Orioles confident of return to playoffs in 2014
BALTIMORE (AP) The transformation of the Baltimore Orioles clubhouse under manager Buck Showalter is complete.
No longer do the Orioles hope to win. They expect it.
When Showalter took over in July 2010, he inherited a team with the worst record in the majors. Having gone without a winning season since 1997, Baltimore could only hope Showalter’s knack for orchestrating quick turnarounds would take hold in a town that had switched its allegiance from baseball to football.
By 2012, the Orioles were back. Baltimore won 93 games, beat Texas in the wild-card matchup and took the New York Yankees to the limit before falling in the AL division series.
After missing the postseason last year, the Orioles are poised for a return. They maintained the nucleus of a team that went 85-77 and was in contention to the final week, then added right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz to an already potent lineup that led the majors in home runs in 2013.
”When you have talent, you have confidence,” right fielder Nick Markakis said. ”Put them together and good things usually happen. We’ve got that right now. We know we have a good team and we’re going to roll with it.”
Although Jimenez and Cruz didn’t come aboard until after the start of spring training, Showalter never wavered in his belief that the Orioles would challenge the defending champion Boston Red Sox and retooled Yankees in the AL East.
”I felt that way whether or not we added Nelson and Jimenez,” he said. ”That’s a poor reflection on me and my staff if we thought we needed more to win.”
Here are five things to know about the 2014 Orioles:
WAITING FOR MANNY: All-Star third baseman Manny Machado will start the season on the 15-day disabled list after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee.
The good news is that Machado could return by late April. The bad news is that the Orioles are scheduled to play seven games against Boston and three against the Yankees by April 21.
Ryan Flaherty will play third until Machado returns.
START ME UP: The addition of Jimenez solidifies a rotation anchored by 16-game winner Chris Tillman, who will start on opening day against Boston.
Jimenez went 13-9 with Cleveland last year, but his most impressive numbers are 31 and 32 – the number of starts he made in 2012 and 2013. Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez follow in the rotation, and the fifth slot will be filled by Bud Norris or Brian Matusz, who pitched out of the bullpen last year.
”We can run anybody out there and have a chance to win,” Tillman said. ”We all trust each other, we rely on each other. What’s changed in the clubhouse is we all hold each other accountable. We’ve got a staff full of guys that are all capable of doing it, and that’s special.”
CLOSING TIME: The Orioles are counting on Tommy Hunter to develop into a solid closer after dealing Jim Johnson (50 saves in 2013) to Oakland in cost-cutting move.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette initially attempted to fill the void with Grant Balfour. After Balfour flunked the physical, the job became Hunter’s.
Hunter doesn’t have much experience in the role, but he has a 100 mph fastball and plenty of confidence.
”He’s got all the tools to be a very successful closer,” pitching coach Dave Wallace said.
If Hunter can’t handle the chore, Ryan Webb and Darren O’Day will be likely get the call.
POWERFUL STUFF: The Orioles intend to distribute plenty of souvenirs this summer into the Camden Yards bleachers.
Even if Chris Davis doesn’t match the 53 homers he hit in 2013, the addition of Cruz and the maturation of Machado should keep Baltimore’s power numbers way up.
”Cruz should be able to help us,” Duquette said. ”It gives you a 5-hole hitter, a legitimate hitter in the middle of the lineup. That will push some of our other guys into more appropriate spots in the order.”
Shortstop J.J. Hardy, who hit 25 homers last year, could bat cleanup for some teams. On this one, he could end up in the bottom third of the order.
FIELD OF DREAMS: Center fielder Adam Jones, Machado and Hardy earned Gold Gloves last season, and the Orioles led the majors in fielding percentage in 2013.
There should not be a drop-off this season, mainly because Showalter is adamant about team defense.
”You’ve got to catch the ball,” he said. ”When we talk to our players about who we are, you can’t play here if you can’t defend.”