The Orioles have undergone a number of significant changes, but they’re mostly confined to the front office and scouting department. Unfortunately, this team needs more than just a few minor adjustments to the roster. They added quantity more than quality to the pitching staff — the big signing being 26-year-old Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen — and the lineup was still missing a big difference maker. They’re strong up the middle with Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones, but they aren’t set up to overtake anyone in the treacherous American League East Division.
Righthander Jeremy Guthrie, the ace of the staff the last two seasons, was traded to Colorado. The Orioles gave Chen a three-year deal to occupy Guthrie’s spot at the front end of the rotation. Chen, the first Taiwanese-born player in Orioles history, went 36–30 with a 2.48 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 117 games (88 starts) over the last four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons in the Central League of Nippon Professional Baseball. The Orioles also signed Japanese lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada to a two-year deal with a club option for 2014, but some scouts question whether a soft-tossing lefty with no big league experience can compete in the division as a starter. He’s a strike-thrower with a wide assortment of pitches, but that includes a mid-80s fastball. Tommy Hunter joins can be a staff innings-eater. Hunter went 3–3 with a 5.06 ERA in 12 games after being acquired from the Rangers. Jake Arrieta finished second on the team with 10 victories, but he underwent surgery in August to remove a bone spur from his elbow. He has shown no ill effects this spring. There is a chance manager Buck Showalter could hand him the ball Opening Day. Lefthander Zach Britton should stay in the rotation after going 11–11 with a 4.61 ERA as a rookie. He posted a 5.76 ERA after the break. After losing his spot in the Rockies’ rotation, Jason Hammel pitched well the final month, including two starts. The Orioles acquired Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom in exchange for Guthrie. Hammel he has shown promise before but never delivered. Baltimore would love to see former first-round pick Brian Matusz blossom in 2012. He was 1-9 with a 10.65 ERA in 12 starts last season.
Kevin Gregg began last season as the closer, but his seven blown saves in 29 chances and 40 walks in 59.2 innings tested the patience of Showalter. Former setup man Jim Johnson was closing games in September and could remain in that role, though there’s also been talk of making him a starter. Pedro Strop, claimed off waivers from the Rangers, posted a 0.73 ERA in 12 games and looks like a quality late-inning arm. Another former Ranger, lefthander Zach Phillips, could work in middle relief. Submariner Darren O’Day — yes, a former Ranger — also figures in the bullpen plans. Lindstrom — who has never been a Ranger — has appeared in 312 games over the past five seasons. Wada, Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, Alfredo Simon, Luis Ayala and lefthander Troy Patton also are candidates to work out of the bullpen.
Former GM Andy MacPhail pulled off one of the best trades last winter when he sent two minor league pitchers to the Twins for Hardy, who hit a career-high 30 home runs and played outstanding defense. Hardy also tied his career high with 80 RBIs despite spending a month on the disabled list with a strained oblique. His .990 fielding percentage and .491 slugging percentage led AL shortstops. The Orioles signed him to a three-year extension on July 18. His double-play partner remains a mystery. Second baseman Brian Roberts didn’t play after May 16 because of concussion-like symptoms that are threatening his career. He has two years and $20 million left on his contract. Robert Andino filled in admirably for Roberts, but Showalter wants to use him in a super-utility role. Other second base candidates include Triple-A infielder Ryan Adams, Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty and minor league free agent Matt Antonelli.
Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis are expected to be the corner infielders barring a trade, but their exact positions must be determined. Reynolds committed 26 of his 31 errors at third base, and he looked much more comfortable at first. His 37 home runs look good at either corner, and the Orioles seem to be leaning toward keeping him at first. Davis also can play both positions, but he’s still trying to establish himself in the majors. The Orioles are giving him that chance after acquiring him from the Rangers in July. Both players have tremendous power. They also strike out a lot. Antonelli and Flaherty also are being considered at third base.
Nick Markakis finally won a Gold Glove in right field after going 160 games without committing an error. However, his streak of consecutive seasons with at least 40 doubles ended at four, and he posted the lowest average (.284) in his six major league seasons. Jones didn’t win a Gold Glove, but he was outstanding in center field. He wasn’t too bad at the plate, either. Jones hit .280 with 26 doubles, 25 homers and 83 RBIs, and was named Most Valuable Oriole. Left field isn’t quite as settled. Nolan Reimold is the early favorite to win the job. Reimold, a former second-round draft pick, hit 13 homers in 87 games. The Orioles signed veteran Endy Chavez as a free agent to back up Jones in center and maybe platoon with Reimold in left. They also traded for Jai Miller, 27, who batted .276 with 32 home runs, 88 RBIs and 16 stolen bases without being caught in 110 games for Triple-A Sacramento in 2011.
The Orioles’ pitching staff is in good hands with Wieters, who played in his first All-Star Game and won his first Gold Glove. Wieters, the fifth overall selection in the 2007 draft, was charged with only one passed ball, posted a .992 fielding percentage and led AL catchers by throwing out 37 percent of runners attempting to steal. He also hit 22 home runs, 11 more than his career high. He’s got superstar talent and it’s rising to the surface. The Orioles traded for Taylor Teagarden, another former Ranger, to back up Wieters. Teagarden is limited offensively, but the Orioles like the way he calls a game, handles a pitching staff and controls the opponents’ running game.
The Orioles need to find a DH. Roberts is one possibility. The bench will include Teagarden as Wieters’ backup and Chavez as the fourth outfielder. Miller also will be given a long look as a backup at all three outfield positions, especially because he’s out of options. Flaherty, the Rule 5 pick, has a good chance to make the club out of spring training and back up at multiple infield positions. The Orioles also like Antonelli, the former Padres infielder who played at Triple-A Syracuse last season. Andino will be a super-utility player if he isn’t starting at second.
The front office has taken on a decidedly different look with the hiring of Dan Duquette as executive vice president of baseball operations. Duquette was a former GM with the Expos and Red Sox, but he hadn’t worked for a major league club since being fired after the 2001 season. He twice traded for Pedro Martinez, and his commitment to scouting, player development and the international market could be exactly what the Orioles need after 14 straight losing seasons. However, his absence from the game for such an extended period of time could work against him. If nothing else, he figures to be more aggressive than MacPhail, whose deliberate pace and reluctance to spend money frustrated fans. Showalter has a track record for turning around clubs and bringing them to the threshold of the World Series. He’ll need to maintain his patience with this team.
The Orioles have a nice nucleus of players that Duquette wants to build around. The trick is acquiring the necessary pieces while still holding onto Wieters, Hardy, Jones, Markakis and his young starters. The Orioles still lack depth in their farm system, preventing them from making the kinds of trades that brought frontline starting pitchers to the Reds (Mat Latos) and Nationals (Gio Gonzalez). Duquette has a lot of work to do, and not just with his 25-man roster. It’s difficult to envision the Orioles getting out of last place this season. They’re trying to borrow the Rays’ blueprint, but a turnaround won’t happen overnight.
DH Brian Roberts (S)
Status in the air after concussion symptoms limited him to 39 games in 2011.
SS J.J. Hardy (R)
Hit career-high 30 home runs and tied career high with 80 RBIs.
RF Nick Markakis (L)
Joins Ichiro as only AL players with at least 180 hits in each of past five seasons.
CF Adam Jones (R)
Team MVP led major league CFs with 16 assists; added career-high 25 homers.
C Matt Wieters (S)
Made first All-Star team and was the first Orioles catcher to win a Gold Glove.
1B Mark Reynolds (R)
Led team in home runs (37), RBIs (86), runs (84), walks (75), strikeouts (196).
3B Chris Davis (L)
Hit .368 with 24 homers in 48 games at Triple-A Round Rock before trade to Orioles.
2B Robert Andino (R)
Could be utility player if Roberts plays second base, which is club’s preference.
LF Nolan Reimold (R)
Hit .321 with five homers, 16 RBIs, nine walks and 16 runs in last 17 games.
C Taylor Teagarden (R)
Considered a huge defensive upgrade over previous backup catchers.
OF Endy Chavez (L)
Hit .301/.323/.426 with five homers and 27 RBIs in 83 games with Texas.
INF Wilson Betemit (S)
Made 80 starts at third base for Royals and Tigers last season and hit. 303, slugged .500 vs. RHP.
INF Ryan Flaherty (L)
Rule 5 pick has played second, third, shortstop, left field and right field.
INF Matt Antonelli (R)
The 17th-overall pick by Padres in 2006 draft can play three infield spots.
LH Wei-Yin Chen
Was 36–30 with a 2.48 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in last 117 games with the Chunichi Dragons.
LH Zach Britton
Rookie was 4–1 with a 2.84 ERA in April; 2–1 with a 2.60 ERA in August.
RH Jake Arrieta
His 10 wins ranked second on team; could be No. 1 by the end of spring training.
RH Jason Hammel
Went 3–1 with 2.63 ERA in first six starts and 4–12 with 6.44 ERA in next 19 for Rockies in 2011.
RH Tommy Hunter
Went 3–3 with a 5.06 ERA in 12 games after being acquired from the Rangers.
RH Jim Johnson (Closer)
Former setup man closed in September and went 7-for-7 in save opportunities.
RH Kevin Gregg
Signed to be the closer, but his seven blown saves and 40 walks were an issue.
RH Matt Lindstrom
In Colorado began 2011 with 1.16 ERA in first 26 appearances; 4.40 in final 37 games.
LH Tsuyoshi Wada
Japanese import, known for his control and pitching to contact, not his velocity, is being given a chance to start.
RH Pedro Strop
Didn’t allow a run in his first nine appearances after being claimed off waivers.
RH Brad Bergesen
Had a 5.78 ERA in 12 starts and 5.59 ERA in 22 relief appearances; out of options.
RH Darren O’Day
Submarine-stylist was 0–1 with a 5.40 ERA in 16 games with the Rangers.
RH Luis Ayala
In 56 IP for Yankees last season, he had a 2.09 ERA and allowed just 51 hits, but 20 walks. Won 24 games in relief for Expos/Nats from 2003-05.
RH Alfredo Simon
Logged 115 innings as a part-time starter for O’s last season.
LH Troy Patton
Faced 41 batters in September and allowed a .325 OPS. Has proven to be as tough against righties as lefties.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals