2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2009: 63 – 98 (5th AL East)
2008: 68 – 93
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 70 – 92
2005: 74 – 88

The Baltimore Orioles have had a worse record each year since winning 78 games in 2004 and haven’t posted a winning season since 1997, when they won 98 games.  What in the name of Earl Weaver is going on here???

Runs Scored: 741 (11th, AL)
Runs Allowed: 876 (Last, AL)

Season Recap:

Another year of rebuilding, another year of trying out prospects, and another year of being battered in road games, where the Orioles were 25 – 56.  Ouch.

Despite this, the Orioles are starting to show signs that they are accumulating the type of talent that will make them competitive – which would be good enough in the AL Central, but not in the AL East.

Just looking at the monthly splits, the team batted pretty well all year but had power surges in May and August.  What really happened was that the team slugged enough to help the pitchers in the beginning of the season, but the  pitching really left them after the all-star break.  The team ERA was a tolerable 4.55 in July when the Orioles were off – winning just 9 of 25 decisions.  Then it went to 5.30 in August as Baltimore lost 20 of 30 games, and finished at 6.22 (!) in September when the team lost 20 of 26 decisions.  Were it not for a four game winning streak in October, the Orioles would have lost 100 games.

So – looking ahead quickly, the Orioles need to figure out how to make up for a 135 run gap between offense and defense that would allow them to get to .500.

Pitching:

Jeremy Guthrie, who would look good on most teams, got to 200 innings in his 33 starts and wasn’t horrible despite his 10 – 17 record.  He’s not a league average pitcher in part because he doesn’t strike out enough batters – just 110 on the season.

The rest of the rotation struggled.  Rich Hill, brought in as sort of a reclamation project, gave the Orioles 13 awful starts (7.80 ERA), David Hernandez was called up for 19 starts that were a bit better, but he was whacked around to a 4 – 10 record.  Koji Uehara started off okay, but went down to a shoulder injury.  Prospect Jason Berken didn’t look ready – 24 starts and a 6.54 ERA.  Adam Eaton was added to the rotation and was predictably awful (2 – 5, 8.56).  Mark Hendrickson was allowed to start 11 times but was better in relief.

However, Brad Bergesen came up and won 7 of 12 decisions, and saved his team 16 runs over 123.1 innings.  Brian Matusz was given 8 starts and was league average, winning five of seven decisions.  Chris Tillman wasn’t awful.

The bullpen had George Sherrill‘s 20 saves and a solid 2.40 ERA, but shipped him to Los Angeles, putting Jim Johnson in the closer position where he was barely tolerable – not necessarily helping down the stretch.  Danys Baez gave the Orioles 72 decent innings.  Brian Bass was asked to work a lot of long relief.

Working against those four were Matt Albers (5.51 ERA), former closer Chris Ray (7.27 ERA) and a few other small time tryouts.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Orioles have to start by finding 400 better innings of pitching.  Kevin Millwood was acquired from Texas – Millwood was solid for five months and if he can keep his ERA under 4.50, would represent a 40 run improvement over 2009.  Guthrie gets the second spot, and Bergesen and Matusz will get more starts.  If they stay healthy and make 30 starts, that’s another 40 runs better.  Chris Tillman is expected to be a prize – and certainly will be better than eight Adam Eaton starts.

So, a realist sees the potential to make up at least 60 runs on last year, and an optimist might see 100 runs of improvement.

The bullpen adds former Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to the closer spot.  Gonzalez CAN be a good closer, and he CAN be a bit inconsistent.  Still, adding the healthy arm to the mix will be a step up.  Former Padre Cla Meredith will also help out, taking on the Baez innings.  Will Ohman comes over from the NL – and I would rather see him than, say, Matt Albers, who is still around and on the active roster as of 4/1.

I don’t see the bullpen being that much better than last year – and certainly nowhere near as deep as the top three teams in the division.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is here – the cover of Sports Illustrated in March – and could EXPLODE on the scene and make the all-star team.  Wieters didn’t disappoint as a rookie, showing a little power and hitting .288.  He represents a step up over Chad Moeller and Greg Zaun, and has far more upside.  The new back up is Craig Tatum.  Wieters does need to improve is caught stealing rate (barely league average) but is more mobile and made fewer mistakes per game than the two veterans in 2009.

Infield:

Last year, Aubrey Huff was merely ordinary and not producing at the rate the Orioles had hoped – just 13 – 72 – .253.  First baseman are supposed to create 100 runs of offense, and Huff was responsible for just 55.  Michael Aubrey and Garrett Atkins are around now.  Aubrey is an oft-injured Indian farm hand who was stuck behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (among others), but could be a surprise performer.  Atkins has been in decline for a few years and when asked to backup Todd Helton at first looked awkward.  I’d rather play Aubrey and keep Atkins on the bench.

Brian Roberts remains a remarkably productive offensive force at the top of the lineup, but his bad back is affecting his already below average range.  The Orioles don’t really have another choice (Robert Andino could field it, but not hit), so they have to hope that Roberts can keep his back loose and mobile.

At short, Cesar Izturis provided a great glove with no bat in the mold of Mark Belanger – hitting .253 with no power and, even worse, drawing just 18 walks in 114 games.  At least he keeps the pitchers happy.

Melvin Mora looked very old last year – only eight homers, and barely generating 50 runs of offense.  In his place, the Orioles are returning former Oriole Miguel Tejada (who is older than Mora) to play third.  Tejada had a solid season at short for Houston last year, but agreed to the move here.  Mora is usually pretty solid defensively, but Tejada could be his match and will certainly provide a bit more offense.

Looking at this pragmatically, and assuming Michael Aubrey gets the first shot at first base, there could be 30 more runs here (35 more at third, 15 more at first, offset by a potential decline at second base).  If Atkins plays, it’s probably only 15 runs better than last year, and that’s offset by Atkins bungling the position defensively, too.

Outfield:

With Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have a pretty productive group here.

Markakis is a dependable source of hits and runs, though his range isn’t enough to make up for his rocket arm.  I do believe, however, that this will be his breakout offensive season.  Jones needs to play 150 games, and if he does, will make a run at 20 – 20, if not 30 – 30.  Pie can field any of the three positions and isn’t a problem with the bat, though he’s not a well rounded hitter.  However, Nolan Reimold showed power and patience and if given 500 at bats, might hit 25 homers.  Fifth outfielder Luke Scott gets to be the DH – a power source from the left side of the plate, though he needs a platoon partner.

Looking ahead, I see no reason that this group can’t find 50 more runs of offense by (a) staying in the lineup, and (b) continuing to show progress.

Bench:

Robert Andino and Garrett Atkins in the infield and Felix Pie in the outfield are joined by super sub Ty Wiggington, who could also be a regular first baseman and help the club.  Luis Montanez gets to be an extra outfielder when needed.

Prospects:

The best guy not already listed above that played at AAA Norfolk might be second baseman Justin Turner.  Turner hit .300 with a .362 OBP and has tolerable speed.  He’s NOT as good as Brian Roberts, but if he is forced to play, I think he will outhit Andino and might surprise you with how good a fielder he is.  He’s certainly better with the glove than Roberts at this stage.  Turner is a Cal State Fullerton grad, and a former Reds draft pick (7th Round, 2006).

The best pitchers in Norfolk were Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who had solid runs and shots with the parent club last year.  Another option is reliever Kam Mickolio.  They all have the tools, they just need to put things together, which isn’t as easy as it looks – especially in the AL East.

A couple of Bowie Baysox (AA) pitchers to look for will be Brandon Erbe (44 hits allowed in 73 innings, but control issues) and Jacob Arrieta (70 Ks in 59 innings across 11 starts).  Give them a year or two and they might round out the Orioles rotation.  Another young reliever, Steven Johnson, might start the year at AAA.  The best hitter going through AA was Brandon Snyder, who pounded pitchers to a .343 batting average with 10 homers in 201 at bats, but appeared a bit overmatched at AAA.  A former catcher (and 2005 #1 pick), Snyder is getting time at first base now and if both Aubrey and Atkins aren’t producing in June, Snyder is just a hot start away from making the roster.

Richie Hebner managed former Wofford College slugger Brandon Waring and the Frederick Keys in 2009.  Waring is a third baseman who hits the ball a LONG way, and seems to be making progress in reducing his strikeout numbers.  Another former Reds prospect, Waring is still a couple of years away and should be ready for a look when Tejada hits 40.  Former FAU grad Robert Widlansky hit .340 for Frederick, but this was the first time he had played this well.

Among the pitchers, Brian Matusz already made it from Frederick to the bigs, and 22-year-old Zach Britton looks ready to try on AA after a year with 131 Ks in 140 innings.  Reliever Pat Egan still showed great control, but may not have enough gas to make it to the bigs.

Forecasting 2010:

You have to like Baltimore’s chances of moving the wins needle back in the right direction.  The potential to shave 60 – 80 runs defensively is there, and if Tejada doesn’t turn out to be 45 at third base, the offense could improve by 75 to 90 runs.  What is working against the Orioles is the top of the division – three teams all worthy of 90 wins.  I think the Orioles are extremely capable of winning more games than they lose – but might not just because they are in the AL East where good isn’t good enough.  So, even though the system says 83 – 79  I think 79 – 83 might be more in line with the final record and I am going to go against what the system says.

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Bradley Sent Home; Next Stop – Japan?

Well, you had to see this coming.  The Cubs brass, looking for an excuse to rid themselves of the discontented (and disappointing) outfielder, got one when Milton Bradley dissed the Cubs in an interview with the Daily Herald.  So, once Bradley said things like, “you know why this team hasn’t won in 100 years” and “I need a positive, stable environment” (I’m paraphrasing, admittedly, but I’m not far off), the team conduct clause kicked in.  So, General Manager Jim Hendry suspended Bradley for the rest of the season.  [ESPN]

Toronto’s Marco Scutaro injured his right heel and may not play for the rest of 2009.  Scutaro’s been dealing with heel pain (possibly plantar fasciitis), and said he heard a pop and felt striking pain.  Some however, including Roy Halliday, had this happen to them…  It COULD be the breaking up of scar tissue and would actually HELP him a couple of weeks down the road.  Either way, Scutaro had been solid – some power, 90 walks, and helping score runs at the top of the Blue Jays order.  [MLB]

Texas starter Kevin Millwood’s slump might have cost him a shot to make the 180 innings needed to kick in a $12 million fifth season on his current contract.  He needs 4-1/3 innings to reach the number…  Millwood is 2 – 5 over his last six weeks or so…  [ESPN]

Minnesota’s Joe Crede is scheduling a third back surgery to remove fluid from a herniated disc.  Crede hopes to be healthy in 2010, and wants another shot with the Twins.  [ESPN]

The Giants may have lost a hitting prospect to a murder charge…  Angel Villalona was involved with the death of a man in a bar in Villanova’s native Domincan Republic.  [ESPN]

Phillies pitcher Brett Myers has a sore shoulder and is getting a doctor’s opinion…  The Phillies bullpen was abused some this weekend and Myers was nowhere to be found…  [MLB]

Welcome Back! Lou Montanez (Baltimore), Ramon Hernandez (Cincinnati), Jake Peavy (Chi-Sox), and Seth McClung (Milwaukee) all came off the DL for the last two weeks…

Prospect Week in MLB!

This is prospect week, if you were paying attention. David Price was brought up by the Rays and given a start on Monday. Injuries to just about everybody on the Mets means that their top prospect (according to Baseball America), Fernando Martinez, will get a shot at the outfield. And, the Orioles announced that catcher Matt Wieters will be on the big league roster on Friday.

Price’s first outing wasn’t much to write home about – he couldn’t get through four innings and 100 pitches, but he left with a lead. Wild as all get out – but he’ll be fine.

Wieters – I saw him play and he’s the real deal. Big, strong, good catching instincts. He’ll catch for a few years and then become a first baseman DH hitting a ton. I think Steve has him – he’ll be an impact player. Think Joe Mauer, but bigger (and probably not as good defensively).

Fernando Martinez I know less about. He’s 20, though, which means there’s upside. He’s shown improving power and hits well enough (.282 in the minors, .294 in AAA Buffalo) and he can run a little – though he’s not asked to run much. I can say this, though, if some kid is 20 and performing well in AAA, he’s a prospect. We may not own him this year (but you might consider it), but somebody will own him by 2011.

The Mets keep winning, though. Last night was 1997 Marlins retro night – Gary Sheffield (roid!) homered in support of a Livan Hernandez complete game. Earlier in the day, the Mets finally put Jose Reyes on the DL (calf), and they put Ryan Church on the DL (hamstring). And, Carlos Beltran is day to day – won’t play until the weekend at the earliest. Delgado is already out with a bad hip. So, that’s four of the top six batters in the lineup??? Wow.

Tommy Hanson is expected to join the Braves this week – Hanson is the top pitching prospect for the Braves and is mowing down AAA pitching. 446Ks in 376 minor league innings, good control, and could be Rookie of the Year material if he gets 20 starts. (Nice pickup, Steve.)

I forgot – another prospect got a start last night – Jason Berken of the Orioles. Just 25, has great command and keeps the ball in the park. I think he looks good, and he won last night in his MLB debut. If you are rotating pitchers and he comes up, you might consider giving him a shot.

Too bad Andy couldn’t have taken his kids to the Royals game last night. Another Greinke gem.

Cubs finally win (rain stopped it in six), Padres finally lose (but nearly pulled it out with a ninth inning rally). The days of a Jays pennant seems a distant thought now.

Ryan Braun was hit by a pitch on his right wrist last night; x-rays were negative for the Brewer Bomber.

Roy Oswalt has a bruise on his throwing hand, hopefully won’t miss a start.

People who will miss a turn? Scot Shields has a left knee injury and joins the DL – the Angels can’t keep a pitcher healthy.

Jason Bartlett’s sprained ankle is enough to head to the DL. The Rays infield is now Brignac and Aybar (or Zobrist) instead of Bartlett and Iwamura – which might be a big decline in skills. Bartlett is one of the best, and Aki was playing great this year. Called up? Utility player, Joe Dillon (former fish!).

Lou Montanez, Orioles DH/OF prospect, is now on the DL with his thumb injury. Hope surgery goes well; he can hit.

Brian Bruney, Yankee Reliever, goes to the DL with elbow discomfort – and Joe Girardi was not happy with Bruney’s communication skills.

Braves pitcher Buddy Carlyle heads to the DL, back comes Jorge Campillo. The Reds activated Nick Masset from the DL. The Giants get back Andres Torres, a CF burner, and send Jesus Guzman back to Fresno (AAA).

Hurry Back! Matt LaPorta, Indians 3B prospect, heads back to AAA – which was surprising…

One Fan’s Agony and Other Baseball Notes…

Tough to be a Marlins fan right now… You start 11 – 1, then fall way below .500, now we’re watching a slew of players get shuttled back and forth between the bigs and either New Orleans or Jacksonville. Last night, errors and a dose of Matt Lindstrom led to a 10 – 3 loss (it was tied at 3 after seven)- and this on the heels of a 15 – 2 loss on Friday night. UGH!

My friend Steve Roberts came up with a great (Berman-esque) nickname for pitcher Reynal Pinto. “72” Watching him pitch, it makes sense – goes along nicely but it’s only a matter of time before something hits him and he explodes. Say it out loud… 72 Pinto.

The Cubs fan in me is struggling with the Cubs latest slide, as they can’t beat (or score on) the Padres. No wonder Piniella wants Hoffpauir in the lineup.

And, the Royals are on the wrong side of a slide facing the amazingly hot St. Louis Cardinals. My three favorite teams are all taking a beating.

How about the Mets? Can’t keep a healthy player in the lineup but they find ways to beat the Red Sox on back to back nights. Yesterday, Omir Santos homered off of Jonathon Papelbon in the 9th to win.

Let’s all give a quick salute to chemistry. A-Roid’s homer in the 9th off of Brad Lidge tied the score, leading to a 9th inning rally for the Yankees over Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Jason Giambi hit his 400th homer last night in Oakland’s loss to Arizona. (And a tough loss – leading 5 – 1 into the eighth, gave up four in 8th and lost in extras when they scored two, but allowed 3 in the 11th.)

I mentioned the Mets – last night Francisco Rodriguez’s back was so sore he couldn’t stand, much less walk. He’ll be out a few days for sure. It’s his first back injury, but apparently it was a doozy.

I mentioned the Royals – Luke Hochevar was sent back to AAA Omaha (bummer) and struggling Mike Aviles was placed on the DL with a strained right forearm. He’s had pain in that forearm since the spring, but the real pain was that .183 batting average. Willie Bloomquist is the new starting SS. Robinson Tejada also went to the DL (Shoulder Tendonitis). Coming back? Pitchers John Bale, Roman Colon, and infielder Tug Hulett.

Bale is returning after having thyroid surgery, while Colon is a reliever who had performed well in Omaha. He’s not a true prospect, already nearing 30 and having struggled in a few ML trips the last three years. He is a fly ball guy who gives up a few long balls… Tug Hulett is Tim’s son (Tim Jr, actually – Tug is a nickname). Tug went to Auburn, was drafted by Texas, went to Seattle, and came to the Royals in the off season. He’s actually an interesting player – very patient, has had good on base percentages, runs the bases well (96 steals, just 29 caught stealing) and has a little pop. It’s getting time for him to make it – got a cup of coffee last year and didn’t disappoint.

I mentioned the Marlins… Henry Owens is getting to rehab with Jupiter. The guy throws hard, but has no shoulder or elbow to carry the load. Good Luck and Hurry back!!!

Orioles starter Koji Uehara left last night’s game with Washington with a hamstring injury. Dave Trembley said he’s praying it’s not serious. It’s not like Baltimore has a lot of options for the rotation and many of their prospects are still a year or two away… They already lost a sold hitter to a thumb injury – Lou Montanez injured his thumb making a diving catch a few weeks ago and now is heading toward surgery, which would kill much of his season.

Cleveland placed Anthony Reyes and Aaron Laffey (taffy) on the DL. Jeremy Sowers (I said before, no prospect no matter what Baseball America thinks) and Rich Rundles get the call from Columbus.

The Angels put Shane Loux on the DL with shoulder tendonitis and recalled Rafael Rodriguez to log some mop up innings. He’s no prospect.

Rockies catcher Chris Ianetta is struggling with a hamstring injury. Michael Young’s injury was actually an ankle sprain and he’ll miss a few games.

Tom Glavine heads to Gwinnett for a rehab assignment. Good luck, Tommy. Won’t be many more of these to go and we’d like to see you one more time.

Couple of Newcomer Notes…

John Mayberry Jr. hit his first career homer in Yankee Stadium for the Phillies yesterday, a three-run shot. His teammates gave him the silent treatment in the dugout… Minnesota’s Anthony Swarzak, the Davie, FL grad, got the start last night and threw seven solid innings to beat Milwaukee for his first major league win.

Looking ahead to today’s games…

Cole Hamels vs. C.C. Sabathia in Yankee stadium. James Shields vs. Josh Johnson in the final game of the Florida Wars. Hope it don’t rain too hard there… Matt Palmer (5 – 0) faces Chad Billingsley (6 – 1) in LA – that’s a great matchup.

2009 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles
2008: 68-93 (5th AL East, 28.5 games back)
Runs Scored: 782
Runs Allowed: 869

With the trade of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard to Houston and Seattle respectively for prospects, 2008 represented the first year of a rebuilding plan in the American League’s toughest division.  But these Orioles weren’t half bad.  Sure, they were 22 – 50 inside their division, but actually above .500 against everyone else (46 – 43).  The reason?  The Orioles had a decent offense and a handful of young pitchers finding their way.  It’s a good time to be a Baltimore fan – just don’t expect to make the playoffs until a rotation anchor or two can be found.

Looking Back on 2008

With 782 runs scored, the Orioles finished in the middle of the league in terms of scoring – just a few runs behind the Yankees.  What they lacked was pitching and defense – having allowed 869 runs, which was next to last in the American League.

Baltimore got off to a great start – winning sixteen in April and fighting for the division lead for the first month.  Things slowed in May thanks to a streak against their own division where they lost ten of thirteen, but a solid June followed.  Even though the leaders in the division were starting to pull away, the Orioles were still five games over .500 as late as June 20th.  Heck, if Toronto had a 39 – 34 record at this point in the season, the way they finished, the Blue Jays might have won a playoff spot.

Instead, the Orioles got cold after the all-star break.  Ending a five-game losing streak had them at .500 for the last time on July 11th, and from that point on, Baltimore was a non-factor, losing a few games each month to .500 until September, when playing rookies killed the overall record.  The Orioles went 5 – 20 to close the season, ruining what had been, until then, a reasonably successful summer in Camden Yards.

Tell me about that offense

Behind the plate, the new Cincinnati Red, Ramon Hernandez, held his own.  He provided a little power, and a .250+ batting average, but not much else. Hernandez has actually slipped some from his performance in 2006, which didn’t help, but his backup, Guillermo Quiroz, couldn’t hit .200 in 134 at bats.

The infield was reasonably strong at two spots.  Third baseman Melvin Mora had a decent enough season, driving in 104 runs and batting .285.  Second sacker Brian Roberts is a great leadoff hitter, just missing .300, hitting 51 doubles, adding some triples and homers, a lot of walks, and 40 stolen bases in 50 chances.  Kevin Millar struggled to hit .234, but even that had a few homers and some walks.  For the position, that’s not good enough and he’s likely to move to a bench role with another team in 2009.  Where the Orioles really struggled was finding a consistent option at short.  Of the guys playing at least 200 innings (and nobody played more than 400 innings there), the best hitting option was former White Sox prospect Alex Cintron, who hit .286 but with little power or other helpers.  The rest averaged about .200 as a group, including Brandon Fahey, Freddie Bynum, and Juan Castro.

The outfield featured rookie Adam Jones, who hit .270, but showed room for power potential, a little speed, but not much else at this stage.  As such, he’s mildly below average as a hitter, but if he could step forward one or two notches, he could help.  Luke Scott came over from Houston and hit well enough, with 23 homers and showing some plate discipline.  However, his occasional platoon partner, Jay Payton, struggled at the plate – so the net result wasn’t exactly positive.  Rightfielder Nick Markakis continued to show growth as a future star, hitting for power (20 – 87 – .306) and getting on base.

If Markakis wasn’t the best hitter on the team, it was Aubrey Huff, who had a career season (32 – 108 – .304.)  Both scored about 7.5 runs per 27 outs, and anchored the offense.  Only Oscar Salazar hit well off the bench, and he didn’t have 100 plate appearances.

Defensively:

Baltimore pitchers worked with a defense that was not quite league average…  The league turned converted 68.6% batted balls in play into outs.  Baltimore finished at .68.5%.

Around the horn, Mora and Millar was just a touch above average, while Brian Roberts was just a touch below league average.  Most of the shortstops had decent defensive stats except Bynum, so while the offense at short was lacking, the defense was not.  However, the team was rather weak in terms of turning double plays in part because there were a lot of flyball pitchers and Roberts was working with a different partner most of the season.

Markakis and Scott were a shade off of league average, while Adam Jones was slightly worse than that.  When Jay Payton played, he couldn’t hit but the ball found his glove.  Luis Montanez, however, played three outfield positions and never seemed to be standing where the ball was hit…  Between them all, the outfield was actually below average and with a fly ball staff, this was a problem.

Hernandez had an awful year throwing out runners – 99 of the 123 people who tried to steal were successful.  Throw in the fact that he was slightly above average in terms of mistakes per game and that the staff’s ERA and winning percentage wasn’t very strong, my system suggests that Hernandez was among the weaker catchers in the AL.

Now Pitching…

Only two pitchers had really strong seasons for Baltimore.  Starter Jeremy Guthrie was about 19 runs better than the average pitcher, going 10 – 12, with good control through a few too many balls left the yard.  It was the second solid season for Guthrie, who is far and away the ace of the staff.  Middle reliever Jim Johnson didn’t allow a homer all season, which kept his ERA down, and despite having ordinary walk and strikeout data was also valuable for the Orioles.

Unfortunately, too many guys were WAY below average here.  Among the rotation starters, Brian Burres (-21 runs), Daniel Cabrera (-14 runs), Radhames Liz (-22 runs), Garrett Olson (-29 runs), and Steve Trachsel (-20 runs in 8 starts) got the Orioles in the hole early all too often.  Chris Waters came up and had 11 middling to below average starts with a 5.01 ERA and was an improvement.

The bullpen had Chad Bradford for a while, and George Sherrill had 33 saves, but they weren’t by any means awesome.  Sherrill’s ERA was 4.73, so he wasn’t setting the AL on fire as the Orioles’ fireman.  Most of the other relievers, including Dennis Sarfate, Lance Cormier, Jamie Walker and others struggled to put up league average numbers.  Compare that to the staffs of Boston, New York, or Tampa (much less Toronto), and you can see where the team needs to improve.

Forecasting 2009:

Ideally, the Orioles would like to see a little more offense, but more importantly, they have to find ways to keep the other team from scoring runs.  To get to .500, you’re talking about cutting more than 100 runs from the runs allowed, which means finding six decent pitchers and improving the outfield defense.

Offensively, the changes start at catcher (Greg Zaun for Ramon Hernandez, with Matt Wieters possibly getting his shot at some point this season), as well as first base (Millar is gone, with Ty Wigginton here).  Cesar Izturis arrives from St. Louis to play short – he’s not a championship quality hitter, but will be an improvement over the crew who played here last year.  It looks like the Orioles will not be trading Brian Roberts (they shouldn’t), which helps, and if Melvin Mora stays productive, the infield will be solid.  Defensively, they are probably 5 to 10 runs better, and offensively they are probably 15 runs better.

The outfield has added Felix Pie and Ryan Freel, but I don’t see how either of them will take Jones, Scott, or Markakis out of the lineup.  However, Pie could be the surprise – and as a defensive replacement, he’ll be solid.  The outfield of Scott, Jones, and Markakis can still produce runs, but more importantly there are a couple of bench performers who can contribute.  Offensively this is probably worth ten runs, and defensively, this could be worth ten runs, too.

Zaun is a better defensive catcher than Hernandez, but he’s been catching since Doug Ault was in Toronto (not really), and his contribution will not last the season.  Of the NRIs, Robby Hammock might play, and he can at least hit the ball some.  Chad Moeller and Guillermo Quiroz are in camp, but neither will be making a big contribution in the near future.  Matt Wieters has a job as soon as he’s ready.

One assumes that Huff should stay productive in his role, but he was so good last year, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s off by ten runs this season.

There are, oh, 120 pitchers in camp in Ft. Lauderdale hoping to make the Orioles roster in April.  Guthrie is still here, and Rich Hill arrives from Chicago trying to put his career back together.  Hill would be a step up if he brings his best game.  The rest are a bunch of unknowns.  Matt Alberts was better as a reliever, but he could start some and be an improvement of ten runs over somebody.  Brian Bass comes over from Minnesota where, as a reliever, he wasn’t special.  As a starter he was tolerable here in Baltimore.  He might get a shot.  Troy Patton came over with the Tejada deal, he might be ready for a few starts.  George Sherrill needs to up his performance – and someone else needs to help out in the bullpen.

The problem is that they are all unproven rookies or second year guys.  Could they be better?  Sure – but it’s just not something you can predict with any dependability.

As such, I see the runs scored/runs allowed breakdown to be somewhere around 800/850, which translates to about 76 wins.  In this division, that’s a tall order, but there are enough pieces to see a better team in Baltimore.  If one or two pitchers step up in the rotation – a Hill and a Sherrill, for example – suddenly these guys are approaching .500 – and that’s pretty impressive.  When a few more young arms make it to the majors, this team might be ready to compete for a playoff spot.

Down on the Farm…

AAA Norfolk’s best hitter was Oscar Salazar (13 – 85 – .316), who got a cup of coffee with the big league club and played well.  He could have slid into the first base slot, and may well get this job after spending a decade in the minors (he’s 30).  He’s just been blocked everywhere he’s been (Oakland, the Mets, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, and Cleveland), and he wasn’t a good enough middle infielder when he was younger.  However, with the ability to play the whole infield, he’s a good bench option.  Radhames Liz and Jim Miller pitched well enough to earn shots with the parent club last year.

Matt Wieters, the future catcher, hit .365 at AA Bowie in 208 at bats, with 12 homers and 51 RBI.  He can’t be far off…  Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimhold hit for power; Montanez had the higher batting average, but Reimhold has the better plate discipline.  David Hernandez and Chris Tillman led a quartet of Bay Sox pitchers to double-digit victories (the others were Brad Bergeson and Jason Berken, two other potential studs).  Both showed killer K/9 rates and will be in line for rotation spots by 2010 if not sometime this summer.  Julio Manon dominated as the closer – he’s just not a young prospect.  He’s 36 this summer.

Cole McMurray and Pat Egan led the hurlers at Aberdeen (High A), with closer Brandon Cooney (from nearby Florida Atlantic – near me, anyway) showing strong numbers.  Other than Wieters, the Frederick Keys also had first baseman Brandon Snyder (15 – 80 – .315) and pitchers Brandon Erbe and Jake Arrieta, who both had strong strikeout numbers if not solid won-loss records.