2012 Baltimore Orioles Team Preview
Another year complete and still, the Orioles are no closer to competing. That makes four consecutive years as the cellar dweller and just once in 15 years they have been better than fourth in the AL East. There was more buzz at the young talent in 2011 than in recent years, as Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton were expected to form one of the better young rotations, while Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters were supposed to embody the core of a positional nucleus in the heart of the order. None of that happened. As Dan Duquette takes over the front office, the team is a disarray of unfulfilled promises, and the minor league system is void of major-league ready talent. Barring anything unforeseen, do not expect much to change in 2012.
Traded for catcher Taylor Teagarden.
Teagarden shuttled back and forth from Triple-A and the majors again in 2011, and was dealt in the winter to Baltimore where he's expected to serve as the backup to catcher Matt Wieters. The job is Teagarden's to lose, though Ronny Paulino will add some pressure. Teagarden managed 12 homers in 151 at-bats in the minors, but he has a long history of not hitting against advanced pitching to get too excited about any moderate power he showed.
Traded for pitcher Dana Eveland.
Injuries led the Dodgers to promote Eveland from Triple-A Albuquerque to Los Angeles for five starts last season, and he fared pretty well, going 3-2 with a 3.03 ERA and 1.146 WHIP. With a 5.52 career ERA in 360 innings, Eveland is unlikely to ever be a guy who makes 30 starts a season, but in spurts, he could have some AL-only value. The Orioles snatched him up in a trade, but a rotation spot is anything but guaranteed.
Signed pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada to a two-year contract.
Wada has been a steady frontline starter throughout his nine-year career with the Softbank Hawks, which neatly opened and concluded with Japan Series wins in 2003 and 2011. He never overpowered batters in NPB, and certainly won't at the MLB level. Wada's ERA in 2011 was 1.51, more than twice as good as his career 3.13 mark, and way ahead of his previous career-best 2.82, achieved in 2007. He's surpassed 180 innings in four of his nine NPB seasons and never reached 190 innings. NPB starters, when moving to MLB, have tended to see their innings counts decline. Given that Wada is a little on the diminutive side at 5-foot-10, 175, and will open the 2012 season at age 31, anticipating some workload regression seems fair. Given his mediocre velocity and his penchant for throwing strikes, adapting to life in the AL East seems like a tall order. Still, he'll likely begin the season in Baltimore's rotation.
Signed outfielder Endy Chavez to a one-year deal and cathcer Ronny Paulino and pitcher Pat Neshek to minor-league contracts; claimed pitcher Darren O'Day off waivers.
Neshek and O'Day should serve as middle relievers. Paulino will get a chance to earn a roster spot as he tries to beat out Taylor Teagarden for a chance to back up Matt Wieters. Chavez enters camp with a chance to earn a starting spot over Nolan Reimold in left field. He should get plenty of at-bats as Nick Markakis is supposed to start baseball activities two weeks late. It seems unlikely the Orioles would start Chavez over Reimold and more likely that Chavez serves as a backup this season.
Signed pitcher Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year contract.
Chen has been one of Japan's better pitchers since 2008, and an out clause in his NPB contract allowed him to move to MLB and sign three-year deal with the Orioles. Chen moved into Chunichi's rotation full time in 2009, and he had his best season with a 1.54 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 146:40 K:BB ratio. He got it done with electric stuff, working primarily off a fastball with movement that touched 96 mph on his best days and a mid-80s slider with bite. While Chen has remained highly effective in the two years since, he hasn't repeated his dominant 2009 performance, on either the stats sheet or the radar gun. He's maintained very good, but not quite league leading, ERAs and WHIPs. In 2011 his strikeout rate dropped to 5.15 K/9IP, after hovering around 8.00 K/9IP in previous seasons. Chen turns 27 in June 2012, so he'll enter MLB with some prime baseball years ahead of him. Even if he can't find a way to stick in the Baltimore rotation, he should have enough stuff to succeed in a bullpen role.
Signed third baseman Wilson Betemit to a two-year contract.
The Orioles notched Betemit for two years with an option for 2014 and it looks like he will be the starting third baseman. Mark Reynolds occupied the spot for the Orioles in 2011 but did not field the position well. Betemit split time with the Royals and Tigers in 2011, hitting .285 with eight home runs and 46 RBI in a career-high 323 at-bats between his two stops. His OBP (.343) and SLG (.452) both dropped a bit from his 2010 campaign but fell in the same range as his career numbers in those categories. The 30-year-old continued to excel against right-handed pitching, finishing with a slash line of .303/.365/.500.
Lost outfielder Luke Scott to free agency.
Scott, as so often happens for players in their 30s, suffered a devastating combination of decline and injuries in 2011. Still, he could find regular at-bats at first base or DH after signing with Tampa Bay and has always hit home runs when healthy.
Traded pitcher Jeremy Guthrie for pitchers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom
In a move that had bizarre timing given the team's wasteland of a rotation, the Orioles sent Guthrie - the team's only sure bet to make the rotation - to the Rockies. After two seasons in Colorado where the skills didn't line up with the results, Hammel regressed considerably last year thanks to a depleted strikeout rate (from 7.14 K/9IP to 4.97) and spike in walks (2.38 BB/9IP to 3.59). The lost whiffs might be attributed to a swinging-strike percentage that has steadily declined during his three-year stint in Colorado (9.5 in 2009, 7.2 in 2010 and 6.5 in 2011). Perhaps the days of considering Lindstrom a closer-in-waiting are over, but he had turned in a solid campaign in 2011. A big part of that success can be attributed to his improved walk rate (2.33 BB/9IP), the lowest mark he's delivered in any big league campaign. Lindstrom's strikeout rate tumbled (6.00 K/9IP) and he only picked up a pair of saves while Huston Street was out, but it seems there could be a strong potential for him to get a shot to close in Baltimore at some point in 2012.
Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. Brian Roberts, 2B
2. J.J. Hardy, SS
3. Nick Markakis, RF
4. Adam Jones, CF
5. Matt Wieters, C
6. Mark Reynolds, DH
7. Wilson Betemit, 3B
8. Nolan Reimold, LF
9. Chris Davis, 1B
Brian Roberts deserves an asterisk as it does not seem likely he will be any healthier this year than he was in 2010 or 2011. That could leave Hardy as the leadoff hitter, or Robert Andino could step into the role if he starts at second base. The heart of the order appears set, while the bottom of the order could depend on potential platoons and the left-field positional battle.
1. Wei-Yin Chen
2. Tsuyoshi Wada
3. Jason Hammel
4/5. Zach Britton/Jake Arrieta/Brian Matusz/ Tommy Hunter/Alfredo Simon/ Dana Eveland/Armando Galarraga/Chris Tillman
Jeremy Guthrie will be the Opening Day starter. That is about all we know. That was the opening statement of the first draft of this column. Now there is no pitcher who has positively locked up a rotation spot. No Orioles rotation in recent memory - ever? - has had this many questions entering spring training. The Orioles have positioned themselves with a bunch of low-ceiling starters, some of whom will fill all the voids in the rotation, some who may start the season in Triple-A waiting for an opportunity and one or two who could start the season in the bullpen. Among the Japanese signees, Chen throws gas while Wada is more of a finesse pitcher. Britton appeared to do enough in 2011 to earn a near-guaranteed spot. Arrieta, Matusz and Tillman underwhelmed in 2011 and each has something to prove in spring. Simon had an abbreviated season in 2011 and should have a full season in front of him, while Galarraga and Eveland will look to revive their careers. Hammel is a veteran presence, and it seems likely the Orioles would not have sacrificed Guthrie without getting a guy they thought could eat innings in return.
The above projections are purely speculative. Based on the types of contracts owned by Chen, Wada and Hammel, these three seem likely to make the rotation. They may not be in that order and one or two could fill out the back of the rotation if one of the slew of other candidates stands out this spring. The rest are ordered in likelihood of making the rotation. Admittedly, you could ask 100 people and get 100 different answers on how things shake out this spring.
Notes of import, fantasy and otherwise
What should a fantasy owner be watching for this spring?
The Orioles appear headed for a top-five pick in 2013, but even poor teams have diamonds in the rough. (Take J.J. Hardy's 2011 season, for example.) This team has much more to keep an eye out for this spring than most teams. The health of Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Jake Arrieta should be monitored. The eyes will not tell the story on Brian Matusz so much as the radar gun will. Monitor his velocity throughout spring training. Finally, pay attention as the Japanese arms get their first exposure in the United States. It can be difficult to get a good feel for foreign pitchers until they see game action.
Strengths: Is there a strength on this team? J.J. Hardy hit 30 home runs from the shortstop position and signed a three-year deal. Adam Jones set a career high with 25 home runs and had 12 steals, but his OBP is not a strength and it prevents him from scoring runs. Wieters is one of the better offensive catchers with 22 home runs and his BABIP suggests his .262 was an underachievement.
Weaknesses: Where to start? The rotation has no frontline starter. The bullpen has some potential, but there is no established closer unless the Orioles make a surprise move. Reynolds slugged 37 home runs but his strikeout rate and defense are horrendous. Betemit has a good split against righties but he struggles against lefties. Davis remains unable to cash in on his big minor-league success. He received a second chance with Baltimore and remained unimpressive, posting a .708 OPS.
Rising: Zach Britton - Britton was one of the few pitchers in the Orioles organization to avoid utter disaster in 2011. He still finished with a 4.61 ERA, but some of that can be pinned on his defense - his 52 percent groundball rate combined with a 5.66 K/9IP should typically produce an ERA closer to 4.00 (according to FIP). Look for the 24-year-old to continue to grow in 2012 - the next challenge is controlling the strike zone, as he needs to improve the 3.62 BB/9IP he posted as a rookie last season.
Falling: Nick Markakis - Markakis remains unable to recapture the magic of 2008, when he posted an .897 OPS, 20 HR and 106 runs. Markakis set a career low in OPS in 2011 with a .757 mark and continues to show shockingly little power. The 28-year-old finished with a .122 ISO, a below average mark for the second year in a row. He should be at or near 100 percent entering spring training after suffering a bruised pelvis while diving for a ball late last season, but it's clear that 2010 and 2011 are more along the lines of what to expect as his slugging percentage has fallen in each of the last three seasons. He subsequently had surgery in January to repair an abdominal tear and will miss at least the first two weeks of spring training.
Sleeper: Nolan Reimold - In just 305 MLB plate appearances, Nolan Reimold managed 13 home runs, 40 runs, 45 RBI and seven steals, all numbers that pro-rate well to a full season. With Luke Scott out of town, Reimold appears locked into a starting job. Endy Chavez will get a chance to win the left-field job, too.
Supersleeper: Ryan Flaherty - With a cloud of doubt surrounding the status of Brian Roberts, a few players could see an opportunity to play. Robert Andino is the most experienced, while Ryan Adams also saw time in 2011. But the Orioles selected Flaherty from the Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft. Flaherty has some pop and he hit 14 home runs and slugged .907 in 83 Double-A games in 2011. That merited a promotion to Triple-A, where Flaherty stalled with a .237/.277/.399 line in 49 games.
Manny Machado - Machado effectively played his first professional season after playing just nine games in 2010 as the Orioles' first-round draft pick. The 19-year-old tore up Low-A, hitting .276/.376/.483 with six home runs in just 170 plate appearances, showing good plate discipline as well before a dislocated knee cap sent him to the disabled list. He then hit a bit of a road block in High-A, where he couldn't draw as many walks nor hit for as much power (five homers in 260 plate appearances). Look for the youngster to get another crack at High-A and hopefully move up to Double-A this season.
Dylan Bundy - Bundy is the newest addition to the organization as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft. He won High School Player of the Year honors from Gatorade and Baseball America after going 11-0 with a 0.25 ERA and 158:5 K:BB over 71 innings for his Oklahoma team. He owns a high-90s fastball and a big curveball and is already one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
Jonathan Schoop - For much of the last decade, the Orioles have an organizational hole at shortstop. But now at the major league level they have J.J. Hardy, gifted to them by the Twins before the 2011 season, and elite prospect Manny Machado, so it's easy to overlook that Schoop is also in the organization. In his first full season stateside, Schoop advanced to the High-A Carolina league as a 19-year old after first making it to the Futures Game. When he played at the same level as Machado, he played third base while Machado played shortstop, and that's probably how it will work if and when both make it to the major league level. Schoop is still filling out his frame and can reasonably be expected to hit for more power once he does so.
L.J. Hoes - Hoes made a big improvement as a 21-year-old in Double-A, hitting .307/.381/.414 in 394 plate appearances. He won't hit for much power - he has just 16 home runs dating back to 2008 - but he makes plenty of contact and showed the ability to take a walk last season. That can play at second base in the majors, if he ends up at that position (he played 85 games in left field and 31 games at second base in the minors last year), while the ongoing concussion issues plaguing Brian Roberts could create an opportunity for Hoes with the Orioles sooner rather than later.
Jason Esposito - Esposito was once projected to be a first rounder but he fell to the Orioles with the 64th selection in 2011. He did not get a chance to play professionally in 2011 but look for him to get an opportunity to start the season in Low-A.
Parker Bridwell - Bridwell is a projectable young starter who has made strides since the Orioles signed him away from Texas Tech. He has excelled in short-season ball but stalled in Low-A.