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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Orioles Season Preview

The Orioles had a very busy off-season and may very well not be finished yet. Trades of Eric Bedard and Miguel Tejada have contributed to the replenishing of the farm system, netting ten players and prospects to a severely young-talent dry organization. Several of those players are competing for spots on the 25-man roster. And rumors abound every day about whether Brian Roberts will start the season with the Orioles or Cubs.

New pitching coach Rick Kranitz has a style that caters to the individual pitchers strengths instead of the "one way" approach of former coach Leo Mazzone. And the front office is undergoing an overhaul, with team President Andy MacPhail adding 27 year-old Matt Klentak as Director of Baseball Operations. It'll be a long summer on the field for the O's, but at least the team is making moves to be competitive in the future, rather than signing retreads and free agents to plug holes in a sinking ship.

Let's take a look at the Orioles position-by-position as spring training cuts have already started.

First Base: Expect to see Kevin Millar log the bulk of innings at first. Sad as that may be, he's under contract and will probably lead the team in OBP. Scott Moore has seen some at bats there in the spring in hopes of adding some positional flexibility. Moore will probably be the back-up corner infield guy, starting twice a week to give Millar and Mora some rest.

Second Base: Brian Roberts, until the trade. There's just no way this doesn't get done. Once he's gone, it'll either be whoever they get back (Eric Patterson maybe) or Brandon Fahey full-time.

Shortstop: Here's where it gets dicey. Right now, Luis Hernendez is getting almost ALL of the playing time in Florida and proving beyond a doubt that he's not a major league player. If the O's don't get a shortstop in the Roberts deal (Ronny Cedeno?) they might have to look elsewhere, because 600 at bats combined from Hernandez and Fahey will be disastrous.

Third Base: Melvin Mora is the incumbent, and until he gets hurt, he's start all but one night a week. Mike Costanzo and the aforementioned Scott Moore are both hitting in spring training, but Mora has a lock on this job.

Left Field: Luke Scott, obtained in the Tejada deal, is the starter. He could surprise and flourish since Houston never wanted to commit to him full-time. He had 18 homers in 369 at-bats last season, and his left/right splits are negligible.

Center Field: Adam Jones. He was the jewel of the Bedard trade, and the most impactful player the Orioles picked up in the off-season. The guy has been compared to Eric Davis talent-wise. He's above average defensively as well. He will be fun to watch this summer.

Right Field: The cornerstone of the franchise, Nick Markakis. He elevated every aspect of his game last year, hitting .300/23/112/18 with gold glove caliber defense. He's the real deal, and only 24. If the O's make a financial commitment to him, the outfield at Camden Yards looks pretty solid for a while.

Reserve Outfielder(s): Jay Gibbons, Jay Payton, Tike Redman. Take your pick. None are going to be very productive. Gibbons misses the first 15 games due to his PED suspension. Payton is rumored to the Cubs with Roberts. That would be a blessing. Redman performed admirably but way over his head last September.

Designated Hitter: Ah, Aubrey Huff. He sure made himself look like an idiot over the winter. The O's are straddled with another year of his not hitting before Memorial Day, then hitting just enough to justify his existence. Declining home run totals the last five (!) years shows his skills are eroding, and if Moore or Costanza hit enough, Huff may not make it through the season with the O's.

Catcher: Ramon Hernandez and Guillermo Quiroz. Hernandez reported to camp in much better shape than he did last year. Hopefully Quiroz will provide enough time off to keep Hernandez healthy and productive enough to entice someone to make a deal for him at the trading deadline, when we may get a taste of future all-star Matt Wieters.

Starting Pitchers: Yuck. The rotation looks like this right now: Steve Traschel, Jeremy Guthrie, Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera and ???. Loewen will miss his start tomorrow though, so things could shake up considerably. The O's lost Troy Patton, obtained in the Tejada deal, to labrum surgery and they've already assigned Hayden Penn to the minors. So that leaves Matt Albers, another Houston transplant, Garrett Olson, Brain Burress, Radhames Liz and Lance Cormier in the competition for the #5 and maybe #4 if Loewen is injured and not just sore. Not pretty.

Relief Pitching: George Sherrill is the closer. He came over in the Bedard deal, and was absolutely killer last year against righties and lefties on a situational basis. Can he close full-time? We'll find out. Chris Ray will miss most of the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford will be the primary set-up/situational guys in the back of the pen. They are both better suited for this work that the heavy loads they has to carry last year.

Dennis Sarfate is a hard-throwing RHP who is out of options and Randor Bierd is a Rule V draft pick the O's think can help, so both stand a good chance to make this pen. That leaves Greg Aquino, a former closer for Arizona, Rocky Cherry and the losers from the starter competition to fight for the long-man spots in the pen. Tough way to make a MLB living. James Hoey will most likely start in AAA and be ready the first time someone goes down. He was dominant in AA last year but struggled with location in Baltimore, not uncommon for rookies. But he's got a cannon.

Coaching: What kind of big league manager will Dave Trembley be with the full-time gig? Who knows. He's been preaching the "pitching and defense" mantra all spring, but is that because he just doesn't have the mashers? He's known as a teacher from his time in the minors, and you figure he'll have to have patience this season, especially with the pitchers.

New pitching coach Rick Kranitz come to Baltimore with all kinds of accolades from his time with the Marlins. He allows the pitchers to pitch to their strengths and tries to refine through mechanics instead of preaching time-tested methods. Not saying Mazzone was to blame for ALL the O's pitching woes, but some people just learn in different ways.

Terry Crowley returns as the hitting coach, and I just don't understand why. He's a nice guy and has been around forever, but the Orioles have been in the lower half of the pack in scoring for several years now, and although the O's have been through four pitching coaches in six years, he remains. Must be his pre-game botche-ball games.

Outlook: Two weeks ago I would have predicted the O's to lose about 90 games based on all projections. With injuries to Patton and now possibly Loewen, and the prospect of 600 at-bats from Luis Hernandez, the Orioles could very well face triple-digit losses. Expect MacPhail to deal anyone over 30 by the trading deadline that has any kind of value, even to bring just organizational depth over. The off-season deals brought some good talent, including pitching prospect Chris Tillman, but they have a long, long way to go before this organization can be competitive again.

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