Five Questions: Baltimore Orioles

It seems that the Baltimore Orioles have taken over as the ‘cursed’ team in the American League East. Last season, they started out hot, and then they crashed and burned, their fourth straight terrible second half. O’s fans have witnessed bad management, bad luck and just pure incompetence in every part of the organization in the past decade, and a once-proud franchise now isn’t even the top draw in its region.

You know you have it bad when Rotoworld columnist (and THT editor) Aaron Gleeman says the following about one of your top offseason acquisitions: “A great risk to take as long as you’re not trying to build a real-life team.” Ouch. So here’s the question: do Orioles fans have anything to look forward to (except Peter Angelos selling the team)?

1. What kind of impact will Mazzone have?

JC Bradbury is the envy of anyone who has ever done a sabermetric study: his study demonstrating that pitching coach Leo Mazzone takes off more than six-tenths of a point off a pitcher’s ERA, on average, is quoted often by the mainstream media. Based on Bradbury’s work, we could expect the Orioles’ pitching staff to improve by 100 runs. In fact, doing the math, that would mean that their 74-88 record last year would be more like 84-78 if they had Mazzone.

Thus, one could easily call the Mazzone signing the biggest of the offseason. The O’s have many young pitchers who could especially benefit from Mazzone’s tutelage; three of their five starters, as well as their closer, are still under 30. Daniel Cabrera is only 25; he’s 6’7″, 230 pounds, and he throws his fastball in the triple digits. Cabrera was 4% better than league average last season after being 21% worse than league average the year before, according to DIPS 3.0. While he improved his home run and walk rates, the greatest improvement for Cabrera came in his strikeout rate; he struck out 8.76 batters per nine innings last season, after posting a 4.63 K/9 in 2004. Now, it’s up to him to lower his walk rate. Given Mazzone’s belief in the importance of getting strikes—he insists that the first pitch should always be a fastball over the plate—it’s easy to see that happening, and Cabrera could be ready to break out.

Erik Bedard
is 27 and in the prime of his career. Bedard is somewhat reminiscent of another Mazzone pupil, Tom Glavine, but with more strikeouts and more walks. Of course, by the time he was 27, Glavine had 93 career wins—Bedard has 12. Nevertheless, Bedard similarly throws a fastball in the low 90s with a nice curveball, and he will make a nice #3 starter.

Baltimore’s “ace” is Rodrigo Lopez. Lopez scares no one but the Red Sox, who he has beaten six times in the past three years—the most wins he has against any team. Lopez has had a very up-and-down career; his ERAs have been as follows: 8.76, 3.57, 5.82, 3.59, 4.90. Based on his batted-ball distributions, Lopez looks more like the pitcher with an ERA in the high 4.00s than an ace. The Orioles, however, are counting on Mazzone to turn him around.

Mazzone’s greatest challenge, however, will probably be Kris Benson, who was acquired from the Mets in the offseason. Benson has teased baseball fans for years with his great stuff and potential. Unfortunately, he’s never put it together. He’s a league-average pitcher now, but apparently Mazzone has been putting in a lot of work with Benson, getting him to drop his curveball, and working with him on consistently throwing the ball low in the strike zone. Benson has always been more successful when he’s been able to get a lot of ground balls, so maybe he can turn things around at 31.

Baltimore is also hoping that Mazzone can help closer Chris Ray step into the departed B.J. Ryan’s role seamlessly. Ray is young, was very good in his first major league season last year, strikes out over a batter an inning, and has looked good in spring training thus far. He’s one guy that Mazzone might not need to work with much.

The bottom line is this: if Mazzone is as good a pitching coach as we think he is, the Orioles are probably contenders. I personally don’t think he’ll be able to save them 100 runs just like that, though I do think some pitchers will indeed benefit from his presence, namely Benson and Cabrera. But even if that’s all he does, the O’s are suddenly going to be competitive, and with some luck, we may end up looking back on the Mazzone signing as the biggest free-agent deal of the offseason.

2. Will the O’s have an outfield this time?

Baltimore’s outfield last year was quite possibly one of the worst ever. The three starting outfielders posted the following OPS+: 74, 95, and 82. B.J. Surhoff, Luis Matos, and Sammy Sosa combined to be 25 runs below average over 362 games. They were basically worthless, and now all three are gone. In are Kevin Millar, Corey Patterson, and Jay Gibbons, who was Baltmore’s designated hitter in 2005.

On one hand, almost anyone would be an improvement over Sammy Sosa last season. Sosa was 12 runs below average on offense, and four runs below on defense, according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Mitchel Lichtman’s (also known as “MGL”) “ultimate” fielding system. Worse still, Sosa’s terrible performance came in only a little over half a season. According to Lichtman, over a full season, a replacement-level player is worth about 18 runs below average. In the same number of games as Sosa played last year, then, we’d expect a replacement-level player to be 11 runs below average, or about half a win better than Sosa was.

On the other hand, Sosa’s replacement is essentially Millar, who experienced just as much of a power outage last year as Sosa. Sosa’s home run output declined 60% last year (from 35 to 14), while Millar was down 50% (18 to 9). Worse still, Millar, a right-handed hitter, is leaving Fenway Park, where the Green Monster was especially friendly to Millar’s hitting style. Millar’s slugging percentage (SLG) last year was a paltry .313 on the road.

Matos was Baltimore’s best outfielder last season, as his play was essentially average. The O’s decided this wasn’t good enough and brought in Corey Patterson, perhaps the worst, most overrated baseball player on the planet, as an “upgrade.” Now, Matos is being actively shopped, and Patterson is batting .222 in Spring Training. When I say that Patterson is quite possibly the worst baseball player in the major leagues, I’m only overstating things a little. Patterson was 21 runs below average on offense last season in only 126 games; only Cristian Guzman was worse.

Gibbons is a stereotypical right fielder; a big, slow power hitter, Gibbons has averaged a home run every 20 at-bats or so in his career, which translates to about 28 a year. He turned 29 a few weeks ago, and he is still young enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break 30 for the first time in his career given a full season of playing time. Defensively, Gibbons can hold his own as well.

Overall, the O’s have done surprisingly little to upgrade their outfield, given how weak it was last season. Offensively, Gibbons is a massive upgrade, but Patterson is worse than Matos. Defensively, Patterson is great, but Millar is a butcher. The Orioles are essentially left hoping that Patterson and Millar will rebound from abysmal 2005 seasons; otherwise, this will be “One of the Worst Oufields Ever” 2.0.

3. Are we going to witness a tale of two halves yet again?

The Orioles have been prone to huge second-half swoons the past few years. In 2002, they were 63-63, looking at respectability, before losing 32 of their next 36 games. In 2003, they were 57-59, once again chasing .500, before they lost 17 of their next 21. In 2004, they were once again 57-59, once again looking to go .500, and they lost 12 straight games. Last season, they were once again chasing .500 with a record of 60 wins and 60 losses, and they went on to lose 10 out of 11. So the question is, why? Is it just bad luck or something more?

The answer is definitely not in the manager; Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli and Sam Perlozzo have all been at the helm during these swoons. I think there are two potential explanations here: 1) The O’s have had rosters that were especially prone to tiring down the rest stretch the past few years, and 2) Baltimore’s front office has been too incompetent to stop these slides before they happened.

The second point is probably right; the O’s have had one of the more incompetent front offices in the game over the last decade, and Peter Angelos’—ahem—craziness hasn’t helped. Last year, the Orioles failed to trade for A.J. Burnett when they were still in contention, and in fact, they haven’t made a big deadline deal since trading away Sidney Ponson in 2003. Of course, they then brought him back and have watched him eat/drunk drive his way out of the league since.

The first explanation is kind of a guess, but I think there’s some validity to that. Last year, for example, Baltimore’s top four starters pitched 710 innings. In 2004, they combined for only 503 innings pitched. That must have worn on them. Last season, more than half (five of nine) of Baltimore’s starting lineup was at least 33 years old. Those guys must have been worn out by the time August rolled around. Those five hitters posted an OPS of .789 prior to the All-Star Game (that’s a simple average), but only a .696 OPS after the break. In 2004, the O’s had four regulars over 33, and four in 2003 as well. In 2002, only two of their regulars were over 33, but then again, almost half their lineup was out of baseball by 2004, with a fifth player unable to get a job in the major leagues in 2005.

In short, the Orioles have been constructing rosters that are not built for the whole season. A dearth of young players and a propensity for signing mediocre veterans has doomed the team in the second half of the past four years. Unfortunately, this season doesn’t look very different. Millar and Jeff Conine do not exactly count as getting younger. Ramon Hernandez, their prize free-agent acquisition, turns 30 this season, usually the point at which catchers start to fall off the earth. And he’s the only attempt the Orioles made at getting younger. Baltimore has a decent team, but don’t be surprised to see it start well and then fall off the face of the earth once again.

4. Will anyone be talking in the locker room?

It has seemed at times this offseason that many of the Orioles just don’t want to be Orioles. Miguel Tejada made big news when he demanded a trade and complained about the team’s lack of action. Rumors surfaced that he and Hernandez were supposedly feuding, though the two are close friends from their playing days in Oakland. Javy Lopez followed up on Tejada’s trade demand with his own. Melvin Mora, who is now embittered by a contract dispute with management, told the Baltimore Sun that he agreed with Tejada’s sentiments. Oh, and Rafael Palmeiro accused Tejada of giving teammates steroids last season, casting a shadow of suspicion on the whole team. Manager Sam Perlozzo is going to have a tough time with this group.

It’s true, of course, that winning cures all differences. If the Orioles start off well, everyone will be happy, and any tensions in the clubhouse will disappear. But if things don’t go well, don’t be surprised to see the wheels fall off the cart. Trade demands will come, players will bitch about management, and Perlozzo will lose his job.

5. Does Angelos care anymore?

The worst thing MLB could have done in bringing a team to Washington was to guarantee Peter Angelos a minimum selling price for his Orioles. In order to silence Angelos’ complaints, MLB guaranteed that he would get at least $365 million for the O’s were he to sell the team, and if he didn’t, the league would make up the difference. Now Angelos, who used to be free-spending and invested in his team, has no reason to spend any money on the Orioles whatsoever, and it’s shown as the O’s have failed to make any impact moves the past two years.

Last season, they couldn’t pull off a midseason deal for Burnett, when the struggling franchise really needed someone to help it from falling out of contention. They’ve gone two offseasons without signing a big-name player, after announcing they were going to get back to winning two years ago by signing Tejada and Lopez. The Orioles have no need to compete, and what’s worse, the cost of competing in the AL East is so high that Angelos would need to really spend money if he wanted to win.

The last time Baltimore was in the postseason, 1997, they were second in the major leagues in payroll, only $4 million behind the Yankees, who (no surprise) topped the league at $59 million. Last year, Baltimore’s payroll was almost $20 million higher than in 1997. Problem is, the Yankees had upped their payroll $150 million in those seven years.

It’s not that Baltimore isn’t spending; it’s that the O’s are spending too much to get high draft picks and rebuild and too little to hope to win. They’re stuck in a rut of mediocrity, and unfortunately, Angelos has little reason to care now. Attendance is going to keep falling, and he’ll blame it on the Nationals before selling for those $365 million. But it’s not the Nationals; it’s Angelos and his string of incompetent general managers.

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