Just like each of the previous 11 seasons, it's been a tough year of baseball in Baltimore. They're 42-57 and in last place in the American League East. Almost without question, they will end up in last place, too. The Orioles will not even sniff 80 wins, a mark the franchise has failed to reach every season since 1997. You could forgive an Orioles fan for losing hope.
Compounding matters is the fact that Major League Baseball forces Baltimore to play an unbalanced schedule against some of the league's best teams. They will have played 57 games against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays by the end of the season, clubs sporting the top three run differentials in the American League and three of the top five in all of baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, the other American League East team, is not so bad either.
Despite all of this, there is ample cause for optimism in the Charm City. The Orioles boast an offensive core they can build around to go along with some of the most promising pitching prospects in all of baseball. Moreover, close to $46 million of payroll will come off the books after the 2009 season. The Orioles will be in a position both to promote good players from within and leverage new-found financial flexibility to fill holes. And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, they might also be able to address the 2010 club and beyond before Friday's trade deadline.
Let's take a look at what their 2010 lineup and pitching staff might look like and try and figure out what they might do to give themselves the best shot to compete next season (2009 stats shown below).
POS Name Age Level(s) AVG OBP SLG C Wieters 23 AAA/MAJ .289 .356 .446 1B Snyder 22 AA/AAA .300 .371 .501 2B Roberts 31 MAJ .279 .342 .434 3B Wigginton 31 MAJ .256 .303 .385 SS Izturis 29 MAJ/AA .263 .296 .320 LF Reimold 25 AAA/MAJ .327 .413 .565 CF Jones 23 MAJ .297 .352 .488 RF Markakis 25 MAJ .292 .348 .463 DH Scott 31 MAJ/L-A .283 .367 .546
Baltimore can count on average or better production from catcher, second base, all three outfield positions and designated hitter. From there, Baltimore President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail will be forced to make a series of judgment calls, beginning this week. Will Brandon Snyder be ready to fill everyday duties at first base (or DH if you want to slide Luke Scott to 1st)? What can George Sherrill get in the form of a third baseman or shortstop? Might Brian Fuentes' recent struggles compel the Angels to bid for Sherrill's services? Have they soured on Brandon Wood given his career .188/.250/.280 Major League mark? Wood would almost certainly be too much for Sherrill alone but what about Dodgers third base prospect Josh Bell? The National League's best club is rumored to be interested in Sherrill.
There are also a number of options on the free agent market. Adrian Beltre's offensive struggles this season might mean that he could be had on the cheap. He remains a top-notch defender and is a strong bounce-back candidate at the plate given how precipitous his decline has been. Chone Figgins might be another option at third, an all-around good guy who has won a lot and could be a terrific influence on a young team.
If Baltimore does not think Snyder is ready for an everyday job and decides to move Scott to first, maybe they could pursue a full-time DH like Vladimir Guerrero or Jermaine Dye. The 2010 free agent class of shortstops is thin but a number of them would represent an upgrade over Izturis. If Baltimore could acquire Marco Scutaro, Jack Wilson, Adam Everett or Orlando Cabrera at a reasonable price, it may be well worth their while.
In Matt Wieters, Brian Roberts, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Luke Scott, the Orioles have a legitimate offensive nucleus. What they do to fill in the holes will go a long way in determining the type of season they have in 2010.
Name Age Level(s) IP K/BB WHIP ERA Uehara 34 MAJ 66.1 4.00 1.25 4.07 Guthrie 30 MAJ 115.1 1.82 1.38 5.23 Bergesen 23 AAA/MAJ 127.0 2.06 1.24 3.47 Hernandez 24 AA/AAA/MAJ 106.0 3.12 1.17 3.23 Tillman 21 AAA 96.1 3.81 1.15 2.71 Matusz 22 H-A/AA 111.1 3.87 1.05 1.94 Arrieta 23 AA/AAA 104.1 2.83 1.26 3.36 Berken 25 AA/AAA/MAJ 95.1 1.63 1.42 4.81
This is the part where O's fans should start to salivate. Chris Tillman will start tonight against Zack Greinke and the Kansas City Royals, which may well be the beginning of an era in Baltimore. Tillman, along with Brian Matusz, are both top-10 Baseball America prospects. Jake Arrieta gets honorable mention on the Baseball America midseason top-25 list.
Add some combination of these three to a healthy Koji Uehara (awesome periphs), David Hernandez and Brad Bergesen (two youngsters who have made the jump), and Jeremy Guthrie (a track record of MLB success) and all of a sudden the Orioles are looking at a very nice starting pitching staff. Baltimore's rotation will be its meal ticket for 2010 and beyond.
Given their youth, Baltimore might consider tacking on a free agent to the rotation. They will also have to cobble together a bullpen. But as it stands right now this Orioles starting staff looks like it will be able to post a season's worth of above average pitching in 2010 and quite a bit better than that in 2011 and out. When you combine this with their offensive nucleus, the Orioles appear positioned to make the moves necessary to put a contender on the field.
Regardless of what they do at the trading deadline and during this upcoming off-season, Baltimore will field a young, talented group of players in 2010. But given the amount of salary coming off the books, Andy MacPhail has an opportunity to compete sooner rather than later and he should go for it. While Baltimore might be out of it for 2009, with Tillman on the bump and Wieters behind the plate tonight, there will be no mistaking for O's fans that the future has indeed arrived for a franchise looking to reclaim its proud history.