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AL East Preview: Baltimore Orioles

This is the first in a 4-part series examining the Jays' competition in the AL East, a division in which, incidentally, I have lived in every town (or market area) but Tampa. By the way, if anyone has any ideas for making this preview prettier, be my guest, please. I'm not very good at that sort of thing.  

The Baltimore Orioles made some moves over the offseason, mostly dedicated to paying free agents to pitch in their bullpen and adding some bats to a weak offense that hit only 164 HRs last year (last in the AL East, and 3rd to last in the AL proper)and finished well behind the Jays-Sox-Yankees triumvirate in OPS.  Will it be enough to stop the skid of consecutive losing seasons at 9, or will they be looking at a decade of futility?

Projected Typical Lineup : (I'm not giving a lot of time to batting order)

2B  -  B. Roberts
CF  -  C. Patterson
3B  -  M. Mora
SS  -  M. Tejada
RF  -  N. Markakis
1B  -  A. Huff
DH  -  J. Gibbons
C   -  R. Hernandez
LF  -  J. Payton
2B  -  Roberts
3B  -  Mora
SS  -  Tejada
RF  -  Markakis
DH  -  Gibbons
1B  -  Millar
LF  -  Huff
C   -  Hernandez
CF  -  Payton
4th OF - Payton
Bench  - C. Gomez
        B. Fahey
        F. Bynum
        P. Bako

With Markakis now entrenched in RF, the O's have a big of a logjam of 1B/DH/corner OF types with Aubrey Huff (who also plays third), Jay Payton, Kevin Millar, and Jay Gibbons.  The best course of action would be to platoon Patterson (.826 OPS v. Righties in 2006) and Payton (.817 OPS v. Lefties in 2006) in CF to get the best out of both of them, but I don't know if this will happen.  Payton doesn't show heavy splits, so he would be a good choice for some starts at LF versus righties, with Huff moving to 1st and Millar sitting.  Jay Gibbons has had trouble consistently producing, is not a good fielder at 1B, and seems to get injured a lot,  but he will probably see plenty of at-bats at DH so long as he is healthy.  Huff will see time in LF, at 1B, and possibly at DH and 3B as well.  

After that, the rest of the team seem set in their positions, but there are questions.  Hernandez was fantastic last year behind and at the plate (.275/.343/.479 and 23 HRs), but can he keep it up?  Tejada had another excellent season (.878 OPS, but his HRs slipped a bit to 24, which is starting to look like a trend.)  Roberts returned from an awful elbow injury (.757 OPS down from .903 in 2005) but his hitting from the right side was terrible (.655 OPS, 1 HR).  The O's will really need Roberts to hit consistently from the right side, or he will be a millstone at the top of the lineup.  Melvin Mora has been in decline for the past two seasons with his OPS declining from .981 in 2004 to .821 in 2005, and then to .733 in 2006.  He will need to improve on that, or the O's are better off with Huff at 3rd v. righties.  

In sum, the offense should be better (Brandon Fahey was the regular LF by season's end last year) but only if guys like Gibbons stay healthy, Roberts and Mora reboud, and the different pieces are used properly.  The less at-bats given to Fahey, Gomez, and Bynum, the better, but they are versatile and help a shaky defense in the field.  There are a lot of moving parts on this offense, which is not a bad thing.  Still, it is, on paper, the worst or second-worst in the AL East (depending on whether Tampa improves on their absolutely awful OBP from last season (.317, dead last in MLB, actually quite extraordinary for an AL team).  

Projected Rotation  I'm including 6 starters, because history shows that most teams have a 6th starter who makes about as many starts as the 5th starter, due to injuries/ineffectiveness in the 5-man rotation.  

LHP - Erik Bedard
RHP - Kris Benson
LHP - Adam Loewen
RHP - Daniel Cabrera
RHP - Jarret Wright
RHP - Hayden Penn

The rotation was horrible last year, posting a 5.35 ERA, worse than every AL team except the Royals.  Only Bedard (3.76 ERA, 171/69 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP) was better than average.  Benson was average (11-12, 4.82 ERA) at best and 88/58 K/BB indicates that the former #1 draft pick will not be any better this year.  Loewen showed potential last year (98 Ks and 111 hits in 112 IP) and could be a force if he improved his control (he averaged almost 5 BB/9 IP), while that has been the book on Cabrera for some time now - his control last year was actually worse (157/104 K/BB in only 148 IP),than it had been. I'm not sure why the O's thought they needed Jarret Wright, who is a 5 inning pitcher, and not a very good one at that.  But he does add the depth of having Penn as the 6th starter, although Penn was awful last year after some flashes back in '05.  Trading John Maine and Jorge Julio for Kris Benson last year was a terrible move for the O's, and they apparently didn't learn their lesson when they traded Chris Britton, their second-best reliever last season, for Wright.  

This rotation has some promise, no doubt, but Cabrera/Loewen/Penn have to live up to their potential, while Bedard has to show his breakout last year was for real, and Wright and Benson have to at least hold the line.  

Projected Bullpen
RHP Chris Ray (closer)
RHP Chad Bradford
RHP Danys Baez
LHP Jamie Walker
LHP Josh Parrish
RHP Todd Williams
RHP Scott Williamson

The Orioles bullpen was absolutely horrible last year, going through 19 pitchers, who combined for a 5.25 ERA that ranked 13th in the AL.  This just isn't going to cut it in a tough division, and it didn't.  O's management identified the pen as an area that needed a major overhaul (except closer Chris Ray), and lavished almost $50 million on Bradford, Walker, Baez, and Williamson  (they did get a good deal on Williamson, who has been injury-riddled for the past few seasons).  Besides Ray, Todd Williams and Parrish return, although they don't figure to get many high-leverage innings in a suddenly crowded pen.  Ray will retain closer duties, in which he was excellent last season (2.73 ERA), although with peripherals (51/27 K/BB in 66 IP) which do not exactly scream dominant closer.  If he stumbles, Baez, Bradford, and Williamson have closed in the past, although not with superb success.  Bradford, a righty specialist, was excellent last season (2.90 ERA, 45/13 K/BB in 62 IP), while Baez was shaky at best (4.53 ERA, 39/17 K/BB) but is a hard thrower.  Walker and Bradford will be a good lefty-righty double team that should be enought to get the O's out of some tight spots, but the O's will need good seasons from Ray and Baez to make the bullpen an asset rather than a liability; however, it will almost certainly be improved from last season.  

In Summary

Well, folks, there you have it.  While the O's should be a bit more competitive this season, it is hard to see how they are really thinking about the long term - they declined to move Tejada (Anaheim reportedly offered Ervin Santana and Erick Aybar, which seems pretty fair) and spent most of their money on free agent relievers (a questionable strategy  (as proved by the Cubs in 2006) - even when the pen does improve, the money NOT spent elsewhere can be glaring.  And if they are serious about Penn, a 24 year old, why block him with Wright unless the O's believe he needs another full season in AAA (which he is unlikely to get, anyway)?  Having attended law school in Charm City, I have a bit of a soft spot for the O's, but I think they are due for a 4th or even 5th place finish this season.  If a lot of things work out simultaneously (particularly with regard to the rotation), they could finish in the top 3, but it is unlikely they will be too much competition for the Jays this season.  

2/14: Update Unfortunately for the O's (and the Bensons), Benson has a torn rotator cuff and will be out for most, if not all, the season. The O's signed Steve Trachsel to take his place, and also have Jeremy Guthrie around as a spot starter/long reliever type. I have suffered through 2 teams worth of Trachsel-inspired blah-ness, and he is certainly not good (5 ERA last season in the NL East and pitcher-friendly Shea, with peripherals actually indicating he was worse than that), but, if you can get past the interminable shuffling around the mound, the "human rain delay" probably too much worse than Benson, especially with Guthrie around to help out, and since Benson's contract was almost fully insured, the O's are saving about 7.5 million bucks and probably not taking too big a hit.