Saturday, August 20, 2011

If It's About the O's It Must Be About Next Year

The other day I was watching the Rays play someone. OK, I wasn’t really watching it, more like it was playing in the background while I was goofing around on the internet. Normally, I would have the O’s as my white noise, but as of late the quasi-legal website I use hasn’t been streaming their games. Not that I blame them. I probably wouldn’t waste my server space on them either at this point.

What the heck happened since those heady days of April? Do you remember way back then? The team was 6-0. Zach Britton was the rookie darling of the American League. Brian Roberts was in the lineup. Now, it’s so different. All of that mojo is gone and they’re back on pace for another 100 loss season.

The bulk of the failure can be placed on the shoulders of the pitching staff. Injuries and lack of effectiveness from the young prospects doomed this team to a last place finish. Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz have all suffered time on the DL and frankly the organization didn’t have enough depth to replace them.

Without the core of their staff being able to pitch deep into games the less than average bullpen was taxed beyond its limited capabilities. In a perfect world, the starters would be able to work into the seventh inning on a regular basis and then the triple-headed monster of Jim Johnson, Koju Uehera and Keven Gregg could finish out the game. Sprinkle in Mike Gonzalez for the occasional lefty and things would be alright. Needless to say that didn’t happen.

While the bulk of the problems can be heaped onto the pitching staff, there were other factors in play as well. In the off-season the O’s made four big moves. The results would be 50/50. They hit expectations on one (Mark Reynolds), exceeded with another (JJ Hardy) and missed on two (Derrick Lee and Vlad Guerrero). The good news on the Lee and Vlad moves is that neither move was long term. Lee has already been moved and Guerrero won’t be back next year. However, not having them provide the offense expected hurt the team’s chances to get to .500 or compete for postseason play.

Being in the bottom third of fielding percentage didn’t help them this year either. Every missed grounder, every errant throw made it harder for the young pitchers to work deep into games. Almost as damaging are the plays that don’t go down as errors. The missed double plays and pop-ups that drop between players can be what separate good teams from below average ones. If maximizing the outs you get on offense is important, so is minimizing the outs you give your opposition. The Yankees are tough enough to beat when they get 27 outs, if you give them 2 or 3 more a game then they are almost impossible to beat.

With this year done, I guess it’s not to early to talk about next year. There is a more than reasonable chance that Andy McPhail might not be back as GM. Even if he is back I would expect the pressure from management to make a big splash, not only to improve the team, but to improve the attendance. The best way to do that is with a free agent signing.

With first base still an unsettled position, expect the O’s to make an attempt at a big splash with Prince Fielder, and to a lesser extent Albert Pujols. Personally, I think Big Al will re-sign with St. Louis for an astronomical sum. A sum that is going to do nothing but drive up the price for Fielder.

Will they make a run for him? More importantly, is there enough in place to make Baltimore an enticing place for him to land? Working in the O’s favor is the fact that the two big boy, the Yankees and Red Sox, are set in that position as well as DH. I would assume that Cubs, and whoever becomes their new GM, will make a big push for the portly slugger. Milwaukee and the Dodgers might make a play as well.

For fun’s sake let us say that he does sign with the O’s. In which case, I predict he will be the first player to hit the warehouse in live action. More importantly will it do more than ignite the fan base? Are they in a position where one big name could make a difference?

The positions that it looks like the O’s have set for next year are:

Catcher - Matt Wieters
Shortstop - JJ Hardy
Right Field - Nick Markakis
Centerfield - Adam Jones
Third base - Mark Reynolds

With Fielder it would for six out of eight positions filled. Second base would remain the biggest question point. At some point everyone is going to have realize that Brian Roberts is no longer the answer. Even if he returns from his neurological issues he won’t be the same player he was simply because he will be two years removed from his prime.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much out there in the free agent market for them to pick from and none of the internal options they tried this year (Blake Davis, Robert Andino, and Ryan Adams) made a case for being a starter. Their best prospect at the position, LJ Hoes, spent the bulk of his year in Bowie playing in the outfield. So barring a trade it doesn’t look like that problem is going away any time soon.

Whatever they end up doing, defense should factor in more than offense. With a young pitching staff it is imperative that the infield be as strong defensively as possible. There is enough pop in the lineup to afford a .250 player who posses some semblance of defensive talent. I wish I had a name to throw out there, but at this point I don’t.

Left field isn’t as glaring of a problem as they can hopefully roll out a healthy Luke Scott and Nolan Reimold next season. Played right they could form a lethal platoon along the lines of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke.

Let me go off on a tangent here for a moment. Right before Scott’s season was ended prematurely because of shoulder surgery I read that he was “due for a raise” in arbitration. Isn’t there something wrong with the system when a player making $6.4 million dollars is “due” a raise after a year in which he only appeared in 64 games, struck out 25% of the time and only reached base 30% of the time? That’s not even an average season and he gets to negotiate how big his raise is? The arbitration should be for how much lower his salary should be, not how much higher.

OK, back to the issue at hand. Which I guess is how the O’s will improve over a disappointing season. At least that’s what I think I’m writing about. The rain outside is making me sleepy, and I’m upset that the air show is being delayed. Stupid rain!

There is enough talent in the outfield right now to be able to sacrifice a gold glover for some offense, and honestly, if they promote from within Reimold should be given the job to lose. He can hold his own out there and would provide some much needed right-handed power in the lineup.

Next season, like this season, will live and die with the pitching staff. The bullpen has to be shored up with people who can work the sixth and seventh innings. Two innings which will become even more important if Jim Johnson finally makes his long awaited appearance in the starting rotation. Perhaps swapping him with Alfredo Simon would be an option, but they still need something other than warm bodies sitting the bullpen.

I predict and extremely negative off-season from O’s fans on message boards and radio talk shows unless GM Andy McPhail can pull off something in a hurray. The fan base will no longer be placated by uniform changes or stadium improvements. Even if they welcome Cal Ripken back in some sort of management role, the fans will scream for on the field improvements. Honestly, after sitting through this season I can’t blame them.

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