By Nicholas Delahanty (MLB Reports Writer) Follow @Nick_Delahanty
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As the first full month of the season reaches its final week, the Orioles need to get away from the .500 baseball they have been playing in order to make a push towards the 2014 postseason.
Of course, the season is still very young, as there are about 140 games left to play. The O’s got an early taste of the competitive AL East Division, as six of their first seven series were against division rivals, including two series verse the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
As we are about 1/8th through the season, I decided to grade the Orioles up to this point of the season, looking for ways for them to improve.
Offense: Get the Big Bats Going
Once the Orioles added Nelson Cruz into the mix late into the off-season, not many Orioles fans would have questioned the team’s offensive production, as many felt this lineup filled with many good bats would produce a lot of runs throughout the season.
As with every team, you get a few guys that hit well early on in the year, but also get players who struggle greatly as they try to get into a groove.
As a team, the Orioles are 5th in the American League in Batting Average (.266), but are in the bottom half of the league with only 81 runs scored.
Early Standouts for the Orioles
Matt Wieters has led the charge for the Orioles, leading the team with a .321 average.The team hopes that his right forearm soreness isn’t a long term injury, as the team needs his bat in the lineup in order to be successful.
A late Spring Training trade has greatly benefited the Orioles so far. The team sent veteran infielder Alex Gonzalez to the Tigers in return for utility man Steve Lombardozzi, as they felt he could help the infield depth while the team awaits the return of Manny Machado.
Gonzalez did have a game winning walk-off hit on Opening Day, but failed to produce afterwards, posting a .167 batting average before he was cut by the team last week.
Lombardozzi, on the other hand, has fit in nicely thus far in Baltimore, posting a .318 average while seeing all his playing time at second base.
With Ryan Flaherty struggling at the plate and the inexperience of young prospect Jonathon Schoop, the Orioles need a guy like Lombardozzi to produce until Schoop becomes comfortable at the major league level in order to take over the reins.
Guys like Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones and producing at the plate, as they both have gotten off the great starts this season. Once they both start clicking fully at the plate, look for the power numbers to jump up.
Cruz gained the love of the Oriole faithful with his home run on Opening Day against the Red Sox, and showed that he has 35+ homer power.
Jones has shown in the past that he can have 30+ homer power, but now with the lineup having more weapons, he could see better pitches to hit, allowing him to show off that power a little more.
Why isn’t Crush Crushing?
The one guy they need to get going is Chris Davis. As average has never been Davis’ strong point, he is hitting just .234 through the first few weeks of the season, which is 30 points lower then his career average. He also only has one home run, which hurts the team who needs his power to drive in runs.
Is it time for Orioles fans to panic about their superstar first baseman. Absolutely not.
Everyone expected Davis to go on a tear like he did at the beginning of last season.
Teams have a lot more data on Davis, and through this data it allows them to shift and play match ups to their advantage, so it will take some adjusting for Davis in order to start hitting the way the Orioles need him to.
When he gets into his groove, people around baseball will easily forget his early struggles. He is one of the few players in baseball that has the raw ability to get out of a slump quickly, and once he does, he will be a match up nightmare for opposing teams.
Get Better Soon, Manny
The absence of young superstar Third Baseman Manny Machado has greatly hurt the club, not just offensively, but defensively as well.
As the team has shuffled around guys to fill his void, it still is very difficult to ask different guys to produce like Machado is capable of, as when healthy, he is one of the up and coming stars of this league.
In Machado’s absence, a platoon of Ryan Flaherty and Jonathon Schoop have combined for a .239 Batting Average.
The numbers across the board are all way under what Machado produces when healthy, and it has hurt the Orioles that they have a lack of production from a position that they relied on heavily in 2013.
Machado is currently trying to get healthy from an knee injury he suffered the end of the 2013 season. From reports around the league, it appears as if Machado will be back sometime in May as he is set to start a rehab assignment sometime in the near future.
For Buck Showalter and crew, they have to be hopeful that Machado can return as soon as possible, as he is a key contributor to this team.
If this group has any hopes of a playoff run, they need Machado healthy in that order, as not only does it add another key piece, but it also adds to the team’s defensive strength.
So far, the Orioles offense ranks very low in the major categories among the American League, and if this trend continues, it will be very tough for the Orioles to compete in the division. Once Machado returns, this offense will be a lot better, so don’t freak out just yet.
Pitching: Lower the ERA Please
Pitching has not been a strong point thus far for the Orioles, who have one of the worst team ERA’s in the American League. The team has depth, but they need find consistency throughout their pitching staff, which Buck Showalter hopes to find quickly.
Starting Pitching: Tillman Looking Like An Ace
The bright spot for the Orioles rotation has been ace Chris Tillman, who has been very good in his first few starts of 2014. Tillman holds a 1.71 ERA, which leads the team, and has stepped up so far as a leader of this staff.
This is exactly what the Orioles wanted out of Tillman, as they need that leader at the top of the rotation to lead the way. If Tillman continues to pitch at this rate, they have to hope that the rest of the rotation picks up the slack, as all four other starters have a ERA that is over 4.
After signing a contract late in the off-season, Ubaldo Jimenez has not been at his best, as he hasn’t been consistent.
Jimenez is a fly ball pitcher, and it has shown through his first few starts, as he has allowed five HRs in just over 21 innings of work. Walks have also been an issue, as he has been known to put guys on by walking them.
Hold on now, not time to panic about him either. His last start against the Red Sox showed that he is on the verge of breaking back into his groove, but one mistake in the 6th inning turned a good start into an okay one.
In order to be successful, Jimenez has to lower his walk rate, as this has come back to hurt him. If he is able to lower his walk rate, Jimenez has good stuff that he will be able to turn things around.
Relief Pitching: A Revamped Staff
As the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics during the winter, many fans questioned what the plan was in regards to who would pitch the ninth inning in save situations.
After voiding a contract with Grant Balfour due to a physical issue, the team decided to look internally for their next closer, and it looks like they might have found their guy.
With Jim Johnson’s constant struggles in Oakland, forcing Bob Melvin to remove him as the team’s closer, the Orioles and their fans can breathe a sigh of relief, as Tommy Hunter as stepped up nicely as their closer.
In seven games so far, Hunter has five saves in six opportunities. It seems as if he took the job of closer by the horns, and it will be a major plus for the Orioles if he can continue this success throughout the season.
Two other assets to the bullpen have been lefty Zach Britton and right-hander Darren O’Day. Britton seems to be on the top of his game in the bullpen, as he has thrown over 13 innings, posting a ERA under one.
O’Day has appeared in 8 games in a limited role, but has gotten outs when Showalter has called his number, which is a huge asset in trying to hold a lead to get the ball to Hunter in the ninth.
The bullpen has some good arms such as Evan Meek and Ryan Webb that should contribute more throughout the season, but with the starting pitching struggling, it is crucial that the bullpen continues to get outs.
The starting pitching definitely needs work, but has some pieces that can help them be successful. Once Jimenez figures things out, this rotation will have two main guys to rely on, while they hope that the other three starters pick up the slack.
The bullpen is a bright spot so far, and the success of Britton and Hunter has shown that. The Orioles proved that you don’t necessarily need a brand name closer to get the job done.
Their success rides on how the bullpen holds up, but with the talented arms they have, this should be a continued spot of success for this team.
Starting Pitching: C
Overall Grade: B-
What Do The Orioles Need to Do to Be Successful?
The Orioles recent play does not show the potential this team has. They still possess one of the most dangerous lineups in all of baseball, and can make some noise when they finally get healthy and get their All-Star Third Baseman back.
It will be a matter of whether or not their pitching starts to produce. The bullpen has held their own thus far in the season, but the starting pitching has to go deeper into games in order to save the arms in the pen.
Jimenez got the big contract during the off-season, so it is vital that he figures it out quickly along with the other members of the rotation.
Until then, Tillman has to continue to be the ace, and keep that going throughout the season. Tommy Hunter has to keep holding leads in the ninth inning, and guys like Cruz and Wieters have to continue hitting until Davis gets going (And trust me, he will).
In order for this team to be playing games in October, it is important that they figure things out now, as you don’t want your tough AL East foes getting a jump start in the division race. Regardless of their record now, expect this team to be in contention for a playoff spot.