Five Questions: Baltimore Orioles

1. Can Mazzone work his magic on Jaret Wright?

Last year, I asked if Leo Mazzone was the biggest free agent signing of the off-season. According to JC Bradbury’s research, Mazzone is worth about 100 runs a year, a number even Albert Pujols can’t touch.

Of course, in yet another triumph of pesky reality over statistical wisdom, Baltimore’s team ERA rose from 4.57 to 5.55, as the Orioles finished with their ninth consecutive losing season.

This year, I’ll aim smaller, and instead of expecting Mazzone to fix the whole pitching staff, I will look only at how much success he has with Wright.

A decade ago, Jaret Wright came up as a highly touted rookie, going 8-3 in half a season with the Indians, and upping the hype with a 3-0 postseason record, including a 2.92 ERA in the World Series. Wright got into a bunch of bad habits, did not improve his awful control, and then at 23, he got injured.

For four years, Wright battled injuries and ineffectiveness, until in late 2003 he was traded to the Atlanta Braves. In Atlanta, Mazzone worked his magic on Wright, and in 2004, Jaret Wright had the best season of his career: 15-8, 3.28 ERA, 2.3 K/BB ratio and just 11 home runs in 186.3 innings pitched.

The Yankees handed Wright a three-year, $21 million contract in the off-season, and he promptly got injured, starting just 13 games in 2005, with a 6.08 ERA. Wright was healthier last season, and his 4.49 ERA was just about league average, but the Yankees decided they did not want to hold onto him, and they sent the O’s $4 million to eat Wright’s contract.

Baltimore is hoping that re-uniting Wright with Mazzone will lead to a repeat of Wright’s 2004 season, but I’m not so sure. While Jaret Wright was a perfectly average starter last season, he also saw a huge dip in his groundball rate, while allowing just 10 home runs in over 140 innings. That’s not going to repeat itself.

Wright also struck out just 5.2 batters a game, down from 7.9 in 2004. About a quarter of that difference is attributable to the difference in league strength, and another 10% to the designated hitter. What the Orioles hope is that Mazzone will at least be able to get Wright to around seven strikeouts per game.

I wouldn’t have any hopes for Wright if he were on any other team, but if Mazzone can get him throwing over that outside corner, who knows what can happen?

2. Will Melvin Mora rebound?

After hitting .312/.391/.513 in the previous three seasons, Mora received a three-year, $25 million extension early last year. And suddenly, after hitting 27 home runs each of the past two years, Mora’s power disappeared. His home run total dipped to 16, and his slugging average fell from a career-high of .562 in 2004 all the way to .391.

Mora’s batting average is still all right, as is his walk rate, but he needs to provide power from a corner position if the Orioles lineup is going to score some runs.

The good news is that all signs point to a rebound season. PrOPS says that Mora should have had a .426 SLG last season, while The Hardball Times 2007 Season Preview projects a .793 OPS.

But if Mora’s power does not return, his mediocre glove will make that extension even harder to palate.

3. Will Huff and Payton add punch to the lineup?

Not only did the Orioles have an awful pitching staff last season, but their offense was pretty punch-less too. The biggest culprits came in two traditional power spots—left field and DH— where Jeff Conine and Javy Lopez combined for just 17 home runs and 80 RBI.

Baltimore tried to upgrade those two positions with Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton, both of whom are at least under 35 (though Payton barely fits—he’s 34). Both Conine and Lopez posted a .726 OPS, which shouldn’t be too tough to exceed. On the other hand, Payton’s projected OPS is just .730, though Huff is respectable at .816.

But what might make the biggest difference is Payton’s fielding. Jeff Conine was eight runs below average in left field last season while with the Orioles; Payton is projected to be eight runs above.

All in all, Huff and Payton might be worth four extra wins to the Orioles; nothing to scoff at, but not nearly enough to get them back to respectability.

4. What happened to all the young pitching?

Last year, I wrote excitedly about all the young pitching the Orioles had coming down the pipeline. This time around…not so much. Oh sure, last season wasn’t completely lost; Eric Bedard established himself as a very good pitcher, and he projects to put up a sub-4.00 ERA in 2007.

But Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn combined for a 5.72 ERA in 280 innings pitched. The news isn’t all bad—Cabrera is 26, and projects to be a respectable No. 3 starter next season; Loewen is 23 and Penn is 22, but the fact is, these guys are going to need to show something, and soon.

The best-case scenario for the Orioles is that Bedard continues to develop into an ace, Cabrera finally has a better-than-average season, Loewen improves on his already-decent peripherals and Penn pitches more in line with his minor league record than his major league performances. If Jaret Wright somehow turns it around, the O’s might have a pretty good staff.

But that is a lot of ifs, and realistically we should probably expect two of those pitchers to fail.

5. Can the O’s compete in the AL East?

Baltimore actually has done quite a bit to improve in the offseason. The Orioles filled some big holes in their lineup, and now they’re average or better from every spot, and they signed some pretty good relievers (Danys Baez, Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford), who should help stabilize a bullpen that finished second-to-last in the American League last year with a 5.25 ERA. Baez, Walker and Bradford probably are overpaid, but they will help.

What their success really depends on is the starting rotation. If Mazzone has a big impact on Baltimore’s young pitchers (and Jaret Wright) in his second year with the O’s, this is going to be a formidable club. But if the staff implodes like it did last year (5.40 ERA, better only than the Royals), the O’s once again will suffer through a sub-.500 season.

The problem for the Orioles is that they play in the most expensive division in baseball. According to our projections, the Yankees and Red Sox are the only teams that will win more than 90 games in 2007, and though the Orioles’ projection of 82 wins is all right, they still have just an 8% chance of winning the East.

Even if Mazzone lowers each starter’s ERA by half a run, that will get the Orioles only into the mid-to-high 80s in the win column, which won’t be enough in the tough American League East. For the O’s to compete, everything has to go right.

Looks like another long season in Baltimore.

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