Why the 2015 Orioles WILL be the team to beat

Today is one of the most depressing days of the year, today is the day that we have the maximum amount of time possible to wait between Orioles baseball games.  The Orioles ran into a buzz saw in Kansas City this week and were unable to escape the clutches of the hottest team is professional sports.  While the outcome of the series was disappointing and the outlook seems to be grim for Orioles fans, we can now take a few moments to reflect on just how flipping good this team is…. and how bright the future looks.  There are so many reasons to be optimistic and in my opinion the Orioles WILL BE the team to beat, not only in the AL East but in all of baseball, in 2015.

Addressing the only weakness in this offense:

The 2014 Orioles can hit the long ball… we all know this, but the question many have for their offense is can they win in more ways than just this one.  At times this bunch struggled to scrape out wins in other ways, not speaking of “playing small ball” but simply stringing hits together and creating big innings by putting up crooked numbers.  The problem should be addressed in the off season but is the solution for the 2015 Orioles already in place?  I would contend that it is:

Manny Machado missed 80 games in 2014 because of injuries and a 5 game suspension mid season so the question is raised; what can the 2013 platinum glove winner add to the 2015 Orioles offense coming off of yet another knee surgery?  Well in 2013 Manny Machado was injured in a game against Tampa Bay on September 23, 2013 and returned to the Orioles roster on May 1, 2014.  The injury this season took place on August 11th, 43 days earlier which, assuming the same rehab timeline, Manny would be back to game action by March 20, 2015 allowing him significant time in spring training to get into game shape and be prepared for the 2015 season.  Why is this important you might ask?  Well check out Machado’s monthly splits from 2014.

May .220/.271/.284 OPS .556

June .260/.313/.462 OPS .774

July .333/.356/.565 OPS .921

August .378/.429/.511 OPS .940

Second half 2014 .301/.337/.458 OPS .795

Machado took some time to get into a groove in the 2014 season and understandably so.  Not only did he have to recover from major knee surgery but he missed all of spring training and simply wasn’t up to game speed until early/mid June.  From this point on Machado was the offensive powerhouse the Baltimore fan base was expecting.  Even with the slow start the young third baseman was able to improve his career OPS from previous seasons mainly because of his emerging power.  Machado had an OPS of .739 in his 2012 rookie season, .746 in 2013, and .755 in 2014.  Despite hitting only 14 home runs in 2013 (approx 1 per every 50 plate appearances) Machado hit 12 in 82 games in 2014 even with the slow start (Approx 1 per 30 plate appearances).  At 22 years old not only can we expect Machado’s power to continue to develop but his .337 second half OBP would have been 3rd among qualifying Orioles behind only Steve Pearce (.373) and Nick Markakis (.342).  His second half slugging percentage would have been 4th behind only MVP candidate Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, and Steve Pearce.

In addition to the loss of Machado much has been discussed about the loss of All-Star and gold glove catcher Matt Wieters.  Wieters started out the 2014 season having one of the best seasons of his career; however, it would be cut short after only 26 games because of Tommy John surgery.  Wieters was slashing an impressive .308/.339/.500 line with an .839 OPS before being sidelined by the injury and was averaging a home run every 22.4 plate appearances.  While this is a small sample I would argue that this increase in production is a result of changes in technique and batting approach not a hot streak during a small sample size.  Per a blog by Roch Kubatko posted on April 29th, 2014 Matt Wieters worked hard in the spring of 2014with hitting coach Jim Presley to identify issues left handed swing that caused some pretty drastic batting splits.  While Wieters is a switch hitter he’s been significantly stronger from the right side leading many to speculate that he shouldn’t be switch hitting.  In his career Wieters splits are as follows:

as RHB .280/.340/.490 with 1 HR per 22.4 PA

as LHB .248/.312/.397 with 1 HR per 33 PA

Presley worked with Matt to lower his hands in his left handed stance which has kept him from drifting open too early and it lead to some impressive numbers batting from the left side in 2015 with Wieters slashing .325/.367/.482 from the left side in 90 plate appearances.  While Wieters average took a dip batting right handed it was in an extremely small sample set of only 22 plate appearances.  Even with the lower average from the right side Wieters was still slugging .571 with a .799 OPS right handed before going on the DL.  I believe we can feel confident that Wieters with his new left handed approach will continue to improve offensively so we beg the question, how well did the Orioles do without him in the line up?

In 2014 Orioles catchers slashed .240/.287/.391 with an OPS of .678; while this is serviceable and manageable it’s a significant drop off from the production they were getting out of Matt Wieters.  Also consider that these numbers include the 24 games (Wieters was DH for 2 of his 26 games this year) that Wieters was in as catcher.  The primary catchers after Wieters left the line up were Caleb Joseph who slashed .207/.264/.354 in 82 games and Nick Hundley who slashed .233/.273/.352 in 50 games.  It also may seem that the O’s got a good amount of power production from the catcher position but these numbers are also skewed by the hot start of Matt Wieters.  O’s Catchers in 2014 hit 19 home runs and 25 doubles with Joseph hitting 9 HR and 9 2B in 82 games, Hundley hitting 5 HR and 4 2B in 50 games and Wieters showing far more potential with 5 HR and 5 2B in only 26 games.  If you are noticing that all the numbers don’t add up it’s because Steve Clevenger also caught some games for the O’s… mainly as Wieters back up when he was still in the line up.  Just like Machado, Wieters would have been 3rd on this team in OBP.

This next part get’s to be my “I told you so” moment as I posed to many the possibility of trading for Alejandro DeAza prior to the 2014 season.  The Orioles were in need of an upgrade in left field and DeAza is a plus defender with great speed and a strong bat.  DeAza’s speed and defense weren’t in question before coming to Baltimore but some questioned his bat and I’m not really sure why.  DeAza is a career .268/.340/.403 hitter at 30 years old under team control through the 2015 season.  While those numbers aren’t lighting the world on fire they are strong numbers for a guy with speed who plays excellent defense.  The O’s were able to buy low on DeAza late in the 2014 season after he started out having a down year hitting .243/.309/.354 with the White Sox but just as I expected he was rejuvenated after joining a winning team slashing .293/.341/.537 in Baltimore.  Some guys just seem to waste away on losing teams in tough situations and need that change of scenery to really get themselves going and DeAza is a guy with a track record showing he’s more than capable of an OBP in the mid to high .300’s.  In addition DeAza adds the element of speed the Orioles were lacking and while his base stealing efficiency isn’t fantastic (about 69%) his ability to leg out doubles and triples and score from anywhere on the field is a talent that can help this team moving forward.  In addition to his strong OBP DeAza’s career stat line also features 23 triples and the O’s were dead last in triples in 2014.

These players are all likely to be a significant part of the 2015 Orioles; however, the 2014 Orioles were forced to play the majority of their games without them.  Adding these bats into the line up should help improve the team that featured the leagues 17th best OBP from 2014.

Fearing the loss of Nelson Cruz

Reports this week indicate that the Baltimore Orioles plan to extend a qualifying offer of just over 15 million for 1 year to Nelson Cruz.  Cruz turned down this offer from the Texas Rangers after coming off of a PED suspension in 2013 so why would we expect him to accept from the Orioles after a career season?  I don’t think Nelson Cruz will be back in black and orange next year (unless he plays for the Giants) simply because SOMEBODY out there will pay the 2014 home run king too much money.  Nelson had a career year for the O’s and I will never deny that Nelson carried this team for stretches of the 2014 season but while this is true take a look at what Nelly did from June through August.

June .215/.282/.364 5 HR

July .211/.292/.379 4 HR

August .216/.274/.451 6 HR

So while Nelson carried this team through a tough April and May I would contend that the Orioles carried Nelly through June, July, and August while the team posted a 52-29 record despite his struggling bat.  It may seem that the team will need to replace the boom stick for the 2015 season but keep in mind the Orioles led the majors with 211 home runs or 25 more home runs than any other team.  Replacing Nelly with a hitter producing 20 home runs would still put them 5 over any other team in baseball.  Additionally the Orioles despite their home run total were 3rd in total bases and 17th in doubles.  Replacing Nelly’s 40 home runs with 20 and adding to the team OBP in the process could be a positive for this team causing them to be less reliant on the long ball to win crucial games.  We of course have already addressed the increased OBP of the 2015 Orioles.

The pitching of the future is already here

The 2014 Orioles posted one of the best pitching staffs the franchise has had in decades by posting a team ERA of 3.44 for the year.  Even more impressive may be the balance in pitching power with a 3.61 ERA from the starters and a 3.10 ERA from the bullpen.  In addition to this and much like some of the hitters on this team the pitching staff improved as the year went on posting a 2.88 ERA in the second half with starters ERA by month as follows:

April 4.74

May 4.29

June 3.47

July 3.29

August 3.55

September 2.45

Several of the key reasons why would be the emergence of stars…. yes… STARS Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Wei-Yin Chen (more on Kevin Gausman later).  Chris Tillman’s numbers on the season are strong and would make him an asset to any pitching staff as he posted a 3.34 ERA in 207 1/3 innings this season but do they really show how good he can be?  I would argue that don’t, Tillman struggled this year in stretch of 4 starts from May 21st through June 5th posting a 12.56 ERA over 14.1 innings and failing to get out of the second inning twice.  There was much speculation that he was hurt and trying to gut through it on the mound and his results after June 5th lead me to believe that he most certainly was.  After this date Tillman pitched 136 innings giving up 36 earned runs 114 hits and 34 walks, this works out to an ERA of 2.38 and a WHIP of 1.08.  Remember that is over 136 innings and 24 starts…. not an inaccurate sample.  In this stretch he went 20 consecutive appearances without giving up more than 3 earned runs including giving up no runs three times and giving up only one run another seven.  Tillman was brilliant this year and had he sat to rest his injury instead of trying to fight through it (and credit the guys guts for that) his numbers would not show that he was a good solid starter but instead that he is a true legitimate ACE.

Now it’s time to talk about Miguel Gonzalez and FINALLY give this guy the respect that he deserves.  Over 3 major league seasons Miggy has pitched to a career ERA of 3.45 with a WHIP of 1.296 including leading all Orioles starters with an ERA of 3.23 in 2014.  For some reason despite all this Miguel still doesn’t get the respect he deserves after being moved to the bullpen mid season and not being asked to pitch in the post season prior to the team’s 7th game.  Miguel has had to overcome a lot as the Orioles forgotten pitcher but he’s done a great job keeping himself in position to perform.  Take a look at his 2014 second half numbers:

Second half total 2.19 ERA 1.110 WHIP

July 1.82 ERA 1.079 WHIP

August 2.46 ERA 1.027 WHIP

September 1.69 ERA 1.094 WHIP

What I find even more impressive is how big this guy shows up in the biggest of games.  Over the past 3 years Miguel has made two post season starts, an important swing game on the road in Yankee Stadium for game 3 of the 2012 ALDS and an elimination game in game 4 again on the road in Kansas City in the 2014 ALCS.  How has Miggy performed in those environments?  He posted a 1.42 ERA and 1.026 WHIP giving up 1 ER over 7 innings while striking out 8 in New York and giving up 1 ER (probably should have been un-earned) over 5.2 in Kansas City.  The guy is as cool as it comes and I’d love to have the ball in his hand in any situation against any team in baseball.

Winning 16 games this year has gotten some respect for Wei-Yin Chen but certainly not to the level that he deserves.  Chen has now pitched to a 3.86 career ERA and posted a career best 3.54 ERA in the 2014 season along with a team low 1.7 BB/9.  Just like Miguel it seems that everyone in baseball is waiting for the wheels to fall off with Chen but after 3 years and 515 major league innings do we still think this is a fraud?  I would certainly say no.

Emerging Talent

How excited are we all to continue watching Kevin Gausman grow and mature as a pitcher?  The guy has electric stuff, he throws 98 with ease, is developing a nasty slider, and has not one but two of the best change ups in baseball.  Gausman started slow in 2013 posting a 5.66 ERA in 5 starts and 15 relief appearances as he struggled with fastball command but came back with a VERY strong season posting a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts.  Gausman also led the Orioles with a team low .06 HR rate despite playing in a home run friendly home park.  Command was still what kept Gausman from making the jump from being a good young pitcher to being an elite talent as he still had a high walk rate of 3.0 per 9.  As he continues to get more comfortable as a pro I would expect him to significantly cut down on this number and emerge as a top pitcher in this league.  By the way the guy got his first taste of the post season this year pitching to a 1.13 ERA and 0.75 WHIP over 8 innings allowing 4 hits, 1 run, and 2 walks.  Gausman averaged a strong 13.75 pitches per inning as he was more efficient in the playoffs getting in and out of innings.  Expect Gausman to improve upon these already strong numbers in 2015 and make 30-34 starts for the Orioles.

I’ll see your Chris Davis and raise you a Steve Pearce!  Steve Pearce came onto the scene this year after 7 years in the league playing for 4 different teams and never having been an every day player.  Through injuries and eventually the suspension of slugger Chris Davis Pearce was able to take advantage of the opportunity to play every day by leading all qualifying Orioles in AVG, OBP, slugging, and OPS while slashing .293/.373/.556 with an OPS of .930.  Steve started off to a hot start and while it seemed like he might be coming back down to earth in July manager Buck Showalter stuck with his breakout star and was rewarded as Pearce bounced back slashing .271/.317/.610 in August and .315/.464/.685 in September.  The slugger also found his power stroke this year with 21 home runs and 26 doubles in only 102 games.  While Steve certainly had a career year it didn’t come out of nowhere and his track record shows us that his success certainly is sustainable.  While Steve was never an every day players prior to the 2015 season he was able to slash a career line of .255/.335/.433 with a career OPS of .768.  I expect his success to continue and Chris Davis or no Chris Davis I would certainly say that Steve Pearce has my vote for the every day first base job in 2015.

Have we already forgotten about Dylan Bundy?  It’s hard to believe that the number 4 overall pick of the 2011 draft is still just 21 years old but Dylan Bundy has had a long road to the majors in his young career.  Coming back from Tommy John surgery this year Bundy never pitched above high A ball in 2014 and was hit around a little bit posting a 4.78 ERA in 6 starts before being shut down for the year.  Is this a concern?  NOT A CHANCE!  Bundy, as previously stated, was rehabbing and coming back from major elbow surgery and was primarily working on control while trying to rebuild fastball velocity.  I had the pleasure of watching Dylan pitch this year in Aberdeen and all I could say at this game was… WOW!  This kid has “it” and he has a great and bright future in major league baseball.  Perhaps the most fundamentally sound pitcher I’ve ever watched, slow and fluid motions releasing a high 90’s fastball with great movement, and mid 70’s curve coming from the same arm slot as the fastball and a swing and miss change up.  Expect Bundy to start next season in A or AA ball and work his way into the Orioles bullpen.  Because of the depth they have in this starting rotation the now 21 year old who will be 22 when coming into the majors in 2015 will likely be relegated to the pen and will be a dominating weapon for the stretch run.  If Bundy does not crack the starting rotation in 2015 I would expect him to be an elite pitcher in the 2016 starting rotation and a huge part of this pitching staff moving forward.

How do we retain this team

This is a good problem to have, when teams have elite talent the hardest part of continued success is answering the question… how do we keep this great team when everyone else wants our players?  Not to mention the fact that you have to PAY those players.  In 2015 Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Bud Norris, Alejandro DeAza, Tommy Hunter, Steve Pearce, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Miguel Gonzalez, and Ryan Flaherty are all in arbitration or will be entering arbitration in 2015 meaning that all of these guys will make more money next year than they did this year…. likely even Davis.  The Orioles have already increased their payroll by 26 million dollars over the past 2 years going from 81 million in 2012 to 107 million in 2014.  We have all heard the rumors… Peter Angelos is cheap and does not want to spend any money to help this team win.  He cares more about keeping money in his pocket than he cares about winning….. FALSE!  Time to give some people a history lesson and learn why, when, where, and how the Orioles spend money.  In 2008 and 2009 the Orioles had a recent low in payroll of 67 million ranking them as 23rd in baseball but prior to that where were they?

Peter Angelos took over the Orioles in 1993 and was the majority owner for some of the worst years of the franchises history.  Prior to the 2012 season the Oriole had not had a winning season of baseball since 1997, a stretch of 15 years.  So what is his historic track record of payroll?  In 1998 (5 years after Angelos took over the team) the Orioles were first in major league baseball with a league leading payroll of 71 Million.  Despite a losing season the O’s were 5th and 4th in baseball the next two years with payrolls of 72 million and 81 million.  From the 2001 season on the Orioles payroll dropped significantly as the team continued to struggle and between 2001 and 2005 they were consistently in the bottom third of the league.  Starting in the 2005 season the O’s jumped back up into the top half  in 2005, 2006, and 2007 before dropping back off in 2008.  Looking deeper at the 2005 season we see why the Orioles were so eager to spend money; they had what they believed to be a strong core of young players in Brian Roberts, Melvin Mora, Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, and Chris Ray which they supplemented with veterans Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Javier Lopez, and Sidney Ponson.  We now know the story of how that worked out.. Bedard was a headcase, Cabrera was a bust, Ponson never performed, and PED’s would plague the legacy’s of Sosa and Palmiero.  This core never posted a winning record and again the Orioles tightened up on spending… not necessarily because they were cheap, but simply because they didn’t have players worthy of spending money on.  In this time frame both Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis received long term, big money contracts as the Orioles attempted to rebuild this once storied franchise and for years failed to do so.  Then comes Andy McPhail and eventually Dan Douquette, and the Orioles draft Matt Wieters, Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado, and Kevin Gausman.  They trade for Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Tommy Hunter, Chris Davis, and JJ Hardy.  They sign international free agents Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.  All the sudden the Orioles once again have a strong core capable of carrying a winner for years to come and all the sudden Peter Angelos opens up the pocket book to pay free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz.  Based on the track record I would not call Angelos a frugal and cheap owner who does not care about winning.  I would call Angelos a sensible man who is willing to spend money to help his team win when he knows the team is in a place where the money can make an impact.  With that being said I’m not personally worried about the Orioles payroll and ability to retain players.  If the team wants these players back they will make the efforts to keep them in Baltimore and they will be backed by the owner to make the right moves.  Paying big money to big name players that would help a 65 win team win 74 games would not be a smart move… but plugging in the right pieces to help a division champ win a world series would be a fantastic move.

Looking forward to 2015

I’m personally looking forward to the 2015 baseball season; the Orioles will have a much improved line up with the additions of players who can help increase the struggling OBP in Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Alejandro DeAza.  They will continue to develop young power potential from guys like Manny Machado and Johnathan Schoop to make up for the loss of boomstick Nelly Cruz.  The pitching staff that has already reached star potential will continue to improve.  And young superstars are still flowing up and preparing to make a major impact on this team.  Just sit back and ask yourself the question…. who would want to face the 2015 Baltimore orioles?