Pressing Questions: The Baltimore Orioles

Although the Orioles improved their scoring differential by 29 runs last year, they still dropped eight wins in the standings (and didn’t return to the playoffs). Regression is a bitch. While the 2012 club was the beneficiary of some crazy luck (especially in one-run games), the 2013 outfit received the 85-77 record it deserved. Chris Davis can’t do everything.

Things might get worse before they get better; Baltimore's stuck in the most competitive (and expensive) division in baseball. The Orioles were small players in the hot stove league until a recent signing of a presumed ace, and some of Baltimore's key foundation players have plateaued in their late 20s. Clay Davenport and Joe Sheehan both project a losing record for the O's, and I suspect Baltimore's over/under will be 80 or less. Location, location, location.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

The Orioles might be more interesting in the fake-baseball world than they are in the real one. Baltimore boasts some first-round roto talent, a few buzzy names still on the escalator, and even uncertainty at closer. There's much to talk about, so let's get to it.

Q: What do the Baltimore doctors know that no one else knows?

A: Sometimes the PQs ring rhetorical, such as in this case. Outsiders can't explain why the Baltimore medics nixed pending deals with Tyler Colvin and Grant Balfour. In the case of Balfour, we saw a curious conclusion – divisional rival Tampa Bay swooped in, took a $3 million discount, and added a new closer.

Apparently there won't be any such hangup with Ubaldo Jimenez's medical clearance, which means you can take the asterisk off his depth chart listing. The Orioles handed Jimenez a four-year deal worth $50 million last week, buying in on Jimenez's Cleveland comeback (3.30 ERA, 194 strikeouts). While Jimenez's fastball velocity has been in a free-fall over recent seasons (it dropped to 91.7 mph last year), the Indians did an excellent job of otherwise rebuilding him. Jimenez's wonky mechanics were smoothed over, strikeouts soared (back over one per inning), walks were trimmed, the slider improved. Jimenez even pushed his ground-ball rate back up to 43.9 percent.

Alas, environment played into the run as well. Cleveland's ballpark trimmed scoring by seven percent in 2013; four of the AL East ballparks float scoring. Three of Jimenez's divisional rivals last year offered mediocre lineups (KC, Chicago, Minnesota); he won't get that advantage in the treacherous AL East. I'm expecting Jimenez's ERA to push to the high 3s (or maybe the low 4s), and he'll give some strikeouts back. In a mixer, this is not someone I'm content to roster.

Q: Is Tommy Hunter ready for the ninth inning?

A: It wasn't the grand plan all along (hence the interest in Balfour), but we're about to find out. Hunter's breakthrough 2013 season (in a set-up role) has earned him a chance to be the last man standing this time around. Show us your handshake, Tommy.

Like so many failed starters, Hunter found life in the bullpen to his liking. His fastball velocity spiked 4.2 mph last year (landing at 96.2) and a 2.81 ERA and 0.985 WHIP are welcome on all of our rosters. Hunter scooped up six relief wins over 86.1 innings, and even vultured four saves. A 7.1 K/9 clip isn't elite, but it's good enough when you're not walking anyone (1.46/9).

Hunter's big challenge comes against left-handed batters. He was unhittable when in the platoon advantage last year (.141/.190/.154 slash), but things were rocky on the other side (.294/.322/.535). Hunter actually held his own against lefties in Baltimore, but they slugged .647 against him on the road.

Hunter's current Yahoo ADP (219.4) looks like a steal, but it's probably a mirage – the closer we get to the season, the more known he's likely to be. I'll set his over/under at 23 saves – Buck Showalter is generally good to his closers, it's not that hard to get the final three outs, and there isn't an overwhelming name chasing Hunter on the depth chart. Darren O'Day and Bud Norris have platoon issues along with Hunter, and Brian Matusz has to deal with the bias against lefty closers.

Q: Chris Davis in the first round, are you on board?

A: “Regression” has to be seen as the start of a conversation, not the ending of one. No one is going to pay for Davis's full 2014 stats. No one expects .286-103-53-138 again. A giveback is likely, but here's the key to it all – regression to what level?

Davis's contact issue (199 strikeouts last year) worries me, in addition to the second-half slump (.245-16-45, after the .315-37-93 opener). His .266 career average is a good place to base your projection, and you're not going to get a lot of speed here. Nothing wrong with a likely 100-40-100 haul, but that's still a three-category contribution. I'd like something safer with my first-round selection.

No worries if you disagree with me; Andy Behrens, for one, is in your corner. And disagreement is why we have a game in the first place.

Q: How soon is now for Manny Machado?

A: By any account, Machado's first full season was a smash. A .283-88-14-71-6 line is heady stuff for someone who turned 21 in the middle of the summer, and his defense was brilliant as well. I fully expect Machado to be a first-round fantasy player before the end of the decade, be it at third base or shortstop.

But how much improvement, if any, can we expect in 2014? That's a trickier call.

Machado clocked 51 doubles last year, and you know what that means – eventually some of those two-baggers probably turn into homers. If Machado were fully healthy on the eve of the new season, I'd forecast a major step forward. Alas, Machado had knee reconstruction surgery four months ago and we can't be sure he'll be playing when the season begins. He hasn't been cleared for full baseball activities yet (he's hitting, fielding and throwing; running and sliding will have to wait).

The early ADP data supports the uncertainty at play. Consider Machado's draft range in the NFBC: earliest 66, latest 181. That's a major gap. His ADP is 112 in that room, and 100 in Yahoo.

Coincidentally, I have Machado right at 100 on my current Big Board. I’d like to see progress in March before I get fully invested. That established, I will give Machado a major upgrade if he's eventually cleared for Opening Day. The pedigree, the park, the gorgeous swing – this might be the last time we get Machado at any kind of reasonable price. I hear the sirens singing.

Boog's Barbecue: Every once in a while you'll see a pundit bashing Adam Jones over pitch selection and walk rate. Fine with me. I don't care if Jones walks more or not; look at the gorgeous (and bankable) trend in batting average: .285, .287, .280, .284. Jones is a five-category foundation and perfectly justifiable in the second half of any first round . . . Matt Wieters was supposed to rule the world by now, but something happened on the way to heaven. Although he logged 148 games in 2013 and put up solid counting numbers for the power categories (22-79), everything else looks light (59 piddly runs, .235/.287/.417 slash). A switch-hitting catcher sounds like a perk for the O’s, but Wieters was a mess against right-handed pitching last year (.214/.270/.358). He’s stepping into his Age 28 season, but I'm not making him a draft day target . . . Nick Markakis is another curious case for the Flatline Police. Even with 160 games in a good lineup last year (more than half of those starts in the No. 3 slot), Markakis returned an embarrassing 59 RBIs. Category juice? You're not getting it here (10 homers, one steal). What happened to the player we fell in love with back in 2007 and 2008? Unless you're in an AL-only format (where showing up is half the battle), please shoot higher with your outfield spots . . . Let's offer a encouraging word for J.J. Hardy. He's clouted 77 homers over the last three years, far and away the leader at shortstop (Troy Tulowitzki has 63, Asdrubal Cabrera 55). Sure, staying healthy plays into the mix - only five players have topped Hardy in shortstop games over that time. And you’re not going to get any speed or batting-average kick with Hardy, either. Still, in today's game shape, a 25-75 expectation from your middle infielder is useful, indeed. Hardy's Yahoo ADP is a reasonable 154.