Despite a roster with some serious flaws, the Orioles rode a handful of star-level seasons straight into mediocrity. The team managed to stay on the fringes of playoff contention well into August before fading down the stretch. In the end, they finished 81-81, and 12 games out of first in the American League East.
The baseball world watched with fascination as the team nearly severed ties with their star slugger, Chris Davis earlier this winter. The discussion then gradually shifted to whether or not Baltimore should forfeit draft picks in order to sign free agents Yovani Gallardo, and Dexter Fowler. The subtext of all Orioles-related conversation this winter has been whether or not the team is right to view itself as a contender in 2016. Here we will look at a handful of players who will need to produce to keep Baltimore alive in what figures to be a tight playoff race this year.
Top Candidate: Kevin Gausman. It feels like a career ago that the Orioles selected Gausman fourth overall out of Louisiana State University in 2012. It's harder still to remember that he actually made the quick ascent to the Majors that teams hope for when they use a top-five pick on a power arm from the college ranks. Gausman made his Major League debut a little over a year after he was drafted. Since then, he has been sent to the minors, and returned to the Majors, a staggering eight times.
Despite all the roster shenanigans, he has actually managed to pitch more innings in the Majors (273.1) than in the minors (164.2). Although his Major League trials have not been quite as effective as his prospect pedigree and overall stuff would suggest, it is easy to excuse some of his shortcomings as the byproduct of Baltimore's haphazard handling of his development. Still, Gausman owns respectable career peripherals with 7.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and a 3.72 xFIP.
The stuff is as good as ever. His fastball still sits in the mid 90s. His sinker, splitter, and curve allow him to work in four distinct velocity bands ranging from 80-99 mph. Gausman has tinkered with his pitch selection and usage over his career. He all but ditched his slider and change completely by the end of the year as he settled in for a solid stretch run.
In his 14 second-half starts, Gausman showed signs of an impending breakout. Over his final 85.1 innings, he put up elite marks in K/BB ratio (3.90) and WHIP (1.20) that would have ranked him around the top-30 starting pitchers in the game if replicated over a full season.
2016 represents the first season in which Gausman enters the year with a clear path to a starting role. What's more, Baltimore needs the best possible version of him if they are going to compete in the A.L. East. Opportunity is a contributing factor for breakout performers, and this will be Gausman's best opportunity yet.
Dare to Dream: Hyun-Soo Kim. The Orioles signed the Korean star to a two-year, $7 million contract in December. The deal will cover his age 28-29 seasons, meaning Baltimore may have bought into the last part of Kim's prime phase. While he has not come with the same fan fare as some of the higher profile Pacific Rim imports, Kim has a chance to be a difference maker for Baltimore.
An examination of his offensive profile from his time in the Korean Baseball Organization shows a player who has the potential to be a well-rounded offensive contributor at the Major League level. Kim controls the strike zone well and should make solid contributions in the batting average and on-base departments. While his power may not fully translate, there is reason to hope for his fair share of doubles and home runs as well.
Kim's competition for playing time in the outfield corners is underwhelming at best (although signing Dexter Fowler changes that landscape). Horrendous production from those slots was among the greatest factors that undermined the team's playoff hopes in 2015. Kim has the look of a professional hitter who can hold his own defensively as well. An exotic foreign import like Kim is the definition of a player you can #daretodream on.
Rookie Watch: Dylan Bundy. Given his laundry list of health issues, shutdowns, and months missed since his Major League debut at age 19 in 2012, it is hard to know what to expect from Bundy going forward. With Bundy out of minor league options, Baltimore has already announced their intention to use him as a reliever this season in an effort to keep him healthy, and build his workload.
He will occupy a roster spot, so he will certainly pitch. At the same time, it's also reasonable to expect the Orioles to treat Bundy with kid gloves this season as they navigate what will now be a very unusual development path for their top prospect. I envision outings in low-leverage situations with considerable rest between appearances this year.
John has understandably downgraded Bundy to a Grade B/B- heading into this season while noting that he seems to have held on to much of his premium stuff in between his injuries. Although he may not be a true breakout candidate this year, there is no other rookie Orioles fans will be watching more closely this spring.
Final Notes: First basemen Trey Mancini and Christian Walker give the Orioles a pair of interesting, if not perfect, prospects that could contribute this year. The positional flexibility of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo creates a de facto situation where Mancini or Walker may be able to interject themselves into the competition for at-bats with Baltimore's corner outfield candidates.
Grade B-/C+ relief prospect, Mychal Givens may actually be the rookie that makes the greatest contribution to the big club this year. Givens gave Baltimore 30 excellent relief appearances last year. With a mid 90s fastball and nasty slider, he has a chance to be an integral part of their bullpen going forward.