Five Questions: Baltimore Orioles

1. What will happen with Brian Roberts?

With all the rumors there have been about various possible deals, the Orioles better trade him to justify the cost of all the paper that’s been spent discussing all the different scenarios. Though a trade to the Cubs has seemed like the most logical ending to this saga, Baltimore President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail said this week that option is off the table.

You have to believe that Roberts will be traded at some point, and probably sooner rather than later. While the Orioles do want to get as much as they can for him, there is little point to hanging onto a 30-year-old, good-but-not-great second baseman who would be incredibly useful to a contender but does nothing for a team that has pretty much no shot at making the playoffs.

Roberts does have another year left on his contract, though, so teams may be willing to give up substantial value for him at the trade deadline, much like Mark Teixeira last year. I would expect him to be gone by then—if he isn’t, you really have to question what the Orioles are thinking.

2. Is Adam Jones a franchise cornerstone?

He’d better be. Jones was the cornerstone of the package Seattle sent over to Baltimore in a trade for ace Erik Bedard in February. With a 13-5 record and 3.16 ERA last year, as well as an incredible 221 strikeouts in 182 innings, Bedard was Baltimore’s first real ace since Mike Mussina. However, Bedard is also 29 and a free agent after the 2009 season, meaning that he didn’t really fit in with the Orioles’ rebuilding plans.

Jones does. Only 22, Jones projects for an .832 OPS this season, according to The Hardball Times Season Preview, and more impressively, we forecast that number to go up to .915 by 2010. That would have placed Jones first among all center fielders last year. In addition, Jones looks to be at least an average defender is center field, which is actually pretty darn valuable.

All in all, Jones is exactly the type of player you want to get back for an ace like Bedard. While there are no guarantees with prospects (or even established players), Jones is as good a bet to be one of the top center fielders in baseball over the next decade as almost anyone else, and a nice piece for the Orioles to build around.

3. Will Daniel Cabrera ever break out?

This is my third year writing the “Five Questions” column for the Orioles, and Cabrera has figured prominently in each one. In 2006, I wrote:

Daniel Cabrera is only 25; he’s 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, and he throws his fastball in the triple digits. Cabrera was 4 percent better than league average last season after being 21 percent worse than league average the year before, according to DIPS 3.0. While he improved his home run and walk rates, the greatest improvement for Cabrera came in his strikeout rate; he struck out 8.76 batters per nine innings last season, after posting a 4.63 K/9 in 2004. Now, it’s up to him to lower his walk rate. Given Mazzone’s belief in the importance of getting strikes—he insists that the first pitch should always be a fastball over the plate—it’s easy to see that happening, and Cabrera could be ready to break out.

Cabrera went on to post a 4.74 ERA in 148 innings. His strikeout rate continued to improve, but his walk rate actually got worse, rising from 4.7 walks per game in 2005 to 6.1 in 2006. Last year, I bunched Cabrera in with a few other pitchers, and wrote:

But Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn combined for a 5.72 ERA in 280 innings pitched. The news isn’t all bad—Cabrera is 26, and projects to be a respectable No. 3 starter next season; Loewen is 23 and Penn is 22, but the fact is, these guys are going to need to show something, and soon.

The best-case scenario for the Orioles is that Bedard continues to develop into an ace, Cabrera finally has a better-than-average season, Loewen improves on his already-decent peripherals and Penn pitches more in line with his minor league record than his major league performances. If Jaret Wright somehow turns it around, the O’s might have a pretty good staff.

But that is a lot of ifs, and realistically we should probably expect two of those pitchers to fail.

So what actually happened? Bedard developed into an ace, Loewen’s season ended after just six stats with a fractured elbow, Penn didn’t even make it to the major leagues, and Cabrera went 9-18 with a 5.55 ERA.

At this point, it’s difficult to see Cabrera ever putting it all together, but the stuff is still tantalizingly there. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Cabrera’s fastball is sixth-hardest in the major leagues, at 94.3 mph, while Josh Kalk’s data shows a 95 mph fastball to go along with an 86 mph changeup and an 83 mph slider, which breaks more than nine inches away from right-handed batters.

Unfortunately, only 58 percent of Cabrera’s pitches go for strikes, versus a league average of 63. There’s no reason to expect that ever to change, so Baltimore fans would probably be best served by giving up all hope when it comes to Cabrera.

4. Is the minor league system any good?

There is some hope for the Orioles. Kevin Goldstein ranked their farm system 10th among all major league teams, writing that, “They drafted the best college position player in Matt Wieters, and added a ton of talent in the Erik Bedard trade.”

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Wieters, the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, received a $6 million signing bonus, the largest up-front bonus ever given to a draft pick. He is a well-rounded hitter who batted .358/.480/.592 with Georgia Tech last season. His defense gets knocked a bit, but overall, Wieters is already one of the best prospects in baseball.

Beyond Wieters, the O’s farm system is fairly deep in pitching prospects, though none are surefire major leaguers, something that probably makes Baltimore fans worry given the team’s recent experiences with good but not great pitching prospects. Chorye Spoone and Radhames Liz are the best of the rest.

5. Will they avoid last place?

No. Our projections have the O’s finishing with 96 losses, a full 15 games back of Tampa Bay. All other projection systems concur.

Unfortunately for Baltimore fans, this season is as good as gone, and the Orioles would be best served if they concentrated on winning a few years down the line, investing heavily in their minor league system now and trading away any major leaguers who can generate a useful return.

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