How Orioles can replace Nelson Cruz

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was just one year ago that Nelson Cruz came rolling into the Baltimore Orioles' spring training camp. Who knew he was lugging 40 home runs in his equipment bag? All for a "mere" 8 million bucks, too. Boy, those were the days.

Well, here we are one year later, and Cruz isn't walking back into this clubhouse. He's a Seattle Mariner now, thanks to a four-year, $57-million deal the Orioles wouldn't come close to matching for a guy who is two years removed from a PED suspension, profiles as a DH and turns 35 in July.

But if it makes the reigning major league home run king feel better, his old friends in Baltimore miss him. They're just planning to go ahead and win the American League East again without him. They're sure he won't mind.

"We're gonna miss Cruz," center fielder Adam Jones said. "And we're gonna miss more than 40 home runs. We're missing a great guy. ... But it's business. It's part of the game. And we're gonna somehow, some way, pick up the slack.

"It's just how our makeup is as a team," Jones went on, at his eloquent best. "We just take care of business. In the words of Marshawn Lynch, I'm all about that action, boss. Anything else is just talk. Nobody in here talks. Talking don't get you nowhere. So why do people always want to talk? It doesn't get you anywhere. It never has."

Hmmm. By "talk," Jones appears to be referring to all the "predictions" he's seen that peg the Orioles for last place in the AL East this season. Yeah, last. Just one year after they won this same division by 12 games -- the biggest margin by an AL East champ team not known as "the Yankees" since the 1984 Tigers blew out the field by 15.

Best we can tell, though, the only "prediction" out there that has pegged these Orioles for last place was actually a projection by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA model, which doesn't technically "talk" at all. But it does factor in the loss of productive mashers such as Cruz, along with an offseason in which the Orioles didn't exactly light up the transactions column.

So this is really about math and facts, not talk. But that's OK, because Jones has some facts for you himself.

"Matt [Wieters] missed five months last year," he said. "We've got [Manny] Machado healthy. We've got a pitching staff that's healthy. It's for us to decide what we want to be between the lines. You guys, with your predictions, you guys don't decide anything. You just make predictions. I can predict anything, too. I can predict it's gonna be 150 degrees tomorrow."

Well, we'll take the under on that weather prediction, but we'll take the over on any prediction that says this team is going to finish at the bottom of the AL East.

It's a definite fact that the Orioles haven't replaced Cruz's 40 home runs with any single player or transaction. But they can replace his production. Easily. Take a look.

Home runs in 2013 by Chris Davis and Wieters -- 75.

Home runs by Davis and Wieters last year -- 31.

Home run drop-off by just those two players, both of whom seem primed to rebound -- 44.

So there. We just found 44 home runs in two guys who weren't healthy almost all of last year. Got it?

We also noticed something else. Cruz bopped 74 extra-base hits last year. But you know how many fewer extra-base hits Davis, Wieters and a now-healthy Machado had than they'd totaled the year before? Let's take a look one more time:

XBH by Davis/Wieters/Machado in 2013 -- 215.
XBH by Davis/Wieters/Machado in 2014 -- 78.
XBH drop-off by just those three players -- 137.

So see? This team has that covered, too. We've done the math. You're welcome.

All right, so it's not really that simple. Obviously. But the concept is a tenet these Orioles live by, no matter who's wearing their uniform and who isn't. This is one team for which it's never going to be about any one guy, even if it's a guy who just took his 40 home runs and bolted for Seattle.

"You know there's only one home run champ," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "So we're not going to replace him one to one. But we have power at just about every position in our lineup. Plus, Wieters, Davis and Machado are complete players. They're very good defensive players. And two of them are Gold Glovers. ... So they're good players on both sides of the ball."

The inference, though Duquette would never say it, is that Cruz was a great player on one side of the ball. But he was, at best, a nonfactor on the glove side (when he's DH-ing) and, at worst, a guy you wouldn't want the last out of a World Series hit to (when he's playing, say, right field in Game 6 of, say, the 2011 Series).

The Orioles he leaves behind, on the other hand, are going to catch it -- all over the field. They also return their entire pitching staff, other than Andrew Miller, and have two of Keith Law's top 13 pitching prospects in baseball -- Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy -- looming for future reference.

What the Orioles never do, Duquette admits, is "grab a lot of headlines in the offseason," because "that's not who we are. We pick up players year round. We don't do it all in the offseason."

So the transactions column will say that, by letting Cruz, Nick Markakis and Miller exit and by making only two significant additions to their major league roster (outfielder Travis Snider and infielder Everth Cabrera), the Orioles were one of this winter's big "losers." But in reality, they can make up all that "losing" merely by having Davis, Wieters and Machado rebound to some semblance of their 2013 selves.

Here, then, is where all three stand this spring:

Davis: In the talk-show world, the big news is that he was approved for a therapeutic use exemption that allows him to take a prescription drug similar to Adderall (Vyvanse) to treat his ADHD condition. In the actual world, the big news is that Davis is finally over the strained left oblique that affected his swing from May on last year.

"The first couple of times I swung the bat in the offseason were really when I realized what a big impact that [injury] had on me," Davis said. "I wasn't able to drive the ball the other way, or even to right-center, the way I normally do. And it was causing me to really fly open and come off the ball."

Well, the numbers bear that out. In 2013, Davis slugged .952 with 23 homers and 42 extra-base hits on balls hit from center field to the left-field foul line. Last year: .655, with nine homers and 24 extra-base hits. Against pitches on the outer half, he hit .197 and slugged .439 last year. In 2013, it was .308 and .737. So it's far from unreasonable to think he has big upside in 2015.

Wieters: He's right on track to return from Tommy John surgery somewhere around Opening Day, although he won't begin throwing in spring training games until March 17. After three straight 20-homer seasons, Wieters was off to a tremendous start offensively last year (.308/.339/.500 through 112 plate appearances) before elbow issues ended his season, so he's a good bet to hit. He just has to get back on the field.

"I still have days where I feel like Opening Day could be here tomorrow and I'd be ready," he said. "And there are days where I'm glad it's still a little bit away. So I'll certainly keep pushing. And I think really this whole year, it's going to be a matter where you're not going to feel 100 percent. But hopefully, we can get as close to there as possible."

Machado: A little more than six months after having right knee surgery, he's way ahead of where he was last spring, when he was recovering from similar surgery on his left knee. And the Orioles clearly are expecting a big bounce back from a guy Duquette described as "an awesome talent," not to mention an awesome talent who is still just 22.

But Machado's manager, Buck Showalter, recognizes that his third baseman has had two fairly unique surgeries -- a complete reconstruction of the left medial patellar femoral ligament in 2013, and a comparable procedure to repair a partial tear of the same ligament in his other knee last August.

"So there's a little unknown here," Showalter said. "It's not like we've got 20 of these types of surgeries on big league players, where you know how it should go or shouldn't go, and what the red flags are. But he's so ready to go. I mean, I can tell you, he's almost getting bored."

Unlike last year, when Machado had to start the season on the disabled list, he's playing with no restrictions this spring. Remember, he took so long to get rolling last year, he wound up with 44 fewer extra-base hits than he had in 2013. So if he's back to what he used to be, he has comeback player of the year written all over him.

Now, let's suppose Machado really does revert back to his 20-year-old self, or possibly even a better version with age and experience. And let's suppose Wieters is healthy enough to get 500 trips to the plate. And then let's suppose Davis can pound the ball the other way again.

Then, it really won't matter at all that this team didn't exactly dominate the offseason. Will it? So the Orioles are cool with letting the rest of us talk, project and underestimate them. They'll just play the games.

"You know what?" Showalter said. "It's a lot more fun this way."