The fellow American League birds were up to their usual tricks last year turning a seemingly unspectacular roster into a 96-66 record and a division title, their first since 1997 in fact. The well-balanced team was able to take the division crown by a ridiculous twelve games and carried their great play into the postseason sweeping the Tigers in three games. Unfortunately for them they ran into the red hot Royals who in turn swept them pretty handily. The biggest surprise for Baltimore in 2014 was likely that they gave up the third-fewest runs in the league (3.66) and had a pitching staff that quickly became one of the best top to bottom in the game.
While their big offseason signing in Ubaldo Jimenez didn't exactly work out, the rest of their hurlers stepped up with all five starting pitchers aside from the aforementioned Jimenez ending the season with an ERA in the 3's. The depth of the team really shone last year with the O's losing Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending surgeries while Chris Davis was suspended in mid-September for banned drug use. Players like Steve Pearce stepped up to fill the void although the team's collective batting lines still look extremely unimpressive. Just one player (Pearce) had an OBP above .350 and only Nelson Cruz cleared the 30 home run or 100 RBI mark.
The regular season was a story of starting okay and coming on late as the team tread water for much of April, May and June before really turning it on to close out the year as you can see in the graph below:
As you can see, essentially when the Blue Jays came back to earth after their winning streak was when the Orioles decided they would be the team that took advantage of the lack of any clear AL East favourite. While not on the 2012 level, the O's 32-23 record in one run games was still quite helpful to their playoff aspirations and it seems that teams like the Blue Jays could try and steal a little bit of this crazy magic Baltimore seems to have in the past few years.
While the pitchers all performed relatively well, the ridiculous performance by Steve Pearce easily made him the team MVP with 6.0 bWAR. The journeyman infielder putting up eye popping numbers in an under-the-radar season that saw the Floridian hit 21 home runs and triple slash .293/.373/.556 in his first career 100+ game campaign. It's unlikely he provides that much value again so it'll be up to some other unknown Oriole to blow the doors off Camden Yards with an unexpected year.
Travis Snider and J.P. Arencibia? Okay then. No one.
LHP Andrew Miller, OF Nelson Cruz, OF Nick Markakis, C Nick Hundley
Catcher: Matt Wieters
The All-Star catcher was having a tremendous year in 2014 before it was cut abruptly short in early summer thanks to Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. Although the switch-hitting backstop will start the season on the disabled list still recovering from the procedure, he should be back soon with Caleb Joseph getting the majority of the starts until his return.
First Base: Chris Davis
What a year for Chris Davis in 2014. The slugger was having an awful followup to his 2013 homer fest when he was suspended for 25 games in September due to Adderall usage which he did not have an exemption for. His .196 average coupled with a .300 OBP is certainly a strange line although he did still hit 26 home runs meaning he wasn't completely useless. He'll have to sit out Opening Day as his suspension still has a single game remaining, but he'll be right into the lineup after that.
Second Base: Jonathan Schoop
The Curacao native had his first full season in the major leagues in 2014 and impressed on the defensive side of the ball, but not really the same can be said with the bat. A line of .209/.244/.354 and a K-rate of 25.4% began to resemble the package that Ryan Goins brings to the table as a defence-first second baseman. He'll get another chance to prove his offensive ability in 2015 but he may be destined for a back-up role on a good team eventually.
Shortstop: J.J. Hardy
There's some things that you can really count on in life. The sun will rise, the Leafs will lose, J.J. Hardy will play a solid shortstop for the Orioles and win a Gold Glove. The 32-year-old has hit in the .260's and provided outstanding defence for years and years with Baltimore and will look to do the same in 2015. A rather under-the-radar star, Hardy signed a new extension this offseason to make him slightly less underpaid and will earn $11.5 million this year.
Third Base: Manny Machado
Another one of the Orioles stars returning from injury this season is Manny Machado who had knee surgery in August last year. The 22-year-old was having another strong campaign on both sides of the ball before he was forced to sit out Baltimore's playoff run. There was also the well-publicized dust up with Josh Donaldson last season which is hilarious to watch and should provide a storyline the first time the Jays and Orioles get together.
Left Field: Alejandro De Aza
The corner outfield situation for the Orioles isn't the sexiest thing in the world, but De Aza played pretty well after coming over from the White Sox in a late August trade. He's not a great defender but Adam Jones should help cover his blemishes and his bat certainly isn't a complete black hole in the lineup.
Center Field: Adam Jones
The most consistent Orioles player by a large margin, Jones won another Gold Glove in 2014 and has hit around .280 for six years in a row. When all other Baltimore players are going down to injury after injury, Jones can be counted on to play nearly every game and provide spectacular value on both sides of the ball, although how overrated his defence is can be debated. He's signed to an extremely team friendly contract and should be considered as one of the main reasons why the team does so well most years.
Right Field: Steve Pearce/Travis Snider/Chris Davis
The situation is pretty unclear at right field for the Orioles but a mishmash of these three players will likely be the plan for at least the beginning of the year. Pearce is extremely flexible and can play all over the field, which is a huge plus for Baltimore coupled with the fact that Snider has the ability to be serviceable in right field over shorter periods of time.
Designated Hitter: Delmon Young/Steve Pearce
Delmon Young is a bit of a toss up in terms of expected production but Pearce can always just slot into the DH role if that's what is needed. Assuming Young gets a fair amount of at-bats, he will get a chance to prove that his 2014 performance can be sustained without a .359 BABIP this time around.
The Orioles rotation was sturdy if unspectacular in 2014 with everyone performing fairly similarly other than Jimenez who was downright brutal at some points. This season the same outcome will need to occur for the team to remain in contention as they don't have enough offensive firepower to blow teams away. Jimenez is in a messy situation as he could be traded due to his lack of form for the last while to go along with the fact that a very capable pitcher in Miguel Gonzalez could be pushed to the bullpen due simply to Ubaldo's status.
Gausman finally figured out how to pitch with mainly a fastball and splitter in the big leagues during last season and it led to great results. With Dylan Bundy returning from his injury layoff, the pitching depth for Baltimore is definitely an asset and could be leveraged to improve to rest of the team come the trade deadline if the O's are in contention.
Aside from maybe the last spot or two, the Orioles bullpen is pretty much set and looks to be one of the best in the league once again. Britton and O'Day are nearly unhittable in the later innings and should continue to keep the team strong in one run games. The Blue Jays will certainly have to make an impact against the O's starting pitchers and middle inning relievers if they want to have a chance to win a portion of the 19 games that the two teams play in 2015.
It's hard to bet against the magical Orioles after what they've done in 2012 and 2014 although the team still doesn't look that amazing in my eyes. The offence has holes and major injury concerns while a large percentage of their pitching staff outperformed their FIP last year which could swing back the other way in 2015. The bullpen is an undeniable strength and should win them a lot of games that teams like the Blue Jays will probably end up losing.
If I was forced to predict a finishing place for the Orioles I would say second or third as I don't think they've done enough (or anything) to replace Cruz and Markakis who were lost to free agency. That being said, I'd be surprised if they didn't win at least 85 games as they still have stars such as Wieters, Machado, and Jones to fall back on when their depth players don't show up. With this wild team, it also wouldn't exactly shock me if they won 96 games again and went on to win the World Series thanks to the magic that they are able to get out of their players.