2012 was a tough act to follow for the Baltimore Orioles. That year the Orioles dominated one-run games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1997 despite scoring only 7 more runs than their opponents. Last season the team arguably improved, their run differential went up to +36 for instance, but was unable to recapture the magic of the previous year on the way to an 85-77 record, which was respectable, but not good enough to truly threaten in the AL East.
The AL East is a cruel mistress and even a quality outfit like the Orioles can find themselves in the no man's land between contention and rebuilding. Blue Jays fans of the last decade or so are very familiar with the 75-85 win area and what good that'll do you in this division. Despite some significant additions the Orioles look like a team that isn't quite ready to take down the Red Sox or the Rays, although they remain within striking distance if a few things fall their way.
2013 Season In Review
Baltimore got off to a good start last season, with a 47-36 record coming out of June, but failed to sustain their success going 38-41 in the last three months of the year. The Orioles got workman-like performances from starters Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez who combined for 5.7 WAR, but no one really shined in a rotation without a pitcher worth more than 2 WAR.
Although the pitching was not stellar, the defense most certainly was. Led by sophomore third baseman Manny Machado. the team had a collective UZR of 39.9, which helped Baltimore pitchers out-perform their peripherals all season long.
The biggest story for the Orioles was emergence of Chris Davis, who broke out to league the MLB in home runs with 53. His 167 wRC+ and 6.8 WAR numbers were also very impressive for a player whose previous career high in WAR was 2.0. A great deal of the Orioles hopes in 2014 will rest on Davis carrying over his gains from 2013 and returning as one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league.
Key Offseason Moves
1. Orioles sign SP Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year $50 million dollar deal.
The Orioles recognized that their rotation was not going to be good enough to contend in 2014 and decided their best chance for an upgrade was the enigmatic Jimenez. Although there are multiple red flags surrounding Jimenez relating to his mechanics and diminished velocity, the right-hander was untouchable down the stretch last season and had a very strong year for the Indians in 2013. The cost was high, especially in that it included Baltimore's 1st round draft pick, but Jimenez has a good chance to be an effective starter even in the tough AL East due to his strikeout ability. For all the detractors Jimenez has acquired in recently years he has been a indisputably good pitcher the vast majority of the time. He has been worth 3+ WAR in five of the last six seasons. In 2013 Jimenez went to the splitter more often than ever before and had a lot of success with it so it will be interesting to see if that's an approach he goes back to again this season.
2. Orioles sign OF/DH Nelson Cruz to a one-year $8 million dollar deal.
At the beginning of the offseason much of the sabermetric community was prepared to laugh heartily at whichever team tossed a significant amount of money in Cruz's direction given his limitations and age. However, it appears that teams were wiser than many of us gave them credit for and ultimately the Orioles got Cruz at a downright reasonable contract. Considering the team's need for a DH and the low-risk nature of this contract it's actually fairly difficult to criticize the move. Cruz isn't the player he used to be and he was probably always overrated, but he isn't being paid to be a premium or even league-average player on this contract.
3. Orioles trade RP Jim Johnson to the Athletics for 2B Jemile Weeks and C David Freitas.
This trade was largely a salary dump on Baltimore's part to the most unlikely of salary dump destinations. This was a smart move in that Johnson, despite his massive volume of saves, was not going to be worth the money he would command in arbitration. Coming the other way the Orioles got Jemile Weeks, a formerly -decent second baseman to compete for the spot that isn't the biggest hole in the Orioles lineup. Freitas was a player to be named later and appears to be a fairly unremarkable minor league catcher.
One to Watch
Manny Machado 3B: Machado was an elite player last season with a 6.2 WAR at the tender age of 20, signs of great things to come. However, the vast majority of his value came with the glove and defensive metrics can be pretty unreliable year-to-year. It's clear from the eye test alone that Machado is a great third baseman, but it's hard to know if this is his baseline defensively. Additionally, Machado might have had some luck offensively where he was merely league-average but was helped by a fairly generous .322 BABIP. That BABIP number isn't crazy for a young athletic player like Machado, but it is a bit out there for a guy who pops up 15.8% of the time like the third baseman did last year. At such a young age the expectation will be for Machado to improve at the plate, but it's possible he takes a small step back with a little less luck and an approach (4.1% walk rate) that can likely be exploited.
Orioles By The Numbers
20-31: It seems that since 2012 far too much time and effort has gone into looking at the Orioles record in one-run games, but at the same time the numbers are pretty compelling. Last season Baltimore did very poorly in tightly contested contests after going 29-9 the year before. Although there are some things that might account for this, Baltimore's shakier bullpen in 2013 for instance, a lot of it is likely good old-fashioned luck. If the Orioles had been as good in close games last year as they were in 2012 they would have made the playoffs again. That being said, they may never be as good/lucky in one-run games as they were in 2012 ever again.
2014 Team Outlook
The Orioles are a team that is quite good but probably not good enough. Their 2012 run gave the impression that this was a team on the brink of great things but despite some serious star power-it says something that quality players like Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and J.J. Hardy haven't even come up in this preview-and elite glove work, this squad will need some serious breaks to reach the playoffs. Ubaldo Jimenez could end up being a strong addition, but the Orioles need Davis to continue to dominate and Machado to continue to grow to even be in the conversation come October.