Matt Wieters might yet be a future superstar, and opinions on Adam Jones range from 'good' to 'very good' to 'great,' but the Baltimore Orioles still aren't a good team.
Despite no one expecting much from them in 2011, it's remarkable how thoroughly they disappointed without even losing 100 games.
Jones and Wieters took steps toward the star status they will someday achieve in full, and Zach Britton had a promising rookie showing. J.J. Hardy briefly broke out as a star, then settled in as a solid, above-average shortstop. And Mark Reynolds hit 35 home runs.
Yet the systemic failure of the organization to develop good young pitching prospects into good young pitchers continued. In fact it escalated. Brian Matusz's future is on the line this season. Chris Tillman's chance of ever becoming a star are gone. Ditto for Jake Arrieta.
Meanwhile, a miserable ownership situation and the emerging popularity of the Washington Nationals have the Orioles fighting for table scraps in every way imaginable. New top baseball executive Dan Duquette was the organization's fourth choice for the job, at best.
There is hope. New management is in place, however non-elite. Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy are two of the top 10 prospects in baseball, and most of the scouting and player development people who derailed so many pitchers and stunted the growth of Wieters and Jones are gone. Now, though, the Orioles need to show they know how to measure success and failure while rebuilding. This season will be all about next season, and the one after that. Here's a detailed preview.
This is the third of 30 team previews in 30 days, leading up to the start of the 2012 MLB regular season.
Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Trueblood offers insight on all facets of each club, profiles their manager, raise key questions, identifies risers and fallers and lays out run matrices for each team based on his proprietary 2012 projections. Check back daily for the next team in the series, or follow Trueblood on Twitter:
How it Goes
- Brian Roberts- 2B
- Nick Markakis- RF
- Adam Jones- CF
- J.J. Hardy- SS
- Matt Wieters- C
- Mark Reynolds- 1B
- Wilson Betemit- DH
- Chris Davis- 3B
- Nolan Reimold- LF
What it Does
Everyone but Roberts has power, and even he has a little. The Orioles might get 20 or more home runs from six or seven players in 2012. Reynolds continues to flash 40-homer power despite an atrocious contact rate.
Adam Jones might be the best microcosm of the team as a whole. Though talented, he's yet to emerge as a true star, and might sooner reach 30 home runs than 30 walks in a season. Aggression is at least as much the hallmark of this club as power. After throwing dumb money at Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero last season, the team is at least taking risks with younger, higher-upside talent in Chris Davis and Betemit this year.
Who They Are
- Zach Britton
- Wei-Yin Chen
- Jason Hammel
- Tsuyoshi Wada
- Jake Arrieta
How They Stack Up
If the organization's woes with actualizing young pitching talent are over, this could be a good group. Britton is a solid second starter, though somewhat miscast in the ace's role. Wada already has some arm issues that could spell trouble. Chen and Arrieta, though, are all upside.
Three or four other players are also candidates to join this unit, lending it some depth and high-end potential, too. Brian Matusz remains the big man of mystery.
Who Comes in
- Jim Johnson
- Luis Ayala
- Matt Lindstrom
- Kevin Gregg
- Pedro Strop
- Tommy Hunter
- Troy Patton
What Comes of it
Baltimore's bullpen is always in flux. Erstwhile closer Alfredo Simon's career was briefly interrupted by a murder trial. Matt Albers, Patton and Tommy Hunter have all had turns both in the 'pen and as starters. Koji Uehara no sooner established himself as an elite set-up man than the team traded him to Texas.
The addition of Ayala and Lindstrom gives the unit more depth than they have had in a while, at least.
Who They Are
- Taylor Teagarden, C
- Endy Chavez, OF
- Robert Andino, IF
- Ryan Flaherty, IF
How They Roll
Andino is likely to get a large number of starts at second base, because Lord knows Brian Roberts will not be healthy all year. Chavez might get some playing time in left field at the expense of Reimold, whose stock seems to be down with the club.
Flaherty, a Rule 5 pick from the Cubs, is a good left-handed bat but has no defensive home, so he's not really much help to a team that also features Wilson Betemit. The upside still left in Teagarden makes him a solid backup to Wieters.
- Brian Matusz
- Chris Tillman
- Dana Eveland
- Armando Galarraga
- Brad Bergesen
What They're Waiting For
Injuries and/or ineffectiveness will eventually open up a slot or two in the Baltimore rotation. Depending on Wada's condition, it may have done so already. These guys will all be in play when such an opportunity rises, but more than anything, the quality and length of this list illustrate the lack of MLB-ready depth within the Orioles organization.
A manager whose greatest asset is the ability to inspire and lead will have success on a talented, competitive team. Buck Showalter's current club doesn't fit that mold.
Player development is paramount in Baltimore right now, so Showalter's skills in shaping ballplayers has value. It's not ideal, though, to have a skipper so far removed from the youth of his charges. He had no luck coaxing Adam Jones into working on plate discipline last year, but Matt Wieters did begin to figure things out.
Showalter will be long retired when next the Orioles compete on any level, so this is the final chapter of his legacy. Can he turn the Orioles' best young players into the stars they have a chance to become?
Who's on the Rise
- Jim Johnson
- Matt Wieters
- Adam Jones
Injuries and the inability to miss bats have always held Johnson back, but he's a terrific ground-ball hurler with great downward plane on his fastball and a solid change-up that keeps left-handed opponents guessing. His ability to get batters out without much regard for their handedness makes him a good closer candidate.
Wieters surged down the stretch, flashing the potential that had yet to come to fruition until then. He might just have turned the corner.
Jones has power, and finally put it on full display in 2011. His defensive fundamentals are improving, and he's slowly unlocking his potential to play top-notch defense in center field. He's a few more pitches taken from becoming a superstar.
Who's Going the Wrong Way
- Mark Reynolds
- Luis Ayala
- Kevin Gregg
Through ages 24, 25 and 26, the historical player who rated highest on Baseball-Reference's similarity scores to Reynolds was Mike Schmidt. Even after Reynolds hit 37 homers in 2011, that player is not Dean Palmer.
It will only get worse. Reynolds is slated for full-time first-base duty in 2012, having officially moved beyond all utility with the glove at third. He's atrocious even at first, though, and his speed is in decline, too. He continues to be by far the most prolific strikeout batter in baseball. He has 158 home runs in five seasons, but players who strike out that often and who play such miserable defense usually don't play much past 29. If they did, Rob Deer and Dave Kingman would be waiting for Reynolds in the Hall of Fame.
Gregg and Ayala are below-average relievers making above-average money, each having signed with the club after many other better pitchers were off the market. Baltimore overpaid for each, even in that context. Ayala's 2.09 2011 ERA was less than half his FIP.
- Will Brian Roberts ever be healthy again? From 2004-09, Roberts played at least 138 games every year, and at least 155 four times. He was a solid defender, elite doubles hitter and good lead-off man. He stole 253 bases.
Over the past two years, though, Roberts has played only 98 games combined. He has dealt with neck, knee and hip soreness, a sever abdominal strain, a devastating concussion and chronic back spasms. At 34, it's fair to wonder whether he will ever be a regular player again, purely for health reasons.
- Was Matt Wieters' September a turning point? Though he's been more or less a league-average regular to this point, he's disappointed those who thought he could immediately join Joe Mauer as young catchers dominating baseball.
At the end of 2011, though, Wieters flashed his potential with some authority. Over his final 33 games, he walked 16 times, struck out only 17, swatted 11 home runs and had an OPS north of 1.000. September stats count for as much as campaign promises, but these ones may portend real change.
- Is Brian Matusz fixable? Matusz posted an ERA in four figures in 2011, albeit in a somewhat limited sample. That kind of helplessness, especially when he seemed on the cusp of stardom, is hard to explain. He might yet get back on track, and is the most interesting character in Orioles camp this spring. He is not, however, ever likely to attain the stature that once seemed assured for him.
- Was the J.J. Hardy contract a mistake? The Orioles dealt for Hardy last winter, got him at a bargain rate, and were thrilled when he finished June at .305/.365/.538 with 11 home runs in just 51 games. They signed him to a three-year, $22.5-million extension in mid-July, but after July 1, he hit .248/.275/.464. Suddenly. Hardy needs to come out playing well in 2012 to prove he wasn't a flash in the pan, and that Baltimore didn't make a massive mistake by committing so much to a complementary player during what can be only generously described as a rebuilding phase.
- Should Adam Jones be trade bait? Jones has improved on a nice little arc, but he is not a star. He isn't interested in an extension, at least not on team-friendly terms. He will very likely be gone by the next time the Orioles are a contender, regardless of their actions. As the trade deadline draws near, the team should at least entertain a trade. A strong enough first half may make him untouchable.
Runs Above Average
It could be worse. The Orioles have tremendous offensive potential (though they're unlikely to reach it) and some pitchers who still might break out. It's enough to consider them a merely below-average team in general, but it still spells 90-plus losses in the AL East. Starting over (again) is going to be painful, but a few talented cornerstones are in place.