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.

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