Friday, March 27, 2009

After a week off due to injury (think of it as my own stint on the 15 day DL), I am back.  And I really want to get into the baseball season.

It is hard to really get my Baseball review going when my hometown team only has 40% of its starting rotation set and there are 2 weeks until the start of the season.  It is going to be shades of of the 1948 Boston Braves unless some miracle happens.  They have some studs in the wings, like Matt Wieters, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman.  Wieters has every appearance of being the real deal, and a lot of respected baseball publications called him the top minor league player in baseball last year and the top prospect this year.  He is starting the season in AAA (he got the word yesterday that he was being sent down), but that is only to give him a little more seasoning and (more importantly for the team) to give them another year of having him under their control before he can become a free agent (go HERE and scroll down to "after a player is drafted".  For this season, if Wieters is brought up after May 12th his major league service time clock won't start ticking until next season.  Look for him to come up around the end of May or the beginning of June).  He has a decent shot of Rookie of the Year, and unless things go wrong in a MAJOR way, he will be a cornerstone of this franchise for 10-15 years.  The Big 3 of Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman are starting pitchers with a ton of upside, and should be pushing their way into the bigs no later than 2011.  But at least Andy MacPhail is smart enough to keep them down in the minors and not rush them, even if they might be better than who we are plugging into the lineup this year.  They need to learn how to pitch in the minors, and only then should they come up.

And honestly, the team does have some good pieces in place.  They signed RF Nick Markakis to a 6 year deal in the off season, and CF Adam Jones had a good year, and came on stronger at the end of the season.  That is 2/3 of a very good outfield.  If LF Felix Pie (pronounced pee-YAY) pays off and lives up to his potential, then the Orioles will have one of the better outfields in baseball for a long time.  All 3 are above average defensively, Markakis is one of the more talented hitters in RF in the entire league, and he is getting better each year.  Jones has speed to spare and could conceivably be a perennial 50 steal guy with some pop in his bat, and Pie is a 5 tool player with plus scores in all areas, but who was pushed out of the Chicago Cubs lineup because they are a veteran laden team trying to win it all right now and do not have room on their roster for a rookie to learn in the big leagues.  Because his minor league options were up, the Orioles got him on the cheap.  He might not pan out, but it was a chance that the team could not pass up.  A big move was the signing of 2B Brian Roberts to a 4 year extension.  He is 31 and will probably not play much past this new contract.  And there is the chance that his play will decline more than a little bit over the next 5 years (the final year of his current contract and the 4 year extension).  But his leadership on the field and the example that he sets on and off the field are as important as anything else he does, especially in the next 2 years as this team builds towards being a contender again.  They have a number of other players that are probably in their last year with the team (Melvin Mora and Aubrey Huff being the two prime examples), as the team continues to develop their prospects (actually, if Huff has another good year I could see them keeping him.  But I do not think the team is going to re-sign Mora.  From a fan perspective I will miss him if they do not re-sign him, since he has been a bright spot, especially since he was the only really positive return from the "fire sale" that Syd Thrift had in 1999.  But it is time for the team to move on, and probably time for him to move on, too.  I just hope he retires and becomes ambassador for the team both here and abroad.  I have heard rumors of that being discussed with him.  I hope it is true).

In the off season the team made a valiant effort to sign local product and budding superstar 1B Mark Teixeira.  They made a fair offer, and said to his agent that if he is truly interested in coming home and playing for the team he watched as a kid they would be willing to move on that offer.  However (and this is why I think Andy MacPhail not only knows what he is doing but needs to be left the hell alone to do it), he also told them that he would not allow his team and their fans to be led along and used in order to get bigger offers from other teams.  He would not allow the franchise to be a negotiating ploy.  And it turns out that Teixeira never had any intention of coming here, as he signed with the New York Yankees (which a lot of local fans took personally, which is just stupid since he owed the franchise and its fans nothing).  His favorite team as a kid was the Orioles, but his favorite player (the one he modeled himself after since he played the same position as him) was Don Mattingly.  And when he was offered the chance to stand in his place he jumped at it.  Signing him would have been a step away from the blueprint that MacPhail has set forth on how this club needs to operate, but it was one that made sense from a fan and from a team perspective.  The team will be much more active in free agency in the next two years (as long as some of these prospects pan out), but right now the best course of action is to continue to develop from within.  They have greatly expanded their presence in Latin America (which is a hotbed of baseball talent), and they signed their first Japanese player (who is not a top flight talent, but a decent player.  The importance of the signing is getting the team a foot in the door of the Japanese talent pool and getting the team on the lips and in the minds of the players and fans.  They all know who the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners - who are owned by Nintendo - are.  Now they have reporters following the Orioles every day.  If Koji has a good time and likes what he sees then another world of talented players become available to the team.  It is another smart move by MacPhail.

I am not looking for this team to win more than 70-75 games this year, and would not be surprised if they were closer to 60 wins and 100 losses (they were 68-93 last year with one rained out game not made up as it made no difference in the final standings, playoffs, or draft slotting).  I am expecting to see Wieters by the beginning of summer and possibly 1 of the 3 pitching prospects (my money would be on Matusz) before the season is over.  I want to see Markakis improve his base stealing and expect to see an improvement in his power and RBI totals.  I expect to see continued improvement in Jones' overall offensive performance.  I am anxious to see what Pie can do as a full time starter in the majors as opposed to a call-up / fill in / part time player like he was in Chicago.  Basically I am looking for improvement on the field more so than in the standings.  The W-L record will get better only after the players do.  One step at a time.

Next week - Overall predictions for the season!

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