AL East Previews: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters singles in the third inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium. The Rays and Orioles ended in a 7 - 7 tie. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

With spring training underway and the season approaching, it's time we take a look at the teams the Red Sox will be facing the most -- the other four squads in the American League East. First up, the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles have had a fascinating run since we last saw them celebrating their World Series victory elimination of the Red Sox in game 162. A general manager search came first, and took far longer than it should have. Countless interviews were conducted, but the (very loud) whispers suggested that no one wanted to work under or with owner Peter Angelos without contractual promises that it would be their team to run. Jerry Dipoto signed on to work with the Angels instead of the Orioles. Toronto Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava decided he would rather remain the Riker to Alex Anthopoulos's Picard than helm the Orioles.

Dan Duquette ended up getting the gig; he had been out of the majors for a decade, so now was as good of a time as any for him to attempt a front office comeback. Duquette made moves both on and off the field, bringing in international signings to shore up the rotation, switching many of the scouting duties to video rather than personnel, and getting his team banned from scouting official South Korean baseball events by attempting to sign a teenager without getting permission first. No, really:

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via d3j5vwomefv46c.cloudfront.net

All of that has helped lead to the product they will put on the field in 2012, in the tough-as-ever American League East. There are some new faces, some rearranged ones, and those with the familiar stench of Oriole baseball ever emanating from them.

All projected lineups come from MLBdepthcharts.com. You might think I'm avoiding taking responsibility for anything that is amiss, and you'd be right.

Lineup

C - Matt Wieters: Wieters is the star of this Orioles team, even if he hasn't developed quite as envisioned. There were concerns his body would keep him from being a quality defensive catcher, but that his bat would allow him to flourish wherever. As it turns out, Wieters is one of the better defensive backstops in the majors, and his bat is finally coming around, too. He hit .262/.328/.450 in 2011, and there's no real reason to think he can't do that or better in 2012.

1B - Chris Davis: Davis ended up in Baltimore as part of the Texas Rangers deal for reliever Koji Uehara. He hit in Baltimore just like he hit in Texas from 2008-2010: poorly. He'll be just 26 in 2012, and he's a career .337/.397/.609 hitter in Triple-A. If there was ever a place to find out if he's worth something, it's in Baltimore, where the pressure to compete won't influence the team's decisions about cutting Davis' time short. The opportunity to do so won't automatically make it true, though.

2B - Robert Andino: I know it feels like Robert Andino is seven feet tall and swings a fallen tree as his bat with an ease and grace that belies its size, but in reality he's a sub-200 pound infielder with a career .245/.302/.331 line. That doesn't change the havoc he wreaked upon the Red Sox in 2011, but it doesn't change the fortunes of this year's Orioles squad much, either.

3B - Mark Reynolds: Reynolds is fascinating. He's very boom or bust, and not just at the plate: how he plays on defense determines the value of his season. He's somewhere between below-average and replacement level, depending on who you ask: Baseball-Reference had him at +3 wins offensively last year (.221/.323/.483 at third is some fine work) but -2.5 wins defensively. Baseball Prospectus lopped 1.5 wins off his of value thanks to his glove, and Fangraphs knocked nearly three wins of value off his total. He'll need another 2009 to cross the "above-average" threshold, even if his defense isn't as poor as it was in 2011. That's a tall order.

SS - J.J. Hardy: James Hardy has seen his career go through various ups and downs, but he's one of the more useful shortstops out there in a general sense. He's got a good glove, and when his bat is on, he's doing things like hitting 25-30 homers. He's one of the brighter spots on an Orioles team that is decidedly mediocre on its better days.

LF - Endy Chavez: MLB.com's video embedding is having one of those days where it hates fans, so I leave you with this:

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via mlb.mlb.com

CF - Adam Jones: Jones is the one piece in the lineup that could be dangled in a trade. Wieters is someone to build around, while Hardy and the next player up are under contract. How the Jones situation is handled -- whether it's a trade or an extension -- will play a significant part in the reshaping of this seemingly moribund franchise.

RF - Nick Markakis: Markakis has only been able to display both patience and power that one time. It was a fine season, that 2009 campaign where he hit .306/.406/.491, but it's behind all of us now, including Markakis. He's hit .291/.356/.431 the last three years, and while that's not bad, it's not good, either. This description fits far too many of these hitters.

Rotation

LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Jason Hammel
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Jake Arrieta
LHP Tsuyoshi Wada

Chen and Wada are the aforementioned international signings. They're likely league-average hurlers at best, and while that doesn't sound like much, given the low price paid for them and the state of Baltimore's pitching the past few years, that'd be a welcome sight. It's no guarantee, though: there might only be three major-league caliber starters in this rotation, but we'll find out about that this summer.

Hammel came over from the Rockies in the Jeremy Guthrie trade, and while he's cheaper than Guthrie, it's very unlikely he's better. Guthrie has been perpetually underrated by the league, a fact that was apparent this winter when the O's couldn't get anything for him. Brian Matusz was all kinds of record-setting bad in 2011, but he has far more talent than that season showed. It's hard to place much faith in spring stats, but given Matusz looked like someone who would struggle against Single-A hitters at times last year, the 10 frames with 13 whiffs and no walks or homers is likely a great sign for the still-promising lefty.

Arrieta needs to overcome his own homer troubles -- as well as walks -- but I still think there's a chance he comes something useful. It's tough to do so in front of Baltimore's defense and in their homer-friendly park, but the chance exists for Arrieta to be a productive big league starter.

Bullpen

The pen doesn't look great, but the combination of Jim Johnson and Matt Lindstrom means the team is likely set in the eighth and ninth innings. Given the questions about the rotation, though, it's not hard to see a situation in which the pen is blowing games in the sixth and seventh with regularity. Kevin Gregg is semi-useful; if you have to bet on him for holding leads in key situations prior to the eighth, then your bullpen isn't in great shape.

*****

The O's have more to offer than what's at the big league level, but their five- and four-star prospects aren't going to be ready until 2013 and 2014 at the earliest. Zach Britton is the rotation's best hope besides Matusz at something both young and productive in the short term, but he'll need to prove he's healthy and capable of fending off the behemoths of the AL East. It's an uphill battle for Baltimore to get back to relevance in the toughest division in baseball, and this squad isn't going to be the one to break the cycle of losing.

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