With Spring Training starting and the 2010 baseball season only weeks away, it is the time of the year when fans of the Baltimore Orioles can start dreaming that maybe this is the year that our decade long nightmare ends.
The Orioles were not among the most aggressive or highest spending teams in the offseason, but they did make a number of lower-key moves designed to make the team better in 2010.
Considering that they went 64-98 (including a 20-39 record to end the season) in 2009, it shouldn’t take much to illustrate improvement.
In the first of a three part series looking at 2010, we will look at some of the keys for the Orioles if they hope to show significant improvement and perhaps even register their first winning season since 1997.
Make a Statement Immediately that it is a New Era
Even during their decade of despair, the Orioles have often started the season hot. Since 1998, the Orioles have registered a .500 or better April record in seven of 12 seasons, including five of the last seven. A year ago, Baltimore started the season with a 6-2 record, but quickly cooled off to finish April with a 9-13 record.
In 2008, the Orioles started the season with a 16-12 April, which was their best opening month since starting 16-7 in 2005.
While a strong early start may not transcend into success later in the season, if the 2010 Orioles want to be seen as a different team than the squad with 12 straight losing seasons, they must demonstrate from the very beginning that they are not the same old Orioles.
That means starting the season aggressively and hovering near the top of the AL East for at least the first few weeks of the season. It is up to Dave Trembley and the veterans on the team to get the young players moving early and create a culture of expecting success, rather than mediocrity.
The Young Pitchers Can’t Act Like Rookies Anymore
Last season, the Orioles seemed to be starting a rookie pitcher just about every night. It provided good experience for the young hurlers, but it is one explanation for their 98-loss season.
The rookies had various levels of success in 2009. Brad Bergesen (7-5, 3.43 ERA) was unquestionably the best of the group and looked like a contender for Rookie of the Year honors before missing the last two months of the season after being hit on the shin on July 30.
The other rookies flashes of brilliance, but also took their typical rookie lumps. It is doubtful that they all will start the season in the majors, but expect Jason Berken, David Hernandez, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz to all have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation.
For the Orioles to be successful, at least three of the young guns must shed their rookie inconsistency and emerge as the All-Star caliber hurlers many have predicted.
Brian Roberts Must Remain Among the Best Table Setters in Baseball
One casualty of the Orioles poor performance in recent years it that Brian Roberts has not received as much recognition for his greatness as a leadoff hitter as is deserved.
Since 2004, Roberts has had a .290 batting average and averaged 101 runs scored, 46 doubles, 35 stolen bases and 62 RBI each season. Yet he has been named as an All-Star only twice and is often overlooked in the discussion for the best second basemen in the game in conversations about the best leadoff men.
Now, 32 years old, Roberts is at the peak of his career and the Orioles will need a big season from him if they are indeed going to improve their record. The Birds have a number of players capable of driving in runs and it is Roberts job to be on base for them to bring home.
One concern about Roberts is that his strikeout numbers have increased in each of the last three years (112 in 2009). Last season his on base percentage actually declined to .356 after consecutive seasons above .375. If he can return to his previous form in 2010, the Orioles should see a corresponding increase in their run production.
Kevin Millwood Must Lead On and Off The Field
In a conversation with Orioles’ broadcaster Buck Martinez late last season, he mentioned how important it would be for the Orioles to bring in a veteran pitcher for 2010 to serve as the staff ace and example for the young pitchers. While I don’t think Kevin Millwood can be considered a quality staff ace, I do think bringing him to the team can be very helpful for the young pitchers.
If you will recall, Millwood started his career with the Atlanta Braves and learned from all-time greats Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Though his pitching numbers since leaving Atlanta following the 2002 season have been average (80-75 record, 4.25 ERA), he has pitched primarily for losing teams.
He is the kind of veteran pitcher that can come in and teach the young pitchers what it takes to be successful while also eating up some innings and producing victories. Millwood has started at least 29 games in each of the last five seasons and 10 times during his career.
His days as a staff ace may be over, but he can be a quality starter while helping to build one or more of the young guns into future aces.
Miguel Tejada Must Accept His New Role
I’m not exactly sure what to think of the Miguel Tejada signing. On one hand the Orioles can use a veteran presence in the clubhouse and at the important position of third base. However, on the other hand Tejada has a significant amount of baggage and his departure two years ago was a good move for both the Orioles and for him.
Hopefully in his return Tejada, who will turn 36 (four years older than when he left Baltimore two years ago, but that’s another story) during the season, will recognize that his role now is not to be the superstar, but instead to be the steady veteran player that enables the young studs to develop into superstars.
If he can embrace his new role and still produce as he has on the field in recent years (.298 average, 152 RBI the last two seasons) then the Orioles can consider his return to be successful.
Bullpen Must Make It Through The Year
Each of the last three seasons the Orioles have brought in quality pitchers to enhance the bullpen and try to make the team competitive on the mound in the late stages of games. For a while, the bullpen shows improvement, but eventually over use catches up and the Orioles go back to their old routine of imploding late in games.
Obviously, if that is to change in 2010, the starting pitchers must do their part by throwing more innings. In 2009 the Orioles had only two complete games and the relievers pitched 551 innings (38%). In comparison, the relievers for the Boston Red Sox pitched only 479 innings (33%) and their ERA was a full run lower than the relievers for the Orioles (3.80 compared to 4.83).
However, it is also partly the onus of the relievers to illustrate that they are capable of finishing games and keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
Newly acquired Michael Gonzalez has already been anointed as the closer and is a great acquisition for the Orioles. Look for former starters Koji Uehara and Mark Hendrickson to provide long inning support out of the bullpen. Jim Johnson can be a superstar as a middle reliever when not overused and Matt Albers is also capable as a middle inning pitcher when used appropriately.
If the Orioles are to be successful in 2010, the bullpen must be used in a way that allows them to be successful. That will mean that Dave Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz must work with the staff to ensure that the starters are capable of throwing at least six innings per game (they averaged 5.5 per game a year ago).
Wieters, Jones, Reimold and Markakis Must Keep Moving Forward
One of the reasons for optimism in Baltimore is that the team has finally cultivated some talented young position players capable of becoming superstars.
The key for these players in 2010 will be to continue taking steps forward instead of leveling off or taking steps backward.
I believe this will be especially important for Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones. Both players had glimpses of greatness last year.
Jones got off to a hot start and made his first All-Star team before tailing off in the second half of the season and then missing the last month with injuries.
Reimold finished strong (.364 average over the last month), but had dips at times during the season as he finished with a .279 average, 15 home runs and 45 RBI in 104 games.
Matt Wieters made consistent improvement following his call-up in late May. If he can continue to develop, Wieters could become a superstar during just his second season. He also finished strong in 2009 (.362 average, 14 RBI in September) and in just 96 games posted a .288 average, nine home runs and 43 RBI.
Nick Markakis is the closest thing the Orioles currently have to a superstar, but he has not yet even made an All-Star team. In 2009 he finished the year with a .293 average, 18 home runs and 101 RBI. However, he hit only .198 with seven RBI over the final month of the season.
For the Orioles to be successful in 2010, he cannot have extended periods without offensive production.
Cesar Izturis Must Continue His Solid Shortstop Play
One position where there was noticeable improvement for the Orioles in 2009 was shortstop. After struggling at the spot in 2008, Cesar Izturis came in and provided much-needed consistency (especially defensively) at the position. He made only eight errors in 112 games and also gave the added bonus of hitting .256.
Though he missed several weeks following an appendectomy, Izturis was still a key performer for the Orioles in 2009 and will continue in that role in 2010.
Check back in the coming days for part two of our preseason look at the Orioles as we will focus on each position and look at where the strengths and weaknesses lie for the Birds. We will then wrap-up our preseason series with a look at what would qualify as a “successful” season for the Orioles in 2010.
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