For the Baltimore Orioles, many of the questions heading into the 2015 season lead to bigger questions about the overall direction of the franchise. How will catcher Matt Wieters recover from Tommy John surgery on his elbow? Will first baseman Chris Davis bounce back from an oblique injury and an abysmal .196 batting average in 2014? Can third baseman Manny Machado continue his meteoric rise on two surgically repaired knees?
The answers will most likely determine if the Orioles can make another deep October run or face the prospect of blowing up and starting all over again.
If it's the former, these three players are the key. The club lost 40 home runs and 108 RBIs of production with the departure of Nelson Cruz, who signed a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners. ESPN's Jayson Stark has done the math and determined that if Davis and Wieters hit the same number of home runs they did in 2013, they'll have 44 more than they did last year, surpassing Cruz's output. That's no easy feat, though, as Davis crushed a team-record 53 homers two years ago.
So Stark looked at extra base hits, too, and found that Machado, Wieters, and Davis had 215 combined in 2013. They dropped down to 78 last year. If they make up for just over half of that 137 drop-off, it would make up for Cruz's 74 from last year.
That means a team that led the majors in home runs (211), was third in total bases (2,363), and was eighth in runs (705) last year could, quite reasonably, expect to be better in both categories. The pitching staff, ranked seventh in ERA, returns pretty much intact; the team lost shutdown reliever Andrew Miller, acquired by the O's late last July, to the Yankees last December, but there is an abundance of quality arms in the bullpen. Some players will improve and some will regress, some will get injured, as happens every year. Of course, the hope is both the pitching and hitting improve, but let's say the most realistic path to the World Series has the pitching staff holding serve and the offense resembling its more-robust 2013 form, when the team had more total bases (2,422) and runs (745).
A fourth consecutive year of winning baseball would put the Orioles in a position they haven't been in since 1985. And with the oldest likely everyday player, shortstop J.J. Hardy, only being 32 (outfielder Steve Pearce turns 32 on April 13), it's plausible this group of Orioles could be in contention well beyond 2015.
Then consider this: Davis and Wieters headline a group of 11 players who could potentially become free agents at the end of the season. The others are: starting pitchers Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen, relievers Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Ryan Webb, and the newly signed Wesley Wright, and outfielders Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and Delmon Young.
That's two-fifths of your starting rotation and the two guys you are more or less counting on to power your offense potentially gone. Both Wieters and Davis are represented by mega-agent Scott Boras, who tends to push his clients to test the open market. Knowing that and reading the tea leaves a bit, Sun columnist Peter Schmuck wrote on March 10 that it's likely both will try free agency after this season.
The degree to which Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette attempts to retain one or both will be telling (there's a little less concern over bringing Chen and Norris back with prospects Zach Davies, Mike Wright, Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, Tim Berry, and Tyler Wilson all knocking on the door, but still, it would be nice to keep proven major league talent).
Now let's consider the less-than-rosy outcome. The Orioles are already limping toward the beginning of the season, with Hardy, Wieters, and backup outfielder David Lough all starting on the disabled list. If Wieters and Machado don't recover fully or look the same and Davis doesn't bounce back, then what? If you're Duquette and the club is scuffling along come June, do you look to deal Davis and Wieters knowing you probably can't keep them anyway?
There are dozens more what-ifs. Lots of things could happen over the course of a 162-game season, and it's nearly impossible to forecast what they will be. But when you look at the circumstances and the reality that nearly half your Opening Day roster is due for new contracts in the offseason, it becomes more likely that, for the 2015 Baltimore Orioles, it's do or die.