On the 20th Anniversary of “Why Not”, How About “What If”?

March 04, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

It’s the 20th Anniversary of “Why Not?” and I can think of  at least 100 reasons why not. But there are enough “What Ifs?” on this team to make them interesting. Are there enough to make it too early to count them out though?

 

It’s the 20th anniversary of the storied “Why Not?” season, and going into 2009, I can think of plenty of reasons why not. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are probably the three biggest reasons why not. It’s tough enough just to figure out which one of those 3 will be left on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.  Throw in the relative inexperience of the Orioles at most of their key positions, and reasons “Why Not?” are as easy to find as empty seats at Camden Yards on the average Wednesday night.

 

There are still a number of reasons to be both positive and hopeful though. And being competitive, while unlikely is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. At this point, I’d think, that contention is really all that we could hope for. It would take a near perfect storm to keep the O’s afloat, but it’s at least feasible, maybe even more so than it would appear at first glance. And considering that as storied of a franchise as the Orioles once were, that two of their most enjoyable seasons were 1982 and 1989, in which they actually came up short in their playoff push, contention alone can be exciting regardless of the final outcome.

 

Again, it would take a lot of “What Ifs” coming to fruition to even have a shot at contention. So perhaps instead of “Why Not?”, this team should be celebrating “What If?” and the possibility of a season to remember.

 

The Competition

 

First, let’s talk about what has to go right for the O’s that is completely out of their control. The 3 powerhouses competing for a single division title and playoff berth, with the wildcard as a likely consolation for the second place finisher. It’s conceivable that 95 or even 100 wins in this division leaves someone out of the playoffs. If that happens, things are looking bleak for the O’s in ’09.

 

It’s also conceivable though, that at least one of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays could struggle with injuries or simply stumble from the gates and wind up out of contention. Which of those 3 struggles is anyone’s guess, and probably doesn’t matter much, but if the O’s hope to have a prayer at simply hanging around in contention, they’ll absolutely need at least one of the others to be a major disappointment. And of course, if 2 of those 3 should struggle for unforeseen reasons, that’d even better for the O’s chances, although tough to hang your hopes on.

 

The Lineup

 

More importantly, on the field the O’s have several reasons to be more optimistic than in years past. When it comes to the lineup, the O’s have a lot to build on from last year, and should be even better if a few things fall into place for them. First would be getting the bats going early, the O’s struggled with offense in April and May last season and wasted some pretty good pitching efforts. If they can begin the season with the offensive form that they began to show in June and beyond last season, then things could be looking up for the offense.

 

At the top of the lineup, the O’s have Brian Roberts, conceivably more dialed in than in recent years past, as there are no longer trade or contract issues swirling around him, and he can simply get back to the business of playing baseball. With Chase Utley coming off of a serious injury, and Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia still somewhat unproven, it’s be tough to find a better sure thing on offense, at second base in all of baseball. In Roberts the O’s also have a legitimate leadoff hitter, capable of stealing bases and distracting pitchers making things easier on the 2, 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup. Roberts is probably as close to a sure thing as the O’s have on the roster this season.

 

Who can and will hold the second and third spots in the lineup is where the big “ifs” start to arise. Ideally, the O’s would probably like to see what Markakis can do outside of the 2-hole in the lineup. There are those who don’t believe that where a player hits in the lineup or who’s protecting them in the order has much to do with performance. I, on the other hand, believe that the 2nd spot in the order is the easiest to hit in. If the leadoff guy gets on base and is a threat to steal, as Roberts is, the second hitter should see an inordinate number of fastballs. And if the hitters in the 3rd and 4th spots are fearsome, then the #2 hitter should see an inordinate number of strikes too. Whether you buy into that line of thinking or not, Markakis certainly flourished in the 2-hole last season, and struggled elsewhere in the lineup.

 

For Adam Jones’ development, I think ideally the Orioles need to be able to hit him in the second spot, and Markakis will have to be able to produce from the third spot. If Markakis can’t survive outside of the 2 spot, it will be a huge disappointment to the O’s who are certainly envisioning him as a middle of the lineup hitter. It would also force some reshuffling of the lineup. Perhaps Jones, who was as impressive as any Oriole at the plate in the month or so before his injury last season, could take on the 3rd spot. It has been widely reported that he’s gained a great deal of size and strength over the off-season. Still, it would probably be a reach to hope that he could be a legitimate 3rd hitter at this point.

 

More likely, if the O’s have to leave Markakis at #2, then Huff would be elevated to the 3rd spot and Jones dropped as far down as 5th or 6th in the lineup. I’d guess that this wouldn’t be a great circumstance for the team.

 

If Jones and Markakis are able to hold the second and third spots in the order, then Aubrey Huff would be the likely cleanup hitter. I doubt that many are expecting Huff to duplicate his numbers from last season, but stranger things have been known to happen. It is, after all, a contract year for Huff. He’s always been lights out in the second half of the season; so last year’s numbers weren’t that amazing. Last year was simply the first time that Huff was able to bring his second half production into the first half of the season. It’s also conceivable that fatherhood and the rough off-season that Huff had in 2007 have matured him, and his game. And while it still may be inconceivable that he’d duplicate that type of production this year, anything close would be great for the O’s.

 

I’m throwing Wieters in at number 5, and here, I think that I’m actually being cautious with my expectations. By all accounts, Wieters is the best hitting prospect to come along in years, and by season’s end, he’ll have to be in this lineup somewhere. Given the polish that he’s displayed at the plate so far, he could wind up, like Ryan Braun, more or less debuting in the top of the order. Ideally, from the O’s perspective, the 2-4 spots will be so productive that the only place to fit Wieters would be in the 5th spot. If the O’s are having issues with spots 2-4 in the lineup, Wieters could be a nice option in one of those holes if necessary.

 

If all goes well there, then having Melvin Mora and Luke Scott in the 6th and 7th spots in the order would be a tremendous luxury. In Mora, they have a veteran, and perhaps one of the best situational hitters in all of baseball. Mora, like Huff may also have his eye on a one more big payday, and could produce the types of numbers that we’ve become all to accustomed to seeing from players in their contract seasons. In Scott, the O’s must see something that most of us are missing. Sure the potential is there, but he represents neither sure-fire production nor the youth of the other O’s hopefuls. I’d guess the leash on him will be short, as it should be for any DH who’s hitting in the second half of the lineup. Still, for a potential 7th hitter, Scott could be reasonably productive.

 

I’d throw Cesar Izturis in the 8th spot just to leave the second leadoff to Pie. Pie could be dangerous there too, providing Roberts with the same type of advantages that Roberts does for those who follow him in the order. And given Robert’s propensity for extra base hits in the gaps, Pie could represent lots of RBI for the O’s leadoff hitter. In Izturis, the O’s get a definite upgrade on defense, who couldn’t possibly be as unproductive as their bevy of shortstops in 2008.

 

In Luis Montazez, and perhaps Brandon Snyder too, the O’s may have the next generation of hitters knocking on the door. Hopefully though, they’ll be little more than insurance for what could be a robust lineup.

 

The Bullpen

 

The last few off seasons for the O’s had been a revolving door of aged relievers, who usually didn’t come close to the expectation that he club had for them. Addressing the bullpen was certainly the right thing to do, as the starters have consistently been unable to get deep into games, but the approach that the O’s had taken, in hindsight, was all wrong.

 

There were bright spots in the bullpen last seasons, but injuries were the prevailing theme. With Danys Baez and Chris Ray unavailable, the O’s had to go about rebuilding the back end of their bullpen. They did so nicely, finding a setup man in Jim Johnson and a closer in George Sherrill. With all 3 back, the O’s conceivably have 3 B-level closers available to finish out games for them. If Johnson, Sherrill and Ray in some combination can work at shortening games to 6 innings, the O’s should be able to steal more than their share of close ones.

 

Beyond that, there’s enough depth on the spring training pitching roster to believe that if those 3 stay healthy, the O’s bullpen could be as good as any in baseball. Rather than spending ridiculous money on free agent pitchers to get deep into games, the O’s may have found a way to shorten games. Saving wear and tear on the starting rotation should pay dividends down the stretch too. On paper it appears that the O’s offense would be their biggest strength, but the bullpen may steal the show before it’s all said and done.

 

The Rotation

 

In Guthrie, the O’s have a lot staked if they hope to be successful in 2009. It’s tough to envision  the O’s being anywhere near .500 if Guthrie can’t pick up 15 or more wins. He’s had 2 very solid seasons with the O’s, but still remains largely under the radar in the AL. By electing to pitch in the WBC, Guthrie may have done the O’s a big favor too.

 

As long as Guthrie comes back healthy, he was already someone that you could pencil in for opening day. Hopefully he’ll get the chance to face good competition, and comes into the season ready to go. By removing himself from camp, Guthrie allows the O’s the luxury of using the innings that would have otherwise been devoted to getting him ready for opening day, to scouting the multitude of other pitchers in camp, and making sure that they come out of spring training with the strongest possible pitching staff.

 

Behind Guthrie, the O’s will need big things from Koji Uehara and/or Rich Hill. As the possible second and third starters, these two players may wind up having more impact on the O’s chances than any 2 other players on the team. If the O’s could somehow get 25 or more wins from this combo, they’d be sitting pretty. Unfortunately, the downside given Hill’s inconsistency, and Uehara’s inexperience at this level, either one or even both of these guys could be out of the rotation by mid-season, if they ever get in there at all.

 

Most are guessing that Brad Bergeson will get the nod as the 5th starter coming out of spring training. He throws strikes, and should be the first, and least hyped, of the O’s young guns to get a shot at a regular spot in the rotation. Anything beyond 10 wins should be a bonus from this spot, no mater who holds it. But with the distinct possibility that at least one of the projected 2-4 in the rotation will struggle, the 5th spot on opening day could quickly become the 3rd spot in the rotation by May. At that point, Bergeson’s production would certainly be much more critical.

 

As for the 4th turn in the rotation, I’d guess that it would come down to Adam Eaton or Mark Hendrickson. Neither was a very popular signing here, but both could have worth. Eaton’s arm may or may not be finished. He’s pitched through injuries for the better part of the last few years since leaving San Diego, but is formidable when healthy. Health will obviously be the biggest thing standing between Eaton and a spot in the opening day rotation.

 

In Hendrickson, the O’s may have made their most brilliant acquisition in quite some time. Okay, that’s an overstatement, but consider the following. Hendrickson may have the best April splits of any starter in the Majors over the last 3 seasons. Getting off to a strong start will be important for the O’s, especially considering that they’ll see the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, White Sox and Angels in addition to the Rangers in the first month of the season. In Hendrickson not only do they have a pitcher who’s lights out in April, but also one that’s pitched just over 13 innings against AL opponents in the last 3 seasons.

 

The fact that Hendrickson is worthless after that may be just what the O’s are looking for anyway. After all, the buzz of the team right now is about the number of young quality pitchers who may be ready to step up and take their lumps at the Major League level sometime this season. Brian Matusz, Jake Arietta, Chris Tillman all appear to be in the O’s long term plans at this point, and sooner or later, maybe even this season, one or more should find their way up. And the book hasn’t quite closed yet on Hayden Penn, Radhames Liz or maybe some other surprise candidate. If Hendrickson can bridge them through to May, and keep one of them from being subjected to the brutal level of competition that they’d be forced to deal with in April. That may be all that the O’s need, or even expect from him.

 

Again, it’d take a near perfect storm to put the O’s in contention, but they’ve been there before. As bad as the last 11 seasons have been, the O’s have been in contention at times, even late in some seasons, but never managed to finish the hunt. All I want is a playoff race. I want a reason to believe that the O’s could get in, as the season winds down. If they fall short, like in ’82 or ’89, it’d be disappointing. But it’d be a different type of disappointment than O’s fans have grown used to. It’d be more like the type of disappointment that Ravens fans felt in the wake of their loss to Pittsburgh.

 

As an O’s fan, that’s the type of disappointment that I could live with these days. As tough as competing in the AL East is becoming, and given the recent history of the team, that kind of disappointment may be all that we have to look forward to. As ’82 and ’89 have proven, that type of disappointment can be the stuff of legend.

 

Peace,

T

(thyrl@wnst.net)

 

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