2011 pre-season preview: AL East – Baltimore Orioles

Orioles RF Nick Markakis

Baltimore Orioles (2010 record: 66-96)

Two words: Buck Showalter.

His hiring has meant instant credibility for a moribund franchise. He brought energy, intensity, knowledge and savvy to the baseball diamond and the clubhouse… and he directed the team to a 34-23 finish after his arrival in Charm City – the second-best record in the AL during that 57-game stretch.

After 13 consecutive losing seasons, there is hope once again around Camden Yards. However, that hope must be tempered with the knowledge that this winter’s moves are nothing more than short-term fixes: an oft-injured Justin Duchscherer, an increasingly aging tandem in Derrek Lee and Vlad Guerrero, a high-strikeout, low-average power bat in Mark Reynolds.
These moves won’t help the Orioles in 2013 or 2014, but it buys them credibility today… and for a ballclub that hasn’t been taken seriously in a long time, THAT is a good place to start.

The r-e-al challenge for Showalter will be to make the team competitive before his style wears out its welcome with his players and the team’s ownership. He tends to have that effect on people. His rant on Theo Epstein is illustrative of his arrogant and combative nature. Clearly, the man has learned nothing from his previous personality meltdowns.

Notable additions: RHP Jeremy Accardo, RHP Justin Duchscherer, RHP Kevin Gregg, DH Vladimir Guerrero, SS J.J. Hardy, 1B Derrek Lee, 3B Mark Reynolds

Notable subtractions: RP David Hernandez, RHP Kevin Millwood, LHP Will Ohman, OF Corey Patterson, 1B Ty Wiggington

The offense:

Catcher: Matt Wieters

Infield: Derrek Lee (1B), Brian Roberts (2B), JJ Hardy (SS) and Mark Reynolds (3B)

Outfield: Luke Scott (LF), Adam Jones (CF) and Nick Markakis (RF)

Designated Hitter: Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles offense finished next-to-last in the American League in runs scored last year (613 runs) finishing ahead of only the Seattle Mariners, a club that fielded a historically-inept lineup.

The attack will be far more robust in 2011. 2B Brian Roberts will be a key part of any improvement enjoyed by the team. He was sidelined for more than half the season last year, with a herniated disc and abdominal strain. The injuries took his speed game from him, and as a result of his absence and injuries, the O’s offense languished. The ballclub hopes that he’ll be able to approximate the player he was in 2006-09, when he averaged .288 and scored more than one hundred runs annually.

JJ Hardy will be a significant upgrade on Cesar Izturis. Hardy had a rough campaign last year due to an injured wrist. He should enjoy playing in Camden Yards and could return to his production level of 2007-08, when he averaged 25 HR and 77 RBI.

Reynolds will replace the now departed Miguel Tejada at third base. It is unlikely he will ever hit league-average, as he has compiled a brutal 60% contact rate as a big leaguer and will have to face the tough pitching staffs in the AL East, but last year’s numbers were a product of a 58% contact rate and 26% hit rate. He’ll hit for power at Camden Yards and drive home his fair share of runs… and if his hit rate should return to a respectable level (somewhere in the low-30s), he will produce a respectable .250 average with 35+ homers and 90+ RBI. Fantasy league owners should not discount him as the pitching staffs in the NL West are even tougher than those in the AL East.

If his back is healthy, 1B Derrek Lee should somewhat approximate the production lost by the departure of Ty Wiggington. He struggled last year due to a bad back, but he will be healthy when the 2011 season gets underway. I doubt he’ll hit as well as he did in the second half of last year, after he put his back woes in the rear view mirror, but there is no reason to believe he won’t hit .270, with 25 homers and 80 ribbies.

Vlad Guerrero will move Luke Scott to the outfield and (essentially) replace Felix Pie in the lineup. He struggled a bit in 2009 but returned to form last season, demonstrating an extraordinary contact rate (90%) and re-discovering his power stroke (29 HR, 115 RBI). He should be able to take advantage of the cozy dimensions and low left field wall of his new home ballpark. If healthy, he could hit 40 HR and drive in 130+ runs this year.

Matt Wieters enjoyed better stats in the second half of last year due to improvements in both his contact rate and hit rate – the question is whether his performance is sustainable. Was the marginal improvement a harbinger of better days or will he continue to struggle in 2011? While many pundits believe he could have a breakout season in 2011, I do not foresee much in terms of an improvement. His swing is too long and it takes too long for his bat to get through the strike zone – a good fastball will regularly overpower him.

In the outfield, Scott provides a consistent and stable skill set. He regularly has a contact rate in the high-70s and a hit rate in the neighborhood of 30%. He set career highs in BA and HR last year, and while he should be able to produce similar numbers again, it seems likely he is maxed out in those areas.

Jones has terrific athletic tools and should produce at a much higher level than he has, but his offensive skills are pretty marginal. He has poor plate discipline and pitch recognition skills at the plate. His contact rate is less than 80% in his big league career and he doesn’t walk often enough (around 5%). His production seems capped at around 20 HR and 70 RBI.

Markakis has put together back-to-back seasons with 85% contact rates and has regularly posted a hit rate of 32% and higher… but his home run rate has fallen steadily since 2007 and, at just 27 years of age, there has to be some question as to the reason(s) for the drop-off. I know no one in Baltimore wants to address the issue, but his power outage started about the time the league started vigorous testing for PEDs. No accusation… just sayin’.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Jeremy Guthrie, LHP Brian Matusz, RHP Justin Duchscherer, RHP Brad Bergeson and RHP Jake Arrieta

Closer: RHP Koji Uehara

Guthrie’s ugly 2009 season now appears to have been an outlier. He has posted a sub-30 hit rate in each of the last four seasons, and his struggles in 2009 can likely be explained by a low strand rate (of only 69%). Orioles fans shouldn’t get too excited by last year’s second-half performance, as it was driven by an unsustainable hit rate (25%) and strand rate (77%). Expect 11 or 12 wins and an ERA in the vicinity of 3.75, but no more than that in the AL East.

Matusz’ performance last season demonstrates that better days lie ahead. He won seven games and posted a 3.96 ERA in the second half – with six of those wins coming in his last ten starts. His hit rate (30%) was about where you would expect it would be, but his strand rate (70%) and command (2.3 K-BB ratio) were lower than should be expected – these are two areas the club can expect improvement in the upcoming years. He needs to find the plate with more regularity.

Duchscherer has been routinely brilliant when healthy. Alas, his health (elbow, hip) has kept him off the field for most of the last five years. Only once in his career did he pitch as many as 140 innings (he was 10-8, 2.54 in 22 starts for the Oakland A’s in 2008). In the other four years since 2006, he pitched a grand total of 100 innings (he missed all of 2009 and was shut down early last year due to hip woes).

Bergesen had a good rookie campaign in 2009, but was unable to sustain his performance in his sophomore season. He got off to a miserable start, posting a 6.82 ERA over the first three months of the season. He showed marked improvement after the hiring of manager Buck Showalter, but I don’t believe his late-season improvement is sustainable as it was based on a 27% hit rate and 76% strand rate. When those peripherals regress to league-average, his ERA should settle into the high-4.00’s.

Arrieta had tremendous difficulty in his first experience against big league competition, and his peripherals indicate the Orioles can expect more of the same – or worse – in the 2011 season. He compiled a 4.66 ERA while benefitting from an unsustainable hit rate (28%) and an above-average strand rate (75%). Assuming those metrics revert to league-average his ERA should increase to 5.00+ in 2011.

Uehara will battle former Marlins, Cubs and Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg to assume the closer’s responsibilities. Gregg has registered 121 saves over the last four seasons, but I still believe Uehara is the guy who will emerge as the winner of this battle. Gregg walks too many hitters (4.2 BB / 9IP over the last two years) to hold onto the job, while Uehara exhibits outstanding control, walking just one batter for every nine innings pitched while striking out in excess of one hitter for each inning (11.3 K / 9IP).

Prediction for 2011: 5th place (75-87)

The organization is generally heading in the right direction, but they have the misfortune of being in the same division as the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. With the Blue Jays also headed in the right direction, it could be some time before the O’s even crawl out of the cellar in the AL East.


Baltimore’s top prospect, Manny Machado

Top Five Prospects

1. Manny Machado, SS
2. Zach Britton, RHP
3. Dan Klein, RHP
4. Mychal Givens, SS
5. Ryan Adams, 3B

Machado and Britton are the class of a farm system largely bereft of high-end talent. He was the Orioles first-round pick (#3) overall last year.

The 18-year-old Machado earned recognition from Baseball Aerica as a High School All-American on the strength of a senior season in which he compiled a .639 average, with 12 HR and 17 SB for Brito Miami Private High School. The Orioles gave him $5.25 million to forego a scholarship to Florida International.

At 6’3”, 185 lbs, he is a potential five-tool performer at shortstop. He has excellent swing mechanics and good bat speed, and he regularly makes solid contact. He has the potential to be an excellent defender, with solid range, excellent hands and a “plus” arm. While his footwork needs refinement, he has shown a great capacity for learning and incorporating the lessons into his skill set. He could be in Baltimore as soon as 2013.

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