A couple of weeks ago I went over the Toronto Blue Jays and their prospective chances for 2012 and beyond. In a division dominated by the big-three of Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay, even the talented and well stocked organization up north figures to have a tough time cracking the playoffs.
For one team, though, the hill to climb is much steeper. The Baltimore Orioles have finished in last place in each of the past four seasons, winning fewer than 70 games each year. Not since the heyday of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada have the Orioles been so much as a fourth place team. But the troubles run much deeper than talent. The Orioles are the epitome of a damaged franchise, with a principal owner so loathed in baseball circles, a management so dysfunctional, that their General Manager position has become one to turn down.
It wasn’t always like this. For the better part of the 30 years preceding the turn of the century, the Orioles were a model franchise. Decades of Hall of Famers, World Series titles, and divisional competency extended from the early days of Earl Weaver to the final years of Cal Ripken’s career. Even after Ripken’s retirement, after a certain right handed pitcher bolted for New York, the Orioles were a threat. Veterans like Tejada, home-grown stars like Bedard and Nick Markakis, kept them in the hunt. And as recently as three years ago, the Orioles’ organization ranked among the best in baseball. In the words of Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein:
Just a ridiculous amount of pitching, all of which could be big-league ready a year from now, turning one of the worst rotations in the major leagues into one of the best; and, oh yeah, this Wieters guy is pretty damned good as well.
And yet here we are, three years later, and the Orioles look hard pressed to pull a .500 record. The division has certainly improved. The Yankees and Red Sox are younger and better. The Rays are much better. The Blue Jays are much better. But it’s hard to imagine Baltimore competing in any division and that rotation is still, without a doubt, among the worst in all of baseball. What happened? The organization didn’t produce enough talent, that pitching didn’t pan out, and ultimately the Orioles are in much the same position they were three seasons ago – only now with an organization sorely lacking behind two high draft picks.
Is there any hope?
The Orioles’ offensive core is “good enough.” Maybe not good enough to win the East, or a Wild Card, but certainly good enough to put them in contention. Last season’s team .320 wOBA tied Baltimore with the Tampa Bay Rays for fifth in the American League, behind the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, and Royals. And while lacking in true top-end offensive talent, and lacking at a few key offensive position, the Orioles do have a lot of talent on that side of the ball.
Matt Wieters wasn’t the immediate success some were expecting, but he’s slowly progressed and by last season it was clear superstardom was on its way. Wieters hit just .262 last season, but when compared his 2010 sub-.250 batting average, it can viewed as nothing but a major improvement. He also doubled his previous career high in home runs, and got his slugging percentage up to .450. His second half tripple-slash line of .259/.336/.504 and 14 long balls out of the 25-year-old Gold Glove could be a sign of even greater things to come.
If Wieters was the Orioles best player last season, JJ Hardy wasn’t too far behind. The former All-Star shortstop in Milwaukee overcame a pair of disappointing seasons to hit 30 bombs while playing Gold Glove defense. While his batting eye trend is of some concern, his BABIP hints at further BA/OBP upside and his power and defensive ability provide elite value at an important position on the diamond. He’s signed to a reasonable three year contract at seven million dollars per season, taking him through his age 31 season with Baltimore.
The Orioles trio of immensely talented young position players at crucial defensive positions is rounded out by Adam Jones. Acquired from Seattle in the Bedard deal, Jones hasn’t quite lived up to the potential bestowed on him several seasons ago. With a schizophrenic walk rate and equally puzzling defensive production given his elegant center field, Jones has yet to develop into a true super star. At 26, it no longer seems likely he will. Nevertheless, 2011 was a big step forward. Jones hit .280 with 25 home runs. His OPS approached .800 and he also stole 12 bases. More walks and more consistent defense would be nice, but the other tools more than make up for his deficiencies.
If I told you I was going to give you three players to build your offensive and positional lineup around, and that these three players would be a shorstop, center fielder, and catcher, all in their mid-20s, all with above average defensive ability, who combined to hit 77 home runs last season, you’d think that lineup would turn out pretty damn good. Unfortunately for Baltimore, just about nothing else has gone right.
Nick Markakis, once a budding superstar in his own right, has fallen off the face of the earth. The player who, at 24, compared favorably to Matt Kemp, Carlos Beltran, and Vernon Wells, who at 25 hit .306 with an OPS of nearly .900 while playing Gold Glove defense, who before last season never once hit below .290, set career lows across the board last season, hitting just .284 with a .756 OPS and an fWAR of 2.2. It wasn’t an aberration. While Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs found something positive in his line last season, the “something positive” was simply the lack of further decline. He writes:
His numbers aren’t the sign of a breakout, but they may be a sign of a halt in the decline of his power. Here are his SLG and batted ball numbers since 2008:
2008: 0.491, 304 ft
2009: 0.453, 299 ft
2010: 0.436, 291 ft
2011: 0.406, 283 ft
That says it all. And yet, Markakis has it comparatively good. Brian Roberts, once one of the best leadoff men in the league, is all but done. He’s played 98 games at the Major League level over the past two seasons, hitting nearly 30-points below his career average over the span. His replacement? Robert Andino and his career .635 SLG. While Roberts looks ready to go heading into 2012, his durability is a major concern, and at 34, two years removed from a productive season, his productive ability has to be in question.
What about Mark Reynolds? Two years removed from an MVP-caliber season, Reynolds did lead the Orioles with 37 home runs last season. The Orioles lineup isn’t lacking in power but that doesn’t make Reynolds’ contribution any less valuable. What does make Reynolds less valuable is how much he sucks at just about everything else. His .222 batting average last season was a 24-point jump over 2010. He also had, statistically, the fourth worst defensive season among third baseman in Major League history. Butchers one through three changed positions within a year. Number five was a converted catcher. Number six is now a left fielder.
The logical course of action would have involved Reynolds moving over to first base, where he played 44 times last season and where his power would allow him the luxury of less defensive proficiency. Or perhaps allowing him to DH full-time. His bat would play. Instead, the Orioles spent this off-season signing a DH and trading for a first baseman. And while newly minted Oriole Wilson Betimit could spell Reynolds at third, Mark is still starting at the hot corner, and Betimit isn’t much of a fielder in his own right. Over at first, Chris Davis is… well a poor man’s Mark Reynolds.
With all the challenges that face Baltimore’s starting lineup, with all the poor decisions the Orioles have made over the past few seasons, and even with the failure of their former top prospect Josh Bell, that lineup can get the job done. The great Mr. Weaver wouldn’t approve of his former team’s on-base percentage, but with so much power packed into the starting lineup, they’ll still probably pick up their fare share of the proverbial three-run home runs. The problem is Baltimore doesn’t have the pitching to match this offensive fire power and short of the a lineup of Babe Ruth’s, it’s rarely a good idea to go to war with such an unbalanced roster. In the long run, while they have present offensive talent, it’s not built to last. Betimit, Reynolds, even JJ Hardy and Nick Markakis, are not rebuilding pieces. Jones is himself entering his late-20s. Even Matt Wieters wont be around forever. And with such a weak farm system, one has to wonder whether the Orioles of tomorrow will be able to hit like the Orioles of today.
No, the Orioles lineup is not of the home-grown variety. It’s reasonable to believe that, should Baltimore put together a competitive rotation, they can build around Wieters, Jones, and top prospect Manny Machado with external acquisitions. But with such a weak farm system and such desperate a pitching situation, is that even possible? The Orioles prospective 2012 rotation reads much like their 2009 or 2010 prospect lists and while the wildest hope of a fan base is to see nearly an entire generation of pitching prospects fill a starting rotation, in the case of Baltimore, this is more a result of bad pitching than good pitching prospects.
Brian Matusz, an early first round pick of Baltimore who shot through their system and put together a solid rookie season in 2010, pitched to a 10.69 ERA this past year before being sent to AAA. Now 25, he spent most the past 12-months below the Major League level. For the former fifth best prospect in baseball, this is a fall of almost inconceivable proportions. Expected to anchor the Orioles rotation of the next decade, Matusz is fighting for a Major League job.
Chris Tillman, once an even better prospect than Matusz, was acquired along with Jones in the Bedard trade. With true top of the rotation stuff and the command to match, Tillman tore through the minor leagues, reaching AA as a teenager and striking out more than a batter an inning in his first four minor league seasons. But since reaching the big leagues in late-2009, Tillman has been a mess. In 181 innings, he has a 5.58 big league ERA. His performance at AAA has also badly regressed.
Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton, second tier prospects in the Orioles system, didn’t fail quite as miserably last season. Arrieta made strides, striking out 60-plus% more batters per nine innings, keeping his walks at a reasonable rate, and pitching to an ERA of “only” 5.05. His performance in limited action at AAA was even more impressive. Meanwhile Zach Britton was the best of the bunch, with his 4.61 ERA and 4.02 FIP. His stat line compares favorably to that of Ivan Nova, and with a little luck his rookie year could have been just as impressive. But for a prospect who never figured to be more than a mid-rotation starter, and struggled to keep his ERA below five, expectations are being kept in check.
Outside of those four, the talent is even more barren. The wheels have come off the Brad Bergesen bus. After coming to the big leagues as a groundball pitcher with excellent control, Bergesen has transformed into a flyball pitcher with only above average control. In three seasons, his ERA has gone from 3.43, to 4.98, to 5.70. Tommy Hunter, acquired from Texas for Kojie Uehara last season, had a disappointing but certainly not surprising follow-up to a breakout 2010 season. His control is nice, but flyball pitchers who can’t miss bats don’t have long careers. It didn’t work in Arlington, and it wont work in Camden Yards.
In fact the Orioles best pitcher as of today might just be Jason Hammel, acquired for their “ace” Jeremy Guthrie this week, who’s pitched a barely league average ERA in three seasons with the Rockies. Hammel’s performance has been decidedly sub-par of late and the chances of him resurrecting his career in the AL East seem low. But a pair of FIPs in the 3.7s in 2009 and 2010, at Coors Field, might just mean something. Either way, he’s not the guy you want anchoring your rotation.
The Orioles rotation is filled to the brim with young, cost-controlled, seriously talented pitchers. All of the above mentioned pitchers were reasonably touted prospects, with the exception of Bergesen. None are over the age of 30. But the Orioles enter 2012 without a single starting pitcher on their roster in possession of an ERA under 4.00 this past season. And given the lack of talent in the Orioles high minor league system, help is not soon on the way.
What about that system? The Orioles have two all-world prospects. Manny Machado is one of the two best shortstop prospects in baseball, and should reach AA as a teenager – if not the higher levels of Baltimore’s system. Dylan Bundy entered the draft last year as probably the best High School pitching prospect in over a decade. Incredibly polished at 18, Bundy should rocket through Baltimore’s system. He has ace upside, and shouldn’t take too long to start reaching that ceiling. The problem is depth. After their top-two, Baltimore’s system is filled with question marks. Not enough talented questions marks. And certainly not question marks near contributing to the big league club.
The problem here is timing. Baltimore has the depth of young arms it needs at the big league level. It has the offensive fire power it needs, though that wont last forever. It has the superstar players it need, but that talent is still a few years away. And one wouldn’t be hard pressed to invision a scenario in which Baltimore’s offensive core disintegrates over the next few seasons, nothing much comes of their young arms, and Bundy and Machado reach the big leagues lone beacons of hope in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
If Baltimore is to be successful, it wont happen any time soon. That pitching still needs, and has, time to develop. The offense is where it needs to be now and the window isn’t infinite but with enough young talent there is a core to build around. Bundy and Machado are incredible talents. The key will be that group of pitchers. Matsuz, Tillman, Arrieta, and Britton. If 2011 (and to a lesser extent, 2010) prove to be outliers, if Baltimore can build a rotation around those guys, they’ll be in great shape. They’ll have a young, cheap rotation, a promising offensive core, a pair of 20-year-old superstars knocking on that cellar door, ready to challenge Toronto, and maybe even Tampa, New York, and Boston.
Four years from now things could look a hell of a lot different in Maryland. Yet we said the same thing four years ago. If Baltimore has shown us anything, it’s that a seemingly endless flood of young talent wont save a bad organization, and that development is a process requiring impossible levels of patience, and producing at times disappointment of the highest magnitude.
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