The Orioles played out their own version of Major League last year, riding a collection of castoffs and spare parts to their first playoff appearance in 15 years.
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It was a magical run that defied both conventional wisdom and their plus-seven run differential. So can they do it again? With those same castoffs and spare parts still forming the bulk of their roster, the question is just as pertinent to Fantasy owners as real-life prognosticators.
Other than Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, the Orioles don't have any Fantasy mainstays. In Manny Machado, they have a future franchise shortstop masquerading as a third baseman, but at age 20, his present contributions will be muted to some degree. They also have arguably the game's top pitching prospect in Dylan Bundy, who didn't allow an earned run in his first eight minor-league starts last year, but again, his value is more for the future than the present.
In the meantime, they'll make do with players like Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy and Wilson Betemit in their starting lineup and Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez in their starting rotation. Really, their entire starting rotation looks like it came from a consignment shop. Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta were all legitimate prospects at one point, but their repeated failures at the major-league level have significantly lowered expectations for them. Jair Jurrjens was once an All-Star, but his last year and a half with the Braves was nothing short of disastrous.
Of course, expectations are still practically nonexistent for Nate McLouth and Steve Johnson, and their contributions would be freshest on everyone's minds. McLouth, an abomination since his All-Star 2008 season, has renewed sleeper appeal after hitting .277 with seven home runs, nine steals and an .817 OPS over his final 166 at-bats, and Johnson is in the mix for a rotation spot after posting a 2.11 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 12 appearances between the rotation and bullpen late last year.
Will they contribute anything worthwhile this year? Well, as we saw last year, stranger things have happened. Discounting the possibility in Fantasy would be like discounting the possibility of the Orioles returning to the playoffs. You may not wager money on it, but you at least have to entertain it.
Bounce-back player ... Nick Markakis, outfield
Markakis' bounce-back season has been years in the making. Back in 2008, he was considered one of the game's best up-and-coming outfielders, perennially ranking among the top 10 at the position -- and with room to grow from there. But that's when his career suddenly went off track. As his power numbers declined, his Fantasy value plummeted, to the point that some owners began to see him as more of a liability than an asset. That is, until last year, when he produced his highest slugging percentage (.471) and OPS (.834) since that impressive 2008 season. So what changed? Apparently, surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle last offseason revealed scar tissue from a previously undiagnosed injury -- one that, according to his doctor, likely made him weaker in his lower half. Imagine that. On a per-game basis, Markakis actually outscored Curtis Granderson, the No. 8 outfielder in Head-to-Head leagues, last year, but because he missed a combined nine weeks with hand and thumb injuries, few Fantasy owners noticed. Now might be your last chance to get him at a discount.
Bust ... Chris Davis, first base/outfield
Fantasy owners are like the rest of us. They fixate on what just happened. Hence, they're more likely to remember Davis' .326 batting average, 15 home runs and 1.104 OPS over his final 36 games than his .187 batting average, six home runs and .551 OPS over his previous 49 games. But in doing so, they don't see the complete picture. Yeah, he hit 33 homers, and given his pedigree and current stage of development, he could easily do it again. But he also struck out 132 more times than he walked, meaning the streakiness we saw from him last year is pretty much par for the course. If he ends last season on the wrong side of it, he's a .240 hitter instead of a .270 hitter. Likewise, if he begins this season on the wrong side of it, he's potentially out of a job. Of course, that's a worst-case scenario, but if 2012 was the best-case scenario, drafting Davis as anything more than a late-round all-or-nothing slugger is a risky proposition.
Sleeper ... Chris Tillman, starting pitcher
While Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta continue to squander their opportunities in the big-league rotation, Tillman, the fourth of the Orioles' supposedly failed crop of "future aces," seemingly found his form last year. And while some Fantasy owners might classify his 9-3 record, 2.93 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 15 starts as "too little, too late," given his past failures, he's just now entering his age-25 season. Some aspects of his performance last year were a little too good to be true -- specifically, the 6.9 hits per nine innings -- but his newfound command likely isn't just the result of a small sample size. His turnaround actually began at Triple-A Norfolk, where he had a 2.11 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in his final seven starts before getting the call. He also showed increased velocity, averaging 92.4 miles per hour on his fastball compared to 89.5 in 2011. Maybe he won't be an ace, but if Tillman is throwing strikes with stuff that good, he's sure to exceed his next-to-nothing price tag on Draft Day.
For all the hype Dylan Bundy gets -- and deservedly so -- the Orioles have another ace in waiting in Kevin Gausman, who they drafted fourth overall in 2012 (exactly one year after selecting Bundy fourth overall, coincidentally enough). Though Bundy made his major-league debut late last year, Gausman's 22 years of age puts him on equal footing as far as securing a regular rotation spot goes. If the hype on Bundy prices him out of your range in a dynasty league, Gausman is a terrific fallback option. ... Now that Manny Machado has arrived, the Orioles are lacking in impact bats in the minors. Jonathan Schoop and Nick Delmonico are the two names most worth knowing. Neither profiles as an All-Star, but Schoop is a good enough hitter to take over at second base whenever Brian Roberts packs it in, perhaps as soon as this year. Delmonico's advanced approach helps set him apart, though his upside remains a mystery at age 20.
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