With the first game of the 2011 season now just hours away, let us take a look at the April schedule for the Baltimore Orioles.
During the month, the O’s will play 27 games, with 11 on the road and 16 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Friday April 1st - Sunday 3rd @ Tampa
Monday 4th (Home Opener) vs. Detroit
Tues 5th: Off
Wed 6th - Thurs 7th vs. Detroit
Friday 8th - Sunday 10th vs. Texas
Monday 11th: Off
Tues 12th - Thursday 14th @ New York
Friday 15th - Sunday 17th @ Cleveland
Monday 18th - Thursday 21st vs. Minnesota
Friday 22nd - Sunday 24th vs. New York
Monday 25th: Off
Tuesday 26th - Thursday 28th vs. Boston
Friday 29th - Saturday 30th @ Chicago
Thoughts for the month:
1) Optimism abounds throughout Birdland. Expectations have been raised with the fanbase. You get the sense with the players that their confidence in their abilities has also increased. You want to build on that, and show right away the capability to play with your divisional foes. In 2010, Baltimore was 9-9 against Boston, 5-13 against New York, 7-11 vs. Tampa, and 3-15 against Toronto. There are 12 Division games in April (6 at home). Finishing April with 6 divisional wins would be a nice statement for the opening month.
2) If the 2011 Baltimore Orioles can stay relatively healthy, this offense should score plenty of runs. One of the things I have said repeatedly this off-season is that if you can field a lineup with Wieters and Jones batting in the lower third, you obviously have a capable group. That will remain true even if the progression of Matt Wieters and Adam Jones is somewhat limited. What I will be looking for in April from them is any signs of improved plate discipline. We sure did not see it during the spring, as Wieters had 2 walks in 60 at-bats, and Jones had just 1 in 69. If the production of these two players jumps, the lineup will change from very solid to menacing.
2a) In his short major league career, Wieters has just a .622 OPS (256 at-bats) against LHP. In 2010 he was just 25 for 119 (.210 batting average) from the right side. That simply has to improve this year.
3) Chris Tillman is starting the year in the rotation. I consider myself a Chris Tillman fan. Well, I was a fan of the guy who in his major league debut (7/29/09) recorded his first major league strikeout with a 96 mph fastball on the black. He spent that entire game working at 92-93. In his last spring start Sunday against the Red Sox, we saw a guy consistently working at 88-91. Where has his velocity gone? He likes to work up in the zone with his four-seam fastball. At 88-91 with limited movement, he is going to get crushed. He needs to find his velocity, and continue to use the two-seam and cut fastballs he worked on last year. The slow overhand curve could be devastating, but until he throws it for strikes more often, hitters will continue to take.
Outside of the velocity drop, the other thing we disliked about Tillman’s Sunday start against Boston was Tillman saying he had slightly changed his mechanics. Part of me feels that if he is changing his mechanics, and dealing with the velocity drop, that he should be working on these things in the minors. However, if he is at the AAA level during this year, he figures to overwhelm the competition. His walk rate at AAA looks good, presumably because he is able to get hitters to expand their zone easier than he is at the bigs. I think he needs extended innings and experience in the majors. In 2011, I’d love his chances to be a league average 5th starter and give the Orioles 170-185 innings at a 4.75 era. He certainly would have the chance to exceed that.
As long as Tillman is here in the bigs, I want him to take advantage of the opportunity.
For those of you that are ‘down’ on Tillman, take the time to look at the following numbers:
AAA ’09-’10 combined: 19-13, 3.07 era, 217 ip, 205 hits, 74 er, 15 hr, 56 bb’s, 193 k’s
MLB ’09-’10 combined: 4-10, 5.63 era, 118 ip, 128 hits, 74 er, 24 hr, 55 bb’s, 70 k’s
Last 5 AAA starts 2010: 3-0, 2.17 era, 29 innings, 29 hits, 7 er, 1 hr, 6 walks, with 25 k’s.
Last 5 MLB starts (Sept/Oct) 2010: 1-1, 4.15 era, 28.2 innings, 17 hits, 13 er, 6 hr, 18 walks, 19 k’s.
Those last 5 MLB starts were competitive (though the walk rate was poor), especially when you consider Tillman does not turn 23 until April 15th. Looking forward to his start Sunday, and seeing how he responds to that challenge.
4) Brad Bergesen starts the year in the O’s bullpen, as a 5th starter is not needed until April 10th. He had a rough Spring Training, made worse by getting knocked of the mound with a line drive off the forearm. If he had received his normal work, I think he would have received the start Sunday in Tampa, with Tillman sent back to Norfolk. Early on he can be an asset out of the ‘pen if he has his control and sinker working. Conversely to Tillman, this is a guy that has relied on his sinker, but spent the end of 2010 working on a four-seamer. He was doing an effective job of changing the visual plane for hitters, and his control had returned to the point that he was able to use his fastball to work up/down and in/out. He works quick, he shows a game-plan, and he adjusts to what hitters show him during at-bats. While he consistently sits at 88-89 mph, he showed increasing velocity down the stretch last-year. In my notes I see an August 12th start where he was using that four-seamer to regularly work at 92-93 in the 9th inning. That begins to go against the standard profile of him being a guy with very limited stuff. Like Tillman, Bergesen’s starts on the 10th and 15th will be important as he attempts to maintain his place in the O’s rotation.
5) Justin Duchscherer has pitched 28ip over the past two seasons and starts 2011 on the DL. Prior to his most recent setback, he was scheduled to make rehab starts on the 10th and 15th. I think you have to believe it when you see it. If he is able to make those outings and they go well, I do think he will get the chance to join the O’s. On the other hand, if the O’s current starters are performing, I think you will see the O’s extend Duchscherer’s rehab. There is reason to wonder what happens if the O’s current starters are pitching well and Duke is ready to return – but now is not that time. You have to see what transpires on the field, and how Duke looks first. What I do know is that since Duke signed, he has made clear he does not believe he can physically withstand pitching out of the bullpen.
6) Zach Britton will be in the O’s rotation shortly. His earliest arrival is probably April 21st once the Orioles have retained that additional year of service time. The only way his arrival comes later (end of May) is if the starters ahead of him are all going well, and Duke shows he is ready to join the team. In that (unlikely) scenario, the O’s may decide to keep Britton down even longer to potentially avoid him obtaining Super 2 status.
7) Over the course of the 2011 season, I expect you will see consistently good production from Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz at the top of the O’s rotation. To me, the key to the rotation is what the O’s get out of Jake Arrieta. I have projected Arrieta to post the following 2011 numbers: 13-10, 3.99 era, 185 innings, 180 hits, 82 er, 18 homers, 82 walks, 120 k’s.
It might be a bit overly optimistic, but I believe it is within reason. I would not get fixed on the era, as that is basically irrelevant. If he gives those same 185 ip I projected and allows 95 er (4.62 era) he will still be effective. What the O’s need most out of Arrieta is for him to start every 5th day and provide consistent innings. I greatly respect ESPN’s Keith Law, but I disagree with Law’s contention that Arrieta will never be more than a 3rd starter. I think you will be able to make a more accurate determination of Arrieta’s ceiling after a full year of starting in the bigs in 2011. (Also, enough with the calls of moving Arrieta to closer in the near term. While it might make sense eventually if the control and secondary pitches do not progress, it does not make sense now.)
As I stated above, in April I will be looking to see if Wieters and Jones show improved plate discipline. With Arrieta, I want him to trust his stuff and challenge hitters with his fastball. Arrieta walked 48 batters in 100.1 major league innings last year. His improvement in that area (just 2 in his last 17.1 innings) is something he has to build on.
8) There have been plenty of comments throughout baseball about the O’s ‘old man brigade’ of Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee specifically. They are as fresh as they are going to be all year, so seeing them get off to a good start would help erase any lingering fears that either/both are going to pick 2011 to collapse.
9) After averaging 157 games during 2007-09, Brian Roberts was limited to just 59 in 2010. The 33-year-old second baseman is signed through 2013. Keeping him healthy cannot be just about 2011. Roberts is not going to want to come out of the lineup if he can play. It will be up to Buck Showalter to judiciously pick times to give Roberts extra rest to help allow him to finish his contract as strongly as possible. While the O’s have 3 off days during the month, I’d like to see the O’s end April having benched Roberts for 2-3 games. If you are going to carry both Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino on the bench, you should use them.
10) Speaking of the bench, everyone wants to know how the O’s are going to use Grapefruit League MVP Jake Fox. My opinion is that as prodigious a spring as he had, his role should not change much. I do think he should play enough to keep Wieters from being overworked. Wieters looked drained early on last year, burdened from the responsibility of playing everyday. Fox should get more than the occasional Sunday start, but Wieters of course has to get everyday at-bats. I talked above about Wieters’ struggles against LHP. It should be noted that in Fox’s 176 at-bats against LHP, he has a .598 OPS.
10a)Showalter, Roberts, and Brady Anderson recently ran a baserunning clinic for Orioles minor leaguers. I hope additional time was spent this spring working with Felix Pie. As the 4th OF on this team with Markakis, Jones, and Scott ahead of him, finding at-bats will be a bit of a challenge. He figures to regularly be used as a pinch runner, and it would be nice if he could use his speed as a threat on the basepaths. Markakis will basically play everyday, but Pie should get some starts in left and center field.
11) By the time of the 2010 home opener, Mike Gonzalez was getting booed by the home crowd. For some reason, fans had decided that a couple of poor innings (with a fastball 8 miles below career norms) was a better indication of the player he was, vs. the production he had showed for his entire career (mediocre/poor control, exceptional K/9, hits per 9 rates). Casual fans have been told all winter to understand that Mark Reynolds’ power and plate discipline mean more than the amount of strikeouts he piles up. I hope that if Reynolds starts slow, Baltimore will not bury him in a mountain of hyperbole.
12) New hitting coach Jim Presley took an early look at J.J. Hardy this spring and told the SS he wanted to see the hitter he remembered with Milwaukee. Hardy acknowledged he had changed his approach to be the player he thought Minnesota wanted him to be. Want to see him start off strong and turn the lineup over consistently.
13) It was good to see Jason Berken get through the spring healthy and ready to perform. With him, Jim Johnson (who had a very strong spring), Kevin Gregg, Gonzalez, Jeremy Accardo, and Koji Uehara, the O’s have a multitude of positive options available to them. The negative side is the relatively high injury risks they each seem to be. I’d like to see Uehara get the first crack at nailing down the closer role.
14) Sabermetricans have rather conclusively proven that lineup protection is overrated. While I believe the statistical evidence, I do think there is something to be said about the psychological aspect. Hitters talk all the time about the difference they feel and approach they take depending on their place in the lineup. With Markakis in the 2 hole with Lee and Guerrero immediately behind him, I think things set up well for him to approximate his 2008 numbers. Markakis is 27 and in the prime of his career. 2011 will be huge in helping determine if he is going to be the type of player that can have his number in statue form in front of the ticket window, or ultimately be considered just another ‘very good’ player that has passed through Baltimore.
15) Looking past Baltimore, I’ll be interested to see how April goes for Nolan Reimold and Josh Bell in Norfolk. With Reimold healthy and focused, it would be surprising if he did not tear up the International League. Bell had 23 walks and 78 k’s for Norfolk in 2010 over 316 at-bats. In the majors he was further exposed with just 2 walks vs. 53 k’s. After working with Anderson this off-season, he showed improvement this spring. Does that continue?
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