Orioles Sewing the Seeds for Future Success
- Updated: April 2, 2009
After more than a decade of consistent losing, fans of the Baltimore Orioles are ready for the team to stop looking toward the future and instead start winning some baseball games. It is doubtful that the Orioles will be a contender in the tough American League East in 2009, but followers of the Birds can rest assured that after a decade of mismanagement, the Orioles finally seem to have a plan designed to return the once proud franchise to contention.
Since becoming team president in 2007, Andy MacPhail has resisted the temptation to mortgage the future for a chance at short-term glory. Instead, he has orchestrated a series of moves designed to stock the roster with talented young players capable of making the Orioles a consistent contender in the toughest division in baseball.
Illustrating that philosophy, the most significant off-season move for the team was not a trade or free agent signing, but instead was the ability to lock-up two popular Birds to long-term contracts.
Second baseman Brian Roberts (.296 BA, 51 doubles, 40 stolen bases) is one of the premier leadoff hitters in the league and rightfielder Nick Markakis (.306 BA, 87 RBIs, .491 SLG) has developed into a reliable run producer. Knowing that they can pencil these two stars into the lineup for years to come will make it easier for MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley to assemble a lineup capable of competing with the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays.
After spending most of last season as the designated hitter, veteran Aubrey Huff (.304 BA, 32 HR, 108 RBI) will likely move to first base this season. Anchoring the other corner will be veteran third baseman Melvin Mora (.285 BA, 23 HR, 105 RBI). The weak link among the infield last season was shortstop and it is hoped that veteran Cesar Izturis (.263 BA, 24 SB in 2008 for the Cardinals) will stabilize that position. The Orioles also added veteran Ty Wigginton (.285 BA, 23 HR for Houston) to provide depth and versatility.
While veteran Gregg Zaun (.237 BA, 30 RBI for Blue Jays) will start the season behind the plate, it is expected that his time as the starter will be short lived. Prospect Matt Wieters, the Orioles first pick in the 2007 draft, hit .333 in spring training and though he will start the season in the minors, it will likely not be long before Wieters is given a chance to earn the everyday job for the big club.
In addition to Markakis, the outfield includes a number of talented players capable of emerging as regular performers. Adam Jones (.270 BA, 57 RBI) was solid in his first season as a regular centerfielder in 2008. Newcomers Ryan Freel (.298 BA, .359 OBP for the Reds) and Felix Pie (.241 BA, .321 OBP for the Cubs) give the Orioles a pair of fleet fielders to split time in leftfield. Luke Scott (.257 BA, .472 SLG) saw extensive action in leftfield last season, but will likely see more time as the designated hitter this season.
While the everyday lineup is comparable to those of the other teams in the division, the Achilles heel for the Orioles in 2009 will be on the mound.
In his third season with the Orioles, Jeremy Guthrie (10-12, 3.63 ERA) is considered the staff ace, but while he is a solid hurler, Guthrie would likely be at best the third or fourth starter for any other team in the division. Behind Guthrie is a mix of veterans and young pitchers who must exceed past performance if the Orioles hope to finish out of the cellar. The most interesting of this group is 34-year old newcomer Koji Uehara, who is making his MLB debut after winning 112 games in 10 seasons for the Yomiuri Giants.
In each of the last two seasons solid bullpen work has kept the Orioles near .500 through July, only to fall apart in August and September due to overuse (combined team record of 35-75 after August 1st in 2007-08). If the Birds are to avoid a second half swoon in 2009, they must get more innings early in the season from the starters and be able to better spread around the bullpen innings.
After missing all of 2008 after Tommy John Surgery, former closer Chris Ray (49 saves in 2006-07) has pitched 10 scoreless innings to start spring training. If Trembley can rely on both Ray and George Sherrill (31 saves), the bullpen could be better suited to last throughout the season in 2009.
Rather than spend extensively on free agent pitchers that might have made the O’s only marginally better in 2009, MacPhail chose to save his money for the future when he can target spending on the final pieces needed to contend for the playoffs. He also knows that the Orioles have a plethora of pitching talent coming through the minor league system that while they may never rival the quartet of Palmer, Cuellar, McNally and Dodson (all of whom won 20+ games for the Birds in 1971) could give the franchise its best pitching nucleus in a decade.
Due to the lack of pitching, don’t look for the Orioles to follow the path of the 2008 Rays and suddenly emerge as a title contender. However, it shouldn’t be long until the fruits of MacPhail’s labor start to ripen and the Orioles are back in the hunt for a trip to the postseason.
To read more from Dean, go to his sports blog: Sports Then and Now