MLB March Report: Baltimore Orioles

The city of Baltimore loves its Orioles, and in spite of attendance figures that suggest otherwise, my four years of living in Charm City have me convinced that it will take just a small spark to re-ignite the passion and fill Camden Yards. Is 2012 the year the Birds can have their first winning season since the playoff years of 1996-97? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Orioles and evaluates them on the four key areas of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and the bullpen.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The problems with the offense all start right here, as this lineup seems to be the anti-Moneyball. It’s not that there isn’t individual talent here—there is, as we’ll see when we come to the power section. But all the talent has the same weakness, and there are just not good on-base percentages in this lineup.  One exception to that is rightfielder Nick Markakis. The 28-year-old hits for average and has the plate discipline to take his walks. This area of the offense has been hurt enormously by the injuries to second baseman Brian Roberts over the last two years. When he was healthy, Roberts made consistent contact, drew walks and drove the ball to the alleys. With back problems afflicting his 34-year-old frame, it’s hard to be optimistic about his attempts to come back.

POWER: The Baltimore offense doesn’t have the one dynamic slugger that opposing pitchers will gameplan around or that SportsCenter will build highlight reels off of, but what they do have are several hitters who are consistent at hitting the alleys and pretty good at hitting it out of the park. It starts with catcher Matt Wieters and centerfielder Adam Jones, both entering their fourth full year in the majors. J.J. Hardy found the power stroke he seemed to have left in Milwaukee five years ago and enjoyed a career resurgence. Mark Reynolds bashed 37 home runs. New acquisition Wilson Betemeit, who can play both corner infield spots and DH has consistently slashed the ball to the alleys when he gets consistent playing time. Nolan Reimold has done mostly part-time duty in his career, but he’s consistently hit for power and will likely get the full-time gig in left field for this season. And then there’s Chris Davis, who came over last year in the deal that sent reliever Koji Uehara to Texas. The 25-year-old Davis looked to be on the rise in 2008-09 in Texas, but injuries and the development of Mitch Moreland froze him out the last two seasons. At his best, he hits for power, but, like the rest of this group, needs serious improvement at getting on base consistently.

STARTING PITCHING: If you look at the depth chart and competitors for the Orioles starting rotation, it looks like these tryouts are being used as Buck Showalter’s personal stimulus plan for unemployment. But you can focus on five names—Zach Britton, Wei Yin-Chen, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arretia. These five, all aged 24-26 are the ones who have to contribute. Britton looked like a Cy Young candidate early last year with his nasty slider before he began to struggle and finished with a 4.61 ERA. He’s also the youngest of the group though, so for now I’m prepared to assume it was just normal growing pains. Chen is over from Japan and all we really know is that he was good in the Far East. Whether that translates to the AL East is another question. Arietta has 40 starts over the last three years and has a 4.88 ERA. It’s tough to see him being a high-end starter, but if he nudges the ERA down just a little bit and can do so while getting 30 starts, he can be a valuable #4 or #5 guy—either for this team, or as trade bait in July. Hunter and Matusz are the wild-cards. The former won 13 games with a 3.73 ERA with Texas in 2010 before injuries got him last season and he was traded over with Davis. Matusz posted a solid 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for the Orioles in 2010 before his own injury problems tripped him up. If these two arms get healthy, they’ve each shown their stuff. The only arm beyond the Young Five is Jason Hammel. At 29, Hammel is pretty much settled into being a pitcher who chews up innings, but has a high ERA. As long as he can keep the ERA under 5 and the Orioles don’t rely on him for more than being a fifth starter, he’ll be fine.

RELIEF PITCHING: Last year Kevin Gregg got the closer’s job and there was hope he could stabilize this area. It didn’t work out and Gregg is now one of two veteran options Showalter has in setup, along with Colorado’s Matt Lidstrom, acquired along with Hammel in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie. The O’s should get good work from Lidstrom, and Gregg is a wait-and-see proposition. The closer’s role fell to Jim Johnson, who’s done solid work in setup the last four years and closed all eight of his chances after taking the ninth-inning role from Gregg late last year. Depth in front of this group might come from Darren O’Day, who did a good job for Texas in 2010 before injuries derailed him a year ago and he became available on waives. Brad Bergesen, a one-time promising starter, is relegated to competing for relief work. And Jason Berken, who appeared to emerge as a solid middle reliever in ’10, fell back to earth last year. The lineups of the AL East grind on a pitching staff, so you need a deep group in the pen, meaning at least one of these latter three have to become reliable.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 69.5: I’ve been optimistic about Baltimore’s chances going back at least to 2005, but last year took a lot out of me. If the young pitchers all come together, the Orioles will get into the mid-70s, but even at that, they’ll need better work at getting runners on base to get the elusive winning season. On the flip side, if the starting pitching doesn’t come through, 100 losses is a distinct possibility. The percentage move here is to bet the under.