that .270 OBP to sink even lower.

It gets worse. If you thought the catching situation was bad for the White Sox in 2013, be thankful you're not suffering through what Baltimore has experienced since Matt Wieters' injury. Since Wieters went down, Caleb Joseph (.410 OPS) and Nick Hundley (.384 OPS) have provided pitcheresque offense from the ninth slot in the lineup. Joseph was drafted in 2008 by the Orioles and is now getting his first taste of the majors at age 28. He had an outstanding season at Double-A last year, but it was his fourth year at that level.

Bench: Nick Hundley - C, Ryan Flaherty - INF, David Lough - OF, Delmon Young - DH

Pitching: Starting Rotation: Chris Tillman - RHP, Wei-Yin Chen - LHP, Miguel Gonzalez - RHP, Ubaldo Jimenez - RHP, Bud Norris - RHP; Closer - Zach Britton - LHP

Chris Tillman had himself a nice 2013, as he took the ball 33 times, made the All-Star team, and was a roughly league average starting pitcher on the whole. Things have taken a turn for the worse this season, however. Tillman has lost a bit of zip on his fastball and has gotten a bit wild at times. Inconsistency has been a running theme throughout his season. His ERA sits at 4.82, but he has made it out of the eighth inning three times having allowed one run or fewer, including a shutout. He's accompanied those with three disaster starts, including one in which he couldn't record an out in the second inning.

Wei-Yin Chen is a left-handed league-average innings eater who has been the ace of this rotation basically by default. Though he's lacking the "soft-tosser" tag, the White Sox haven't had much success against him anyway. He sports the fourth-lowest walk rate in baseball among starting pitchers, so the Sox better be ready to swing the bats. Fortunately for the White Sox, Chen is matched up against Chris Sale in this series. That's a game the White Sox should win, and the hope is that the bats can get going against Baltimore's weaker pitchers.

Like Tillman and Chen, Miguel Gonzalez is a flyball pitcher, and he's had some problems with home runs this year. A rough first start inflated his ERA, and he's never really recovered because he hasn't had any games in which he's truly shut down the other team. Only one of his starts in 2014 has featured fewer than two earned runs, and even in that game he didn't last more than five innings. He's a fine back-end starter, but nothing special.

The Orioles paid Ubaldo Jimenez following his resurgent 2013 in Cleveland. While four years and $50 million isn't as tough to live up to as it used to be, Jimenez has fallen short of expectations because his velocity and already-shaky control have deserted him. In his best days with the Colorado Rockies, Jimenez threw in the mid-high 90s, but his fastball has averaged close to 90 mph in 2014, which marks a noticeable decline from even last season's modest standards.

Bud Norris has had a pretty nice season at the back of the Baltimore rotation. He primarily throws a fastball that averages around 93 mph, a sinker, a slider, and a changeup that he breaks out against left-handers. He's been the benefactor of a lower-than-usual BABIP in 2014 and like the rest of the Orioles' rotation, he doesn't keep the ball on the ground much. Norris has hit nine opposing hitters this season which is second (by a pretty big margin) to the Pirates' Charlie Morton.  Earlier this season, he caused the benches to clear after drilling Torii Hunter. He left his last start early due to "groin tightness," but he's trying to avoid the DL.

Zach Britton has been used in pretty much every capacity possible through the course of his Orioles career. He spent three seasons as a (bad) starting pitcher before 2014.  This season, he started out as the long reliever before sliding up the leverage chart to become the seventh inning guy.  He then became Tommy Hunter's primary setup man before taking over as closer when Hunter got injured. Surprisingly, the lefty has been used as pretty much everything except a LOOGY, which makes some sense because his career platoon splits aren't that extreme. Since transitioning to the bullpen, Britton has been something of a one-pitch pitcher, throwing his hard mid-90's sinker about 90 percent of the time with the occasional curveball.

Outlook & Prediction: The Orioles currently sit just two games out of first place, but the injury to Matt Wieters and a shaky starting rotation make them a decent bet to fall back over the rest of the season. Predicted record and finish: 81-81, third place, AL East.

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