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Know Thy Enemy: Baltimore Orioles, 2009 Preview

This is the first in a 4-part series examining the Jays' competition in the AL East. 

The Baltimore Orioles had another tough season in 2008, losing 90 or more games for the 3rd consecutive season and failing to finish above .500 for the 11th year in a row. There were some bright spots, however, and the O's hope to improve in 2009 in an increasingly tough AL East.  The O's weren't playing all that badly until the end of the season, when they went an almost unthinkably awful 5-20 in September to close out the season.

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

2B - Brian Roberts
CF - Adam Jones
RF - Nick Markakis
DH - Ty Wigginton
3B - Melvin Mora
1B - Aubrey Huff
LF - Luke Scott/Felix Pie
C - Gregg Zaun
SS - Cesar Izturis

2B  -  Brian Roberts
LF - Felix Pie
RF  -  Nick Markakis
1B - Aubrey Huff
DH  -  Luke Scott
3B - Melvin Mora
CF - Adam Jones
C - Gregg Zaun
SS- Cesar Izturis

4th OF - Ty Wigginton (also 1B/3B/DH)
Bench  - Ryan Freel, IF/OF
              Lou Montanez, OF
             Guillermo Quiroz, C

Although Zaun is penciled in here as catcher, in truth it is likely that the young Matt Wieters will soon work his way into the everyday lineup and become an offensive force - the only question is when.  Wieters is one of the best prospects in baseball and is expected to both hit a ton and do a great job behind the dish, so his development is one of the biggest stories of the season for Baltimore. 

Baltimore's offense in 2008 was almost exactly league average (team OPS+ of 99), due to a few holes, most glaringly at SS.  They patched that hole by bringing in former Jay Ceasar Izturis, who isn't much with the bat but will bring some stability to the position and plays fine defense.  The O's also signed Gregg Zaun to play catcher - Z-Man will bring his Z-game and his love of "heavy metal" (which to him apparently means Guns N' Roses) to start the season as the everyday catcher and then move into a mentor role as Wieters hopefully comes into his own.  Not satisfied, Baltimore brought in Ty Wigginton, who has a nice bat and is versatile and makes a nice match for lefthanded hitters Huff, Scott, and Pie. 

Melvin Mora is interesting, he looked to be in steep decline over the past few seasons and then for the first half last year, but then went nuts in the second half, hitting .376/.417/.656 after the all-star break.  He wasn't great on defense (-4.8 UZR), but finished with a quality 114 OPS+ to make him a 2.5 win player, his best season since 2005. Aubrey Huff also had a big rebound year -- his .387 wOBA was the best of his career and he hit 32 dingers.  Luke Scott continued to hit righties fairly well (.838 OPS) but again showed why he is a platoon player (.702 OPS against lefties).  Adam Jones struggled at the plate (.711 OPS), really struggling with his pitch recognition and plate discipline, but was absolutely fantastic in the field (10.3 UZR in center), making him a 2.2 win player.  And Brian Roberts had another excellent year as one of the league's premier second basemen and leadoff men, getting on base at a .378 clip, hitting 51 doubles, and swiping 40 bags at a nice 80% success rate.  The O's will be countin on all five of those gentlemen, as well as their new acquisitions and of course, Markakis (.306/.406/.491 last season) who has developed from a promising young player to a well-rounded star with no holes in his game at all. 

The O's offense should be better, since they have added some nice depth and some young players are continuing to develop.  Mora is old, but Huff and Wigginton can both play third, as can Freel, so there's some cover there.

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.  However, in the O's case, there are a number of potential 6th starters.

RHP - Jeremy Guthrie
RHP - Koji Uehara
LHP - Rich Hill
LHP - Mark Hendrickson
RHP - Radhames Liz
RHP/RHP/LHP - Hayden Penn/Matt Albers/Chris Waters

Baltimore got a quality season from Jeremy Guthrie last year (3.63 ERA) although, while he perhaps had more than the 10 wins he got coming to him based on how many runs were scored against him, his defense-independent numbers (4.53 FIP, 5.66 K/9, .267 BABIP against, 101 tRA+) suggest that he may have actually been quite fortunate in 2008.  He is likely to give the Orioles another solid year.  

After Guthrie, Baltimore's rotation was an absolute mess last season.  They were the worst rotation in the AL (with a 5.51 team ERA), and also finished last in the league both in strikeouts and walks (actually pretty crazy since low strikeout pitchers typically at least limit walks), with a staggeringly bad team 1.30 K/BB ratio.  Daniel Cabrera (30 starts, 86 ERA+,1.05 K/BB ratio), Garrett Olson (26 starts, 6.65 ERA), Radhames Liz (17 starts, 6.72 ERA), and current Jay spring training invitee Brian Burres (22 starts, 6.04 ERA, 1.13 K/BB ratio) were the most significant contributors to the damage, although the O's also got 10 very bad starts from Steve Trachsel (8.28 ERA).  The good news for the O's is that none of these gentlemen, other than perhaps Liz, is likely to factor heavily in the Orioles 2009 rotation plans. 

The Orioles signed 2-time Sawamura award (the award in the NPB going to the best starting pitcher in the Japanese league) winner Koji Uehara in what is looking like a pretty shrewd move.  Uehara seems like a good bet even in the AL East and is set to begin 2009 as Baltimore's number 2 starter.  Baltimore also made a nice move to acquire former Cubs lefty Rich Hill, who is an interesting case.  Hill had a good half season as a 26-year old and an excellent (119 ERA+) season as a 27-year old for the Cubbies before completely falling apart in 2008, spending most of the season in the minor leagues and showing absolutely no control at all, walking almost a batter per inning.  Hill also floundered in Winter ball this year, but if he can get his control back, he's a quality lefthanded starter with good K numbers.  His flyball tendencies are going haunt him a bit, especially in the cozy confines of Camden Yards and the AL East, but a nice low-risk pickup for Baltimore, since it's not like he's blocking anyone. 

Baltimore also picked up former Jay Mark Hendrickson who, while he has no means been an above-average pitcher over his career (89 ERA+ career), is better than what 4/5 of what the O's had out there last season and is at least capable of being a #5 starter (though not sure how well he will fare in the AL East).

The O's rotation should be better in 2009 than it was in 2008.  That's not saying much, I know, but Uehara looks like a solid addition, while Guthrie isn't anything special but should continue to enjoy modest success, giving them at least 2 average or better starters.  Hill has plenty of potential and Hendrickson will usually manage not to embarass himself on the mound.  And Baltimore does have some young starters with potential.

Significant Bullpen Members

LHP George Sherrill (closer)
RHP Chris Ray (setup)
RHP Jim Johnson
RHP Dennis Sarfate
LHP Jamie Walker

The Orioles bullpen tried valiantly to pick up the slack left by an awful starting rotation (it was 3rd in the AL in innings), and helped to limit the damage, although a 4.59 team bullpen ERA is nothing to shout about. Closer George Sherrill isn't really what you want from a closer or bullpen ace, and he could lose his job to Chris Ray, who previously performed those duties before going down to arm surgery back in 2007.  However, Ray is coming off a major surgery and is a question mark himself.  On the other hand, Jim Johnson had a great season last year out of the pen, pitching in 54 games with a 2.23 ERA, and he will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance given his unimpressive strikeout and walk numbers (38/28 K/BB ratio over 68 2/3 innings, and shutting the league out from hitting a homer, like he did in 2008, is always tough to repeat).  LOOGY Jamie Walker had an awful season out of the pen (1.68 WHIP, 6.87 ERA, almost 3 home runs per 9 innings) but will look to rebound.  hard-thrower Danys Baez will also return from surgery, but I was never a big fan of his, and that was before he got hurt.

In Summary

Having attended Law School in Baltimore, a city with some hilarious nicknames: "Charm City," "the Land of Pleasant Living," and "the City that Reads" (though more often referred to by locals as "the City that Bleeds"), I have a soft spot for the Orioles, having enjoyed many home games at Camden Yards following a pint or two at Pickles Pub, including a bunch when I should've been in class.  I like the Uehara pickup, and it looks like the O's are finally on the right track with an excellent farm system and some quality young players.  I don't think 2009 will be the year, though.  The problem will be pitching - Uehara will help, and Hill and Hendrickson really can't hurt, but B-more's young arms in the majors haven't proven anything despite several shots.  What Baltimore is likely to do on the mound just isn't good enough in the AL, let alone the AL East.  The Orioles have solid pitching prospects in Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta, but none are real close to pitching in the majors.  Baltimore may hit more and pitch a little better, but I don't see them making up the gap between themselves and the rest of the AL East.