Baltimore Orioles 2009 Season Preview
2008 Record: 68-94
Ryan Freel, Felix Pie, Cesar Izturis, Ty Wigginton, Rich Hill, Gregg Zaun
Daniel Cabrera, Garrett Olson, Kevin Millar, Ramon Hernandez
A Look at the Lineup
What a difference a year makes. I don’t think anyone is expecting the O’s to contend for the American League East title. That being said, they couldn’t be any worse than at this time in 2008. The lineup looks like it could be very dynamic at times this year even as it suffers through the growing pains of Adam Jones and Felix Pie.
The Orioles aren’t going to put a scare in the AL East quite yet. They look to be a developing team that might not be that far away. They looked at signing both A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, but not getting locked into those huge contracts may be a blessing in disguise.
The Baltimore catching situation is definitely on the upswing, unfortunately not this year. The Orioles went out in free agency and signed Gregg Zaun in mid-January. The Zaun-bies in Toronto were a little upset, but otherwise the move seemed to go unnoticed.
Zaun is a placeholder for the young Matt Wieters. There's speculation on what will happen with Wieters in respect to potentially sending him back to Triple A and saving an arbitration year. It probably makes sense that the O’s will get a combined 600-650 at bats out of both catchers.
I suspect they’d love for Zaun to return to his 2006 form where he started 99 games and managed to bat .272/.363/.472. If that is the case, the 37-year-old may fill the gap needed to get to Wieters full-time. Even with the 22-year-old on the roster, it looks to be Zaun’s job out of camp.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, defense is built up the middle, and although Zaun is well liked by his pitchers, he only threw out 14 of 54 would-be base stealers a year ago. In the last three years he is 44 of 212 for 20.7 percent. Zaun’s pop is all but gone, and his recent performance is indicative of a 37-year-old catcher.
This will be interesting to see how quickly Baltimore looks to Wieters as an offensive upgrade or if they’ve written off the year and will save the year to keep Wieters one more year from being arbitration eligible. There is buzz that if Wieters can get enough Major League at-bats he could the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year.
Well, with Kevin Millar off to division rival Toronto for a Minor league deal, it looks like the O’s are going to start the season with Aubrey Huff at first base.
Now the real question is, which version of Huff is going show up? The Retro, sleek, 30-bomb racking 2003/2004 version that the Orioles took out of the garage for a spin last year? Or is Huff his 2007 self that managed only 15 home runs and .280/.337/.442? To be honest, we can probably see Huff around his 162-game average of .287/.344/.483 and 26 home runs.
He seems to be stable over at first base, posting a 1.000 fielding percentage and a range factor of 8.94 in 24 games, as Huff moves over to first to fill the void left by Kevin Millar’s departure and makes room at the DH spot for Luke Scott.
This has been the most stable spot in the Baltimore lineup for the last four years, and it doesn’t look to be anything different for 2009. Brian Roberts has swiped 226 bases with a 79.8 percent success rate, and he was 40 for 50 last year, showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 31.
Roberts was close to 5.00 (4.98) with his Range factor last year, and that included turning 110 double plays while working with no fewer than six double play partners. Hopefully the stability of Cesar Izturis for an entire season will improve some of the already impressive numbers Roberts posted. He was second in assists by a second sacker in 2008.
In a city where the shortstop was the Media Guide Cover most years from 1983 to 2007, nobody is going to mistake Cesar Izturis for Cal Ripken Jr. or even Miguel Tejada for that matter. But leading MLB shortstops in range factor last year, Izturis is going to give the Birds something they lacked last year—an everyday shortstop to play with Brian Roberts.
The Orioles aren’t looking for Izturis to give them punch in the lineup. The stability of having a defender that is solid and on the cusp great should greatly improve the Orioles' team defense and the confidence of the pitching staff.
Melvin Mora has manned the hot corner for the O’s since 2000, and I don’t expect to see that change any time soon. He showed a slowing in 2006 and 2007, posting an OPS of under .759 in each season. Then in 2008 for the months of July and August he showed a bit of a renaissance, crushing 13 of his 23 dingers and driving in 58 of his season total 104 RBI.
At the age of 37, look for 2007 to be a more accurate projection of the type of season the veteran Venezuelan is likely to produce. Behind him at third is the Orioles' versatile Ty Wigginton. I wouldn't be surprise to see Ty get 40-plus starts at third this year considering Mora’s advanced age.
This is the first of the five-toolers in Baltimore’s outfield. The Orioles shipped pitcher Garrett Olson to the Cubs for Felix Pie. Pie never could crack the Cubs' lineup, and with good reason—for all the hype about speed and a short swing, Pie managed a career line .224/.284/.331 in 130 games.
There are plenty of options to replace Pie should he struggle. Ryan Freel, the former Cincinnati Red, looks to be the guy that is going to push Pie for the job. Freel is a 33-year-old veteran who has proven to be a solid and reliable option in the outfield. Freel is very much an injury concern, but if he can get near his career 162-game averages in batting average (.272), OBP (.357), and stolen bases (42) that left field job may soon be his.
Adam Jones showed the kind of five-tool potential last year that had Baltimore fans more excited every time took the field. He managed to swipe of 10 of 13 bases last year and has shown no signs of regressing on that front in 2009.
Jones batted a respectable .270 last year but managed to show almost no patience at the plate, generating only 23 walks vs. 108 strikeouts. He needs to improve on last year's .311 OBP to take his game to the next level.
In the field Jones was fifth in range factor behind Chris Gomez, Aaron Rowland, B.J. Upton, and Curtis Granderson. That is pretty good company to be in. Also Jones’ 37 extra base hits out of 61 and seven triples has given the Orioles every reason to think he could be something special
If Brian Roberts is going to be the fire starter for this O’s lineup, Nick Markakis will be Mr. Everything. A surefire All-Star, Markakis still has developing power and has shown massive strides in improving his patience at the plate. His strikeout numbers remained almost unchanged from 112 to 113 from 2007 to 2008. That being said, his walk numbers were up to 99 from 61.
His RBI numbers dropped, but that is a product of a terrible lineup around him. He should be able to continue to improve on his 20 home runs, 87 RBI, and .306/.406/.491. He also led all right fielders with 17 assists, a number that will obviously drop as his reputation grows. Also he was third in range factors at 2.26 for everyday right fielders.
The O’s have managed to slide Aubrey Huff over to first base in an attempt to get Luke Scott more regular at bats. Last year Scott had career highs in home runs, runs, RBI, doubles, hits, extra base hits, games, and at-bats. At 30 years old, don’t expect any of these numbers to jump again. But Scott definitely has the power to repeat his 20 home run performance again this year.
A Look at the Pitching
The rotation is the definite weakness in Baltimore this year. The Orioles cut ties with make work project Daniel Cabrera. Jeremy Guthrie is the only holdover, and many people will say that you don’t know what you’re getting, but other than Koji Uehara from Japan, the Orioles didn’t do much. They were outbid in the A.J. Burnett sweepstakes and have a combination of “tons of talent” and “reliable and mediocre” in the mix.
Jeremy Guthrie is a pitcher that seems to be better than the numbers would indicate. His record was only 10-12, but his ERA was 3.64. The year previous he was 7-5 with a 3.70 ERA in 26 starts. He averages about 120 strikeouts and 50 walks over 183 innings in that time.
Nothing spectacular about Guthrie; he’s just a guy. On a team with a little more run support than he got last year, maybe he’s 12-10, but when I look around the majors I don’t exactly see him stacking up against the other aces in the league. His WHIP last year was 1.23, or the same as John Lackey, Jesse Litsch, Ted Lilly, and John Danks.
I would suspect getting matched up against CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett, and James Shields in his own division could potentially lower that win total without the rest of his stats suffering.
The second spot in the Orioles rotation will be held down by little known Koji Uehara; the Orange Birds have a Japanese import in the rotation now. He has spent his last two years in Japan bouncing back and forth between the pen and the starting rotation. But at 34 years old he is making a late transition to the majors.
By all accounts he won’t blow anyone away with his stuff and will rely on low walks and ground balls to get his outs. I read the book, but really don’t have much to say exactly what kind of results he will produce.
Chris Waters’ career so far has been defined by a one-hit, eight-inning outing against the Angels in 2008. But the truth is this is a soft tossing lefty with a strikeout rate of 4.59 per nine in a division full of offensive firepower. Last year in 11 starts he had 33 strikeouts to 29 walks for a 1.14 K/BB ratio. Opponents batted .273 with a .351 OBP off Waters. There is no reason to think he’s any better than his 5.01 ERA and .375 winning percentage from a year ago.
Rich Hill is a former Cub and reclamation project. He only started five games last year and walked more batters (18) than he struck out (15). In 2007 he had career bests in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and K/9. Unfortunately Hill looks like the fourth best option in camp for the O’s and hasn’t taken the mound yet as he is still rehabbing his elbow from 2008.
Even if everything goes exactly to plan, Hill has never been better than 11-8, and his career ERA is 4.37. Also, he has only once ever pitched more than 100 innings in a season.
Radhames Liz has the kind of raw nasty stuff scouts get excited over. Unfortunately, when you get to The Show, you have to know where that raw nasty stuff is going. He was a strikeout machine in the minors last year, fanning 85 and walking only 32. That ratio plummeted to 57:51 in his 17 starts and 84 innings with the big club. His 6-6 record with an ERA over six is also pretty telling.
If you’re looking of a bright spot, he has a sub-3.50 ERA during both day games and on turf. Also his ERA was 4.27 lower at home. So if Oriole Park goes from real grass to turf, and they move all Radhames' starts to 1:00pm, there is no reason he couldn’t be a middle of the rotation guy. Either that or make sure he matches up against the Twins. Last year he was 2-0 with an ERA of 1.35 with a 4:1 K/BB ratio.
If there is going to be any stability in this Baltimore pen, it’s going to come from the back end. George Sherrill managed to convert 31 of 37 save attempts in 2008. He did manage more than a strikeout per nine last year, but with that being said, his K to walk ration was only 1.76.
Sherrill could very well be supported by Chris Ray, the former closer who took over the job in 2006 from the departed B.J. Ryan and converted 33 of 38 that year, and then 16 of 20 in 2007 before being shut down for Tommy John surgery. Before the injury Ray was a solid reliever. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back. He is only 27 coming into the 2009 season, and the Orioles now have a competent lefty and righty at the back of the pen.
Also Jim Johnson quietly had a very nice year for Baltimore last year. He had 54 appearances for 68.2 innings and 19 holds. He only gave up 54 hits and was touched up for zero home runs. His ERA was a very good 2.23.
This is a team with an exciting young outfield that includes one of the guys that everyone will be waiting on to break out in Nick Markakis and a potential rookie of the year on the roster behind the plate. Unfortunately, when your ace is a 29-year-old that is 17-17 in 57 starts, and you're in the talent-heavy AL East, you are in for a long, long season.
The Orioles are built much the same as division rival Toronto. Unfortunately they are behind Toronto when it comes to their ace, their bullpen, and their manager. I think all that adds up an Orioles team that will be more talented than their record but still finish fifth in the division with a record of 70-92.
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