The American League is wide open this season and I think the Baltimore Orioles are the most likely candidate to fill the void at the top. My view is not a byproduct of their 6-0 start—although that certainly doesn’t hurt. I held this view prior to the season, as expressed in a preseason podcast with Prime Sports Network and host Greg DePalma.
Let’s start with the pitching, because that’s the big bugaboo with this team for most observers. The biggest reason for the struggles in 2015 was that rotation ace Chris Tillman took a step backward. Tillman had been a steady upward trajectory each year from 2012-14, and Baltimore made the playoffs in two of those years.
Last season, Tillman struggled to a 4.99 ERA, whereas he had not been higher than 3.71 the previous three years. He’s only 28-years-old and I think last season was just a temporary fall. I also like the signing of Yovani Gallardo, who has been a key part of two different division-winning teams, one in Milwaukee (2011) and another in Texas last season.
The loss of Wei-Yin Chen to free agency hurt, but there’s two good young arms that are ready to step up. Kevin Gausman made 17 starts last year and finished with a 4.25 ERA. He’s only 24-years-old and is a highly regarded talent. Gausman is dealing with some tendinitis in his right shoulder at the moment, but is expected back before April is out.
The other live young arm is Dylan Bundy, a 23-year-old who was drafted out of high school and been working his way up through the Oriole system. You don’t want to pin too much hope on the quick development of a kid, but if Tillman, Gallardo and Gausman come through, Bundy could be eased into the rotation if manager Buck Showalter desires.
Ubaldo Jiminez, at age 32, is what he is—he’ll occasionally showcase electric talent and often frustrate. But his overall numbers are still respectable—he’s still good for an ERA in the low 4s. Baltimore’s problem isn’t that Jiminez is in the rotation, it’s that last year they had to rely on him way too much. If Tillman returns to form as the ace, Jiminez can slide into a role more suited to his production levels.
The bullpen is consistently one of the American League’s best and Showalter is as good as any at getting the most of it. Darren O’Day and Zach Britton are as reliable an 8th-9th inning combo as there is. Bundy could be getting some innings here. If 26-year-old Mychal Givens has as good a stuff as he showed yesterday in Boston, then the Orioles have someone special. Whomever ends up getting the work, the Birds won’t have to demand too much of their starters.
It’s assumed this offense is going to score runs and I agree with the presumption. Mark Trumbo is in the fold and should find Camden Yards to his liking. Chris Davis is re-signed and yesterday he hit a mammoth three-run blast to dead center in Fenway to beat Craig Kimbrel and break a 6-6 tie in the ninth inning. From Adam Jones to Matt Wieters, to the best third baseman in baseball in Manny Machado, the Orioles can hit and they can play defense.
I won’t go so far as to say they have no weaknesses. The scenario I outlined presumes question marks getting answered affirmatively and there’s always risk there. But every American League team has questions right now. I like Baltimore’s potential answers better than any other.