I have been looking forward to writing this piece for a long time. I wanted to do it weeks ago when teams reported to camp, but I decided to be patient. However, we are less than a month away from opening day, and with games in spring training leagues starting this week, it is time to talk baseball.
Over the next week or so, I will be going through analysis of the entire AL East, and other teams I deem contenders. Today I will start with a team that may not be in playoff contention just yet, but a .500 record is definitely in the realm of possibilities. Laugh at me if you want, but I’m talking about your Baltimore Orioles.
Key Departures: Melvin Mora, Chris Ray, Danys Baez, Rich Hill
Key Arrivals: Mike Gonzalez, Garrett Atkins, Miguel Tejada, Kevin Millwood
For a team that lost almost 100 games last year, getting hits wasn’t really an issue. In fact, Baltimore was 8th in the MLB with a .268 batting average. However, getting those guys across the plate was a different story. Lack of power in the middle of the lineup was a big problem in run production and led to inconsistency in run total from game to game.
This year will be interesting for the Orioles because they seem to have everything to make a solid lineup with the exception of that power. With Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the Orioles have one of the best outfields in the league and that will provide a good chunk of the offensive power. Add catcher Matt Wieters, who batter .362 in September, and you have four players that will be the staples of the Orioles organization for the next 10 years. After that though, everything has a big question mark next to it. Tejada’s numbers are in decline as he gets older; Atkins had a terrible season last year and I have questions about how much his numbers were boosted by playing in the thin air of Coors Field; and Brian Roberts’ back is raising issues about the 32 year old’s health.
As far as power is concerned, Luke Scott might be the guy the Orioles look to. He is coming off career highs in home runs (25) and RBIs (77). I think Scott and Reimold, who showed tremendous power in AAA Norfolk and then continued that in the big leagues, can provide some, but not all of it.
Overall, the Orioles lineup is solid 1-9, but there isn’t a lot of meat to it. If they can be good at small ball and manufacturing runs, then good things are coming. If not, then be prepared to see a lot of runners left on base.
If you have read any ESPN analyst’s opinion on why the O’s could be a surprise this year and contend for a pennant next year, it’s because of these guys. As of right now, the pitching staff will include three pitchers who were rookies last year, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, and the cream of the crop, Brian Matusz. Before he got hurt, Bergesen had put together 11 quality start in his last 12 appearances and was a candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. After pitching off the mound for the first time since getting a line drive off his shin earlier this week, pitching coach Rick Kranitz was impressed. Chris Tillman was up and down in his first 12 starts, but there were times where you were scared by his talent. When you add those two guys to the No. 5 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America in Matusz, you understand why people are just waiting for the Orioles to be good.
In addition to those three young arms, the O’s have Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood. Guthrie had a tremendous breakout year in 2008, but was not the same guy in 2009 because of the pressure put on him to be the ace of a staff that featured four rookies. That is why Baltimore traded for Millwood even though the organization thinks highly of Chris Ray.
Because Tillman and Matusz haven’t had that many starts, they could be inconsistent early on, but you should expect to see them dominate in July and after that. Besides those two, expect strong and consistant starting from this staff. If the O’s are gonna approach the .500 mark, it’s because of the guys standing on the mound.
Perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition for the Orioles was Mike Gonzalez to fill the void left by trading George Sherrill. Jim Johnson took over in the last month or so of the season, but wasn’t comfortable in the closer spot. With Gonzalez anchoring the bullpen, Johnson can go back to his role as a dominant set up guy. Koji Uehara will return from injury to join the bullpen, where he probably should have been all along. Uehara was a starter a long time ago in Japan, but was a closer before coming to America and doesn’t have enough variety in pitches to get through a lineup multiple times. The other names that will most likely hope to produce out of the ‘pen are sophomore pitchers David Hernandez and Jason Berken, Mark Hendrickson, Cla Meredith, and Kam Mickolio (if you read the Baltimore Sun, you know exactly how high manager Dave Trembley is on him).
The Orioles have a unique problem here because they seem too deep. After an abysmal start last year, Felix Pie progressed more than any other play over the course of the season. He would be a starter almost anywhere else in the MLB and finding him at bats is going to be challenging. Other than him, the Orioles have Ty Wigginton and Robert Andino as utility players, which will come in handy especially if Roberts misses some time during the season from injury. Personally, I love Andino. He has a great glove, is fast, and is slowly improving at the plate. I’m not suggesting he can be our lead off guy, but could be a solid 9 hitter when spelling Cesar Izturis or Brian Roberts.
Minor League System:
The reason Baltimore didn’t want to go out and sign a big name first or third baseman is because Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell are both showing great potential and could be called up by the All Star Break. They will both start in AAA and could be on the fast track to the big leagues. As far as pitching goes, Bergesen, Tillman, and Matusz are just the tip of the iceberg. Troy Patton was great until a shoulder injury set him back and after a year, should be back to making an impact. Not to mention Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe, who are making great strides. With all this talent still being stockpiled, the Orioles could be building a champion.
After 12 years of losing seasons, this is the first year that the O’s have a glimmer of hope to end that streak. I would agree the team is probably a year away from being able to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox, but the Orioles will be exciting to watch this year.
Prediction: 80-82 4th in the AL East