Baltimore Orioles Season Ends with Something to Build On
With a flurry of late action, the Orioles have found some good things they should build on for 2012 and some other good things they shouldn’t build on. The Orioles season ended Wednesday night with a big win, knocking the Boston Red Sox out of playoff contention. The Birds went 11-5 to end the regular season and finish with a total of 93 losses. I guess you could consider it a positive that the Orioles didn’t lose 100 games, because that looked like the path they were on going into September. Let’s count down the top 10 positives from this season and figure out which items they should build on and which items they should consider a 2011 success and nothing more.
2012 Baltimore Orioles Tickets
10. Robert Andino establishes himself as the Orioles utility player for years to come. With the injuries sustained by the Orioles this year, especially the injury to Brian Roberts, Robert Andino took the opportunity to show that he can handle the workload of being a super-utility player while being a productive offensive player. Andino didn’t establish himself as a cornerstone of the future, but he did show that he is a major league caliber player and can definitely contribute to team that looks to him for stabilization in the midst of injuries. Although the stats don’t reflect it, it seemed as though Andino had numerous clutch hits late in games for the Orioles. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t expecting much production out of Andino in high pressure situations but it still seemed like he had a good number of timely hits including the game winning walk-off hit versus the Red Sox to end the season. Andino should be penciled in as the utility player going forward and he should be applauded for his efforts this season.
9. Adam Jones is starting to put it all together. Or is he? Jones put together another season that looks like he is trending in the right direction. The problem is that he has put together virtually three identical seasons in a row. He has not become what I like to call a “run producer”. He increased his home runs and RBI totals but had a decrease in runs scored and on base percentage. I’d like to think he is going to turn the corner and blossom into an annual all-star but based on similar stats through his current age he can either become a player like David Winfield or a player like Corey Patterson. Let’s hope Adam can aim his immense talent in the proper direction in time for the Orioles to reap the benefits.
8. Vladimir Guerrero becomes the all-time Dominican hits leader. Vladimir Guerrero finished the season with 2590 hits in his career and that was good enough to establish himself as the all-time hits leader for a player from the Dominican Republic in MLB history. While this is a great story and an exceptional accomplishment, Vlad did not have the year the Orioles were hoping for from him. While he did bat .290 on the season with 30 doubles, Guerrero failed to produce the runs needed from a cleanup hitter in Major League lineup. Vladimir had only 63 RBI in 590 plate appearances. That equals out to 9.36 plate appearances per RBI. In comparison, John Buck, the catcher for the Florida Marlins, averaged a better 9.29 plate appearances per RBI while batting mostly seventh or eighth for one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. Vladdy has put together a very good career and will warrant Hall of Fame consideration but the Orioles shouldn’t consider bringing him back for 2012.
7. Orioles trade Koji Uehara to Texas for SP Tommy Hunter and 1B/3B Chris Davis. While Koji Uehara was an excellent part of the Orioles bullpen, it seems as though the Orioles might have made an excellent decision in trading him. It looks like the Orioles got the right value in return for Uehara. First/Third baseman Chris Davis, acquired in the deal, has been considered by many to be a “Quad A” player. This is a player that is too good for AAA minor league ball but not good enough for Major League baseball. This statement might be true considering he has a career minor league average of .318 and a .597 slugging percentage while batting .252 with a slugging percentage of .448 in the majors. Although those major league numbers don’t seem terrible, Davis has a strikeout problem similar to Mark Reynolds. He strikes out so often that I actually call him K. Davis instead of Chris Davis. Davis will, however, receive every opportunity to claim a job as a regular in the Orioles lineup, be it at first base, third base or as designated hitter. I really don’t think that playing Davis everyday is a great idea for 2012 considering the amount of zero-contact at bats that will amass between Davis and Reynolds but I do like his power potential and flexibility to play either corner position. Davis should be able to contribute at some level to the major league club in 2012. The real gem of the trade is Tommy Hunter. Hunter is not going to dominate the league in any stretch of the imagination, but he does give the Orioles a solid number four or five starter to eat innings. Tommy’s career ERA sits at 4.50 and his WHIP sits at 1.33. These numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but he does know how to win. He won 13 games in 2010 and was just stuck in Texas most of this year without a rotation spot. Hunter has a career record of 26-16 and most people attribute that to the Rangers’ offensive support. Well that might be so considering his record in games in which his team scored six runs or more is 19-1 and his record is 0-10 in games when his team scored two runs or less. Those stats aren’t the ones I’m concerned about because you’d be hard pressed to find a pitcher whose stats don’t trend in those directions. I’m concerned about the games in which the team scores between three and five runs and in those games, Hunter is 6-4 with a 3.55 ERA. In 2011 the Orioles averaged 4.37 runs per game so that at least gives us a workable comparison. Hunter will be worth more to the team in 2012 than Uehara would have been and at a lower cost so at least, on the surface, this looks like a good deal for Baltimore.
6. Mark Reynolds mashed 37 home runs and played great defensively after a switch to first base to end the year. Let’s hope the Orioles don’t look at some of Mark’s defensive highlights at first base and decide to make him the first baseman of the future. The third base free agent market is thin with Aramis Ramirez being the top player available at that position via free agency, so the Orioles might be more inclined to stick with Chris Davis at third base for next year. The problem with this scenario is that Chris Davis is worse at third than Mark Reynolds. Davis had a .862 fielding percentage at third while Reynolds came in at a .897. Neither of these marks will get you a golden glove, that is for sure, but if the Orioles are serious about building to the future they are going to have to at least keep the option in mind to acquire a solid hitting first baseman this offseason. The free agent first baseman field is much more stocked and offers many more talents than the third base market. While being a fan of Mark’s power, I am not a fan of the large number of times he does not make contact. I like his stats a lot better at third than first and first base seems like a better opportunity for the Orioles to improve their situation for 2012.
5. Jim Johnson establishes himself as the possible closer for 2012. The Orioles paid Kevin Gregg two years $10 million to be their closer in 2011 and 2012. Then they realized, well after everyone else on the planet did, that Kevin Gregg should not be a major league closer. He allows way too many base runners and throws way too many pitches an inning to be a quality closer. Once this was realized, the Orioles began to groom Jim Johnson to be the closer. Johnson’s strikeout rate is not overwhelming like some closers at 5.74 per nine innings but his ground ball to fly ball rate of 2.24 is one of the best in the league. The high rate of ground balls also allows for less pitches and faster innings. Kevin Gregg averaged 19.94 pitches per inning while Johnson averaged just 13.87 pitchers per inning. I like the idea of the Orioles having a closer that keeps the ball down and works fast. That sounds like a perfect combination for Jim Johnson to succeed as closer of the Orioles in 2012.
4. J.J. Hardy solidifies the shortstop position and signs a three year extension to stay with the Orioles. Hardy does have a history of injury problems, as he did this year as well with only playing in 129 games, but in those 129 games he smacked 30 home runs. His highlight though might have been his fielding. He led American League shortstops in fielding percentage and seemed to make great plays when necessary. While some people might think that three years $22 million was too much money for Hardy’s extension, I think that is more than fair considering Hardy is one of only two shortstops in 2011 with 30 or more home runs and a .990 fielding percentage or better. The other shortstop to do that was Troy Tulowitzki and that is like pretty good company. It seems to me that the $22 million dollar gamble on Hardy’s health is better than some of the $100 million plus gambles being made all around baseball.
3. Rookie Zach Britton leads team with 11 wins. Zach Britton finished the season 11-11 with an ERA of 4.61. When Zach Britton started off 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA there was talk of him being the first player since curve-baller Greg Olson to win AL Rookie of the Year honors. But after a stint of going 2-7, that talk was done. The turmoil during the season climaxed in July when he was demoted to the minor leagues to apparently work on some things. Some, including Britton, believe the demotion was done because it shortened his service time and extended how long the Orioles could keep him under control by one more year. This might be the case, but it might have also been bad timing by Britton to struggle and give the Orioles a reason to do such a move. If the Orioles were hell bent on keeping Britton one more year at a cost of his promotion to the big leagues, they would’ve started him in AAA Norfolk and kept him there half the season. Britton did get recalled however and performed at a mediocre level the rest of the season. He went 5-3 from August on with an ERA of 4.71. Those numbers aren’t exactly ace material but it showed that he was able to get back in the big leagues and contribute to the team in a positive manner. In 2012 Britton will have the opportunity to reestablish himself as a future ace and help realign this once promising young pitching staff.
2. Matt Wieters slugs 22 home runs and becomes an all-star catcher. Matt Wieters finished the season with 22 home runs and 68 RBI. Although Wieters hasn’t put up the Mike Piazza type numbers everyone was expecting from him when he first got called up, he was able to improve in all aspects of his game this year. He was first in the American League in runners caught stealing percentage with 37% while improving his run production rate and finishing the season batting fifth in the lineup. Matt might never hit .330 with 35 home runs and 125 RBI in a season but with his improvement at the plate and behind it, it looks like this year’s selection to the All-Star team could become the norm for years to come.
1. The Baltimore Orioles knock division rival Boston Red Sox out of playoffs. It looks like the Orioles were able to somewhat salvage a dismal season by beating the Red Sox in the three game season ending series to help knock them from the playoffs. In the beginning of 2011, the Orioles were considered a dark horse candidate to finish above .500 and maybe even contend for playoffs. Well, those lofty expectations were never met and the Orioles had only one month in which they finished over .500. Good thing for them and the fans, that month was September. This allowed for an exciting finish to a less than exciting baseball season for O’s fans. In September the Orioles aided in the collapse of the Boston Red Sox by going 5-2 against them in some very meaningful games. This stretch of games against the Red Sox made the four game sweep by Boston in July seem like a distant memory. With a walk off victory to end the season against a playoff caliber team fighting for their playoff lives, it seemed as if for one moment, the Orioles themselves had won a playoff game and that’s a nice feeling to have for a team that hasn’t tasted excitement like that for 14 years. Hopefully the Orioles will draw form that excitement and want to have that feeling once again by making a playoff push themselves in 2012.
By Michael P. Wherley
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