Friday, October 30, 2009

2010 Orioles Preview

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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jayson Werth

I was watching the Phillies and Dodgers play last night, and a classmate pointed out that the Orioles drafted Jayson Werth in the first round way back in 1997; I did not know this. Inevitably, this sparked the "Who was he traded for?" question. Some quick Googling revealed the answer: John Bale, after the 2000 season. Yes, a 27-year left-handed relief pitcher who would throw a total of 26.2 innings for the Orioles. In hindsight, it would be nice to have Werth on the club now, and this has sparked the typical "The Orioles are idiots!" comments on various blogs. But were they? In short, yes.

Werth was drafted (as a catcher) out of high school with the 22nd pick of the 1997 draft. He signed quickly and reported to the Orioles Gulf Coast League affiliate. There, he batted .295/.432/.398 over 111 plate appearances. He walked just as much as he struck out (22 times; 19.8%), showing great plate discipline for an 18-year old a few weeks removed from his high school graduation. The next year, he played 120 games for Delmarva, notching a .265/.364/.387 line in 476 plate appearances. He struck out about the same (92 times; 19.3%) but walked a little less (50 times; 10.5%), though still at a very acceptable rate. The 1999 season saw the now 20-year old Werth promoted to Frederick, where he posted a .305/.403/.394 over 279 plate appearances, cutting back on the strikeouts and upping the walks (37 times each; 13.3%). He hadn't shown much power, hitting just 12 home runs in his career to this point, but his knowledge of the strike zone was obviously well-developed. The Orioles, perhaps a bit prematurely, promoted him to Bowie where Werth showed off the same skill set: .273/.364/.355 in 144 plate appearances with 17 walks (11.8%) and 26 strikeouts (18.1%).

After that 1999 season, Werth garned some acclaim as a top-prospect; he was named the #52 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Plate discipline is a valuable skill, and the potential for Werth to be an offensive-minded catcher rightly made him a young player with lots of upside. Werth split the 2000 season between Bowie and Frederick (I can't find the dates he spent with each club), where he produced virtually identical numbers to his 1999 season: a combined .240/.358/.362 in 435 plate appearances with 64 walks (14.7%) and 65 strikeouts (14.9%). He was again named a top prospect by Baseball America (#48), but the Orioles were apparently unimpressed, perhaps in part because they knew Werth would not stick at catcher. Despite fielding a team that went 74-88 in 2000, the club chose to give up on its recent first round pick, deciding that what it really needed was a left-handed reliever who walked 3.65 batters per nine. Shockingly, this type of decision making led to a 63-98 record in 2001.

As if on cue, Werth's power began to develop in 2001. He hit 20 home runs in the Blue Jays minor league system, matching his career total, but he did need to move off catcher, shifting to play some first base in 2001 and the outfield by 2002. He spent the 2002 and 2003 seasons bouncing around the Toronto system, accumulating 104 Major League plate appearances before being traded to the Dodgers for reliever Jason Frasor. In Los Angeles, he showed significant potential as half of a valuable platoon (.290/.377/.690 vs LHP) in 2004, but he struggled in 2005 and then missed the 2006 season due to injury. After being granted free agency following the 2006 season, he caught on with Philadelphia and has been an excellent player for the past three seasons: .276/.376/.494, gaining more playing time with each successive season.

While the Orioles probably wouldn't have been the beneficiary of Werth's late-blossoming, their initial decision to trade him was still indefensible. Aside from the abhorent focus on batting average and not on-base abilities, teams that are rebuilding--as the Orioles were, or at least should have been, doing in 2000--should never value short-term roster construction over long-term potential. 21-year old prospects that have reached AA and exhibited impressive plate discipline are real prospects, even if they haven't yet developed the expected power; left-handed middle relievers are a dime a dozen. Fortunately, the Orioles have changed management and the new GM seems to understand this very concept. After all, he turned George Sherrill into Josh Bell.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two Month Break

Wow, has it really been two months since I blogged about the Orioles? Thanks to school starting back, the inevitable losing streak, and a host of excuses, it's been too long. This month is typically dedicated to the teams in the playoffs, but I still want to talk a little orange and black.

At the beginning of the season, I set out three criteria for making this season 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 and significant set-backs.

How did we do?

1) Check. After a slow start, Wieters was impressive in September, batting .333/.395/.486 with 4 home runs and 17 RBI during the month, raising his overall line to a quite respectable .288/.340/.412. Sure it wasn't quite what we had hoped for, but we can still expect great things from young Matt.

2) Incomplete. A great start led to his selection for the All-Star team, but Adam Jones struggled from June onwards, finally succumbing to (another) season-ending injury and missing the final month of the season. April and May had us thinking stardom, but June, July and August--aside from one great stretch from late July into early August--just left us with more questions. The talent is obvious, but I'd still really like to see a full healthy, productive season from Jones. Meanwhile, Pie's season was the exact opposite: a terrible start followed by a fast finish. He looked much, much better as the season progressed, and could be a real asset for the club going forward. There seemed to be a movement afoot late in the season to trade Pie for another bat, but given that he's unlikely to return an impact first baseman and the troubles Adam Jones has had staying healthy, the team is much more likely to keep him around.

3) Double check. Not only did the young talent make it through the season without any long-term injury concerns (Erbe bounced back nicely from shoulder issues, and Bergesen's freak leg injuries are not expected to linger into spring training), but Matusz and Tillman both racked up valuable experience in Baltimore. They didn't pitch great, but they flashed the talent that has scouts drooling.

Unfortunately, we can't stop there. This season had another recurring theme, and it was of a much darker variety: what is wrong with Nick Markakis? FanGraphs chronicled the unfortunate developments that led to Markakis posting a line similar to his rookie season. Obviously, the young kids are an important part remaking the Orioles into a winner. Equally important are Brian Roberts maintaining his high level of play and Nick Markakis being a star. Without Markakis as a big bat in the middle of the lineup, the rebuilding efforts are going to fail. Was he hurt? Distracted by life changes? Was his regression random? Let's hope that 2009 is an anomaly, and he returns to his 2008 level (or better) in 2010.

Finally, the bullpen was just awful, especially after the Sherrill trade. With Guthrie, Bergesen, Matusz and Tillman all ticketed for the 2010 rotation, Hernandez and Uehara should both help bolster the unit next spring. Chris Ray will be another year removed from Tommy John surgery, and perhaps Jim Johnson will look more like the pitcher he was before taking over the closer's role. Given the variability in relief pitcher performance, I'm not too worried about next year's bullpen.

Coming soon, a preview of what the Orioles need to do this offseason to prepare for 2010.