Team Preview: Baltimore Orioles

After suffering through five straight seasons of 90+ losses, this off season was an exciting time to be an Orioles fan. While the O’s front office has remained relatively quiet over the past few winters, preferring to let their young talent develop, this year the Orioles starting making moves as if they were a contender. Derrek Lee and Vladamir Guerrero were added on one year deals for around $7-8M each.  Defensive wiz J.J. Hardy and masher Mark Reynolds were acquired in trades. Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo, and Justin Duchscherer were signed to help shore up the pitching staff. It was an off season full of movement and action.

But the skeptic in me isn’t sure what to think. Sure, the Orioles have improved their team in the short term, but to what end? When competing in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, does it matter if you win 79 games as opposed to 69? Did the Orioles improve their long-term competitiveness, or were these moves the product of a frustrated ownership that wants to win now?

The Projected Starting Nine

2B Brian Roberts
RF Nick Markakis
1B Derrek Lee
DH Vladimir Guerrero
LF Luke Scott
3B Mark Reynolds
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
SS J.J. Hardy

Make no mistake: this lineup is loads better than last year’s disaster. While the Orioles only posted around 9 WAR from their position players last season and had the fourth worst offense in the league (-72.3 wRAA), this team’s roster projects to post around 19 WAR instead. Derrek Lee and Vladamir Guerrero may be both past their primes (and are both large injury risks), but they both still have above-average bats. They provide much-needed middle-of-the-order punch, taking the pressure off Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, and Matt Wieters and allowing them to slide into lineup slots more fitting to their skills.

The problem is, though, that both Lee and Guerrero are only signed on one year deals. Both players make the Orioles better this season, but what happens next year? Along those same lines, J.J. Hardy is a fine defensive player and has some upside with his bat (having hit 20+ homeruns twice with the Brewers), but he’s entering his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent after the season. Luke Scott is under team control through the 2012 season, but then he hits free agency as well. This is a solid offense as it stands this year, but what happens in the future?

Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Mark Reynolds, Adam  Jones, and Matt Wieters are all under team control for at least the next three seasons, but there are reasons to be wary of this core. Roberts is entering his mid-30s and has has recent injury troubles, and Markakis has posted two sub-3 WAR seasons after his monster 2008 season. Reynolds is a fine power hitter if you can stomach the 40% strikeout rate, and Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are both valuable young players that have yet to live up to expectations.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Wieters, Jones, and Markakis. I think they form a valuable trio of young players for the Orioles, and all three of whom could explode and become stars within the next few years. At the same time, though, I see lots of question marks and a roster full of talent that won’t be around in two seasons. Are the Orioles going to make the necessary trades to bring in more young talent to complement their core? Or are they going to hold onto Guerrero, Lee, and Hardy all season, hoping for some short-term success instead of planning for the future?

The Pitching Staff

RHP Jeremy Guthrie
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Justin Duchscherer
RHP Brad Bergesen
RHP Jake Arrieta / Chris Tillman

CL RHP Kevin Gregg
RHP Koji Uehara
LHP Mike Gonzalez
RHP Jim Johnson
RHP Jeremy Accardo
RHP Jason Berken
LHP Mark Hendrickson

The Orioles’ offense was bad last season, and their pitching wasn’t much better. The Orioles let up the second most runs per game in 2010 (4.85, trailing only the Royals), and their starting staff was the third-worst in the majors as measured by WAR. Jeremy Guthrie (3.83 ERA, 4.44 FIP) and Brian Matusz (4.30 ERA, 4.05 FIP) were both productive starters, but the rest of the pitching staff was a mess. High-priced closer Mike Gonzalez flamed out and got injured in the first week of the season, and top prospects Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman couldn’t get their K/BB ratios above 1.0. It was a disappointing year, to say the least.

While the starting pitching rotation isn’t too much different from last season, the group should improve due to natural progression from young players. Matusz and Arrieta have shown flashes of brilliance in their time in the majors, and either of them could break out and raise their stock considerably. Addition Justin Duchscherer has been quite effective when not on the disabled list (sub-3 ERA in 2008 and 2010), and is a perfect buy low candidate for a rebuilding team. And both Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman need to improve their strikeout rates in the majors (~4-5 K/9 currently), but they have youth and solid minor league track records on their side. Even if the Orioles are siding with veterans instead of young players on offense, they’re at least giving their young starting pitchers room to develop.

The bullpen looks to be a considerable strength this season, as GM Andy MacPhail spent liberally on bullpen arms this off season. Koji Uehara was very successful as the O’s closer last season (2.86 ERA, 11 K/9, 1 BB/9), but free agent acquisition Kevin Gregg seems to have the inside track to the closer role due to Koji’s arm issues this spring. Jim Johnson, Jeremy Accardo, and Mike Gonzalez are also above-average bullpen arms, and will make the Orioles a force in the late innings of games.

Key Player

I could highlight any number of players in this spot. Nick Markakis is a huge, long-term piece for the O’s and they need his bat. Matt Wieters is turning 25 this season, and to this point hasn’t developed into the hitter most people were projecting when they compared him to Chuck Norris. And on a team that’s starved for average starting pitchers, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta are two young talents that the O’s almost need to develop into major league contributors.

But I’m going to go a different route and peg Josh Bell as a key player for the Orioles this season. Like I mentioned above, the Orioles have few young position players that are controlled long-term, and Josh Bell was ranked as the 37th best prospect in baseball last season. He’d flashed power and patience in Double-A, but then struggled slightly in Triple-A and flopped at the major league level. He displayed no patience in his limited major league time last season (1.2% walk rate), and his power simply didn’t show up (.088 ISO). Of course, that’s only 150 plate appearances so take those results with a grain of salt, but Bell didn’t look good at the plate.

Now that Mark Reynolds is ensconced at third base and Derrek Lee is at first, Bell will likely start the season in Triple-A, learning how to play first base and improving his plate discipline. If he manages to recapture his past success and turn into a slugger at one of the corner infield positions, it’d be a huge boost to the O’s core of long term talent. But if he doesn’t develop, Bell simply becomes the next in a line of top-rated Orioles prospects that didn’t develop as many people anticipated.

Summary

The Orioles might be stuck in one of the toughest positions of any team in baseball today. That might seem weird to say, as the O’s are currently far from a bad team. They’ve got some exciting young players in Matusz, Wieters, and Markakis, and their system still has some high-upside players in Josh Bell and Jake Arrieta. Their offense is much better this season with the addition of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, and their bullpen could be one of the best in the league. Most projection systems expect the Orioles to be much better this season, finishing slightly better than the Blue Jays with 81 wins. With some young players developing quicker than expected, they could easily finish with their first winning season since 1997.

While 81 wins would be light-years better than the 67 wins they’ve averaged over the last four seasons, the Orioles are still stuck in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. These are three of the smartest, most well run organizations in the majors, and Alex Antholopous is also starting to flex his muscle up in Toronto. To reach a playoff spot, the Orioles need to have a long term plan and a commitment to their young talent. Maybe Andy MacPhail will surprise me and trade Vlad and Lee for prospects at the deadline, but right now, I’m not convinced they have either.

And yet, this is a fun team and one of the best the Orioles have fielded in a long time. They’ll be thorns in the side of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays this season, and there’s still more long-term hope for the franchise than there has been in the past. Boog’s Grill will be firing up soon, balls will be flying around Camden Yards – it’s baseball time in Birdland again.



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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


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mw
Guest
mw
5 years 6 months ago

Um Fangraphs? The Nationals still exist! If you do a team preview, you can mock them for the Werth signing.

Phegan
Member
Phegan
5 years 6 months ago

I believe much of their action this offseason was to help rejuvenate the fan base. While winning 79 games instead of 69 isn’t going to help the team compete, but it will at least bring some of the fans back to Camden Yards.

Maybe the O’s are ramping up for a big push at winning. If they can bring fans back, they will have more money to spend on free agents, when their young players are developed, they may be able to pull off a Rays like run.

Tom Au
Guest
Tom Au
5 years 6 months ago

The Orioles project to be about ten wins better in 2011 than in 2010.

But ten wins better than 66 is only 76.

Ricky
Guest
Ricky
5 years 6 months ago

“about ten wins”

[insert snarky remark]

jrogers
Member
jrogers
5 years 6 months ago

“The problem is, though, that both Lee and Guerrero are only signed on one year deals. Both players make the Orioles better this season, but what happens next year?”

Um, they have financial flexibility to do what they need to, based on an evaluation of how much the young players have progressed? If things are coming together and it looks like they can make the next step, maybe they can sign a Prince Fielder type; if not, more young player development and stopgap veterans.

Heather
Guest
Heather
5 years 6 months ago

I have no idea why everyone is bitching at the Orioles for signing proven veterans on 1 year deals. It seems to me like it’s a good idea, actually.

1. If the veterans do well, they can be moved at the trade deadline for prospects. Remember the D. Lee for 3 pitchers deal, the McDonald for Dotel deal, the Capps for Ramos deal? Yeah. Teams have proven they can and will overpay for even modest help at the trade deadline.

2. If the veterans don’t do well, there was only a minor investement in said veterans, and the team can easily cut their losses and move on

It’s not as if Guerrero, Lee, Hardy, or Uehara are blocking the next uber prospect out of the Orioles system.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
5 years 6 months ago

Every team in the AL East has the same problem this year: four pretty strong opponents. (That’s why the Red Sox have little chance of winning 100 even if everything goes well.) The Orioles and Jays may well be good enough to contend in a weak division, but they’re not playing neutral schedules.

SeanP
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SeanP
5 years 6 months ago
Llewdor
Member
Llewdor
5 years 6 months ago

The problem isn’t the unbalanced schedule. The problem is that there are divisions.

The 2008 Blue Jays were, by some measures, the fourth best team in all of baseball. They finished fourth in their division (behind two of the teams that were better than them, and behind another that was the fifth best team in baseball). Two teams from other AL divisions went to the post-season instead of them.

They really should just scrap the divisions entirely – not because of the unabalanced schedule, but because of the divisions.

Tito Landrum
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Tito Landrum
5 years 6 months ago

Great write up, IMO. Thank you.

boxx
Guest
boxx
5 years 6 months ago

Heather and Steve- One thing both of you are forgetting is that if guys like Lee and Vlad have big years, then the O’s may be in line to get compensatory draft picks if they sign elsewhere. These would have been poor signings if the stop gaps came in the form of say francoeur and overbay because guys like that are barely replacement level, they wouldn’t rally the fan base, they wouldn’t add to the win total, they wouldn’t fetch much at the deadline, and you’d get nothing in the way of picks if they left. Id be pissed as an O’s fan if those sorts of guys were blocking young talent. But even at their advanced ages, Vlad and Lee aren’t those types of guys. Those signings give the O’s great flexibility. If the team is overachieving then great, those 2 help put a few extra asses in the stands, make the team somewhat relevant again and if they walk you get some draft picks for them. If the team stinks you flip them for youngsters at the deadline. I think these were smart moves but an organization that hasn’t made too many in the last decade. O’s fans should be excited.

boxx
Guest
boxx
5 years 6 months ago

Change the last “but” to “by”

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
5 years 6 months ago

I think this is a great plan. Sometimes, you have to show you can win 81 to sign the players necessary to win 90.

pft
Guest
pft
5 years 6 months ago

If the Orioles are in the running for a WC spot by the trading deadline, which would require a collapse by 2 of the Rays, Yankees or Red Sox, they go for it.. If not, like Boxx said, they trade Vlad, Lee and JJ Hardy for prospects.

The Orioles did a good job this offseason, they make the AL East that much tougher. CC faced them something like 6 times last year, so he will have a harder time this year.

Chip
Guest
Chip
5 years 6 months ago

Having read the article and all the follow up comments, I noite that no one has mentioned the most important difference between last year’s overall performance and 2011’s prospect, namely coaching. I can agree that on the side of playing talent, the O’s can grab another 10 wins. With the vast improvement in coaching, I see another 10 wins above that in the cards.
Orioles will reach 86 wins and third place, if they stay healthy and if their promising young pitchers continue to show the poise they exhibited in the last 40 games of 2010.

Final note: The East Division will indeed be tough, but both the Yankees and the Red Sox pitching staffs are vulnerable, with not alot of depth in either rotation. The Rays are rebuilding, will their chemistry come together? Maybe the team with the most depth will prove to be Toronto…

joser
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joser
5 years 6 months ago

Ten wins.. from coaching?

Steve
Guest
Steve
5 years 6 months ago

This cracks me up. An article critical of a team for making major improvements. Sometimes I think there is so much book-ish science from the writers here that they don’t stop and think about the gist of what they write.

Seriously, what should the Orioles have done differently? You don’t give Josh Bell third base – he needs to develop, which is what AAA is for. You don’t give Nolan Reimold (who hit barely above .700 at AAA) or Felix Pie (the definition of a 4th outfielder) one of the most important offensive positions – LF. The Orioles had nobody, I mean nobody, to play 1B. And they had one of the worst offensive SS in the league in Izturis. So again, what should the Orioles have done?

If you are going to be critical, you need to provide an alternative path. Nobody who has been critical of Baltimore’s offseason has done that.

Ben
Guest
Ben
5 years 6 months ago

Thank you for saying what I tried to convey above much more succinctly. Seems to me the biggest problem is that criticizing an average team for signing veterans relies on a major assumption: that if they didn’t sign the veterans, they would have a capable, cheap alternative play in their stead. Aside from the Kevin Gregg signing, that’s simply not true of the moves the Orioles made.

Ben
Guest
Ben
5 years 6 months ago

I think that’s fair enough Steve. As I said, I thought this was a reasonably balanced article. Generally speaking though, it seems to me (and I recognize this is an unverifiable gut feeling, not anything I can prove) that a lot of the research/SABR community is too quick to discount the value of simply being better. I often see Dave acknowledge that winning tends to lead to increased attendance and revenue, and that seems like one potential long-term gain.

I would most definitely agree that their future is still muddled – seems to me they are in the unenviable position of depending on every one of their young players to max out or come close to it – but I still think that in a vacuum, their offseason made a lot of sense.

Big Jgke
Member
Big Jgke
5 years 6 months ago

It is baffling why this team is projected to be better than the Jays. They are worse at literally every position on the field save third and maybe catcher, which could be a wash if Arencibia can hit for power. They have Toronto’s rejects in the bullpen and their starters are unquestionably worse. BP always seems to project the Jays to be terrible though, so maybe their collective intelligence runs out at the 49th parallel.

Ben
Guest
Ben
5 years 6 months ago

They are worst at every position except catcher and 3rd? Which teams are you comparing?

Based on current projected depth charts, the Orioles starter at the following positions posted higher WAR than the Blue Jays starter:

C, 1B, 2B, SS, LF, CF, RF, DH.

That’s right…3B is actually the only position where the Jays are better. I’m using MLB.com’s depth charts, which has Bautista as the 3B, but if you want to say he’s a LF that’s fine, just swap LF for 3B in the above list.

Now, the O’s obviously have some health questions at 1B and 2B, some regression is to be expected at some positions, and growth at others. Some of these are also close to a wash. But at the very least, the O’s have a pretty obvious advantage at C, SS, 3B/LF depending on where you put Bautista, CF, RF, and DH. So….that’s how they are projected to win more than the Jays.

N.
Guest
N.
5 years 6 months ago

Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs, too – once….

boxx
Guest
boxx
5 years 6 months ago

Steve I understand what you’re saying about the long term prognosis…but…These are stop gap guys. Other than Adam Dunn, what 1B/DH that is young or currently in his prime, was available? The guys they signed will net them either young players at the deadline or picks in the winter. These guys will indirectly help them long term.

I haven’t heard this anywhere from O’s brass but my guess is that they are probably targeting 2013 or 2014 as the their year to take that final step. That’s when all their core players like Weiters, Jones, Nick, and Matusz amongst others will either be entering their primes or be in the midst of their primes. These deals help guage how far along the team is. Heck if they win 83 games this year with a so-so year from Lee that may inspire them to make a huge run at Prince. If they win 74 it will be a nice improvement but it may deter them making that splash a year or two too early. Using Adam Dunn as the example, how smart would for the O’s to sign him to a multi year deal if the team knows its no ready to win yet? Fast-foward to 2014, The O’s appear on the fringe of contention but have $15 mil locked up in Dunn who’s now in his mid 30s, well past his prime and your on the hook for 2 more years of his regression. That’s why you get the stop gaps so that you don’t have 15-20% of your payroll committed to a guy who is no longer able to carry the team and has a potentially unmoveable contract.

As a New Yorker (albeit at Mets fan but still) I can tell you one thing about Buck Showalter, he knows how to build a winner. He might wear out his welcome before he sees the fruits of his labor like in NY and Arizona but he’s a great architect.

shibboleth
Member
shibboleth
5 years 6 months ago

yup, I wouldn’t be surprised if they will go hard for Prince this off season. They’re still smarting from their attempts to get Tex.

Casadilla
Guest
Casadilla
5 years 6 months ago

How does this article not even mention Zach Britton?

shibboleth
Member
shibboleth
5 years 6 months ago

I choose to be optimistic about this season. Vlad/Lee/Reynolds should provide the added threat that will let Baltimore’s youngsters mature without the weight of carrying a franchise on their shoulders. I’m sure MacPhail and company will avail themselves of trade opportunities if they are worth pursuing. The rotation is my biggest worry but the young arms seem to buy in to Showalter’s approach.

And he’s the big reason why I like the O’s this year: He’s a proven manager and I think his attitude is just what this club needs to improve. And if you haven’t read this article yet, I think you’ll like what you read: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110324&content_id=17095022&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

DSC
Guest
DSC
5 years 2 months ago

Well, here we are in July and the SP is horrible, truly bad, bad, the D is worse than numbers show (can’t anyone dive to catch a fly, and do all ground balls not hit at you have to be singles??), and the offense is better than last year but not nearly good enough to overcome the other deficiencies. Sure, the team is having trouble driving in runs but with the terrible pitching and D what does it matter?

Paying the price for having no farm system.

Lyndon
Guest
4 years 11 months ago

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