Five questions: Baltimore Orioles

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Matt Wieters (Icon/SMI)

Those poor Orioles. They didn’t know what the Curse of Jeffrey Maier was going to bring them. But lo! Hope arrives on the horizon. Boasting one of the best offenses in the game and teeming with young major league players poised to break out and a stable of young arms progressing through the system, this coming decade portends to be a heck of a lot sunnier than this one.

This is a transitional year for the club. Two aging veterans are nearing the end of their contracts while their young players entrench themselves into the majors. What the front office does this year will go a long way towards determining the future of this franchise. Will they be forever doomed to a good offense and shoddy pitching? 2009 will tell us that.

Will Matt Wieters save the day?

Wieters, baseball’s next greatest catcher, is being looked at as the future centerpiece of the Oriole offense. Getting out of the way what you probably already know: he can flat out hit.

As a matter of fact, despite not seeing one pitch at the Triple-A level, the consensus of the statistical projections have Wieters hitting for a near .300 batting average in the majors and hitting about 20 home runs. Now that’s impressive.

Wieters, who was optioned to Triple-A on March 30th, is a near lock to be promoted at the end of May or beginning of June. The delay is primarily to prevent Wieters’ arbitration clock from starting early, but there’s also the notion about pressure. By optioning him to Triple-A, the Orioles send a message to him, the team and fans that they will not rush him just because he’s been anointed the savior … even though he is.

So, will Wieters save the day?

Getting off to a strong start in his first season behind the plate is important for the Orioles, if only for morale. There isn’t much to look forward to this year—probably next year too—except for Wieters and trying to figure out who the Orioles can get in trades for Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora.

If Wieters gets off to a bad start, does it mean the end of his career? Of course not. We all know that it couldn’t be farther from the truth. After all, Dustin Pedroia‘s first foray into the big leagues saw him hit .200/.303/.304 in his first 115 at-bats in the bigs (September 2006 and April 2007).

But this season is all about morale and progression for the Orioles. It’s not really about results on the field. It’s about Adam Jones continuing to develop into a five-tool star, about Felix Pie realizing his potential. About Koji Uehara proving that he can pitch in America, about Hayden Penn stepping up his game.

So will Matt Wieters save the day? I don’t think anyone can possibly save the day for the Orioles—there’s no day that needs saving. But can Wieters live up to his almost impossible expectations? Given his obscene .365/.460/.625 line in Double-A last year in Double-A and his advanced skills, the indication is that he can indeed live up to his stratospheric expectations.

If Wieters doesn’t, it doesn’t change the Orioles’ chances for contending in 2010 or on (unless his struggles continue, of course). What it will do, is turn a bad situation already worse in Baltimore. There’s nothing more demoralizing than having a hyped player who is supposed to save baseball in the city implode. You could argue that the Texas Rangers are still struggling over the bust named David Clyde. (I won’t argue it, but you can.)

Is there hope for pitching?

The top two spots in the rotation belong to Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara. Past that, it’s anybody’s guess. It looks to shake out with Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson occupying two of the final spots. There’s a battle between Hayden Penn, Brian Bass and Danys Baez for the final spot, but the spot will belong to Rich Hill when he returns from the disabled list about two weeks into the season.

Talk about not inspiring optimism.

Guthrie is a fine pitcher who would serve as a No. 2 on most other teams. He’s thrust into the mantle of “ace” for the Orioles, however. He’s been lucky over the last two years as his xFIPs in both years were 4.41 and 4.64 respectively as opposed to ERAs of 3.70 and 3.63. Does that mean he’s in line for a regression? Not quite. The Orioles’ defense is much improved with Cesar Izturis at short and Felix Pie in left-field. More concerning than possible regression is his performance in spring training. After getting batted about like a pinball in the World Baseball Classic, his struggles have continued in spring training. 11.1 innings, 7.94 ERA, 14 hits, six walks, nine strikeouts. Walks were his downfall in Cleveland; if he doesn’t turn it around and pronto, we could see a very ugly season for Guthrie. Long-term, he looks to give the Orioles solid innings and could possibly be around for the O’s first contending season in the rotation.

No one quite knows what to expect from Koji Uehara, the Japanese import. He has solid strikeout numbers and impeccable control, which would seem to translate well. The 33-year old hasn’t pitched much in spring training, so we can’t really determine how he’s fared in the transition, but let’s try. In 7.2 innings as of this writing, he’s walked three and whiffed 12. The strikeouts are a bit of an aberration—I would think it has to do with players needing to get familiar with Uehara. Those will come down, but it’s still encouraging. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects Uehara to land around a 4.72 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 27 walks in 135 innings to go along with 85 whiffs and 22 home runs. Sounds reasonable. I’d take the under on the ERA, but not much. As long as he doesn’t embarrass himself and soaks up innings, the Orioles will gladly take it.

We’ve gotten two-fifths of the way through, and it’s about to get nasty. So let’s give credit where credit is due: For a rebuilding team, the Orioles have fashioned themselves a solid one-two complement. If one of the next three “breaks out,” their rotation may be respectable enough to eye .500.

Let’s tackle Adam Eaton first. Eaton was released unceremoniously by the Phillies earlier this year. It was a PR hit they were able to take due to winning the Series last year, but there’s no excusing this disaster of a signing. Three years at $25.5 million in 2007 was highly dubious from the start. When you’re coming off an injury-plagued year in which you posted a 5.13 ERA in 13 starts, a deal like that tends not to be smart. Indeed, he would go on to post a horrendous 6.29 ERA in 30 starts in 2007 before “contributing” to the Phillies’ World Series run with a 5.80 ERA (5.18 xFIP) in 107 innings. There’s really nothing from the past three years to suggest that Eaton can be a competent starting pitcher, but that only shows you the issues in Baltimore these days. Help is on the way, but not yet, so the Orioles will give Eaton every shot possible to give them innings.

Hendrickson, a lefty, continues to get chances although he has failed to perform since being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006. Soft-tossing lefties are generally thought to develop later, so the Dodgers took the gamble. it didn’t work; Hendrickson was sent to the bullpen late in the year before temporarily recapturing his starting job in 2007. He left the team and went to Florida where he served a similar role for the Marlins. Interestingly enough, he has shown the capability to strike more batters out than normal—he struck out about 4.2 per game in 2004 and 2005, and has been in the mid-5.0s since with a spike to 6.7 in 2007. His issue is leaving the ball over the plate more for batters to drive; his line drive rate went way up although he did calm it down to a relatively sane 20.2 percentage. Like Eaton, the Orioles will hope to strike gold. Unfortunately for the O’s, both these two look to be fool’s gold.

The fifth spot projects to be a rotation all year with fringe prospects looking to establish themselves. Hayden Penn, Brian Bass, Radhames Liz, David Pauley… they are all just keeping the seats warm for the bevy of prospects (top two: Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz) that will hit Baltimore in the next couple of years. Of course, Rich Hill will take his shot in this spot once he returns from injury. A former hotly-touted left-handed pitcher, Hill developed Steve Blass Disease suddenly last year and was moved for a player to be named later just a year after it would have taken some serious players to pry him loose. In 2007, Hill turned heads by posting a 3.92 ERA in 32 starts, walking 63 and whiffing 183 in 195.0 innings. Can he recapture his magic? It’s anyone’s guess, but recovering from this disease is tough; just ask Rick Ankiel or for you prospect-lovers, Jason Neighborgall.

There is no hope for pitching at the big league level. None. The bullpen boasts some interesting arms in Jim Johnson, Chris Ray, Dennis Sarfate, Matt Albers, Jim Miller… the bullpen is actually not the issue. They have some nice live arms that they can evaluate for long-term relevancy. The starting rotation is going to be the team’s Achilles heel yet again. Really, all the Orioles are trying to do this year is to pray Guthrie doesn’t regress, Uehara gives them an arm for the next three years, Eaton/Hendrickson establish value and then get traded and one of their fringe prospects establishes themselves. If the top four pitchers hit their best-case scenarios, this team can definitely finish .500 with that powerful offense. The odds are so large, however, that even Las Vegas would walk away from allowing people to bet on it.

Is it the right strategy? I don’t think it is. The club shouldn’t be giving innings to Eaton and Hendrickson; they should be giving the innings to the players that can actually make an impact in the future. A rotation, however horrendous, of Penn, Liz and Hill would be beneficial to developing these players. That’s just me, though. I can understand trying to strike gold and at least give their team a shot to win games.

How is it possible to contend in the AL East?

It’s not.

The Orioles have to resign themselves to finishing fourth or fifth yet again, especially with that motley pitching crew. Is there hope out there? Sure. They have a nice complement of young offensive stars and arms are in the pipeline. Brian Roberts signed his new four-year extension with the expectation that they would contend before the extension is up, and while projecting four/five years out into the future is always tough to do, the players the O’s already have in place certainly make that a possibility. To truly contend, however, the Orioles will have to not only entice good free agents to come to the team but adequately replace their aging stars that will likely depart over the next few years: Melvin Mora, Aubrey Huff, Luke Scott and George Sherrill are likely to be among those.

This question certainly has a much shorter answer than the previous ones, but there’s no reason to prattle on.

Can the veterans boost their trade value?

The veterans that the Orioles would love to see come through with strong seasons are the ones who just were named as likely departures.

Mora, 37, experienced a few down seasons after his last great season in 2004. He was able to rediscover his power stroke and swat 23 home runs last year, but time is running out for this late bloomer. Mora has a club option for 2010 and is making $9 million this year, so he is a reasonable trade deadline acquisition by some team looking to shore up its power and the flexibility to decline the 2010 option if needed. I don’t pretend to prognosticate, but I would imagine Andy McPhail is crossing his fingers that Mora comes through so he can be shipped out for pitching prospects. (How would he look as an Angel?)

Huff experienced his second-best season ever and drove in 108 RBI, a career high. He’s a free agent at the end of the year and would be a boon to a team seeking options at first, left and DH—with third in a pinch. As a lefty bat, he’s the most valuable possible trading chip the Orioles have although the team could simply elect to retain the 32-year-old and have him in their offense for the next few years. The need for Huff to produce isn’t motivated by trade winds as much as it is the Orioles not being forced to plug another hole.

Scott is entering his second full year of starting at age 31. He posted 23 home runs, and The Hardball Times projects him to hit 21 this season. Scott remains arbitration eligible for at least the next two years, so it will take quite a bit for the Orioles to move him. As the cheapest and most controllable of the three names, however, he has the potential to bring back the most in a trade. If he gets off to a strong start, if the Orioles can get a solid pitching prospect for him, they should consider the move.

The last veteran who is key to their trade value is one who was supposed to be shipped out already, George Sherrill. I previewed the Orioles team as a whole over at Fire Brand of the American League and this is what I had to say about Sherrill:

Sherrill came over in the Erik Bedard trade and posted 31 saves, quickly becoming a fan favorite. He didn’t live up to his 2.36 ERA in 45.2 innings for the Mariners in 2007, but that wasn’t a surprise. He checked in at 4.73 this past year and took one for the league last year, throwing three innings in the All-Star game. Pre-All Star: 4.08 ERA, 39.2 IP. Post: 13.2 IP, 6.59 ERA. Coincidence? You decide. Either way, he’s good, not great.

Scuttlebutt at the time had Sherrill not even opening the year with the Orioles, much less closing it. A year later though, here we are. With Sherrill having made it through his first full season as a closer and unlikely to go through the All-Star wringer that he did, he should improve his numbers. The Orioles don’t have a bullpen full of stud names, but they do have talent. With Jim Johnson, Dennis Sarfate and Chris Ray (just recovered from Tommy John surgery) they have the makings of a solid bullpen. A bullpen that holds enough young flamethrowers that could be promoted to closer that Sherrill should be on the trading block without a doubt. With teams so starved for pitching and unable to fill in the gaps in the back of the rotation, acquiring relievers will become the preferred method this summer. The Orioles desperately need Sherrill to turn in a solid first half so he can bring a bounty back. Excepting a terrible/injury-plagued year for Sherrill, I would be shocked if the Orioles didn’t move him—and if they don’t, I’ll lose faith in their ability to turn this team around.

We covered Eaton and Hendrickson earlier, but they won’t fetch much even if they were to be league average. Again, I’m aware of the lack of depth surrounding the O’s rotation, but I’m concerned that they seem to be prepared to give Eaton a rotation spot and go with Hendrickson over young pitchers while Rich Hill recuperates.

What’s the point of the 2009 season?

The Orioles have three goals this season, and three only:

1) Bring their young hitters along. For their offense to remain near the best both short term and long term, they need to continue the development of Adam Jones, make sure nothing goes awry with Matt Wieters, and tap into Felix Pie‘s potential.

2) Jump on trades for their veterans. The sooner the club realizes 2009 and probably 2010 is a lost cause, the sooner it can actively look to move veterans. With Huff a free agent and no lock to return, Mora a pricey, aging option and Sherrill the most valued available commodity on the team, the Orioles need to take advantage of the needs of others to restock their prospects at the high levels. For example, the Angels will at some point crave offensive help and could look to Mora or Huff. If the Orioles could somehow pull off an acquisition of someone like Kevin Jepsen, they need to do it.

3) Search high and low for pitching. If the Orioles don’t make liberal use of the waiver wire and roster crunches of other teams who can’t afford to wait on fringe pitchers anymore, I’ll be disappointed. The Orioles have solid pitching prospects, but they aren’t steeped in depth. They need to bring in young arms, and plenty. The Adam Eatons and Mark Hendricksons of the world are good to fill out a roster, but as the season progresses, they have to look towards the future.

It’s hard times in Baltimore: the current situation has never looked bleaker, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Peter Angelos has given up control, Andy McPhail has so far displayed competence and the O’s have a burgeoning corps of young stars. What he does this year will dramatically impact how soon Baltimore can contend again. It’s as close as to a watershed year as you can get, as this year will mark the transition from the old to the new.

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