10 Burning Questions Facing the Baltimore Orioles On Opening Day 2010
The Orioles will open 2010 with a much-needed and well deserved sense of optimism after ending last year on a 4-0 run. Baltimore has struggled mightily for much of the past 10 seasons, but a core of young position players and a stable of young pitchers gives fans reason to be enthusiastic entering 2010. The Orioles are still a team a few steps away from grasping a spot in the playoffs, but a strong 2010 could set the tone for a strong run at legitimate contention in 2011.
The most pressing issue for the Orioles will no doubt be pitching. The Orioles pitching staff has potential to emerge as one of the best young rotations in the game or to fail mightily and leave the Orioles in the bottom rung of pitching statistics for yet another year. 2010 also looks to be a year of emerging stars in Baltimore. Matt Weiters will get a chance to earn his spot as the Orioles “face of the franchise”, Adam Jones will build on his first all-star campaign, and future ace Brian Matusz will likely be in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
Overall, the Orioles appear to be a much stronger team this year, but expectations should always be tempered with a team that is as reliant on unproven players as the O’s are. The Orioles will improve and their lineup has potential to be substantially better, but the scope of this improvement has yet to be determined. The questions facing the Orioles are not unlike many teams: pitching troubles, managerial job security, and the balance between youth and experience will all weigh heavily on the Orioles in 2010. The Orioles will be a team that needs everything to go perfectly in order to have a successful year, but the pieces are finally coming into place. That being said there are 10 issues most pivotal to the rise or fall of the 2010 Orioles.
Can Wieters Handle The Pressure?
Before Matt Wieters took his first at-bat in an Orioles uniform he received a standing ovation. It was clear that fans in Baltimore were desperate for something to be excited about and the 6’5" “Joe Mauer with Power” was just what they needed to inspire hope at Camden Yards.
Wieters is the new face of Orioles baseball and in his second season in the majors the Orioles will need him to play that way if they plan to avoid finishing in last place for the third consecutive year.
If Wieters' surge in September is any indication of what will happen this year, then they will have little to worry about. In the last month of the 2009 season Wieters hit .333 with four homers en route to his best month in the majors.
This is only a small sampling of what Wieters is capable of and his power will be of vital importance in hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
Wieters familiarity with the young pitching staff will be just as essential on the defensive side of the ball.
As Wieters continues to improve from both sides of the plate he will become even more of a threat, but asking him to shoulder too much of the runs scoring load in 2010 may be a mistake.
How Will the Young Pitching Staff Perform?
The only way to describe the 2009 Orioles pitching staff was abysmal. They ranked dead last in ERA, quality starts, batting average against, and WHIP among all major league teams. In addition, the Orioles gave up more runs than any other team.
Needless to say those statistics didn’t yield too many favorable results. Longtime Oriole Jeremy Guthrie will be in the rotation, but will have to improve on giving up a major-league-leading 35 homers if he wants to remain there after this season. Newly-acquired ace Kevin Millwood will eat up innings and hopefully take some pressure off an overworked bullpen.
This year, the theme for the pitching staff is youth.
The Orioles will need quality contributions from youngsters Brain Matusz, Brad Bergensen, Chris Tillman, David Hernandez, and Jason Berken if they want a chance at improving the numbers from last year.
Much of the focus will be on heralded future ace Brain Matusz, who will enter his first full season in the majors. Matusz had a 5-2 record though eight starts last season with a 4.63 ERA. Matusz features a mid-90s fastball and two plus-secondary pitches, a slider and biting curve.
He has shown the ability to put all of his pitches over the plate for strikes and though he isn’t overpowering, his 10.97 K/9 in the Arizona Fall League was awfully impressive.
Jake Arrieta is another young pitcher that projects to be in the top of the rotation. Arrieta features a power fastball that gels nicely with his aggressive approach on the mound. Arrieta’s secondary pitches, especially his changeup, still need some development, but in the event of an injury or prolonged slump, don’t be surprised to see Arrieta in an Orioles uniform in 2010.
Will Gonzalez Solidify His Role A Closer?
The closer role has been influx in Baltimore for quite some time. George Sherrill handled the role somewhat adequately, but he was traded to the Dodgers in a deal that landed prospect Josh Bell.
Jim Johnson took over in his absence last year, but failed to stand out and will return to his more comfortable setup role.
To address the need the Orioles signed lefthander Mike Gonzalez to a two-year deal. Gonzalez was a set-up man and part-time closer last year in Atlanta before losing the job to Rafael Soriano.
Gonzalez pitched well last year and struck out 90 batters in only 74 innings, but it remains to be seen if Gonzalez can handle the role single-handedly for an entire season.
Gonzalez has an encouraging 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, but his 44% fly ball percentage could be cause for concern in Camden Yards.
Can They Keep The Ball In The Park?
The Orioles are a team filled with young pitching talent waiting to get their first taste of success in the major leagues and a few veterans looking to make an impact on the club. However, regardless of who takes the mound the Orioles need to concentrate on one thing: keeping the ball in the park.
Orioles pitching gave up a whopping 218 homers last year. The only other team in baseball that cleared 200 was the Milwaukee Brewers. MLB Park factor statistics show that Camden Yards ranks fifth (1.185) in home runs, however that cannot happen again if the Orioles plan on being competitive this year.
The Orioles ranked at the bottom or near the bottom of nearly all statistical pitching categories last season.
Unfortunately, newly-acquired staff ace Kevin Millwood isn’t likely to solve the problem. Millwood ranked 11th in the AL in home runs given up with 26 homers, right behind the Orioles' David Hernandez, so it is unlikely he will make a significant impact in that category.
How Good Will Jones and Reimold Be in 2010?
While most of the attention and fanfare goes to Wieters entering 2010, the young outfield and their ability to stay on the field will be just as important for the Orioles both now and for the foreseeable future.
Adam Jones cemented himself in centerfield by earning a Gold Glove and was the Orioles lone representative in the 2009 All Star Game before a sprained ankle cut his season short.
This year the Orioles will expect even more out of their 24-year-old breakout star. Jones started last season on fire hitting .359 in March and April and blasting 11 homers by the end of May. His performance tailed off a great deal between June and August and Jones only hit 8 homers before his season ended early after the ankle sprain.
Jones hasn’t reached his ceiling yet so an increase in steals and homers are within his reach.
Nolan Reimold is another member of the promising young outfield. Reimold was well on his way to an AL Rookie of the Year campaign before an achilles injury ended his season prematurely. Before being sidelined Reimold lead all AL Rookies in homers, on-base percentage, slugging, and total bases.
Reimold will enter the season as the Orioles' fourth outfielder as the organization seeks to monitor him closely following surgery. But expect him to reclaim the left field job from Felix Pie when he’s fully recovered.
If healthy Reimold has 20 homer and double-digit steal potential. Alongside another emerging star Nick Markakis, Jones and Reimold should forge one of the best outfields in all of baseball and the Orioles most consistent performers.
Will Trembley Survive The Season?
The 2010 season will be Manager Dave Trembley’s third full season leading the Orioles. The Orioles have finished last in their division each year and they had to go on a four-game win streak at the end of the season to avoid becoming a 100-loss team.
Some have criticized Trembley for being too tolerant of mental errors and base-running mistakes by the club and others have questioned the Orioles' decision to hire a manager that never played major league baseball.
Nevertheless, the Orioles had enough confidence in Trembley to bring him back for the 2010 season. Trembley has been a member of the organization since 2003 and has experience with some of the younger players which likely played a role in the decision to bring him back.
However, increased expectations both internally and externally driven by the ascent of many of the organization's young stars may very well spell the end for Trembley. Trembley is a fiery manager that’s not afraid to argue passionately for his players, hopefully some of that energy translates onto the field.
Will Josh Bell Make An Impact In 2010?
Don’t be confused by offseason signings Garret Atkins and Miguel Tejada. Josh Bell is destined to take over the Orioles third base spot. Bell was acquired midseason last year from the Dodgers in the George Sherill deal. Since that time he has become arguably the Orioles top position prospect and the heir apparent at the hot corner.
Bell is a 6’3" switch hitter with big time power potential. He has struggled from the right side in the minors, but it is likely that Bell will receive a call up at some point this season. His defense has improved dramatically and Baseball America dubbed him the best third baseman in the Southern League (AA) last year.
Tejada’s one year deal is likely evidence that he is just a stop gap until the club feels that Bell is ready. Bell hit .295 at Double-A last year with 20 home runs and 35 doubles between Chattanooga and Orioles affiliate Bowie in 448 at-bats. If he can reach the majors in 2010, look for him to inject some much needed pop into the Orioles lineup.
Can They Score Enough Runs?
Even if the Orioles can solve their pitching woes, they will need to score their fair share of runs if they hope to compete in the AL East.
The Yankees and Rays feature two of the deepest lineups in baseball and both finished in the top-five in runs scored in the AL last year. The Yankees scored well over 100 more runs than the Orioles did and the O’s fell short of the AL average by 40 runs.
This will simply not cut it in the American League East where even the Toronto Blue Jays ranked sixth in runs scored. That being said, the Orioles had the fifth-most hits and fifth-highest batting average in the American League last year.
Those are encouraging indicators; however, the problem is clear: the Orioles aren’t converting hits into runs. Not surprisingly, the Orioles were last in sacrifice hits in the MLB last year with an unbelievably low of 13. If the Orioles want to win they will value every base runner and avoid any wasted opportunities.
Will The Veterans Contribute?
Major League Baseball is undergoing a youth movement. Across the league the average age of players is decreasing and increasingly youthful phenoms are having a dramatic impact upon their entrance into the majors.
The Orioles are yet another team on the youth bandwagon, but for the time being they still need their veterans to perform and without them the season will be lost.
No conversation about the Orioles can be had without mention of Brian Roberts, the club’s second baseman and most consistent player. Roberts is the starting point of everything the Orioles do on offense and will once again serve as the lead-off man this season. Roberts is a doubles machine and he proved it by breaking the single-season record for doubles by a switch hitter last season with 56. Roberts will be key in opening up opportunities for Markakis, Wieters, Jones, and Reimold. Though his speed has regressed, he still stole 30 bags last year. Despite being the model of consistency Roberts has faced some injury issues in spring training and entering his 10th season in the majors it is not too early to question if his effectiveness will start to wane.
While Roberts’ was the Orioles team MVP last year, Miguel Tejada is making a return to the organization where he spent the prime of his career. The Orioles, however, are not receiving the Miguel Tejada of old. Tejada is 35 and will play third base instead of shortstop. Tejada’s numbers dropped in both 2007 and 2008, but he rebounded last year and posted a .313 batting average. There is still cause for concern as Tejada will be making a defensive transition which may affect him the offensive side of the plate. At this point in his career it is unlikely that Tejada surpasses 15 home runs, so his plate discipline and average will be his contributions to the club’s offense. But the transition back to the American League East may damper his supposed return to form last year.
How Will They Handle The First Month?
By now most Orioles fans are aware of the daunting April that awaits them. Throughout the first thirty days of the season the Orioles will face Tampa Bay, New York, and Boston on the road; amongst tough road matchups against Tampa Bay, Boston and a retooled Seattle.
That is no easy schedule for any team, but especially for a team rife with young pitchers making their first opening day roster. But just as important as the record that the Orioles leave April with is their record in May and June, where the direction of the Orioles' season will be shaped.
The Orioles will begin May by concluding a series with the Red Sox and then head to New York for a three-game series. After that the month gets slightly easier. The O’s will face Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, Oakland, and Toronto in May and will have ample opportunity to make up some lost ground if April is as troublesome as it appears.
If the Orioles fall into difficult slump beginning the season it wouldn’t be surprising to see it diminish the enthusiasm of a team that has developed a losing culture in recent years.
Few foresee a start anywhere near as bad as the 1988 season, but Orioles fans should be wary of another disappointing start.