Yankees' AL East competition: Previewing the 2014 Baltimore Orioles

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Can their loaded lineup makeup for a shaky pitching staff and see Baltimore into October?

The Baltimore Orioles fielded a good, but not great, team in 2013, but just like the Yankees, they ended up with a record of 85-77 and found themselves left on the sidelines during October. While the Yankees made a lot of major moves during the offseason, the Orioles stood pat for most of it. However, as spring training loomed, they added Ubaldo Jimenez to their thin rotation, and signed Nelson Cruz to provide some much needed offensive ability at the DH slot (a smart move considering that the Orioles learned last year that it kind of defeats the purpose of having a designated hitter if he can't, you know, hit). Although neither of these additions will push the Orioles over the top and make them favorites in the AL East, combining Jimenez and Cruz with their core of Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters will make the O's a formidable offensive and defensive team, and one no one can count out of the AL East race.

The Orioles were one of the best offensive teams in baseball a year ago, leading the league in home runs and scoring the fifth most runs in baseball. Their lineup figures to be just as good this year, at least once Machado returns (offseason knee surgery will sideline him for the beginning of April, at least). While Machado will not be ready for Opening Day, he still figures to play most of the year, and with him back in the batting order, the Orioles will have a terrific lineup. After Nick Markakis (a good leadoff hitter with a career OBP of .360, though it sank to .329 last year), the O's will have a terrifying heart of their order in Machado, Jones, and Davis. Machado broke out last year, posting a 6.2 fWAR and making his first All-Star team while hitting .283/.314/.432 with a 101 wRC+. Jones had another great season in 2013, in which he hit 33 home runs, scored 100 runs, knocked in 108 more, and hit .285/.318/.493 with a 118 wRC+. After his homer-happy 2013, Davis should move into the cleanup. Last year, "Crush" set a franchise record with 53 homers and had 138 RBI, posting 6.8 fWAR and a ridiculous 167 wRC+. While he's due for some decline this year, there's no reason he can't hit another 40 home runs, knock in 125+ runs, and help make this Orioles team an offensive juggernaut yet again, a year after they led the majors in home runs and scored the fifth most runs overall.

The addition of Nelson Cruz should only strengthen this lineup, as the Orioles' DHs only hit .234/.289/.415 last season. Cruz's career numbers are well above that (.268/.327/.495) and in just 109 games of his suspension-shortened 2013, he still knocked in 76 runs and hit 27 homers. Between Jones, Davis, and Cruz, the Orioles have some serious power in the heart of their order to bring Markakis and Machado in to score.

Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy will bring some significant power to the bottom of the order, especially for their positions (catcher and shortstop, respectively). Both have hit over 20 home runs each of the past three seasons, though their other offensive stats leave something to be desired (Wieters is a career .255/.319/.420 hitter with a 96 wRC+, while Hardy has hit .260/.312/.428 hitter with a 95 wRC+ over his career). Still, it's hard to beat having a catcher and shortstop in your lineup that you can depend on for around 25 home runs and 75 RBI each season, and that's just what the Orioles have in these two players. The last two spots in the lineup (going to outfielder David Lough and probable second baseman Jemile Weeks) will not be sources of major offensive contribution, although Lough could surprise some people, and Weeks' speed will be valuable (when he gets on base, that is).

While their lineup is sure to score a lot of runs again, their pitching staff may give up just as many. Chris Tillman will be their Opening Day starter, and though he posted a 3.71 ERA and a 3.88 xFIP while striking out nearly eight batters per nine innings last year, 2013 marked the first season he pitched more than 200 innings. We'll see this year if he can replicate these stats and prove he's an ace; if he can't, the Orioles will be in a world of trouble, because he's about the only surely solid starter that the Orioles have on this staff.

The big pitching acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez, has been written about plenty on this site. Succinctly, he's been lights out, absolutely awful, and somewhat competent, all in the span of a couple years. While he won't be as good as he was during 2013's second half (adjusting to the AL East will take a toll on his ERA), Jimenez might be a quite decent No. 2 starter. He could also be the pitcher who had a 5.40 ERA in 2012.

After him, it's mediocrity and question marks with pitchers Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez. If the Orioles are going to have a realistic shot at making the postseason (and making any noise once they get there) they'll probably need some significant contributions from pitching prospect Kevin Gausman. Still, with their offense, if their rotation manages to be about league average, the Orioles will still be in the hunt all year long.

Bullpen-wise, the O's will miss closer Jim Johnson, who was traded away in the offseason after racking up 50 saves in each of the past two years, and the apparent closer, Tommy Hunter, will not be able to fill his shoes. Hunter was a starter for much of his career before going to the bullpen last season, and he's projected for a save total in just the mid-twenties next year.

Defensively, Baltimore shined last season, fielding three Gold Glove winners (Machado, Hardy, and Jones) and committing the fewest errors in the league. While they probably will not reach this height in 2014, they should still be one of the league's better defensive squads. Wieters, with his multiple Gold Gloves, is one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and Machado is quickly becoming one of the best defensive third baseman in the league, posting an amazing 31.8 UZR/150 in 2013. The acquisition of Lough will improve their outfield, as Lough was quite good in right last year for the Royals, and he also posted above average UZR/150 numbers in left (albeit in a small sample size) which is where he'll be playing for Baltimore. With his contribution and the continued growth of Machado, the O's should once again be one the better defensive teams in the league.

The 2014 Orioles will be in the hunt in the highly competitive AL East, just as they have been the last few years. With a great offense and a good defense, it will be up to their pitching staff to put them over the top. If Gausman can contribute and Tillman proves to be a legitimate ace, a lineup of Machado, Jones, Davis, and Cruz should more than keep the Orioles in the playoff hunt. Still, in a stacked division featuring the World Champion Red Sox, the reloaded Yankees, and a good Rays team, the Orioles will probably be on the outside looking in during October. Look for them to be in the playoff conversation for most of the season, before fading down the stretch and falling to third or fourth in the division.

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