O's begin AL East title defense against Rays

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Orioles followed up their first American League East title since 1997 with an offseason that featured much of nothing.

They'll start defense of that division title on Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

The O's watched as slugger Nelson Cruz and longtime staple Nick Markakis left as free agents, while not doing much to replace them.

The loss of Cruz's 40 home runs will be tough for an Orioles team that hit more home runs than anyone in 2014. They are hoping that the returns of both Manny Machado and Matt Wieters will make up for some of the lost production and that Chris Davis returns from his amphetamine suspension showing some of the form that saw him swat a league-best 53 home runs in 2013.

Chris Tillman will open the year as the team's ace, but Orioles fans are hoping Kevin Gausman assumes the role going forward. Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris are all solid options, while prized prospect Dylan Bundy could also see time this season.

Essentially, minus Ubaldo Jimenez, who despite his high salary has been relegated to the bullpen, the rotation is the same one that last year ranked fifth in the American League and was second among AL East teams with a 3.61 ERA.

It'll be Tillman on Monday, as he makes his second consecutive Opening Day start, becoming just the third Orioles pitcher since 2000 to open the season in back-to-back years, following Jeremy Guthrie (2008, 2009) and Rodrigo Lopez (2005, 2006).

"It means a lot," said Tillman, who has won 29 games the last two seasons. "I think when we've got five guys who are capable of doing it, that makes it that much more special. And I think every guy in here thinks the same way. We really do have five guys. There's only Opening Day, the first game, once and then the rest of the season it's our best guys going that night. I think as a group we all feel that way and I'm just excited to get this thing underway."

After six straight winning seasons the Rays fell back under .500 last season and now head into the 2015 campaign with a new manager in Kevin Cash and former head of player personnel, Andrew Friedman, in Los Angeles.

Not long after Friedman left for the Dodgers, manager Joe Maddon opted out of his deal and took a job with the Cubs.

So, the Rays are starting over, as new general manager Matt Silverman restocked the farm system and unloaded the likes of Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers and Matt Joyce.

If Tampa is going to win this season it's going to be because of the starting rotation. It may not include a David Price or James Shields anymore, but few teams would turn away from a top-3 of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.

Cobb was supposed to start this game, but forearm tendinitis forced him to the shelf. So, Archer will get the start. He was 10-9 last season with a 3.33 ERA.

"I'm excited for sure," Archer said. "Not excited that Cobb and (Drew) Smyly and Colome are all out. I know that Cobb was ready to take the ball, and this is just a temporary thing."