Going into the 2010 off season, the Baltimore Orioles had seemingly the same needs as they do every off season: first base, shortstop, third base, closer, and starting pitching.
They tried to get by, like they do every year, with the cheap patch-work signing of Cesar Isturis, who failed miserably, hitting just .230 in the process. Thankfully, this year he will be in a more suitable role of back-up utility infielder, where he still could hold some value off the bench.
Comparing the starting lineups per position of most games played, which would you rather have?
2010 Orioles 2011 Orioles
1B Ty Wigginton Derrek Lee
2B Brian Roberts Roberts
SS Cesar Izturis JJ Hardy
3B Miguel Tejada Mark Reynolds
LF Felix Pie Pie ??
RF Nick Markakis Markakis
CF Adam Jones Jones
C Matt Wieters Wieters
DH Luke Scott Scott
Improvements all across the board (and I really mean it this year!)
Across the board Lee, Hardy, and Reynolds are upgrades over their predecessors. Overall, the team ranked 27th in MLB in runs last year with just 613. The three players that left, Tejada, (15HR 71 RBI), Wigginton, (22HR, 76RBI) and Izturis (1HR 28 RBI) (demoted) combined for 38HRs and 175RBI respectively.
Their replacement-upgrades on the other hand, Mark Reynolds (32HRS, 85RBI), Derrek Lee (19HRS, 80RBI), and JJ Hardy (6HR 38RBI) combined for 57HRS and 203 RBI. Heck, Reynolds and Hardy alone hit as many homers as the previous trio and that doesn't even factor in Derrek Lee's 19 bombs.
In addition, Reynolds (27), Lee (35) and Hardy (28) average 30 years of age compared to 33 for Tejada (36 allegedly), Wigginton (33), and Izturis (30). For those thinking that experience and veteran leadership will surely be lost, consider that they didn't exactly win with that wisdom last year, so getting younger can't hurt and the players they brought in are hardly washed up in any sense like in years past with the Orioles.
In fact, I see Derrek Lee having a Bobby Bonilla or Eddie Murray type veteran impact and influence on this team like in the mid-90s, when the team was making annual playoff pushes. Its a move more typical of Pat Gillick's deadline deals, so look at it as they got him a few months early.
For those thinking they did okay on offense but they forgot to address defense, each player is also known for his defense. In Lee and Hardy's case, it could be argued their defense is actually better than their offensive game, which in Lee's case is particularily complementary since he's such a solid hitter.
What about the pitching?
For those thinking Andy McPhail addressed only offense and defense but neglected the pitching, the team not only kept middle reliever Koji Uehara, who improved once he found his niche in the bullpen, but also added closer Kevin Gregg from divisional rival Toronto, thus directly hurting them and forcing them to downgrade to Octavio Dotel.
While Gregg had a high (3.51) ERA last year for a closer with the Blue Jays, he did amass 37 saves, which would rank almost three times as many as saves leader Uehara's 13. Besides, if someone else had signed him, say the Boston Red Sox, they'd be praised for strengthening an already solid bullpen and for giving themselves options should Jonathan Papelbon get himself into trouble.
So the Orioles did what they had to do, and in Lee and Gregg's cases, overpaid for free agents who normally don't want to come there for obvious reasons. In each case, minus Hardy, who I think will have the least impact of the quartet but remains a mild upgrade nonetheless, ask yourself this, "If not him. than who?"
We know in Lee's case it would have been Adam LaRoche and while he too would have been an upgrade, we now have the next year to evaluate how he does in Washington. We can wonder what he may have done in Baltimore as his stats will be compared nightly to Lee's and see who came out better on the deal.
For me personally, I was pulling for LaRoche initially because of his consistency (20+ hrs in six of seven big-league seasons including three straight 25) but I was swayed by the fans' desire from message boards to blogs for the more professional veteran perceived to be the more complete hitter in Lee. We'll see who won out.
So what does it all mean for 2011?
With the Rays' inevitable demise (although I think their starting pitching will keep them in more games than people think) and likely falling to the cellar, logic would suggest the Orioles would simply ascend to 4th, but not so fast, my friends.
Look at the New York Yankees who didn't make a single upgrade to their current roster, having only kept icons Derek Jeter, who had the worst season of his career, and Rivera, who contrary to reports, wasn't going anywhere. I refuse to give them credit for keeping their guys.
They failed to upgrade a bat in Carl Crawford and with it, youth and speed. They failed to land Cliff Lee to go with a weakened, aging, and thin starting rotation. At this point it's Sabathia, Burnett and pray-to-God that Andy Pettite comes back.
With him, I think they finish no higher than 3rd, due to their continued lack of starting pitching and adding no impact free agents or youth. Yes they got Russell Martin, but that's it.
Without Pettite I think there is a very serious battle for 3rd with Baltimore right behind Boston (1st) and Toronto (2nd) who lost only Gregg among its impact free agents. (I love their Rajai Davis move by the way.)
Long story short, I was going to have the O's finish some five games or so behind the Yankee$ for third anyway, just to show the gap has been closing, and because of the O's lack of starting pitching.
I still think they need to add a 15 game winner (Garza would have been perfect) and I have no idea how manager Buck Showalter got that staff to go 34-23 to finish the season (the team's record).
Still, if they can get a lead with their hitting and hold it for five innings, qualifying that starter for the win before they go to their bullpen, as of today, I'm going to go bold and say they finish 3rd, something around 83 wins. But my projections will come out in mid February or early March when all the moves are done.
In a perfect world (outside of winning the division), they could finish 2nd and vie for the Wild Card, but that's simply too optimistic with that lack of starting pitching. They also have to be careful not to succumb to too many changes too quickly in fitting in the new guys.
Still, a hot start (April and May) mixed with a solid finish (August and September like last year) would allow for some back-to-reality falling, which I predict, in the summer months of June and July, will get them their 3rd place finish.
The hot start would infuse optimism like in 2004 when Tejada, Lopez, and Palmeiro came to town, giving me memories of 1996-97, the last time the team made the post-season only to see that dashed. The strong finish would give people hope for next year and have them end on a positive note instead of the Blue Jay-esque hot finish last year that no one knows what to make of.
That Wild card push could come next year if they expand the playoffs to include two Wild Cards. Many people including FoxSports.com's John Paul Morosi are so quick to just hand to Toronto. Next year is not our year, but for the first time since the 2003 offseason, it could be closer than it's been for a long time. If you are sensing the parallels to the 90's and the references I am making, you are not alone.
They say it's not how you start but how you finish, but in the Orioles' case, why can't it be both?
Information and statistics from ESPN.com directly contributed to the content of this article.