Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baseball? I Thought This Was a Hockey Blog!

Look O’s fans, you need to settle down a bit. Mark Reynolds is exactly who he is meant to be. A man with the ability to product majestic, towering home runs and also a man who swings through a shockingly large number of pitches. That’s who the O’s traded for, and that’s who the Orioles got. No sense getting upset because he’s hitting .190. After all, he is leading Baltimore in home runs.

The struggles of Reynolds, the blonde hair bomber, is a microcosm of the 2011 Baltimore Orioles. Before the first pitch was thrown this season, the club was shaping up as a team that would struggle it’s way to mediocrity. They would be an improvement over last year, but still one or two players away from serious competing with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.

The Orioles of 2011 were not created to win the World Series, they were not created to win the American League East, they were created to find out where the organization stood in terms of its pitching development. Look at who has made up the starting rotation this year - Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, embattled Jeremy Guthrie, and now finally Brian Matusz. This year the higher ups find out if they’ve been groomed to contend in the majors or if it’s time to jettison them.

Over at third base, Reynolds wasn’t brought in to win a batting title or a Gold Glove. He was brought in to be a power presence in the middle of the lineup. Because he hits in the middle of the lineup, he’s going to come to the plate with runners in scoring position. And because he strikes out a lot he’s going to leave a lot of those runners stranded. That’s the bad you take along with his ability to hit the three-run homer.

Where this team ends up come October still remains to be seen. Some weeks their young pitchers have looked unhittable. Conversely, there have been weeks they’ve been eminently hittable. That’s part of the reason the team has been so streaky. Win four games then lose eight in a row. Win another 4 games and then lose five more contests. Unfortunately, that is the bane of running a young pitching staff out there.

On a player level, Reynolds has weeks where he is the fearsome slugger that fans hoped would be launching blasts into the bleachers all summer long. Other days he appears professionally inept at the plate. Personally, I’ve seen few hitters swing through pitches with the shocking regularity that Reynolds does. It’s not like he chases lots of bad pitches, say as Adam Jones does from time to time. Reynolds swings though fastballs as if they were puffs of smoke that dissipate into a fine mist whenever his bat comes close.

There are reasons other than having a young core of pitchers that is hurting this year’s squad. The overall absence of power is one thing. From Nick Markakis to Luke Scott to Vlad Guerrero the inability to put the ball over the fence is clearly hurting the team. This is not a team built to manufacture runs like the Rays. This is a team that moves station to station, and waits for a slugger to put one on Eutaw Street.

The bullpen hasn’t been able to pick up for struggling starters either. Whatever talent Michael Gonzalez once possessed seems to have evaporated into thin air. Kevin Gregg seemingly can’t go more than three hitters without walking at least two of them. The rest of the bullpen has been maddingly inconsistent as well.

However, instead of dwelling on what isn’t going well, why not look at the good? Jones, despite his occasional obsession with swinging at sliders in the dirt, is blossoming into one of the young stars in the league. A bona fide yearly Gold Glove candidate he already has several highlight reel plays on the year. At the plate he is showing a blend of power, speed and hitting that hasn’t been seen in the O’s outfield for years.

Zach Britton, the rookie southpaw who should have started the season in the minors is proving the doubters (such as this writer) wrong. A quality start machine he has baffled major league hitters by using his above average fastball to set up a devastating slider. His recent run of tough starts might indicate that he’s hitting a bit of a rookie wall, but he appears to have the pitching smarts to make the necessary adjustments.

How about the blossoming of the Catching Jesus? Matt Wieters is showing how patience and belief in a prospect can pay off. The “Mauer with Power” might not be delivering light tower home runs just yet, but he is excelling at every other aspect of his game. He personally controls other team’s running games by cutting down 40% of would be base stealers. The pitchers and coaching staff rave about his ability to handle the pitching staff and his production at the plate is increasing at a rate that makes him a viable All Star candidate.

So O’s fans don’t despair so much. The season is but a third of the way done. At this time last season they were a unfathomable 20 games out of first base, this year just six. The team is light years ahead of last year talent wise, and should only improve now that some key pieces are returning to the line up and rotation. This is not a team that is under achieving, it is a talented, but flawed product that at least one year away from serious contention.

So go the Yard, drink a Natty Boh and munch on some of Boog’s BBQ while watching a team develop. Enjoy the sun and the face that you can watch a game at one of the best parks in the league for a cheaply scalped ticket. Look for the good things on the field and don’t dwell on the negative. Much like a towering Reynolds home run the losing seasons will soon be going, going, going, gone…..

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