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Fixing the Baltimore Orioles

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The Baltimore Orioles have 50 losses in 2010.  By itself, that’s not so terrible.  Most, if not all MLB teams lose at least that many games in a season.  The problem here: the Orioles do not play their 70th game until Tuesday.

That’s right: the Orioles have managed a .275 win pct. in their first 69 games.  There’s no way they can keep that up…right?

At least, that’s the assumption where this analysis will start.  The Orioles need not to tear down every single piece of their roster, because at 27% wins, they’re underachieving.  If the Orioles win fewer than 50 games this year, they have a much bigger problem.

There’s a big problem right away with the construction of the big league roster: an O’s first baseman has not homered this season.  Of course, as noted by ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer in the linked article, the O’s are getting plenty of power from first-basemen types Ty Wiggington (replacing Brian Roberts at 2B) and Luke Scott (primarily a DH).  The bigger issue is that the Orioles are short a power hitter, in essence, they are a National League lineup playing 141 games against the American League.  That wasn’t the plan when Roberts was expected to man second base, but the reality is that this unbelievable lack of depth has contributed to one of the worst lineups in the whole league (by far the worst in the AL), in spite of two guys having career years.

The only other player on the Orioles swinging a “plus” bat right now is right fielder Nick Markakis, a legitimate star in the game today who, unfortunately, many expected to step up and be a superstar for this city.  Instead, his ability to hit for power has seemingly vanished this year.  The good news is that Markakis is walking again this year, which has helped drive his on base percentage back to expected levels.

The position players aren’t even contributing with the glove, which includes the players who were signed exclusively for their gloves.  C Matt Wieters has more defensive runs saved than anyone on the team (2), and he’s a catcher (catcher defense still in it’s infancy).  Miguel Tejada’s move to third base has, um, adequately replaced Melvin Mora’s defense (yay!) and offense (crap!) in the lineup.  Injuries have really, more than anything, hurt the team’s timely development curve: Felix Pie’s injury made room for Corey Patterson, who at best, is just there to buy GM Andy McPhail more time.

The Orioles have Roberts locked up at $10MM/year through age 35 (2013) according to Cot’s, though when he’s healthy, he really is Baltimore’s top trading chip.  While Wiggington has predictably butchered second base this year, and getting Roberts back could add 5-6 wins to this team as much for plugging one hole (at first) as for having Roberts in the lineup, neither Roberts nor Wiggington are going to be part of the next great Baltimore team.  Also, Luke Scott, who has one year of arbitration left before he qualifies for free agency after 2011, is probably better off traded, and can be acquired for a fraction of the cost for, say, Jose Guillen.  A great trade deadline would involve moving both Wiggington and Scott, and then Roberts would probably be shopped in the offseason when he’s not damaged goods.

More than any other team in baseball, the success of the Orioles between 2011 and 2014 is very reliant on the development of players who are already in the major leagues, but are really hurting the team right now.  That’s you, Adam Jones.  That’s you, Matt Wieters.  Ages 25 and 24 respectively, neither is really squarely in either the realm of “really young, and will improve with age” or “too old to significantly improve/failed prospect.”  Time, however, waits for no one.  The Orioles would be right to wait through the 2011 season for these players to develop as major league hitters, especially given Jones’ all-star half season in 2009, but along with Markakis and Pie, this is really all the Orioles have in terms of being competitive in the AL East over the next three years or so.  They’ll wait them out, and hope to get different results than they have so far.  The parts that have been producing for the Orioles won’t be here in a few years when the team can conceivably be good again, and the parts that could still be around inexpensively aren’t doing anything with the bats.

The team has one hitting prospect in AAA: 3B Josh Bell, who was the centerpiece of the George Sherrill-to-LA deal, after Sherrill was one of the main pieces in the Bedard deal.  Bell will likely start next season in the majors, though he’s struggled to the tune of a 265/312/437 line in AAA this year.  He’s got plenty of time to turn it around, because he’s currently blocked at the big league level by Miguel Tejada, who probably won’t be trade-able at the deadline.

That’s a pretty dismal picture for the offense — which is accurate.  The pitching in Baltimore is a lot less troublesome long-term (but no less underachiving) in the short run.  They have two starters in the majors who would already make no. 3 starters in a strong rotation, Jeremy Guthrie and rookie Brian Matusz.  Guthrie is more of an innings eater at this point in his career, as his K/9 rate has fallen below 5 the last two years.  He’s cut his home run rate this year, which will help him survive in a big league rotation into his mid-thirties.  There’s not much there outside of that.  Chris Tillman, a 22 year old received in the Erik Bedard deal, has been roasted in four starts since his call up, but the team still has (needs to have?) high hopes for him.  Jake Arrieta, a 2007 5th rounder, just reached the rotation in June, and is off to a 2-1 start.  The bullpen has almost no long term pieces in it, with  only Alfredo Simon producing a good season in the closer’s role — his upside probably lies more in setup or middle relief.

Bullpen’s though, as a general rule, are erratic from season to season, and so the fact that the Orioles are getting no production from the current group doesn’t exactly spell trouble for future Orioles teams.  Just as Simon may not be an effective late inning reliever deep into the team’s future, they might wake up one June morning in 2012 and find their long and middle relief to be a team strength.  The return in any deal for Scott or Wiggington will likely be pitching oriented, and only Scott is likely to bring even a single starting prospect.

The good news is that the Orioles were able to sell high on both Erik Bedard and George Sherrill, which has given them pretty much every prospect advantage they have in their system.  If their farm system is going to get better, they’ll need to start getting returns on their first round picks.  It’s been so far, so good for Matusz, but the team has had virtually no success with it’s high school first round picks making the majors.  That’s one long-time organizational issue that McPhail has, um, been unable to rectify?  It hasn’t exactly made the Orioles gun shy: they’ve drafted pitcher Matthew Hobgood and now highly touted SS Manny Machado out of high school in the top five picks of the draft the last two years.  Hobgood is striking out just 6 per nine innings in A ball, and might eventually project for a bullpen role.  Machado, if the Orioles can sign him, will be the centerpiece of the farm system throughout his time there, and will probably bring with him the next hope for a winner in Baltimore, likely not before 2013.

Fixing the Orioles is all about re-emphasizing the draft, and making sure to pick up some useful pieces for it’s veterans that can’t be used.  Brian Roberts can likely be flipped for a real prospect or two, but money is the key: the sometimes cheap Orioles might need to foot some of the remaining $30 million on his contract to get a full haul for a to-be 33 year old on a perennial loser.  Once you add a high level prospect to this team, and sign Machado, the Orioles aren’t far from contention if they can pull the right strings with their young major league talent.  An outfield of Markakis, Pie, and Jones has immense potential as soon as next year, and the Orioles figure to be sound at the corners even after Scott and Tejada move on, as that’s where their help is.  Trading Roberts will temporarily create a great void in the middle infield that will probably require a shopping trip to the free agent market, but it’s better than the alternative of paying a declining player eight figures to lead a perennial loser.  And then, the team will probably go as Wieters goes.

With select exceptions, the Orioles need to get out of the trap of paying good money for adequacy, and trust the young talent they have put together while they invest great resources to improve a pitching staff that needs a whole bunch of resources.  This is not a one year process, but having many of the pieces of your next winner already on your major league roster is an advantage the Orioles have, and many other losers do not.

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