My Review of the Baltimore Orioles for 2009
Here we go again. Another year and another set of reviews and expectations for the American League East division foes. I have decided to write a small review myself on each of the division foes, with the Tampa Bay Rays being critiqued last. This series will not be the way I feel the division will pan out, or even portray any judgments by me as to the order of the teams at the end of the season. This blog will be my opinion, and the reviews will be based as I see the division with no interaction from the talking heads of ESPN or any other news organization.
It is for that reasoning that the American League East will be extremely entertaining in 2009. The possibility of the Orioles makes this division more exciting. And that is what I see happening in 2009. This squad might not have the solid cores of the projected top 3, but they have the talent ,and the relief pitching to steal wins here and there and jumble up the standing before it is all over in September.
But the Orioles did not falter in the off season, they made sure that two of their cornerstones know they have futures in the Oriole Orange. Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis know they are wanted in Charm City. And that motivation and confidence can do wonders in 2009. Bringing in the lunch pail workers like Ty Wiggington and Ryan Freel will bring back some of that dust and dirty on their uniforms they have been lacking the last few years. Grit and guts can win games for you in a competitive setting. This might have the look of a rebuilding team, but are currently more in the mold of the 2007 Rays, when the talent was beginning to play at the major league level.
I think they are just restructuring this team around some solid core ballplayers with an eye on some covert destruction during the season on their foes. This team is being fashioned to be one that might just sneak up on you and put 5 runs on the board fast, then try and hold that lead for the victory. Do I think that they will avoid their 12th straight losing season this year? Maybe not, but they will also be closer to th2 .500 mark than for the last few seasons. The Orioles will be counting on Jeremy Guthrie at the front of their rotation, then it tails off a bit with mystery. To say that this team was not open to change in the off season would be a joke.
The only member of the rotation basically guaranteed a job for 2009 was Guthrie, who was 10-12 last season. Koji Uehara came over from Japan as the first Japanese player signed by the Orioles, and he should make the Orioles Opening Day roster. Uehara is an 8-time Japanese All-Star, but how much does he still have in the tank will be the question early on in the year. More importantly, can be adjust to the American style fast and be a productive member of the rotation. Several Japanese pitchers have come over to the United States and not adjusted well to the pace and style of the game.
On of the key questions this Spring might be the off season trade of pitcher Garrett Olson to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for leftie Rich Hill. It might end up being the one move made in the off season that could make or break the team in the middle of the rotation. Hill doesn’t come here with established positive numbers in the majors, but the potential of this young pitcher has pure upside to it right now for the Orioles. The team also signed tall leftie journeyman Mark Hendrickson as basically a swing man. He could post up in any of the four other open rotation spots and eat up innings for the team. Radhames Liz had a interesting first season in the majors and is going to get a shot at the rotation, and former closer, Danys Baez has been vocal about taking a shot at going back to the rotation this year. Baez might be the biggest question mark right now because of his large contract and he will be pitching for the first time in 2 years after Tommy John’s surgery.
The Oriole Bullpen is not weak, but they will not have the dominating relievers Chad Bradford and Lance Cormier who were with the team during their 2008 surge to the top of the division. This brings out the fact that the Bullpen needs to be tweaked in 2009. The arms are still there that finished 2008, but Brian Burres is expected to see more time at long relief, and closer George Sherrill might have a bigger upside in the Bullpen this season. Since coming over from Seattle, Sherrill has been an effective stopgap for the Orioles and can be just as productive, if not more in 2009. His 2008 All-Star appearance late in the game shows that pressure and great hitters do not phase him at all.
But the Orioles will also have reliever Chris Ray back in 2009 after Tommy John’s surgery. His fastball and command will be welcomed back with open arms. This give Sherrill a great set-up man in the 8th inning and should solidify the Bullpen a bit in the season. But the trio of Jim Johnson, Jamie Walker and Dennis Sarfate will have to improve during the year to give the Orioles a steady Bullpen. All three are at that crossroads where if the team is to be successful, they will shoulder a lot of that responsibility in the late innings.
The Orioles infield will be dominated by All-Star Brian Roberts, but some additions might make the usually porous Orioles middle defense more of a roadblock in 2009. Cesar Izturis, comes to the team as a free agent and will be manning the shortstop hole for the next two years for the Orioles. This tandem have both been to the All-Star game, and might give the team a better up-the-middle defense than they have seen in quite a while. A good bit of work might be needed on timing during the spring, but both men should prove to bring more double play opportunities and advantages to the Orioles. Roberts will be the man with the power in this duo, but Izturis is not an easy out and is very skillful on the base paths. Roberts set an AL record last season by hitting 51 doubles as a switch hitter.
On the corners the Orioles will be manned by veterans Melvin Mora and Aubrey Huff. Over at third, Mora began a monster second half after getting a cortisone shot for his aching right shoulder. With the time off this off season to heal, he should come into camp ready to throw and man the hot corner. Huff is coming off both his first Silver Slugger award, and the Edgar Martinez award as the best D H in the game last year. Huff might be counted on for even more production in 2009. His move from D H is first base will not be an easy one for him, but has played the position before this season. His defense is not stellar at first, but it is better than his reputation. His work ethic in the spring will set the tone for what should be expected out of him at first in 2009.
Behind the plate seems to be basically a position where the starter on Opening Day might not be there for long. Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller have been brought in to battle for the top spot until uber-prospect Matt Wieters makes his move to the majors. It has been suggested that Wieters will start out in Triple-A, but should be in the lineup during the summer. Both Zaun and Moeller have signed minor league deals, but both might survive waivers if sent down and should be a valuable insurance policy for the Orioles if something should happen to Wieters. Both catchers have average skills with the bat, but they both call great games behind the plate, which should help bring out early season confidence to the pitching staff.
In the outfield, the Orioles will return one of the top throwers in the majors in right field. Nick Markakis gunned down 17 runners in 2008, top the majors in outfield assists. He also proved he could dominate with his bat as he set personal bests in 6 offensive categories last year. His power stroke got better as the year went on last year, and should develop more in 2009. He will be a fixture in the Orioles outfield for a long time. Another guy who might have cemented himself into center field is Adam Jones. He was acquired in 2008 in the Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners. And except for some time off with an injury, proved to be a major upgrade in center.
Jones is one of those guys who has great 5-tool potential, and is got a lot better last season. 2008 was the first season that Jones got more than 100 major league at bats, and he rewarded the Orioles with being a constant base stealing threat and produced a .270 average. His speed and positioning make him one of the young guns to watch in 2009. With another year under his belt at the major league level, Jones should push towards the top pf his game to maybe become one of the best center fielders in the next few seasons. In left, the Orioles will call on Luke Scott, who they got from Houston in the Miguel Tejada trade. Scott had mixed reviews in 2008, but his bat will not be a concern for the team. His 23 homers last season shows he has the power, and with extra reps in left, he will become a more fluid fielder.
The bench players on the Orioles will be an huge upgrade in 2009. Wiggington might see most of his at bats at D H , but he can also be used on the corner position, and almost anywhere else on the field. When he was with Tampa Bay, he was the team’s third catching option in case of an emergency. Versatility and a solid bat with a good rate of contact will get Wiggington a lot of playing time this year. Ryan Freel is one of those guys that seems modeled after former Mets/Phillies dirt devil Lenny Dystra. He is always going at full speed and plays the game at a high rate of speed. He is also a great addition because of his ability to play almost anywhere on the field. Freel can play all the outfield positions, and also in the infield at three positions. Rounding out the bench should be Lou Montanez, Donnie Murphy and Oscar Salazar. All three are capable of great things in 2009 with another year under their belts. Salazar made a great impression in this years Winter Leagues and should see more playing time this season.
So there you have the basic breakdown of the Baltimore Orioles. This team has the potential to beat anyone on a given day. The biggest key to their 2009 success will be the adoption of the Orioles game plan by their pitching staff. The team signed two experienced catchers to work with the staff before prospect Matt Wieters makes his way behind the plate for the Orioles. This transition should go smooth for them, with either catcher being a great back-up and mentor to Wieters. With only one position sewn up before Spring Training, it will be interesting how the team’s rotation comes together before the beginning of the season.
On the field the Orioles again have the potential to maybe rise to the occasion again in 2009 and put some fear in the top tier of the division. But I do not feel they have the horses yet to stay up there for the entire year. There are prospects in the system who are only a few steps away who might help make that move possible beyond 2009. But as I have learned in 2008, it sometimes is more about the chemistry and the attitude of the team than their obvious strong spots. The Orioles will have a long road ahead of them, but the 2009 season might not garner the success they envisioned during the first days of Spring Training.
But the potential is there for a great season. The only real question is to see how high they will rise to the occasion and become a force, or just a spoiler in 2009. I do not see them contending this year, but they will get their licks in against their division foes and make it more difficult for anyone to dominate in 2009. The end result will be the focus and the dominance of the Orioles starting pitching. If the starters can go long into the games and keep the lead or even post this team to within 1 run, it might be an interesting summer in The Ballpark at Camden Yards.
Photo credits for today’s blog: www.Baltimoresun.com ( Doug Kapustin), JLeggett( 2 ) and Philromans@ Flickr.com.