• Jun

    Where are the Orioles?

    The simplest answer to the question of ‘Where are the Orioles?’, is to say that the O’s are again in last place in the American League East, 6 games under .500 at 31-37.

    The harder part is determining what that means, and what path the O’s are on. The Orioles started this 2011 season with general optimism. Obviously that optimism was based on the .500 record the O’s had after the 2010 All-Star break, the 34-23 record under Showalter, and the additions made during the off-season. While many Orioles fans were eagerly anticipating a year where tangible improvement was shown; I did not see many (any?) people forecasting contention. I think the great majority (all?) of O’s fans had the Orange & Black pegged for a .500 season +/- a couple of games. By the O’s own admission (and their actions) it was clear that tangible improvement in the forms of wins and losses mattered this season. I don’t think anyone in the organization was of the belief that the Orioles were going to contend this year, but I do think the organization believed enough of the pieces they want to build around long-term were in-place, that it was time to hold everyone accountable to higher standards. I think the team was/is pretty desperate to end the consecutive year losing streak (‘98-‘10), with a minimum goal of winning 70+ games for the first time since 2006.

    So let us evaluate those themes further. Was a .500 season a realistic goal for this team, this year? What about the core that is in place, is it good enough to build around? Is it good enough to win with? What about after this season? Are you going to attempt to legitimately contend in ‘12? If so, what is needed? If you do not think you can build a contender in ‘12, how does that impact decisions that need to be made today?

    As fans, we can debate these questions  - and I will provide my thoughts on these questions below - but truly they can only answered by the leadership of the franchise. By this I mean it really only matters what Majority Owner Peter Angelos, and President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail see, and what their plan going forward is.

    In the immediate future - meaning right here today in ‘11 - this is what I see. For roughly 2.5 months I’ve been claiming the O’s offense is underachieving. Nearly 70 games into a season, it is pretty hard to make that claim. You can have individuals underachieving, but collectively you are what you are. The O’s are 16th in slugging percentage, 18th in on-base percentage, and 22nd overall in runs. Generally, the slugging and on-base numbers have been climbing in recent weeks, but basically the offense is mediocre to poor. Even when accounting for the time that has been missed by Roberts, Lee, and Hardy; that is pretty disappointing. I was not expecting the ‘27 Yankees, or even the ‘96 Orioles, but I was expecting an offense that would generally not have trouble scoring, and certainly rarely look anemic.

    Scott’s cortisone shot has at-least temporarily raised his offensive production, and allowed LF to again be an option for him to play. My guess is that in the relatively near term the O’s are going to determine that A) Scott is not going to raise his value enough that they can trade him at the non-waiver deadline, B) That they will want his bat to remain in the lineup, and C) That the best way to keep his bat in the lineup will be limiting him to 1st or DH only. As of a result of that decision, the O’s will resolve to trade (or release) Lee or Guerrero. As Lee can play the field (and do it well) I think he would be easier to trade if he can build on what we are seeing out of him this weekend in DC. On the other-hand, if he is going to start hitting, and you combine that with his defense, the O’s might prefer to keep him. It will be hard for the O’s to move Guerrero. He can not play the field, so the National League is basically a non-option, unless a team wants him as a glorified PH. Every team in the American League had a chance to bid on him this Winter, and the O’s wound up bidding against themselves. Is anyone going to trade for him now? Maybe. Maybe some contender will put him on their bench. Should be clear to everyone that nobody is going to trade anything of value for a 36 year old DH with a .719 OPS (.402 slugging). Out of respect for his Hall of Fame career (and the fact that he has a .290 average) I doubt the O’s are considering releasing Guerrero. I think they should. I like watching Guerrero play. He does not give away many ab’s. Even at the end of his career, he still plays the game right. I think it was worthwhile for the O’s to give him a couple of months, and see if he could make the lineup deeper. The power is not there. 259 ab’s and 65 games is enough. Move Scott to DH, and play Reimold everyday in LF, with Pie remaining as the de facto 4th OF.

    We are seeing some offensive (and defensive) improvement from Jones, but I’d still like to see a better walk to strikeout ratio (13 to 48). His on-base % is still being carried by his average. He had a .853 OPS in May, and has a .879 OPS here in June. If he can stay anywhere near this level the rest of the year, he will have taken a huge leap forward. No matter what, he has reconfirmed he is one of the pieces you are building around, and it should be a priority of the O’s to be extending him.

    Of course any talks of extending Jones, always gets back to discussions of Markakis and his extension. The 27 year old had a monster 2008, and while he remained productive in ‘09 and ‘10, his numbers regressed. You have to account for production falling across baseball, but it is hard to get past the fact that he had 69 xbh’s in ‘08, and has 6 doubles in his first 66 games here in ‘11. Overall though, I’m sure this recent 9 game hitting streak will be the start of a return to expected production (.816 OPS for his career). However, you logically have to question if he will ever again reach that ‘08 level. I’ve heard some people suggest the O’s should consider trading Markakis. I find that idea to be poor. First, it does not make any sense to trade him when his value is at a ‘low’, and Second, I believe in his talents. To me, Markakis is the elder-statesman of the core you are building around (Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Matusz, Britton, Arrieta). It is one thing to demand accountability/production from a player of his talent, it is another to try and trade him and ‘start over’ once again. Yeah, Markakis could bring multiple talented players back (even with his value at a low) but at some point as an organization you have to choose the players you are going to build around, and it might as well start with the guy that has his track-record and has already committed to this city/team.

    This YouTube clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Yb9Ykr5y4rg) posted by Orioles Hangout member ‘tinamotti’ illustrates perfectly the defensive force Wieters has become. That, and his gains against LHP are pretty good reasons to believe Wieters is going to annually be in the discussion for best Catchers in baseball. Just like I think it is logical to ask if Markakis will ever match his ‘08 numbers, I think it is fair to ask if Wieters will ever be the middle of the order force they really need him to be. After Friday’s loss Wieters was quoted as saying, “We need to play better. Spring Training is over.” Well, if this offense is going to transform and greatly improve - Wieters has raise his game. His .724 OPS (.402 Slugging) is not enough. After 9 xbh’s in April, Wieters has 7 in the 38 games since. If you look at the existing roster, Wieters is the best candidate to really lift this offense. If he doesn’t really raise his numbers (and maybe/probably even if he does) during the rest of ‘11, you are going to have to add a piece capable of leading this team.

    The O’s offense has started to improve in recent weeks (even with Roberts on the DL) because Reynolds has raised his game, and Hardy has been on fire. After a .566 OPS in April, Reynolds posted a .778 OPS in May, and has a 1.059 OPS in June. If he was not having his defensive struggles (UZR/150 -25.7), I’d feel very positive about what we are seeing. He is not going to hit for average. There are times where his strikeouts (and lack of contact) frustrate. A guy that can can provide power (career ISO .239) and has the ability to take walks (team leading 38, ‘11 wOBA of .340, career wOBA of .345) has plenty of value - if he can be near average defensively. He makes plenty of quality plays, but he has had trouble with the routine here in ‘11, particularly with plays in front of him. He’s under contract for ‘12, with an option of ‘13. If he can continue to raise his offense, and show defense closer to his ‘09, and ‘10 numbers down the stretch, we can feel good that another piece to the puzzle has been added.

    Will we feel the same about Hardy? When he was obtained, I argued that the O’s should have been pursuing a contract extension with him immediately. I understood that after Hardy played just 115 games in ‘09, and 101 games in ‘10 that the O’s may have wanted him to prove his health first. My take was that his value was at a low, and that an extension offer last December (one that Hardy has never received) may have sealed the deal cheaply then. Since then, Hardy has gone through another significant injury and against missed major time. Apparently that did not bother the O’s though, as MacPhail has stated publically in the last week that they would like to extend Hardy. My question is, if Hardy’s injury history did not scare the O’s from providing an extension offer to the SS, why did they not pursue the deal months ago? One of the first Spring Training stories we saw this year was the Orioles new Hitting Coach Jim Presley telling Hardy that he wanted the SS to get back to the approach he had used in Milwaukee. We saw Hardy agreeing with Presley stating he had consciously changed his approach to be the player he believed the Twins wanted him to be. Hardy has been scorching in June (5 homers, 1.134 OPS) and raised his overall OPS over .850. He’s an excellent defensive SS, with a strong accurate arm, and quick release. He’s also an impending Free Agent. If the O’s have any intention of contending in ‘12, he needs to be back. (Unless you have irrational thoughts that the O’s can afford to part with Hardy, because they could bid on Reyes on the open market.) Even if the O’s don’t think they can contend in ‘12, they should still want him back. As great a prospect as Machado is, it is hard to imagine a scenario where he ascends to the Majors prior to September ‘12 at the earliest. It does not make any sense at any level to be opposed to extending Hardy because you have an excellent prospect in the South Atlantic League. Hardy turns 29 in August. I wish they could get a 2 year extension done, but I believe it will take 3 years. Get it done now. If you can not get it done by the non-waiver deadline, than maybe you should think about trading him this July. (Hardy’s original team Milwaukee could want to upgrade over Betancourt.)

    If you get Hardy’s extension done, and Scott has not been traded - the O’s will have logical answers for 2012 at C, CF, RF, 3rd, DH, and SS. If Reimold and Pie produce over the 2nd half, you could add LF to that group. With Roberts signed for the next two years, you would like to include 2nd base in that listing. Over the next few months, we will have a better indication of how Roberts is going to recover from his 2nd concussion in the past 8 months. Another reason I would not be opposed to giving Hardy 3 years, is that I think he could eventually be moved to 2nd in place of Roberts if need be. The questions with Roberts are languishing over this team, and despite what anyone says, nobody knows the outcome here. We know Roberts is a 33 year old guy (34 in October) that missed a 100 games last year with his back. We saw him get past that, and play on a regular basis over the last 2 months of ‘10 before giving himself the initial concussion. We saw him overcome the back and the first concussion and play everyday during the first 39 games of this year. So, I do think there is a chance that Roberts can get back to the lineup and again play regularly. However, his offensive numbers were down during those last 2 months of ‘10, and those first 39 games here in ‘11. Asking him to approximate his ‘07-‘09 production is probably too much to ask. If he can get back to the lineup and match his numbers from ‘06, and last-year, that is a big help. Even if that occurs, you need to obtain another UTI MI player that can spell both Hardy and Roberts, and be capable of playing regularly if needed. I’m picturing another option similar to Andino. With $20M owed to Roberts through ‘13, it is hard to see him walking away from his contract. With that contract, the O’s are not going to invest further dollars (or player capital) to acquire another true everyday option. Let us all hope that Roberts can get back in the 2nd half, play fairly regularly, and raise his production to a more acceptable level. If/when that happens, the O’s better commit to giving him more regular rest to try and nurse him through the rest of his contract.

    If Hardy is retained, the most glaring hole to the everyday roster is 1st. I believe I am in the minority, but I do expect that the Orioles will bid on Fielder this off-season. I understand anyone that says they will believe it when they see it, that they do not believe the O’s under MacPhail will pursue a top-flight Free Agent; but I think there is reason to believe they will. I think what I’ve outlined above, provides some of the rationale. The O’s have a core of players they can and will move forward with. Wholesale changes to the roster are not coming. Conversely, they also have a team that is not going to be good enough to win without some major talent added. While you could argue that the addition of Fielder won’t be enough to really lift the O’s, it is hard to imagine anyone outside of potentially Darvish that could help the Orioles more. MacPhail has stated plenty of times that he would be willing to spend, when he thought there was a player that could take the O’s to the next level. I would not compare Fielder to a ‘66 Frank Robinson, joining the O’s and teaching Baltimore how to win - but I do think MacPhail could believe Fielder is the piece that helps lift the team. Still a couple of problems with that supposition though. First, Theo Epstein stated that, “If you ever convince yourself you need any certain player to win, you have already lost.”  There is plenty of truth to those comments. It would not be a good position for the O’s to go into this off-season, with their future plans tied to whether they can sign a Free Agent or not. Second, even if the O’s want him, and bid on him, that does not mean they will acquire him. I’ve seen National writers suggest contracts anywhere from 5 years $100M to 8 yrs $200M. I think the suggestion of 8 yrs at $25M per is insane. If someone is willing to go to that level to sign Fielder, it will not be the O’s. Two years ago the O’s offered Teixeira 7 years $145M. That is pretty much the max I could see the O’s offering Fielder. With the weight concerns that exist with him, I would prefer a 6 year deal. Due to the weight issues (and that presumptive cost) some are totally opposed to the idea of adding him. Based on the way the roster is configured now, and going forward though - I’m straining to find a better alternative. Danny Knobler of CBS Sports says he has been told that the O’s are telling friends in the game, that they will be looking to spend in the off-season. If you look at the roster, where are the O’s going to spend if not at 1st base? Jim Bowden of ESPN wrote a story this week saying Baltimore is the best landing spot for Fielder. If you look at the major market teams that normally would be bidding on a marquee FA like Fielder, the great majority of them have existing options at 1st. That by itself also increases the odds for the O’s to bid, and bid successfully on him.

    Of course, again the O’s can not count on signing a FA. The chances of Lee returning next year are slim. Even if he was brought back, he would be another year older and even less likely to produce. You could move Reynolds over to 1st, which would of course just leave a hole at 3rd. If Josh Bell had gone back to Norfolk and showed some improved plate-discipline, maybe that could be considered as an option. As Bell has just regressed further, it is less realistic than obtaining Fielder. That means if the O’s can obtain a 1st baseman with promise before the off-season, that needs to occur. To obtain a prospective 1st baseman, the trade chip the O’s would probably dangle is Guthrie. I do not see that as likely to occur though. Dan Szymborski of ESPN told Orioles Hangout this week that while the O’s would like a top prospect for Guthrie (such as a Yonder Alonso) they will not get it. Szymborski believes the O’s would get a ‘B’ prospect and maybe ‘throw-in’s.’ If Szymborski is right, the Orioles will not be trading Guthrie. Guthrie might be a true 3/4 starter on a playoff team, and only signed through just ‘12; but the O’s are not going to give away a competent 200 inning starter for anything less than a piece you could easily project occupying a spot in the everyday lineup.

    I think it would be easier for the O’s to trade Guthrie, if they currently felt better about Tillman and Bergesen. Tillman was pitching as a league average 5th starter prior to being sent back to AAA, but he was not getting deep enough into games and questions remained with his velocity. Tillman’s made 4 starts back at AAA Norfolk, going right around 5 ip in each of his first three outings, and just 3.2 ip tonight when the Tides dealt with a rain-delay. He is going to have to show more to earn his promotion back to Baltimore. There are a lot of questions with Tillman, but I think the 23 year old has had enough AAA success and improvement this year the Major League level (BB/9, K/9, HR/9, Line-drive rate all improved over ‘10) to still feel good about his potential.

    With the O’s currently 25th overall in ERA, and 27th in Quality Starts, some will laugh at this; but I like the Baltimore rotation. Any discussion of where the O’s are, and where they are going - has to include major discussion (and evaluation) of Matusz, Britton, and Arrieta. If the O’s are going push towards .500 this year, and have any chance of contention over the next couple of years; that trio has to reach their potential.

    There are plenty of other things to discuss when asking where are the O’s? Plenty of major issues the organization has to address. After the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, it will be interesting to see what potential changes impact the O’s. (Particularly with the Amateur, and the potential ‘International’ Draft). Also, the recent talk of a 2nd Wild Card, or radical realignment would also have a major impact to any answer of where the O’s are. There are 94 games left in the year. My conclusion is that discussion of where the O’s are, and where the O’s are going is going to be best shown by the players that are already here. Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Matusz, Britton, and Arrieta will answer through their performance over these next 94 games what path the Orioles are on.

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Michael Williams

Lifelong. Down by the river.