June 18, 2001: A bittersweet day for Orioles fans. Cal Ripken Jr. announces that he will retire at the end of the 2001 season, after 20 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.
Arguably the most beloved Oriole of all-time, it was finally time to say goodbye to Cal and his celebrated career as an Oriole, both on the field and in the Baltimore community.
Four days earlier, on June 14th, Brian Roberts makes his Major League debut for the Orioles.
Drafted just two years earlier as a supplemental first round draft pick in 1999 out of the University of South Carolina, Roberts was regarded for his speed on the bases and defensive ability at second base.
Roberts appeared in 75 games over the 2001 season, getting the opportunity to play alongside Ripken in the Oriole infield, where he was used primarily at shortstop (51 games) that first season.
Roberts hit .253 over 273 at bats, with 42 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. The rookie had given Orioles fans a bit of a distraction from the terrible season the team was having (the O's finished 63-98 that year), and the sadness of seeing an Oriole legend making his final farewells as a player.
By 2004, Roberts gradually became a favorite among O's fans as he became an everyday player at 2nd base and a fixture at the top of the Orioles lineup. He was a guy that had an appeal to the average Oriole fan, with his very average 5’9” stature and his demonstrated work ethic.
While the team continued to struggle in the standings, fans became more excited about Roberts as he began to put up All Star-caliber stats, 50 doubles in '04, a .314 average along with 45 doubles in '05 and his first All Star selection that same year.
By this time, Roberts, even as he was playing alongside superstar shortstop Miguel Tejada, became the real fan favorite. He had been drafted by the Orioles, had made his debut with them, and now seemed to be entrenched in Baltimore as the face of the franchise.
Back to August 2008.
Roberts is still with the Orioles, and still continues to produce at a very high level.
As the catalyst of the O's lineup, which has produced 634 runs (ranking them 3rd in the American League), Roberts is currently hitting .295 through 120 games, with a .379 on-base percentage, 87 runs scored, 30 stolen bases, and 61 extra base hits.
All very impressive numbers, which has become the standard that Roberts has set as the leadoff hitter on this team.
While teammates Nick Markakis, Aubrey Huff, and, more recently, Melvin Mora have been putting up outstanding offensive numbers, Roberts is still regarded as the one whose contributions are the most valuable to the success of the offense, and the team as a whole.
Besides his outstanding speed, Roberts simply has an instinct on the bases that can not be taught. This is evidenced by the some of the jumps you see him get when he takes off to steal a base (especially third base).
He has the plate discipline to take close pitches and work counts to his favor, before either drawing a walk or get a pitch he can get a good swing on. This ability is matched only by Markakis, if anybody on the Orioles.
With all the aforementioned statistics and skill sets, you would think Roberts would be on a very short list of position players the Orioles need to keep around for the success of the ballclub in future years A list that would include Markakis, centerfielder Adam Jones, and catching prospect Matt Wieters.
However, this may be more of an emotional mindset to have than a logical, realistic mindset.
Roberts, who will turn 31 just after the 2008 regular season ends, is currently signed through the end of next season.
Just before the 2007 season began, Roberts turned down a deal with longer terms and opted to just sign through '09. He wanted to see where the team was at that time, and then make a decision based on the success and direction of the team.
Basically, Roberts wants to play for a winner, whether it be the Orioles or another team, and he wants to do it sooner than later.
This opportunity very nearly presented itself earlier in 2008. Team President Andy MacPhail was in lengthy negotiations with the Chicago Cubs to deal Roberts to them, but ultimately a deal was never made. MacPhail, knowing just how much value Roberts provides to a ballclub, wanted to make sure the Orioles were receiving a package of players that matched the value of Roberts. The Cubs, respectively, just didn't quite feel the need to give up as much as MacPhail wanted.
After trading Miguel Tejada and top tier starter Erik Bedard last offseason, MacPhail knows Roberts is the last real high-end veteran player for whom he can get a lot of value in return. However, with next year being the last year on Roberts' contract, MacPhail will need to look to deal Roberts this offseason to ensure maximum value in return.
MacPhail knows what type of players he needs to get in order to keep the ballclub going in the direction he wants them to, and I trust he will do that. If he can't get those players, Roberts will remain an Oriole, at least for 2009. If he can, then expect him to make Roberts expendable and keep the momentum of positive change rolling.
The question is: Is there anybody suited to fill the large void that Roberts would leave at second base, if he gets traded?
One player currently in the organization comes to mind as a solid candidate: Elder Torres.
Torres, at age 25, is currently playing with the O's AAA ballclub in Norfolk. He was acquired by the Orioles from the Cleveland Indians after the 2006 season. He did play in eight games with the Orioles earlier this season, between April 26 and May 7. He only had nine at bats over these eight games, and was used primarily as a pinch runner and defensive replacement at second and at shortstop.
Torres has had a very noteworthy season at Norfolk, putting up numbers that should get him a return to the Major League ballclub in September as part of the O's 40 man roster. Through 103 games, Torres is hitting .308 with 60 runs scored and 28 stolen bases. Do these type of numbers remind you of anyone?
The similarities between he and Roberts continue. Torres is a switch hitter. He is the exact same size as Roberts (5'9" 175 lbs). He also has proven himself to be a quality fielder, with just seven errors in those 103 games. Unlike Roberts, however, Torres hits better against lefties, with a .333 average in 153 at bats against them, compared with a .293 average in 273 at bats against righties.
These stats and similarities alone do not guarantee Torres will be able to replicate the success Roberts has had in his eight seasons in Baltimore, but they certainly warrant him the opportunity. Torres will be 26 by Opening Day of 2009, and the time is now to give him that opportunity.
He should not be expected to immediately do what Roberts has done over the past five seasons.
Remember, Roberts did not come up to the Orioles back in '01 with an enormous amount of hype, unlike Markakis and Wieters. It took him three to four seasons of hard work and gradual improvements before he earned the respect and admiration of O's fans throughout Baltimore.
While many O's fans would greatly miss the presence of Roberts, both on and off the field, the energy and excitement Torres brings to the field could certainly become one of the good stories for the Orioles next season.