Will there be joy in Mudville in 2011?
Ever since the completion of the wondrous 1983 season, being an Orioles fan, with very few exceptions (1989, 1996 and 1997), has been a mostly depressing baseball experience. Yes, Orioles Park at Camden Yards is a wonderful place to spend a summer evening. However, especially over the past 13 years, it has been best for fans to ignore the game and just enjoy the crab cakes, the grilled sausage (sorry, but Boog’s is a bit overrated; try the grilled sausage or grab a Hebrew National), and the ice-cold beer. Viewing the on-field product would generally lead to indigestion even on an empty stomach.
The first several months of the 2010 season confirmed this view and indicated that the Orioles were headed to historic levels of awfulness. However, starting with the debut of new manager Buck Showalter in August, the Orioles started to show flashes of not just being actual living, breathing professional ballplayers (which alone would have been welcomed by most fans), but a team actually starting to play well. It was a very confusing experience.
Wife: Honey, what are you watching?
Husband: The Orioles game.
Wife: But you’re not yelling, and you seem happy. Wait a minute, are you watching Cinemax?
Yes, August and September were that good for Orioles fans.
Then, to build on this excitement, general manager Andy McPhail added a new left side of the infield during the offseason in third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy. Right-handed reliever Kevin Gregg was signed and added to the bullpen. And then—the pièce de résistance—Vladie was signed.
Okay, so Reynolds hit below the Mendoza line last year. Hardy has a bit of trouble staying healthy. Cal Ripken speculated recently that DH Vladimir Guerrero is 76 years old. And Gregg isn’t exactly Mariano Rivera. Reynolds, however, is not an aging Miguel Tejada. Hardy should hit better than last year’s starting shortstop Cesar Izturis (and is backed up by Izturis, just in case), and Gregg is not Michael Gonzalez. Then again, Orioles fans hope that the 2010 version of Gonzalez wasn’t Michael Gonzalez either. And, finally, Vladie—even at 76 years of age—is a better hitter than anyone the Orioles have had in years.
So, will there be joy in Mudville in 2011? Well, unlike Casey, Vladie rarely strikes out. And, considering the bad experiences of the past 13 years, most Orioles fans will likely be thrilled if the Orioles can play .500 ball and if there are more Orioles fans than Yankees fans in the stands when New York is in town. That’s the positive side for Showalter. It’s not a very high hurdle to clear.
What direction will the wind be blowing out at Camden Yards?
To left field. Strongly. Whenever Mark Reynolds bats. Showalter is also hoping that Reynolds’ on-deck swings will aid the hitter in front of him.
Still, even though Reynolds can be counted on for 200-plus strikeouts and may struggle to hit .250, his power alone makes him a significant upgrade at third base for the Orioles. Tejada (.269 and no power in 2010) and Josh Bell (two walks and 53 strikeouts in 161 plate appearances) accounted for 10 home runs and 51 RBIs last season, numbers that Reynolds has the ability to surpass by June 2011. Additionally, reports from the Orioles front office are that he plays the game hard, a trait that should endear him to the Orioles faithful. So long as Reynolds hits 25-plus home runs and can drive in more than 80, his strikeouts will be forgiven by the manager and the fans.
Is Matt Wieters one of the most disappointing prospects in baseball history?
Baseball Prospectus infamously published gushing projections of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters’ rookie year using its PECOTA measurement tool. When Wieters failed to play at a Roy Campanella level, the respected news and analysis site was the butt of many jokes about this prediction. In March 2011 Baseball Prospectus jumped off the catcher’s bandwagon hard and fast, declaring him to be one of the top 50 most disappointing prospects in baseball history.
One might argue that this is an over-reaction by the online baseball journal. Perhaps Wieters’ first couple of years in the league points less to his pre-arrival hype being an epic failure on behalf of all the scouts in the country that raved about him than evidence that a projection of baseball statistics that is based on a mathematical model named after a middling utility infielder is suspect at best.
Wieters will turn just 25 in 2011. His defense has improved immensely in his first two years in the league. All reports are that he spent the winter working himself into great shape. Manager Showalter has raved this spring about his catcher’s maturity and leadership, especially with the young Baltimore pitching staff. Is Wieters likely to turn into future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza? Probably not. But, to be fair, it is unlikely that any catcher will again hit like Piazza until a new performance-enhancing drug is invented, so this is an unfair comparison. And besides, Piazza was never a defensive whiz, to say the least.
So maybe until Wieters proves that he is capable of hitting at an elite level in the majors, it is best to stop wondering whether Wieters can be the best catcher in history and to think of more realistic goals. For example, can Wieters be the best catcher in Orioles history? Well, that is also not a very high hurdle. However, if Wieters can turn in a Gus Triandos-like performance (.271, 21 homers, 88 RBIs in 1957—at age 25), and continue his strong defense and fine handling of the young pitching staff, then the Orioles’ chances at a .500 or better finish should be greatly enhanced.
Can the Orioles avoid losing two-thirds of their AL East games?
And two-thirds of their games against left-handed pitching?
The Orioles’ shortcomings are summed up fairly well in looking at their win-loss splits over the past few years:
Year Record against AL East Record against LHP 2010 24-48 18-33 2009 24-48 24-37 2008 22-50 16-32
The consistency with which the Orioles have lost to their AL East foes and left-handed pitching in particular is nothing short of amazing. And considering the left-handed pitchers in the division (David Price, CC Sabathia, John Lester, and previously Andy Pettitte) these two splits are clearly inter-connected.
The Orioles have attempted to address these shortcomings with an influx of right-handed power hitters. Adding Reynolds, Derek Lee and Guerrero was clearly the Orioles’ answer to improving performance against lefthanders, and thereby also improving the team’s success in the AL East.
However, these moves are not without risk. Reynolds is only 27 and has hit 104 home runs in the past three years. Yet his team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, traded him and his affordable contract to the Orioles for two relief pitchers and is entering the season with the ageless (and Orioles castoff) Melvin Mora at third base. To recap: the Diamondbacks have replaced their 27-year-old power hitting third baseman with the 39-year-old former Orioles third baseman and some bullpen help. As votes of no-confidence go, this one is fairly huge.
The Orioles signed Derrek Lee to provide power from the right side of the plate and to shore up first base. Two years ago, Lee hit .306/35/111. However, in 2010, at the age of 34, Lee was hampered by nagging injuries and fell to .260/19/80. It has to be a concern that he has arrived in Orioles camp still rehabbing after offseason thumb surgery and has recently been benched due to wrist soreness. Still, such is the state of the Orioles that a repeat of Lee’s 2010 season would likely be considered a great boon for the team. Additionally, his defense at first base will be greatly appreciated by the young pitching staff.
Guerrero is being counted on to daily hit cleanup for the Orioles, offering protection to right fielder Nick Markakis, who likely will hit in front of him. Guerrero is 36 years old, and although his 2010 statistics were strong, his offensive production declined greatly in the second half of the season. Questions about his sturdiness and ability to hit consistently through a full season will therefore continue to dog him as he ages. But, even in his injury-plagued 2009 season, he still managed to hit .295 with 15 home runs. And his 2010 numbers, after his second-half decline, were still .300/29/115, each of which would have led the Orioles. Therefore, even at age 36, Guerrero is likely the least risky of the three new right-handed hitters.
Although the Orioles have taken on some risks with each of these offseason pickups, even modest (by their standards) production by each of these three players will help the Orioles markedly improve their results against left-handed pitching and therefore also within the division.
How is the young pitching coming along?
During the 1960s, the Orioles developed young starting pitching seemingly at will. Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Wally Bunker, Jim Palmer. Even Chuck Estrada won 18 games as a 22-year-old rookie in 1960. These “Baby Birds” were the foundation for the great Orioles teams of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Orioles fans have since been teased repeatedly by the organization with the promise that a new group of Baby Birds is just around the corner. Promises of the return to the glory days of Orioles baseball have centered on groups of pitching prospects such as the mid-’90s Bowie Bay Sox staff of Jimmy Haynes, Rick Forney, Vaughan Eshelman, Brian Sackinsky and Scott Klingenbeck (all but Forney got at least a cup of coffee in the majors, but each was also rather unexceptional). These promises have continued with prospects Rocky Coppinger (flamed out), Hayden Penn (probably rushed by the Orioles), Matt Riley (arm trouble and maturity problems), Sidney Ponson (don’t ask) and Daniel Cabrera (sigh). Not one, of course, panned out.
By the end of July 2010, it appeared that the latest promise of a bevy of Baby Birds was also just a publicity stunt designed to trick fans into coming to the ball park. Left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz had not won a game since April. Every fly ball hit off of right-hander Chris Tillman seemed to find its way out of the park. And he gave up a lot of fly balls. Right-hander Jake Arrieta was also struggling.
However, with Showalter’s arrival as manager, the team pitching improved immensely. Matusz went 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA from Aug. 1 through the end of the year, and, more importantly, the Orioles won 10 of his last 11 starts. Arrieta also improved greatly after Showalter’s arrival. Tillman had a great last start in the season, allowing three hits and just one run in seven innings in an Orioles win. Just wanted to say something nice about the guy.
Because the 2011 Orioles rotation will include Matusz and Arrieta, and likely either Tillman or left-handed phenom Zach Britton, any chance the Orioles have to improve upon their usual sub-70 win seasons is dependent upon the young pitching living up to its potential. It appears that the current crop of youngsters has levels of confidence and professionalism that were lacking from many of the “prospects” trotted out to the Camden Yards mound over the past many years. And, based on their performance, it appears that they also have talent.
However, other than Britton, there do not appear to be any high-level pitching prospects waiting in the wings. And the Orioles have pretty much placed all their eggs in the young pitching basket. Therefore, if the Orioles are unable to further develop Matusz, Arrietta, Tillman and Britton, or if the injury bug hits, McPhail’s attempt to “grow the arms” could set the Orioles back for a few more years of disappointing 60-win seasons. Until the system can prove that it can feed the parent club with a steady stream of young prospects, like it did during the 1960s, it will be difficult to believe that the Orioles can mount any kind of sustained level of success.