The Orioles enter the month of July in a familiar position, buried deep in the AL East and staring up at .500 like it's the Berlin Wall. And yet, O's fans are feeling a very unfamiliar sense of excitement as the All-Star break approaches.
An influx of exciting young prospects—left fielder Nolan Reimold, catcher Matt Wieters and pitcher Brad Bergesen, to name a few—have energized a franchise that’s been in a decade-long limbo between rebuilding and contending.
At last, it’s fun to be an O's fan again.
Of course, "fun" is a relative term—the Birds are likely heading towards their 12th straight losing season. But with new prospects being unveiled almost on a weekly basis, this is the most compelling chapter in O's baseball since Armando Benitez burst our World Series bubble in 1997.
Here is my mid-season assessment of the 2009 Orioles.
The Orioles may have the best outfield in the majors in 2010 and beyond with Nick Markakis in right field, Adam Jones in center and Nolan Reimold in left. All three are 25 or younger.
Part-time left-fielder Luke Scott has emerged as one of the game's top designated hitters.
Jones and Markakis are the faces of the franchise, but sure haven't played like it lately. The two are batting a combined .238 in June and have hit only two home runs.
Both insist the slump is just part of the ebb-and-flow of the season. Third baseman Melvin Mora and first baseman Aubrey Huff are each in the final years of their contracts and have been implicated in trade rumors recently.
But General Manager Andy MacPhail insists that the team won’t be sellers before the July 31 trade deadline. He may be right to keep them, as both are notorious second-half hitters. Also, the O’s farm system lacks depth at the corners.
If either is traded, utility player Ty Wigginton will likely fill the vacated position. The former-Astro has helped his own cause lately, with 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats.
One player certainly out of trade discussion is second baseman Brian Roberts, who signed an extension through 2013, when he will be 35. The speedy table-setter is having another solid year, although he still hits too many fly balls.
Young Robert Andino has filled in admirably at shortstop for Cesar Izturis, who underwent appendicitis surgery earlier this month.
Wieters has a long way to go before living up to the "Joe Mauer with better power" billing. Of course, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 23. And his current numbers are still a marked improvement from Gregg Zaun’s.
Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie (5-7, 5.09 ERA) has struggled with his command and confidence, leaving the O's staff without a legitimate ace. The most consistent starter has been 23-year-old Brad Bergesen (4-2, 3.94 ERA).
The side-armed sinker-baller has pitched past the fifth inning in 11 of his 12 starts. But he tends to lose his composure in the later innings—eight of the 11 multi-run innings he’s surrendered have come in the fifth or beyond.
Japanese import Koji Uehara (2-4, 4.05 ERA) is an unfortunate case, as he continues to battle arm fatigue and may be destined for a second stint on the disabled list.
The 34-year-old rookie has pitched well, but has gone seven innings only once in 13 starts and hasn’t won a game since April 13. He may ultimately end the season in the bullpen if the fatigue persists.
Former Cub Rich Hill has been dominant in spurts, but continues to walk a psychological tightrope that bested him in Chicago. He can strike out the side in one inning, and walk the bases loaded the next. The end result: a 3-2 record with a 6.03 ERA.
Two hard-throwing righties—Jason Berken (1-4, 6.32 ERA) and David Hernandez (1-1, 3.95 ERA)—were called up midseason and have shown potential but are not as far along as Bergesen at this point.
The rotation has been in flux all season, and may continue to change with the potential call-up of top prospect Chris Tillman. Other young arms—Brandon Erbe, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, to name a few—are waiting in the wings and will likely get their shot at a rotation spot next season.
The O's 'pen has been far more effective on the back-end than on the front-end.
On the back-end, the O's have one of the best late-inning tandems in the game in closer George Sherrill and setup man Jim Johnson. Sherrill (2.20 ERA) who has converted 11 consecutive saves, has been implicated in trade talks recently.
With his trade value higher than ever, and Johnson (2.52 ERA) proving he’s ready for the closer roll, MacPhail may be compelled to trade the 32-year old for a haul of prospects.
The front-end of the bullpen was supposed to be a strength. But as of June 26, only one middle reliever—Matt Albers—has an ERA under 4.00. Brian Bass and Danny Baez were bright spots until their ERAs ballooned in June.
Chris Ray has been serving up 95-mile per hour batting practice. And the retirement of Jamie Walker leaves the staff with no lefty specialist.
Overall, the O's have the league's 24th-ranked bullpen (4.62), which shows just how bad this bullpen is beyond the big two.
After last weekend's sweep of Philadelphia, I thought that the O's may have finally turned the corner. "The revolution begins today!" I said.
Then they got swept by the Marlins, reminding me, yet again, that 2010 couldn’t come any faster.
Patience has been the operative word since MacPhail came aboard two years ago. He has slowly stockpiled young arms and given them ample time to develop. Three have already made an impact this season, and at least three more will make their debuts within the next year.
None are guaranteed aces. But with at least 10 arms likely vying for starting spots in 2010, I like the odds of at least a couple emerging as studs.
Strength in numbers is the strategy that hopefully lifts this once-stale franchise from its interminable funk.