The Baltimore Orioles have high hopes for 2014 after spending more than $50 million on free agents in the first two weeks of spring training.
After a relatively quiet and puzzling start to the offseason, the Orioles finished strong and the excitement of free agent pick-ups Ubaldo Jiminez and Nelson Cruz created a buzz in Sarasota, Fla.
There are some questions surrounding the club, primarily the closer's role and how the roster settles out to start the year with All-Star and Gold Glove-winning third baseman Manny Machado on the disabled list.
The rotation is likely the strongest it has been in a decade in Baltimore, led by Chris Tillman, the Opening Day starter who broke out in 2013, and Jimenez. The defense is arguably the best in baseball. The lineup is solid throughout and there are some established arms in the bullpen, despite some question marks.
Tommy Hunter will get the first shot at replacing Jim Johnson as the closer, but the club has internal options, including in the bullpen, rotation and minors.
The lineup is set, with the only uncertainties being the regular second baseman, how the club fills third base until Machado returns and who bats leadoff.
Chris Davis and Adam Jones pair up to give the club a formidable middle of the lineup, which Cruz and catcher Matt Wieters -- needing a big offensive year in advance of his well-publicized free agency in 2015 -- will help round out.
Nick Markakis is a candidate to bat leadoff after two injury-plagued seasons. He looked strong in spring training, and is in the final guaranteed year of a long-term contract. A bounce-back season would benefit both Markakis and the club.
The Orioles -- at least on paper -- appear to be significantly improved from a year ago, when they had the best defense in baseball, one of the best sluggers in the game in Davis, and plenty to be excited about going forward. A young core has another year of experience, but as is the case every opening day, the Orioles will stare down a challenging slate of games against a deep and talented American League East.
--LF Nolan Reimold will start 2014 in a familiar place: the disabled list. The power hitter is unable to play the field comfortably due to lingering neck discomfort. The injury enables the Orioles to keep another outfielder, perhaps Delmon Young.
--OF Henry Urrutia and RHP Steve Johnson were optioned to Triple-A Norfolk as two of the final cuts before the final roster is unveiled. Johnson will be leaned upon as a reliever when needed by Baltimore, and Urrutia likely will be the first outfielder recalled.
--INF Alexi Casilla was reassigned to the minor leagues, ending his quest to grasp the utility role he held in 2013. Casilla was in camp on a non-roster invite, and he was outplayed by a number of infielders, including top second base prospect Jonathan Schoop.
--INF Steve Lombardozzi was acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers, providing the Orioles with a bona fide utility man. The Maryland native and former Nationals infielder was picked up in return for veteran non-roster invitee INF Alex Gonzalez.
--INF David Adams was claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Indians. Adams, who plays both second and third base, will provide some insurance for the Orioles, who are awaiting the return of start 3B Manny Machado from knee surgery. Adams batted .192 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 43 games with the New York Yankees in 2013.
--LHP Kelvin De La Cruz was designated for assignment to make room for INF David Adams. The lefty, acquired early in the offseason from Texas, was contending for a relief spot in a bullpen with talented, young left-handers in place.
--RHP Luis Ayala was signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, but because it was late in camp, he will not have a chance to make the big league roster. Ayala was with the Orioles in 2012 and would provide some depth for the club in middle relief.
--RHP Brad Brach made a great run at landing on the Opening Day roster after he was acquired in the offseason. But in a numbers game, the former Padres reliever was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk. He will be one of the first relievers called upon should the Orioles need support early in 2014.
--INF Michael Almanzar (left knee) could begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with patella tendinitis. The stint on the shelf would also allow the Orioles to keep the versatile Rule 5 pick for the near-term, rather than lose him back to the Boston Red Sox.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this one is going to be a little more exciting just from it being the Orioles I would say. It's going to be a special day." -- C Steve Clevenger, a Maryland native, on making the Baltimore Orioles roster for opening day.
The Orioles had an exciting spring training, getting off to an intriguing start with a series of high-profile acquisitions. From there, the club had a fairly uneventful, yet productive Grapefruit League campaign.
1. RHP Chris Tillman
2. RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
3. LHP Wei-Yen Chen
4. RHP Miguel Gonzalez
5. RHP Budd Norris
The club has promising young arms ready to step in, including prospect RHP Kevin Gausman. The LSU product worked in relief some with the Orioles last summer, but his future is in the rotation, and he could be called upon this summer. RHP Dylan Bundy is the club's prize pitching prospect, and is expected to be ready by July after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow last season.
RHP Tommy Hunter (closer)
RHP Darren O'Day
RHP Ryan Webb
RHP Josh Stinson
LHP Brian Matusz
LHP Zach Britton
RHP Alfredo Aceves or RHP Evan Meek
Hunter serves as closer for the first time in his career and is the key to the bullpen in 2014. LHP Troy Patton opens the year suspended for 25 games, and his role upon his return is uncertain.
1. LF David Lough
2. RF Nick Markakis
3. CF Adam Jones
4. 1B Chris Davis
5. DH Nelson Cruz
6. C Matt Wieters
7. SS J.J. Hardy
8. 3B Ryan Flaherty
9. 2B Jonathan Schoop
If Manny Machado is healthy, he is at third base and batting second, with Flaherty at second base and Schoop at Triple-A Norfolk. Otherwise, the lineup above is a likely one for opening day. The biggest question mark in the lineup -- aside from the two infield positions impacted by Machado's availability -- is the leadoff spot. Markakis is well-suited for the role, but Lough's speed is enticing. The order may come down to however manager Buck Showalter can shuffle things, as he prefers to alternate lefty-righty hitters in his lineup.
C Steve Clevenger
UT Steve Lombardozzi
DH/OF Delmon Young
OF/1B Steve Pearce
Clevenger and Lombardozzi are feel-good stories as Baltimore-area high school stars who have found new homes with their hometown team. Both will contribute. Pearce has pop and can play first base, while Young has the most experience and has been stellar in playoff situations the past few seasons. When Machado returns to the lineup later in spring, this unit may be shaken up again.
--3B Manny Machado (left knee surgery in October 2013) will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list. He will be eligible to return in early April, but he will require some at-bats in the minors before joining the Orioles.
--INF Michael Almanzar (left knee patellar tendinitis) could begin the season on the 15-day disabled list.
--RHP Dylan Bundy (Tommy John surgery in June 2013) threw 15 pitches off flat ground in mid-March. He aims to return by late June. If he gives the Orioles any major league innings this season, it would be a bonus.
--LHP Johan Santana (left shoulder surgery in April 2012) threw 25 pitches off flat ground in mid-April. He said he envisions a scenario where he could join the club by late June.
--LF Nolan Reimold (neck discomfort) will open the season on the disabled list. He might be able to return in April.