With O’s in freefall, focus turns to future: Who is a nugget, and who isn’t?

July 07, 2011 | Peter Dilutis

So it’s July 7th. The Orioles are again in the midst of their June/July swoon. The wheels are quickly coming off of what once was an interesting and relevant season for the Orioles. Fans are beginning to pay less and less attention to the Birds. The talk of blowing the team up and trading the veterans before the deadline is increasing everyday.

In short, it is a typical summer in Birdland.

The Orioles’ 2011 season is quickly spiraling out of control. Everyone is pessimistic. I get that. But where do the Orioles stand with regards to their future?

How many players on the current team are key pieces as the Orioles head into the future? Which players are long-term nuggets?

Let’s start with the position players.

Nick Markakis hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded him after his first two seasons in the big leagues, but the guy is still an above average right fielder. He’s under contract for the next three seasons, so there is no doubt that Nick is the O’s RF of the future.

Adam Jones has two years left before he becomes a free agent, but if no deal is reached by this time next season, he may become a prime trade candidate. Jones has clearly stepped up his play in 2011 to a more productive and consistent level, and he will command a very hefty contract whenever the Orioles decide to extend him. That said, Jones seems to like being in Baltimore, and I can’t imagine why the O’s would let the main piece of the Bedard deal, and more importantly a young, talented outfielder in the prime of his career, walk away in free agency.

When I filled in for Glenn and talked some baseball with Drew a few weeks back, we disagreed on whether Mark Reynolds was a long-term guy at 3B. I felt that he was, and I argued that even if he isn’t even a solid defender, he isn’t nearly as bad defensively as he has been this year. Since then, while Reynolds has continued to accumulate some errors, his offense has picked up dramatically. He has well above-average power and he gets on base at a very good clip. Reynolds has value, and as his defense creeps back to his career norms, that value will only increase. Reynolds is under contract for 2012 and the club holds a reasonable team option for 2013. I feel that Reynolds is the long-term, or at least immediate-term, answer at 3B for the Orioles.

While Matt Wieters hasn’t lived up to his “switch-hitting Jesus” hype, which instantly leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Orioles fans who were desperately craving a franchise superstar, he is still a well above-average catcher with the potential to turn into more. Wieters is the long-term answer at catcher for the Orioles and is under contract for four more seasons after this one. That was easy.

We all know the J.J. Hardy story. MacPhail acquired him for basically peanuts. He had potential, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Even though he continued that trend and missed a month of 2011, Hardy has turned it on and is playing at perhaps the highest level of his career. I don’t see why Hardy would extend with the Orioles before the season ends, but many people believe he would want to lock up his multi-millions to avoid risking an injury. Even if he isn’t re-signed during the season, I have to believe MacPhail will make a key run at Hardy. Why wouldn’t he? If he isn’t going to be active in real free agency, he needs to retain the players that he acquires that are successful. If Hardy is re-signed, he would be a key piece of the Orioles’ long-term future. If not, SS once again becomes a very big hole to fill.

Brian Roberts cannot be counted on anymore. That is the harsh, sad reality for the Orioles. But if he can come back from his concussion-related issues, he is very likely to be at worst an average 2B and leadoff hitter. That still has great value to the Orioles considering their alternatives. He is still under contract for two more seasons after 2011, so Roberts’ health really is a key for the O’s moving forward.