Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Baltimore Orioles' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

This probably won't be a popular article, all the more so because a lot of baseball people are creating some irresponsible hype around the Baltimore Orioles. I say irresponsible because Oriole fans deserve better than to be grossly misguided like that.

Make no mistake about it—Baltimore is done. DOA. Forget one fork, the Os have four forks protruding from their collective corpus.

One from the New York Yankees, one from the Boston Red Sox, one from the Tampa Bay Rays, and one from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Don't point to Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters as reasons for hope. I'd love to have any of those three on the San Francisco Giants. You can even throw Ty Wigginton and Brian Roberts onto that list.

Shoot, Felix Pie could click to become the player many experts envisioned, Melvin Mora could have a career year, and Aubrey Huff could do the same. It won't matter (and it almost definitely won't happen).

I say that because take a look at the new starting pitching landscape in the American League East: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Roy Halladay, Jesse Litsch, and Dustin McGowan by midseason.

You might even have to add Shaun Marcum to that list if his recovery from Tommy John surgery keeps going as well as it's supposed to be going.

Every name on that list could easily throw together one of the 10 best seasons in Major League Baseball—maybe not this year, but in the very near future and quite possibly in 2009. Most of those arms are Cy Youngs or Cy Youngs-in-waiting.

Even when injuries take down some of those aces and others have off years, there will still be quite the gauntlet left. A gauntlet the Orioles must face 0ver 70 times. Ouch.

Not only that, Baltimore doesn't have much of a starting rotation with which to resist the equally rugged offenses that populate the best division in baseball.

So, call me the wet blanket. Call me the rain on Baltimore's parade. Or just call me realistic. Here's the roster:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Matt Wieters
First base—Aubrey Huff
Second base—Brian Roberts
Third base—Melvin Mora
Shortstop—Cesar Izturis
Left field—Felix Pie
Center field—Adam Jones
Right field—Nick Markakis
Designated hitter—Luke Scott/Ty Wigginton

For whatever reason, nobody seems to ink Wieters in as the starter—most sources list Gregg Zaun as the Os' starting backstop. I'm not buying that because the kid (23 in May) is tearing apart Spring Training pitching. That doesn't mean a ton except when it's the only MLB-esque sample on which to rely.

Even if Baltimore goes the Evan Longoria route and starts Wieters in the minors to delay arbitration, he will be the starting catcher sooner rather than later.

The rest of the lineup is pretty much set if for no other reason than Wigginton is the only legitimate starter that isn't promised a spot. Ryan Freel is the next best plug-n-play off the bench. He's a nice fall-back position because he hits for good average and steals bases, but he makes for a thin bench by himself.

Top prospects Brandon Snyder (22-year-old first baseman) and Nolan Reimold (25-year-old outfielder) are in camp. Snyder is raking; Reimold is not.

Starting rotation

Ace—Jeremy Guthrie (R)
Second spot—Koji Uehara (R)
Third spot—Chris Waters (L)
Fourth spot—Rhadames Liz (R)
Fifth spot—Rich Hill (L)

What's with the starting pitching in the DC "rivalry?"

I thought the Washington Nationals had the worst rotation in baseball, but I overlooked Jordan Zimmerman and hadn't run into this motley crew. Only the first two spots in this rotation look secure and both those guys probably wouldn't make the front end of many teams' rotations.

Guthrie is a very good pitcher and anyone who can keep a sub-4.00 earned run average in that division deserves respect, but he is not an ace. No way.

Uehara will be 34 in April, spent the most recent seasons in Japan as a reliever/starter, was never considered a dominating strikeout pitcher in his native land, and this is his first year in the States.

I guess there's a reason 60 percent of Baltimore's top 10 prospects are pitchers (according to Baseball America) because the rest of the "rotation" is a total mess.

I picked three names I recognized with a little track record, youth, and some potential. However they're the definition of place-holders.

For spots three through five, Baltimore is also considering prospects Chris Tillman (21 in April), Brian Matusz (22), Bradley Bergeson (23), and Jake Arrieta (23) as well as Adam Eaton, David Pauley, Hayden Penn, Brian Bass, and Mark Hendrickson.

The kitchen sink had already been signed.

Bullpen

Closer—George Sherrill (L)
Set-up—Chris Ray (R)
Set-up—Jim Johnson (R)
Set-up—Jamie Walker (L)
Set-up—Matt Albers (R)
Set-up—Dennis Sarfate (R)

There's really not much to say after all that.

The offense could be good if it stays healthy, but if anyone gets hurt and no youngsters step forward to surprise MLB, it's gonna be in trouble.

Nick Markakis is already a star. At 25, he's coming off a year in '08 that saw him hit .306 with 48 doubles, 20 home runs, 106 runs scored, 87 runs batted in, 10 stolen bases, a .406 on-base percentage, and an .897 OPS. At 25.

If this kid played in one of the big markets or even on a small market team that was competitive, Markakis would be a household name. He's not because he plays in Baltimore and the Orioles have the misfortune of looking up in the standings every year at New York and Boston (and now Tampa Bay).

I doubt you'll see a repeat of his last year, but Aubrey Huff was a man possessed in '08. His final line looked like this—a .304 average, 48 doubles, 32 HRs, 96 runs, 108 RBI, a .360 OBP, and a .912 OPS. He can't possibly duplicate that at 32, can he?

Brian Roberts rounds out the potent trio with a .296 average, 51 doubles, nine taters, 107 runs, 57 RBI, 40 swipes, a .378 OBP, and an .828 OPS. At 31, he's bound to start sliding soon, but 2009 probably won't be the year since he's playing for a new contract.

The rest of the lineup has a lot to like about it—Melvin Mora saw a resurgence in '08, Adam Jones started to get things figured out, Luke Scott launched 23 bombs, and Ty Wigginton brings a reliable utility bat. But it pales in comparison to the three-headed monster at the top.

Of course, it's reason to jump for joy next to the starting pitching.

There's really not too much more to say about it. The front end is weaker than most and the back end is in total disarray. This would be a bad pitching staff in most divisions—in the AL East it is by far the worst.

Let's just skip ahead to a rosier subject—the bullpen.

George Sherrill proved to be a revelation at the end of games in 2008, saving 31 games in 37 chances while fanning over a batter per inning from the left side. He also only surrendered six big flies in 53+ innings pitched.

As good as Sherrill was, Jim Johnson was probably the best arm in the 'pen. His summary from the '08 campaign is insane—a 1.19 WHIP, a 2.23 ERA, and 38 Ks against 28 walks in 68+ IP without surrendering a home run. That's right, zero dingers in 68 innings and change.

That's amazing.

If either of those two should falter, the Orioles have deposed closer Chris Ray chomping at the bit. He lost his job via ligament replacement surgery and showed some old flash in '08 so keep an eye on him.

And Jamie Walker was dynamite as a lefty fireman up until last season. Expect him to return to form and be an additional weapon.

Unfortunately, all the relief weapons in the world won't help the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. If this club toiled in any other division in baseball, they'd have at least a puncher's chance—they have more than enough offense and filth in the 'pen for that.

In a couple of baseball's weaker sets, they might even be one of the favorites despite the vulnerabilities on the starting bump.

But they're in the AL East where they must face baseball royalty on a daily basis. Against that competition, the Baltimore Orioles are destined to be the paupers of the 2009 season.

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