Spring is a time of optimism for every MLB team, but of the six clubs that won a division title in 2014, one could make an argument that the least improved of that bunch is Baltimore. The O's have a wins total of 82 on 5Dimes MLB odds. Where to lean?
Recap of 2014
The American League East race wasn't close as the Orioles finished 96-66 to win the division by 12 games, the second-largest margin in the majors. It was the most wins for the Orioles since 1997, which was the last time they won the division. That was also the last time the Birds reached the ALCS, which they did last year. Baltimore was an underdog in the ALDS against Central Division champion Detroit as the Tigers had Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price lined up to start the first three games -- all three guys were former Cy Young winners.
However, the Orioles swept, beating up the Detroit bullpen in the first two games and then Bud Norris outpitching Price in the clinching Game 3 2-1 victory. The O's were slight favorites in the ALCS against wild-card Kansas City thanks to home-field advantage, but the Royals were clearly a team of destiny in the AL in 2014 as they swept that series.
All in all a very successful season for the Orioles, made even more so because of season-ending injuries suffered to third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters, two of the team's best players. Attendance rose, Buck Showalter won the third Manager of the Year Award in his career and outfielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs.
So why, then, did the team do absolutely nothing in free agency this offseason? Most experts gave the O's the worst offseason grade in the AL and I agree.
Outlook for 2015
The Orioles talked about re-signing Cruz but were a bit nervous at giving him a four-year contract because last season was easily his best and a bit of an outlier. Plus Cruz has a drug suspension in his past. He took those 40 home runs and 108 RBIs to Seattle on a four-year deal. Obviously that's a lot of offense to replace. Also leaving in free agency was career Oriole Nick Markakis to Atlanta. He batted .276 with 14 homers, 50 RBIs and Gold Glove defense in right field yet never got an offer to return. Also moving on in free agency was stellar left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, whom the Orioles acquired during last season from Boston. That's not such a huge loss although Miller was one of the best in the business.
Really the only major addition was a trade with Pittsburgh for Travis Snider, who will replace Markakis in right field but isn't as good. Snider hit .264 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs last year in 140 games with the Pirates. Steve Pearce will take over as the DH in place of Cruz. He was a pleasant surprise last year, hitting .293 with 21 homers and 49 RBIs in just 338 at-bats. But those numbers look very suspicious considering Pearce had never been that good before and will be 32 in April.
Essentially the Orioles are counting on the healthy returns of Machado and Wieters and a bounce-back season from slugging first baseman Chris Davis. Machado is a terrific player but has now had two major knee surgeries in his young career. Wieters already is dealing with side effects from his Tommy John surgery last summer and will not be ready to start the season. Davis' 52-homer, 138-RBI monster 2013 campaign might have been the result of PEDs. Davis was suspended late last season and missed the playoffs for a drug suspension. Thus you can probably only 100 count on center fielder Adam Jones, one of the best all-around players in the majors, and shortstop J.J. Hardy as stalwarts in the every-day lineup while you make your MLB picks.
The pitching might have overachieved last year as well. Is Chris Tillman a true ace? He'll be followed by Wei-Yin Chen, Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and likely youngster Kevin Gausman. What will the team do with last year's free-agent bust Ubaldo Jimenez? He might become one of the highest-paid middle relievers in MLB history. The closer, Zach Britton, is lights out.
Baltimore Orioles Season Win Total: I see no way this team gets close anywhere close to 96 wins again, but I lean slightly 'over' the total simply because the AL East looks so mediocre as a whole and nearly half the Orioles games are against division foes. Baltimore will not repeat as East champion or make the playoffs.