From a fantasy perspective, the Orioles had some great stories last season, on both offense and defense. But the team finished the season tied for third in the division, with eight fewer wins than they had in their breakout wild-card 2012 season. High expectations tainted a season, which may mean that the Orioles can take teams by surprise this season.
The Orioles small step back could have had several causes, including improved AL East opponents, which won seven more games against the Orioles than they did in 2012. But there were still plenty of good things that happened in 2013, as well: Slugging first baseman Chris Davis improved on his breakout 2012 season, 3B Manny Machado proved to be as good as advertised and SP Chris Tillman established himself as a reliable front-end starter.
Unfortunately, the Orioles did little to improve their team in the offseason. As a matter of fact, they took a step back, trading proven closer Jim Johnson to Oakland to save money and letting SP Scott Feldman and OF Nate McLouth go in free agency. Brian Roberts also changed jerseys, but his fantasy value had dipped enough to make that insignificant.
Despite all of last year's troubles, the Orioles still have a great heart of the order, and fantasy owners shouldn't hesitate to add a few of them. In most mixed leagues, eight or nine Orioles should get picked on Draft Day.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Nick Markakis, RF
2. Manny Machado, 3B
3. Adam Jones, CF
4. Chris Davis, 1B
5. Matt Wieters, C
6. J.J. Hardy, SS
7. Nolan Reimold, DH
8. David Lough, LF
9. Jemile Weeks, 2B
1. Chris Tillman
2. Wei-Yin Chen
3. Bud Norris
4. Miguel Gonzalez
5. Kevin Gausman
Others: Dylan Bundy, Zach Britton
Bullpen: Tommy Hunter (Closer), Darren O'Day, Alfredo Aceves, Brian Matusz
• Can the Orioles best young players return from injury in 2014? Dylan Bundy entered 2013 as Baseball America's No. 1 pitching prospect in the majors, at age 20, and he was expected to help the Orioles rotation greatly. Unfortunately, elbow soreness in March earned him some rest and rehabilitation, before he had to have Tommy John surgery in June.
If Bundy had had the surgery in March, he would have a better chance of helping more in 2014, but now, owners will likely have to wait until the final trimester of the season before they can use him. Even so, he won't be nearly as good in 2014 as he will be in 2015, so work a trade for him in dynasty leagues if he stumbles in September.
Manny Machado's 2014 prospects took a big hit at the end of last season, as his shortstop eligibility ran out, and he tore a knee ligament running to first base in September. He'll reportedly be ready for Opening Day, but he could start slowly while he tests his healed wheel. The torn ligament was in his left knee, so his batting should not be affected.
Lost in all of this injury talk is right-hander Kevin Gausman, who still has rookie eligibility after throwing 47 innings last year. As a reliever in 2013, Gausman struck out more than 11 batters per 9 innings, and his fastball nearly reaches triple digits. Mixed league owners will want to track his spring play before considering him as a free agent.
• Will Chris/Chris make you jump, jump? Sure, we took some poetic license with that question, but neither Chris Davis nor Chris Tillman was named "Kris" or "Kross."
Chris Davis led the majors with 53 home runs in 2013, just one season after hitting 33 in his 2012 breakout campaign. As a matter of fact, he was considered by many to have been the best fantasy hitter of 2013.
Davis got off to a hot start and really never cooled off. His .348 ISO last year was much higher than past seasons, and the threat of his tape-measure bombs helped his walk percentage climb more than 10 percent. "Crush" should remain among the best power hitters in the game as he enters his age-28 season. He started hitting more fly balls -- and he hit them further on average than before. He's a top-15 player, which means you'll be pairing him with another very good early second-round player.
Tillman finished 2013 with 16 wins, becoming the first Orioles pitcher to win that many games since Mike Mussina in 1999. What fantasy owners should be excited about is that his ERA was a half-run better in the second half than it was in the first. He held hitters to a .212 batting average in the second half, compared to .263 in the first half. Granted, his BABIP of .255 portends that he was luckier than most pitchers last season, but the Orioles have a great defense, setting the major-league record for fielding percentage at .991, and they had 119 error-free games. Three of their starting pitchers ended up in the top-15 in BABIP.
The 25-year-old "ace" of the Orioles should have another good season ahead of him, and he could be a late-round steal. The Orioles give him a ton of run support, and if the bullpen can step up without J.J., he should have a shot at 15 wins again.
• When can fantasy owners expect another injection of youth from the Orioles' top prospects? Baltimore has a decent crop of youngsters waiting in the wings, led by Bundy. And OF Henry Urrutia and MI Jonathan Schoop don't have much in front of them on the roster (Lough and Weeks), so we should see debuts quickly.
Urrutia hit well in the minors last season, as well as in the Arizona Fall League, and now he has a chance to make some noise in leftfield for Baltimore this spring. There's a legitimate chance the Cuban import outplays Lough, who they traded for with Kansas City this offseason.
With Brian Roberts playing in the Bronx, the Orioles opened up space for Schoop, who Baseball America rates as the team's fifth-best prospect. Once he's settled in, he could be a double-digit HR hitter with a decent batting average. That lines him up as an eventual "middle infielder" for 12-team Rotisserie leagues.
Gausman was drafted out of LSU in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft and spent much of 2013 in the bullpen, but the Orioles need him to start games this season. Although he'll be in the rotation, he's more of a project player for future seasons.
Tommy Hunter should take over for Baltimore in the ninth inning, with Jim Johnson in Oakland. That means his fantasy value rises to the middle-to-late rounds of Fantasy drafts.
Hunter has never been a strikeout king (7.09 K/9), but neither was Jim Johnson (7.17). Hunter gave up less than one hit/walk per inning last season, which is essentially what teams need from a closer. The question will be: Does he have the makeup to be a closer?
Adam Jones has been a model of consistency in the past four years, posting more than 600 plate appearances and hitting between .280 and .290 in each season. So why would he be a bust candidate? The fact that he's a five-category filler makes him a top-15 pick, along with teammate Chris Davis.
But as a five-category guy, he needs to produce in each category in order to fulfill his fantasy potential. His BABIP was above average (.314 last season), which means his output was a little lucky. He hits the ball hard and it finds holes -- or the bleachers.
If you want him on your team, you'll have to take him in the first or second round. So you have to ask yourself a few questions:
- "Do I expect the Orioles to lead the league in home runs again?"
- "When does Jones regress back to being an 80-RBI guy? "
- "Can I trust my early round pick if he ranked seventh in fewest bases on balls among qualified hitters?"
This isn't a condemnation of his 2014 season, as much as it is a warning against those taking him in the first two rounds. His consistency makes us love him, but that also means he'll likely dip back to where he was over the previous three seasons (2010-2012), when he averaged .284, 82 R, 25 HR, 78 RBI and 11 SB. Still very good, but he'll be more like Alex Gordon than Andrew McCutchen.
Nick Markakis -- Fantasy owners have been waiting for Markakis' big, breakout season for years, but it seems like he has stalled into a hitting line close to .280-80-12-60. Without much stolen-base potential, that's a pedestrian output for an outfielder.
However, he's entering a contract year, and the Orioles will need him to bat leadoff, with Nate McLouth in a Nationals jersey. That means the 30-year-old will be in front of one of the strongest offenses in the majors. If he can get his OBP back up to its 2010-12 range of about .360, he should cross the plate at least 100 times, which translates to other opportunities as well.
AL-Only Guys to Know
Ryan Flaherty, 2B/3B -- If Machado can't go, Flaherty will step up as the starting third baseman. Since he also brings some 2B-eligibility and some good pop in his bat (10 homers in 246 at-bats last year), he makes for an interesting pickup in AL-only play.
Jemile Weeks, 2B -- In 2011, Rickie's younger brother swiped 22 bases in 406 at-bats and hit over .300. But his past two seasons have been forgettable, including 2013 when he played just eight games in the majors. If he can get back to his rookie form, he'll be hitting at thr top of the Orioles' order, which means he could have more chances at successful steals.