Five questions heading into the 2014 season

With the 2014 regular season now just days away, here are five questions facing the Orioles this year.

* How will the rotation hold up?

Isn’t this always the key question? As the season begins, the rotation of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris looks solid.

There is also plenty of depth as well with pitchers like Kevin Gausman, Steve Johnson and T.J. McFarland possibly at Triple-A waiting for their chance. On the farm, could this be the year when Mike Wright makes the majors and/or Eduardo Rodriguez pushes for time? Dylan Bundy could be a factor on the staff later in the summer and Johan Santana could be as well. Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Suk-min Yoon could also be rotation options coming either out of the bullpen in Baltimore or from the staff at Norfolk.

The O’s starters’ ERA ranked 12th in the AL last season and the team’s overall ERA ranked 10th. That has to get better, and as the season begins, it sure seems like it will.

* How will the O’s do in the ninth inning?

This is a big question to be answered. The Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012 and fell to 20-31 in such games last season. After going 51-for-54 in saves in 2012, Jim Johnson suffered nine blown saves last season and some of those losses were hard to recover from. A blown lead in the ninth can linger for any team.

Tommy Hunter is going to get his shot and I have no doubt he has the pitches and makeup to succeed. He’ll need to improve his numbers against lefty batters. Who is next in line to close if he falters? Good question. Would Buck Showalter turn to one of his setup men or use someone like Yoon or Gausman? Would he move Norris there from the rotation? The best-case scenario is Hunter gets the job done consistently and we never have to find out who is next man up.

* When will Manny Machado return and how will he do?

A second full season can always be tough for any young player. Machado will not turn 22 until July 6. He looks like a superstar in the making, but now he has to prove his health first and overcome any physical and mental hurdles after knee surgery.

Machado hit .310 with an OPS of .807 and 39 doubles before the All-Star break in 2013. After the break, he hit .240 with a .647 OPS and 12 doubles.

No one doubts the kid’s talent and in time, he figures to adjust to the adjustments pitchers made on him last season. Machado is a key player for this team and any lingering issues after his surgery would be a blow to this team’s playoff chances.

* Will some players regress on offense?

That certainly seems possible for a guy like Chris Davis after his monster year. But would regressing to 40 homers be that bad? That is still a big number and he’s hit 86 the past two years.

If some players do regress, there is a chance all or some of that could be offset by better years on offense from Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters on top of the addition of Nelson Cruz. The O’s finished tied for fourth in the AL in runs scored in 2013 and they should be able to do that well or better again.

* Is this division great again?

In a word, yes. Tampa Bay and Boston look strong coming out of spring camp, New York has an excellent outfield and potentially very strong rotation, and Toronto could be healthier and better this year.

There is never an easy game or series in the AL East. It takes a toll on teams over six months of baseball. The Orioles know what they’re up against and embrace the challenge.

Playing so many games within the division can hurt an AL East team when it battles an AL Central or AL West team for a wild card spot. But that is just how it is. This was also true in 2012 and the O’s won 93 games then.

Other teams face questions, too. The Orioles are not alone here. The fun of the long season is seeing all this play out, one game and one day at a time. It should be an entertaining, interesting and exciting 2014 season.

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