With a brutal, record-setting Baltimore winter thankfully in the rear-view mirror and a beautiful start to April upon us, we now turn our attention to spring and another season of baseball.
Despite a 64-98 record (the club’s worse since 2001) and a second straight last-place finish in 2009, the Orioles appear to be inching closer to respectability, and optimism has grown with a promising collection of young players–both at the major and minor league levels–not seen in these parts in quite some time.
Still, the cold reality of playing in the American League East leaves the possibility of contention as nothing more than an impractical daydream. Even with sterling seasons from the likes of Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Brian Matusz, and Brad Bergesen, the stronghold of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays at the top of the division leaves the Orioles overmatched in the toughest division in baseball.
With that said, Andy MacPhail has made it clear the 2010 campaign will be judged on wins and losses after acknowledging his first few seasons in Baltimore were nothing more than developmental years. The pressure will be levied on Dave Trembley after compiling a 172-244 record in his three seasons as skipper of the Orioles.
Substantial improvement is an absolute necessity in 2010, both in continued player development and results on the field. If not, mass changes will be in order, and the absolute confidence bestowed upon MacPhail since arriving halfway through the 2007 season will need to be reconsidered.
But before significant progress can be witnessed in 2010, a plethora of questions must be addressed. Here are the first five of my 10 questions for the 2010 season (click here for Part 2):
1. Will Brian Roberts’ back hold up over the next six months?
Back issues are bad news for any athlete, but when it’s your 32-year-old leadoff hitter and starting second baseman, it’s hard to envision Roberts’ herniated disk in the lower back as an injury that won’t resurface at some point this season.
After receiving an epidural injection in Baltimore in mid-March, Roberts returned to Sarasota, playing in five games and hitting .214 through Friday. All reports indicate the Orioles second baseman is feeling good, but 14 at-bats in sunny Florida is a far cry from the rigors of a 162-game season. Trembley will certainly need to monitor Roberts’ playing time, especially in the cooler climate of April.
MacPhail did provide a nice insurance policy in acquiring middle infielder Julio Lugo from the Cardinals earlier this week. An upgrade over Robert Andino, Lugo would figure to get the nod at second base when Roberts rests.
Even with Lugo in the fold, any extended absence from Roberts would wreak havoc on the balance of the lineup with Lugo, Felix Pie, or Adam Jones being far less attractive options at the top of the order.
2. Will the real Jeremy Guthrie please take the hill (or do we want him to)?
After going 17-17 with a 3.66 ERA and establishing himself as the Orioles’ top starter in the previous two seasons, Guthrie struggled mightily last year, losing 17 games, pitching to a 5.04 ERA, and surrendering a league-high 35 home runs.
With the Orioles acquiring veteran and Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood in December, Guthrie slides down to the No. 2 spot, but his performance in Sarasota has only raised concerns of a hangover from his forgettable 2009 season.
Guthrie is 0-4 with a 7.40 ERA and has surrendered four bombs in his six spring starts. Whether you subscribe to the validity of spring training performance or are willing to overlook it, the veteran no longer appears to have a rock-solid grasp on a spot in the rotation with Chris Tillman waiting in the wings at Norfolk.
It’s imperative for Guthrie to get into the sixth or seventh inning with three young starters in the rotation and a shaky bullpen behind him. In 2009, Guthrie was unable to make quality pitches in tight spots, and American League hitters made him pay.
Trembley will certainly give his best starter over the last three seasons the benefit of the doubt, but the soon-to-be 31-year-old (his birthday is April 8th) must pitch better than he has over the last 12 months, or the club will need to look in another direction.
A best-case scenario would be for Guthrie to regain his pre-2009 form, allowing MacPhail to shop him at the trade deadline this summer. If he cannot rebound, expect Guthrie to eventually settle into a long-relief role.
3. Will Matt Wieters take the next step toward stardom in his sophomore season?
Not even Superman could have fulfilled the impossible expectations thrown upon Wieters in 2009, and, contrary to popular belief, Wieters does not write for The Daily Planet.
After completing one of the finest seasons in the history of minor league baseball in 2008, Wieters was anointed the savior in Baltimore months before debuting against the Detroit Tigers at the end of May last season.
After a few pedestrian months in the big leagues, Wieters caught fire in the month of September, hitting .333 with four home runs and 17 RBI in his final 29 games and flashing signs of his immense potential without the aid of extravagant–and humorous–Chuck Norris-type jokes.
All spring reports point to a more comfortable Wieters, who will not only be depended upon for huge offensive contributions but will also handle a talented, and young, back-end of the rotation.
The club will try to temper expectations by assigning Miguel Tejada (and his 27 combined home runs in the last two seasons) to cleanup duties to start the season, but the 23-year-old switch hitter would figure to settle into the No. 4 spot if indeed “the sun rises when Matt Wieters decides to wake up.”
4. When will we see Chris Tillman on the hill in Baltimore?
In one of the most surprising stories out of Sarasota this spring, David Hernandez beat out the highly-touted right-hander, sending Tillman back to Norfolk after he had started 12 games and pitched to a 5.40 ERA in 2009.
With an increased emphasis on wins and losses, it’s clear the club thinks Hernandez is more likely to succeed in the major league rotation right now. Hernandez will also be 25 in May, and the club needs to find out whether he can stick in the starting rotation before potentially moving him to the late-inning relief role that many insiders project for him. He outpitched Tillman in the spring (a 3.00 ERA with 20 strikeouts and just three walks in 15 innings), but the jury is still out whether Hernandez’s improved command with the breaking ball will remain when the club heads north.
In his short stint in Baltimore, Tillman struggled to command his fastball, so this will clearly be a focal point for the righty in Triple A. Tillman did not pitch poorly this spring, but his nine walks in 16.1 innings indicates command is still an issue for the talented pitcher.
Whether it’s an injury or ineffectiveness from Guthrie or Hernandez, one would fully expect Tillman to be recalled by late May, if not much sooner. If Tillman is truly the tremendous talent so many claim him to be, this temporary demotion should not have any negative effect on his development.
Whenever he does get the call, hopefully he’ll be ready to stick for good.
5. Who will be the starting left fielder when the dust settles in September?
It’s a far cry from John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke, but a left-field platoon appears to be surfacing once again in Baltimore.
Nolan Reimold appeared set as the left fielder of the future after a successful rookie season in which he hit 15 home runs and slugged .466 in 358 at-bats before ending the season on the disabled list with a left Achilles’ tendon injury, an injury still bothering him this spring.
On the other hand, Felix Pie reaped the benefit from injuries to Reimold and center fielder Adam Jones late in 2009 after a miserable first half in his first season with the Orioles. Hitting just .240 on August 1, Pie reestablished himself as a legitimate starting candidate after hitting .290, clubbing seven home runs, and driving in 19 runs over his final 41 games before suffering a quadriceps injury in the final week of the season.
Both players have battled ailments in spring training (including Friday when Pie left the game after being hit in the lower right leg by a Mariano Rivera pitch), but Pie has been the offensive star of the spring, hitting .351 and slugging a whopping .676 in 37 at-bats.
With the Orioles starting the season on the turf of Tropicana Field, Trembley has named Pie his Opening Day left fielder in order to protect Reimold’s heel. However, it will be interesting to see how the manager distributes at-bats to the two in the early stages of the season.
Reimold provides more pop but lacks the defensive prowess and all-around ability of Pie, but Pie’s poor instincts have irked Trembley–not to mention just a few Orioles fans–on more than one occasion.
And of course, Luke Scott is currently on the roster and figures to serve as the team’s primary designated hitter. If Reimold and Pie both perform and stay healthy–a major question mark at this point–MacPhail could try to move Scott to clear the designated hitter spot for Reimold.
Regardless of who emerges as the starting left fielder by season’s end, it’s certainly refreshing to have two promising candidates in left field for the Orioles after watching retreads such as Jay Payton and Marty Cordova in the last decade.
***Click here for Part 2 of my 10 Questions for 2010 where I ponder the effect of the offseason acquisitions, Dave Trembley’s future, and whether the bullpen will hold up in 2010.***