Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sleeper of the AL: Baltimore Orioles

First of all: Yes, I am alive. I am just in graduate school, so in some ways I may as well not be. I have decided to attempt (yes, I've said that before) to revive this blog, but given my schedule, I will probably only be updating once a week. But hey, that's a lot more than has been going on since October.

At any rate, my topic for this week is to discuss the team that I feel is not getting enough attention regarding the moves they have made this offseason, and how much better their team has likely gotten in the mean time. First, let's recap what the Baltimore Orioles have done this off-season that I believe can contribute to their winning this year, with brief analysis, in no particular order:

1. Traded RP David Hernandez and RP Kam Mickolio for 3B Mark Reynolds.

I would argue that the Orioles came away as huge winners in this trade. While they did trade a guy with a high ceiling in Kam Mickolio, the Orioles received an extremely solid corner infield bat. While Reynolds did struggle to a .198/.320/.433 line last year, he still drew 83 Walks and hit 32 Home Runs. In large part, the .198average is due to bad luck. Now, the guy is never going to be a batting champion given his enormous strikeout rate, but it's easy to deal with a guy hitting .240 if he has a decent OBP and SLG, which should be easy for Reynolds to obtain this year. Also, while Reynolds is leaving a hitter's park, he is also moving to a hitter's park, so he should not see any decline in his power numbers. It should also be noted that Reynolds is no slouch defensively, and his production on both sides of the ball should be a major improvement over Garret Atkins and Miguel Tejada. Oh, and if you needed any more pros for the Orioles, Reynolds is signed for a fairly affordable $13.5 million/year through 2013, and is still just 27 years old.

The Short Version: Reynolds brings considerable power, better defense, and some future stability at 3B.

2. Traded a couple of low minors prospects for SS J.J. Hardy and INF Brendan Harris.

J.J. Hardy, like Reynolds, had a bad year last year. Unlike Reynolds, Hardy has the excuse of an injury that limited him to 101 games, which contributed to him finishing with a .268/.320/.394 line. Unlike Reynolds however, Hardy seems to have lost the power he showed in 2007 and 2008, hitting 50 home runs between the two season, having hit only 17 home runs in the two following seasons combined. Despite that, most metrics still show Hardy as a great defender, and he is a great buy low target for the Orioles. Is it likely that Hardy rebounds to be a 25 homer guy this year? No. But it's entirely possible that he Slugs above .450, and contributes double digit homers to a club that had very little offense out of shortstop last year. Hardy is only signed through this year, but you can bet that if he manages to revive his career at Camden Yards, the Orioles will be right there with an extension.

Clearly, Brendan Harris is just an afterthought here, and likely an attempt by the Twins to dump his $1.6 million salary. Harris is nothing more than a utility man, and doesn't even defend very well, but he can play all over the infield, so that has some value. It would not be completely shocking to see him released before Spring Training, however.

The Short Version: Hardy contributes solid defense, and more offense than the Orioles got out of SS last year, even if he repeats what he did last year over a full season. Harris brings depth, and not much else.

3. The 1B Derrek Lee signing.

This signing may be for just one year, but that in itself is a wise move by the Orioles. Derrek Lee has had an injury history, and is not young by baseball standards at 35 years old. However, like Hardy, Lee is a great reclamation project. It is easy to forget after Lee's struggles last year (.260/.347/.428 with only 19 homers) that in 2009 Lee hit .306/.393/.579 with 35 homers. It is not a stretch to think that Lee could return to a similar level this year. While it is unlikely he repeats his 2009 season, it would not be a shock to see Lee split the difference between the two seasons, and do something like .280/.365/.500 with 25 homers. And once again, even if Lee does what he did last year, he will be an improvement over Garret Atkins at first base.

The Short Version: Lee brings more power in the middle of the order and a leadership factor the Orioles may not have had last season.

4. The DH Vladimir Guerrero signing.

While this hasn't actually happened yet, it is all but guaranteed to happen at some point in the next week. While Vlad the Impaler is a disaster in the outfield these days, he will provide the Orioles with a powerful DH. Guerrerro is a near-lock for a .300 batting average and 25 home runs for the Orioles. Unlike the other signings, Guerrerro will be taking the position of one of the few productive Orioles players last year, Luke Scott. However, Luke Scott's power will still be in the line-up, as he has already volunteered to move to the Outfield should the Orioles sign Vlad.

The Short Version: Guerrero will only be able to play on the offensive side of the game, but should provide enough production their to justify signing him.

Clearly, all of these signings represent some improvement for the Orioles for next year, at least on offense and defense. Every one of the players that the Orioles have acquired this offseason (aside from Vlad) has at the very least a history of producing home runs and solid defense. In addition to everything they have done, the Orioles should (with luck) also receive a whole season of Brian Roberts next year, which should also contribute to their offense. If you are still not convinced that the Orioles offense has serious potential next year, look at the first 7 of a potential line-up for next year:

1. Brian Roberts
2. Adam Jones
3. Vladimir Guerrero
4. Mark Reynolds
5. Derrek Lee
6. Luke Scott
7. J.J. Hardy

Batters 2-6 int his line-up are near-locks for around 20 home runs, which is intimidating in any line-up. Pitchers will not have an easy time facing the Orioles.

However, it should also be clear that I have done very little to discuss Orioles pitching next year, which should probably still be a major problem. Jeremy Guthrie did pitch to his talent level last year, which is a good sign, and Brad Bergesen also displayed he has what it takes to pitch at the big league level. After these two however, the image becomes cloudy. Orioles pitching next year, despite their major advances in position players, will probably keep them from being legitimate contendors in a division as powerful as the AL East.

However, I think it is entirely possible for the Orioles to finish with an 81-81 record this season, which seems to be more than any one else is giving them. I will even go so far as to predict that they will finish ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays, who seem to be getting much of the offseason attention that the Orioles deserve.


Andrew said...

The Texas Rangers squads of the early 2000's would like to remind you how well offense without pitching works out. The Orioles are certainly trying to make some moves, but in my opinion, they're going about it in entirely the wrong way. Also, I move that they henceforth be referred to as only the Baltimore Fightin' Showalters.

Jacob said...

You are correct to some degree that they will have a difficult time competing due to their pitching, but a major difference between the early 2000's Rangers and the current Baltimore Orioles is that the majority of the guys on the Orioles can also play defense well, which will benefit the pitching. The guys on the Rangers were purely one-dimensional, aside from Alex Rodriguez.

Also, in all of those seasons the Rangers finished with 70 or more wins, and even had a couple winning (or near .500) records, something that the Orioles would sell their soul for right now.

But you are correct, the Orioles need to add some arms, or have their minor league arms perform well in the big leagues, to have a shot at anything more than .500.

Adam said...

Good write-up.

Mark Reynolds definitely did have an injury excuse last year though. He actually had a really unlucky season as far as health goes, probably even moreso than Hardy and Lee. He started the year with a quad injury that was clearly bothering him for the first half of the season (to the point that he was frequently being pulled out of games), had a concussion after being hit in the head by a pitch in August, and from early September on was playing with a bone bruise at the base of his thumb that completely sapped him of his power and caused his numbers to totally tank at the end of the season.

It was the hand injury that hurt him the most. For the first five months of the season, his OPSes were:

.909 April
.732 May
.770 June
.864 July
.845 August

His OPS in Sept/Oct? A whopping .291

If you take out that last month of the season, Reynolds ends up with a slash line of .216/.336/.485 for an .821 OPS with the same number of home runs.

Assuming he's reasonably healthy next year, we should be seeing a Mark Reynolds more like his 2009 season than his 2010.

Jacob said...

You raise some very good points, Adam. Somehow I had missed that he had so many injury problems, in part because I did not remember them and his Games Started is not especially low. But that's just because he gutted through the injury.
I think in some ways though, his '09 season may have been a little flukey, given his BABIP. However, I think he will return to something closer to his '09 form than his '10 form.