2007 Team Preview: Baltimore Orioles

2006 W-L: 70-92 (4th place)

2006 Pythag: 69-93

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:
Aubrey Huff, Jay Payton, Chad Bradford, Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Scott Williamson, Paul Bako, Freddie Bynum, Adam Stern, Roger Cedeno, J.R. House, Jon Leicester, Terry Tiffee, Jeremy Guthrie, Jon Knott, Adam Donachie

Going:
Rodrigo Lopez, Chris Britton, LaTroy Hawkins, Bruce Chen, Russ Ortiz, David Newhan, Fernando Tatis

The Orioles In a Nutshell:

As usual, the Orioles spent quite a bit of money this offseason. Unfortunately, they didn't add anything with impact potential. They plugged holes at first base and left field, and bolstered the bullpen with expensive veterans while trading away a cheap in-house option in Chris Britton. They didn't, however, improve the starting rotation, adding only Jaret Wright on the hope that Leo Mazzone could revitalize him. A decent year from Aubrey Huff and a rebound in Melvin Mora's power numbers could turn the offense into a slightly above-average force, but without at least one more quality starter, the Orioles won't challenge for third place.

Offense:

The 2006 Oriole offense was below average, marred by weak production out of the DH spot and even more pathetic numbers from left field. Neither position's OPS topped 750, while the MLB averages for the two spots are 811 and 818, respectively. While Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora both earned reputations for strong offense at their positions, neither out-slugged the average player in their spot either.

In short, the Orioles benefited from Miguel Tejada, Nick Markakis, and Ramon Hernandez while suffering elsewhere. Corey Patterson resurrected his career, but still failed to get on base much more than 30% of the time. Kevin Millar did a nice job providing on-base skills for cheap, but the trio of Jeff Conine, Chris Gomez, and Brandon Fahey--who got nearly 800 at-bats among them, many at first base and left field--simply sucked the life out of the offense.

The acquisiton of Huff will help, but not all that much. PECOTA projects him to hit 274/338/448, below average at any corner. That would be a huge improvement over the aggregate left field line of 248/322/359 (!), but it still leaves the Orioles with only one legitimate impact bat in the lineup. While Tejada is projected to be worth nearly five wins at the plate, he's the only Oriole who PECOTA likes for more than two wins.

If there's an upside here, it's that adding Huff (along with keeping most of last year's crew, minus Conine) and Jay Payton should mean that Gomez and Fahey will see less time. When I say "should mean," I'm thinking: "Sam Perlozzo couldn't be that crazy, could he?" Payton isn't much better than any of those folks at the plate--after all, PECOTA forecasts him just above replacement level--but if you're going to punt on offense in an important offensive position, you might as well get a good defender out there when you do it.

Beyond the improvement of getting at bats from Huff and innings in the field from Payton, the Orioles have to hope for a return of Mora's or Payton's power. PECOTA is much more optimistic about Mora, though it would nicer for the O's if the rebound came from Roberts. While Mora could be scuttled in favor of Huff, their insurance at second base consists of the aforementioned no-hit twins, Gomez and Fahey, along with a new no-hit backup, Freddie Bynum.

It's always possible that Markakis will break out, but after a solid rookie campaign at age 22, it's enough to ask of him to maintain his current level in his second full season in the league. Patterson is another candidate for hopefulness, but his proven inability to manage even league-average OBP will probably limit his usefulness for as long as he remains in the game. It's tough to imagine either of the O's young outfielders being worth more than a few extra runs in 2007.

Starting Rotation

Finally, one of the Orioles young starters has turned into a stud. Erik Bedard had his breakthrough season in 2006, making 33 starts and racking up an ERA+ of 120. Sadly that's about all the nice things one can say about this rotation.

Worst of all, the O's sacrificed some rotation depth in order to save money. Rodrigo Lopez was no ace--heck, he briefly pitched himself out of the rotation--but there isn't a lot of depth left. In effect, Lopez was swapped for Jaret Wright, who PECOTA projects to pitch even worse. Given that Wright is a bigger health risk, it's tough to see the upside here without a special pair of orange-and-black tinted glasses.

If Wright stays healthy, that gives Baltimore two veteran starters, one of whom--Kris Benson--slots in nicely in the middle of the rotation, while the other--Wright--can cling to the back end. The question marks, then, are Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen. Cabrera is a tough case: while he's one of the few starters in baseball who struck out a batter an inning last year, he walked nearly as many. Fooling hitters is great, but you can't succeed walking six guys per nine innings. It's easy to imagine him succeeding, but it's equally possible he'll need to spend another partial year in the minors.

Loewen is another tough case. He's still young, only 23 years old next year, and has been effective at every level in the minors. While it's easy to see major league success in his future, it's not so straightforward to expect it in '07. PECOTA figures him for a 4.75 ERA next year; that's respectable in the AL East, and it seems like a reasonable stepping stone to an above-average season or three in his mid-20s. If he stays healthy and makes 30 starts in the range of a ~90 ERA+, Baltimore fans should be happy.

If Bedard, Benson, Wright, Cabrera, and Loewen stay off the disabled list and pitch to their projections, the Orioles may have an average rotation. On the other hand, that almost never happens for any team, and this rotation is asking for trouble more than most. Worst of all, there's not a lot of depth, with Hayden Penn the most obvious candidate to step in if something goes wrong. Yes, that's the same Hayden Penn who had an ERA of 15.10 last year.

Sure, Penn will probably improve on that--he's only 22. And it wouldn't come as a surprise if the Orioles add a veteran in the Bruce Chen/Rick Helling mold. But barring magic tricks from someone like Penn, Baltimore won't win a lot of games when they have to turn to replacement starters.

And even if all does go right, it probably isn't enough to put them in contention. If the offense is average, the rotation is average, and the bullpen is above average, that probably still leaves them fighting for third place in the division--that's if the Jays disappoint. Given the likelihood of each of the first two of those requirements, it could be another long summer at Camden Yards.

The Bullpen

Finally, the bright spot. Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, and Jamie Walker all got more money and one more year than they probably deserved, but in the short term that will probably work out well for the O's. The cheap acquisition of Scott Williamson provides some nice late-inning depth, as well.

Best of all, Chris Ray worked out just as well as hoped, accumulating 33 saves and an ERA under three. His peripherals were frightening for a late-inning reliever, though: 10 HRs in 66 innings contributed to a FIP of nearly five. His PECOTA projection is appropriately conservative, predicting a step back to a 3.72 ERA and only 23 saves.

Even with that, the newly-rigged relief corps ought to improve on last year's version. Despite more than 4 WXRL for Ray, the pen as a whole was barely replacement level. Baez ought to fill Chris Britton's shoes, while Bradford, Walker, and Williamson will provide better 6th and 7th inning options than Todd Williams, LaTroy Hawkins, and Sendy Rleal. Williams and Rleal could have a role in this year's bullpen, but it will be a much more limited one.

If Ray doesn't implode under the weight of his mediocre peripherals, the Baltimore pen could be worth 3-5 additional wins over last year's crew. All that money will have returned something, and was certainly better spent than throwing it at Scott Schoenweis. By 2009, I'm not sure the O's will be happy to have so much of their '07 pen under contract, but that's the subject of another year's preview.

All Together Now

Much like the Pirates, who I previewed earlier this week, the Orioles have made a few legitimate improvements, and have a few spots on the diamond where they expect their returning players to improve. Also like the Pirates, they would need about 15 more wins to enter the playoff picture, and they'll be lucky to get one third of that.

In short, we're talking about the same old problems: the O's have a shaky rotation with insufficient depth, and too many mediocre hitters playing positions that ought to hold strong offensive players. Unless Billy Rowell and Nolan Reimold somehow skip several years of their development and take over a couple of corner positions, Baltimore will fail to threaten in the toughest division in baseball.

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