O's hoping to squeeze potential out of young arms
Still-emerging pitching staff gives Baltimore reason for optimism
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles, who were eliminated from postseason contention in the season's final week, could arrive at Spring Training with more holes to fill than they had at the end of 2013.
But they also have reason for considerable optimism, thanks to a solid core and a talented -- albeit still-emerging -- pitching staff.
Yes, you've heard that line before in regard to Baltimore, which has spent the better part of the last five years trying to develop a rotation in the American League East from within. In that vein, new pitching coach Dave Wallace and new bullpen coach Dom Chiti may be the most significant additions in the Orioles' quiet winter, tasked to squeeze the potential and capability out of the O's young arms and do it in baseball's toughest division.
Positionally, the Orioles return nearly everyone from their record-setting defense, with Silver Slugger first baseman Chris Davis coming off a 53-homer season. Davis, who was one of five All-Stars for the O's, gives the team a threatening middle of the order along with Adam Jones, who is coming off his own career year. J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado -- who is recovering from knee injury -- are one of the best left sides of the infield in baseball, and the team's lineup, which could still use a designated hitter, is formidable.
But all that power, which also makes the club susceptible to high strikeout rates, will again be in vain if the club can't pitch. Gone is closer Jim Johnson, and the Orioles hope Tommy Hunter, along with a few new pieces, can revert the relief corps back to the fantastic form of the playoff team of 2012.
The rotation, which managed to get by in 2012 mostly because of the 'pen, has got to step forward. It's a big spring for lefties Zach Britton and Brian Matusz -- once considered part of the young "cavalry" of promising starters -- who will both compete for the fifth rotation spot along with Steve Johnson and top prospect Kevin Gausman.
The talent is there, but the O's -- who are still trying to add a veteran starter -- don't have time to wait. If their pitching can improve, they have a chance of making some noise this season, with the rotation competition the biggest storyline of a sure-to-be intriguing spring.
Will executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette's lack of moves this winter and his faith in the club's Minor League system pan out?
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Away vs. Rays, Feb. 28, 1:05 p.m. ET
Home vs. Red Sox, March 31, 3:05 p.m. ET
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. With Johnson gone, who will be the closer?
Johnson's trade to Oakland was unpopular among fans and made worse by the Orioles' deal with Grant Balfour -- now with Tampa Bay -- falling through. Enter Hunter, widely considered the leading candidate internally and a power arm who has a big upside. Baltimore relied on Johnson for 50-plus saves each of the last two seasons, and Hunter will get the chance to prove he can step up and get the job done.
2. Will Machado be ready for Opening Day?
Machado said at last weekend's FanFest that he wasn't confident he would be ready to suit up March 31, telling reporters he would have a more clear timeline after he gets cleared to play. That deadline needs to be mid-March for Machado to have a realistic chance, and his rehab, which is well over a month ahead of schedule, will be closely monitored, but not rushed.
3. How will the rotation shake out?
It seems every spring the O's come to camp with a host of rotation hopefuls, and this year isn't any different. Chris Tillman is a lock coming off a breakout year, with Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris all expected to be part of the Opening Day starting five. That last spot will be interesting, particularly with the club still looking to add a veteran starter. Internal candidates include Britton, Matusz, Gausman and Johnson.
85-77, third in the AL East
Projected batting order
1. RF Nick Markakis:
.271 BA, .329 OBP, .356 SLG, 10 HR, 59 RBI in 2013
2. 3B Manny Machado:
.283 BA, .314 OBP, .432 SLG, 14 HR, 71 RBI in 2013
3. CF Adam Jones:
.285 BA, .318 OBP, .493 SLG, 33 HR, 108 RBI in 2013
4. 1B Chris Davis:
.286 BA, .370 OBP, .634 SLG, 53 HR, 138 RBI in 2013
5. C Matt Wieters:
.235, .287 OBP, .417 SLG, 22 HR, 79 RBI in 2013
6. SS J.J. Hardy:
.263 BA, .306 OBP, .433 SLG, 25 HR, 76 RBI in 2013
7. LF David Lough:
.286 BA, .311 OBP, .413 SLG, 5 HR, 33 RBI in 2013 with the Royals
8. DH TBD
9. 2B Ryan Flaherty:
.224 BA, .293 OBP, .390 SLG, 10 HR, 27 RBI in 2013
1. Chris Tillman, 16-7, 3.71 ERA in 2013
2. Wei-Yin Chen, 7-7, 4.07 ERA in 2013
3. Miguel Gonzalez, 11-8, 3.78 ERA in 2013
4. Bud Norris, 4-3, 4.80 ERA in 2013
Closer: Tommy Hunter, 4 saves, 2.81 ERA in 2013
Setup man: Darren O'Day, 2.18 ERA in 2013
The new guys
LF Lough: Acquired in an offseason trade from Kansas City, the left-field job is Lough's to lose. The Orioles have coveted the athletic outfielder for a while and are optimistic Lough can fill the void left by Nate McLouth.
RP Ryan Webb: His two-year pact, made official at the Winter Meetings, didn't get a lot of publicity, but it could be a nice coup for the O's. A ground-ball pitcher, Webb was non-tendered by Miami, and Baltimore was among the first to call, giving manager Buck Showalter another potential late-inning option.
RHP Brad Brach: Another bullpen addition, Brach is part of a revamped Orioles relief corps that Baltimore hopes can return to 2012 form. He posted a 3.19 ERA over 31 innings in 33 relief appearances last season for the Padres.
C Johnny Monell: Acquired from the Giants at the end of November, Monell will compete for the backup spot to Wieters this spring. It should come down to him and local product Steve Clevenger.
INF Jemile Weeks: He was the player the O's got back from the A's in exchange for Johnson, and he's a candidate for the second-base job this spring. Even if he doesn't win that spot, Weeks could still make the club in a utility role and has a Minor League option remaining.
INF Michael Almanzar: A Rule 5 Draft pick from the Red Sox, Almanzar has some pretty lofty expectations given that each of the Orioles' last two Rule 5 Draft choices have stuck with the big league club all year. Baltimore likes his bat, although finding a position for Almanzar could be a bigger challenge.
OF Francisco Peguero: Part of a crowded outfield picture this spring, Peguero signed a Major League deal and is expected to compete for the fourth outfield spot.
Prospects to watch
RHP Gausman: He took his lumps as a rookie in the rotation, but found some success out of the Orioles' bullpen. Gausman will use the experience of his first full season this spring, where he is expected to compete for a rotation spot. While likely ticketed for Triple-A to start the year, Gausman could be a major factor for the O's in 2014.
Top Orioles Prospects
INF Jonathan Schoop: The team's top position player prospect, Schoop had a coming-out party last season of sorts with a successful stint in the World Baseball Classic and a September callup. He is thought to be the second baseman of the future and ideally will start the season at Triple-A to get some more seasoning.
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez: A frequent name in trade talks, Rodriguez is an exciting young talent and, along with Dylan Bundy and Gausman, reason to be excited about the future of the Orioles' pitching staff. The 20-year-old lefty will again be one of the youngest players in big league camp.
RHP Bundy: He is coming off Tommy John surgery and told reporters earlier this winter that he's targeting a June return. That should make Bundy a viable second-half addition for the O's, potentially as a power arm out of the 'pen.
On the rebound
LF Nolan Reimold: He is recovering from his second consecutive season-ending neck surgery, a corrective procedure that has him well ahead of last year's rehab schedule. Out of options and still trying to prove that he can be a consistent everyday big leaguer, Reimold is a wild card for Baltimore. If he can stay healthy and showcase some of that power, he could be a major boost to the club's lineup at designated hitter. This spring could very well be Reimold's last chance to prove that.
RF Markakis: He is coming off the worst year of his career, and it was widely speculated that his health was a factor with three surgeries in the previous calendar year. Recovered and motivated, Markakis looks to be the club's leadoff hitter and is playing in the final year of his contract (with a pricey club option) looking to turn things around.
LHP Britton: Could he be this year's Tillman? The Orioles hope so. Britton is out of options and will fight for the fifth rotation spot in what could be his last stand in Baltimore. Britton has shown flashes of promise, but he has struggled with consistency at the big league level. If he can figure it out, the sinkerballer could help stabilize the rotation.
2B Brian Roberts: He signed with AL East-rival New York Yankees, spurning Orioles fans with his comments that wearing the pinstripes was something he dreamed about as a kid. The Orioles never made an offer to the oft-injured veteran.
LF McLouth: He signed with the Nationals after Baltimore dragged its feet in exploring another comeback. Lough will look to pick up where McLouth, who added speed and athleticism, left off.
RHP Scott Feldman : A veteran innings-eater, the Orioles wanted Feldman back. Just not at the price the righty got from Houston, three years at $30 million.
RHP Jason Hammel: He had a career year in 2012, but struggled with injury and underperformance last season, and the Orioles never showed any interest. Hammel signed with the Cubs at the end of January.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.