Mar
31

AL East Preview: Baltimore Orioles

By

Years of futility have helped the Orioles rebuild their team. While the fans have suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, the front office has used that to its advantage. High draft picks have led to a number of marquee players in the organization, many of whom will play a prominent role in 2010.

Lineup

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

After appearing in the ALCS two years in a row, the Orioles finished below .500 in 1998. At 79-83 they had the 13th worst record in the league. They also lost a number of free agents, netting them six of the first 50 picks in the 1999 draft. Five were busts. The only one that panned out was No. 50, a shortstop named Brian Roberts. It took a while for him to develop, but he took over second bas full time in 2004, and broke out in 2005. Once the subject of myriad trade rumors, Roberts now appears entrenched in the organization. He begins a four-year, $40 million extension this season. Unfortunately for the Orioles it appears he’ll open the season on the DL, but once he returns he’ll slide into one of the top lineup spots and likely provide his usual production.

While the Orioles didn’t get much out of their first five picks of the 1999 draft, they took a key player in the sixth round. There they selected left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard. Heading into the 2002 season he was the No. 90 prospect in baseball, and answered by posting a 1.97 ERA at AA Bowie. He did face some injury issues, though, which kept him out for much of the 2003 season. By 2004 he was with the big league club for good. His value to the current lineup, though, came after the 2007 season. The Orioles, with Andy MacPhail at the helm, traded him to the Bill Bavasi-led Mariners for, among other minor leaguers, Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Jones, a supplemental first round pick by the Mariners in 2003, has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. He came with high expectations as the No. 28 prospect in baseball heading into the 2007 season, and in 2008 he played full time for the Orioles. He wasn’t great, posting just a .313 wOBA, but his value was still in his potential. He came closer to fulfilling that last season, posting a .343 wOBA. UZR rates him as positive over those two seasons, though we’re still dealing with a small sample. If he stays healthy again in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. He spent just three seasons in the minors, and played zero games at AAA, before breaking camp with the team in 2006. Markakis had a stellar 2008, posting a .389 wOBA, a 23-point improvement over 2007. That was mostly due to a spike in his walk rate, up to 14.2 percent. That dropped back down to 7.9 percent in 2009, though, and Markakis’s wOBA fell 40 points to .349. It was an all-around down year for him, as his ISO fell 25 points and his UZR ranked in the negatives for the first time in his career. It’s tough to keep down a hitter like Markakis, though. I expect him to rebound to somewhere around his 2008 production this season, holding down the middle of the Orioles lineup.

In the second round of the 2005 draft the Orioles selected outfielder Nolan Reimold, who raked his way through the minors. After mastering AA in 2007 and 2008 he moved onto AAA in 2009, where he posted a .530 wOBA. The Orioles saw it fit to call him up and give him 411 plate appearances, in which he posted an impressive .365 wOBA. Yet he won’t get the start in left this season, as he had a poor spring after undergoing surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon. While he’ll eventually take over, Felix Pie will get a shot at every day at-bats to start the season. He definitely showed improvement in 2009, and could become a valuable role player, or trade bait, for the Orioles down the road.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Matt Wieters was a more highly regarded prospect than Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters, and Daniel Moskokos, all of whom went before him in the 2007 draft. But Wieters is a Scott Boras client, and the Royals, Cubs, and Pirates apparently didn’t want to pay his bonus demands. The Orioles took advantage. He didn’t sign in time to play in 2007, but he more than made up for it in 2008, posting a 445 wOBA in advanced-A and then a .472 wOBA in AA. That earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Even so he posted a .330 wOBA. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Sometimes players come back to you. The Orioles traded Miguel Tejada before the 2008 season, four years after they signed him to a six-year, $72 million contract. He finished out the final two years in Houston, where he hit well but seemingly dropped off defensively, especially last season. With no multiyear offers and no teams willing to play him at shortstop, he re-signed with the Orioles this off-season as their primary third baseman. A player the Orioles received in the Tejada trade, Luke Scott, figures to be the primary DH. He posted a .343 wOBA in his first year, followed by .355 last year. He’s a man without a position, though, because the Orioles’ outfield is filled with younger, more promising players.

First base presents an interesting situation for the O’s. They signed Garrett Atkins this winter, who has steadily declined since his .410 wOBA in 2006. That number fell to .368, then to .337, and finally to .291 last season. He played pretty poor defense at third, though with Tejada on board the Orioles moved him across the diamond. He might not last long as the starter, though. Michael Aubrey, whom the Orioles acquired from the Indians for a PTBNL last June, could make a case for playing time, perhaps acting as a platoon partner. The O’s could eventually turn to Brandon Snyder, their No. 6 prospect. After hitting very well throughout the minors he stumbled a bit at AAA, so he’ll get a chance to get up to speed there. There’s also a chance, though I’m not sure how great, that the O’s could call up their No. 2 prospect, third baseman Josh Bell, acquired from the Dodgers for George Sherrill, and move Tejada to first.

Pitching

Any rebuilding team needs to stock up on high-tier pitching prospects. The success rate from them is pretty low, so having a number of these pitchers means a greater chance that one or two will pitch in the bigs eventually. The Orioles feature a nice blend of veterans and youngsters, and as the year progresses they could perhaps insert another prospect or two into the rotation.

Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Adding to the veteran presence atop the rotation, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood this off-season. They didn’t have illusions of him putting them over the top, of course. He was cheap, costing them just reliever Chris Ray and their Rule 5 pick, and he affords the Orioles more flexibility in developing their younger arms. For instance, with Millwood in the rotation the Orioles can afford to leave Chris Tillman in the minors to get a bit more seasoning. David Hernandez, who is a bit older and not as highly regarded a prospect, will take the final rotation spot. Again, the Orioles are lucky to have flexibility. I’ll save space here by pointing you to FanGraphs for more on the decision to start Hernandez in the rotation.

Jeremy Guthrie, formerly the staff ace, pitches behind Millwood this season. A 2002 first round pick by the Indians after being drafted in 1997 by the Mets and in 2001 by the Pirates, Guthrie did not live up to the hype in the minors. Out of options in 2007, the Indians waived him and the Orioles pounced. Guthrie rewarded them by improving his walk rate, which was the primary component in his revival. He posted ERAs of 3.70 and 3.63 during his first two years with the O’s, though those marks were out of line with his FIPs, 4.41 and 4.53. A spike in BABIP and fly ball rate led to more hits and home runs last season, and Guthrie’s ERA spiked to 5.04 against a 5.31 FIP. If he brings the ground balls back to his career level, though, he could see a bit of improvement in 2009, though I imagine he’ll be more around 4.50, as his FIPs from 2007 and 2008 indicated, rather than his mid-3s ERAs.

At my girlfriend’s sister’s rehearsal dinner last year I sat at a table with the bridesmaids and their dates. I didn’t know any of them, so I tried to work in a baseball conversation with the guy sitting next to me. Turns out he’s a huge Orioles fan and was impressed that I knew Brad Bergesen, who happened to be pitching that night against the Red Sox. (It was also the night that Joba dominated the A’s.) Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes, came along slowly, but in 2008 he made great strides, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, and a shoulder injury suffered while shooting a commercial caused a minor setback, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

The Orioles shut down Brian Matusz in mid-September last year in order to keep him under his innings limit, which was apparently somewhere around 160. That also kept him under the 50 innings that would have erased his prospect status, so he checked in at No. 1 on the Orioles’ list this year. The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season, then, was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. That should speak volumes about his potential. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and when an Orioles official said his changeup wasn’t up to par he made it the focus of his next start, throwing it more than 20 times. That’s a luxury he won’t have in the majors, though his above-average command of his other three pitches should help. The Orioles also laud his intelligence and intensity, which they think can help him top their rotation for years to come.

The name Mike Gonzalez might ring a bell for Yankees fans. During the 2006-2007 off-season it became clear that the Pirates would trade him, and rumors of a deal involving Melky Cabrera circulated. The Braves won out, though, sending Adam LaRoche to the Pirates and installing Gonzalez as their closer. That worked for 17 innings, after which Gonzalez underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back strong in 2008, minus a few too many home runs, and was even better in 2009. His walk rates in both seasons fell below his career average, and his strikeouts were above. Baltimore signed him to a two-year deal over the off-season, probably so he can actually hold down leads for the young pitchers. He might help out if the Orioles make a Rays-like run in 2011 as well.

The rest of the bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA and 3.38 FIP. That was completely unsustainable, though, as he allowed no home runs all year. That’s impressive, but most pitchers will allow home runs on about 10 percent of their fly balls. Johnson evened out and then some in 2009 with a 12.1 percent HR/FB. He does keep the ball on the ground and struck out 6.30 per nine innings. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues. Matt Albers, Cla Meredith, and Alberto Castillo, among others, could get shots, but I don’t think the O’s are looking for the next big setup man among them.

Conclusion: Better than the Jays

The Orioles still have a way to go before they contend, though if they catch a few breaks they could make a run as early as 2011. After a dozen consecutive losing seasons, I’m sure their fan base can handle one more, especially with how this team is shaping up. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011.

As for 2010, I’d say that unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. I’ve done a lot of writing about the Jays this off-season, and while I do like their outlook, they’ve cleaned out the team for the time being. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well. The Jays are doing an admirable job in trying to correct J.P. Ricciardi’s mistakes, but with two financial powerhouses and two more well-run franchises residing in the same division they could find themselves in last place for a few years running. Hey, someone has to finish there.

Categories : Other Teams
  • bexarama

    That’s funny, I was trying to read this preview and then I read the words “Matt Wieters” and all of a sudden this glorious choral music started playing and a huge gust of wind blew in from the window and I completely forgot what I was doing…

    (Good write-up. I agree they are better than the Jays right now. In a few years, they will be outright nasty.)

    • Chops

      MacPhail has done wonders for this organization and between the amount of pitching talent they have coming up in the farm and their young, cost-controlled outfield, I can see them contending, even in the AL East, in the next few years.

      I’ve seen a lot of criticism for their offseason, but I don’t think anyone, including their FO, thinks they are going to contend this year. Signings like Tejada and Atkins, may be questionable, but everyone has to remember that they are just on 1-year deals and are pretty much placeholders for Bell and Snyder. Plus, Tejada puts fans in the seats.

      Also, I can see the O’s being a dark horse player (if he’s still available next offseason) for Adrian Gonzalez in order to contend for 2011.

    • http://cid-e3a022289d65b5c0.skydrive.live.com/self.aspx/Assorted/foul.jpg Andy (different one) in chilly NYC

      HEY!

      Andy Pettite, Andy Pettitte, Andy Pettitte! Mo, Mo, Mo!

      Stop cheating in your head!

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    2010 Orioles baseball: Better than the Jays!
    Buy tickets today….please?

    Agreed, better than the Jays in 2010, better than the Rays in 2012 (maybe even 2011).

    • bexarama

      this is Birdland!!!

    • http://cid-e3a022289d65b5c0.skydrive.live.com/self.aspx/Assorted/foul.jpg Andy (different one) in chilly NYC

      Buy tickets today….please?

      /Pirates’d

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

      2010 Orioles baseball: Better than the Jays!

      Come for the barbecue on Eutaw Street… stay because it’s better than your crack infested home neighborhoods.

      • dkidd

        it’s all in the game, baby

        /omar’d

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    Here’s one for the Matt Weiter’s website.

    Matt Weiters once faced Melvin Croussett….he struck out.

    • Andy in Sunny Daytona

      It would help if I spelled Wieters name correctly.

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

        It’s neat having Wieters and Reimold on the same team.

        • http://mystiqueandaura.com/ JMK the Overshare’s Mystique and Aura

          The finer points of “I before E”, yes?

          • dkidd

            i before e is for sissies!

            /jeremy bleich’d

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

            What I love most is the pronunciation. The I comes first in Wieters but it’s pronounced like an E. The E comes first in Reimold but it’s pronounced like an I.

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

              This sounds like a “it’s more fun while herbally enhanced” JoePow story.

              • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

                Motorcycle Cop: Do you have any idea how fast you were going?
                JoePow: Well, I got a 426 hemi here, 3/4 cams, nitro boosters, I can get ‘er up to as good as 155! Never do, though, of course, unless I’m chasing a cute chick in a Ferrari! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I guess I was goin’ about… 65, tops.
                Motorcycle Cop: SEVEN! SEVEN miles an hour! And normally, when I stop people, they pull onto the *shoulder*!
                Motorcycle Cop: I don’t know how they do things up in Buckley Town, but down here, we are caution for other drivers on the road.
                Steve: Roades, Roods.
                JoePow: [reaches back and smacks Steve] Quiet back there. Geez, raving psycho, we arrested him becuase he butchered over 300 chickens and screwed a Begal. I’m taking him back to Navada where he’s wanted for Bangin Horses’.

                (yes I’m aware it wasn’t actually Joe’s favorite herb that prompted this conversation)

            • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

              wow. good point. didnt even put that together….ha nice. and dont forget everyone bill mueller is pronounced miller.

              hate the english language.

  • Rogue Trader

    What’s your opinion; chances Matt Wieters can be the next Mauer?

    35%?

    • Andy in Sunny Daytona

      I love saying this………Matt wieters is 3 and a half year older than Jesus Montero.

      • Andy in Sunny Daytona

        Sorry….27.8% chance.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      I think that when you go back over both of their careers that there’s a ~50% chance Wieters ranks better.

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com/ pete

      i’d say it depends on whether or not mauer is able to maintain that power from last year, and how long he lasts. If Mauer is a legit 25-30 HR threat and slugs over .600 every year while maintaining his OBP abilities, then 10% at best, because that’s a top-25 all-time player. But if Mauer drops back to his 10-12 HR, .500 SLG self, then it’s not as unlikely that Weiters ends up being just as good, if not better.

      Still, I think Posada (purely as a hitter) is a better comp.

  • http://theyankeeu.com Matt Imbrogno

    Conclusion: Better than the Jays

    /Not saying much’d

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com/ pete

    It really does stink that the Rays and Orioles play in the same division as the Yanks and Sox. Both of these clubs have a lot of really exciting young players and it’d be nice to be able to root for them. I think the Rays would win any non-eastern division in baseball (and possibly the NL-East, too), and I think the O’s would compete in a few 2-3 years down the road. It’s too bad, really, but it would definitely take an implosion from both the sox and the yanks for any of these guys to get their foot in long-term

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

      Yup. Stuck in a division with two titans in a league with a playoff structure where only two teams per division can possibly make the playoffs, the Rays, Jays and Orioles are haplessly bound for irrelevance year in and year out.

      Which means one thing and one thing only:

      The Red Sox are bad for baseball.

      /scriptflip’d

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      I agree, but I also think there is a self fulfilling prophecy aspect of it. The Rays and Orioles (and maybe the Blue Jays) were forced to change their game plans, forced to do better, knowing they were in the same division as the Sox and Yankees. Would they be constructed as they are now, or if in different divisions, would they have not focused quite as much on a total overhaul, but instead on “winning now” and overpaying for veterans. The Rays wouldn’t have spent regardless, but Peter Angelos was never shy to open the checkbook. I think knowing they weren’t going anywhere for a while allowed him to put down the pen and let someone completely re-face the franchise. If the Orioles thought they were a player or two away in a different division, maybe they sacrifice part of the future for the quick fix.

    • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

      It really does stink that the Rays and Orioles play in the same division as the Yanks and Sox. Both of these clubs have a lot of really exciting young players and it’d be nice to be able to root for them

      it stinks for them. for us it is great because we get to see these dynamic young players play our team many times a year whereas we wouldn’t get to see them often if at all if they were in the nl or even on an AL west team.

      i’m just excited to be able to watch the young guys they have like tillman, matusz, wieters, jones et all develop.

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        it stinks for them. for us it is great because we get to see these dynamic young players play our team many times a year

        It also gives Cash the opportunity to see these guys on a regular basis before pilfering them as free agent’s down the road.

    • CS Yankee

      They just need the perfect storm…

      1) Young guns all develop at once for the O’s
      2) Red Sox lose Lackey, Dice-BB, Pap-smear to the DL
      3) Beltre pops another nut (as Boras tells FO to sign or he’ll go Manny on you).
      4) Rays dump players ala “Marlins 97 style”
      5) Blue Jays play to their talent level

      • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

        5) Blue Jays play to their talent level

        65 wins?

        ba dum bum

        • CS Yankee

          Good young starters, solid stick at 2B, hotel in the ballpark….

          not so much anything else

          …thinking 68-72 wins in 2010

  • shades

    The Jays are doing an admirable job in trying to correct J.P. Ricciardi’s mistakes

    thats funny. ESPN just brought him on for his expert opinion.

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      ESPN is proud to announce the hiring of former Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi. While any statistical measures used to judge JP as a GM show that he was terrible, JP lead the league in GM intangibles. He was also among the GM leaders in grittiness, and he just seemed to have “it”. This is why we are hiring JP as an expert.

      -Buster Olney

      • bexarama

        His GMaHQ (General Manager Heart Quotient, pronounced gma-heek) is off the charts.

        Love,
        Nomar Garciaparra

  • Ghost of Scott Brosius

    More for his Boston accent