Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Birdland Bulletin: Midseason State of the Union

by Ben

Another year, and yet another losing record.  I know we as a fan base were not expecting a playoff team this year, but damn it we were expecting to be competitive and flirt with .500. Well we flirted with a .500 record; in fact we took her home from the bar and got our cookies! And then she snuck out in the morning, didn’t leave us her number, and we haven’t seen or heard from her again.  She won’t return our calls, emails, texts, or even our sexts.  It appears she has left us for good and who knows maybe we can rekindle our relationship with Ms. .500 in 2012 when we beef up.

The Orioles have had some positives, some pleasant surprises, a change in culture, and some inkling of good vibes.  But there have been more disappointments, alarming regressions, and more of the same losing product that we’ve grown numb to the past 14 years.

First off let’s applaud Matt Wieters for his first (and certainly not his last) all-star selection.  Wieters was labeled as “Joe Mauer with Power” as he was coming up through the minor league ranks. Let’s be frank here, he was crushing minor league pitching like White Goodman crushes women’s souls.  Since his call up in 2009, Wieters has not lived up to this absurd hype, and WE NEED TO BE OK WITH THIS! Read that sentence again and please appreciate it.  Catcher is physically the most demanding position in all of baseball and they are very susceptible to injuries whether it is off of foul balls, 55 foot curveballs (something Orioles’ pitchers are some of the best at), or having their knees erode faster than Luke Wilson’s acting career. Wieters’s bat speed has looked slow at times, and he has not hit the prolific home run totals we were promised.  Yet again I repeat, we need to be ok with this.  He is a very solid hitter and it is clear he is still figuring out major league pitching which can only be compared to figuring out how to pick up girls (it comes easy to few, takes a lot of reps, and most never figure out how to do it effectively.)  His offensive breakout is coming folks, but we’ve already started to witness his defensive prowess. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Gary Thorne on a MASN broadcast allude to how much Buck Showalter lauds Wieters’ pitch calling abilities.  Some argue his pitch calling only looks good because we were comparing it to the games called by Jake Fox once a week.  The Jake Fox plan went over about as well as O.J. Simpson’s Las Vegas memorabilia heist.  All kidding aside, Wieters calls a great game, and if people like Buck Showalter, Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, and GOD himself are crediting Wieters with this ability, then it must be true. He may not be the .300, 30 homer, 100 RBI guy we were promised, but that is ok! We have an all star catcher, who is a defensive stud, and he still has a boatload of potential he hasn’t tapped into yet. We as a committed fan base can most certainly live with that.

In Major League Baseball, each team gets to send one representative to the all star game. From 1983-2001 we knew Cal Ripken Jr. was headed to the midsummer’s classic, but more often than not he was accompanied by a teammate whether it was Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina, Robbie Alomar, or a guest appearance from everyone’s favorite, Mike Bordick.  In the Charm City there were three guarantees in life: death, crabs, and Cal making the all-star team.  Since Cal’s retirement in 2001, it has been a cast of characters representing the Orioles from Melvin Mora, to Miguel Tejada, George “The Sheriff” Sherill and Ty “Don’t Touch my Baby Back Ribs” Wigginton.  Or as I like to call these all stars: “The Fox Primetime Lineup”, because let’s be real Fox shows NEVER make it back for a 2nd season. Orioles’ fans generally had a good idea who was headed to the All Star game because we generally only have one player with numbers worthy of an all star appearance.   This year has been kind of cool because there were at least 3 guys deserving of representing the Orioles in Arizona, I even thought maybe 2 players will make it.   The two players who were getting the most pub were J.J. Hardy (.278 13 HRs 33 RBIs) and Adam Jones (.285 13 HR’s 49 RBI’s), and Jones was on the fan ballot for the last spot which was won by Paul Konerko of the White Sox. Neither player ended up making the all star team, but they have been bright spots this season.  Hardy missed time early in the season due to an oblique injury, but since his return from the DL he has been on a tear, and solidified our infield with some outstanding defense.  He has been batting leadoff due to the absence of Brian Roberts who is out with concussions, and has really been a galvanizer for our offense.  The Orioles are “negotiating” with Hardy on an extension which really means they are stroking his ego until July 31st, garnering trade offers, will eventually turn down said trade offers because they won’t be receiving 2-3 elite prospects, and then watch Hardy walk at the end of the season.  This is standard operating procedure for the Baltimore Orioles.  So all we ask J.J. is that you keep it up, please for the love of God sign an extension, and continue your excellent play.

After being named an all star in 2009 and winning the Gold Glove, Adam Not that Moron” Jones regressed in 2010 with some brutal centerfield play and prolonged slumps at the plate where no adjustments were being made.  He was energized by the hiring of Buck Showalter and closed out 2010 with a strong finish.  This carried over into the first half of 2011, with some highlight reel plays in center, a walk off homer against the Royals, and a steady bat as the number 3 hitter in our lineup.  Does he still chase a good amount of breaking balls? Sure, but he’s still developing as a hitter and his talent, ability, and drive are very obvious.  He like Wieters has a very high ceiling, and can’t wait to watch him continue to grow as a ball player. 

After the first month of the season Nick Markakis was batting .204, 2 HR’s, 6 RBI’s, and 2 2b’s.  He faired a bit better in May but was still only hitting .246, 4 HR’s, 17 RBI’s, and 4 2b’s.  Raise your hand if you were worried about the $66.1 million cornerstone/building block of the franchise?  All of your hands should be raised right now! He was scuffling, but I kept calming myself down by repeating what I’ve heard the immortal Sean Casey say time and time again on MLB Tonight “You are what you are in this game.” What he means by that is if there is a career .275 hitter who is raking at a remarkable .345, you can bet the house that there is a slump in his future that will get his average back down to around .275.  On the flip side, if you’re a career .275 and you’re currently slumping at a .206 average, well you’re damn sure there is a hot streak coming.  Well Markakis is a .297 career hitter, so hitting .246 was a cause for concern but not a cause to go all Jodie Foster and barricade yourself in the panic room. Sure enough since June 1st, Markakis is hitting .369 getting his average up to .292; he’s up to 7 home runs, and 36 RBI’s.  But more importantly he is getting his doubles up because extra base hits are his M.O.  I heard all the naysayers calling him a “70 million dollar singles hitter”, and I must interject there.  This guy has some scary hand eye coordination when he is up at the dish.  He eyes up balls like the women of Baltimore eye up J.J. Hardy at the bar!  Markakis had some early season struggles, but he has rebounded nicely and rounded back into form.  He will continue his steady numbers and will be a consistent productive presence at the top of our lineup.

This offseason we saw the Orioles make some moves to acquire veteran/proven hitters that could help form a very productive lineup.  Well the lineup really has not been as productive as many of us would have hoped, but let’s take a step back and highlight the positives here.

Derrek Lee was a perennial MVP candidate in the National League when he played for the Chicago Cubs.  This is not the Derrek Lee the Orioles signed this offseason.  D-Lee is far removed from the .300, 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons he used to put up, but he is still the consummate professional.  He has been the leader of the clubhouse and a key cog in the culture change that has occurred around this ball club. His glove at first base is still one of the best in The Show.  His hands are like crab nets and he scoops up everything in sight.  Mark Reynolds has 20 errors this year and would have 26-28 if it weren’t for D-Lee’s slick fielding.  The same goes for Andino.  Lee’s season offensively, can certainly be defined by Katy Perry’s hit Hot N’ Cold, and he certainly has not been the hitter Andy McFail (intentional typo, folks) thought he was signing.  He is hitting .229, but lately has shown flashes of the old D-Lee with a 5-5 vs. the Nats and a walk off homer vs. the Reds.  But as far as I’m concerned I refuse to judge his tenure in Birdland by his numbers.  He has been a calming veteran presence, a great leader, a steady glove, and top notch teammate.  So to me he has been worth every penny.

Another addition to the lineup was Vladimir Guerrero.  I was over the moon when we signed Vladi, not because I was expecting the 30 homers and 100 RBI’s he put up in Texas last year, but because I was devastated when the Orioles didn’t sign him in 2003.  This offseason I was just stoked to be able to finally see Vladi rocking the orange and black.  Sure, Vladi isn’t putting up the numbers of old, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t playing better than the whole Sammy Sosa experiment.  Vlad has not been very productive especially with runners in scoring position which is a major problem since he is our cleanup hitter.  So he has been a bit of a disappointment in that sense, but who would you rather have in there? A guy with his resume or anyone the O’s have trotted out at DH the past few years…

And now for the moment I’m sure you all have been waiting for. Mark. Reynolds.  If you have read any of our previous blogs or followed any of our tweets, you will know how I allegedly feel about Mark Reynolds.  Some of you may remember that I aptly nicknamed him “My Mortal Enemy.”  Well that was early in the season and I go back and forth on Mark Reynolds more than Ronnie and Sammi fight.  I am a baseball lifer, I played the baseball in college, and now I’ve started my career as a baseball coach, so I know the game and I appreciate the little things.  Mark Reynolds appeared incapable of doing the little things; moving runners over to third, driving runners in from third with a sac fly/groundout, and basically being a competent defensive third basemen.  Reynolds had a knack for striking out with a runner at third with less than two outs and this drew significant ire from me.  I began to loathe Reynolds because he appeared to be a very selfish hitter who would swing for the fences when a routine grounder to 2nd would have gotten the job done.  Orioles fans knew what were getting a strikeout machine (he averaged 192 strikeouts in his first 4 seasons), but also knew he could hit the long ball (121 homers in his first 4 seasons).  His defense has always been really bad, but you’ve got to cut him slack because his hands are about as soft as a Stephen Strasburg fastball.  Mark Reynolds was paying monthly rent in my dog house (Casey Rabach is the landlord), but he has since gone on a vacation and has began subletting his room to Robert Andino.  I fully expect Mark Reynolds to move back in come August.  Reynolds started the season by hitting .169 in April with 2 home runs and 25 strikeouts.  He followed that up with a .215 average, 5 more home runs and 29 more strikeouts in May.  However, he had a really good June by hitting close to .300 and smacking 8 homeruns, and cutting his strikeouts down to…27.  The numbers are all fine and good, but what is obvious is that he has shortened up at the plate a bit and began driving in runners at third with productive outs.  He’s begun getting sac flies and RBI groundouts and that shows that he is really making more of a team effort.  I know this makes me sound like a front runner, and I’m only coming around on the guy because he is playing better (and maybe that’s true) but he has made a drastic adjustment and that is something I can certainly respect and appreciate.  Reynolds can be very frustrating to watch, but as the weather heated up so has his bat and he is red piping hot smacking home runs left and right.  He is up to 20 home runs and 49 RBIs and is a legit power spot in a lineup that has as much power as a punch in the face from Jake Berman.  

Our lineup has been relatively underachieving, but as I said earlier courtesy of Sean Casey, you are what you are and the Orioles lineup is a combination of professional hitters who are confident in their abilities, and young studs on the cusp of reaching their potential.  I fully expect a solid second half of the season from our lineup; now let’s hope our pitching staff can keep up.

To be continued…

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: The Pitchers

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