The All-Star Game was played last night, and this is as good a time as any to look back on the first half of the year, even though it has been a little bit more than half. Based on the fact that they traded away their best hitter (Tejada) and their best pitcher (Bedard) in the off-season, one can assume that the Orioles are pretty solidified in the cellar of the AL East, right? I mean with the emergence of the Rays and the steadfast Yankees and Red Sox in that division, there's just no way the Orioles can compete for any more than the first week. Right?
The Orioles have exceeded expectations in the first half simply by winning only a small margin under half their games. And up until a recent 1-5 trip, they were over .500, and in fourth place. For much of the season, they have been within striking distance of the Bronx Bombers. If this is supposed to be the year they are rebuilding and they lose 100 games, I sure can't wait until a few years from now when they are supposed to actually have a winning season for the first time in over a decade.
Here are a few thoughts on each position, and a grade for each.
In the infield...
Catcher: Ramon Hernandez and Guillermo Quiroz
Ramon is the starter behind the plate. He hasn't had his best swing this season, but he has had some nice stretches recently. Defensively, though, he is somewhat of a liability. Teams have been running all over him this season. Jacoby Ellsbury stole seven bases in one series against him. He has made several errors, on pass balls and throwing, and seems to no longer be stable at all defensively. Quiroz has been better behind the plate, but at the plate is a major drop-off. He is a nice back-up though. Whomever plays, they are only doing so until Andy McPhail decides its time for Matt Wieters to take the reigns. But for this season, I give them a: D, because defense has to be the top priority of a Catcher, especially with the young rotation the O's have.
1st Base: Kevin Millar
Kevin has hit in the clean-up spot for the Orioles many times, and while he is not many teams first choice when it comes to that, he hasn't been horrible. He can get streaky at times. Defensively, he is very solid, but he isn't going to win any Gold Gloves over there. He also is fairly slow with his feet, but he has made some nice picks this year, and he gets the job done on the field. Millar's real value though, is in the clubhouse. He has long been known for his antics off the field, and he is one of the most outspoken players in the league. He always lightens the mood, and is a great veteran presence. His grade is a: B, he hasn't done anything extraordinary, but he gets the job done. His presence in the clubhouse is invaluable.
2nd Base: Brian Roberts
B-Rob wasn't even supposed to be in Baltimorethis season. After the jettison of Tejada and Bedard, Roberts was expected to be shipped to the Cubs for some more prospects. Fortunately for the O's, no deal surfaced and they were able to retain him. In my own biased opinion, he was the best player not selected to the All-Star game. He leads the American League in triples, is second only to Ian Kinsler in doubles, and is tied for third in stolen bases. He is also eighth in both hits and runs. He wrecks havoc on the base paths and in the pitcher's minds, and he sees almost the most pitches per at bat in the majors. He is exactly what you want in a lead-off man, and he plays a very good second base. He is what makes the Orioles go, and they are extremely fortunate to have kept on to him. His grade is an A+.
3rd Base: Melvin Mora
Back in 2004, Mora had finally settled into third base after being a super utility man early in his career, and he responded with his bat, hitting .342 that season. He hasn't come close to that since, getting lower each successive year. This year, he leads the Orioles in batting average with runners in scoring position, but that may be coming to an end as well. In the last game, just one game, against Boston he went 0 for 5 and left 11 baserunners on. 11 in one game! and his fielding has been reminiscent of when he first switched to third and was trying to use an outfielder's glove. It has not been pretty watching the decline of one of the longest tenured Orioles, and a fan favorite. His grade is a C-.
This is one of the ugliest competitions I have ever seen. Will anyone step up and take the starting job? Fahey, Bynum, Hernandez, and Cintron all had their chances, and none could hold on. At the beginning of the season Dave Trembley said he believed the Orioles could be competitive with a glove-first SS. This plan has failed miserably, because the Orioles' shortstops have not been able to field or hit. Some serious steps need to be taken, and fast. Their grade is a resounding F.
Designated Hitter: Aubrey Huff
I include Aubrey in the infield because when he does play it is either at first or third. Aubrey's bat has really been on fire since the beginning of June, compiling a batting average in the .348 range and doubling his home run total from the first two full months. His hot hitting has coincided with the whole team's whose run scoring has shot up since the end of May. Aubrey has never given the Orioles on of his 30 homer, 100 RBI years, but this may be the year. His grade is an A.
And now for the Outfield...
Left Field: Luke Scott and Jay Payton
Luke Scott, who came over in the trade that sent Tejada to the Astros, has been everything the Orioles expected and more. His bat has been so valuable to the Birds this season. There have been several occasions where he has hit a clutch home run to tie the game in the eighth, or where his quality at-bat has decided the game. His defense is mediocre, but he isn't a liability. He is on pace to hit around 25 home runs, and to drive in at least 80 runs. Jay Payton has provided a veteran presence, and the way he hits left handed pitching has been utilized many times. He is only the fourth outfielder on the time, but he has become one of the best fourth outfielders in the league. Their grade is a B.
Center Field: Adam Jones
Adam was the centerpiece of the Erik Bedard trade with Seattle, and while he hasn't been as impressive as some other rookies (Longoria, Ellsbury), he has quietly had a very solid season. His defense has been superb, and he has a terrific arm. He started out slowly at the plate, but since mid-June he has really picked it up, bringing his season average up to .280. He has some speed, and he has gotten some extra base hits. We're still waiting on the power stroke he showed off in AAA Tacoma last year when he hit 25 home runs, but for now he is developing quite nicely. He has all the tools and the right attitude to become a five-tool superstar in the future, and this is a great first season. His grade for the year is a B.
Right Field: Nick Markakis
Nick Markakis, in just his third season in the majors, is the face of this franchise. He has an absolute cannon in the field, leading the league in outfield assists. He was deserving of a Gold-Glove last year, and hasn't disappointed this year. After a lackluster first two months, Nick has been one of the hottest hitters in the league since June 1. He has a terrific batting eye, and he hits the ball well to all fields. He even has some stolen bases for the Orioles. Whether he has batted second or third, he has steadily produced for the O's. His grade is an A.
And now the Pitching Staff...
The Starters: Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera, Garret Olsen, Brian Burres, and Radhames Liz
Jeremy Guthrie has been fantastic all season long, yet only has 5 wins due to one of the worst run support numbers in the league. He has a good ERA, and is among the major league leaders in Quality Starts. He has developed into a true ace. Daniel Cabrera seemed to have finally turned the corner and cashed in on all that potential the Orioles saw in him, but lately he has had his fair share of struggles. Despite his developing consistency, he has been another bright spot for the Orioles' pitching this season. Olsen, Burres, and Liz all haven't done anything to impress me for this season, but they have all shown flashes of potential in the future, especially Liz. Radhames started out his season 3-0 with an ERA in the mid-3.00's.Burres' future may be as a spot starter out of the bullpen, and Olsen is a nice back of the rotation guy . All in all, the starters have tailed off a bit from the beginning of the year, but they have kept the Orioles in a good amount of games. Their grade is greatly boosted by Guthrie, but for this year it is still a C.
The Bullpen: Dennis Sarfate, Jamie Walker, George Sherrill, Jim Johnson, Lance Cormier, Chad Braford, and Matt Albers
The bullpen has been the backbone of the Orioles this whole season, and is one of the best in the majors. Johnson has been absolutely phenomenal, with an ERA in the 1.30 region throughout the year, and Sarfate has been a fantastic pickup from Houston. He has blown his fastball by many hitters for an average of over 1 strikeout per inning. Cormier and Albers have been great long relief guys, who have come on and kept the Orioles in games so many times this year. George Sherrill made the All-Star team in his first year as the Orioles closer, and he is tied for second in the American League in Saves. The O's are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to comebacks and one run victories, and so much of the credit goes to the bullpen. It's grade is an A.
The Baltimore Orioles faced many doubters heading into the 2008 season, and many experts predicted a 100 loss campaign. The word to best describe their season has been resiliency. They play hard until the final out, and you can't count them out of any game until it's over. Dave Trembley deserves much credit for instilling this into his team, and also for putting an emphasis on the basics. Their overall grade is a B, because of the way they have defied everyone's expectations.
Thanks to an infusion of young talent and pitching, and for the first time in a long time, the Orioles' future looks bright.