Thanksgiving has now passed, the Winter Meetings are right around the corner, and Spring Training is beginning to loom on the horizon. Here are some general thoughts on the roster, and what we see as the biggest questions and story-lines heading into 2013 for the Baltimore Orioles.
As every fan of the Baltimore Orioles has tried to forget – but remains painfully aware of – the O’s had losing seasons every year from ’98 through ’11. The 2011 season ended with Baltimore winning 69 games, failing to hit the 70 win plateau for the 5th consecutive year.
As every fan of the Baltimore Orioles will always want to remember, the 2012 season brought 93 wins, and a trip to Playoffs for the first time since ’97. All of those previous years of anguish and despair, washed duller against a sea of orange.
What awaits the Birds in 2013?
I do not see how anyone can have a definitive answer on that.
Going into ’12, the conventional wisdom was that the O’s would finish in last place in the American League East, and that a .500 season was stretching the limits of reality from the most ardent orange-colored glasses wearing Orioles supporter.
There was plenty of commentary to be found that Duquette was the wrong choice to man the O’s Front Office, and that his hiring was an example of Baltimore having to settle. It was easy to find discussion on our board (and elsewhere) that if the O’s were mirrored in another losing season; that trading Jones at the non-waiver deadline would be more likely, vs. extending his career in Baltimore. When Prince Fielder signed with Detroit in late January, that was another example to some of the O’s being unwilling to make the moves necessary to compete. On the brink of Opening Day, WNST was hosting another ‘Free the Birds‘, with a candlelight vigil for the O’s.
A lot can change in a year. A lot of things that can seem to be ‘truth’ today, can be shown to be misguided perceptions a relatively short-time later.
Maybe the perceptions I have today will be proven misguided in the coming year. As of today, I think the O’s have a competitive rotation with Hammel, Chen, Tillman, Gonzalez, and either Matusz or Britton as the 5th. With what Hammel showed with 2 seam FB last year, I think he is capable of leading a rotation. Last year he was limited to 20 starts. For his career he has typically been durable. If he gives the 29 starts (and the 175ip) he averaged over ’09-’11, that would be a major boost to the staff.
There were a lot of things to like about Chen’s first year in Baltimore. I don’t know if there is any remaining upside with him, but I see little reason to believe he is not capable of replicating his 2012 season. Getting another 30 starts and 190+ innings out of him would be huge.
As the potential 3rd and 4th starters of the rotation; Tillman and Gonzalez are an interesting duo. In Tillman, you have the once extremely heralded prospect, who was a forgotten man entering 2012. (Another example of an error in conventional wisdom.) Gonzalez’s route to back to the Majors was much longer. Both had strong success with the Birds over 15 starts each in ’12. In April, Tillman will be turning 25. In late May, Gonzalez will be turning 29.
I’m not sure I feel overly confident predicting what we see out of either pitcher as a starter this coming year. If they are productive league average 3rd and 4th starters, the staff as a whole, is a staff you can win with. At Tillman’s age, and with his pedigree and stuff; he has a chance to be better than that. However, until we see him replicate his 2nd half success, there will be some lingering doubts from some. With Gonzalez, the narrative from most is that he deserves an opportunity to begin in the rotation due how he ended ’12. I am certainly one of those who believe that. I also think his change-up is a true plus pitch, and gives him a chance to remain a productive starter. I think he would be great to have in middle-relief and and as a swing starter. Ultimately I have to admit that while I think earned the chance to begin ’13 in the rotation, I question how successful he will be in that capacity.
Prior to any external additions, I see the battle for the 5th starter going into Spring as a choice between lefties Zach Britton and Brian Matusz. I think that is a difficult race to handicap as of today. You will need to see where both pitchers are in the Spring. Who worked harder over the Winter? Will Britton arrive in camp without health concerns? How is his fastball command. Matusz ended ’12 looking excellent out of the bullpen. He also said it was easier to be mentally prepared, knowing he could be used each day. Is he going to be comfortable going back to the rotation? Will he attack hitters in the same fashion? Will he pitch off of his fastball as a starter? Will he have made an adjustment against RH hitters?
Showalter has talked about needing 10 starters to get through a season in the AL East. I think there is temptation to move some of the perceived depth. I’d prefer the O’s to keep that depth (Matusz, Britton, Arrieta, S. Johnson, Hunter, and maybe Wada) and see how things go with the rotation. At some-point next year, all of those pitchers might be needed to contribute as starters, even if several begin ’13 out of the bullpen.
Of course the biggest wildcard with the rotation will be Dylan Bundy. Bundy figures to be part of the O’s rotation by the end of May. The primary question with Bundy is not when he will arrive, but the level of production he will bring? Bundy turned 20 eight days ago. I think it is fair to believe he will be one of Baltimore’s top 5 starters most of 2013. I think it is probably unfair to believe he will pitch much better than a back of the rotation starter in his Rookie season. A back of the rotation starter that flashes his stuff will help the O’s. If he finds greater success, immediately, that will have a tremendous impact on the O’s season.
I do feel comfortable saying there will be some collective regression from the bullpen. Why do I think this? Generally relievers can volatile year-to-year, and the bullpen was so exceptional this past year – that some drop seems likely. That said, I do believe that if the starters do their job, the bullpen will continue to be one of the stronger bullpens in the game. Many do not believe Johnson is capable of replicating his 2012 season. Even some that do, believe he should be traded. The logic begin that Johnson does not get a lot of strikeouts, and will be increasingly expensive. Overall, that line of reasoning goes back to a basic lack of respect for Closers. My feeling is that Johnson is an elite level Closer, despite the limited strikeouts. His stuff is pretty overwhelming, and if he used in the same capacity he was in ’12 (Two 2 inning outings), I think he maintains a similar Groundball / Flyball ratio this coming year. If Johnson was a run of the mill, dime-a-dozen Closer; I think there would be merit in trying to move him. If the O’s did not think they could contend in ’13, I think there would be merit in moving him. Since the goal for the team will be getting back to the post-season, I would not be in favor of trading Johnson.
O’Day and Strop also both had extremely impressive seasons. Strop’s control will remain an issue, but you can not teach his stuff (nor could you easily replace it). O’Day had strong ’09, and ’10 seasons, an injury-riddled ’11, followed by his tremendous ’12. If he maintains his health, why can he not again be strong next year? Having Johnson, Strop, and O’Day together as a trio is a tremendous advantage.
I liked that Ayala was brought back. He has now had back-to-back good years. Patton had an excellent ’12 in his own right. I liked what we saw from Pomeranz when he was healthy. I really like both S. Johnson, and Hunter as swing-starters and long-relief. I would not want to rely on either as regular starer, but like having both of them as part of the staff as a whole. Should he still be part of the organization this Spring, I’m really excited to see if Arrieta is transitioned to the bullpen full-time, as I think he will. I remain a huge fan of Arrieta’s ability. Despite the horrible looking ERA and won/loss record; he had some decent peripheral numbers in ’12. I don’t think many pitchers anywhere have better stuff than Arrieta. Out of the bullpen, pitching in 1-2 inning situations, I think we might see the results match his talent.
The biggest question in Birdland over the next week or so, will be what happens with Reynolds. Will he be non-tendered, will the O’s offer arbitration, or will the O’s sign Reynolds to an extension? I went into the off-season thinking the O’s would offer arbitration, with a 2 year extension being possible. As the deadline nears, I’m thinking the O’s may elect to non-tender. I’d prefer to avoid that gamble. Reynolds has had roughly 3,000 ab’s in the Majors, with a career .807 OPS. Offensively you will get homers, k’s, and walks. I think you might see an uptick in production closer the career averages in ’13. Defensively, the metrics did not like him at 1st. Many who saw him, thought he was above average. I’ll split the difference, and call him average with the glove at the position. Could you match his production, cheaper? Possibly. I’d rather continue with the known quantity. He is only 29. To me, a two year deal would be ideal for all sides.
I liked the move for Casilla. At the minimum you should get quality defense from him. Flaherty will be interesting to watch. He has some real pop in his bat, but I think he needs work defensively. I see him as a step below average with the glove, but livable. The comments from Roberts the last few days were interesting. Clearly he wants the opportunity. As long as he wanted the opportunity, and wasn’t looking for a buyout; he was always going to get that chance. It is good to see that he is able to do some strength training this Winter.
I still think you continue to look at 2nd as if he is not there. You go to Spring Training expecting Casilla and Flaherty to share the position. You plan on seeing where Schoop is production wise around mid-season. If Schoop has progressed with the bat and the glove, he becomes an option for the Majors around that time.
If Roberts goes to Spring Training and looks like he deserves to come North, you bring him North. If he does not look better than Casilla, you have to think about parting ways. If he looks to be the best option, great.
The other-side of the diamond is interesting with Machado and Hardy. Machado was so strong defensively at 3rd, that there seems to be little question in Baltimore that he will man the hot-corner next year. There are those on our message board (and several National writers), who believe that Hardy should be moved; with Machado taking over SS. I tend to think that would be trading pennies on the dollar. Hardy had a pretty weak year with the bat, there is no escaping that. The fact that Showalter continued to bat Hardy 2nd (with his .282 on-base %) is on Showalter though. Hardy had an OPS (.671) which was 69 points below his career average. In the other 3 seasons he has had at-least 527 ab’s, Hardy has had an OPS at-and-above .786 in each of those years. If Hardy stays healthy enough to gain another 500+ ab’s, I like him to rebound and exceed his career numbers.
What the O’s get out of a full season from Machado will be interesting to see. Beyond exceeding expectations with the glove, he showed more power than I think most expected over his nearly 200 ab’s. His K to BB ratio was not good, but he showed good knowledge of the strike zone to me. He was just overwhelmed at times by Major League pitching. I think his willingness (and ability) to go opposite field for power, bodes extremely well for him going forward. When all the projections come in for ’13, my guess is the numbers for Machado will be relatively modest. That will probably be fair, but nobody doubts his talent. He figures to be productive with the bat, with a greater percentage chance in my mind of being plus offensively – vs. falling flat and regressing any.
I like having Chris Davis and Betemit as part of the roster. Both capable of playing a couple of positions, even if the best position for both is DH. To be fair to Davis, I think he did a capable job in the OF given his experience. He has a strong arm, and I think if he worked at LF or RF full-time, he would be ok. Probably a bit below average, but not a liability. He also looked horrible at 1st. Similarly though, I think he would be livable, if he worked at the position full-time. Davis is another good example of how perceptions can change relatively quickly. As Spring Training was ending last year, there were plenty of Davis’ detractors to be found. Many were suggesting he would (and should) quickly be a candidate to be released early next year. Instead he finished 8th in the AL in homers (33), and posted an .827 OPS over 515 ab’s. Davis can look horrible when he struggles, but I thought he did a good job limiting the droughts. It should also be noted he posted better numbers in the 2nd half, than he did in the 1st. Davis has now had 1,500+ ab’s in the Majors, with a career .776 OPS. I think the expectations for his production next year should be at that level. That has a lot of value, at his present contract. Should the O’s not bring back Reynolds, I would not be opposed to Davis taking over 1st. Ideally to me, he gets time at DH, 1st, 3rd, LF, and RF. Use his versatility, and instead of going into a season plugging him into a regular position, have him available to contribute to multiple positions.
Betemit does not have a ton of local fans, mainly because he is a butcher at 3rd (and LF), and is horrific offensively from the right side. He can still contribute to a team though. He is a valuable weapon vs. RH pitching. You could get by with him starting individual games at several positions. If any of the starters went down, he gives you a legitimate bat to insert into the lineup.
Should the O’s Front Office want to make a larger move to add external talent to the team, LF is probably the most likely spot for that addition.
Part of me likes the idea of bringing back McLouth, and going with him and Reimold in LF, with Hoes waiting in the wings. That line of reasoning is basically McLouth was an All-Star talent that had his career derailed by injuries, and found himself again with the O’s. He would bring speed, some pop, and get on-base at a decent clip. We’ve made no secret over the years about Reimold being one of our favorite players. He always hustles, has power to all fields, and is a good athlete. His injury was one of the more disappointing aspects of ’12. The other part of me says that giving multiple years to McLouth is a gamble. Also, with some of his value tied to his defense, it has to be mentioned that his arm is pretty poor. Reimold has a lot skills we value, but he turned 29 a month ago, and has had a combined 450 Major League ab’s over the past 3 years. Hard to go into a year relying on him.
The positional core of this team figures to remain Markakis, Jones, and Wieters. While I felt bad for Reimold, I felt horrible for Markakis when he missed the stretch-run in September and the Playoffs in October. From ’07 through ’11, Markakis missed a total of 10 games. In ’12, he played in just 104 games. He also posted his highest OPS (.834) since ’08. Did the time off, help his offense? Maybe. I think the injuries he dealt with during the year impacted his defense, particularly his throwing a bit. His offense in the 2nd half (.879 OPS) was a huge part of the reason the O’s reached the post-season. If there is no external talent added, it is pretty imperative for Markakis to produce. What are the O’s going to get out of him in ’13? In my eyes, his ’12 was a better representation of his talent than his ’11.
Going into next year, the primary question with Jones’ is will his numbers regress at all? Conversely, the primary question with Wieters’ will be does he have any untapped offensive potential? The biggest difference in Jones’ 2012 numbers vs. 2011 season, was a spike in his slugging percentage. He still has issues with plate discipline. His on-base %, is still primarily tied to his average. I can see Jones’ slugging percentage be lower than the .505 he posted this year, but I think he finishes above the .466 slugging % he posted in ’11. Wieters numbers were pretty similar in ’12 to what he produced in ’11. The biggest difference for him was a gain in both K’s and BB’s. If he is ever going to make a jump with the bat, he is going to have to become more productive from the LH side. (Interestingly, he was stronger from the LH side in both ’09, and ’10 – before struggling from that side the last two years.) Until proven differently, I’ll just assume he puts up a ’13 season that looks like we have seen from him the last two years.
What awaits the Birds in ’13? I see enough questions up and down the roster to believe that if things went ‘wrong’ the O’s could again find themselves bringing up the cellar in the AL East. I also see enough talent on the roster where I think the O’s can again contend, even without bringing in any external additions. 85 wins or so seems reasonable to me.
Baltimore Sports and Life has written numerous other articles so far this off-season, looking at the roster, Free Agents, and Potential Trades. Check those articles out here.