Ah, the first week of April in Baltimore, a time when the senses are stirred anew by the smell of freshly mown grass on the Camden Yards diamond and the sound of bat hitting ball, along with the sight of piles of nervously bitten fingernails.
Oh, really? You’re not just a teensy bit anxious about the Orioles’ 2015 season, which kicks off Monday in Tampa? You would be the one. It’s hard to find anyone around town who isn’t wondering what those soaring, scoring Baltimore Birds are going to look like between now and October. Even outside of the Greater Patapsco Drainage Area, people around baseball aren’t expecting the Orioles to reach the postseason for what would be the third time in four years.
Of six Sports Illustrated.com baseball writers, only one predicted that Baltimore would repeat as American League East champions, while one other picked the Orioles to win a wild card slot. And frankly, it’s hard to argue. The Orioles just don’t look or feel anything like the team that broke open the AL East race over the summer and won the division going away in 2014.
Longtime outfield stalwart Nick Markakis, who, in many ways, was the heart and soul of this franchise, left town over the winter for a lucrative free agent contract with Atlanta. Nelson Cruz, the power source in the middle of the lineup last year, took off too, landing in the heart of the Seattle Mariners’ order, taking his major league leading 40 home runs with him.
Even the pitching staff sustained a big loss, when Andrew Miller, a key cog in the Orioles’ bullpen, took a boatload of cash from the Yankees, something that has never happened before.
The only notable pickup – and calling it notable is a bit of a stretch – was that of outfielder Travis Snider, who is four years younger than Markakis, and will make less money. Those hardly seem like rallying points.
It appears that the Orioles brass expects that the return of third baseman Manny Machado and of catcher Matt Wieters from injuries will supply some of the offense lost by the departures of Cruz and Markakis.
Machado missed most of the back end of the season with a knee injury, while Wieters missed nearly all of 2014 with a serious elbow injury. Wieters will not be ready for the start of the season. Neither will All-Star shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has a shoulder ailment.
Feeling confident yet? Well, perhaps there are some rays of hope. Absent Miller, the Orioles return nearly all of a very talented pitching staff, led by starter Chris Tillman, who appears poised to become one of the American League’s best starters.
If first baseman Chris Davis has anywhere near the season he had two years versus the nightmare year he had last year, that will go a long way toward settling the order.
And then there’s this: The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner is actually picking the Orioles to not only win the division, but to go to the World Series. That’s interesting, but, then, when was the last time that anyone from Baltimore could put stock in anything a New Yorker had to say?