Well, this should get me to the front of the line on season previews...
As we all know, 2009 was a disappointing season in the loss column, but the Orioles made significant progress in their rebuilding efforts, breaking in rookies Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, and others. Still, there were set-backs: Adam Jones suffered another season ending injury, Nick Markakis took a step back, and Brandon Snyder struggled upon being promoted to AAA. There is still much work to be done to remake this team into a contender, but the club is still on the right track. Let's look ahead to potential offseason moves and what we can expect from the O's next season.
In 2009, the Orioles had a payroll of $67.1 mm, virtually identical to 2008's $67.2 mm, and the club has $30.1 mm in commitments for 2010. Throw in about $20 mm to cover minimum salaries for the rest of the roster and arbitration raises for eligibles Matt Albers, Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Ray, Cla Meredith, and Luke Scott, and the Orioles have some significant money to play with this offseason. Where should they spend it?
Based on players currently in the organization, here is the projected 2010 roster, making room for 12 pitchers and 13 position players:
CA: Matt Wieters
2B: Brian Roberts
SS: Cesar Izturis
LF: Nolan Reimold
CF: Adam Jones
RF: Nick Markakis
BN: Luke Scott
BN: Felix Pie
BN: Robert Andino
BN: Ty Wiggington
Others: Michael Aubrey, Justin Turner, Lou Montanez
S1: Jeremy Guthrie (R)
S2: Brian Matusz (L)
S3: Chris Tillman (R)
S4: Brad Bergesen (R)
R1 - 7: Koji Uehara (R), Jim Johnson (R), Chris Ray (R), Matt Albers (R), Cla Meredith (R), Dennis Sarfate (R), Brian Bass (R), Jason Berken (R), David Hernandez (R), Kam Mickolio (R), etc.
There are a few glaring holes that need to be addressed: third base, first base, starting pitcher and left-handed relief pitcher. Additionally, I'm sure the team would love to upgrade shortstop and designated hitter, finding a long-term solution for the middle of the infield and pushing Luke Scott into a platoon role (career vs RHP: .269/.355/.506; vs LHP: .249/.330/.458). Let's explore the options for each position.
Third Base: Internally, the only option is recently acquired Josh Bell, who will play 2010 at the age of 23. He enjoyed a true break-out season at the plate in AA this year, batting .295/.376/.516 with 20 home runs between the Dodgers and Orioles organizations, but he's still a bit rough around the edges defensively (7 errors in just 50 chances since the trade) and his approach from the right-side of the plate is still a work in progress. Bell is clearly the best long-term option for the position, but pushing him to the Major Leagues next season would, at best, be an aggressive move. On the free agent market, there are several players that could provide a bridge between the departed Melvin Mora and Bell, including Mark DeRosa, Troy Glaus, Joe Crede, and Pedro Feliz. None of those guys is likely to require a long-term contract, unlike Adrian Beltre or Chone Figgins. I doubt, however, that the Orioles would be willing to hand over a draft pick to sign any of those players, making Type B free agents DeRosa and Glaus unlikely (assuming their former clubs offer arbitration, of course).
First Base: After earning a promotion to Norfolk, Brandon Snyder struggled mightily, posting a .248/.316/.355 line with just two home runs in 262 at-bats. Drafted as a catcher, scouts question whether he will ever hit with enough power to be an every day first baseman. The free agent market doesn't offer much in the way of help, either. Carlos Delgado (38), Nick Johnson (31), and Adam LaRoche (30), all Type B free agents, are the most "attractive" names out there. One (far fetched) option would be the trade market; rumors continue to swirl that the Padres and Brewers would be willing to deal Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder, respectively, though Andy MacPhail doesn't seem too keen on trading away any of the prized young pitchers it would take to acquire such a power bat. One option I've long advocated is buying Nolan Reimold a first baseman's mitt. He's not exactly a gold glover in the outfield, and with Felix Pie's strong finish, this move could have the effect of improving both the offense and the defense.
Designated Hitter: Ideally, the Orioles would add a right-handed bat to the mix here. The deepest pool on the free agent market is clearly corner outfield/DH (Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Bobby Abreu, Rick Ankiel, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Vlad Guerrero, the corpse of Jermaine Dye, etc.), so maybe the O's will get lucky like the Angels and Nationals did last winter with Abreu and Dunn and be able to sign a solid hitter for less than the expected wins he can provide. Again, though, the compensation pick would work against the Orioles signing one of these players, but many of these guys are likely to not be offered arbitration.
Starting Pitcher: Until the team gives the keys to Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe, they'll need someone else to pitch every fifth day. The best pitcher on the market, John Lackey, will command too high a price tag, and the quality drops off quickly thereafter. Upside injury plays like Erik Bedard, Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, and Justin Duchscherer can't be counted on to provide very many innings, Jason Marquis, Vicente Padilla, and Randy Wolf carry the giant "WARNING: National League Pitcher" tag, and while future Hall-of-Famers Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Randy Johnson may harken back to the good ol' days of the 1990s, they aren't likely to come to Baltimore.
Relief Pitcher: There are lots of "closers" on the market (Mike Gonzalez, Fernando Rodney, Rafael Soriano, and Jose Valverde), but I hope the team has learned its lesson with high priced reliever imports (I'm looking at you, Danys Baez). Given the resurgence in pitching depth within the organization, I'm confident the team can piece together a bullpen capable of holding leads. Koji Uehara, David Hernandez, and perhaps Troy Patton could all be starters-turned-relievers that provide a significant boost to the 'pen, Chris Ray and Jim Johnson may bounce back from disappointing 2009 seasons, and young arms like Wilfrido Perez, Bob McCrory and Steve Johnson could blossom. Relief pitcher performance is highly variable, and the team has lots of internal options.
Defense: One item I've only touched on above is defense. Teams that have made rapid improvements in recent years (like the Rays, Rangers and Mariners) all had one thing in common: they vastly improved their defense. The Orioles ranked 26th in 2009 in defensive efficiency, converting just 68.2% of batted balls into outs. The Orioles set out on the path to improving the defense last year, bringing in Cesar Izturis, but Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis all slipped defensively this past year, with each posting well below average UZR ratings. Nolan Reimold, too, doesn't seem to be helping things with his play in left field. I'm not terribly worried about Jones and Markakis (they still rate highly according to the fans), but the trend in the numbers for Brian Roberts is very worrisome.
Recommendations & Outlook: At this point, the Orioles most glaring need is for a middle-of-the-lineup power bat. The only ones on the free agent market, Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, are well positioned to earn lucrative long-term contracts from some combination of the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Cardinals or another mystery team, and they do not play the position the Orioles would like most to fill (first base). Thus, MacPhail needs to at least explore the trade market for Gonzalez or Fielder. He's wise not to trade Tillman or Matusz, but Arrieta, Erbe, and Zach Britton shouldn't be considered untouchable. He may also want to kick the tires on prospect Yonder Alonso (blocked in Cincinnati by Joey Votto). First base looks like it will be a difficult position to fill adequately, unless we can figure out a way to void Mark Teixeira's contract.
At third, waiting for Bell seems like the best bet. Perhaps he will surprise in spring training and make the club on Opening Day, but the Matt Wieters timeline seems more likely. Thus, a stopgap is necessary, meaning the club will likely sign someone like Joe Crede or Troy Glaus (if he is not offered arbitration). Glaus could be an attractive option since he could also DH in an attempt to stay healthy.
Pitching wise, as much as the team "needs" a "veteran" to "lead" the staff (or so I've been told by the Sun commenters), there really isn't much out there worth the risk or investment. If the team could somehow sign John Lackey for four years and $50 million, I'd be all for it. There would seem to be about as much chance of that happening as me becoming the designated hitter next year, though. Thus, I think we're looking at another season of Mark Hendrickson-esque retreads until Arrieta and/or Erbe reach Baltimore.
As for the outlook for 2010, barring a significant move to acquire Gonzalez or Fielder, this team doesn't have the horses necessary to compete in the AL East; they won't yet score or prevent enough runs to keep up with Boston, New York and Tampa Bay on a nightly basis. However, there is significant upside with the starting pitching. I expect Jeremy Guthrie to bounce back and be a league average starter, and Tillman and Matusz both have top of the rotation potential. Young pitchers are always a wild card, but these two guys have the stuff to succeed next year. As much as I'm hoping otherwise, I expect that Bergesen will regress; he just doesn't have the stuff to keep pitching like he did last year. Still, if Arrieta and Erbe establish themselves, the rotation could go from one of the worst in baseball (2009) to one of the best in a hurry. MacPhail is right that the goal for 2010 shifts to wins and losses, but lets not get our hopes up too much yet. Hitting the .500 mark in 2010 would be an excellent accomplishment.