This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 15: the Baltimore Orioles.
2014 Record and Finish: 96–56 (.593), first place in AL East (tied for second overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 82–80 (.506), third place in AL East (15th overall)
The Case For
It’s easy to see why people are disregarding the Orioles (again). They lost their most feared slugger in Nelson Cruz and one of their longtime cornerstone players in Nick Markakis. They had a very quiet winter, without any significant additions (unless you consider Travis Snider notable). The most compelling drama around the team centered on the Blue Jays’ pursuit of O’s exec Dan Duquette, and it amounted to … nothing. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss Baltimore in the AL East, but let’s not forget these facts: The Orioles won their division last year and obliterated the competition in doing so, taking the East by 12 games and posting the fourth-best run differential in the AL. They were a very good team, and while they've lost Cruz and Markakis, they get back Manny Machado, Chris Davis and (at some point) Matt Wieters.
Machado, an All-Star in 2013 before suffering a left knee injury, missed half of last season with a right knee injury. He says he's now 100% healthy, and as an already elite third baseman with the glove, he’ll be a huge addition even if he doesn’t have a breakout season at the plate. It’s easy to forget just how young Machado is: He was an All-Star and Gold Glover just two years ago, and he doesn’t turn 23 until July. Davis, meanwhile, missed the final stretch last year with his suspension for Adderall, but even before that was slowed with a strained oblique. It’s reasonable to expect him to put up bigger numbers (though he still hit 26 home runs a year after leading the majors with 53).
The Orioles will also get to see what Steve Pearce, last year’s most unlikely contributor in Baltimore, can do over a full season after hitting 21 homers with a .293/.373/.556 slash line in 102 games. In the rotation, there’s no one who’s going to front a video game cover any time soon, but the staff is as sturdy as Fort McHenry.
While other teams in the division have glaring holes, the Orioles don’t. They have the most well-rounded roster in the division, with no clear flaws, and that’s why the smart money is on them to win the AL East again.
The Case Against
How much longer can the O's defy the numbers? Once again, Buck Showalter’s team is not a darling of the statistical projections; most, in fact, have Baltimore pegged as a sub .500 team in 2015. There are certainly plenty of unsettling unknowns, beginning with Wieters, who underwent Tommy John surgery last June and will start the year on the disabled list. Wieters, a three-time All-Star, appeared ahead of schedule in his recovery, but this is a blow for a team that was counting on his bat to return to a Cruz- and Markakis-less lineup. Instead, Caleb Joseph, who hit .207/.264/.354 last year in 275 plate appearances, will get more at bats behind the plate.
Wieters' health is far from the only unknown about this team. If Davis struggles again at the plate, if Machado doesn’t come all the way back from his injuries, if Pearce shows that last year was a fluke and if the bullpen takes a step back this season, the Orioles could struggle to be a .500 team.
X-Factor: Kevin Gausman
If there’s one pitcher who can take the next step in Baltimore's rotation, it’s Gausman, the team's 2012 first-round pick. Gausman went 7–7 in '14 with a 3.57 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 113 1/3 innings, and by September, he was the best pitcher on the Orioles’ staff, posting a 2.87 ERA in the month. He was lights out in the postseason, where he dominated over eight innings with his triple-digit fastball. Baltimore has good depth in its rotation, but it sorely needs a power arm. Gausman is the guy to supply the gas. All signs are pointing to him living up to his potential this year.
Number to Know: 54
Combined number of home runs hit by Nelson Cruz (40) and Nick Markakis (14) in 2014. The Orioles led the majors in home runs last season with 211, but with the departures of those two players, Baltimore has lost over a quarter of that production. Adam Jones, with 29, had the most of any returning player.
Most Overrated: Chris Davis
“I think people assume he’s going to get back to being a 40-home run guy who hits above .250 because, but I’m not so sure. I haven’t liked what I’ve seen this spring. He just looks sluggish and burly out there. He’s not going to hit .196 again, but I’m not sure it’s going to be much higher than that. He can get to 30 home runs, but the average is going to really hurt them. His 2014 season, not his 2013, is more of the hitter he his.”
Most Underrated: Zach Britton
“He doesn’t get talked about as one of the elite closers in the game, and he certainly doesn’t have the track record, but I think he’s going to get to that level this year. Britton has found himself as a closer. He’s finally harnessed his stuff and figured out what kind of pitcher he is, which is a guy who can dominate a game just with his fastball. The sinker he throws is one of the nastiest pitches out there.”