Monday, March 30, 2009

Nine Orioles Innings (Week of March 30)

During the 2009 season, Luke Jones will present Nine Orioles Innings every Monday, sharing his thoughts on what’s happening with the Baltimore Orioles. It will feature a mix of serious analysis and the lighter side of Orioles baseball.

1. It’s hard to believe it was only two years ago that Jeremy Guthrie was an unknown heading to Baltimore on Opening Day 2007 as a long man in the Orioles bullpen. The Opening Day starter now represents the only safe bet in a rotation that is still deciding on the three starters to fill the back end.

The pitching staff will need Guthrie to remain healthy after making trips to the disabled list in each of his first two seasons with the Orioles. The rotation will be extremely thin as is, so the loss of Guthrie could cause a massive implosion.

The organization hopes that Guthrie’s terrific work ethic will influence the many young pitching prospects expected to arrive in Baltimore over the next two years. He may not be a true ace, but Guthrie could provide a calming influence on young pitchers that will undoubtedly experience some growing pains in their first months in the big leagues.

2. Felix Pie has struggled adjusting to his new surroundings this spring, hitting only .216 (through Sunday) and posting a .595 OPS.

With the strong spring performances from Nolan Reimold and Lou Montanez, many are calling for the Pie experiment to end before the team even heads north to Baltimore. The choice is simple when you consider Pie is out of options while Reimold and Montanez can start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Are Pie’s critics the same ones that were calling for Nick Markakis to be sent back to the minors when he was hitting around .220 in June of his rookie season in 2006?

While no one expects Pie to become the offensive threat that Markakis is, the young outfielder needs at bats in the big leagues after receiving only 260 at bats in two seasons with the Cubs. The former number-one prospect needs a legitimate chance to play in the majors.

If Pie is still struggling in July and Reimold or Montanez is tearing it up in Triple-A, this questions will be revisited, but for the time being, Pie should be sent out to left field to play everyday.

3. The November unveiling of the new road uniforms displaying “Baltimore” on the front was a far overdue move by the organization to restore some civic pride. The city name will appear on the road uniforms for the first time since 1972.

To take full advantage of the occasion, the Orioles should buck tradition and wear the new road uniforms on Opening Day despite it being a home game.

With the large number of Yankees fans expected to attend, detractors will argue it’s a road game for the Orioles anyway. Why not debut the new gray threads at home?

4. Andy MacPhail’s decision to send Matt Wieters to Triple-A to delay the start of his service time is well-documented and makes sense from a financial standpoint, especially when remembering Scott Boras represents the 22-year-old catcher.

However, should the team decide to keep Wieters in Norfolk until June when he would lose eligibility for Super-2 status, many will view the move as another penny-pinching maneuver.

Though delaying Wieters’ promotion would eliminate a year of arbitration, possibly saving millions, it would harm his ability to win Rookie of the Year as well as simply impede the growth of the catching prospect.

Mimicking Tampa Bay’s approach with Evan Longoria by waiting until the middle of April to promote Wieters is financially prudent; waiting until June is just being cheap.

5. Corner infielders Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora are both free agents after the season and were the top run producers on the club last year, driving in 212 runs combined.

With no viable prospects at first or third base ready for the big leagues, MacPhail will have to consider bringing back at least one of the two veterans.

Newly-signed infielder Ty Wigginton would be a fine one-year stopgap at either first or third, but the team would have to look to acquire another corner infielder.

The team does hold an $8million club option for Mora, but Huff is five years younger.

Both players are likely to be shopped at the trading deadline in late-July, but look for the club to explore short-term extensions for both players as MacPhail searches for younger answers at each corner.

6. Japanese newcomer Koji Uehara will hold the second spot in the starting rotation, but the Orioles hope he means much more to the future of the organization.

A successful season for the veteran would potentially open the door for other talent from Japan and the Far East to consider the Orioles for their American destination.

Watching Japan win its second World Baseball Classic made it apparent that many more Japanese players have the ability to succeed in Major League Baseball, so the Orioles need to continue to increase their scouting presence in the Far East.

Uehara finding success in Baltimore would not only improve the team’s prospects in 2009 but could lead to more Japanese talent landing with the Orioles in the future.

7. It’s difficult to believe the Orioles are even considering Adam Eaton for the starting rotation. Even putting his spring numbers aside (6.75 ERA), the right-hander was hammered in Philadelphia the last two seasons, posting a 5.80 ERA in 2008 and a 6.29 ERA in 2007.


You might be wondering what his numbers were on the road, considering Citizens Bank Park is a hitter’s park. Eaton pitched to a 4.81 road ERA in 2008 and 6.12 in 2007.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, especially when you consider Camden Yards is known for the home run.

With the seemingly endless search to fill the starting rotation, the Orioles might want to take a long look at the Bird (no, I’m not talking about Mark Fidrych). He throws some devastating off-speed stuff to the kids in the outfield grass before home games.

Only kidding, or am I? Ask me again in late-April when the bullpen is already being overworked.

The Bird might be throwing some simulated games in the bullpen by that point.

8. Despite the concerns over the starting rotation, the Orioles bullpen looks to be a formidable unit with closer George Sherrill, Jim Johnson, and Chris Ray providing a triple-threat to shorten the game after six innings.

Ray looks to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and has been dominant, not allowing a run in 11 1/3 innings of spring work.

A fully-recovered Matt Albers would be key to bridging the gap from the starting pitching to the three stoppers in the late innings.

Even with the vast potential, it’s hard to predict how well the bullpen will perform if starting pitching cannot get past the fifth or sixth inning consistently. In recent years, the bullpen is worn out by August, setting up for the collapse down the stretch.

9. It’s hard to envision any scenario in which the Orioles avoid a 12th-straight losing season in 2009 despite the promising future with the improving farm system. The years of losing have begun to run together, and it’s sometimes difficult to believe how long it’s been since a winning team graced Camden Yards.

To put it in perspective, in the Orioles’ last winning season in 1997, Cal Ripken was playing his first full season at third base, interleague play was making its debut, Michael Jordan was winning his fifth NBA championship, and Nick Markakis was in the eighth grade.

Quite a long time.

Extra Innings: For an organization in the midst of 11-straight losing seasons, the Orioles could definitely benefit from a stronger marketing campaign to create excitement for the 2009 season.

Though young pitchers such as Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta were in the major league camp, MASN scheduled only four television appearances for the Orioles in the spring. In fact, Wednesday’s game against the Marlins will mark the first televised Orioles game on MASN in over three weeks.

Yes, televising spring games costs money and does not earn huge ratings, but subscribers are paying hefty fees to receive MASN in their cable lineups. The Orioles owe it to their customers to televise a few more games and could create more interest in the club in the process.

In comparison, the Yankees’ YES Network televised 16 spring games while the Red Sox’ NESN showed nine.

With struggling attendance, the Orioles need to provide more opportunities for fans to follow the team in the spring. Their own cable network is here; they need to use it.

Televising eight or nine spring games is more than reasonable.

For those turning to the radio for their Orioles fix, the flagship radio station 105.7 The Fan abandoned the final eight innings of Sunday’s broadcast following a lengthy rain delay.

While it may not have been a regular season game and will be forgotten quickly, the story is no less pathetic and was even featured on Yahoo! Sports.

With these television and radio blunders, the question begs to be asked: how badly do the Orioles even want their fans back?

The organization needs to try much harder.

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