The 2014 season saw the Orioles win 96 games, clinch their first American League East title in 17 years and make a run to the American League Championship Series. Yet, as they report to 2015 spring training in Sarasota, Fla., the O's still have their fair share of questions to try to answer at camp. How will their injury-rehabbing stars fare? Can they find quality options to replace key 2014 contributors Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller, who left the team as free agents? Let's take a closer look at some of the Birds' top storylines for spring training.
Orioles Position Battles
The Orioles made few offseason additions from outside the organization this winter, which means they'll be auditioning several in-house candidates to fill the holes left by their departing free agents. A few jobs will be up for grabs in spring training.
Corner Outfield/Designated Hitter
It's only natural to combine these three lineup spots into one battle, because the same contenders are battling for all three. Of the quintet of Alejandro De Aza, David Lough, Steve Pearce, Travis Snider and Delmon Young, all five could coexist on the roster, but the question is how their playing time will be divided among the three spots.
Pearce is likely to be a near-everyday player coming off his breakout 2014, splitting time in left field, right field and at designated hitter as needed. Young is slated for designated hitter duty against lefties. De Aza could be the primary left fielder against right-handed pitchers; ditto for Snider in right field. Lough can serve as a defensive replacement and spot starter. But with De Aza, Snider and Lough all left-handed batters, who will start against southpaws alongside the righty swinging Pearce and Young? Manager Buck Showalter will have a juggling act on his hands and could end up using multiple platoons.
With the departure of Markakis -- who served as the Birds' leadoff hitter for all but 14 games in 2014 -- the O's have a void atop the lineup.
The frontrunner to replace him in the No. 1 spot is De Aza, who has 296 career starts at leadoff. The speedy Lough, too, could see some leadoff action when he starts. But what about against left-handed pitchers, when neither De Aza nor Lough is likely to be in the lineup? That's when it gets interesting. One possibility is Pearce, who is not a prototypical leadoff hitter but led the O's with a .373 OBP in 2014. A dark horse candidate -- if he makes the team -- is Nolan Reimold, who hit well during a brief stint in the leadoff role in 2012.
No matter how many times you do the math, you'll end up with the same result: the Orioles currently have six starting pitchers for five spots. It's a real-life game of musical chairs, and one hurler will be left out come Opening Day.
Righty Chris Tillman and lefty Wei-Yin Chen are locks for the rotation, barring injury, and right-hander Bud Norris is a safe bet coming off a strong 2014. The weak link of the bunch in 2014 was control-challenged righty Ubaldo Jimenez, who fizzled in the first season of a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract. But with the amount of money owed to Jimenez, the O's will likely give him another shot in the rotation, hoping he can carry over the late-season mechanical changes he made in 2014.
Then again, neither Miguel Gonzalez nor Kevin Gausman did anything to lose their claim on a starting spot either, as both put up strong 2014 numbers. But the righties Gonzalez and Gausman both have bullpen experience, so if anyone has to move out of the rotation in the short term, they're the likely candidates. Gausman also has a minor league option, but the O's are tired of shuttling him between the majors and minors as they've done the past two seasons.
The Orioles have almost an embarrassment of riches on the pitching staff -- which are words you rarely heard during long stretches of the club's recent history. Every primary member of their 2014 bullpen is still on the roster in 2015, minus Miller. But only closer Zach Britton and righty setup men Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter are guaranteed spots.
Newly-signed lefty Wesley Wright has the inside track on a specialist role, which could spell trouble for incumbent southpaw Brian Matusz, who was erratic in 2014. Veteran righty Ryan Webb is entering the second year of a two-year, $4.5 million contract, but fell out of favor with the Birds during the second half of 2014. Righty Brad Brach and lefty T.J. McFarland both fared well in 2014, but there might be room for only one of them. And the Orioles would like to give a long look in spring training at young right-handers Logan Verrett and Jason Garcia, whom they acquired in the Rule 5 draft. Much could be decided based on spring training performances.