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2014 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Who can the Orioles rely on in their bullpen?
The Orioles bullpen was the lynch pin of their success during the 2012 playoff season and the normalized regression of the bullpen was the difference in the 2013 Orioles season. Coming into 2014, the Orioles are working on a bullpen without a proven closer which may cause even bigger issues than those from 2013. This offseason, the Orioles tried to save some money and traded away their closer, Jim Johnson, to the Athletics and then were on the verge of signing Grant Balfour, only for a physical to go awry. This may not be a great thing for the Orioles, but when you look back at the teams that have made the playoffs in the past, there are a lot of good examples of teams that have had lackluster closer experience.

Where those teams were successful was in correctly platooning relievers and making sure that the right pitchers were pitching in the right scenarios. This is where the Orioles may have some issues; the Orioles may be a bit light in their bullpen. Darren O’Day is an above average middle reliever but he has no closer experience and his stuff may not translate to the ninth inning. Ryan Webb and Brad Brach are nice additions, but they may not be able to make the difference of the Orioles competing or not.

At the end of the day, all analysis of the Orioles bullpen depends on Tommy Hunter. The former starter for the Texas Rangers has transitioned into a bullpen role for the Orioles since the middle part of the 2012 season and has been a solid contributor. Hunter has struck out more and walked less since moving to the bullpen and has focused more on working the zone with his fastball, which has gained more than 4 mph since moving to the bullpen. What the Orioles bullpen comes down to is if Hunter can make that jump from the 7th and 8th inning to the 9th. He has a lot of things that work in his advantage, but there is also the fact that he just moved to the bullpen over the past couple years and that he has changed his approach to pitching a bit. This is not to say that either of those are bad things, but it may be a big jump for Hunter considering that he does not have a lot of experience to begin with.

It is a comfortable assumption that the Orioles will not have a very long leash with Hunter, especially if the AL East gets off to a good start, but he should be able to get by his hiccups and be the Orioles closer throughout the season.

When does Adam Jones get the respect that he deserves?
Adam Jones might be one of the most underappreciated stars in the major leagues. His lack of appreciation may be from his nonchalant attitude in the outfield with blowing bubbles with his bubble gum while trying to catch a ball; it may be that he does not hit a ton of home runs or that he is not very flashy; or it may just be that he is not that interested in the limelight. Chris Davis’ huge 2013 season did not do very much to help Jones either, as Jones was seen as the sidekick to the titanic efforts of Davis. Adam Jones is a star and should be treated as such.

When you look at Jones, the issue with him is what makes him so great; that he is very solid at almost everything while not being truly elite at anything. His streaky nature of hitting and mental lapses may also be detractors, but he is very valuable in the fact that he can do almost everything that the Orioles ask of him. Over the past five years, Jones is basically the poor man’s version of Ryan Braun: combining speed, power, and durability. Unlike Braun, Jones plays a premier defensive position and adds value to the team. There are not very many center fielders in baseball that have 30 home run power, in fact, there is only one other center fielder with multiple 30 home run seasons in the last five years and that is Curtis Granderson who played in the home run haven of Yankee Stadium. Jones was properly respected by the Orioles with the $85 million deal he inked in 2012 and soon the whole baseball world will see the value of the Orioles’ star.

How do the Orioles fill the void of Manny Machado?
Manny Machado is everything that the Orioles could ask out of a 21 year old shortstop. He is versatile enough to play third base, in fact at a Gold Glove caliber, and has even become a better hitter since he started professional ball. His arm strength is elite and the 51 doubles that he turned in last year will quickly turn into home runs as his swing matures. Unfortunately, this season may be a wipe out for Machado because of the gruesome leg injury he got running down the first base line in a September game against the Rays. Machado is going to try to play and is cleared to hit down in Sarasota, but has yet to be cleared to run.

Given this, Orioles fans should get used to Ryan Flaherty at third, which in turn makes Jemile Weeks the starting second baseman. Neither of these are good things for the impending future of the Orioles. Both Weeks and Flaherty are subpar offensively and the advantage of Flaherty’s defensive skill at second will probably be lost at third while he is filling in for the rehabbing Machado.

For the Orioles, they should not rush Machado as his better years are to come and if a leg injury like his is not properly rehabbed, he may lose some of that elite range. There are a lot more Gold Gloves in Machado’s future and it is important for the Orioles to be patient than rush him back. Although the Orioles would be much better off with Machado at third for the duration of the season, they may be able to patch up the infield with a combination of Weeks, Flaherty, and Jonathan Schoop to fill the void left by Machado.

The most optimistic view of the situation would be that Machado is able to take the field by the middle to end of April, but a more realistic view would have him being a designated hitter for a bit and taking over at third by mid May. This may be optimistic for the Orioles considering how bad the injury looked at first glance, but his being cleared for baseball activities is a good sign.

What will the Orioles do with Dylan Bundy this year?
Dylan Bundy was all the rage during the 2012 season, making it from Single A to a September call up in Baltimore. There were still big questions about his workouts and labor throughout high school and the Orioles took it very slowly with him, as he only was allowed to go once through the lineups and was instructed to not throw breaking balls as to not harm his arm and to work on his control. All of the talent was there; the Orioles just wanted to preserve the 19 year old prospect that they drafted 4th in 2011.

In the beginning of the 2013 season, Bundy was having arm trouble that shut him down. By the summer, Bundy had undergone Tommy John surgery and the Orioles were trying to figure out what to do with their prized possession. There is a long history of pitchers coming back stronger from Tommy John, but Bundy is not a normal case. It is common knowledge that Bundy is a fan of long toss to warm up (like Trevor Bauer with the Indians) and he was used to pitching 100+ pitches from a very young age in Oklahoma, throwing hundreds of pitches a weekend even. Given all of this, there was not normal wear and tear on Bundy’s arm as to what you would expect from a 20 year old.

The issue now is for the Orioles not to be scared to let Bundy pitch. The fear for every major league team is that a pitcher gets injured and then they lose him forever because they wanted to stretch those extra 15 pitches out of him; this should not be the case for Bundy and the Orioles did him a disservice in the minor leagues in 2012. The team should not run him out there for 85 pitches, especially not during his rehab, but they need to let him pitch. Bundy’s numbers were outstanding during the 2012 season, but most of them were accumulated while he was only facing the lineup in one turn. The hitters were not getting a chance to adjust to what he was throwing and there was very little to show for Bundy’s stamina in a high pressure situation. In fact, once Bundy did get the opportunity to go a bit deeper, there were a few times when he allowed runs when the pressure was there.

It is best for the Orioles to let Bundy recover from this surgery and not let him pitch until the end of the season, but when they let him pitch again, give him the opportunity to stretch his arm a bit and let him work his whole arsenal of pitches. In the long run that will be best for the Orioles and for Bundy. For the 2014 season, it would be best to keep Bundy in the minor leagues and let him work on extending his arm and arsenal against minor league talent.

Why are the Orioles going to win 84 games?
This team is very strong and has a bright future, but the way that the 2014 season lays out does not look very good for the Orioles. Sadly, teams may only get little opportunities to be competitive and hopefully this is not one of the better chances for the Orioles being lost, but there are too many big questions left unanswered. Who is going to close? Will we see first half of 2013 Chris Davis or second half of 2013 Chris Davis? Will Nick Markakis stay healthy? Will the Orioles add another starter? All of these are massive questions that could not have even been touched on in this article because they are very fluid.

The injuries of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy do not help either. Judging by the talent level of each of these players, the Orioles had to have hoped that they would be key contributors for the 2014 season and, quite frankly, the team is quite barren and two positions that these talented young players would be outstanding fits for. There is a lot of room for improvement with this team and, fortunately for them, it can be made from inside of the organization but until the team is a whole rather than a bunch of incongruent pieces, the playoffs are not in the near future for the Orioles.

5 You Know:
1. Adam Jones
2. Chris Davis
3. Chris Tillman
4. Nick Markakis
5. Matt Wieters

5 You Will Know:
1. Dylan Bundy
2. Kevin Gausman
3. Eduardo Rodriguez
4. Jonathan Schoop
5. Henry Urrutia

5 You Should Remember:
1. Hunter Harvey
2. Tim Berry
3. Zach Davis
4. Chance Sisco
5. Josh Hart