12 March 2015

Looking Beyond Bounce-Backs From Machado, Wieters, and Davis

The frequently repeated narrative surrounding the 2015 Orioles is that as long as Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis remain healthy and mostly return to form, the O's can replace the lost production of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and have a realistic shot at another strong season and first-place AL East finish. And yes, that is absolutely reasonable. All three are very good players, and the O's could definitely use that production next season.

Even if it's unlikely, what if that doesn't happen yet again? Or what if, say, only one or two of the three produce and the other struggles or gets injured? Many predicted doom for the 2014 Orioles, and that was assuming strong seasons from Machado, Wieters, and Davis. In fact, lots went wrong with the Orioles last season, and they were still very good. Assuming they're relatively healthy and productive, some projection systems again aren't high on the 2015 Orioles. (It's worth noting that as Dave Cameron reminded readers a couple years ago, "predictions are projections, but a projection isn’t necessarily a prediction.")

Cruz was an excellent addition in 2014, but Steve Pearce shockingly performed even better. Those types of remarkable, random player seasons are one of the things that makes baseball (and sports) enjoyable. They're difficult to predict and not wise to take for granted.

If any of Machado, Wieters, or Davis underwhelms -- or perhaps even if they don't -- the O's will need other players to step up. And unless you're counting on another 161 wRC+ season from Pearce (you shouldn't), then the O's lineup, in particular, will need some help. So where is there seemingly room for growth on the O's roster?

Gausman Leap

Career: 4.19 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 7.66 K/9, 2.85 BB/9
Steamer: 4.09 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 7.47 K/9, 2.91 BB/9
ZiPS: 4.12 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 7.29 K/9, 3.12 BB/9

If there's one Orioles' starting pitcher with upside in 2015 (unless you're counting on a big Ubaldo Jimenez rebound), it's Kevin Gausman. You could include Dylan Bundy, but the hope there is that he can simply stay healthy and last an entire season heading into 2016, when he must be included on the major league roster.

It wouldn't be surprising if Gausman, 24, eventually emerges as the best starter among the O's group of six. It also wouldn't be shocking if he started the year in Triple-A Norfolk. He's young, has all the talent in the world, and still sports a pair of spiffy spectacles. But of the six, Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris have minor league options remaining, and Gausman is the youngest and least experienced.

It's possible that one of Jimenez, Gonzalez, or Gausman could pitch out of the bullpen at some point as well, and in some capacity, that could work. Buck Showalter has a tough decision to make on that front.

Hope in Schoop

Career: .211/.246/.358 (67 wRC+), 2.8 BB%, 25 K%
Steamer: .228/.271/.373 (78 wRC+), 4.5 BB%, 21.3 K%
ZiPS: .238/.275/.410 (91 wRC+), 3.4 BB%, 22.4 K%

With the addition of Everth Cabrera, the O's seem prepared to ease some of the burden on (or maybe even replace) Jonathan Schoop if he again struggles at the plate in 2015. Schoop, 23, played a lot last year and was much better than expected defensively (+10 DRS, 5.8 UZR/7.6 UZR/150) at second base, but wasn't very good offensively (65 wRC+).

Perhaps Schoop will adjust next season by using the whole field, laying off more pitches, and taking more walks. Last year, the average major league second baseman had an 88 wRC+ and a 1.5 UZR. It would take a decent amount of offensive improvement, but that type of season certainly seems possible for Schoop, with the most likely outcome being a bit better defense and a little worse offense. Schoop may possess more upside than that, but considering that he posted a .244 OBP last season, let's temper our expectations.

Snider Uncertainty

Career: .246/.310/.406 (95 wRC+), 8.3 BB%, 25 K%
Steamer: .261/.331/.446 (117 wRC+), 9.1 BB%, 21.8 K%
ZiPS: .242/.310/.410 (101 wRC+), 8.6 BB%, 24.8 K%

We've already written extensively about the Travis Snider trade. So I'll just add that there's a decent amount of upside in acquiring the 27-year-old former first-round pick. He had a career year in 2014, albeit in limited duty. But Showalter is pretty good at using platoon players, and there should be plenty of corner outfield/designated hitter at-bats to go around for Snider along with Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce, and Delmon Young (and maybe David Lough).

The O's would probably be happy if Snider's numbers were somewhere between the ZiPS and Steamer projections, which would be fair to expect.

Other possibilities:

- The O's starting rotation/defense combination continues to exceed expectations and outperform projections.
- Caleb Joseph sustains his excellent defensive numbers from last season, which could be valuable if he's needed in a larger role with Wieters on the mend.
- Christian Walker and Mike Wright make productive contributions (possibly stepping in for injured players).
- Lough hits well enough to go along with his superb defense to carve out more playing time.
- When does Dariel Alvarez make his major league debut, and are the O's right to be as high on him as they are? He could be more of a realistic possibility in 2016.

It's fine to be skeptical about whether the positive contributions from the players above will be enough to make up for the departures of Cruz, Markakis, and Andrew Miller, especially if Wieters, Davis, and Machado aren't all healthy and noticeably better in 2015. It's also not smart to count on a ridiculous Pearce-like season from any overlooked player on the roster. But there is some hope outside the O's main core, and there's also value in depth. It's not a bad thing right now to have an extra capable starting pitcher or to not know exactly how the corner outfield innings will be divided.

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