I'm betting this next statement won't come as a complete surprise, especially if you've been following @theorioleway on Twitter: I'm frustrated. A 1-9 start to the season is never a good thing, but especially not so when a team's next 22 games are three more in Oakland, at Seattle, at Boston, home against the Yankees and BoSox, at the Yankees and at the Twins. Those are all legitimate playoff contenders; a truly scary record on the order of 7-24 (or worse) is a very realistic possibility.
Losses happen. Teams go through rough patches. It's early. I get it. But it's not so much the losing that has me frustrated, but the way the club is losing. Let's make a list:
1) The Orioles are an incredible 10-for-70 with runners in scoring position. That's a .143 batting average.
2) Orioles hitters are seeing just 3.68 pitches per plate appearance, 28th in baseball (3.87 is average).
3) The relief pitching has been brutal, especially late in games: in innings 7-9, the staff as a whole is allowing an eye-popping .313/.375/.565 line.
4) The defense is once again shoddy: the O's .664 defensive efficiency rating ranks 26th in the Majors.
5) The club has wasted several excellent starting pitching outings.
6) Injuries to Brian Roberts, Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold have hurt both the offense and the defense.
7) Garret Atkins is batting .222/.243/.333; Miguel Tejada, .205/.279/.410.
So other than a good offensive approach, clutch hitting, pitching, and defense, things are going swimmingly.
Eventually, someone will get a hit with runners in scoring position (please?). But those other items have the potential to be glaring trends for 2010. Tejada, Izturis, Atkins and others are pretty hacktastic. Especially with the injury/ineffectiveness concerns with Mike Gonzalez, this bullpen is not very (ok, any) good. While the outfield defense might be acceptable or even good, any infield that has Tejada, Wigginton and Atkins "flashing" the leather isn't going to turn many hits into outs. And injuries have played an important part in past late season collapses; with Roberts and Pie both hurting and Reimold still recovering from offseason surgery, do the O's have a training staff capable of getting them back on the field and healthy?
Now that we've got the pessimism out of the way, are there any positives we can take from the early going? Unequivocally, yes. As always, caveat emptor on the sample size.
1) Brian Matusz is going to be a stud. I am 100% convinced. I may not be convinced that the Orioles shouldn't have drafted Justin Smoak instead, but I am really, really excited for the Brian Matusz era.
2) Millwood and Guthrie have both been effective in the early going.
3) Matt Wieters and Felix Pie have been the team's best hitters. Wieters I fully expected, but we have to be thrilled that Pie has maintained the progress he made late last season.
4) Nick Markakis has is walking again. After walking in 14.2% of his plate appearances in 2008, he took a free pass just 7.9% of the time in 2009. In 2010, he's back up to 22.7%. He's currently suffering from a .259 BAbip (career: .327). His line drive percentage (14.7%) may look low, but with only 27 balls in play (33 at-bats minus 7 strikeouts + 1 sac fly), he's only missing one liner from his career rate (4/27 = 15%, 5/27 = 18.5%). If we normalize his BAbip, he'd be hitting .273 and no one would be worried.
See, things aren't so bad, right?
Last season, I set three goals for the 2009 Orioles:
What would make this a successful season? I think three things:Results were mixed on the first two, but the third was undoubtedly achieved. Since it looks like we're in for a really long year in the loss column, what will make the 2010 Orioles 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.
1) Pitching, pitching and more pitching. Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Brandon Erbe, Zach Britton, Troy Patton, Jake Arrietta. Stay healthy. Keep improving.
2) The young core group of hitters keeps improving: are Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold the middle of a championship caliber line-up (and I think they can be)? Is Felix Pie* really breaking out? Can Josh Bell and/or Brandon Snyder take over a corner?
3) Continue to infuse the organization with young talent. This might mean trading Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Guthrie, and it definitely means using the #3 pick in the upcoming draft to take an impact player.
*Since I have completely neglected my blogging duties lately, I'm just now getting a chance to comment on Pie's thrilling score from first on a single during the home opener. I was sitting high along the first base line and had the perfect view of the play. He was dead in the water (I believe my exact words as he was rounding third base were "He's out by a mile") with a perfect throw, but as we know, perfection is difficult. Great hustle, and I love the gutsy call by Juan Samuel. I can't find it right now, but I think I remember seeing research that shows 3B coaches as way too conservative, so I love the aggressiveness.
If those first two goals are met, I think the wins will be there by the end of the season, especially if the offense comes around. Not all of those young pitchers need to get starts in Baltimore this year; breaking them into the big leagues as relievers is perfectly acceptable. We also need to be prepared to deal veterans like Guthrie, Millwood, Tejada and Luke Scott at the cost of a few wins in August and September. While I think the chance for a surprisingly good outcome still exists, a slow start really steepens the climb. 2011 and 2012 are still the goal.
Finally, one last word on Dave Trembley: things are getting ugly. This from Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus:
Since I spent the last few days in the Baltimore/DC area, catching three games at Camden Yards, forgive me if I'm a bit more concerned with the O's than most. (Given the crowds over the three-game sweep, I might be one of very few.) It's flat out a mess in the O's bullpen right now, and it seems like Dave Trembley has lost them, if not the whole clubhouse. The tension is palpable there, and many think that Trembley might not be long for the job. His handling of the Gonzalez situation, throwing him under the bus so quickly and then questioning his DL move, is a real puzzler. Gonzalez's "mechanical work" is something that could have been taken care of in camp if Trembley's handling of the vets in camp hadn't been so lax. Now that they need to DL him, the shoulder strain is enough to pass muster and fill in the slot after Trembley burned through the pen willy-nilly. It's one thing to lose a closer, and another thing to completely lose touch with a pen's strengths and weaknesses. Gonzalez's stint likely won't be too long. He was scheduled to come back to the pen early next week after working on the side, so assume that it should be about the minimum. If there's any positive, it's that Uehara is throwing and looking like he'll be ready to get back to the pen by late April. His presence could work a lot of ways. He could be a smoothing option for the long role or slot into the closer role, since Trembley seems to have more confidence in him than Gonzalez.I think my feelings about Dave Trembley have been made pretty clear: he can't handle a bullpen, he can't fill out a lineup card, and he hasn't (for whatever reason) been able to get this team to play solid, fundamentally sound baseball. If he's starting to lose the clubhouse (and, as outsiders, we have no idea if this is the case), the best thing to do will be to get rid of him as quickly as possible. I don't mean to make him a scapegoat for all that's wrong with the Orioles; he's been a good soldier and says (almost) all the right things. But I don't think he is a good manager.