This is the first of four installments looking at the 2014 American League East rivals. After all, the New York Yankees will play close to half of their games this season against these four division rivals. As we look at each team, we have reached out to our friends in the ESPN SweetSpot Network. Throughout this look at the Orioles, we will hear from Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot. The Orioles and the Yankees finished with the exact same record in 2013. But both got there by different routes. The Orioles scored a lot more runs, allowed more runs and played better defense. The Yankees pitched better but lagged behind the Orioles both offensively and defensively. Despite the differences, the rivalry has really been exciting the last two years as the two teams battled for the division title in 2012 and played to a 9-9 tie during that season. The Yankees were one game better in 2013 with a 10-9 record against the Orioles.
Both teams were disappointed with 2013 and made moves over the winter to try to get back into the playoff picture. Despite the moves made by each team, neither team has impressed projection systems with the Orioles generally predicted for a 79-win season and the Yankees with an 83-win season. Obviously, both teams will be working hard to make those projections look conservative.
The Orioles lost quite a few players to free agency. Among them were closer, Jim Johnson, relievers Tsuyoshi Wada and Francisco Rodriguez, and starters Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel. On the position player side, gone also via free agency are Chris Snyder, Brian Roberts, Nate McLouth and Michael Morse.
Jon Shepherd believes that Ubaldo Jimenez replaces Scott Feldman but worries, "Jimenez has top of the rotation stuff, but I think the Baltimore perspective looks at that performance level as the norm when in actuality he has very delicate mechanics that make him quite inconsistent." Shepherd believes that Kevin Gausman will emerge as a legitimate starter in 2014.
That opinion currently differs from depth charts that currently list Jimenez as one starter along with Chris Tillman, Wei-yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez. While Shepherd listed his number one worry as Jimenez, Tillman, Chen and Gonzalez were all better than average last season. Jimenez should be much better than Feldman.
Bud Norris has never pitched as well as his talent seems to belie. If Gausman does make a move, it should be at the expense of Norris. But the flow of a season will usually determine those types of things.
As for the bullpen, the Orioles picked the perfect time to move Johnson. Yes, he saved over a hundred games over the last two seasons. But he coughed up quite a few too and was due to make too much money. Tommy Hunter seems poised to take over the job. Darren O'Day and Troy Patten (once he is back from his suspension) are good situation options, Ryan Webb is a good ground ball guy an Brian Matusz has found a home in the bullpen. Brach has trouble with command and could be the weaker link. Josh Stinson looked great in his debut last year.
Projections predict the Orioles will give up 4.53 runs per game compared to 4.20 in 2013. When looking at the 2014 pitching staff against the 2013 version, this one looks better. Shepherd believes this pitching staff will be about the same as last year.
For the position players, side by side comparisons with the Yankees' equivalents with some comments after each comparison:
Comments: Everyone expects Davis to regress but still add plenty of pop with 37 to 41 homers. Who knows what to expect from Teixeira after he missed the season last year. In his last full season, Teixeira put up a 2.7 WAR valuation. Advantage: Orioles.
- Ryan Flaherty: Average WAR projection = 1.2
- Brian Roberts: Average WAR projection = 0.3
Comments: It seems pretty clear that the Yankees want Brian Roberts to be their second baseman. Flaherty will start at third until Manny Machado is back. Roberts was worth 0.9 WAR in just 77 games last year. If Roberts can play 120? Let's call this a wash.
Comments: Hardy is much closer to his prime than Jeter, of course, and nobody knows what to expect from Jeter this season or if he will even stay healthy. Perhaps this is feeding into the myth-making machine, but the Yankees are a better team with Jeter on the field. The advantage goes to the Orioles, but with that albeit unscientific thought.
- Manny Machado: Average WAR projection = 4.1
- Kelly Johnson: Average WAR projection = 1.4
Comments: Machado first has to prove that he can bet back on the field, and when he does so, that he can be somewhere near the player he was last year when he had the best fielding season for a third baseman in a long, long time. Johnson should fare better for the Yankees than his season with the Rays, but if Machado is healthy or at least close to healthy, he is way better than Johnson. Johnson might platoon with Eduardo Nunez or some other right-handed batting infielder. Machado's offense has not quite taken off yet, so that is also a question mark.
- David Lough / Nolan Reimold (platoon): Average WAR projection = 1.3
- Brett Gardner: Average WAR projection = 3.2
Comments: Lough was worth 2.4 fWAR last season with the Royals, so this figure seems low. But most feel he is not as good offensively as he showed with the Royals. Shepherd: "If David Lough's bat emerges (which no one really should expect it to), then defense becomes much better with the club fielding essentially two centerfielders. If Lough's bat performs as most baseball folk think it will, then the defense will be worse with Cruz patrolling LF with more regularity." That two centerfielder concept is the same with the Yankees, who have the advantage with Gardner.
Comments: Ellsbury needs to stay healthy.and is the better defender. Both bring different things to the offensive table that cancel each other out. Slight edge to the Yankees here.
Comments: Most Orioles observers feel that Markakis will recover this year and they are probably correct. That makes his projections very conservative. Jon Shepherd believes Markakis will have a bounce-back season. Let's call this a wash.
Comments: The projection averages are very close and a lot will depend on health. Wieters currently has a sprained ankle, which will lead to some delay in his being ready. If you asked most folks to pick between the two catchers, almost everyone would pick McCann. Jon Shepherd, when asked, thinks that Wieters is poised for a break out season: "He is beginning to enter the range where most large bodied catchers have a few big seasons. No one though is holding their breath waiting on the bat to be what it was thought to be when he was drafted."
Bench (includes DH):
- Cruz, Steve Pearce, Alex Gonzalez, Steve Clevenger = 2.35 WAR
- Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, Brendan Ryan, Francisco Cervelli, Nunez = 4.4 WAR
Comments: It is often stated that one difference of "richer" teams is the quality of the bench. The difference can be seen here.
After noting all the position players and adding relief pitching and starters, the Orioles have a projected WAR of 39.14 and the Yankees 38.40. And yet, the Yankees projected run differential is listed as +18 while the Orioles are listed at -5.
Buck Showalter versus Joe Girardi is pretty close. Both handle their teams very well and Showalter seems a little better in game management. If Showalter has any weakness, it is that he seems to have a bee in his bonnet concerning the Yankees and when he has spoken out, it has been toward that end.
Some final thoughts from Jon Shepherd: He believes Jonathan Schoop has the best shot at making an impact as a rookie and his overall prediction for the Orioles: "Last year's squad wound up with 85 wins. That sounds like a decent 50th percentile for this year's club. I figure the team will wind up North of that mark."
Projections are nice, but they are computer models and should never be considered prophetic. They all seem very conservative with the amount of success the Orioles and Yankees will have and part of that could be the very competitive division. Both teams could win a minimum of 85 games again and both seem to have the potential to win up to 92 if everything goes well.
What is known for sure is that these two teams will know each other very well by the end of the season and the battles should be very competitive like the last two years have been.