Thursday, March 31, 2011

Checking in with the Orioles: My Long-Distance Relationship

Another season is nearly upon us. Tomorrow, the Baltimore Orioles' 2011 campaign begins with both of us far from Maryland. They shall be frolicking in Tampa while I toil through yet another Vermont mud season, eager for signs of a real spring. I look forward to renewing our love affair, even at a distance.

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I am not the only Orioles fan excited for the new baseball year. While 2010 was, for the most part, disastrous, the Birds burned through the last two months of the season as one of the hottest teams in the American League. We're all eager to see if the fun will continue.

For me an improvement - any improvement - on last year's .407 winning percentage would be plenty to celebrate. But let's be frank. What the club really needs is stability and in order to keep owner Peter Angelos happy with current management, more significant strides will need to be made.

A few weeks ago, Matt Trueblood of Bleacher Report provided an outline of ten things the Orioles must do to win the pennant. While a league pennant would far surpass this fan's reasonable expectations, Trueblood's assertions seem an excellent starting point for charting the team's progress over the season:

1. Brian Matusz becomes an ace.

Jeremy Guthrie is slated for the Opening Day start against the Rays, a spot usually reserved for the staff ace. But it's a long season and there's plenty of time for Matusz to emerge as the star of the rotation. Last year, he posted an ERA of 4.30, a WHIP of 1.34 and a .255 batting average against. He'll get his first start of the year in game 2 of the Tampa Bay series.

2. Koji Uehara wins the the closer role.

This is already a cause for concern. Uehara has struggled with soreness in his throwing elbow this spring. While it is still possible that he will be ready to go for tomorrow, it seems likely that newly acquired Kevin Gregg will hold down the closer role for the time being.

3. Nick Markakis elevates.

Last year, Markakis had a .297 batting average, a .370 on-base percentage and a .436 sluggling percentage. One stat, in particular, that Trueblood highlights for Markakis is his ground outs/air outs ratio: 1.28. A decline in that number would have good implications for Markakis's power game.

4. Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes regress.

It stands to reason that for the Orioles to do better, it certainly wouldn't hurt for the rest of the AL East to decline a little. In particular, the right-handed heavy Orioles line up is vulnerable to right-handed starters.

Against Buchholz, the Orioles can only improve. The Boston righty pitched 15 innings against the Birds in 2010 and didn't allow a single earned run. His WHIP vs. Baltimore was 0.87. The O's only managed a .176 average against him.

The Orioles fared only slightly better when facing Hughes. The Yankee pitcher had a 2.41 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP vs. Baltimore over three 2010 starts. The Birds batted .239 against him.

5. Justin Duchscherer gets healthy.

We'll definitely keep an eye on how many starts he misses due to injury. His career high is 141.2 innings pitched in a season. He begins the season on the 15-day disabled list. That's not a good sign.

6. Buck Showalter makes this team his own.

Let us not kid ourselves. The main reason the faithful are excited about the Orioles this season has little to do with any of the players, young or old. It's all about the new white-haired gentleman in the dugout. There's no denying that he brought powerful positive energy to the club at the end of last season and everyone's eager to see if the team can keep it up.

Trueblood emphasizes power and fielding as areas for team improvement. The team slugging percentage last year was .386. The fielding percentage was .982.

7. Zach Britton finds his way.

I am a cautious person by nature. As such, talk of any prospect being rushed to the Majors makes me nervous. By all accounts, Britton is a very talented pitcher but there are also genuine concerns. I almost wish for his sake that he were in a stronger organization that didn't need him so urgently. Trueblood targeted a May call up. We shall see.

8. Left field poses a good problem.

At present, the job is Luke Scott's with Félix Pié as the backup. The key here is Pié. Can he play well enough to steal some of Scott's starts? Or can Scott play well enough to keep Pié on the bench. I'm not sure there's a quantifiable measure of success for this factor. If there is buzz regarding the Scott/Pié issue during the season, it seems that will bode well for the team overall.

9. Craig Tillman breaks the ceiling.

Duchscherer's injury works out nicely for Tillman. He was starting to look like the odd man out in the rotation but he made the 25-man roster. He makes his first start on Sunday. His ERA last year was 5.87. His WHIP was 1.55. His batting average against was .255.

10. Adam Jones becomes Batman.

Jones has long been the Orioles' superstar to be. Could this be the year he realizes his potential? Despite Trueblood's choice of superhero, the Orioles expect a lot more than a strong performance at the plate from Jones. He's a five-tool man so we'll be looking for improvement in batting average (.284 in 2010), slugging percentage (.442), stolen base percentage (50%), fielding percentage (.984) and range factor (3.01).


As I wrote yesterday, I will be participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, hosted by Tossing It Out. It's not too late for you to join in the fun, either. It all starts tomorrow. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the old ball club, my A to Z theme shall involve a leisurely stroll through the Oriole legacy.

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