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Stuck Together, Torn Apart - A Baltimore Orioles preview

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A look ahead at the first non-divisional foe of the 2015 campaign

"Officer, you ever hear of that super-industrial adhesive?"
"Officer, you ever hear of that super-industrial adhesive?"
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It's been an odd offseason for the two teams that faced off in the ALCS last season for the right to play in the World Series. The Kansas City Royals saw some talent departing and proceeded with signing some guys that were ill-suited to replace the talent they lost.  The Baltimore Orioles?  They did basically nothing.

Well, okaaaaayyyy, "nothing" is a little bit too harsh. They did pull off a nifty trade for two years of Travis Snider for the low, low price of one Stephen Tarpley, taking advantage of the Pirates' crowded outfield situation. The 27-year-old Snider looked like a busted prospect for years before breaking out last season to the tune of .264/.338/.438.  He should be a nice source of cheap value in right field for Baltimore.

However, other than bringing in punchless glove man Everth Cabrera and bringing back Delmon Young for postseason purposes (I guess...), the Orioles really didn't do anything.  That's a problem, because they lost Nelson Cruz's major league leading home run count, Nick Markakis' average-shaped contributions, and dominant lefty fireman Andrew Miller to free agency. The Orioles may have won the AL East by 12 games last season, but like the Royals, they may be in for a rude awakening to what happens when a team tries to merely tread water after a successful campaign.

Unlike the Royals, though, the Orioles have the right to play the "health is an acquisition" card.  Catcher Matt Wieters looked to be on the verge of a breakout season last year, getting an All-Star nod despite playing just 26 games. He then became the rare catcher to undergo Tommy John surgery last June. When he (likely) returns in May, Wieters should be a major upgrade over the poo poo platter of stuff that the Orioles called "catchers" last year in his absence, but time will tell whether his arm will regain its former effectiveness in holding opposing running games in check.

Elsewhere, third baseman Manny Machado was able to log just 354 plate appearances last season thanks to injuries to both knees.  In 2013, he put up a 6.4 bWAR season by leading the American League in doubles and playing excellent defense at the hot corner. It'll be a major boon for the Orioles if Machado can both stay on the field all year and hit his way out of his early-season woes at the plate.

On the minus side, the Orioles are faced with replacing Cruz's power production, and he's being effectively replaced in the lineup by White Sox castoff Alejandro De Aza. One thing that could help would be a resurgent season from slugging first baseman Chris Davis. Davis has been historically a high BABIP guy thanks to how freaking hard he hits the ball, but last season his BABIP plummeted to .242, reflective of weaker contact in addition to some bad luck. Also making weaker contact last season was shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose homer total mysteriously dropped to the single digits after leading all major league shortstops in home runs from 2011-13. Hardy is currently rehabbing from a shoulder injury with hopes of the power returning after he's healed up.  The Orioles will be heavily counting on these two guys to keep Camden Yards flush with dingers.

Baltimore will also be counting on a strong follow-up season from Steve Pearce, who put up a .930 OPS out of nowhere last season en route to becoming one of the most valuable players in the American League. Previously thought of as just a short-half-of-a-platoon guy, Pearce looked good even against right-handers in 2014 and seized an everyday role. Unfortunately, Pearce has pancaked to start this year after homering in the first two games of the season, causing Buck Showalter to bench him a good deal of late.

Amidst all the injuries and fluctuating performances in Baltimore lineups of recent seasons, the one consistent producer for the Orioles has been center fielder Adam Jones, a true five-tool star that seems to get just a little bit better every year.  He doesn't draw walks, but he hits for average, power, has won four gold gloves, steals a handful of bases, and has a pretty strong throwing arm.  Seemingly always healthy, Jones is the lifeblood of the Baltimore Orioles and a source of consistent production within the sea of changing performances around him.

On the pitching side of things, the Orioles have notably less in the way of star talent. Though it's been awhile since Baltimore has had a true ace, they can stack together enough mid-rotation starters to tread water. The Orioles' staff is led by nominal ace and excellent LAIM (League Average Innings Muncher) Chris Tillman, who has a neat trick for keeping the running game in check. From Baseball Prospectus 2015:

..in the past two seasons, runners are just 2-for-13 against [Tillman]. He comes set in the most peculiar way, rocking back and forth in a series of false "set" positions before finally coming to rest; at which point he varies the length of his pause to either freeze or get the jump on a baserunner.

Tillman is backed by the sturdy Bud Norris, FIP-defiant Miguel Gonzalez, and control artist Wei-Yin Chen, none of whom jump off the page, but are each better than your typical number four or five starter. The true wild card here (emphasis on "wild") is Ubaldo Jimenez, whose strong 2013 season offers some hope amidst the three disastrous campaigns surrounding it. Jimenez allowed just one hit and no runs through his first two starts of the season, but got roughed up in his third turn. It's unclear whether this will be one of those random years in which stuff clicks for him or whether he'll continue to frustrate Orioles fans with his maddening inconsistency.

Aside from the aforementioned Miller, the Orioles are returning most of their significant pensmen, including lefty closer Zach Britton, a converted starter who stepped into the role last year due to Tommy Hunter's injury and ineffectiveness. Britton held down the fort well enough, but without great strikeout numbers, he's no lock to hold onto the job. He'll be set up primarily by the aforementioned Hunter, a highly effective righty sidewinder in Darren O'Day, and an occasionally wild LOOGY in Brian Matusz.

So the question is, what will that average bullpen, decidedly above-average offense, and below-average cast of starting pitchers do for the Orioles?  Since 2012, Baltimore has been a team on the rise. Few have forgotten the ridiculous string of 1-run and extra-inning wins that propelled the 2012 Orioles to 93 wins and a Wild Card berth, but beneath all the luck were signs of a team legitimately beginning to get better. They won a smirk-free 85 games in 2013 and followed that up by pounding their AL East opponents en route to 96 wins and a division title in 2014.

However, given their relatively idle offseason, it would shock no one if 2014 represented the pinnacle for these Orioles. The Blue Jays and Red Sox bet hard this offseason, and the still-decent Yankees haven't changed much. Before the season, both PECOTA and Steamer pegged the Orioles for 79 wins and a last place finish, citing that their pitchers doth defy the metrics too much. However, the Orioles have a recent trend of surpassing everyone's expectations. Whether that's a testament to the front office, Buck Showalter, or good coaching elsewhere, they seem to get the best out of guys that would otherwise be considered filler. It'd be a mistake to call the Orioles favorites this year, but whatever mojo is at work also makes it a mistake to count them out.

Predicted Record and Finish: 81-81, third place, AL East

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Alejandro De Aza - LF

SP1. Chris Tillman - RHP

2. Steve Pearce - 1B

SP2. Wei-Yin Chen - LHP

3. Adam Jones - CF

SP3. Miguel Gonzalez - RHP

4. Chris Davis - DH

SP4. Bud Norris - RHP

5. Travis Snider - RF

SP5. Ubaldo Jimenez - RHP

6. Manny Machado - 3B

CL. Zach Britton - LHP

7. Rey Navarro - 2B

RP1. Tommy Hunter - RHP

8. Caleb Joseph - C

RP2. Darren O'Day - RHP

9. Everth Cabrera - SS

RP3. Brian Matusz - LHP