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Finding Positives In Baltimore's Season

It's not easy when you're only winning 35% of your games, you know? And while nobody expected Baltimore to be particularly good this season, you'd be entirely right in saying that most if not everyone expected to see some of the young Orioles emerge as key cogs for the future in what would be considered a transition year. 

But that didn't really happen either. Matt Wieters has been a total disappointment on offense, batting .239 with minimal power. Nick Markakis is making it seem like 2009-2010 is his true talent level, and not 2007-2008. Adam Jones is still being plagued by impatience and poor contact skills. Nolan Reimold has looked awful pretty much all year, and didn't even start hitting well in Triple-A until this month. Felix Pie missed most of the summer dealing with back issues. And things on the pitching side haven't been much better. Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have all had issues at the big league level, from the disappointment of Matusz only being a league-average starter so far to the fact the latter two pitchers have both walked more guys than they've struck out. 

It's just not a particularly fun time to be an Orioles fan right now. But through all of this awfulness, there are always silver linings. When you grow up rooting for the Cubs and White Sox, finding silver linings in seemingly awful seasons becomes a bit of a necessity. Like, you know, who cares that the Cubs only won 68 games...   Sammy Sosa hit 49 homers, Kerry Wood is healthy and Mark Prior's arrived! 

Things aren't exactly as bright now for Baltimore as they were then for the Cubs - who, as I'm sure most of you remember, made it SO CLOSE to the World Series the following season before that thing happened near the stands with some guy named Steve and another guy named Moises. And then that error by Alex Gonzalez. And...  ugh. Maybe the 2010 Orioles shouldn't want to be anything like the 2002 Cubs, after all. Okay, but back to being positive!

So let's look at a few reasons why this seemingly awful season in Baltimore really hasn't been that awful.

- Even an impatient, low-contact Adam Jones is still a pretty solid everyday player

It's gotta be pretty scary to think of how good Jones could actually be. Because he's putting up a slightly above-average .275/.318/.441 line right now...  and that's with a 4.1% walk rate and a contact rate below 76%. The league averages in those two areas are 8.5% and roughly 81%, respectively. This is a guy going up there with an iffy approach and a tendency to swing through hittable pitches, and yet he's still proving to be an effective hitter. Some small improvement in these areas could really go a long way for Jones, who I still believe has the potential to be one of the best outfielders in the game.

And it's worth noting his improvement since the beginning of June: in 302 PA since June 1, Jones has batted .293/.349/.486 with 12 homers and a 16/58 BB/K ratio. He's walked in 5.2% of his PA and struck out in 19.2% of his PA in that time period. Neither of which is a great number, but they reflect huge improvement compared to his first two months of the season, when he walked just 2.3% of the time while striking out at a similar clip. 

- Zach Britton. Enough said.

It's been an ugly season for Baltimore, not only at the big league level but also among the team's top prospects. With that said, the left-handed Britton has absolutely been one of the brightest spots in a pretty dark season for the organization. Armed with arguably the best power sinker in the minors along with developing secondary stuff and drastically improving command, I'd argue that Britton is among the very best pitching prospects left in the minors. 

He's been an absolute groundball machine during his time in the minors, with the biggest question on him being whether or not his stuff will miss enough bats to become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher upon reaching the majors. It's a question worth asking, but most scouts seem to believe that he'll have enough bat-missing ability to get by, and it does help that he's struck out 22 in his past 22 innings with Triple-A Norfolk this month. 

He doesn't turn 23 until December, but there's a pretty good chance that he's in Baltimore's rotation sometime in the early portion of 2011. 

- Luke Scott is really quite good

I think that everyone knew that Scott was a pretty solid player coming into the season. I mean, from 2006-2009 he had put up a .268/.354/.506 line and put up over 9 wins above replacement while playing for both Houston and Baltimore. But only in flashes had he ever done what he's been doing essentially all of this season.

Not only has Scott taken his power production to a whole new level this season with a .289 isolated power, but his .295 batting average is 25 points higher than his career average and it's only partially fueled by an increase in BABIP. His .295/.357/.584 line is strong even for a designated hitter, and it's worth noting that he wasn't exactly moved to the DH spot because of defensive limitations. His UZR/150 in over 2600 innings in the outfield is a very solid 5 runs above average, so he'd even be able to offer a few runs of defensive value beyond the positional value added by moving from DH to left field. 

And the best part might be that he doesn't hit free agency until after the 2012 season. So the Orioles either have themselves a nice power bat at a reasonable price for the next couple years, or a very valuable trade chip for some team in need of some pop in the outfield. 

- They should have some nice payroll flexibility this winter

With Kevin Millwood, Koji Uehara, Julio Lugo, Garrett Atkins, Miguel Tejada, Cesar Izturis and Ty Wigginton, among others, coming off the books, Baltimore should have some cash to play around with.

They have $28M tied up in Markakis, Matusz, Mike Gonzalez and Brian Roberts, along with $700K in buy-out money assuming that they let both Atkins and Mark Hendrickson go. Even after you factor in arbitration raises to guys like Jones, Pie, Scott and Jeremy Guthrie, the Orioles should have ample money to spend if they so wish. Their 2010 payroll stood at $73M, but the team has also shown a willingness to spend if they believe it'll bring them closer to winning, as their 2007 payroll came in at slightly more than $93M. 

If they can actually get some of the young guys to emerge in 2011 like they were supposed to this season, and then make some astute free agent signings (we can safely say that the Gonzalez/Atkins/Tejada signings weren't great investments), Baltimore could be a dark horse to win a good number of games next season.