As the Orioles prepare to begin the 2014 season, we'll pose a series of questions and answers about what might happen this year.
The first question: Which Orioles could have a breakout 2014 season? Let's look at three possible candidates.
LHP ZACH BRITTON
It's practically an annual tradition -- for about three seasons in a row, I've picked Britton as the Oriole most likely to have a breakout season. And every year, I turn out to be wrong. But this year, there are legitimate reasons to think Britton might take that elusive step forward. The Orioles have essentially converted him to a relief role this spring, and the switch has unleashed a side of Britton the O's haven't seen in some time.
During his relief outings this spring, Britton has amped up his velocity -- topping out in the mid-90s on his fastball -- and has rediscovered the sharp sinker that was a valuable weapon for him as a rookie in 2011. Opposing hitters have been flummoxed; Britton has allowed one run and struck out eight in eight innings. Granted, these are exhibition games, so he hasn't always been facing major league-caliber competition. But with the stuff he has carried so far, Britton can succeed against anyone.
Britton, who is out of options, faced a possible make-or-break stage of his career entering camp; he needed to prove he belonged with the Birds, or was at risk of leaving the organization. Britton has stepped up to the challenge in a big way. He's all but assured himself a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, and he could be a valuable contributor this year in relief, with the possibility of moving back to the rotation later during the season.
IF RYAN FLAHERTY
Flaherty, who joined the Orioles in 2012 as a Rule 5 pick, got his first opportunity as an everyday player in 2013, filling in at second base for the injured Brian Roberts for several weeks. Flaherty squandered that chance -- he had a .133 average when the Orioles sent him to Triple-A Norfolk May 18. They called him up May 29, and he hit better as a bench player during the second half of the season, ending the year with a .224 average.
This year, Flaherty will likely get another chance at regular starts -- he's the presumed favorite to start at third base until Manny Machado returns from injury, at which point Flaherty could take up everyday duty at second. Flaherty's potential has caught the eye of his teammates, including shortstop J.J. Hardy.
"I definitely think he can [succeed]," Hardy said. "Defensively, there's been no question that he can play second base. I've always enjoyed him out there at second base. Hitting, he shows flashes of being really good. If he keeps it consistent, I think he'd be a very good offensive second baseman as well. I know he's going to be able to hit 20 homers if he plays every day. I think we all believe that he can be very good."
Flaherty worked with a pair of former Orioles during the winter to add muscle.
"I gained about 9 pounds or so," Flaherty said. "I stayed here in Baltimore and actually worked out with the strength coach, and I got to hit with B.J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick quite a bit and just picked those guys' brains a lot. A lot of those guys had long careers, and I'm trying to learn a lot from those guys."
Flaherty probably won't develop into a star, but if he can continue the strong infield defense he showed in 2013 and show some pop at the plate, he could have a successful season for the Birds.
LF DAVID LOUGH
The Birds' acquisition of the speedy Lough as part of a trade with the Royals in December brought them a viable replacement for departed left fielder Nate McLouth. Lough is coming off a rookie season during which he put up outstanding defensive stats, and he also attracted the Orioles with his hard-nosed approach to the game.
"I saw him when we played him in Kansas City," hitting coach Jim Presley said. "And Buck [Showalter] and I were talking about it when we played. We all said, 'We need to get this kid.' I really like the way he plays. He plays hard. He's running everything out. He knows how to bunt. It looks like he's a pretty good defender. But I like the way he swung the bat and ran the bases and stuff like that. He's high energy, and that's what I like about him."
Lough is not just a defensive specialist, as he showed an ability to handle the bat against both lefties (.745 OPS) and righties (.718) in 2013. At age 28, he's on the older side for a sophomore major leaguer, but with more regular starts, he could improve some aspects of his game -- particularly base stealing. Lough had five steals in 2013, but could run more for the Orioles as one of the team's few speedsters.
"Last year, I didn't steal a lot of bases when I was in the big leagues," Lough said. "Maybe it was a comfort level thing, but I'm hoping to change that. I know what kind of speed I have and what kind of weapon it can be in the game. So I'm trying to utilize that a little bit more this year and try to steal a lot more bases."
If Lough can steal 20 or more bags, post an OPS around .730-.740 and replicate his sterling defense in left field, he'll be an asset for the Birds in 2014.