• Sep
    02

    Identifying the O's needs is the first step

    Anyone remember September baseball that meant something to us Orioles fans? Me either.

    Here we sit 14 games under .500 and 20 1/2 games out of first place. Unless the team finishes 21-7 or better from here on out they are looking at their unprecedented ninth straight losing season. Before some you start saying it's because we play in the AL East with large payroll teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, let's look at the fact the Orioles are playing .400 (12-18) ball against the AL West and "only" play .519 (14-13) against the AL Central. The sad point is the Orioles have the third worse team in the American League.

    Anyone still wonder why players like Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts have expressed concerns about being an Oriole at some point?

    Let's take a look at where the Orioles stand in key statistics within the American League:

    Batting

    Runs 652 9th
    OBP 338 8th
    HR 135 11th
    SLG .421 10th
    OPS .760 9th

    Pitching

    ERA 5.27 13th
    BB 501 12th
    K's 828 8th
    Runs 738 13th
    BAA .284 13th

    You have to think the Orioles were looking for better pitching stats when they paid Leo Mazzone to be the highest paid pitching coach in the game. Say what you want, but those are stats that get normal pitching coaches fired. Although Erik Bedard has had decent year and Kris Bensen has pitched pretty much to what most expected, Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen and even Daniel Cabrera have either regressed or not taken the step forward that was expected with the addition of Mazzone. Cabrera has pitched better since coming back from his mid-season demotion, but still, many believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough that has not come this season.

    It's not like the Orioles have not given him the arms to work with. Bedard (3.94), Cabrera (4.74) and Loewen (5.56) would be coveted by most major league teams and before this season, both Lopez (6.17) and Chen (6.75) were considered decent back of the rotation starters. The Orioles 5.22 ERA post All-Star break shows only a slight improvement to 12th in the American league and suggests the preseason World Baseball Classic excuse is not to blame for the lack of success. Add in the fact that Mazzone vouched for Russ Ortiz (9.51 in 29.1 IP) and you have to start wondering if Mazzone got his genius status from the fact he happened to have Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux for all those years in Atlanta. Now I'm not ready to throw Mazzone under the bus after his first year here, but at the same time he's not getting a free pass. Let's face it, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have had better overall pitching this year. so it's doesn't take any stretch of the imagination to say that the "Mazzone Magic" has not happened this year.

    Offensively, things are not a lot better. Let's take a look at where the Orioles position players rank in OPS compared to others in the AL. (Everyone who played at position = POS OPS)

    Pos Name OPS POS OPS Rank
    C Hernandez .763 .763 6th
    1B Millar .755 .732 11th
    2B Roberts .772 .728 6th
    SS Tejada .899 .878 3rd
    3B Mora .745 .745 10th
    LF Conine .726 .693 14th
    CF Patterson .734 .704 10th
    RF Markakis .851 .904 2nd
    DH Lopez .710 .744 11th

    So we're just a left fielder and first baseman away from contending right? Not really. The Orioles are well below average offensively at 1B, 3B, LF, CF, and DH and only in the top third of production at SS and right field. That's a lot of holes to fill. The bad part is the fact that none of the players currently in the weak offensive positions, minus Corey Patterson (who is entering his prime at 27 years old) can realistically expect to improve in 2007.  Another concern is the lack of bench depth. Although a drop off in production is expected a bit when a starter is not playing, the drop offs at second base and in the outfield suggest serious upgrades to those bench players need to occur. Add in the fact that the Orioles do not have anyone in the farm ready to contribute at any of these positions on a full time basis, and the Orioles will have to be very active in the free agency and trade market this off season if they hope to contend in 2007.

    The Orioles should be concerned about 3B Melvin Mora who they just extended for three more years at $25 million. The 34-year old third baseman has seen his OPS drop for the third consecutive season from a career high in 2004 (.981) to .821 in 2005 to .746 this year. Mora is a great guy in the clubhouse and very popular around Baltimore, but extending a 34-year old player to an $8 million and some change a year contract with declining skills was probably not in the best interest of a team trying to rebuild.

    Now before everyone starts jumping off the Key Bridge, let's look at the positives this year and what they mean for the future. 

    Let's start with everyone's favorite new Oriole, Nick Markakis. Markakis just came off an amazing August where his 10.66 RC/27 was 5th best among American League everyday positional players and his .385 IsoP was third best. The 22-year old has the second best OPS (.979) among right fielders with 300 or more plate appearances. Without a doubt, Markakis looks like the best young hitter to come through the Orioles system since Cal Ripken and may be the first impact bat drafted and produced since then.

    Miguel Tejada, despite all the rumblings in the press about him not wanting to be here and not always putting out 100 percent effort, still remains the Orioles best and most consistent player. The O's shortstop has a .956 OPS since the All-star break, so maybe his detractors can shelf the Miggy doesn't care in the second half stuff. Watching him make some unbelievable plays at shortstop lately also indicates the leg injury looks to have had a bigger impact to his early season lack of range then any erosion of his skills due to age.

    Brian Roberts has made a nice recovery from that serious elbow injury at the end of last season. Although his .772 OPS is down from his career high .902 last year, his .816 OPS since the All-Star break looks a lot more like the player we know Brian can be.

    Heading into 2007, the Orioles have two players entering their prime (Roberts and Tejada), a young superstar in the making (Markakis) and a bona fide superstar shortstop. Ramon Hernandez has been solid both offensively and defensively and is signed long term. That means they can expect either league average or better production at SS,RF,2B, C and CF going into 2007 and most likely below average production at 3B. That leaves them to upgrade at 1B, LF, and DH as well as the bench this off season.

    Pitching wise, the Orioles have four young starters to compete for jobs in 2007 rotation with Bedard, Cabrera, Loewen and Hayden Penn (who will make his 2006 Orioles debut on Sunday). Bedard looks like a solid number two starter, and Loewen may have the best overall stuff of any of the four. Cabrera is still a question mark due to his inconsistency and Penn needs to throw well this September to secure his spot in the rotation in 2007. 

    Kris Bensen has done what I expected him to do, and that was eat innings and provide some veteran leadership (Bedard credits him with helping his master a new changeup). He's due $7.5 million in 2007 and can ask for a trade this off season due to being traded after the first year of a multi-year deal. If I'm the Orioles, I think they can use that $7.5 million elsewhere this off season so they might want to get what they can get for Bensen. Rodrigo Lopez should also be moved next year or not offered arbitration. he should be no where near the Orioles rotation next year and will be too expensive as a reliever.

    Personally, I'm going with Bedard, Loewen, Cabrera and Penn in my rotation and looking to add a guy like Jason Schmidt to anchor it from the top. That would give the O's a legitimate number one (Schmidt) and two (Bedard) starters and three young  pitchers with upside.

    In the bullpen, Chris Ray has shown he can be solid closer, but after him the bullpen has to be totally reworked. Chris Britton, James Hoey, Kurt Birkins, and Sendy Rleal can be in competition for a bullpen job, but none have a job waiting for them. LaTroy Hawkins should not be resigned and Todd Williams should only be brought back with a non guaranteed minor league deal until he shows whether or not he can comeback to his ground ball inducing form on a consistent basis.

    From the farm, Garrett Olson would look awfully good filling that Arthur Rhodes type role, but the Orioles may choose to keep him in the minors to work on that changeup. Radhames Liz may be better off in the pen due to the fact he wears down quickly and throws a lot of pitches, so maybe he gets some consideration, but again, the O's will probably send him back to Bowie to work as a starter.

    Realistically, this is another area the Orioles need to be aggressive in signing or trading for some solid setup guys including a groundball specialist and left-handed specialist.

    With all that MASN money now available, there should be no excuse for the Orioles not to make a splash this off season. High on the wish list in left field should be Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee and if they can't be had, a Frank Catalanotto/ Matt Diaz platoon should be considered as a long cost possible high reward situation. If jay Gibbons is suppose to be the answer at 1st base, then Moises Alou, Aubrey Huff or Cliff Floyd should be under consideration at DH. Floyd may just be able to healthy if he DHs every year and could still have an upside. Alou would be nothing but a stop gap but Huff could still have an upside and could be a backup at first base if the O's decide Gibbons needs to stay at DH.

    Pitching Wise, Schmidt should be the Orioles target but Barry Zito should get some interest. I think Zito will cost more than the O's are going to be willing to go, but Schmidt is the guy the O's need at the top of the rotation anyways.

    The one thing that is certain is the fact that Jim Duquette and Mike Flanagan have a lot of work to do this off season if the Orioles fans have anything to look forward to in 2007. 

    I know one thing, this off season is one of the most important off seasons in the history of the Orioles. They need to get the fans back and only a big splash this winter will bring the fans back in 2007.


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Tony Pente

Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.

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