This year's iteration of the O's just might not suck. And that's a tall task for a team that lost 98 times in 2009 and brought in a bunch of aging and declining stopgaps. So just how might they accomplish this decreased level of sucktitude? Well, the same way Paris Hilton gets through her days: With the help of a bunch of talented young studs.
Let's first take a look at who's in and who's out at Camden Yards:
In: SP Kevin Millwood, 3B Miguel Tejada, 1B Garrett Atkins, RP Mike Gonzalez
Out: 3B Melvin Mora, RP Chris Ray, RP Danys Baez, SP Rich Hill, SP Radhames Liz, RB Brian Bass, RP Sean Henn
Not a ton to get worked up about on either side of the ledger but, in terms of name recognition, they at least brought in some guys who have been good at some point. Millwood comes over from the Rangers in a deal for Chris Ray. He'll anchor the O's rotation at a cost of $15MM before becoming a free agent following the year. Tejada comes back to the place he enjoyed much success and will replace Mora at third while Atkins will hope to rejuvenate his career across the diamond at first. Mike Gonzalez arrives as a free agent and is expected to close things out for the birds.
I'll be honest, I wasn't too impressed by the O's off-season. These seem like the guys you bring in to help push you over the hump, not battle the Blue Jays for fourth place. The flip side, though, is that, aside from Gonzalez, who is actually very good, there are no long term commitments here so they clearly aren't handcuffing themselves for 2011 and beyond.
In any event, let's move on to their projected starters, with some help from CHONE projections. Why CHONE? Well, I like to pretend that Chone Figgins sat down with a calculator and pounded all of these out:
C- Matt Wieters
Wieters was picked by most everyone to win the AL Rookie of the Year in 2009 as the opening bookend to a career that should include MVPs, HR titles, Gold Gloves, Cy Youngs and cures for cancer. Seriously, this guy was hyped heading into 2009. Jason Heyward 2010 level hype. While it didn't work out that way, Wieters did more than hold his own as a 23 year-old backstop. Up for good in June, Wieters put together an OPS by month of 691, 767, 652, and 852. It's that final month that has everyone excited for a full season in 2010. And so they should. CHONE projects Wieters for an OPS of .815 which would be mighty nice behind the plate. BRADEN is slightly more pessimistic but still sees a line of 297/350/440.
1B- Garrett Atkins
This one seems destined for failure. Atkins's career peaked in 2006 with a .965 OPS and 29 HRs for the Rockies. Since then he has steadily declined to the tune of a 66 OPS+ last year. Atkins has always been a main beneficiary of the Coors Effect putting up a career Home line of 327/385/507 in Colorado while 'hitting' just 252/324/411 on the road. Switching to the AL East and leaving behind parks like Petco and AT&T Park could help the road line a bit but it sure seems as though Atkins's time as a starter has come to an end. CHONE isn't particularly optimistic, pegging him for a .739 OPS. BRADEN is even less so, figuring he'll play himself out of the starting gig with a 242/326/404 line.
2B- Brian Roberts
Man, is Brian Roberts ever fun to watch. While Jays fans were treated to an outstanding year from Aaron Hill in 2009, O's faithful have certainly had their own star and second for a few years now. While Roberts's spped has begun to deteriorate (from 50 SB in 2007 to 40 to 30), he's still an imposing force on the basepaths and has managed to score over 100 runs for three straight seasons. CHONE sees Roberts declining a tad at the age of 32 but still puts him with a 785 OPS. BRADEN is a bit more optimistic with a 287/370/440 line.
3B- Miguel Tejada
Steroid controversies aside, Tejada sure manages to keep raking, even in his declining years. At 35 in Houston last year, Tejada slugged his way to a 109 OPS+ at SS. This year, he'll shift to his right a bit to take over for Melvin Mora at third. Miguel's not much of a HR threat any more and will likely be good for 10-15 but he still manages to smack a ton of doubles while almost never walking. While he'll almost certainly continue to decline at 36, and his numbers won't look quite as good at third as they did at short, he's got some small shoes to fill in place of Mora who put up a .679 OPS in 2009. CHONE projects a .765 OPS for Tejada which is pretty similar to BRADEN who has him at 276/330/429.
SS- Cesar Izturis
Here's the thing about Cesar Izturis: You know exactly what you're going to get. Above average defence and an OPS in the low 600s. There's really not much more to say about him. He doesn't get on base, shows no power at all, but is sure-handed at short and complements Roberts well. That's probably what'll happen again this year. CHONE pegs Cesar for a .635 OPS and so does BRADEN with a line of 285/302/333.
LF- Nolan Reimold
Now this was a surprise last year. Reimold, a 2nd round pick in 2005, joined the O's in mid-May and quickly and firmly entrenched himself as the starting LF and even made noise in the ROY debate posting a line of 279/365/466 in 358 AB (this included an incredibly demoralizing walk-off HR against Brian Wolfe. Think for a sec, you'll remember the game. Ugh.) Reimold didn't show a ton of weaknesses as he controlled the zone well and hit for power. He was slightly worse in LF than Jason Bay, however so there is room for improvement. CHONE really likes Reimold and figures he's good for an 836 OPS. BRADEN's pretty similar with a 271/350/471 line.
CF- Adam Jones
2009 was certainly a tale of two seasons for Jones. He started the year looking like he'd made The Leap at the age of 23 with OPSs of 1.062 in April and .960 in May with 11 HRs. He fell off a cliff from there, however, with OPSs of 609, 764, and 620 before missing September due to injury. Those first two months were good enough to keep his season line at 277/335/457 with 19 HR and 10 SB and a berth in the All-Star Game. Jones still has a lot of developing to do but April and May showed that the hype seems to be for real. CHONE is big on Jones to the tune of a .846 OPS. BRADEN figures it'll take a little while to get to that level but still likes Jones for a 285/335/480 season.
RF- Nick Markakis
2009 represented a fairly large step back for Markakis. After putting up an .897 OPS in 2008 as a 24 year-old, Markakis dropped almost 100 points, mainly due to a huge decline in bases on balls, in 2009. Still, there's little doubt that Markakis possesses the tools to be among the best RF in the game and while 2009 was seen as a disappointment, he still managed an OPS north of .800. CHONE sees a decent rebound to an 857 OPS. BRADEN is even more optimistic and pegs him for a 301/379/498 campaign.
DH- Luke Scott
Scott, who came to Baltimore in the original Tejada deal, has proven to be a very nice late bloomer. He cracked the Astros roster in 2006 for 65 games to the tune of a 1.047 OPS. The past three years have been very consistent. Scott shows he's good for about a .250 average, a .340ish OBP, and a SLG percentage around .480 with 25 HRs, and 55 BB. Scott enters 2010 at 32 years old so his window isn't all that big but there's no reason to think he can't put up another OPS in the .830 range. CHONE, however, does have those reasons and pegs him at .808. BRADEN is siding with history to the tune of 256/344/482.
Though the 2009 Orioles offense was no great shakes, the team's weakness was found in the guys on the mound. The staff combined for an ERA+ of 88 while only two starters managed an above average ERA+ and they (Brad Bergesen and Koji Uehara) only combined for 31 starts. That said, 2010 promises to be a bit different. While they could very well struggle again, the future is here for the O's.
While Millwood probably isn't good for another 127 ERA+ like in 2009, he should provide some stability at the top of the rotation. No longer will Jeremy Guthrie be counted on as an ace and that, my friends, is good news. Millwood put together a fairly pedestrian four year stint in Texas. He remained quite healthy and provided a bunch of innings in winning 48 times but never really stepped up as the #1 they'd hoped he'd be. So, enter Baltimore. The O's decided they'd take a chance on his $15MM price tag for 2010 in the hopes that he'd provide some leadership to the young ones. That should be doable. There's a good chance he'll get smacked around a fair bit in the East and most projections suss that out pegging him with an ERA in the mid-to-high 4.00s and about a .500 record. BRADEN agrees and puts Millwood in for 32 starts and a 4.77 ERA. For fun, we'll say an 11-13 record. But if he's on the mound for anywhere around 200 innings, the O's should be happy.
The O's were thrilled in 2007 when they picked Guthrie up on waivers and he proceeded to give them 175 innings at 125 ERA+. That, mainly by default, made him their #1 with a bullet and he followed it up with a similar 2008 campaign. Now the bad news: 2009 was a disaster. He led the AL in losses with 17, his ERA ballooned to 5.04 thanks in part to a league leading 35 HRs allowed. Even the eternally optimistic folks over at Orioles Hangout want him gone. Unfortunately for the O's, they just don't have enough guys to throw out there every five days so for the time being, Guthrie's their #2 man. So what happened last year? Well, simply enough, he got whacked around. His BB remained constant at 2.7/9 and his K rate dropped from 5.7 to 5 per nine innings. What skyrocketed were his hits. From 8.3 to 10.1 per nine frames. Combine that with the extra HRs and a lot more opponents crossed the plate. Projection systems are all fairly consistent with Guthrie, pegging him for around 180 innings, an ERA around 4.70 and about a .500 record. BRADEN says: 28 starts, 160 innings, 4.63 ERA and a 7-11 record.
And here's the guy everyone's waiting for. Matusz, the 4th overall pick in 2008, flew through the minors and made 8 starts for Baltimore at the end of 2009. His peripherals were nice to the tune of 2.8 BB/9 and 7.7 K/9. He got hit a bit, allowing 10.5 H/9 but managed a 5-2 record despite an ERA+ of 98. All that said, he's here to stay and will likely do nothing but improve and could be their real #1 starter by the All-Star break. Then again, young pitchers will break your heart. But I'm bullish on Matusz. He's got good command, misses bats and by all accounts shows great poise. Projections are all over the map for Matusz, pegging him for anywhere from 18 to 28 starts, 82 to 154 innings, and an ERA anywhere from 3.94 to 4.69. BRADEN's somewhere in between, with 27 starts, 155 innings, an ERA of 4.33 and a record of 10-7.
Bergesen, a 4th round pick in 2004, came out of nowhere last year to be one of the O's best starters until a shin injury knocked him out for the year at the end of July. Still, Bergesen started 19 games to the tune of a 3.43 ERA (132+) and walked just 36 guys in 123 innings (2.3/9). On the flip side, he doesn't miss many bats, compiling just 65 Ks, for a 4.7/9 rate. Bergesen's spring got off to a rough start as he tweaked his shoulder filming an Orioles commercial. Yikes. He's ok, though and is poised to be the #4 guy. Projections are iffy on Bergesen due to his low strikeout totals. CHONE and ZiPS have him with ERAs close to 5.00 and few strikeouts. Bill James and Marcel are a bit kinder. BRADEN isn't. He sees Bergesen making 26 starts, throwing 140 innings with an ERA of 4.94. As for a record, we'll say 5-10.
The other crown jewel who may actually be even better than Matusz. As though securing Adam Jones from the Mariners wasn't enough, the O's might have also grabbed their #1/1A in the same deal. Tillman made 12 starts at the age of 21 for the O's in 2009 and predictably struggled. He walked 25 while striking out just 39 in 65 innings and got hit around for an ERA of 5.40. Still, Tillman's talents are in abundance and he has effectively been handed the #5 gig for 2010. He's likely to struggle and all of the projections seem to bear that out but most have him in the bigs for most, if not all of the year. BRADEN doesn't see 2010 as Tillman's year, however making only 13 starts before being shipped down after an ERA of 5.13 and just 58 innings and a 3-7 record. He'll dominate AAA, though and be back up to stay in September.
There isn't much to talk about in the O's 'pen. In fact, over the past few years, it's been pretty dreadful. But after shrewdly trading closer George Sherrill to the Dodgers, GM Andy MacPhail inked Mike Gonzalez to a two year, $12MM deal. Gonzalez was outstanding in Atlanta in 2009 posting a 2.42 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 74.1 innings. He has experienced some back problems this spring, however and scouts have noticed a sizable drop in velocity so it's not yet clear if he's healthy enough to start the season. If his back is wonky, the O's 'pen could be a mess. If he's healthy he could be one of the best closers in the AL.
The rest of the 'pen has seen a large turnover from 2009. Gone are Chris Ray, Danys Baez, Dennis Sarfate, and Brian Bass. In their place will be a combination of Cla Meredith, who was quite good in the second half of 2009, Mark Hendrickson, Koji Uehara, Jim Johnson, and newcomer Kam Mickolio who was yet another gem from the Erik Bedard deal. Mickolio has been projected by some as the O's closer of the future and showed why in striking out 14 in 13.2 innings late last year. All told, the O's bullpen shows more promise than in years past, though a lot of that hinges of Gonzalez's health.
Two years ago, I pegged the O's at either 67-95 (realistic) or 59-103 (due to my anger of having to write about them). They finished at 68-93. Last year, I went with 72-90 and the O's responded with a 64-98 mark. So I'm always in the ballpark but either underestimate them or, somehow, overestimate them. This year they're trending as a sexy pick. Not necessarily to be a 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, but at least as a surprise team. I don't see them there yet. But they're close. If they weren't in the AL East, I could see 80-84 wins. But they are. And as everyone here is well aware, that's a daunting task. So they'll likely work their way out of the basement, and the future is indeed brighter than it has been in years. But for now, we'll say 76-86 and on the upswing.