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Baltimore Orioles 2014 Preview

<p>The recent success had president Dan Duquette looking to improve the club in the offseason. He sent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in a package that brought back second baseman Jemile Weeks. Duquette then had a deal for free agent closer Grant Balfour fall through after a failed physical, which sent the club into a holding pattern on major acquisitions until late February when they basically stole slugger Nelson Cruz.</p>

The recent success had president Dan Duquette looking to improve the club in the offseason. He sent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in a package that brought back second baseman Jemile Weeks. Duquette then had a deal for free agent closer Grant Balfour fall through after a failed physical, which sent the club into a holding pattern on major acquisitions until late February when they basically stole slugger Nelson Cruz.

After not receiving a quality offer coming off his Biogenesis-related suspension, Cruz settled for a one-year $8 million deal with the Orioles.

Coming to a hitter-friendly Camden Yards, should provide motivation for a big deal next offseason for Cruz, a 2013 All-Star who is one of only 13 players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last five seasons. The nine-year veteran registered 27 homers and 76 RBI while batting .276 in just 109 games with the Rangers in 2013.

Add Cruz's numbers to a lineup that already includes last year's home run and RBI champ Chris Davis (53 HR, 138 RBI, .286 AVE.), Adam Jones (33, 108, .285) and Manny Machado (14, 71, .283) and the Orioles have as strong an offense as any team in the American League.

If the pitching can come into form, the Orioles hope to make a push deep into the playoffs.

Of course, that is a big "if."

The starting pitching lacks a legit No. 1 starter and the bullpen will be going with an unproven closer in Tommy Hunter.

So, unless the Orioles go out and acquire a staff ace or develop one from within during the season, the team is going to have to rely on its power to beat opposing teams. That should at the least entertain the Camden Yards faithful.

2013 FINISH (85-77) - T-3rd (AL East)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Nelson Cruz (DH/OF), Edgmer Escalona (RP), Alex Gonzalez (IF), Ubaldo Jimenez (RHP), Jemile Weeks (2B), Delmon Young (OF/DH), Johan Santana (LHP).

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jim Johnson (Closer), Jason Hammel (RHP), Nate McLouth (OF), Brian Roberts (2B).

PROJECTED LINEUP: Nick Markakis (RF), Manny Machado (3B), Chris Davis (1B), Adam Jones (CF), Nelson Cruz (DH), Matt Weiters (C), JJ Hardy (SS), Nolan Reimold (LF), Jemile Weeks (2B).

PROJECTED ROTATION: Ubaldo Jimenez (RHP), Chris Tillman (RHP), Wei-Yin Chen (LHP), Miguel Gonzalez (RHP), Bud Norris (RHP).

PROJECTED CLOSER: Tommy Hunter (RHP)

MANAGER: Buck Showalter

WILL THE O'S FIND A LEGITIMATE LEAD-OFF HITTER?

At first glance, the popular assumption is that since the Orioles lack a true lead-off hitter, the team will struggle to score runs.

However, after looking more closely at the numbers the loss of Nate McLouth in the lead-off spot shouldn't hurt the team too much. McLouth only had a .329 on-base percentage a season ago, and while his 30 stolen bases will be missed, his likely replacement might even post better on-base numbers.

Nick Markakis is entering a contract year, so we can probably expect his average and on-base percentage to increase from last year' .271/.329. Even though his numbers declined from a .298/.363 in 2012 and he is not a true lead-off hitter who can stretch doubles into triples and wreak havoc on the base paths, if he can somehow find his 2008 form when he had a .306/.406 or even his 2012 season the Orioles, especially the guys who are hitting behind him, will be ecstatic.

Markakis is more suited for the two-hole when performing up to his past ability, but it looks like he's at least going to start the season as the lead-off hitter. If he can just get on base enough, the power bats behind should find ways to get him home, but he won't provide enough of a distraction on the base path to avoid pitchers from focusing on the man at the plate.

WILL TOMMY HUNTER BE ABLE TO REPLACE JIM JOHNSON AS CLOSER?

Jim Johnson saved 101 games over the last two seasons for the Orioles. Replacing that productivity at the backend of the bullpen is not easy.

Duquette thought he had the answer in Grant Balfour, but his failed physical threw a monkey wrench into the Orioles plans.

That leaves Tommy Hunter as the logical in-house replacement. Hunter did record four saves last season and his track record does project well into the closer's role as he walked only 14 batters in 86 1/3 innings and had a 0.99 WHIP. He only had 68 strikeouts, which is a number you'd like to see higher for a closer, but if he can mentally handle the stress of the position, he can overcome the low strikeout-to-innings pitched rate.

CAN STARTING ROTATION KEEP UP WITH THE REST OF THE AL EAST?

The Orioles starting rotation is not a group that will overwhelm anyone. However, upon closer examination it's a group that should do enough to keep the team in games and give the offense a chance to win games.

Chris Tillman is expected to step up and perform like a staff ace. In 33 starts last year, the right-hander posted a 16-7 mark with a 3.71 ERA, tossing over 200 innings for the first time in his young career.

The Orioles acquired right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who posted a 13-9 record with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts with the Indians last year. However, prior to 2013 he had two seasons of an ERA above 4.60. So, it's hard to tell which Jimenez the Orioles, who play in a hitter-friendly park, will get.

Miguel Gonzalez has had two decent seasons to start his major league career, going a combined 20-12 with a 3.58 ERA in 48 appearances. His 11-8 record and 3.78 ERA from a season ago is promising for a backend of the rotation starter.

Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen are expected to round out the starting five. Norris posted six wins and 3.93 ERA in 21 starts with the Astros last season before being shipped to Baltimore, where he struggled in 11 appearances. The right-hander who has a no-hitter on his resume, went 4-3 with a 4.80 ERA when he moved over to the American League. While not sexy, those numbers out of a fourth starter are probably good enough to keep the team in some games.

Chen seems to be recovered from a knee injury that hampered him in 2013. After making 32 starts and going 12-11 with a 4.02 ERA in 2012. The lefty started just 23 games and tossed 137 innings in 2013, going 7-7 with a 4.07 ERA.

X-FACTOR: THE HEALTH OF MANNY MACHADO

Machado is a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who is one of the bright young stars of the game. The 21-year-old is on track to be back with the team by Opening Day or shortly thereafter following his 2013 season-ending knee injury that required surgery.

Prior to his injury, which occurred on Sept. 23, Machado had played in all 212 games over two seasons with the Orioles. His .283 average, 14 homers and 71 RBI in his first full season in 2013 showed the promise of this youngster.

If he can comeback fully healthy, he not only should be a menace in the middle of this lineup, he is also the face of this franchise for a longer time.

OUTLOOK

The Orioles should again finish above .500 in 2014, marking the first time since that tremendous run from 1968-1985 that the organization has posted as many winning seasons together. This should keep the team in at least the wild card hunt for most of the season. But it's hard to see the team keeping pace with either Boston or Tampa Bay in the AL East. If Baltimore is able to acquire a staff ace and can somehow find a way to get players on base more often for the middle of the lineup (the O's had a .313 OBP in 2013 which was 10th in AL) then the club will be able to make some serious noise in the division.

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