Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Thoughts on Brian Roberts & the Back of the Rotation

Many people think that Brian Roberts will be traded to the Cubs before the end of Spring Training. Andy MacPhail insists that there are several clubs still expressing interest in Roberts, but the Cubs are the only ones we hear about and are the most likely destination. I’d love for the Rockies to get involved, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. I have gone back and forth on whether or not I believe it’s wise to trade Roberts now or wait until mid-season, or even next off-season. Part of that reservation has been my doubts of how well the Cubs available players really match up with our needs, and part of it has been my fear of what taking Brian Roberts out of our lineup would mean.

Roberts is our lead-off hitter, our catalyst, and he is very good at that job. He does all the things that are expected of a lead-off hitter and he does them well; he hits for average, has a good OBP, makes pitchers work, sees a lot of pitches, he steals bases and does it with a high success rate. The problem is that there is no one else in the organization even close to major league ready who shows this skills set. Finding his replacement is a daunting task.

I know that as a rebuilding club we shouldn’t worry about this too much. We just need to stockpile as much talent as we can, regardless of where they play and what they do well. We can put the pieces together and complete the puzzle later. But with Roberts gone, the best in house alternatives would be Melvin Mora, if he can rebound a little, or Nick Markakis, if we wanted to move him out of the 3 spot where the O’s envision him being for years to come.

However, a player who may have surfaced briefly in the beginning of Roberts/Cubs rumors has resurfaced and peaked my interest. He is second baseman/outfielder Eric Patterson. I had dismissed him early on, thinking he wasn’t worth pursuing. The knock on him was that many baseball people don’t see him sticking at second base. That’s why he’s started to see some time in the outfield, but his arm isn’t very strong so he’s best suited to left field, where we want to start playing someone with power, such as Luke Scott or prospect Nolan Reimold. But if the Orioles think Patterson can stick at second base, or at least are interested in giving him every chance to do so, he would make a lot of sense for the Orioles. Patterson would become the best candidate for the lead-off spot. In the minors he has shown a lot of the same offensive skills as Brian Roberts, with maybe a little more power. All he needs to do is prove he can stay at second base.

Update on the competition for the back of the rotation:

RHP Matt Albers and LHP Garrett Olsen pitched in intra-squad scrimmages today, throwing two innings a piece. Each had their moments, good and bad.

Albers’ velocity impressed and he pelted the strike zone throwing 20 of his 26 pitches for strikes. He also gave up a long homerun to Kevin Millar. He could be someone to watch. Troy Patton was and is looked at as the best pitcher in the Tejada trade with Houston, as he is polished and a good bet to fulfill his potential as a middle of the rotation starter. But many insiders think that Albers has a higher ceiling. He has better stuff. He just needs to work on his command and polish up that change-up. Without it he essentially throws only 2 pitches and will be destined for relief.

Olsen needs to improve if he wants to make good on my prediction of him making the rotation. He has displayed great control in the minors, but during his big league audition at the end of last year he didn’t show any confidence in his stuff and started nibbling around the plate, falling behind hitters constantly. Nothing has changed as he only threw 14 of his 30 pitches for strikes today. He also hit two batters. However, he did hold the opposition scoreless.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

2008 Season Preview

Spring training has begun and season previews are starting to pop up as different publications start giving more coverage to Major League Baseball, so I figured I would do my own preview.

The 2008 season is taking shape as one filled with hope for the future, as the Baltimore Orioles are finally showing a commitment to rebuilding; a movement far overdue as 1997 was its last winning season. The question will be, how painful will the typical pains of rebuilding be for the Orioles? A team who is forsaking the present for the future will have deficiencies on the major league club, and the Orioles are no exception. There are young players that will be worth watching, but not as many as fans would like. On fan sites and message boards, many fans are crying out for certain veterans to be traded and/or cut. Sometimes it just isn’t that easy, as some players have too large a salary to cut or don’t have enough trade value to gather interest from other clubs. The two issues are often tied together to form a particularly frustrating situation. The result for the Orioles in 2008 will be a roster with a few young budding stars and plenty of veteran stop-gaps spread around the field. Let’s take a look, position by position, and see who I think makes the final 25 man roster.

C: Ramon Hernandez (32) – he was a little out of shape and struggled with injuries last season, but looks fit and ready to go this spring.

1B: Kevin Millar (36) – this steady veteran will man first base, but he’ll see a little time at designated hitter, too.

2B: Brian Roberts (30) – trade rumors surround him, but for now he’s one of our star players and one of the best lead-off men in the game.

SS: Luis Hernandez (24) – he’s great with the glove, but not so great with the bat. I can already hear opposing teams chanting, “easy out… easy out”.

3B: Melvin Mora (36) – this aging starter needs to prove that the real Mora is the one who hit 12 homeruns in the first half last year, not 2 homeruns in the second half.

LF: Luke Scott (30) – acquired in the Miguel Tejada trade, he should provide a power boost in left, something we’ve lacked for quite some time. He has impressed Dave Trembley in the cages so far this spring.

CF: Adam Jones (22) – the centerpiece in the Erik Bedard deal, he is a 5-tool star in the making; a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort in Baltimore.

RF: Nick Markakis (24) – voted team MVP in 2007, Markakis is a star on the rise and, should Brian Roberts be traded, the face of the franchise.

DH: Aubrey Huff (31) – he had surgery in January for a sports hernia, but should be ready to go before Opening Day. He’ll be looking to rebound after breaking his streak of 5 straight seasons with 20+ homeruns in 2007. He needs to play well for the fans to forget about some offensive comments he made over the winter. He'll also be backing up Millar and Mora at the corners.

Guillermo Quiroz (26) – obviously you need a back-up catcher, and this former top prospect (with the Blue Jays) is the front runner.

Freddie Bynum (28) – gets a spot due to his versatility. He has great speed off the bench and can back up both middle infield positions and play the outfield. Brandon Fahey (27) could challenge him for this spot, as he’s a better infielder, but his one option remaining (compared to Bynum’s none) is working against him.

Jay Payton (35) – this veteran is a good 4th outfielder, who can play all three outfield positions. There is some concern that he might become a malcontent if he doesn’t get enough playing time, which wouldn’t help his need to rebound after a subpar year in 2007.

Jay Gibbons (31) – as much as we might not want to see Gibbons in an Orioles uniform, he doesn’t have any trade value and he’s very popular in the clubhouse, so he’ll be a fixture on the Orioles bench, seeing time in left field and at DH; that is, after he serves his 15 game suspension for purchasing illegal PED’s. That suspension opens the door for someone like OF Tike Redman (31) or 3B Scott Moore (24) to start the year on the Orioles, but Gibbons will be back.

Starting Rotation:
RHP Jeremy Guthrie (29) – he was a brilliant waiver claim last season, but hit a wall late in the season. He needs to show that he’s the real deal and work on his stamina.

LHP Adam Loewen (24) – he’s being pegged as a future ace, but coming back from a stress fracture in his throwing elbow and only having thrown 147-2/3 innings in the majors, he has much to prove.

RHP Daniel Cabrera (27) – possessing some of the nastiest stuff in the league, he’s loaded with potential, but has been nothing but frustrating. On a positive note, he did throw over 200 innings last year.

RHP Steve Trachsel (37) – the club wants the veteran to make the team in order save some younger arms the innings, but he could get pushed out if enough of them impress this spring.

LHP Garrett Olsen (24) – the rookie has a great track record in the minors, but had a rough time in his call-up last season. This last spot is very much up for grabs, with many candidates fighting for it, but I predict that Olsen’s plus control will win him the job. LHP Troy Patton (22) would be the favorite to win this spot, but he’s got some issues with the labrum in his shoulder and is behind the other starters this spring.

LHP George Sherrill (31) – acquired in the Bedard trade, this left handed specialist is the favorite to become the Orioles closer. In order to be successful he needs to find a way to be more successful against righties, who have hit .261/.384/.352 off him for this career, compared to .167/.227/.291 against lefties.

RHP Chad Bradford (33) – this extreme sub-mariner excels at keeping the ball in the park (only 2 homeruns given up the past two years) and will be matched up against opposing teams’ best right handed bats.

LHP Jamie Walker (36) – this situational lefty led the team in appearances in 2007 with 81, and was second on the team in ERA with a 3.23 mark.

RHP Dennis Sarfate (27) – his power arm was acquired in the Tejada trade. He doesn’t have any options left, so he should make the team. Thankfully, early reports from Fort Lauderdale are that he is throwing well. No one has ever questioned his stuff. It’s his command that will determine how effective he can be.

RHP Greg Aquino (30) – this waiver claim has a slight advantage over younger competition, and he has a good arm. The problem is, his fastball doesn’t move so he’ll have to be fine with his location to be successful. Aquino could be one of the first to get bumped from the bullpen if a young player impresses, such as RHP Jim Hoey (25) and RHP Bob McCrory (26).

RHP Randor Bierd (24) – he was a Rule V draft acquisition so he has to make the 25 man roster, or be offered back to the Tigers. He was dominant in Class AA in 2007 and I hope that the Orioles give him every chance to stay.

LHP Brian Burres (27) – with the state of our starting rotation it is imperative that we have a good long man in the bullpen. Burres showed promise in that role last year, but the role could go to RHP Matt Albers (25), another starting pitcher with relief experience.

Looking over the roster, and the others in the AL East, it’s tough to envision the team not finishing last in our division. But sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better, and things definitely look like they’ll be getting better.

Monday, February 11, 2008

It's a Trachsel Re-Run

Let's take a trip down memory lane. Remember when starter Kris Benson went down with a shoulder injury shortly before Spring Training 2007? The Orioles scooped up one of the last remaining starting pitchers that no one wanted to fill his place: Steve Trachsel. Fast forward one year, shortly before Spring Training 2008 and the Orioles have a young unproven rotation made even more vulnerable in the short term with the trading of its ace, Erik Bedard. The Orioles show interest in bringing in a veteran who might be more reliable and can eat some innings so they don't have to lean on young arms that aren't ready. So they look out at the remaining dregs of starters that no one wants... and sign Steve Trachsel.

The first time, Trachsel was signed to a major league deal and was assured of a roster spot. This time, it's just a minor league deal. There were rumors of the Orioles signing starter Josh Fogg to serve as the veteran innings eater. This minor league deal to Trachsel is a much better move. Fogg would most likely have required a major league deal, meaning we'd have to drop someone off of the 40 man roster to make room, exposing that player to waivers. Why risk losing a young player for an older veteran who, by the end of spring training, we may decide we don't even need? Trachsel only has a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so for now, he's not presenting us with any risk of losing a player to waivers. He pitched pretty well for the Orioles last year, too. He wasn't great, but was reliable and kept the team in the game. He made 25 starts for the Orioles before being traded in August, and he allowed 3 earned runs or less in 17 of those starts. If he can show in Spring Training that he can still do that (no guarantees at age 37)and our young pitchers don't force the organizations hand, then the front office can decide if they want to keep Trachsel. I'm not convinced that Fogg would do any better than Trachsel, certainly not drastically, so why force an unnecessary roster move now?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ace Up the O's Sleeve? Not Anymore.

Today, the epic tale of a young man's trek across the country comes to an end. Baltimore Orioles' ace pitcher, Erik Bedard, is officially a Seattle Mariner. Bedard was Baltimore's biggest trading chip and it shows in the return. Orioles President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail, deliberated over this deal with Seattle GM, Bill Bavasi, for what seemed like an eternity. News leaked about a deal being made over a week ago, and every day since then the media has tried to report on the pending trade. Most days it seemed like they were making things up just so they didn't have to say what they said the day before. From the perspective of a fan, the experience was painful. However, if the end result of all of MacPhail's drawn out trade talks are like this, then I'm a masochist.

In exchange for Erik Bedard (29), the Orioles are receiving five players: CF Adam Jones (22), LHP George Sherrill (31), RHP Chris Tillman (20), LHP Tony Butler (20) and RHP Kam Mickolio (23).

Adam Jones is the centerpiece. He has won Seattle's Minor League Player of the Year award twice (2005 & 2007), and was their 2003 1st round draft pick. He no longer has rookie status (9 ABs over the limit), so you won't see him on any top prospect lists anywhere, but if he were eligible he'd be Seattle's #1 and in the top 10 for all of baseball. Barring injury, he'll be the Orioles opening day centerfielder, and I for one am excited to watch Jones and Markakis patrol our outfield for years to come. Jones has good speed, which helps him show good range in center, and he's got a cannon for an arm. The scouting scale for rating a player's tools is 20-80 (don't ask me why). Jones has a solid 70 arm, with the potential to be an unheard of 80 if he can become more accurate. He was throwing 90+ mph from a mound in high school, so you know he's got the arm strength. As a hitter, he's got some maturation to do. He hit .314 with 25 home runs in Class AAA last year, but struggled once promoted to the big leagues. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts and stop chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone. The good news is he has shown a steep learing curve, showing impressive improvement for 3 years in a row. Here's hoping he continues to learn quickly, so that he can help bring some much needed pop to the O's lineup ASAP.

George Sherrill may seem old for someone a rebuilding team wants, but he was one of the best left handed relievers in the league last year with a 2.36 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and over a strikeout per inning. The consensus seems to be that he will be the closer in the bullpen this year, filling in for the injured Chris Ray. The O's bullpen is starting to take shape, and the open spots are starting to dwindle, but the arms hoping to fill them are not. It will be interesting to watch in spring training, as it should be very competitive.

Chris Tillman is the top prospect in the deal. He was ranked by Baseball America as Seattle's 3rd best prospect. He reminds me of our own young flame thrower, Brandon Erbe. Tillman has a live arm with a great fastball. He sits comfortably at 90-94 with the potential for more. He's 6'5" tall and just a hair under 200 lbs, and given his young age (20), you can expect him to fill out a little more and gain some strength. By the time he reaches the majors, which may not be that long (he could start the year in Class AA), he could be bringing mid-90's heat with regularity. He's got the potential to be a front of the rotation starter, with his plus fastball and plus curveball. What could determine whether he becomes an ace or not is how his changeup develops; a pitch he hasn't thrown much.

Tony Butler is another good young starter, though not as touted as Tillman. He has plenty of upside, but needs to become more consistent, a common problem with young pitchers who look like basketball players. Butler is 6'7" tall. He has a solid fastball, but his best pitch is his curveball. It's got a sharp break, and with his height, I've heard that it looks like it's dropping out of the sky. If he doesn't get better command of it though, more advanced hitters will lay off it until he proves he can throw it for strikes.

If you thought Butler was tall, wait until you see Kam "the Almighty" Mickolio. He's a huge man, 6'9" tall and listed at 255 lbs. He's a relief pitcher who has really come on fast. He grew up in Montana, and I don't know if this is the case for all of Montana, but they didn't have high school baseball where he grew up. So he didn't play competitively until college. There he learned the trade, and showed enough promise to be drafted by Seattle in the 18th round. What a steal! He has sky rocketed through their system. In just his second season, he already reached Class AAA. He's knocking on the doorstep of the big leagues. The Orioles bullpen has been a sore spot for years, but are now collecting quite a group of young budding power arms to fill it with. In a year or two, it could be a strength.

I have to say that I've been impressed with Andy MacPhail and his ability to get good value when making trades. Look at the two main deals from this winter. We gave up 2 players, Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard, and we've gotten 10 players in return, some of which have top notch talent. Tejada got us Troy Patton, Matt Albers, Luke Scott, Dennis Sarfate and Mike Costanzo. Bedard got us Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler and Kam Mickolio. That group includes our starting centerfielder (Jones), starting leftfielder (Scott), our closer (Sherrill), a power arm for our bullpen (Sarfate), two pitchers who will compete for a rotation spot (Patton & Albers), a power reliever who's close to the big leagues (Mickolio), a power hitting third base prospect (Costanzo) and two good pitching prospects (Tillman & Butler). MacPhail has done a great job so far.

I can go back to last year, too. In August he traded starting pitcher Steve Trachsel to the Cubs for reliever Rocky Cherry, third baseman Scott Moore and RHP prospect Jacob Renshaw. Trachsel was old, average at best and in the last year of his contract. MacPhail did well to get a reliever who can throw in the 90's, a third baseman with some promise AND another prospect in Renshaw. Renshaw was added due to a clause in the trade that forced the Cubs to give us another player if they made the playoffs. Smart move! I don't expect anything from Cherry, and neither Moore nor Renshaw will be stars, but to get warm bodies with major league potential for Trachsel is a steal.

In MacPhail do I trust.