This is one of a series of posts in which we call out all 30 teams for their wily offseason moves and tragic offseason blunders..
Most of us (myself included) have gotten used to thinking of the O’s as sad little warblers who resent their neighbors to the north – those hordes of Fenway Faithful who invade Camden Yards when the BoSox are in town and who lured then-first baseman Kevin Millar to throw out a first pitch in Massachusetts when his work address was in Maryland.
And it’s true that the Orioles have just wrapped up their own “Lost Decade” – ten years of under-.500 ball. But could that finally be about to change? Last winter’s trades of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard showed that Baltimore had finally gotten serious about rebuilding. They now head into 2009 with enough young talent to leave Orioles fans legitimately excited – and to give road-tripping Bostonians something to look forward to besides crab cakes.
Take a look at the outfield: in right, there’s 25-year old Nick Markakis, signed to a 6-year deal after a season in which he OBP’ed .406 and hit 20 homers. Center and left will largely be manned by 23-year old Adam Jones and 24-year old Felix Pie, respectively, both players who still have a lot of upside.
The infield looks positively ancient by comparison, where the only regular under the age of 30 is newly acquired shortstop Cesar Izturis, 29, who will bring stability, speed and defense to a position that, last year, saw six players. Though Gregg Zaun will begin the year as Baltimore’s backstop, he’s only holding the plate down until 22-year old uberprospect Matt Wieters comes up from Norfolk. Wieters is the kind of hotly anticipated rookie who makes a scout whip out his thesaurus to look for new adjectives. He’s hands-down the top pick in every prospect listing I’ve read this winter. The only reason he won’t start the season with the team? Because calling him up later will let the team control him one year longer.
However, Brian Roberts and Ty Wigginton are 31, Aubrey Huff is 32, and Melvin Mora is 37. The O’s tried to trade Roberts last year, but couldn’t get a deal done and spent this spring trying to sign him to an extension.
And yet there’s one question that continues to hound the team’s front office: Who is going to pitch? Given that Jeremy Guthrie is their only solid starter, many baseball observers were surprised (to put it politely) when the O’s made a run at free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira this winter. Shouldn’t they be targeting hurlers instead of hitters? But looking ahead, Baltimore’s farm system is loaded with arms – and while there won’t be a critical mass of them ready to give you 200 innings for a couple of years yet, the Orioles believe in them sufficiently to be more concerned about building up their offense at this stage. And they should be – after Wieters, their farm system is light on impact bats. So in the meantime, while they wait for their young arms to mature, they’ve taken a flyer on erstwhile Japanese ace Koji Uehara, and hope they can salvage something from the rusting hulks of Mark Hendrickson and Rich Hill.
With a lineup built around Wieters, Markakis, Roberts, and the incredibly under-appreciated Aubrey Huff, Baltimore is just waiting for their young pitchers to come into their own. There’s more work to be done – finding another bat, shoring up the bullpen, and finding ways to further improve the defense, but it’s a nice start.
Offseason Grade: B
Acquisitions: OF/IF Ryan Freel, C Gregg Zaun, OF Felix Pie, SS Cesar Izturis, IF Ty Wigginton, P Koji Uehara, P Mark Hendrickson, P Rich Hill, P Adam Eaton
Losses: C Ramon Hernandez, P Daniel Cabrera, P Garret Olson, OF Jay Payton, 1B Kevin Millar, OF Adam Loewen
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:
2B Brian Roberts
CF Adam Jones
RF Nick Markakis
1B Aubrey Huff
3B Melvin Mora/Ty Wigginton
DH Luke Scott
C Greg Zaun (with Matt Wieters taking over soon-ish)
LF Felix Pie
SS Cesar Izturis
SP1 Jeremy Guthrie
SP2 Koji Uehara
SP3 Rich Hill
SP4 Matt Albers
SP5 Adam Eaton/Mark Hendrickson
CL George Sherrill