Thursday, July 31, 2008

Still Standing Pat

From the Trade Rumors Blog:

Camden Yards has been filled with rival scouts looking at closer George Sherrill and second baseman Brian Roberts in the month of July. But two hours before the deadline, Orioles GM Andy MacPhail did not believe he would make a trade.

The Orioles made it clear to other teams that they were looking for a shortstop in return in any deal for Sherrill, and very few teams were in position to even consider that request during the season -- and the Orioles probably also were hurt by the fact that there were so many left-handed relievers available.

Without mentioning which players he considered trading or what he asked for, MacPhail said, "The spectrum of teams that we could deal with just gets bigger in the offseason."

Deadline Day

Today is the trade deadline, and it doesn't look like the Orioles are going to make any moves. Still, George Sherrill's name has been repeatedly mentioned in rumors this morning on Even if the O's don't make any moves today, this has been a great week of rumors and deals: Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramirez, Jason Bay, Matt Kemp, Ken Griffey, Jr., Greg Maddux. That's a lot of All-Stars and Hall of Famers rumored to be/actually changing teams. Anecdotally, at least, this is the best trade deadline in a long-time.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Make 'em earn it

Following a report from Amber Theoharris that the Matt Wieters, Brad Bergeson and Hayden Penn all had excellent outings in the minors tonight, Buck Martinez addressed some of the mounting speculation that the Orioles will overhaul their rotation, in addition to plugging in Dennis Sarfate, with some of their top propects from Bowie. Martinez explained that MacPhail seems to be of the opinion that it makes no sense to rush the pitching prospects just because the big league rotation is in shambles. I agree.

Martinez went on to explain that he believes there is nothing wrong with allowing Wieters and Bergeson to dominate their levels for the remainder of the minor league season. Again, I agree, although with a few caveats. Neither Bergeson nor Wieters is exceptionally young for their level, and the difference between AA and AAA is relatively small. If these prospects were enjoying this level of success in Frederick, they should be advanced to offer new developmental challenges. Since they have already reached the upper levels of the minors, they can be held at a given level for a full season, unless the organization deems them ready to contribute at the big league level. "Ready" obviously has many considerations, from purely baseball to service time and roster construction, and, as a team with no playoff hopes, the Orioles should resist the temptation to jump Bergeson to the rotation when the Orioles need a fifth starter next week.

As for Hayden Penn, I cannot believe he is still just 23 years old; we've seen him in an Orioles uniform since 2005, back in just his third professional season. At the time, he was a hot-shot prospect, having begun his career in Bluefield in 2003 and then jumping all the way to Bowie in 2004. In 2005, he made his major league debut despite never pitching in AAA. Things did not go well: 38.3 IP, 6.34 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, and more walks (21) than strikeouts (18). He pitched great in AAA in 2006, and terribly in the majors; 2007 was a season lost to injury. His 2008 season got off to a slow start, but reports have him pitching much better of late in Norfolk. As someone who has had success in the minors, it might be time to give him another shot in Baltimore if the player development department believes he is capable of getting big league hitters out. At age 23, Penn still has plenty of time to develop, but I fear he may be yet another top pitching prospect previous regimes failed to develop. Though just one of many cautionary tales, Penn's rapid ascent and early big league struggles give MacPhail ample reason to handle the new crop of prospects cautiously.

Trade Talks Heating Up

Baseball Prospectus reports the Orioles are active on many fronts:
  • The Dodgers may be interested in Brian Roberts
  • The Marlins are asking after Ramon Hernandez
  • The Phillies have inquired about George Sherrill

The Orioles would probably ask for Jason Donald (SS) from the Phils, and that's a pretty steep price for a left-handed middle reliever. The Dodgers are known for being cautious on trading prospects, though they have lots of young players worth asking for in return. No idea who the Marlins might be talking about for Hernandez, but the organization is pretty deep in young pitching.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Roch Kubatko

Roch Kubatko, of the famous (infamous?) Roch Around the Clock blog, is leaving the Baltimore Sun, and he says he's taking his blog with him. Much of why his blog is so popular is that he has reporter access to the team and can use that access to provide scoops and insider info unavailable to most of the online community. It will be interesting to see how his blog evolves now that it is no longer tied to the "old media" of the Sun. He'll still have his cell phone, so he can still work the phone lines, and he's very well liked by the PR staff of the O's. If he fails to (or chooses not to) land with another traditional media outlet, I hope the O's will still renew his press pass. This will be an interesting test for the O's media access policies in the age of the internet. I know Roch from my days with the Orioles and I wish him the best.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Adam Jones

After a leadoff double from Vlad Guerrero, Adam Jones just tracked down a Torii Hunter fly ball to right center. It was a routine fly ball and not very deep, so there was virtually no risk of Guerrero, who looked far from fleet on that double, tagging up and heading to third. Jones, though, made the catch with textbook precision: he took an extra four steps or so to get behind the ball, made the catch coming through the play and delivered a one-hop throw to third. I like Adam Jones.

Pitch Counts

There was a fantastic article from Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus this week regarding pitch counts, abusing young pitchers and veterans throwing more than 100 pitches in an outing. Spurred by the second time this month the Mets removed Johan Santana with a reasonable pitch count after the 8th inning only to have the bullpen blow a lead to the Phillies, Sheehan concludes that today's game has taken a noble idea--limiting the abuse to young pitchers--too far and that nearly all of today's starters are babied.

As anyone who regularly watches the Orioles knows, Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne love to discuss just how many pitches Palmer used to throw when he was pitching for the Orioles. It's one of my pet peeves when former starters use the workloads they endured in the 1970s to justify the need for today's starters to go deeper into games, but the point does have some merit. The money quote from Sheehan:
The solution here is fairly simple: forget that anyone ever mentioned the
number "100." That number isn’t meaningful in any sense. If you really want to
use numbers to guide you, here are two: 25 and 120. Once a pitcher is 25 years
old, you can generally consider him physically mature enough to handle a full
workload. A full workload for a mature, healthy pitcher should include starts of
up to 120 pitches without inviting injury risk. Usage beyond that mark—actually,
121 pitches in the PAP^3 framework—do raise the risk, but that risk can be
measured against the context of the situation. Flags fly forever, and the
pursuit of one does sometimes outweigh the risks involved.
I'm all for keeping young pitchers healthy; the Orioles have been especially bad at this over the past decade, and I hope the MacPhail regime is thoroughly evaluating the pitcher development programs in place throughout the organization to determine if there was a systemic failure that led to so many injuries. However, Sheehan is right that many veterans could throw more pitches without increasing the risk of injury.

Keep in mind, though, that Sheehan is looking strictly at injury risk and not at performance. It's popular to say that Jeremy Guthrie--especially since he's the only effective starter for the Orioles--should be throwing more pitches; he has just five starts where he's thrown more than 110 pitches, and he has a number of very effective starts where he's failed to surpass the 100 pitch mark. However, he has a very noticeable split for OPS against for pitches 0 to 100 and pitches 101+. If he's not effective beyond a certain point, Trembley is right to remove Guthrie and try to preserve a victory, regardless of whether or not an additional 15 pitches will raise the injury risk. Just don't tell that to Jim Palmer.

Things could be worse...

We could be Dodgers fans. The Dodgers have a chance to win now, a team with lots of young talent, and a front office with no clue what it's doing. Keith Law is reporting that the Dodgers are looking to trade third base prospect Andy LaRoche for relief help. The Orioles should see if the Dodgers would rather have Chad Bradford or George Sherrill than a potential long-term answer at third base.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Trade Deadline Approaches

Now that I'm back from vacation, I'm caught up at work and my Google Reader has been restored to a manageable situation, I can finally get back into posting my thoughts on the Orioles. Since today is July 25, the trade deadline is less than a week away. The Orioles are 48-53, have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs, and since entering June 29 three games above .500, are just 7-15 over their past 22 games. This should force a reality check on the fan base and allow the front office to continue with the plan to rebuild this team into a legitimate contender.

In recent weeks, several different forums have requested fan input on what the Orioles should do for the remainder of the year. Many answers were predictably trade our crappy players for prospects, sign Nick Markakis to a long-term deal, sign (or trade) Brian Roberts, etc. Now that we're less than a week away, I'm ready to explore the question in depth. What should the Orioles (realistically) do from now until their final game on September 28?

The first step is to realistically assess whether or not the 2009 team can compete in a division that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. Unlike, say, the Giants, who have the luxury of rebuilding in a division where 81 wins could very well mean the playoffs, the Orioles are faced with the reality of needing 93 or more victories for a playoff berth. Since 1996, the first full season after the strike, only the 1996 Yankees (with 92) and 2000 Yankees (with 87) have won the division with fewer than 95 wins. In that same time span, the 1996 Orioles won the wild card with 88 wins, and in subsequent years it took 96, 92, 94, 91, 102, 99, 95, 98, 95, 95 and 94 wins to win the AL wild card. The 2008 Orioles currently have the run differential of a 49-52 team, and predicts the team to finish at 76-86; Baseball Prospectus, using their PECOTA adjusted standings, pegs the Orioles for 74.4 wins. The Orioles will need to win 17 to 19 games more in 2009 than in 2008 to have a shot at the playoffs, assuming that they actually finish the season like the predictions and not like previous seasons. Regardless, this is a team that will need to make significant advances to be competitive.

Without getting too bogged down in a position-by-position analysis, where could the Orioles expect to improve next season? The most obvious answer is catcher: Matt Wieters (who is currently batting .345/.427/.560 with four home runs in 86 at-bats at Bowie) will be the starting catcher next season, and all indications are that he is capable of producing at the Major League level in a big way. He'll be a significant upgrade from Ramon Hernandez and his .244/.291./409 line. Otherwise, the Orioles have five offensive players worth keeping around, on a purely production based basis: Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Aubrey Huff and Luke Scott. The production that Kevin Millar, Melvin Mora and whoever is playing shortstop offer are very replaceable. Millar will be a free agent at the end of the season, and I sincerely doubt the club brings him back, at least in a role that will offer significant playing time. Unfortunately, Melvin Mora is set to make $9 million next season ($8 million base salary plus $1 million buyout on 2010 option), so any upgrade at third base involves benching a highly paid player, something teams are traditionally loathe to do despite the sunk cost of the investment.

One popular option to upgrade the offense next season is to sign Mark Teixeira this offseason. As a native Marylander and a career .285/.386/.501 hitter, he has long been the object of Oriole fan desires. Unfortunately, his pricetag may be upwards of $150 million for a six-year contract that would take him through his age 35 season, plus the draft pick forfeited by his signing. While Teixeira would certainly be attractive in an Orioles jersey and I'm not de facto opposed to his signing, the club is also likely to receive better value for that $150 million by spreading it over several other needs.

The Orioles most pressing need is a shortstop; they have not had a Major League quality player on the roster all season, and there are no prospects in the system currently. Somehow, the team will need to acquire someone for the position for next season. Rafael Furcal is an intriguing free agent name, but his age (30) and recent injury history suggests extreme caution, and I doubt he's a risk the front office would be willing to take. Orlando Cabrera is probably the next best available, but he's 33 and hitting .265/.325/.354 for the White Sox. My guess is that the Orioles bring in a veteran who can play defense but offers almost no offensive contribution to serve as stopgap for 2009, and that MacPhail's top priority is identifying a prospect in another organization that can be added via trade, much like Adam Jones became this past offseason's target. The lack of organizational depth up the middle is really an Achilles heel because it complicates efforts to trade Brian Roberts, who is the O's most marketable trade chip. If Roberts is traded for a shortstop, the club would then face the same dilemma at second base.

One possible solution would be to target a leftfielder and allow said new leftfielder, Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff to split time between first base, designated hitter and left field. Pat Burrell, Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn are all names that will be mentioned this offseason, but each comes with a hefty price tag and is not without warts of their own. Plus, Nolan Reimold is batting .288/.360/.497 with 17 home runs in 382 at-bats at Bowie, and he likely deserves every chance to win a roster spot, either through a September call-up or in spring training.

In examining the offense, replacing Kevin Millar with Nolan Reimold and Ramon Hernandez with Matt Wieters would provide upgrades and save money. That could free up the Orioles to trade Luke Scott or Aubrey Huff, if a suitor could be found, and perhaps still make a run at a free agent acquisition like Mark Teixeira. If the O's could somehow acquire a Major League shortstop, they could potentially field an offense that is much better than even this year's surprising group.

So while scoring runs may not be a major source of concern going into next season, preventing them likely will be. Jeremy Guthrie is the staff ace, but that's simply by default; he's a valuable starter, but is certainly not the frontline starter the team would like to have anchor the rotation. Daniel Cabrera continues to frustrate, though at least he can eat up some innings. Radhames Liz and Garret Olson are suffering lots of growing pains, Brian Burres is not a long-term answer for any pitching staff, and Adam Loewen is going to give hitting a try since he could never stay healthy as a pitcher. As for the minor leagues, the rotation in Norfolk is filled with non-prospects and the perpetually frustrating Hayden Penn, who is 4-6 with a 5.17 ERA and 1.51 WHIP. There is much more excitement about the rotation in Bowie, however. Twenty-year old Chris Tillman is 7-3 with a 3.11 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 92.2 IP, though with a needs-improvement 48 walks. Twenty-four year old Jason Berken is 8-3 with a 3.67 ERA, 91 strikeouts and 27 walks in 110.1 IP. Twenty-three year old David Hernandez 5-4 with a 2.63 ERA, 129 strikeouts and 55 walks in 109.1 IP. Those three arms would seem to be legitimate prospects, and a fourth, Bradley Bergensen (12-3, 2.91 ERA, 55 K, 20 BB, 108.1 IP) is also producing solid results, though with red flags because of a low strikeout rate. If Matt Albers and Troy Patton can recover from their injuries, the Orioles will have a number of arms to compete for the rotation. While caution must always be exercised when projecting contributions from young pitchers, it is very possible that pitching help is on the way, if not in 2009 than in 2010.

In the bullpen, the best possible strategy has seemed to be accumulate quality arms as cheaply as possible and hope seven of them can form a well-balanced bullpen. Chris Ray will be back next year, and it would be great if Dennis Sarfate could take a step forward with his control. Otherwise, hopefully the current collection in the majors and minors will produce a few guys capable of contributing next year.

So where does this leave the team for the rest of 2008? Efforts should be made to trade Aubrey Huff, Kevin Millar and Ramon Hernandez. While Huff is a solid hitter, he's also expensive and could provide significant value to a team in search of a lefthanded bat for the stretch run. He is under contract for next season, and if the Orioles were willing to eat a significant amount of money, he could bring back some value in return. Millar has a reputation as a great clubhouse leader, and perhaps a contender would find that trait useful in a right-handed bat off the bench. He has minimal value to the Orioles in the short-term and his long-run value is nil. Using the see what sticks bullpen theory, I would try and acquire a bullpen arm with some upside for him. Hernandez holds no long-term value to the Orioles and is a free agent at the end of the season. I do not know if he will bring a draft-pick when he leaves in the offseason, but if he will not, the Orioles would do well to trade him now; I doubt they'll find any takers, however.

Those are easy decisions; more difficult are what to do with the more marketable players, Brian Roberts and George Sherrill. Sherrill would be desirable for a contender; teams nearly always need more help in the bullpen. However, there seems to be a plethora of quality lefthanders available on the trade market this year, driving down the price MacPhail could hope to extract from a trade partner. MacPhail may well decide that the prospects that could be had in return for Sherrill, who is still under team control until 2011, are not worth the cost of losing more games this season and needing to find another lefthander in the bullpen for next season.

Brian Roberts is in a similar situation, though under contract through the end of the 2009 season. No team that is out of the playoff race would be likely to deal for Roberts during the season; that leaves the contenders as possible trade partners. Let's look at each, first in the NL:

NY Mets - Just signed Luis Castillo to a three-year contract
Phillies - some guy named Chase Utley
Marlins - Dan Uggla
Cubs - this offseason's rumored Brian Roberts destination, they could never offer enough to entice MacPhail; have since dealt nearly all the players rumored to be involved a potential trade
Brewers - Rickie Weeks and Ray Durham
Cardinals - could use a second baseman, but have never been mentioned as a possible destination
Diamondbacks - Orlando Hudson
Dodgers - Jeff Kent, though Roberts would be an upgrade

Red Sox - Dustin Pedroia
Yankees - Robinson Cano
Rays - Akinori Iwamura
White Sox - rumored to be interested in Roberts, though talks haven't progressed very quickly
Twins - Alexi Casilla
Tigers - Placido Polanco
Angels - Howie Kendrick

Only three teams might realistically be interested in Roberts: the Cubs, White Sox and Cardinals. One tried, failed and moved on, one has apparently contacted MacPhail recently but failed to impress with their offer, and the other seems to be much more focused on acquiring bullpen help. Thus, any Roberts trade is very unlikely. But if Roberts was a hot commodity, should the Orioles trade him? As a rebuilding team, MacPhail should be listening to nearly any offer a team brings; no one is untouchable, but Roberts is very popular with the fans and a rare commodity: a lead-off hitter and very good offensive performer at a premium defensive position. However, he is 30 years old and only under contract for one more season. He has expressed frustration in the past with the Orioles inability to compete; he may decide that he'd much rather sign with another organization than re-up with the Orioles, even for more money. Or, his asking price could exceed what the Orioles are willing to pay and the club will receive only draft picks in return. The team is already in dire need of one middle infielder; trading Roberts would mean they'd need two. Still, as we've established above, they are very unlikely to compete in 2009, and Roberts' status as an Oriole for 2010 and beyond is iffy, at best. If the right deal comes along, the Orioles should trade Brian Roberts.

Since there is little than can be done in the next week to upgrade this team for next year and beyond between now and the trade deadline, any improvement will be of the much less exciting variety. We'll take a look at those projects and decisions next.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Runners in Scoring Position

  • Melvin Mora stranded 11 baserunners yesterday. As the Baltimore Sun notes, Mora had been the Orioles leading hitter with RISP, batting at a .355 clip. For those who follow any of the baseball research that's been done in the last decade or so, it was entirely predictable that Mora would eventually start stranding more runners. Why? Because his batting average in all situations is .233. I've never seen any research that concludes clutch hitting is an identifiable, repeatable skill, despite Gary Thorne's and Kevin Millar's assertions to the contrary. Besides, if a player really did get better in the clutch, what does that say about his concentration the rest of the time?
  • Considering that Terry Francona is likely managing a playoff team this year and the Red Sox, if applicable, would really like to have home field advantage in the World Series, I'd say there is almost no chance that O's fans will get to enjoy that George Sherrill All-Star Game appearance. Too bad one of the Orioles real All-Stars--Brian Roberts or Nick Markakis--wasn't selected instead.
  • I'm on vacation on the west coast this week, so any postings will be few and far between.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rick Maese Gets It

Joe Morgan does not. While Morgan is right that the minor leagues are there to help the big league team win, he seems to ignore the fact that the Orioles have a time horizon beyond September 30, 2008. I'm glad we have Andy MacPhail running the team, and not Joe Morgan.

Perhaps the most astute observation Maese makes is that the Orioles have finally figured out that you can't contend with quick fixes and interim patches:
What's some what refreshing about Morgan's comments is that finally this season such lunacy isn't validated by the Orioles' front office. In years past, the Orioles did exactly what Morgan prescribed. They fooled themselves into believing they were on the verge of being relevant. Thankfully, for the first time in a decade, Morgan might subscribe to the absurdity, but the Orioles do not.

The Orioles have finally begun the long, painful process of rebuilding; the last decade was just long and painful with no rebuilding. While this year's team has enjoyed some surprising success at the big league level, let's not lose sight of the fact that a .500 record in 2008 won't be nearly as sweet as a playoff bid in 2010 or 2011. Let the rebuilding continue.

Rays vs. O's

With the Tampa Bay Rays rapid ascent from the cellar to first place, many O's fans and commentators are taking a look at how the Orioles can apply the blueprint the Rays used to build what looks to be a long-term contender in the big money division of the AL East. Peter Schmuck is the latest.

I agree with the crux of his argument: the Rays stockpiled lots and lots of young talent until they were ready to compete, and the O's are on track to do the same. Still, Schmuck seems to be torn between keeping the 2008 team together and continuing on the rebuilding track. He notes that "the Orioles have made some major progress rekindling local interest in the team and improving the baseball-wide credibility of the organization in advance of the next free-agent signing period," which is true. Why would that perception change if the Orioles become sellers by the end of the month?

I don't think that the Orioles are going to be exceptionally active in the next free agent signing period. Sure, there will be big prizes like Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but each of those guys is likely to cost upwards of $15 to $20 million per season for perhaps six years or more, huge sums that I think the Orioles can better spend by investing in long-term deals for their homegrown young players, overseas scouting (anyone else notice that international signing day came and went with nary a peep from the Orioles?) and the draft.

The merits of a Teixeira signing can be debated ad nauseum, but the fact that remains that just adding Teixeira will not remake this team into a contender. Shortstop, third base, starting pitcher and relief pitcher will all need to be upgraded as well (I'm assuming that Wieters will upgrade the catching from within). The best way for the O's to contend next season may very well be for MacPhail to trade Huff, Roberts and Sherrill in the coming weeks. That was the plan before the season, and nothing I've seen from this team changes the situation materially.

And, as Schmuck notes, MacPhail has earned the trust to make the decisions regarding the future of the O's. Let's hope everyone keeps that in mind if the Orioles start to lose and some of the best players are sold off before the trade deadline.

The Value of a Single Player

It's not related to the Orioles, but Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus broke down the CC Sabathia trade today. Joe's analysis is typically fantastic, but I especially liked how his column today applies the basics of how run differential affects wins and losses:

The Brewers have 73 games left beginning tonight. Throw in the All-Star break and what that could mean, and Sabathia is probably looking at 15 or 16 starts for the Brewers. Let’s say 15; that means the Brewers have traded for 105 innings in which Sabathia will allow 35 runs. That replaces 15 starts in which the Brewers could have expected about 85 innings and 50 runs. The 20 innings difference would probably be filled by back end pitchers allowing at least what McClung and Suppan did, so add another dozen runs, for 62.

By trading for Sabathia, the Brewers have probably saved themselves between 25 and 30 runs over the course of the rest of the season, making them between two and three wins better than they would have been without the deal. The marginal value of those wins could be astronomical, as there’s an excellent chance the Brewers will reach the postseason by that margin or less, and a postseason appearance pays off in direct and indirect revenues for years. No matter how it actually turns out for the team, this deal was the right move at the right time for Doug Melvin.

Even though the Brewers replaced a replacement level pitcher with an true number one starter, they are only two or three wins better over the course of a half season. That's an important thing to keep in mind as the Orioles approach the trade deadline.

A Dempsey Gem

Rick Dempsey just said Brian Roberts was safe attempting to steal second by "milliliters of a second." How do we get this guy off the air? I try my best to appreciate the perspective Dempsey brings to the booth, but he is a terrible analyst. I'd offer to live blog all the terrible things he'll say tonight, but if forced to listen to him any longer my head might explode and I've put the tv on mute.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Road Trippin'

The Orioles have an off day today as they travel to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays in a three game set. Then it's on to Boston for three more before the All Star break. I can't help but feel that this week is going to be exceptionally important for the O's.

On the morning of June 27, the Orioles were coming off a tough road swing through Milwaukee and Chicago where they split six games, winning once against the Brewers and twice against the Cubs. Since then, however, the Orioles have dropped two out of three to the lowly Nationals, split a four game set with the Royals and fallen twice more to the Rangers. But more important than their 4-6 mark in the last 10 games is what has happened to the pitching staff:
  • George Sherrill has been quite shaky; in his last four outings, he has allowed a game winning home run against the Nationals, a game tying homer against the Royals, two inherited runners to score before closing out a win over the Royals, and two hits, two walks and two inherited runners to score against the Rangers.
  • Adam Loewen is likely headed to the DL again, and despite my bullish sentiments from last week, the Orioles may very well never get anything of value out of Loewen; he just cannot stay healthy.
  • Jamie Walker hit the DL on June 30.
  • Matt Albers hit the DL on June 26.

For a team that relies on Garrett Olson (5.1 innings per start), Radhames Liz (4.2 innings per start) and Brian Burres (5.2 innings per start) for 60% of its starting rotation, losing three quality bullpen arms is a huge blow. All of a sudden, what was once a strength--the bullpen--is a significant question mark. Luminaries such as Fernando Cabrera (career 4.82 ERA), Lance Cormier (career 5.57 ERA) and Greg Aquino (career 5.35 ERA) will be called upon to pitch big innings ahead of Jim Johnson (just 25 strikeouts in 48.0 IP, 19 walks, yet to allow a home run), Dennis Sarfate (43 strikeouts in 39.2 IP, but an incredible 34 walks), Chad Bradford (just 11 strikeouts in 32.1 IP) and Sherrill (22 walks and 5 home runs allowed in 38.2 IP).

Looking at that list, it is highly unlikely the Orioles bullpen will show the same amount of success in the second half of the season that it did in the first. Sooner or later, someone is going to hit a home run off Johnson, the walks are going to cost Sarfate, and Bradford will be undone by his inability to get strikeouts. As we've seen with Sherrill in the past week, relievers who allow a significant number of baserunners walk a fine line between "making things interesting" and costing the club wins.

Between the starting pitching and the relief pitching, the Orioles seem poised to give up quite a few runs for the remainder of the season. Still, they have a team ERA of 4.42 (league ERA 4.16) and at 44-43, they have performed right in line with their run differential (+1), showing that their offense has been above average at scoring runs so far (4.7 runs/game). Considering that they have gotten almost zero production from short stop, third base, and catcher and barely any production from first base, how have they done so? For starters, the team has been signficantly better with runners in scoring position: .277/.365/.431 with RISP vs. .261/.328/.426 in all situations. There is likely to be some regression to the mean in the second half. On the plus side, Adam Jones is improving with nearly every at-bat, Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis should have been All-Stars, and Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff, if not outstanding players, are at least professional hitters. Fewer at-bats for Jay Payton, improved production from Ramon Hernandez and Melvin Mora, and a more optimal lineup mean that scoring fewer runs isn't necessarily a given.

Still, the O's face six tough games this week, are given a three day reprieve, and then play 14 games in 14 days against Detroit (20-8 since June 7, though most of that damage came against the National League), Toronto and their dangerous pitching, the first-place Anaheim Angels and the arch-rival Yankees. At that point, the Orioles have an off day on July 31, the non-waiver trading deadline. Will the club remain intact? As the O's face a difficult month ahead, short on pitching and long on quality opponents, they'll face many tough decisions: what to do about Brian Roberts? Aubrey Huff? George Sherrill? Is this team capable of making a run at .500? It's been a fun three months, but the I'm afraid that things are about to get a whole lot more difficult in the four weeks ahead.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Say it Ain't So!

The Baltimore Sun is reporting the Orioles are interested in David Eckstein. While Eckstein can at least get on base (.360 OBP) and his VORP is positive (+7.1), he has no power (.348 SLG). And, more importantly for the O's, he is a below average defender at shortstop. Range factor isn't a perfect stat, but his 3.85 RFg is worse than the league average 3.95. As I detailed last week, if the team determines it can't live without a short-term fix at the position, the Orioles should probably just focus on getting the best possible defender for shortstop. Plus, any price for David Eckstein is too high for a team focused on rebuilding.

I've got lots of family in town this weekend, and we're heading to the game today. I'll post if I can, but wanted to make sure my thoughts on Eckstein were posted. Happy 4th to everyone.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Adam Loewen Returns

Adam Loewen returned to the big leagues last night and tossed two scoreless innings. The 6' 5", 24-year old Loewen has continuously struggled with injuries in his young career, and as also been hurt by the initial contract he signed with the club back in 2003. After being drafted in 2002, Loewen held out until the last minute (literally) and signed just a week before the 2003 draft. To get a deal done, the O's gave Loewen--a 19-year old pitcher with one year of junior college experience--a Major League contract. Since he received that Major League deal, he had to be added to the 40-man roster and optioned to the minors, meaning he only had four seasons of development before he need be on the 25-man roster or the Orioles would be forced to expose Loewen to waivers.

2003, Option Year 1: 7 starts in short-season Aberdeen. He pitched great but only threw 23 innings, striking out 25 and walking just 9.
2004, Option Year 2: 21 starts (plus one relief appearance), of which 19 were made in low-A Delmarva. He pitched a total of 93 innings, striking out 85 (good), walking 67 (bad), and allowing 84 hits.
2005, Option Year 3: 27 starts (plus one relief appearance) at high-A Frederick. Healthy the entire season, he was stretched to 142 innings, maintained his high strikeout rate (9.25 K/9 IP) and improved his walk rate marginally (from 6.48 BB/9 IP in 2004 to 5.45 BB/9 IP in 2005).
2006, Option Year 4: 8 starts (plus one relief appearance) at AA Bowie, 3 starts at AAA Ottawa. He combined to throw 71 innings, strike out 76 and walk just 29 (3.43 BB/9 IP), showing that, when healthy, he very much had the talent to be a top of the rotation starter.

All of which is a typical progression for a young pitcher learning to command his pitches. Had he not received that Major League contract, Loewen likely would have begun 2006 in Bowie. Instead, at age 22 and with just 329 minor league innings and two full seasons of mediocre results under his belt, the Orioles were forced to bring him to Baltimore. Predictably, he struggled with his command, walking 62 in just 112.1 IP. But he kept that high strikeout rate (7.85 K/9 IP).

In 2007, Loewen again struggled with his command, walking 26 in just 30.1 IP before suffering a season ending stress fracture in his pitching arm. Attempting to come back this season, Loewen is was no better at throwing strikes; he walked 15 in just 18.1 2008 innings before hitting the DL. On his rehab assignment, he pitched in nine different games, totaling 9.2 IP and he walked just two. In his first appearance since returning to Baltimore, he walked just one last night.

Because great things were expected of Loewen, and it seems as if he's been around for a very long time, many fans have grown impatient. It's important to remember that Loewen is just 24, and has missed virtually all of the past two seasons with injuries. Over his first five professional seasons, Loewen made very real progress in learning to command his pitches against progressively better competition. Since then, however, he hasn't pitched enough or been healthy enough to draw any conclusions. The Orioles need to be extra-careful with Loewen this season and hope that the arm problems that have plagued him in his early career can be fixed. If he can get on the mound with regularity, I'm convinced the good results will come.

UPDATE: reports Adam Loewen is feeling good after last night's outing.