Friday, April 3, 2009

2009 Orioles Season Preview

With Opening Day just 72 hours away (!), it’s time for the 2009 Orioles Season Preview. Most prognosticators look for the Orioles to win roughly 75 games, a 7-win improvement from last year’s 68-93 mark, and a 2-win bump from the Orioles Pythagorean record of 73-88. Given that the Orioles match-up with the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees—who just might be the three best teams in the American League—a whopping 54 times, I think that final record might be a bit optimistic but that the talent assessment is accurate. I don’t know if any research has been done on strength of schedule as it relates to under/over performing Pythagorean record, but I definitely think it is possible the Orioles will wind up on the losing side for more than their fair share of those intra-divisional match-ups.

As we know, the single best predictor of a team’s final record is its run differential, and there are two ways to attack that number: allow fewer runs and score more runs. Let’s look at each in turn.

First up, run prevention:
1) The Orioles starting pitching is going to be really, really bad.

In 2008, Orioles starters racked up a 5.42 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and struck out just 5.24 batters per 9 IP. The American League average (including relievers, thus improving the numbers) was a 4.36 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 6.64 K/9. As a team, the Orioles 5.15 ERA was ahead of just the Rangers 5.37 mark. Unfortunately, 2009 projections don’t really show any improvement, at least for the guys in the opening day rotation. For the staff, much will depend on when David Hernandez, Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman will be ready to contribute. While the first two are likely capable of helping by the second half (and maybe sooner), it may be 2010 before MacPhail hands the keys to the rest of the young guys.

2) But the defense should be much improved.

In the second half of 2008, the Orioles posted a .668 Defensive Efficiency rating and finished the season with a .688 mark, this after leading the Majors in Defensive Effiency as late as June 29. To put those numbers in perspective, the best defensive team in baseball last year was Tampa Bay, which turned 71.0% of batted balls into outs; the worst team was the Rangers, who turned 67.0% into outs. I would also like to point out that on the morning of June 29 the Orioles were a surprising 42-38; it was also the date of the infamous George Sherrill blown save against the Nationals.

Thanks to some astute additions this offseason, the defense is likely to be much better. Cesar Izturis, a career 4.5 UZR/150 player, at shortstop and Felix Pie, a career 11.5 UZR/150 player in centerfield, in left will both help turn all those balls the pitching staff allows to be put in play into outs. An outfield of Pie, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis might very well be the best defensive outfield in the Majors this side of Seattle.

3) As always, the bullpen will be a crapshoot. But at least it will be a cheap crapshoot this year.

Next up, run scoring:
The Orioles are likely to be an offense that is a little bit better than league average.

In 2008, the Orioles scored 782 runs (4.86/game), just above the league average figure of 775 runs (4.78/game), very much in-line with a team 103 OPS+. Joe Sheehan projects the Orioles for 824 runs, and the depth chart PECOTA projections show the Orioles at 821; the run environment looks similar enough to compare the cross-season numbers outright. How are the Orioles going to score 40 more runs than in 2008? Let’s look position by position.

Right away, we can see that the O’s shortstops combined for a jaw-droppingly bad 50 OPS+ in 2008. I’m pretty sure I could match those numbers today, and I haven’t swung a bat since having shoulder surgery in 2004. Cesar Izturis has a career 67 OPS+, and he still represents a significant upgrade. Elsewhere, depending on when Matt Wieters joins the team, and how Adam Jones and Felix Pie progress, there is room for improvement from the Orioles young talent. On the flip side, Melvin Mora salvaged a truly awful first half to turn in a respectable season; at 37, his best days are certainly behind him and I would anticipate his 2009 numbers look much more like those he posted in 2006 and 2007 than in 2008. Aubrey Huff, too, is very much a candidate for decreased production. Still, this has the potential to be an above-average offense.

Unfortunately, the positives that Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Felix Pie, Brian Roberts and Matt Wieters bring to the table are far outweighed by the negatives taking the mound on a daily basis. I think 75 wins is a reasonable goal for this team, but without some significant contributions from the young pitching, that total could plummet quickly. However, if Hernandez and Bergesen are promoted early, and Matusz advances more than expected, it is possible for the Orioles to outperform, but an awful lot would have to go right. While I’m tremendously excited about the direction this organization is headed, the improvements the club has made may not show up in the wins column this year. Still, this easily the most I’ve looked forward to an Orioles season in quite a while.

What would make this a successful season? I think three things:
1) Matt Wieters establishes himself as an offensive force behind the plate.
2) Felix Pie and Adam Jones show that they are long-term solutions in the outfield
3) The young pitching does not suffer any significant development set-backs.

If each of those things happen, 2010 could be a great year for the Orioles. In the win column.

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