After suffering through five straight seasons of 90+ losses, this off season was an exciting time to be an Orioles fan. While the O’s front office has remained relatively quiet over the past few winters, preferring to let their young talent develop, this year the Orioles starting making moves as if they were a contender. Derrek Lee and Vladamir Guerrero were added on one year deals for around $7-8M each. Defensive wiz J.J. Hardy and masher Mark Reynolds were acquired in trades. Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo, and Justin Duchscherer were signed to help shore up the pitching staff. It was an off season full of movement and action.
But the skeptic in me isn’t sure what to think. Sure, the Orioles have improved their team in the short term, but to what end? When competing in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, does it matter if you win 79 games as opposed to 69? Did the Orioles improve their long-term competitiveness, or were these moves the product of a frustrated ownership that wants to win now?
The Projected Starting Nine
Make no mistake: this lineup is loads better than last year’s disaster. While the Orioles only posted around 9 WAR from their position players last season and had the fourth worst offense in the league (-72.3 wRAA), this team’s roster projects to post around 19 WAR instead. Derrek Lee and Vladamir Guerrero may be both past their primes (and are both large injury risks), but they both still have above-average bats. They provide much-needed middle-of-the-order punch, taking the pressure off Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, and Matt Wieters and allowing them to slide into lineup slots more fitting to their skills.
The problem is, though, that both Lee and Guerrero are only signed on one year deals. Both players make the Orioles better this season, but what happens next year? Along those same lines, J.J. Hardy is a fine defensive player and has some upside with his bat (having hit 20+ homeruns twice with the Brewers), but he’s entering his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent after the season. Luke Scott is under team control through the 2012 season, but then he hits free agency as well. This is a solid offense as it stands this year, but what happens in the future?
Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Mark Reynolds, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters are all under team control for at least the next three seasons, but there are reasons to be wary of this core. Roberts is entering his mid-30s and has has recent injury troubles, and Markakis has posted two sub-3 WAR seasons after his monster 2008 season. Reynolds is a fine power hitter if you can stomach the 40% strikeout rate, and Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are both valuable young players that have yet to live up to expectations.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Wieters, Jones, and Markakis. I think they form a valuable trio of young players for the Orioles, and all three of whom could explode and become stars within the next few years. At the same time, though, I see lots of question marks and a roster full of talent that won’t be around in two seasons. Are the Orioles going to make the necessary trades to bring in more young talent to complement their core? Or are they going to hold onto Guerrero, Lee, and Hardy all season, hoping for some short-term success instead of planning for the future?
The Pitching Staff
RHP Jeremy Guthrie
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Justin Duchscherer
RHP Brad Bergesen
RHP Jake Arrieta / Chris Tillman
CL RHP Kevin Gregg
RHP Koji Uehara
LHP Mike Gonzalez
RHP Jim Johnson
RHP Jeremy Accardo
RHP Jason Berken
LHP Mark Hendrickson
The Orioles’ offense was bad last season, and their pitching wasn’t much better. The Orioles let up the second most runs per game in 2010 (4.85, trailing only the Royals), and their starting staff was the third-worst in the majors as measured by WAR. Jeremy Guthrie (3.83 ERA, 4.44 FIP) and Brian Matusz (4.30 ERA, 4.05 FIP) were both productive starters, but the rest of the pitching staff was a mess. High-priced closer Mike Gonzalez flamed out and got injured in the first week of the season, and top prospects Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman couldn’t get their K/BB ratios above 1.0. It was a disappointing year, to say the least.
While the starting pitching rotation isn’t too much different from last season, the group should improve due to natural progression from young players. Matusz and Arrieta have shown flashes of brilliance in their time in the majors, and either of them could break out and raise their stock considerably. Addition Justin Duchscherer has been quite effective when not on the disabled list (sub-3 ERA in 2008 and 2010), and is a perfect buy low candidate for a rebuilding team. And both Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman need to improve their strikeout rates in the majors (~4-5 K/9 currently), but they have youth and solid minor league track records on their side. Even if the Orioles are siding with veterans instead of young players on offense, they’re at least giving their young starting pitchers room to develop.
The bullpen looks to be a considerable strength this season, as GM Andy MacPhail spent liberally on bullpen arms this off season. Koji Uehara was very successful as the O’s closer last season (2.86 ERA, 11 K/9, 1 BB/9), but free agent acquisition Kevin Gregg seems to have the inside track to the closer role due to Koji’s arm issues this spring. Jim Johnson, Jeremy Accardo, and Mike Gonzalez are also above-average bullpen arms, and will make the Orioles a force in the late innings of games.
I could highlight any number of players in this spot. Nick Markakis is a huge, long-term piece for the O’s and they need his bat. Matt Wieters is turning 25 this season, and to this point hasn’t developed into the hitter most people were projecting when they compared him to Chuck Norris. And on a team that’s starved for average starting pitchers, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta are two young talents that the O’s almost need to develop into major league contributors.
But I’m going to go a different route and peg Josh Bell as a key player for the Orioles this season. Like I mentioned above, the Orioles have few young position players that are controlled long-term, and Josh Bell was ranked as the 37th best prospect in baseball last season. He’d flashed power and patience in Double-A, but then struggled slightly in Triple-A and flopped at the major league level. He displayed no patience in his limited major league time last season (1.2% walk rate), and his power simply didn’t show up (.088 ISO). Of course, that’s only 150 plate appearances so take those results with a grain of salt, but Bell didn’t look good at the plate.
Now that Mark Reynolds is ensconced at third base and Derrek Lee is at first, Bell will likely start the season in Triple-A, learning how to play first base and improving his plate discipline. If he manages to recapture his past success and turn into a slugger at one of the corner infield positions, it’d be a huge boost to the O’s core of long term talent. But if he doesn’t develop, Bell simply becomes the next in a line of top-rated Orioles prospects that didn’t develop as many people anticipated.
The Orioles might be stuck in one of the toughest positions of any team in baseball today. That might seem weird to say, as the O’s are currently far from a bad team. They’ve got some exciting young players in Matusz, Wieters, and Markakis, and their system still has some high-upside players in Josh Bell and Jake Arrieta. Their offense is much better this season with the addition of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, and their bullpen could be one of the best in the league. Most projection systems expect the Orioles to be much better this season, finishing slightly better than the Blue Jays with 81 wins. With some young players developing quicker than expected, they could easily finish with their first winning season since 1997.
While 81 wins would be light-years better than the 67 wins they’ve averaged over the last four seasons, the Orioles are still stuck in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. These are three of the smartest, most well run organizations in the majors, and Alex Antholopous is also starting to flex his muscle up in Toronto. To reach a playoff spot, the Orioles need to have a long term plan and a commitment to their young talent. Maybe Andy MacPhail will surprise me and trade Vlad and Lee for prospects at the deadline, but right now, I’m not convinced they have either.
And yet, this is a fun team and one of the best the Orioles have fielded in a long time. They’ll be thorns in the side of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays this season, and there’s still more long-term hope for the franchise than there has been in the past. Boog’s Grill will be firing up soon, balls will be flying around Camden Yards – it’s baseball time in Birdland again.