Five Questions: Baltimore Orioles

1. What can they expect from Sammy Sosa?

Slammin’ Sammy has been in a three-year decline pattern, his OPS+ dwindled to 110 from 201 over that time-frame. That’s an awful trend for a player who is now 36 years old.

His playing time has declined as well over that time (games played: 160-150-137-126). It’s quite likely some of the decline can be explained by injuries, as opposed to just aging – though those are obviously intermingled. So the move to the AL, where he can DH and give his body a break without leaving the lineup, should help.

I think he will at least post numbers similar to last year (539 PA; .255/.332/.517), but he’ll probably bounce back with better numbers and more playing time. He’s got a little something to prove, and his comments at the time of the trade reflect that of someone who is getting some focus back. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections agree, and they don’t account for the likely improved health/focus.

I realize these intangibles are useless in projecting groups of players, but in individual cases they can help sometimes.

2. Was Sosa worth the price?

I know some of you Oriole diehards are saying, “Two Sammy Sosa questions, what about the rest of the team?”

Well, the rest of your team is possibly the most, “who cares” combination of talents in the major leagues. They aren’t bad enough to be interesting from the, “you have to look at the train wreck,” perspective like the 2003 Tigers or last year’s Diamondbacks.

There isn’t a collection of young talent just waiting to break out like the 1993 Indians or 1982-86 Twins.

Sure, Javy Lopez, Miguel Tejada, and Melvin Mora are near the top of the game at their positions. Still, this is simply your classic forgettable 77-85 team.

Back to Sammy. From a money perspective it was a very good move. Sammy will only cost the Orioles $8.85 million for the season. Despite ownership’s claims that the financial sky is falling with the coming of the Nationals, the Orioles can afford it, since they came up short on every big name they went after in the off-season. The only other significant addition was Steve Kline. It’s not as if that money would have been better spent elsewhere. Without this trade it was just lining Mr. Angelos’ pockets.

On the field he didn’t cost much either. Jerry Hairston is a nice guy to have around; he gets on base and has improved over the last two seasons – when he’s been on the field. But he is basically an average player if he’s playing second base, as an outfielder or DH . . . not so much.

Since the team is committed to Brian Roberts, Hairston really didn’t have a role here, there are plenty of OF/DH types in orange and black these days.

The kids they gave up are nothing special either. Mike Fontenot was a first round draft pick in 2001 (interestingly, to me anyway, he was their compensation pick for Mike Mussina). But he’s 25 now and he has been pretty disappointing. He looks like he’s most likely on his way to being a decent utility guy, not a regular.

Baseball-Reference guru Sean Forman once told me that the biggest thing he learned from doing the Iowa Farm Report was just how good the minor league stats were from even weak major league regulars. I remember him referencing Mark Lemke as an example. So I looked him up and sure enough, Lemke hit .270-.290 with 16-20 HR each season from 1986-88. Pretty good pop for a great defensive 2B prospect in the mid-1980s.

The point of that diversion (other than my finally getting a chance to work it into an article) is that even a player like that only turned into Mark Lemke. Mike Fontenot’s chance of being remembered by baseball fans 15 years from now is pretty remote unless he goes the Francisco Cabrera school of immortality.

Dave Crouthers was a third round pick in 2001. He’s also 25 and put up a 5.03 ERA in Double-A last year. He is somewhat better than that would lead you to believe, as he fanned 138 batters in 140 IP, but he also walked 68 and gave up 23 dingers. He’s a longshot at best.

On the field, I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty whether or not it’s a good idea. Sammy could bounce back to his 2002-03 level (2001 isn’t happening again, of course), or he could continue the decline and be out of the game before next opening day. Hairston is okay but had no place on the team and Fontenot or Crothers could possibly have a good career, but very likely won’t. It’s easy to lump trades into a 90/10 type certainty on who won the deal (especially with hindsight), but really it’s more like 60/40 the great majority of the time (especially at the time of the deal), and this one is no different. Personally, I would have made the deal if I were Beatagan and it were presented to me.

3. Speaking of which, what’s the verdict on Beatagan (Flaneattie?) so far?

Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan took over the reigns of the organization just before the 2002 winter meetings. It was too late at that point to do anything for the 2003 season, other than sneak Mora off to an island somewhere and replace him with George Brett.

During the year they flipped lame-duck starter Sidney Ponson for a nice package, including Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman.

Maybe nice package, ‘at the time,’ would have been more appropriate.

Ainsworth was regarded as a top prospect about two months before the trade (he made 11 starts with an ERA+ of 112 for the Giants early that season), until it was discovered that he had a broken shoulder. The O’s decided to ‘buy low’ but so far Ainsworth has been unable to return to form. He’s going under the knife again; perhaps he’ll be back in 2006.

Hannaman had 367 K’s in 316 minor league innings, but he also has a bum shoulder now and a future that is in doubt (he’s 24 in August and he still hasn’t thrown a pitch above A-ball).

Moss was just involved to eat some innings over the rest of 2003 and landed in Tampa in 2004.

I can’t fault this deal at all. Right move, wrong result. The O’s were even able to resign Ponson in the offseason. They found the best offer and took it; unfortunately nothing went right afterward.

The next winter they were given some money to play with, and they used it to bring Tejada, Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro into the fold. Life was definitely injected in an offense that improved from 10th in the AL in R/G to 6th.

Some (like me) felt that signing Lopez and Palmeiro didn’t make a lot of sense for a team that wasn’t expected to contend for a few years. The Palmeiro move was a waste – BJ Surhoff was just as good. But Lopez filled a gaping hole perfectly. I’m still unsure that he’ll maintain this level of production until the Orioles become good enough to contend.

Beatagan also did a great job picking up 30-year old minor league veteran David Newhan off the scrap heap in June. After two years out of the affiliated minors he came back in 2003 and hit well for Colorado Springs, then tore the cover off the ball for Oklahoma early last year (.328/.387/.557). He hit .311/.361/.453 for the Orioles, filling in as an OF/DH/3B.

This winter they added Kline, which makes a strong bullpen stronger, and decided to rent Sosa for a year. Neither move is bad, but they were unable to fill one of the gaping holes in their rotation. It’s generally accepted that this is because the purse-strings have been tightened with the Expos moving 40 miles down I-95. If that’s the case, it’s tough to fault them.

Overall I think these guys have done a pretty solid job considering the situation they started with. They’ve added to the talent base, they haven’t been burned in trades and have identified some freely available talent and gone after it. I give them a solid “B” grade at this point.

4. Will this team ever acquire or develop any pitching?

What went unnoticed by most was that the pitching/fielding improved, from 10th to 7th in R/G. Last spring, I told some Oriole fans that whether or not it was a successful season would not be determined by the wins and losses. It would be determined by whether not they could find three guys that could pitch. At that point, I reasoned, they could go out and sign a pitcher or two and they’d magically have a legitimate staff. You can’t just sign five I would tell them as they complained about Angelos being a tight-wad.

Ponson had a horrible first half, but bounced back after the All-Star Break (8-3, 4.21 ERA). He was getting pounded in the first half (153 H in 113 IP), in the 2nd half he was back to normal (112 H in 103 IP). I don’t believe he was ‘hit unlucky’ early in the year, I think he was pitching hurt and getting tuned up. He didn’t make a start from July 4 through July 19 and after the two week layoff he rattled off three great starts in a row and five of six. If he’s healthy I expect him to return to his typical 115 ERA+ self.

Rodrigo Lopez (14-9, 3.59) returning to his 2002 form helped. Young pitchers like Erik Bedard (6-10, 4.59) and relievers John Parrish (3.46 ERA) and BJ Ryan (2.28) also took a step forward. Bedard and Parrish proved themselves as legitimate major leaguers, though it would be good if Parrish could curb the walks some. He issued 55 free passes in 78 IP – it’s a good thing he only gave up 4 HR and whiffed 71. Ryan had possibly the best year of any setup man in the game. Take a look at his line and compare it to Brad Lidge‘s. He’s the best kept bullpen secret in baseball.

The one pitcher that they ‘found’ who wasn’t as good as advertised is Daniel Cabrera (12-8, 5.00). He inexplicably finished 3rd in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting, ahead of Zach Greinke (8-11, 3.97), David DeJesus and David Bush (5-4, 3.68, 50 fewer innings than Cabrera). His raw numbers, like the 5.00 ERA weren’t very good. He only whiffed 76 in 148 IP, and he walked 89. In this era of record strikeout numbers, you cannot succeed long term with a K/BB ratio that is less than one.

But there is even some hope there. Cabrera is just 24 this year. He was pitching in A-ball in 2003 and had exactly 5 Double-A starts under his belt when he was called up. They were 5 great starts though; he allowed 11 hits over 27.3 IP, just one HR. He fanned 35 and walked 12. I could see why the O’s were tempted to give him a shot.

Cabrera’s minor league K numbers are quite good, 296 in 295 IP and only 11 HR allowed. He did walk 193 though. I expect him to improve his performance, though the W-L mark will likely decline. As Bill James discovered in the early 90s, pitchers with 6.3 strikeouts per win tend to see their records slip some. But I do think he is probably a better pitcher than his 2004 K/BB would lead you to believe.

So the Orioles found the three starters they needed, perhaps a fourth. They also had a very good bullpen, and improved by 6 games in the standings. I’d say that’s solid progress.

But they were not able to land an ace in the off-season. This is a team that desperately needs that ace. If Angelos tightened the purse strings, as is widely rumored, I don’t see what Flanagan or Beattie could have done. But this team probably needed someone like Pedro Martinez or Carl Pavano, who would only cost money and not talent, more than any other.

5. Is there help on the way?

The Orioles did not have one player on Aaron Gleeman’s Top 50 Prospects list. They do have an outfield prospect, Nick Markakis that John Sickels gave a “B+” grade to in The Baseball Prospect Book 2005.

Markakis is 21 and hit .299/.371/.470 for Delmarva (Single-A) last season. He’s a good outfielder also. He’s a few years away at least.

Val Majewski was also given a B+ by Sickels, but he will likely miss the season after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum earlier this month. He turns 24 in June and hit .307/.359/.490 for Double-A Bowie last year.

Jeff Fiorentino, a 22-year-old outfielder, also hit very well for Delmarva, .302/.379/.575. He too is at least 2 years away.

Hayden Penn, Chris Ray and John Maine are the best pitching prospects.

Maine is the closest to the majors – he actually had a cup of coffee last year. He made the jump from Single-A to Triple-A after just five starts for Bowie last year. He pitched very well in the second half, for the year he had a 3.91 ERA, 105 strikeouts in 120 IP. He walked 52 and gave up 12 HR. He will start the year in Triple-A, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get called to the big club at some point.

Ray and Penn are younger, and spent last summer touring Maryland. Penn is only 20, and he bounced all over last year – he started the year in Salisbury pitching for Delmarva. After 6 starts and 7 relief appearances there (3.32 ERA, 41/19 K/BB, 43 IP), he made the drive over the Bay Bridge and on to Frederick for 13 starts (3.80, 61/20, 73 IP). From there he shot down 270 to the DC Beltway, swung out on 50 and landed in Bowie, where he made his final four starts (4.87, 20/9, 20 IP). He’s at least 2 years away from a drive to the Inner Harbor.

Ray didn’t get the trip to Bowie in August, but he made 9 starts at Delmarva (3.42, 46/17, 50 IP) and 14 for Frederick (3.80, 74/20, 73 IP). Ray is almost 3 years older than Penn, but I don’t believe age is quite as important when it comes to pitching prospects; they are basically equal at this point in their development in terms of results. Ray throws harder (95 vs. 90-92), but Sickels says he needs to develop a change in order to pitch at the higher levels, and who am I to argue?

Walter Young is a little older, but I like him. Move over Cecil Fielder. Young is 6’5″, 290 and he can mash, blasting 33 HR for Bowie last year in 486 AB. He strikes out a lot (146 times last year) and he’s 25, so he’s not a great prospect. But I’d keep moving him up until he proves he can’t hit. Like Newhan, this is a great example of Baltimore’s new management picking up some freely available talent – they claimed him off waivers from Pittsburgh.

Get the picture? There is practically no help on the way from the farm system any time soon. Just about everyone I mentioned played for Delmarva in the Sally League last year. That team finished 69-69. The farm system was in a shambles when Flanagan and Beattie took over, and it still has a long way to go, but they are making progress.

Outlook

The O’s are making progress, but it’s been the slow, steady type of progress that’s easy to miss when the team is still below .500 and one bad year is blending into another. But this team is miles ahead of where they were two years ago – the Orioles were 67-95 without anyone on the team that could remotely be considered a star. They improved 10 games over the last two seasons, and I think they can get to .500 this year.

Baltimore has 3 legitimate stars now, Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora (two years can’t be a fluke, can it?) and Javy Lopez and we aren’t counting the aging Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro in that group – they aren’t stars anymore. They have a good bullpen. They have two solid starters (Lopez and Ponson), and reasonable options for the back end of the rotation (Bedard/Cabrera).

But for the team to take that next step, they are going to have to develop or sign an ace starter, and they are going to have to add a star to the offense. Larry Bigbie is kind of popular, but he was 26 years old last year and posted a 96 OPS+. Jay Gibbons fell off a cliff offensively and needs to return to his pre-2004 level (110 OPS+) to be remotely useful as a corner OF/1B. Palmeiro had a 103 OPS+ last year, which is downright awful for a 1B. I still think Luis Matos can play, but he needs to show it, he was a disaster after a promising 2003.

There are still a lot of holes – the Orioles need to actively be pursuing ways to fill them – it’s easy to miss a hole when a ‘name’ is causing it. The Orioles have quite a few questionable ‘name players’ at this point.

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