Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are one of those teams you kinda have to have some pity for. They have the budget of a small market team in the midst of an absolutely LOADED AL East, and for all the prospective talent they have, you have to wonder if they will be able to legitimately compete when the payrolls of their competition (Yankees and Red Sox) are 3 times as large. As I mentioned however, they do have some fairly exciting young talent that they may be able to build upon soon.

As a side-note while we're on the topic of Baltimore, if you've never watched the HBO Series "The Wire," you're missing out. "The Wire" takes place in Baltimore and is one of the best TV series ever produced (in this author's humble opinion). Just a word of warning: It's not the faint of heart.

2009 Record: (64-98), last place, 39GB the Division and World Champion New York Yankees

Key Departures:
3B Melvin Mora (free agent signed with Colorado), RP Chris Ray (Traded to the Rangers)

Melvin Mora is only a big name in that he played 3rd base for the Orioles for the past 10 years. He's 38 years old and probably nearing the end of his career. I'm not close with the beat of Orioles fans so I have no idea if his departure has been met with sadness or not, but he has certainly been a figure since Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001. As for Chris Ray, he was not much of a force with the Orioles, and I don't think they lost much here.

Key Arrivals:
RP Mike Gonzalez (free agent signing from the Braves), 1B Garrett Atkins (free agent signing from Colorado), SS Miguel Tejada (free agent signing from the Astros), SP Kevin Millwood (trade from the Rangers)

These are fairly significant signings in the sense that all of these players will play big roles for the Orioles. Gonzalez will be the closer this year, Akins the starting 1st baseman, Tejada the starting Shortstop (a change for him as he has been a 3rd baseman up until now) and Millwood will be the Orioles Opening Day starter. Millwood has an especially important role considering that he will be looked to as the veteran of a very young pitching staff that features 2nd-year pitcher Brad Bergesen and rookies Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, all of whom are quite talented.

Talent En Route: 
This is where the Orioles really shine. They have some top talent that is either ripe for the picking now or will be soon. There are four prospects in their system that deserve mention.

Brian Matusz (LH SP) - Matusz will be in the rotation at the beginning of this season, likely in the 3rd spot behind Millwood and Guthrie. Matusz saw some brief action towards the end of last year, pitching in 8 games and compiling a 4.63 ERA in 44+ innings with 38Ks. Drafted in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, Matusz made it as high as Double-A ball last year before the Orioles called him up. In the minors he had been tearing it up with sub-two ERAs and better than a 9K/9 ratio at 2 stops. It might take a season for this kid to get truly comfortable, but as a lefty with a low-90s fastball and excellent control, it won't be long before he's dominating.

Josh Bell (3B) - Drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 draft by the Dodgers and traded to the Orioles last year as part of the George Sherrill deal, Bell has blossomed into an exciting 3B with major potential to land a starting job with the Orioles here either this season or next. In 33 games at Double-A (post trade to the Orioles) he hit for a .289/.346/.570 line displaying the excellent power he had been developing within the Dodgers organization. This past off-season, the Orioles declined the option to Melvin Mora, paving a pretty clear path for Bell either later this season or next.

Jake Arrieta (RH SP) - Arrieta will be starting this season at Triple-A, but according to Baseball Prospectus, Arrieta possesses one of the best fastballs in the Orioles system, topping out around 96mph and consistently hitting 92-94mph. The problem with Arrieta, and what will likely prevent him from cracking the Majors until next season, is that his other pitches are not that great. This inevitably makes him predictable and in the 2nd half last year, he struggled at Triple-A. If he further develops his secondary pitches, he could become yet another of the young, exciting starters that the Orioles have.

Zach Britton (LH SP) - Drafted out of a Texas high-school in 2006, Britton pitched 140 innings at High-A last year with a 2.70ERA, 55BB and 131Ks. What scouts like about Britton is the action on his sinker, which some have said is the best sinker in the Orioles system. Britton is not likely to break into the Majors this year because he still has quite a bit of developing to do, but come 2011 or 2012, he could be a force.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:
When I think of the Orioles I think Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis...oh and Matt Wieters. So, in terms of these three 'faces of the franchise', Roberts is locked up through the 2013 season, Markakis is locked up through the 2014 season and Wieters is still in line for a rookie contract. In other words, the Orioles have locked up some of their core talent so far and can start building around that. The only notable names they'll lose moving forward through the next two season are Millwood, Tejada, and Gonzalez, all of whom they brought on this year. I could see them re-signing Gonzalez, but Millwood and Tejada are just place-holders until some younger talent develops a little further (Bell and another of their pitching prospects). This team is young and getting younger and I don't see them being active too active in the free agency/trade market until they have a little better understanding of what they have.

The Future of the Baltimore Orioles:
You know, having done this write-up, I'm feeling a little more optimistic about the Orioles. The biggest factor in my mind is the maturation of their young pitching talent. Between Matusz, Tillman, Bergesen, and Arrieta, they should have at least a couple of solid starters emerge and if three of the four pan out, they could be looking at a cheap, young rotation for the next few years. That would allow them to build around the offensive pieces they have (Wieters, Markakis, etc) and wah-lah, you have a contender in a couple of years. As I started off saying, however, their management has got to start spending a little coin to bring in those pieces that will compliment the young talent they already have. Without a financial commitment, it will be awfully hard to compete in this division. For Orioles fans' sake I hope that management steps up a little, this would be the perfect time.

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