Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Orioles Use Common Cents

In a world that is ruled by the all-mighty dollar, the Baltimore Orioles have just made a decision that doesn't fit the status quo - releasing Jay Gibbons.

Jay Gibbons is owed $11.9 million over the next 2 seasons and the Orioles will be paying Gibbons 100% of that money whether he signs with someone else or not. Financially, it's a tough decision to make, but it makes sense in just about every other way.

Gibbons has shown a complete inability to stay healthy and productive. Orioles manager has also stressed the importance of having players that are NOT one dimensional, which is exactly what Jay Gibbons is. He doesn't offer anything defensively, and he hasn't hit well since the first half of 2006. If Trembley doesn't want too many one dimensional players, he definitely doesn't want someone with zero dimensions.

By cutting Gibbons, the Orioles also get to keep the younger Scott Moore on the roster. Moore has much more of a future with the rebuilding Orioles and he's much more versatile. Gibbons is limited to DH and a horribly played left field. Moore has played at third base, first base, second base and left field this spring. I would expect most of his playing time to come at the infield corners, but it's nice to have him available at the other positions.

Other roster battle updates:
LHP Brian Burres has been named the 5th starter, meaning RHP Matt Albers will be in the bullpen as the long reliever. Manager Dave Trembley has said that they'll use the open date on Tuesday, April 1st, to skip the 5th spot, so for the first week of the season Burres will also be available out of the bullpen.

As for the shortstop position: "Can you keep a secret? So can I." That's what Trembley said to his coaches regarding who will start at shortstop on Opening Day. I guess we'll all just have to wait until the lineup card gets posted.

Neither Luis Hernandez nor Brandon Fahey leave me dreaming of the 6-4-3 double play. It's more of a pick-your-poison situation, but Trembley keeps giving evidence that he's leaning towards Luis "Throw-Away" Hernandez. Trembley says that he's going to go more off of what he saw during the regular season last year than what he saw in spring training. That's all well and good, but it's obvious that Hernandez is pressing. Regardless of who Trembley wants to start, you have to wonder if Hernandez will deal well with the pressure of starting on Opening Day. It may be a good idea to start Fahey on Opening Day and then give them each equal playing time over the first few weeks and see who settles in - play the hot hand. Trembley keeps citing Fahey's versatility as a reason to keep him as a utility player, but Hernandez can play both middle infield spots and as long as we've got Jay Payton and Scott Moore on the team, there shouldn't be any reason to play Fahey in the outfield.

Edit: Trembley just announced that Luis Hernandez will bat ninth and play shortstop tomorrow. Fahey will serve as the utility man. The article from The Sun does mention the possibility of Fahey splitting time with Hernandez as the season progresses, so maybe my idea will happen after all, but with a different Opening Day starter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Last Minute Decisions

With Opening Day less than a week away, there is still competition for certain roles and even roster spots for the Baltimore Orioles. The two main questions surrounding the team are: who will be the 5th starting pitcher, and who is the starting shortstop?

The battle for the 5th starter spot, which once included pretty much everyone in camp, has been narrowed down to LHP Brian Burres and RHP Matt Albers. Whoever doesn’t get the starting spot will most likely enter the bullpen as the long reliever. Burres has made a strong argument for himself, saving his best spring outing for his last, beating the Marlins with 5 1/3 innings pitched, 6 hits allowed, 0 runs, 0 walks and 4 strikeouts. His biggest problem last year, in my opinion, was his lack of control--he had 66 walks in 121 innings. This spring he only has walked one batter in 13 innings, so that is promising, but he may end up in the bullpen anyway. Going into that last game against the Marlins, Albers was the favorite to get the starting nod, and Burres’ performance may not be enough to change that. It’s unclear how the handedness of each player will affect manager Dave Trembley’s decision.

On a related note, the Milwaukee Brewers released starting pitcher Claudio Vargas on Tuesday. I haven’t heard anything regarding Oriole interest in him, but it would be prudent to at least “kick the tires”. The Orioles are not exactly set in the starting rotation and Vargas could eat some innings for us this year. He would be a similar gamble to current O’s pitcher Steve Trachsel, only 8 years younger. It’s very possible that of the 5 guys who make the starting rotation in April, only Jeremy Guthrie and Daniel Cabrera will pitch more than 160 innings in the major leagues this year, so getting innings anywhere we can find them would be a wise move. Maybe president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail just plans on burning a lot of fuel busing our minor league pitchers in and out of town all summer.

The most glaring position battle, and one without an obvious answer, is at shortstop. Luis Hernandez was the favorite coming into the spring, but he’s playing like he doesn’t want the job. No one expected him to hit, but he’s been giving away outs like it's Christmas. The only other in-house option is Brandon Fahey, who (I never thought I’d say this) deserves to start. Well, let me rephrase that: he doesn’t deserve to be playing behind Luis “Throw-away” Hernandez. Fahey has had a good spring and I’ve heard rumors that he’s gained some weight over the off-season, so maybe he’ll be able to hit the ball as opposed to just letting the ball hit his bat.

That being said, I still expect MacPhail to be working hard to find another shortstop somewhere. It’s looking less likely that the Brian Roberts trade will be happening before Opening Day, so it probably won’t be Ronny Cedeno, the guy we all thought would be our shortstop by now. That’s a shame, because those rumored Cubs deals would have netted us not only a possible starting shortstop, but also another pitcher or two to compete for starts this year.

The bench spots are falling in place as well. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz and outfielder Jay Payton are locks. The loser of the Hernandez-Fahey competition will be the utility guy (wow, I hope we bring someone else in). That leaves one remaining spot. It belongs to Jay Gibbons only because of his contract, but he’s expected to start the year on a 15 game suspension. While he’s away, his roster spot will be taken by either outfielder Tike Redman or utility player Scott Moore. Moore has been hitting the cover off the ball this spring and is showing much more versatility than expected, seeing time at third base, first base, second base and left field. He should be the favorite, unless the O’s decide they want him to get more playing time and send him to Norfolk to get it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Look Ahead at the Rule 4 Draft

Did you know that the First Year Player draft in June is also called the Rule 4 draft? Until recently, I didn’t either.

For years, when you watched the Orioles play, what you saw on the field was all you had to hope for. There was no help on the way (at least in-house) as the farm system was barren and player development did not receive nearly enough attention. Thankfully, that is all changing. Joe Jordan, who became the Orioles Scouting Director before the 2005 season, has done a good job turning things around. It certainly wasn’t easy as he wasn’t given much to work with in the beginning, but that shouldn’t be a concern now that Orioles’ President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail, is on board – he is showing some serious devotion to player development.

Most of our promising young players are pitchers, such as Radhames Liz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Chorye Spoone, Pedro Beato, and Brandon Erbe. Baseball America recently ranked the Orioles minor league pitching 3rd in the league. The hitters are lagging behind, pulling our overall talent ranking to 16th. There are still a few hitters worth watching though, such as Nolan Reimold, Bill Rowell, Brandon Snyder, Mike Costanzo, Brandon Tripp, and most of all Matt Wieters.

Like I said the Orioles are on their way up, and it should only get better this year as they have the privilege (and shame) of picking 4th in the 2008 Rule 4 draft. The teams picking ahead of us, in order, are the Tampa Bay Rays, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals. The exciting thing is that there are more than 4 draft eligible players that I - and most anyone who’s been paying attention – would love to get into our farm system.

Here’s a list of the best of the best that the Orioles will most likely be choosing from come June. The scouting reports and pictures are courtesy of Greg Pappas.

Key: *=lefty, #=switch-hitter, LHSP=left handed starting pitcher,
RHSP=right handed starting pitcher, (x) = age at the time of the 2008 Draft.

1. *Pedro Alvarez {College 3B, Vanderbilt} (21). The third-baseman, from the same college (Vanderbilt) as last year's overall #1 pick David Price, is the consensus #1 rated player after stellar Freshman and Sophomore campaigns. Alvarez is well put together at 6' 2 225 lbs., bats left, throws right and plays a decent third base. However, it's his bat that most feel have him at the head of the class.

Alvarez has comparables to Alex Gordon, with a .300+ BA and middle of the lineup production (25+ HR, 100+ RBI) very possible. He is the kind of player that if he develops as projected, could be a franchise player, whether at 3B or with a potential switch to 1B. He runs fairly well, although it's unlikely he'll be much of a stolen base threat.

Alvarez is an on-field leader, playing outstanding in stints for Team USA, and should become an easy top-5 choice this Draft, barring an unforeseen setback.

Since this report was written, Alvarez broke the hamate bone in his wrist. He is expected to miss about half of the college season and he may not be back to normal before the season ends. But the hamate bone is an injury that is well documented and shouldn’t scare people away. He may slide slightly because of this injury, but he is still expected to go in the top 5.

2. Aaron Crow {College RHSP, Missouri} (21). Missouri right-hander Aaron Crow really burst onto the scene during his dominating Cape Cod season (Collegiate Wood Bat League) this past fall. At 6' 2 215, he is not overly big, but is a solid athlete and easily repeats his mechanics, which may contribute to why his command of a low to mid-nineties fastball (which has hit 98 occasionally) has been outstanding. Crow led the league with a miniscule ERA of 0.67 and has a solid repertoire of secondary pitches, with a slider and change both grading out as average to above-average.

While his Cape campaign was very impressive, his college season was merely good. The sophomore was the Tigers' Friday night starter (#1) and threw 117.2 innings in 18 starts, striking out 90.

If he picks up where his Cape stint left off during the coming college season, he has the chance to go #1 overall.

3. Tim Beckham {High School SS, (GA)} (18). Beckham, with continued progress, profiles as an All-Star caliber SS, both with the glove and at the plate. He is an athletic defender with graceful actions and a very strong arm. Unlike many High School SS's, Beckham will stay at short. He is filling out his 6' 2 build and should add more strength to an already formidable offensive skill-set. He's fast AND quick, a combination more uncommon then most realize, and he's a great and instinctive base-runner to boot. Beckham has played well in wood bat tournaments and along with Eric Hosmer is considered among the very best hitters in the HS ranks.

He has been compared to BJ Upton and that is high praise indeed. Considered by most as the premiere High School prospect, and by some as the overall #1 player available, Beckham should come off the board very, very early. (photo courtesy of Baseball America)

4. #Justin Smoak {College 1B, South Carolina} (21). Justin was a borderline 1st rounder as a High School senior, and the switch-hitting first sacker has done nothing to disappoint the South Carolina fan base since his freshman campaign in '06. Smoak is well built at 6' 3 200 lbs., with sound swing mechanics from both sides of the plate and generates both good average and good power. He has played very well in the Cape Cod League (Collegiate Wood Bat League) and projects quite well as a big leaguer. Justin has a decent eye, but can be a bit undisciplined. However, he does play a very good 1B.

The comparisons to Mark Teixeira have been and will be there, but Smoak should make his own 'mark' on the game he loves. I project Smoak as an outstanding defensive first baseman, with the following line a rough estimate of his hitting abilities> .285/.365/.510 with 30'ish HR's and good run production - a very solid choice for any team looking for an advanced college bat.

5. *Brian Matusz {College LHSP, San Diego} (21). Matusz (pronounced MAT-is) is one of those pitchers that just has ML'er written all over him. The University of San Diego junior stands 6' 4 and weighs in at 195 lbs. He employs a sweet combination of crafty lefty with a low nineties fastball and consistently throws three quality pitches for strikes. He will pitch from 87-92 and can hit 94 when necessary, but it's his assortment of high-grade secondary stuff that has scouts excited about his future. His curve and change are both outstanding, and his athleticism and easy arm action plants him squarely in line to be a high first-round selection.
Because he doesn't necessarily profile as a true #1 ace, Matusz doesn't get the drools from the scouts as last year's #1 David Price had, but in time Matusz may prove to be about as good.
(photo courtesy of Baseball America)

I think the biggest reason Matusz isn’t being seen as a possible ace is because he doesn’t throw as hard as many other phenoms, but since when is a low 90’s fastball (up to 94) with up to 3 other average to above average pitches (also throws a nice slider) with control not good enough to dominate hitters?

6. *Eric Hosmer {High School 1B, (FL)} (18). For me, Hosmer may be the single best 1B prospect in the last 20 years and while some discount his value for being a 1B'man, I have him as the overall best prospect in the draft. He is big at 6' 4 200, and strong enough to launch massive shot after massive shot throughout both batting practice and in the games he plays. Already a very good defender at 1B, Eric profiles as a middle of the order beast. With perhaps the sweetest swing in the draft he won the WWBA (World Wood Bat Association) Tourney MVP back in October, adding to an impressive collection of accolades.

While High School phenom Tim Beckham gets the most rave reviews for being the next great 5-tool talent, it is Hosmer that has been the most consistent player. Coupling tremendous defensive and offensive skill-sets makes Hosmer a legit threat to go in the top 5.

Other than Alvarez’s wrist injury, none of these players have done anything to discourage teams from picking them early and paying them lots of money. If you wanted to mess around with a mock draft, you could easily predict these 6 players going in any order at the top of the draft board – although you’d have some explaining to do if you were to put Hosmer in the top 4. Normally I wouldn’t include Hosmer in this list of possible Orioles targets, but he does have the upside to warrant a high draft pick and Pappas loves him. I think he would take Hosmer with the 1st overall pick if he was given the chance. My favorite is Tim Beckham.

There are also two sleepers who could force their way into consideration for the top 5 spots – high school RHP Tim Melville, who could possibly have the best arm in the draft, and high school SS/3B Harold Martinez. Martinez plays short now but most seem him moving to third and being a great defender there. Crazily enough, he has gotten Alex Rodriguez comparisons but still doesn’t profile in the top 5 picks. He just hasn’t shown enough power yet to justify that high of a draft slot, but if he does start to show more power his senior year he’ll sky rocket up the amateur rankings.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ballpark Talk

One thing that makes going to an Orioles’ game such an enjoyable experience, even when the team stinks, is Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It’s a beautiful ballpark: the ivy wall in centerfield that serves as the batter’s eye, the cityscape above that (which isn’t what it used to be now that that big hotel is built), and of course the warehouse.

I am a big fan of having features (such as the warehouse) that make your ballpark unique and different from other parks. When someone sees a picture of it, they should know right away which ballpark it is. Is there a huge green wall in left field? That’s Fenway Park! Is there a big hill and flag pole within fair territory in center field? That’s Minute Maid Park! Do the outfield walls not have any padding, just ivy covered brick? That’s Wrigley Field!

I love going to games regardless of whether or not the stadium is unique, but it adds something else to the experience if there is some originality there. That’s one of the reasons Camden Yards is one of my favorite ballparks. They managed to make it aesthetically pleasing and unique.

Don’t look now, but Camden Yards could have some competition for the RFBP award (Ryan’s Favorite Ballpark).

Those Tampa Bay Rays, who are looking to pass the O’s in the standings this year, are also trying to win over my park affections. They have come up with a ballpark design so fascinating that I may seriously consider following the Orioles down there on a road trip to see it. If you don’t normally click on the links I put in my blogs, change your ways and click on this one. You have to see it for yourself.

It’s right on the water and tries to blend in with the adjacent harbor by having its own giant sail - sort of. The Rays’ current ballpark is a dome, and while it is nice to watch a game in A/C when it’s in the middle of a Florida summer, I just don’t care much for domes. This design is a clever compromise.

It has a huge column beyond centerfield that supports cables running to various points above the upper deck. These cables will support a retractable sail roof. The sections that are closest to the seating are permanent, offering shade, and the rest of the sail roof will be used in inclement weather. The great thing is that when the roof is on, the sides of the ballpark are still open, letting bay breezes come through, so you still feel like you’re outside.

I’m impressed by this design and think it could be my favorite Major League ballpark. Of course, I’ll have to visit it myself before I can say that for sure. I’ll have to wait awhile - it is scheduled to open in 2012.

Friday, March 7, 2008

See You Next Year

It’s official. Prospect Troy Patton will undergo season ending shoulder surgery to repair a small labrum tear. This shouldn’t be much of a shock. The Orioles have been dragging their feet on this since Spring Training started.

The question is - does this change your opinion of the Miguel Tejada trade? I don’t think it should. I know, I know; Patton was the top prospect to come back in that trade and an injury to him should hurt the value of the trade more than an injury to anyone else we received. However, it’s too early to tell how this will affect things in the long run, and that was what the trade was made for - the long run. We also knew that he had some kind of injury when we traded for him. We just didn’t know if it would require surgery or only rehab. The question surrounding Patton’s shoulder enabled us to wrestle extra players from the Astros. It’s easy to imagine some of those other players surpassing expectations and making up for Patton’s fall, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The tear in Patton’s shoulder is a small one and the doctors are confident that he can make a healthy comeback for the 2009 season. Patton will only be 23 next season, so he’ll still be a young left-handed pitcher on the brink of playing in the major leagues. That sounds good to me.

There is also a chance that he’ll be a better pitcher when he comes back. In 2006 he struck out 139 batters in 146 innings pitched. In 2007 he struck out 101 batters in 164 innings pitched. From the beginning of 2006 thru 2007 he rose from Class A Advanced all the way to the Major Leagues. Because his declining strikeout rate accompanied his fast rise through the Minor Leagues, many saw it as a sign that he wouldn’t be as effective against more advanced bats, but maybe it was that pesky shoulder.

When asked about his impending surgery, one thing that Patton mentioned was looking forward to coming back completely healthy with "a little bit more velocity than [he's] been pitching with". That makes me think that his shoulder was contributing to his declining numbers.

I’ll be looking forward to 2009 and a healthy Troy Patton.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How About Some Perspective?

Nick Markakis is one of many pre-arbitration players around the league who has had his contract renewed in the last week or so. The Orioles and Markakis were not able to come to a long-term agreement and had to settle for another one year deal - $455,000, a $55,000 raise from 2007. He'll be eligible for arbitration for the first time following the 2008 season and should be looking at a sizable pay raise. Nevertheless, Markakis was disappointed that they couldn't get a long term deal done now. Such a deal would have paid him much more than the $455,000 he'll make this year.

Some players have come to long term agreements in their pre-arbitration years. Rockies shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki signed a 6 year, $30 million contract in January, which buys out his last 2 pre-arbitration years and all 3 years that he would be arbitration eligible. Deals such as these are usually good for both the player and the club. It gives the player security and a much quicker road to big bucks. The advantage for the club is that while they are paying more now, the yearly salaries agreed to during the arbitration years could end up being much less than the player would have received if he had gone to arbitration.

Contracts like Tulowitzki's are becoming more commonplace, but are still far from the norm. However, some players are showing a sense of entitlement to a big pay-day.

Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder and Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels have both openly spoken to the press about how they feel about their contract renewals. Fielder says that it's about respect, and he's not getting enough. Hamels called it an insult, a low blow. C'mon guys! Prince, the Brewers renewed your contract for $670,000; 50% more than they were required to. You need to sit back, look at where you are and try to gain some perspective.

This is how the system works, fellas:
The first 3 full seasons that you are in the Major Leagues, you are only paid the major league minimum or slightly more. There might be slight increases; I'm not sure. Oops, I didn't do my homework. Anything more than that that your employer decides to pay you is just gravy. Be grateful and keep working.

After those 3 seasons, you are eligible for salary arbitration. Each year you will exchange figures with your employer. You will say what you think you are worth, and your employer will do the same. You are more than welcome to compromise and meet somewhere in the middle. In fact, most do. If you don't compromise, then it goes to court. A neutral arbitrator will listen to your arguments for why you deserve the salary you suggested and your employer will argue for the salary they suggested. The arbitrator will then decide which salary you deserve. It's one or the other now; there is no compromise.

After those 3 years of salary arbitration, you are a free agent and you can sign with any team you want, for however much money you can get from them.

This is the system that YOUR union, the MLB Players Association, agreed to. If you don't think the system is fair, take it up with them. If you're as good as you think you are, you'll still be around 4-5 years from now and you'll get your pay-day.

In the meantime, why don't you take advice from veteran Braves pitcher John Smoltz, who said, "It happens to everybody. Just [play]." The game is challenging enough when you're not upset.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

B-Rob Isn't the Only One

99% of Orioles related trade rumors right now pertain to Brian Roberts, but that could be changing. Two players who I didn't think we'd be able to get rid of - Jay Payton and Kevin Millar - could be gaining interest from the New York Mets.

The Mets are thinking playoffs right from the start, but that doesn't mean they don't have question marks. They are interested in a right-handed hitting outfielder who they can platoon with new left-handed hitting rightfielder, Ryan Church. The only backup outfielder they have who isn't a left-handed hitter is Angel Pagan, who is a switch hitter. He may be playing well this spring, but he's there fighting for a bench spot, not semi-regular time. There are other players available who would be a better fit, such as the Cubs' Matt Murton, but Payton could find himself in the center of the Mets' interest depending on what the Mets are looking to give up. Murton would most definitely take more.

Kevin Millar has been mentioned on some rumor websites as a possible solution as a back up outfielder, too, but that would be an adventure. He's pretty much limited to first base now. However, Millar is still an option for the Mets as a back up first baseman. Carlos Delgado is no spring chicken anymore - he turns 36 in June. He declined sharply last season, hitting .258/.333/.448 with 24 homeruns, down from .265/.361/.548 and 38 homeruns in 2006. This spring he's showing his age again, being bothered by an impingement in his hip. There is a void at first base behind Delgado, so picking up someone who can give him some additional days off and cover for him if he misses an extended period of time could be a good idea.

Now, if you paid attention during the Johan Santana trade rumors, you'll remember that the Mets don't have a very strong farm system, especially after the Santana trade. However, if they want to pursue Payton or Millar, I doubt it would cost much - as far as players are concerned. It would cost some money as they would probably have to pay the entirety of their contracts ($4.5 million for Payton & $2.75 million for Millar).

If I were Andy MacPhail, I might be interested in 25 year old middle infielder Anderson Hernandez. Orioles manager, Dave Trembley, keeps saying that the Orioles want to rebuild around pitching and defense. Hernandez fits that mold. He's a slick fielder with a strong arm who can play both shortstop and second base well. At the plate he's a switch hitter whose game revolves around spraying the ball around and using his above average speed. Hernandez and some low level/high upside prospects could be a workable deal.