Sunday, May 25, 2008

Orioles lineup continues to struggle

Since scoring 12 runs against the Yankees on Tuesday, May 20, the Orioles lineup has turned in the following performances: zero runs against Darrell Rasner, one run against Ian Kennedy, zero runs against Matt Garza, and four runs against Edwin Jackson (who walked five batters) and reliever Gary Glover. Now, Rasner, Kennedy, Garza, and Jackson are all decent young pitchers, but scoring five runs in four games just isn't going to cut it, especially with the way the Tampa Bay Rays are playing in April and May and the struggles the Orioles usually have when playing the Yankees.

So far this season, the Orioles as a team are 26th in the MLB in runs scored with only 196 total runs. The Orioles lineup is hitting a combined .244 and has a .315 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .697 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). In a few past seasons, the Orioles were 8th in runs scored in 2004 with 842, 15th in 2005 with 729, 17th in 2006 with 768, and 16th in 2007 with 756. The O's lineup also had middle-of-the-pack numbers last year, with a .272 batting average, a .333 OBP, and a .746 OPS, but with the way the starters (except Trachsel) and the bullpen are pitching, the Orioles would certainly be a few games better with hitting like that.

The loss of Miguel Tejada has hurt the offense, but in no way is that the main reason for the team's significant offensive struggles. Of the eight players on the team with over 100 at bats, Brian Roberts and Luke Scott share the team's highest batting average of just .257. Nick Markakis his hitting just .253.

Roberts and Markakis, who are considered to be the team's best offensive weapons, have been struggling a bit as of late. They both have low batting averages for their talent levels, but because of walks (25 and 32 respectively), Roberts has a .347 OBP and Markakis a .374 OBP.

Just to see them across the board, here are Roberts's numbers so far:

2008 47 175 25 45 12 3 3 17 13 4 25 35 .257 .347 .411 .758 72

And here are his offensive numbers from the last two seasons:

2006 138 563 85 161 34 3 10 55 36 7 55 66 .286 .347 .410 .757 231
2007 156 621 103 180 42 5 12 57 50 7 89 99 .290 .377 .432 .809 268

Two big differences jump out between Roberts's 2008 numbers and the numbers from 2006 and 2007. First, Roberts, with less than a third of the season completed, is on pace to strike out more than 100 times. He came close in 2007 with 99 strikeouts, and he will surely eclipse that mark this year. For many players, striking out that much is common, but Roberts is mostly a contact hitter and someone who sprays the ball to all fields. Second, Roberts is stealing fewer bases. As an example, he only has three stolen bases so far in May. He's already been caught four times, which is a significant amount considering he was only caught seven times each in '06 and '07. A subpar lineup and average baserunning (for his standards) may explain why Roberts is scoring so few runs even though he's on base at a pretty good rate.

Markakis has also been struggling, but he's still just 24 years old and will surely be the Orioles' everyday right fielder for years to come.

Here are his numbers so far:

2008 47 170 26 43 5 0 8 22 6 2 32 47 .253 .374 .424 .798 72

And from his first two seasons:

2006 147 491 72 143 25 2 16 62 2 0 43 72 .291 .351 .448 .799 220
2007 161 637 97 191 43 3 23 112 18 6 61 112 .300 .362 .485 .847 309

Without a doubt, Markakis had his best offensive season in 2007. He batted .300, hit 23 home runs, drove in over 100 runs, and stole 18 bases. But besides his batting average, Markakis still seems to be putting up pretty good numbers. He still reaches base a lot and will probably steal over 20 bases for the first time. The biggest frustration for Markakis has to be the high number of strikeouts, as he's 6th in the AL with 47. He's on pace to accumulate over 150 strikeouts, which is hard to believe for a player with his strong eye at the plate and his ability to hit the ball to all fields. One of the most confusing things is that Markakis seems to routinely strike out on fastballs, particularly inside ones under his hands. Lately, he seems uncomfortable hitting with two strikes, and he just hasn't been able to deal with how opposing pitchers have been going after him.

His batting average, though, probably won't be this low for much longer, and Markakis will continue to reach base because of his ability to draw walks.

It's hard to place a large amount of the blame on Roberts and Markakis when the lineup is filled with, for the most part, average hitters. Since his return, Freddie Bynum has provided some spark in the lineup by hitting .289 in 12 games. Adam Jones also seems to be gaining confidence at the plate; his average continues to rise, and he's now hitting .256.

Unfortunately, those are about the only positives for the O's lineup. Here are some of the other players who are struggling:

Aubrey Huff -- .246 BA .313 OBP 6 HR 24 RBI
Melvin Mora -- .244 BA .303 OBP 5 HR 23 RBI
Kevin Millar -- .243 BA .327 OBP 6 HR 22 RBI
Jay Payton -- .220 BA .253 OBP 4 HR 13 RBI
R. Hernandez --.209 BA .245 OBP 3 HR 18 RBI

The numbers for the first three wouldn't be that bad if Mora wasn't hitting 2nd, Huff 4th, and Millar 5th. Numbers like that from the top/middle of the lineup won't cut it. Payton, who has been splitting time with Scott in left field, has been pretty bad at the plate. But no one in the lineup has been as bad as Hernandez -- just look at his on-base percentage. Hernandez has been so bad that he makes Guillermo Quiroz (.220/.304/.317) look like he should be the everyday catcher. Hernandez's struggles have made many Orioles fans wish that the organization would move highly-touted catching prospect Matt Wieters through the farm system quicker, but hopefully the O's front office plays it smart and understands not to rush him, no matter how well he's playing for the time being.

Maybe Hernandez will pick up his performance soon, but the same can be said for most of the names in the Orioles everyday lineup. None of the five names listed above is scheduled to play any role in the future of the Orioles, so fans may just have to weather the storm this year and maybe next year as more prospects develop.

But maybe if the entire team learned how to run the bases properly, things wouldn't seem so bad sometimes. This might be a good place to start.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

O’s rebuilding the right way

Over the last several years, the Baltimore Orioles’ front office, to put it mildly, hasn’t exactly made the best moves for the franchise. In 2003, the Orioles traded Sidney Ponson, who was actually pitching well at the time, to the Giants for pitchers Damian Moss, Kurt Ainsworth, and Ryan Hannaman; all three failed to live up to their potential. Also, in separate trades, the O’s brought in old guys like Jason Grimsley, Steve Kline, Karim Garcia, and Sammy Sosa; not only were they bad, but they were awful clubhouse guys. And these examples are just a small portion of the bad trades.

In semi-recent draft history, the O’s also have struggled mightily. In 1999, in a situation where they had seven picks in the top 50, the O’s managed to pick one solid player, Brian Roberts, who was picked 50th. The other six players selected before him -- Mike Paradis (13th), Richard Stahl (18th), Larry Bigbie (21st), Keith Reed (23rd), Joshua Cenate (34th), and Scott Rice (44th) -- were never close to making any kind of significant noise in the majors. In 2000, the O’s picked Beau Hale (14th) and Nelson Johnson (32nd), and the following year, Baltimore selected Chris Smith (7th), Mike Fontenot (19th), and Bryan Bass (31st). The best of that group, by far, is second baseman Fontenot, and he was sent to the Cubs in a package in 2005 for Sammy Sosa. Only a few years ago, with Adam Loewen and particularly Nick Markakis picked in the first round in 2002 and 2003 respectively, did the Orioles seemingly get back on track.

With so many missed opportunities and bad decisions, the Orioles have had a very weak farm system for years. But because of some improved drafting and a couple of trades in the past offseason, the O’s may finally be able to build up the farm system and have the ability to pump young talent into a franchise that has been struggling for over a decade.

Though the Orioles (15-13) have started off the season playing well, plenty of players on this year’s roster -- Aubrey Huff, Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Luis Hernandez, and Melvin Mora -- probably won’t be a part of the Orioles’ future. But while the team continues to play hard and impress the fans, young, extremely talented prospects are improving and working to be a large part of the team’s success in the future.

Low-A: Delmarva Shorebirds

The most promising player at Delmarva appears to be LHP Tony Butler, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade. Butler, a six foot seven, 210 pound 20-year-old, presents an intimidating appearance on the mound. So far in the young season, Butler is 1-1 with a 3.41 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Though he may be a few years away from coming to Baltimore, Butler could definitely become a useful left-handed starter for the Orioles, especially with Adam Loewen’s injury concerns.

High-A: Frederick Keys

The Keys’ roster is loaded with young talent, and the best of the bunch may be catcher Matt Wieters. Wieters, selected in last year’s draft in the first round, has opened the season on a torrid pace. He’s currently hitting at a .338 mark and has 5 home runs and 15 RBI, and his OPS is a shocking 1.025. A switch hitter out of Georgia Tech, Wieters stands six foot five and turns just 22 on May 21. He has the ability to hit for average and power, and he may give the Orioles a significant upgrade at catcher very soon.

Brandon Snyder, one of the Orioles’ first round picks in 2005, also plays for the Keys. Forced to move from catcher to first base because of a tear in his left rotator cuff and several other injuries, Snyder is on a mission to show the Orioles why the team drafted him so highly. Snyder is off to a slow start this season and is batting just .218, but he is still just 21-years-old and has time to improve.

Another young hitter on the Keys, third baseman Billy Rowell, also has the skills to be a tremendous player but doesn’t appear to be as ready as Wieters. Rowell is only 19, and his strongest attribute is hitting for power.

The Keys’ roster also includes a trio of young starting pitchers -- Brandon Erbe, Jake Arrieta, and Pedro Beato. Erbe, a six foot four, 180 pound 20-year-old, is 3-1 with a 2.73 ERA and 27 strikeouts. Erbe possesses a fastball around the mid-to-upper 90s and a devastating slider. Last season at Frederick, Erbe had a 6.26 ERA but managed to strike out 8.37 batters per nine innings. Arrieta, a fifth round pick in 2007 out of TCU, is only 22. With a 2-0 record, a 2.20 ERA, and 40 strikeouts, he may be the first of the three to be promoted to Bowie. Beato, who is 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA and 10 strikeouts, turns 22 in October. Last year at Delmarva, Beato compiled 106 strikeouts and a 4.05 ERA. He pitches to contact and works both sides of the plate, which seems to suggest that he certainly knows how to pitch efficiently at such a young age.

Double-A: Bowie Baysox

Besides young outfielder Adam Jones, the main piece in the Erik Bedard trade may have been 20-year-old starting pitcher Chris Tillman. The right-hander was a second round pick by Seattle in 2006, and he was the Mariners’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2007. Tillman is currently 2-0 with 20 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA with Bowie.

Another member of Bowie’s starting rotation is Chorye Spoone, who will turn 23 in September. Last year at Frederick, Spoone finished with a 10-9 record, a 3.26 ERA, and 133 strikeouts. He seems to be picking up right where he left off last season; so far, he is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA.

For a couple of years, the most promising outfielder (besides Nick Markakis) in the Orioles’ farm system has been Nolan Reimold. A corner outfielder, Reimold has battled an assortment of injuries in his young career. But Reimold is still young enough at 24-years-old that, if he can stay healthy, he could become the third piece to the O’s outfielder trio, combining with Adam Jones in center and Markakis in right. Reimold undoubtedly has the potential; he batted .306 and hit 11 home runs in 50 games for Bowie last season.

Triple-A: Norfolk Tides

The Tides have two young and very skilled starting pitchers: Radhames Liz and Hayden Penn. An undrafted pitcher, Liz has rapidly moved through the O’s system. Last year at Bowie, Liz was 11-4 with a 3.22 ERA, 161 strikeouts, and he averaged an impressive 10.58 strikeouts per nine innings. Liz is off to a bit of a rough start so far this season -- 0-2, 4.55 ERA, 29 strikeouts -- but he’s only 24 and throws in the mid-to-upper 90s. If needed, the O’s may convert Liz to a reliever some time down the road. Penn, a 23-year-old starter, was thought to be the best pitcher in the O’s system. Unfortunately, he has battled plenty of injuries, and in two stints with the Orioles, Penn has struggled immensely. He can still turn things around, but he certainly has plenty of competition now from the other top pitching prospects in the organization.

Three corner infielders -- Scott Moore, Mike Costanzo, and Oscar Salazar -- may also become bench players for the Orioles in the near future.

The Orioles have struggled with the ability to assemble homegrown talent on the team’s main roster; the only players with the team this year who have moved their way up through the O’s system are Markakis, Brandon Fahey, Brian Roberts, Garrett Olson, Jim Johnson, Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera, and Bob McCrory.

But with the Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard trades bringing in prospects and major league ready talent players like Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate and a better plan of action in the MLB Draft, the Orioles have plenty of promise for the near future. The majority of the talent seems to be in young pitching, and the focus for next year’s draft may be on young position players, primarily infielders. By focusing on rebuilding the organization from the ground up instead of looking for a quick fix, the Orioles have given their fans something to look forward to.