Thursday, February 12, 2009

Five Stories Headlining Spring Training

Pitchers and catchers report on Saturday.

Six words that mean so much to a baseball fan.

A signal that spring is on the way after the harshness of winter. The hope that comes with a new baseball season. Regardless of what happened last year, there is always that chance, how slim it might be, that this year could be different; could be special.

For Baltimore fans, this annual spring hope has brought little in return in the past 11 losing seasons, but this spring almost comes as a relief.

The past week’s baseball news has been disheartening to say the least, both on the national stage with the fall of Alex Rodriguez and locally with the sagas of Miguel Tejada and Roberto Alomar.

For Orioles fans, expectations are again tempered playing in the difficult American League East, but for the first time in years, there is light at the end of the tunnel. An affluent crop of pitching in the farm system may finally put the Orioles in a position to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in the near future.

The Orioles may be another year or two away from taking the next step, but there are five stories worth watching in Fort Lauderdale this spring.

1. Quantity, but Quality Too?

The Orioles will bring 37 pitchers to the major league camp in hopes of finding the names to fill a wide-open starting rotation and a promising bullpen.

Although ace Jeremy Guthrie and Japanese newcomer Koji Uehara are seemingly entrenched at the top of the rotation, the names that will fill the last three spots are anybody’s guess.

“The Big Three,” pitching prospects Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz may not arrive until later this season or next, but several other young arms will be vying for manager Dave Trembley’s attention.

Former top prospect Hayden Penn will finally try to prove he belongs in the Orioles’ rotation. Penn has battled injuries and some freakish bad luck but will battle for a spot in the rotation or long relief.

Many are quick to write him off as a viable option, but at 24, Penn is still young enough to reinsert himself in the club’s future plans. He is out of options, so barring a disastrous spring, it would seem Penn breaks north with the club.

Newcomer David Pauley will also be a contender for the rotation. After finding success in the Red Sox system but receiving few opportunities in the majors, the 25-year old was acquired for reliever Randor Bierd. Pauley possesses a good sinker and a solid curveball. A change of scenery could be ideal for the right-hander.

Sticking with the theme of needing a fresh start, former Cubs pitcher Rich Hill was sent to the Orioles for a player to be named later. After posting a 3.92 ERA and winning 11 games in 2007, the southpaw fell apart last season, losing his command and eventually his spot in the Cubs’ rotation. The Orioles hope a reunion with pitching coach Rick Kranitz can reverse Hill’s control problems.

Other names to watch in the battle for the rotation include right-handers Matt Albers (returning from a shoulder injury), Brian Bass, Radhames Liz and lefties Chris Waters, and the reacquired John Parrish.

2. The Face of the Franchise

Severna Park native Mark Teixeira may have spurned the Orioles’ attempts to bring him home, but general manager Andy MacPhail showed the organization is willing to pay its own homegrown talent.

After failing to reach a long-term deal last offseason, the Orioles signed right fielder Nick Markakis to a six-year, $66M deal, officially branding the 25-year old as the face of the franchise.

Markakis is the type of player to build your team around, having all the tools needed to become a star. The super-reserved Markakis seemed more relaxed and comfortable at the press conference announcing the deal, possibly foreshadowing a willingness to take on a more vocal role with the club.

It will be interesting to see how Markakis performs after signing the second-richest contract in club history.

3. “Wieting” in the Wings

Catching prospect Matt Wieters will continue to be the talk of the Charm City until he arrives at Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

The organization figures to start the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year at Triple-A Norfolk. MacPhail and Trembley will speak of Wieters needing more experience calling pitches before joining the big leagues, but it’s only window-dressing.

The Orioles will pull an “Evan Longoria” by starting Wieters in the minor leagues for the first weeks of the season. This would delay the start of his service time, impeding his eligibility for free agency until after the 2015 season. With the shrewd Scott Boras serving as his agent, the Orioles would be making a wise decision to hold onto Wieters as long as they can.

Of course, all bets might be off if Wieters hits .450 in spring training and forces the team’s hand. Sound unlikely? Maybe not.

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein wrote in January that Wieters is already the best player on the club and is “quite possibly the best catcher in the game.” Keep in mind, Wieters has never played above Double-A. Can you say hype?

4. Athletes in the Outfield

While Markakis has become the mainstay in right field, the Orioles have secured promising pieces in center and right.

Adam Jones had a solid debut in Baltimore despite missing time with a broken foot last season. The gifted centerfielder needs to improve his plate discipline with only 28 walks and 108 strikeouts in 477 at bats, but his hitting improved prior to the trip to the disabled list in early August.

Reports indicate the 23-year old added some muscle in the offseason, so his power numbers should improve in 2009.

Roaming left field will be newcomer Felix Pie, a former top prospect for the Cubs whom the Orioles attempted to acquire in the Brian Roberts’ trade talks a year ago. After struggling in 2008 in limited opportunities with Chicago, the Orioles were able to grab the 23-year old in a trade for pitcher Garrett Olson.

Pie received only 260 at bats with the Cubs in two seasons despite being ranked the top prospect in the organization at one time. He possesses four of the five tools, though some believe he can still develop more power, and is an intriguing low-risk, high-reward acquisition.

Could the addition of Pie give the Orioles the best young outfield in baseball? All three outfielders play great defense, and if Pie’s 2009 production can approach what Jones did last season, the Orioles could be looking at a dynamic trio in the outfield for many years to come.

5. A Closer Encounter

The return of hard-throwing Chris Ray from Tommy John surgery crowds the backend of the bullpen, always a good problem to have.

Ray was the team’s closer in 2006 and 2007 but will have to unseat All-Star stopper George Sherrill to regain his job.

Sherrill had a dominating first half in 2008 before struggling down the stretch with a sore shoulder, finishing with a 4.73 earned run average and 31 saves. He could be more valuable to the bullpen as a left-handed specialist, especially if veteran lefty Jamie Walker is unable to rebound from a rough 2008.

Look for Trembley to give Sherrill every opportunity to win the job, considering Trembley was not present during most of Ray’s tenure as closer.

Regardless of how the closer situation is resolved, the back of the bullpen looks to be a strength. Setting up Ray and Sherrill will be right-hander Jim Johnson who enjoyed much success in his first full season with the Orioles.

If the Orioles can somehow bridge the gap from the starting pitching to the seventh inning, these three have the ability to shorten games and give the club more opportunities to win.

Here’s an early shot in the dark of how the roster could look when the Orioles break camp and head north to Baltimore.

2B Brian Roberts S
CF Adam Jones R
RF Nick Markakis L
1B Aubrey Huff L
3B Melvin Mora R
DH Luke Scott L
C Gregg Zaun S
LF Felix Pie L
SS Cesar Izturis S

IF/OF Ryan Freel R
IF/OF Ty Wigginton R
IF Chris Gomez R
C Guillermo Quiroz R

Jeremy Guthrie R
Koji Uehara R
Rich Hill L
David Pauley R
Hayden Penn R

Matt Albers R
Mark Hendrickson L
Dennis Sarfate R
Jamie Walker L
Jim Johnson R
Chris Ray R
George Sherrill (closer) L

What will you be following as the Orioles prepare for the 2009 season in Ft. Lauderdale? Who will win a spot in the starting rotation? Leave your thoughts below.

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