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2009 Baltimore Orioles: Wait Til The Year After Next 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
March 29, 2009

What are the positives for the Baltimore Orioles franchise as it currently exists? The Orioles appear to be set at centerfield and right field with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis for the next fifteen years, they have a couple of guys still producing as they enter their thirties in Aubrey Huff and Brian Roberts, and they have one of the brightest young prospects in the game ready to take over at catcher in the coming weeks or months in Matt Wieters.

What are the negatives? Well, everything else. The starting rotation is an absolute joke, and might not be able to out-pitch a fearless foursome down at Double-A Bowie. The bullpen features potentially four closers, but also the off-chance that none of them will be effective in 2009. Melvin Mora is overpriced and overrated at third base, and the bench is stocked with other teams’ discards rather than up-and-coming, rising, future stars.

2008 Standings - AL East
East W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Tampa Bay Rays 97 65 .599 0 57-24 40-41 774 671 .565 72-41 25-24
*Boston Red Sox 95 67 .586 2 56-25 39-42 845 694 .589 70-54 25-13
New York Yankees 88 74 .543 9 48-33 41-40 789 727 .537 65-51 24-22
Toronto Blue Jays 86 76 .531 11 47-34 39-42 714 610 .572 66-53 20-23
Baltimore Orioles 68 93 .422 28.5 37-43 31-50 782 869 .452 52-61 16-32

The Orioles already had an uphill fight with four franchises finishing with a winning season in their own division last season. To put a team rife with questionable talent and lots of holes on the field only makes things worse. If I were the Orioles, I’d be talking to the Tampa Bay Rays about turning some of my major league hitters into some of their minor league pitchers (see Tampa Bay Rays 2009 Preview).

We now know who the Catcher of the future is for the Orioles – it is Matt Wieters. His first season of professional ball was so good - .355/.454/.600/1.054 – that it is kind of hard to see why he isn’t joining the big club out of the gate. He’ll probably be there before too long.

We also know who the Orioles catcher of the past is – Ramon Hernandez. After three years in Baltimore in which he went from one of the league’s

Matt Wieters
best catchers to one of its worst, Hernandez moves on to Cincinnati this year.

So who is the catcher of the present for the Orioles? None other than 38-year old Greg Zaun, who was originally drafted by the Orioles in 1989 and made his debut with them in 1995 before moving on to the Marlins, Royals, Astros, Rockies, and Blue Jays. Welcome home, Greg.

Going back through some emails, I found what looked to be the interesting beginning of a potentially funny article. I shall reproduce it here:

“Does it strike you as odd how much you know about Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano? Does Derek Jeter's face seem more familiar to you than your own mother's? Have you had a harder time avoiding news about Alex Rodriguez's impending divorce than avoiding ants at a picnic?

“If you answered yes to the above questions, then you have probably noticed what I have noticed about national coverage of baseball – it can be absurdly Yankees-centered. Don't get me wrong, I think Joba Chamberlain is a neat guy with a cool name; I just don't know why the question of whether he would move from the bullpen to the starting rotation should have been something CNN was giving me regular updates on.

“It occurs to me that there is probably a considerable amount of information that we miss from around the league because ESPN, et al, are spending so much of their time devoted to covering the New York Yankees. So, here now I present the Top Ten Things You Would Already Know If it Was Happening to the Yankees.

10. Aubrey Huff Has Staged a Career Comeback - The one time face of the franchise for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has been adrift in baseball la-la land for the last three seasons, but this year he is having his second-best year overall and best year since 2003.

That’s as far as I got. And you know what? That sort of thing happens to me all the time. Usually, Top Ten lists become Top Five lists, and then the Top Five lists become Three Things lists, and then finally it's, “Hey, you know what I noticed recently?”

Anyway, first baseman Aubrey Huff did, indeed, stage a career comeback last season, and no one did, indeed, notice. Huff put up some excellent numbers, but will now be pressed to do something he’s only done once before in his career – repeat it.

I can’t believe I am going to say this, but what if Brian Roberts stays at Second Base for the Orioles for the next seven or eight years and keeps doing what he is doing? What if he is one of those guys who is a late bloomer but then hangs around for years? In eight years, he would have over 2,000 hits, 1,200 runs, 500 doubles, 50 triples, close to 500 stolen bases, and possibly 1,000 walks. Not bad for a guy most of us had never heard of by the time he turned 25. Of course, maybe we should wait a few years before getting up in a tizzy about the possibility.

I have trouble getting my enormously heavy office window open, so when I need fresh air, I go to the Baltimore Orioles depth chart and look at the Shortstop position. After the Miguel Tejada debacle and then the 2008 some-guy-off-the-street debacle, it is so nice to see the Orioles go with a no-offense-all-glove solution at short. It should help their enormously overwhelmed pitching staff to know that they have a shortstop who can do more than just dodge the laser-like line drives that will be coming off of their opponents bats. I'm talking about 2005 Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins Award winner Cesar Izturis, of course.

Could you convince me to like Melvin Mora at Third Base for the Orioles? Maybe. Could you convince me that his 2008 season wasn’t a fluke? No. Mora had 23 homeruns and 104 RBI last season, but of all the players with 90 or more RBI, only Ryan Garko and Jose Guillen had a lower OPS or OPS+. Mora is above average at this point in his career, but barely, and should revert back to the Mora of 2006-2007 this year.

Orioles Team Capsule

3/24/2010 - What Flavor Pie Is It Today? – Early in Felix Pie's professional career, many scouts compared him to Vladamir Guerrero. This act probably did more to discredit old school scouting than did Michael Lewis' Moneyball. After Pie stole 32 bases in 110 games in 2004, however, it seemed as though Pie could at least become an effective leadoff hitter type. Then, after managing only a .284 on-base percentage with the Cubs between 2007 and 2008, Pie's future seemed to be a fifth outfielder who came in to pinch run a lot.

Pie then went to Baltimore, which is ultimately where all Cub prospect busts wind up. Surprisingly, he became a league-average offensive player, as evidenced by his .763 OPS and 99 OPS+. Amazingly, however, in 101 games, Pie only managed to steal one base while being caught three times.

Will Pie change his offensive identity yet again in 2010? Stay tuned. --KG

The Orioles have an interesting thing going on in the Outfield. Right field is being held down by Nick Markakis. Centerfield is being held down by one of the two best defenders in baseball, Adam Jones. And left field is a free-for-all, in which Felix Pie, Ty Wigginton, and Luke Scott all look to compete for time.

Baltimore will have no problem defending two thirds of its outfield in 2009. Markakis is one of baseball’s most underrated players, an excellent defender, and one of baseball’s most talented young hitters. Jones is one of the two best defensive centerfielders in baseball, with the other being Minnesota’s Carlos Gomez. Unfortunately, Jones simply does not bring anything to the table on offense at this point. If his minor league numbers are to be believed, he will hit 30 homeruns someday. I don’t think that day will come in 2009.

Don’t ask me why Felix Pie has yet to live up to the hype. I suspect it is because he never really deserved hype in the first place. While Pronounced Pie would probably make Baltimore’s defensive outfield air-tight, the Orioles can’t afford to give up two lineup spots to offensive-liability outfielders. Look for Luke Scott to get most of the playing time here.

New Nickname
Felix “Pronounced” Pie
Since no sportswriter is capable of writing about Pie without pointing out that this last name is “pronounced pee-yay”, we may as well just make it part of his name.
Ty Wigginton is an interesting guy to see on the outfield depth chart. This means two unrelated but very interesting things. First, it means the Orioles somehow think Twiggi “figured it out” in 2008 with the Astros when he hit 23 homeruns in 111 games, and now at the age of 31 has such a great bat that he needs to be in the lineup however he can. Maybe the Orioles should check out his home/road splits – 1080/697 OPS, 343/234 AVG, 15/8 HR – and think again. Second, it means that the Orioles are so committed to Melvin Mora at age 37 that they would put a career infielder in the outfield. I don’t know what the Orioles should do, but I can tell you it’s a mess.

In how bad of shape is the Orioles Starting Rotation? Here’s the trifecta of yikes: a) I’ve never heard of two of the pitchers on the depth chart, and they are slated for the second and fourth slots in the rotation; b) Mark Hendrickson is in the rotation

"If you leave now I can get you a spot with the Orioles."
in the three spot, not on the losing end of a spring battle for the five spot; and c) Rich Hill is out until at least late April and the Orioles don’t even have a player listed on the depth chart to take his place until he returns.

Jeremy Guthrie is clearly a good pitcher, better than his 17-17 record over the last two years would indicate. In fact, his 125 ERA+ over that period might be the best two-year ERA+ for a pitcher with a .500 record in this decade (think Jon Garland). On a good team, Guthrie is a number two guy, a Glavine to a Maddux, a Pettitte to a Clemens, a Chris Young to a Jake Peavy. On the Orioles, he is the rotation.

In 1998, Koji Uehara would have been an excellent grab for a major league team. In 2003, he should have been signed by someone. Now, in 2009, I am not so sure. The guy is 34 years old, and while his early-career numbers looked swell, Koji has been a solid Japanese pitcher the last four years, which does not usually translate to major league success. All the best to him, but I am not buying his role as a number two starter.

All of which is to say I’d put Koji at the top of any rotation before I put Hendrickson within sniffing distance of the bottom of any rotation. Right now, the Orioles have four pitchers from last year’s Bowie Baysox team that I would take over Hendrickson – Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken, David Hernandez, and Christopher Tillman. Four guys. Its shocking that the Orioles looked at all the pitchers available in professional baseball and couldn’t do better than Mark Hendrickson as their number three guy.

I am not sure if slating Alfredo Simon for the number four slot is some sort of joke, or if he was a Rule 5 guy who has to stay on the 40-man roster, or what. Simon has 756.1 minor league innings, made his major league debut last year at the age of 27, and has never done much more in the minors than Hendrickson has in the majors. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Then there’s Rich Hill. If he can figure it out, he can be great. But he has spent the last couple of seasons getting worse instead of better. Classic five-cent-head-on-a-million-dollar arm guy.

Collectively, this rotation is hilarious. Or sad. I don’t know which. True, Hayden Penn and Daniel Cabrera are gone, so that is good news, but ideally they would have been replaced by someone. Anyone. I might even be willing to give Adam Eaton a shot in here, rather than having him start the season in Triple-A.

Hilarious Anecdote
Adam Eaton
Eaton was released by the Philadelphia Phillies on February 27th and signed with the Orioles. In an interview given shortly after his release, Eaton pleaded the case that he’d been partly responsible for the Phillies’ success in 2007 and 2008, stating “A lot of things went wrong, but a lot of things went right, too. I helped them get to the playoffs two years in a row, and obviously we won the World Series last year.”

Eaton had a 6.29 ERA in 2007, and then a 5.80 ERA in 2008.

There is an interesting battle looming in the Bullpen. The closer position currently belongs to George Sherrill, who last season filled in for the injured Chris Ray and tolled 31 saves, but did so with a 4.73 ERA and a 58/33 K:BB ratio in 53 innings. Ray has missed the last season-and-a-half, so should have to earn the closer role back, but seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of Sherrill in talent. The closer role belongs to Sherrill for now, but we’ll see how long it lasts.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Orioles put more major league caliber closers on the field in 2009 than major league caliber starters? The Orioles also feature former Devil Rays closer Danys Baez, who has no shot at closing but will be in the bullpen, along with Jamie Walker, who closed briefly for the Orioles in 2007 after Ray got injured and has always been a excellent middle reliever.

Outlook for the Season

How long has it been since I was excited about the Orioles heading into a season? I don’t know, but I do know that the Orioles haven’t had a winning season since 1997. Keep in mind, that includes a 2005 season in which they were in first place as late as June 23rd before finishing in fourth, and 2003, when they pulled even at .500 on August 23rd at 63-63 before losing 32 out of their last 36 to finish 67-95.

I am not excited about the Orioles heading into 2009, but I could be heading into 2010 if Brian Roberts and Cesar Izturis form a dynamic double play duo, and combine with Adam Jones to have the best up-the-middle defense in baseball. And if Felix Pie solidifies into a decent major league contributor to combine with Jones and Nick Markakis to form a fearsome outfield trio. And if Matt Wieters continues to break necks in the minors before moving up to the majors and keeping it going. And if the Orioles either promote or acquire some adequate starting pitchers. And if George Sherrill, Chris Ray, and Jamie Walker become a Myers-Dibble-Charlton Bad Boys bullpen combination.

But that’s a lot of “ifs.”

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