Monday, April 9, 2012

Birdland Bulletin: Why Not Us?

by Ben

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Orioles are 3-0, and this is the year the streak of losing seasons finally ends!

Truth be told, I started working on this article 2 weeks ago, so I do not want this to seem like a hair-trigger reaction to the Orioles hot start to the season.

My “Orioles Optimism” is like Jason Vorhees; it comes around every summer...and it just won't die. When I started writing this post, I would jot down some ideas, and then I would close my computer because I realized starting to get myself fired up about the Orioles was doing me more harm than good.

According to most, this Orioles roster should be as successful as a Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. While everyone with an opinion has been pegging the Orioles to finish 5th in the A.L. East, and close to last in the Big Leagues, I have chosen to sing a different tune.  

I may be biased, and the Birds may have had an offseason quieter than an angel's fart...but why not this team? Why can't this Orioles squad be any good?

So first let’s take a look at some of the ramblings I came up with two weeks ago, and then we will have a quick recap of what transpired in the Orioles season opening sweep of the Minnesota Twins.

Our lineup has some serious pop.  This Orioles lineup is going to keep the team in games when our starting pitchers are as effective as the Boston Red Sox pitching staff down the stretch of last season.  The O’s lineup is basically the same team that trotted out there the final month of 2011, a team that went 15-12 in September. 

The old adage in baseball about hitting is, “you are what you are.”  What this means is a player hits around a certain average pretty much every season of their career, and will ultimately end up at this point by the end of the season.  For instance J.J. Hardy is a career .264 hitter, so even if he’s hitting a blistering .360 over the first couple of months of the year, you know that he will eventually slow down and settle into the .260-.270 range. 

The Orioles lineup has a couple of proven big league hitters in their lineup whose career numbers are very effective and will help round out the lineup.  The aforementioned Hardy fits this mold, as does the free-swinging Mark Reynolds.  Reynolds is going to hit a paltry .220, but he’s also going to crush 30-35 home runs.  I grew increasingly frustrated last season watching Mark Reynolds strike out with less than two outs and runners in scoring position. But those hell-hacks that Reynolds has made famous are also responsible for 400-foot towering homers, so you have to take the good with the bad, I guess.  Hardy plays a reliable shortstop, while Reynolds makes more errors at 3rd base than a 3rd grader on a spelling test. BUT, Hardy and Reynolds will stabilize the left side of the infield and be productive hitters in the batting order.

Nick Markakis fits into the mold of “you are what you are” for the most part, but in the words of Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers…with shades of gray.   Markakis is a career .296 hitter and he has hit between 15-20 home runs a year over his career.  Those are numbers we can absolutely live with! However, I’m not sold that we have seen Nick Markakis’s ceiling, even if this is his 7th season in the Bigs.  When Nick Markakis was going through the O’s Minor League System faster than #117 from La Plaza Tapatia goes through your digestive system, he was making a name for himself with his power. In fact his nickname was “Moonshot Markakis”. 

Since Markakis has been in the Big Leagues he has been a run producing spray hitter who hits to all fields.  Markakis has truly developed into one of the best pure hitters in baseball, but his power numbers have lagged a little behind.  Professional scouts say that power can develop as a career goes forward, and some players just need to hit for average first. Sort of like you’ve got to walk before you crawl, so to speak. 

A prime example of this idea is Joe Mauer. The Twins’ catcher came up and was slapping hits to all fields, but he was not hitting the long ball very much.  Heading into the 2009 season, Mauer had never hit more than 13 home runs and then he walloped 28 bombs.  It appeared that he had become the power hitter that everyone expected him to be.  Mauer developed his power after establishing himself in the league as a high batting average guy.  Jacoby Ellsbury is another good example of this idea, or maybe it’s just the cycle of steroids he was on last season. But that’s beside the point because I really feel that 2012 could be the year Nick Markakis unleashes that power stroke that elevated him through the Orioles Farm System.

So those are the truly established hitters in the Orioles lineup, but we have not even mentioned Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, or Nolan Reimold.  That’s because they are still developing, and we have not seem them at their best yet.  Everyone is writing off the Orioles because the nucleus of the team is the same one that has been central in the most recent losing seasons.  Players like Jones and Wieters have been thrust into leadership roles and had a ton of weight placed on their shoulders to not just produce, but produce at prolific rates while turning around a franchise that makes reaching mediocrity seem like a lofty goal.

This is Jones’s 5th season with the Birds and he is just 26 years old.   His home runs have gone up every year, and his avg. has steadily gone up from .270 in 2008 to .280 last season.  His approach is better and he has shown better discipline on that low and away slider that has been his kryptonite. 

Matt Wieters came into the league with expectations bigger than Prince Fielder’s waistline.  The expectations for Wieters were justified seeing as he accomplished everything in the Minor Leagues aside from walking on water.  Matty Backstop is just 25 and is now entering his 4th year in the Big Leagues.  He has had 1300 at bats over his career, and really closed out the year on a fine note with an impressive 22 home runs.  Even though Wieters may not be Mickey Mantle behind the plate as many were predicting, he will still be a productive catcher and an all star for years to come.  He is another year older, and with that comes more experience.  His ceiling is so high, and he will take another step closer to reaching that potential.

Barring injuries we will get to see Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold, and Robert Andino get full seasons under their belts.  Hopefully they will finally see a full season of 500-600 at bats and we will finally get a full sample size of these young(ish) hitters.  Davis has not topped 200 AB’s in one season since 2009 when he got 391 with Texas.  Reimold’s total at bats since 2009 read 358, 116, and 267.  He was slowed by an Achilles injury in parts of 2010 and 2011 and by all accounts he is fully healthy this spring.  This will hopefully be the year that Nolan Reimold stakes his claim to the left field job for the Orioles., that has seemingly been his for the taking since 2009.

I’m glad the Orioles did not make too many big additions to the lineup this offseason – cut to a confused Wilson Betimit – because our young nucleus WILL take that next step forward.  The same goes for the rotation, and I will keep this short because we all know what is at stake with the starting rotation.

I suppose it’s easy for some to label the young crop of Orioles pitchers as “busts” simply because they weren’t great from the get go.  Much like Wieters and Jones, the expectations for Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman may have been a bit unfair.  All of these pitchers are 26 years old or younger.  They seem older than that because they have been making starts for the Orioles since they were 21, 22, 23 years old.  They needed to take their lumps and learn on the job because the Orioles simply did not have good enough pitchers in their rotation to allow these young studs to grow on the farm.  The young guys were thrust into the fire and they got burned. 

Arrieta is another year older and if he can just harness his pitches and show better command, then he will have a great year.  UPDATE: Just ask the Twins how Arrieta looked on Friday!

Matusz showed up to spring training last year out of shape and he suffered an oblique injury that ultimately derailed his entire season.  His velocity was down, his command was awful, and his confidence was worse than a 15 year old in the Chess Club.  Last season’s embarrassment has motivated Matusz, and his offseason workouts with Brady Anderson have gotten that fastball back to life.  Matusz has way too much talent to be written off after one lousy season. 

Tommy Hunter is still young (25 years old), and is one season removed from 14 wins and a start in the World Series.  Who knows what we are getting from Jason Hammel or Wei-Yin Chen, but I guarantee you they are better options than O’s rotations of yesteryear.  And they are just going to have to be better because Steve Trachsel and Adam Eaton ain’t walking through the door!

I still believe in Tillman, and seeing his velocity up this Spring was very encouraging.  We should be looking for him to make in impact sometime this summer. Britton’s shoulder inflammation is worrisome, but the fact that Dr. James Andrews does not feel that surgery is necessary is a huge relief.  Speaking of relief…

The bullpen is better simply because Mike Gonzalez is gone and Kevin Gregg is not closing.  Jim Johnson was 9-9 in save opportunities last September and he does not pee down his leg like Gregg if he allows a runner to reach base.  Tsuyoshi Wada and Matt Lidstrom will be relied upon in the later innings, and Troy Patton could be an effective lefty specialist.  All in all, the pen is improved, and the less Gregg the better.

So that was what I came up with 2 weeks ago, and right now the Orioles are 3-0 after the sweep of the team formally known as Minnesota’s pride and joy.  The recipe for success this weekend was outstanding starting pitching:

Arrieta – 7 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 4 K, 0 R (W).
Hunter -  7 IP, 6 H, 1 BB,  3 K, 2 R (0 ER) (W).
Hammel -  8 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 5 K, 1 R (W) and he took a No-No into the 8th inning.

Jim Johnson locked down 2 saves as well.  Obviously we won’t be getting starts like that every night, but the recipe for success is starting pitchers going deep into games and the turning the game over to a solid bullpen.  When pitchers go out and carve up opposing lineups, it inspires confidence and it also drums up competition throughout the rotation.  The starters will continue to push each other and hopefully the quality starts will be as common at OPaCY as Boog Powell’s 3rd chin signing autographs.

Markakis is showing some early pop with 2 home runs to go along with a nice .556 BA. Jones and Wieters have already dialed up the long ball, as has J.J. Hardy.  The batting averages are a little low for some of the guys, but pitchers are generally ahead of the hitters for the beginning of the season.  

Am I predicting the playoffs? Of course not, but I am very encouraged by the early returns of the 2012 campaign. All I am trying to say is that the Orioles will NOT be as bad as everyone thinks they will be.  The young nucleus has taken their lumps, but they have taken their lumps because they have been gaining valuable experience the past 3-4 seasons.  They will continue to grow together, and the Orioles have a legit shot to sneak up on some teams.  The goal for this season should be .500, which seems like a humble goal, but we should not expect too much seeing as we have not had a .500 ball club in Baltimore since Bill Clinton was responsible for crusty stains on a certain dress.  To some this may seem like an over reaction to a great opening weekend, but every spring brings new hope and new optimism.  And if you have already written off the 2012 Birds, then may Nick Johnson’s mustache have mercy on your soul.

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