As the Orioles prepare to begin the 2014 season, we'll pose a series of questions and answers about what might happen this year. Our previous questions focused on individuals -- Orioles players who could have a breakout 2014 season, and Chris Davis' chances of repeating his 2013 success.
For our final question, we'll look at the team as a whole. What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the 2014 Orioles?
1. Power: Whatever else happens to the Orioles in 2014, one thing is a near certainty: They'll hit plenty of home runs.
In 2013, the Orioles led the majors with 212 round-trippers, and there's little reason to expect a dramatic decline this season. Davis is a good bet to lead the team in long balls again -- even if he doesn't quite match the 53 he hit last year -- and Adam Jones' home run total has risen each of the last three years to a career-best 33 in 2013. New addition Nelson Cruz has had five consecutive seasons with 22 or more home runs and will join with Davis and Jones to create what should be a formidable power trio in the middle of the order.
The Birds' power could extend throughout the lineup. J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters both topped the 20-home run mark in 2013 and may well do so again. Ryan Flaherty popped 10 blasts in limited at bats; if he gets everyday duty in 2014, he's a possibility to hit 20 or more. Nick Markakis hit 10 during a career-worst offensive season, and that number could rise if he has a bounce-back season. All in all, expect a cavalcade of homers from the 2014 Orioles.
2. Defense: The Orioles are coming off a 2013 season during which they set a major league record for fewest games with an error (54) and took home three Gold Gloves. And there are reasons to think the O's could replicate their sparkling defense in 2014.
Most of the Orioles' key up-the-middle defenders -- catcher Wieters, shortstop Hardy and center fielder Jones -- remain entrenched at their positions. The one change is at second base, where Brian Roberts -- who, at age 35 last year, looked a step slow in the field -- has left for the Yankees. Flaherty, who impressed defensively in 2013, could be his primary replacement. That quartet gives the Birds a strong foundation at four key positions.
"Wieters, I think, is one of the best catchers in the game, for sure," Hardy said. "The little things he does -- obviously throwing runners out, calling the game [and] handling the pitching staff -- he's just an all-around great catcher. Up the middle, me, Flaherty and Jones -- Jones can cover so much ground out there in center field. He's got an unbelievable arm, and I think last year got even better than he was the year before, and I think he's still improving."
The one downside for the Orioles' defense is that defending American League Platinum Glove winner Manny Machado won't be ready to start the season at third base. But the Birds' upgrades at other positions could help make up some of the difference, particularly new left fielder David Lough, who dazzled on defense for the Royals in 2013 and could improve upon the departed Nate McLouth.
1. On-base percentage: As mentioned, the Orioles are probably going to hit a boatload of home runs in 2014. The question is, how often will they have runners on base when they do so? For as good as the O's are at hitting for power, they've had their struggles at putting runners aboard.
Last year, the Birds posted a .313 OBP, which ranked 10th out of the 15 American League teams. They have a lineup full of free-swinging players who swing first and ask questions later. Jones, despite playing in 160 games in 2013, drew 25 walks, the fewest of any O's regular. Mainstays Machado (.314 OBP) and Hardy (.306 OBP) also struggled to get on base, and Wieters posted a career-worst .287 OBP.
Don't expect many of these players to drastically improve their on-base abilities in 2014. Most are established veterans with a track record of being aggressive at the plate, and they likely won't be drawing a lot of walks. A key player to watch is Markakis, who has been one of the Birds' most patient hitters. If he can bounce back from his 2013 performance and get closer to his .360 career OBP, he could help the Birds' ability to put runners on base.
2. Bullpen: Though many Orioles fans were frustrated by former closer Jim Johnson's nine blown saves in 2013, replacing him might not be an easy task. Tommy Hunter is Johnson's presumed replacement as O's closer, but -- as previously discussed -- Hunter comes with his share of pitfalls, particularly his struggles against left-handed hitters and propensity for home runs. He's no lock to be an effective closer.
The Orioles' bullpen carries a lot of solid arms, but their most used relievers have trouble with their splits. Hunter and fellow righty Darren O'Day both had trouble getting left-handers out in 2013, while southpaw Brian Matusz struggled against right-handers. Manager Buck Showalter can use late-inning matchups as well as any manager, but the O's -- at least on paper -- lack a shutdown reliever who can neutralize both lefties and righties.