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Monday, January 25, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #24: The Baltimore Orioles

In the last decade, the Baltimore Orioles pretty much disappeared from the national consciousness.  They were a force to be reckoned with in the mid-nineties, but the Orioles haven't even managed a winning season since 1997 and, of course, they are buried in the toughest division in baseball.

For too long, Peter Angelos and his revolving door of general managers attempted to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox by going after big-ticket free agents like Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez, and Albert Belle.  Not only did they make some unwise and unlucky choices, but Angelos, though he craved the big names, was never quite prepared to spend the big money, so the Orioles ended up with very limited depth, especially on the pitching staff, a weakness that was routinely exploited by the thunderous AL lineups they squared up against throughout the regular season.

In 2007, Angelos brought Andy MacPhail on board and there was a decisive change in priorities.  Veteran players like Tejada, Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Erik Bedard, and, most recently, Melvin Mora were allowed to walk or, in some cases, were shown the door.  In the process, MacPhail began rebuilding the farm system.  Now the Orioles have a very different look, loaded with young, exciting talents on both sides of the ball.  The question remains, however, will the results be any different?

Free Agents:

Danys Baez (32) RHRP [Signed w/ Phillies]
Mark Hendrickson (36) LHP
Rich Hill (30) LHSP
Radhames Liz (27) RHSP [Signed w/ Padres]
Melvin Mora (38) 3B

Arbitration Eligible:

Jeremy Guthrie (31) RHSP

ETA 2010?:

Jake Arrieta (24) RHSP
Josh Bell (23) 3B
Luis Lebron (25) RHRP
Craig Tatum (27) C
Justin Turner (25) 2B/3B

One of the most interesting aspects of Spring Training this season will be the wide open auditions for Baltimore's starting rotation.  The Orioles roster is loaded with talented young pitchers.  So loaded, in fact, that this winter they released Radhames Liz, a 27-year-old, who not long ago was considered one of their top prospects, and Rich Hill, a 29-year-old who won eleven games for the Cubs in 2007.

The names on the minds of the Orioles faithful are Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and Brad Bergeson.  All three were top draft picks and are still 24 years or younger.  However, the bonus babies are not the only pitchers with rotation ambitions.  Troy Patton is also only 24-years-old.  He was given some acclaim during the 2007 season, when he was still with the Houston organization, but missed all of 2008 after shoulder surgery.  He came back strong last season, throwing 108 minor-league innings with a respectable 3.83 ERA.  Following major surgery, it is common for players to need two full seasons for recovery, so Patton may arrive this spring looking even better.

O's manager, Dave Trembley, will also take a long look at David Hernandez, who was hardly dominant in his rookie season (4-10, 5.42 ERA), but is only 25 and made a strong showing in his last two minor-league seasons (13-6, 2.85 ERA, 249 K, 202 IP).  It also won't be terribly long before Baltimore considers promoting Jake Arrieta, a 24-year-old who managed a 3.40 ERA between AA and AAA in 2009.  Finally, Koji Uehara, who the Orioles signed out of Japan prior to last season, pitched will in his debut, but was limited by injuries.

Six or seven pitchers will thus be competing for three rotation spots, slotting in behind Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie.  Regardless of who makes the grade, Baltimore needs more out of Guthrie, who threw 200 inning for the first time in '09, but had by far his worst season, losing 17 games and posting only a 5.04 ERA.  If he and Millwood can each be stable innings-eaters, it will take a great deal of pressure off the bullpen, because production from the back-end of the rotation will be very inconsistent.

In the bullpen, Baltimore does not sport many proven relievers.  They signed Mike Gonzalez to be their closer, which allows Jim Johnson to move back to the set-up role in which he flourished.  Past them, however, the Orioles will rely on Cla Meridith, who missed much of 2009, and inexperienced guys like Dennis Sarfate and Kam Mickolio.  While some teams might be tempted to try to convert one of their young starters (think "Joba Rules"), I doubt MacPhail will be willing to put them on the arbitration clock for that purpose.  On the other hand, Uehara might be more adaptable to that role.

On offense, the Orioles will be looking to build on 2009, when they got breakout campaigns from Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold, and Matt Wieters and Felix Pie also made promising advances.  If that quartet continues to blossom in 2010, no starting pitcher is going to look forward to traveling to Camden Yards. The Orioles have speed, power, discipline, and veteran leadership in the form of Brian Roberts and the recently re-acquired Miguel Tejada.

The Orioles also have versatility.  Tejada will spend much of his time at third base, but don't rule out frequent starts at shortstop, when Trembley chooses offense over defense (Cesar Izturis, the O's primary shortstop, has a career 629 OPS).  Garrett Atkins can play third as well as first, and Nolan Reimold may get some starts at first as well.  When the Orioles put Felix Pie alongside Jones and Nick Markakis, they will sport a prolific defensive outfield.

I like what the Orioles are doing, but the payoffs (and the playoffs) are still at least a couple years away.  Even if the young pitchers develop quickly, the Orioles best case scenario is probably a .500 record, won't be good for anything more than a fourth-place finish in the AL East.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

2B Brian Roberts (S)
3B Miguel Tejada (R)
CF Adam Jones (R)
RF Nick Markakis (L)
LF Nolan Reimold (R)
DH Luke Scott (L)
1B Garrett Atkins (R)
C Matt Wieters (S)
SS Cesar Izturis (S)

SP Jeremy Guthrie (R)
SP Kevin Millwood (R)
SP Brad Bergeson (R)
SP Chris Tillman (R)
SP Troy Patton (L)

CL Mike Gonzalez (L)
SU Jim Johnson (R)
SU Cla Meredith (R)
MR Kam Mickolio (R)
MR Dennis Sarfate (R)
LOOGY Alberto Castillo (L)
SWING Koji Uehara (R)

C Brad Ausmus (R) FA
1B Michael Aubrey (L)
1B/3B Ty Wigginton (R)
OF Felix Pie (L)

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