Friday, July 8, 2011

The O's still aren't developing younger players

The Orioles lost again last night, but that's not surprising considering how they've been playing lately. The loss included bad starting pitching, terrible relief pitching, and mediocre hitting -- all things that the O's excel at right now. (For what it's worth, Matt Wieters did steal a base [the first of his career], which is something that should never happen.)

It's hard to watch the O's at the moment for obvious reasons; it's never fun to tune in to watch your team lose night in and night out. But something that's even more troubling is an issue that has been plaguing the O's for more than a decade: They still aren't developing their young talent.

Let's take a look at O's players 27 years old and younger and how they're doing. Sure, 27 seems like an arbitrary number and isn't necessarily "young," but it's my list. Here they are, with hitters listed first, then pitchers.

Adam Jones: .283/.326/.457. Jones, who turns 26 on August 1, was having a very good season a few weeks ago before he started to slump a bit and his numbers took a tumble. Still, his numbers are still up slightly and he's on pace to have his best season in Baltimore. It's somewhat concerning that FanGraphs doesn't rate his defense very highly, and the same is true this season. I've wondered why Jones seems to make several fantastic, flashy plays but tends to have a few defensive lapses here and there and not always make the routine plays. I still think he's a pretty good center fielder, but he just may not be an elite one. The same can be said of his skills at the plate; he's not necessarily going to be an elite hitter, but he can be a productive hitter who isn't batting at the top of the lineup. Jones hasn't developed (yet) into a star, per se, but he's still one of the best young players the O's have.

Matt Wieters: .269/.319/.413. The 25-year-old Wieters, the lone O's All-Star this season, still seems to make many people angry because he's not hitting like Joe Mauer. Because of his pre-O's hype, many expected him to completely alter the entire franchise with his amazing abilities. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, but he's still an intriguing piece. Thanks to his .288/.340/.412 batting line in 385 plate appearances in his rookie year (2009), Wieters probably set the bar a little too high, too early. He hasn't been able to hit for that average or get on base that often since then, but he is hitting for as much power this season and has shown signs that he may be able to hit for even more. It is surprising that with his eye at the plate he doesn't walk more (6.7 BB% this season) -- though he did walk three times last night. While he still has work to do at the plate, Wieters has developed into one of the best defensive catchers in all of baseball. He's caught 24 of 54 runners (44.4 percent stolen base percentage), far and away the best among all qualified MLB catchers. (The next closest is Alex Avila, at 36.9 percent.) FanGraphs rates his defense the highest among all catchers as well, which is also a top reason why he's leading the O's with a WAR of 2.3.

Nick Markakis: .293/.339/.385. Markakis, 27, has been on fire over the last few weeks and has turned his season around. He's still not walking a ton or hitting for a whole lot of power, but he's been much better lately. Check out my recent post on Markakis for more analysis.

Nolan Reimold: .271/.362/.492. Reimold turns 28 in October, and the O's still have no idea if he's an everyday player or not. Buck Showalter obviously doesn't think too highly of him or else he wouldn't be mostly benching Reimold when a lefty isn't on the mound or pinch-hitting Felix Pie for him. I've written about Reimold plenty lately, so I don't have much more to say. But I will add this: I don't have much faith in the O's playing well in the second half of the season, but I do hope they give Reimold, and maybe some other younger players in Triple-A, some playing time that's being wasted on guys like Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee.

Mark Reynolds: .230/.350/.504. Like Markakis, Reynolds, who turns 28 in August, has turned it on lately and has been hitting the cover off the ball. Unlike Markakis, many of those hits have been home runs. I'm not sure if he's quite this good or not, but he's hitting for a lot of power and is getting on base. He also walks much more than anyone on the team, another valuable skill. Under Reynolds's current contract, he's due to make $7.5 million next season and has a club option for $11 million (with a $0.5 million buyout). Compared with someone like J.J. Hardy, who will likely be looking to cash in as a free agent, Reynolds is still under team control for at least one more season. There's value in that, especially if the O's want to deal him before the trade deadline. Unfortunately, Reynolds has been an absolutely terrible defender at third base this year, and he'll probably need to be moved to either 1B or DH. If the O's had a better option at third, it's possible that Reynolds would have already been moved across the infield to play first. But they don't, and that may play a part in the O's holding onto Reynolds instead of dealing him.

Felix Pie: .231/.244/.282. Pie, 26, probably isn't anything better than a fourth outfielder (if that). Sure, he doesn't receive consistent playing time, but he's never really showed the ability to hit or get on base. He has some value as a defensive replacement and a runner, but that's about it. Sorry, Felix.

Zach Britton: 3.47 ERA, 3.82 xFIP. At 23, Britton has taken over the role as the most promising pitcher on the O's roster. Britton has already thrown over 100 innings, so it's probable that the O's will limit the rookie's workload in the second half of the season. With the way the other young starters have pitched, Britton and Jeremy Guthrie are basically carrying the load right now. Britton (1.7) is second in WAR among all rookie pitchers behind Michael Pineda of the Mariners (2.5). Not bad at all.

Brian Matusz: 8.77 ERA, 5.06 xFIP. Matusz (24) is supposed to be in the O's rotation right now, providing another reliable starting option. Instead, he's back in Triple-A Norfolk after a frustrating, awful return from the disabled list. Much has been written about Matusz's reduced velocity, and it's possible that he's still hurt. But if he never recovers that velocity, he'll have to learn to pitch a new way. It won't be easy, but Matusz still has the secondary stuff to be an effective starter even without that low-90s fastball.

Jake Arrieta: 4.90 ERA, 4.33 xFIP. Like Matusz, the 25-year-old Arrieta has disappointed (though not as much). The frustrating thing about Arrieta is that he has the stuff to be effective, but he can't seem to find the strike zone consistently. He's walking 4.44 batters per nine, which is way too many. He walked four again last night in an ineffective outing against the Red Sox. And there's also a concern that Arrieta may have some kind of elbow injury. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this soon.

Chris Tillman: 4.69 ERA, 4.86 xFIP. There's not a whole lot to say about Tillman (23) right now. Tillman received 10 starts at the beginning of the season, and he pitched OK at times. His big issue, though, was his inability to stock around past the fifth inning, because he tends to throw lots of pitches each inning. When he was demoted, instead of returning to Norfolk and dominating Triple-A hitters in an effort to get back to Baltimore, he's still struggling, walking too many batters and not striking out enough either. I'll be surprised if he doesn't return to the O's at some point later in the season, but he has plenty left to prove. It's also worth mentioning that he's about four months younger than Britton.

Brason Berkensen: 5.90 ERA, 4.06 xFIP; 5.92 ERA, 4.39 xFIP. Jason Berken (27) and Brad Bergesen (turns 26 in September) aren't quite the same -- Bergesen is younger and probably a little better -- but I'm lumping them together because they're both pitching out of the bullpen and haven't been very good. Both have pitched well at times this year, but they're essentially the mop-up crew now (you could add Alfredo Simon to that group, too). Whenever the O's are down by more than a few runs, one of them is usually the guy the O's turn to to get through the next few innings. Sure, there's value in that if it's done properly, but I have a hard time believing that either guy will ever be effective over an entire season (especially in the AL East).


There's also a few guys in Norfolk -- Brandon Snyder, Josh Bell, Ryan Adams, Troy Patton, Matt Angle -- who have some promise, but that's not much to choose from. The goal all along was for the guys above to take the next step (or several steps) forward, but only a few have really done that.

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