Sunday, July 5, 2009

First Half Review

Yesterday, the Orioles played their 81st game of the season, losing 11-4 to the Angels to fall to 36-45, 12.5 games behind the division leading Red Sox. The club is all but eliminated from the postseason, and appears poised to post its 12th consecutive losing season. Since Opening Day, 80% of the rotation has been turned over, and two rookies have established themselves in the everyday lineup. Though it may not seem like it from watching the Major League club every night, the future in Baltimore is looking up. Let's review the first half.

The first five players below form the core of the team the Orioles expect to compete in the very near future, and the first half of the season, while not completely smooth sailing, indicates that they'll be capable.

After a blazing start, 23-year old Adam Jones slumped badly in June (.229/.286/.323 for the month). Still his season line is a healthy .307/.364/.503, and he has already hit a career high 12 home runs. Throw in a bit of gold glove caliber defense in centerfield, and the Orioles have a star in the making.

Like Jones, Nick Markakis got off to a hot start in April. May, however, did not treat the rightfielder kindly; he batted just .240/.281/.438 for the month. The batting average rebound in June (.304), but the plate discipline (9 walks in the month) and power (1 home run) are still missing.

Nolan Reimold has established himself as the everyday leftfielder, and looks to be just the type of solid, if unspectacular, player good organizations are capable of churning out to fill important roles. For the season, Reimold is hitting .279/.358/.497 with 9 home runs in 147 at-bats. This trio--all 25 and younger--looks capable of being the Orioles outfield for years to come.

Sliced bread might be the best thing since Matt Wieters, but the top prospect has struggled in his initial exposure to the big leagues. He's hitting just .253/.306/.385 on the season, but over the past 28 days he's up to .302/.362/.444. By all indications, he's going to be a force in the middle of the Orioles lineup.

Brian Roberts continues to post solid numbers out of the lead-off spot. He's batting .276/.343/.432 and leading the league in doubles (27) and runs scored (60). Basically, Roberts is just a few walks below the .370ish OBPs we've come to expect. Roberts is playing this season at age 31, and one thing that must worry the Orioles are his declining speed numbers: he has just one triple and is 16-for-21 (.761) on stolen bases after posting 40-for-50 (.800) and 50-for-57 (.877) marks the previous two seasons.

With the outfield, catcher and second base settled, the Orioles can be more flexible in filling the remaining slots. They need someone capable of posting high on-base percentages to to bat second, a good defensive shortstop, and two other players capable of manning the corner infield or designated hitter slots. In theory, these should not be difficult roles to fill and the Orioles have some internal candidates for those slots.

Luke Scott is enjoying his career year at age 31. Despite spending several weeks on the DL, he leads the club with 16 homers, a .378 OBP and a .573 SLG. Still under club control and entering the age where players tend to decline, Scott may be an attractive trade candidate for a team in need of a left-handed bat. If the Orioles retain his services, however, he will likely be in the mix for significant playing time at both first base and DH next season.

Cesar Izturis, while unfortunately injured for much of the first half, has done exactly as the Orioles expected: play solid defense at shortstop and hit well below average (61 OPS+). He's under contract for next season, and the Orioles will be counting on his defense, unless they trade for a potential long-term solution for the position in the next 8 months.

Melvin Mora looks to be on his last legs as a Major League baseball player. He's hitting just .264/.322/.324 and the Orioles can almost certainly find a better option to man the hot corner next season. It would not surprise me to see him retire after this season.

Aubrey Huff may be a potential trading chip prior to the deadline at the end of the month. Though his numbers (.269/.335/.444) are down from last year's, he would represent no long-term commitment to a team in need of a bat for the stretch drive. He will represent an interesting decision for MacPhail over the next few weeks. Unlikely to bring much back in the way of prospects, his skill set is similar to that of corner players who found the free agent market less-than-friendly last year. Would the Orioles be better off taking what they can get now, or offering Huff arbitration, hoping he does not accept and then taking the draft pick(s) likely to accompany his leaving as a free agent? Would Huff accepting arbitration be a risk the Orioles are willing to take?

After starting the season with a rotation of Jeremy Guthrie, Koji Uehara, Mark Hendrickson, Alfredo Simon and Adam Eaton, only Guthrie remains. Uehara is on the DL, Simon out for the season, Hendrickson banished to the bullpen and Eaton mercifully sent packing. In their stead, the Orioles have given Baltimore fans their first glimpse of the young pitching that will determine Andy MacPhail's success or failure in his quest to return the franchise to relevancy.

Jeremy Guthrie is far from the ace tag that his status as Opening Day starter thrusts upon him, but he is a valuable Major League pitcher. Looking at him as the fourth or fifth starter he is may make the rotation appear even weaker, but it gives a more realistic view of what should be expected of Guthrie.

Koji Uehara pitched well in his dozen starts, compiling a 112 ERA+, limiting walks and homers and giving the Orioles a chance to win. He's out for what will likely be until September, and given his injury history, the Orioles may decide that he's better suited to relief duty next year.

Rich Hill has been awful. He's walked 27 in just 40.2 IP, but at least he's giving up lots of hits, too (46). Still, he has the ability to miss bats (37 strikeouts), and the club is likely to give him every chance possible to harness his impressive stuff.

Brad Bergesen has exceeded everyone's expectations thus far. Through 14 starts, the rookie is 5-2 with a 3.53 ERA, including a 5-0 record and 2.06 ERA in his last 7 starts. He succeeds by limiting walks (1.9 BB/9), but he has also benefitted from a .265 BAbip. His strikeout rate, 4.5 K/9, is extremely low, suggesting there has been quite a bit of luck in his early results.

Jason Berken is 1-5 with a 6.25 ERA. There is little in his minor league track record to suggest that he will be a successful Major League pitcher, and given the recent comments from Andy MacPhail, I would not be surpsised if we see Chris Tillman manning his rotation slot after the All-Star break.

David Hernandez rounds out the revamped rotation. After posting impressive numbers in Norfolk, he deserves his chance at a rotation slot. He's been solid in his recent outings, but needs to do more to limit the walks.

In the minors, the top pitching prospects have had as successful a first half as could ever have been imagined. Chris Tillman will likely be in Baltimore sooner than expected, and Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz won't be far behind.

Chris Tillman: 6-5, 2.69 ERA, 80.1 IP, 82 K, 22 BB, .219 BAA (Norfolk)
Jake Arrieta: 7-5, 2.69 ERA, 83.2 IP, 90 K, 30 BB, .218 BAA (Norfolk and Bowie, combined)
Brian Matusz: 7-2, 1.80 ERA, 85.0 IP, 96 K, 27 BB, .210 BAA (Frederick and Bowie, combined)

Neither Tillman nor Arrieta has much left to prove in Norfolk, and while Matusz has been competing at a lower level, here's what Kevin Goldstein wrote at Baseball Prospectus this week:
He's sitting at 88-92 with outstanding movement and location, throws two quality breaking balls and a very good changeup, mixes his pitches extremely well and pounds the strike zone. That scouting report has been the same for Matusz for years now, and he's nearly big league-ready.
Depending on the Orioles development plans for each (and it's important to note that each is already over 80.0 IP on the season), it's quite possible that the rotation will turn over another 60% by the end of the year.

All in all this has been a successful first half of the season. Though the results on the field may not appear dramatically different from previous seasons, it is important to note that the talent level of the organization has shifted dramatically. No longer are the team's best players veterans past their primes; Jones, Wieters, Reimold and Markakis are just 23, 23, 25 and 25, respectively. The pitching of the future has yet to arrive, and while Major League struggles should be expected, the Big Three pitching prospects have given every indication that they will be as good as advertised.

Before the season, I set out three criteria for making 2009 a success: 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. While Wieters may be a bit behind schedule and we should replace Felix Pie with Nolan Reimold, I think we can stick a check mark next to each at the midway point. This is an organization on the right track.

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