Can the young Orioles challenge in the AL East?
The Orioles never got out of the gate last season, starting out 2–16 and going through three managers. They’ve suffered 13 straight losing seasons, and attendance continues to fall at Camden Yards. However, optimism arrived along with Buck Showalter, who led the team to a 34–23 finish. He brought instant credibility and an injection of energy. Too bad he didn’t bring the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s payrolls. Contending in this division remains an overly optimistic goal. The rotation is young, and the lineup, though improved, still won’t strike fear in the hearts of most pitchers.
The rebuilding plan hinges on the development of the young starters, who took some lumps but also showed promise as the season closed. Jeremy Guthrie has re-emerged as the No. 1 starter after going 8–4 with a 2.76 ERA in the second half. The “cavalry,” as it’s known, is lead by lefty Brian Matusz, who eventually will be taking the ball on Opening Day. Showalter will piece together the rest of the rotation from a group that includes Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Rick VandenHurk and Justin Duchscherer. Top pitching prospect Zach Britton will get a look.
This unit seems to undergo a major facelift every winter. Two key moves were re-signing closer Koji Uehara and inking Kevin Gregg to a two-year deal. Uehara flamed out as a fragile starter but put his pinpoint control to good use in the ninth inning. He led AL relievers (minimum 40 innings) in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 11.00. Gregg saved 37 games last year in Toronto. Showalter will have to decide which one closes and which one works the eighth inning. Gregg is the likely choice to close. David Hernandez was traded, but the O’s have several other candidates to bridge the gap from the starters to Uehara/Gregg, including Jim Johnson, former Blue Jays closer Jeremy Accardo and lefthander Mike Gonzalez, who lost the closer’s job last year. Jason Berken might have been team MVP in the first half before suffering a slight tear in his labrum. VandenHurk or lefthander Troy Patton could be used in long relief.
The offense tends to shut down without leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, and he dealt with a multitude of health issues last year, including a herniated disk in his back and an abdominal strain. He’s above average defensively and a doubles and stolen-base machine when healthy. He reached base in 25 straight games Aug. 16 to Sept. 15. The Orioles traded for J.J. Hardy to provide more offense at shortstop. He’s also been a health riddle, but he hit 26 homers in 2007 and 24 in 2008. The Orioles re-signed Cesar Izturis to back up at both positions.
Once the Orioles determined Josh Bell needed more at-bats at Triple-A, they traded for Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds. He’s hit 28, 44 and 32 homers the last three seasons, and the Orioles need someone in the middle of the order who scares opposing pitchers. Speaking of scary: He hit .198 last year and has struck out 200-plus times the last three seasons. It can be all or nothing with him. The Orioles like the defense Reynolds brings. First base was a winter priority, but the big guns didn’t come to Baltimore. Rather than move Luke Scott to first and fret over his defense, the Orioles signed veteran Derrek Lee to a one-year deal. Lee’s power dropped in 2010, but he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. He’s an upgrade, even at age 35.
Showalter keeps raving about the defense he gets from all three spots, saying this outfield rivals any other baseball has to offer. He loves the arms attached to right fielder Nick Markakis, center fielder Adam Jones — a 2009 Gold Glove winner — and fragile left fielder Felix Pie. Markakis’ power numbers were down last year, largely because he gets so little protection in the lineup, but his 45 doubles were tied for fourth in the league. Jones matched his career high with 19 homers and projects as an eventual middle-of-the-order hitter. He’s still learning. Pie and Nolan Reimold could share left field with Scott. Pie is a dynamic player who lacks instincts and durability. Reimold had a promising rookie season but spent most of 2010 in the minors. He’s finally recovered from Achilles surgery and has been working out with former Oriole Brady Anderson. He’s got 20-plus homer potential. Scott has been a regular since arriving in Baltimore in 2008, but mostly at DH. He’s averaged 25 homers and 71 RBIs, so it won’t be easy to keep him out of the lineup.
Former first-round pick Matt Wieters didn’t look like a phenom last year, but he’s still “The Man” behind the mask. He drew considerable praise late in the year for his throwing and handling of the pitching staff. For the year, he cut down 31 percent of runners attempting to steal, including four of the last seven. Wieters went 30 games without a home run and finished with only 11. Not quite the power that was advertised. Craig Tatum served as the backup last year, and the Orioles were 17–17 in his starts. But he didn’t throw out any of the 21 runners attempting to steal after May 13.
After experiencing a soft market for DHs, Vlad Guerrero signed with the Orioles late in the offseason. The former AL MVP rebounded last season after a subpar 2009. For the AL champion Rangers, Guerrero hit .300-29-115. He’ll be expected to produce similar numbers in Baltimore, becoming a key component in the middle of the order. There’s not a whole lot of pop among the reserves. Izturis is the backup middle infielder after starting at shortstop the past two seasons. He can still flash the leather, but the Orioles couldn’t hide his weak bat at the bottom of the lineup. Brendan Harris accompanied Hardy to the Orioles in the trade with the Twins that unfolded at the winter meetings. Harris can play all the infield spots and handle outfield duty if necessary. He’s well traveled but versatile. He needs to beat out Robert Andino to make the club. Jake Fox, obtained in a June trade with the Athletics, batted .220 with five homers in 38 games. He can play the infield corners and catch, and he also could be a spare outfielder. Tatum, assuming he makes the club, will be the fourth reserve.
The Orioles’ best move of 2010 was hiring Showalter as their third manager of the season. Too bad they waited until Aug. 2. His 34 wins were more than Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel totaled (32) before his arrival. Players talked about minding their Ps and Qs with Showalter watching them, and they seemed to play with more of a sense of urgency. Showalter is known for getting teams in position to win it all, but he’s still looking for his first World Series ring. MacPhail’s contract runs out after this season, and he’s rumored to be headed to the commissioner’s office. His rebuilding plan is dragging, and his deliberate approach and reluctance to push ownership to spend big frustrates fans, executives and agents alike. But he kept saying there was no quick fix after inheriting a mess. He’s got the trust of owner Peter Angelos.
The Orioles are still a long way from being relevant. They’re in an unforgiving division, and they don’t spend with the big boys. Their top young players don’t burst onto the scene like you see in Tampa. They don’t pound the ball like the Blue Jays. They needed a bit bat at first base and settled for Lee after whiffing on Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn. And they really need the young starters to take the next step. MacPhail has always preached the importance of growing the arms. It also would help if Wieters proved to be the real deal — he was mostly underwhelming last year — and Jones matched the hype that accompanied his arrival from the Mariners’ organization in the Erik Bedard trade. This team has almost as many excuses as victories.