This is the first in a series of previews of our division rivals, written by those who know them best. They will be posted in reverse order of their finish last year.
by Scott Christ of Camden Chat -
The 2008 Orioles were typical of the Baltimore teams that have been losing since 1998, with a few noteworthy differences. The 2009 Orioles, on paper, are much the same.
Crippling the Birds in 2008 was the pitching staff, which ranked second-worst in the American League (ahead of only the Rangers). New coach Rick Kranitz replaced Leo Mazzone, and his first season as head of the staff was hugely unsuccessful, but the blame can't be placed on Kranitz. He was given very little talent to work with and 2007 ace Erik Bedard was gone as well. Jeremy Guthrie had his second straight solid campaign, and reliever Jim Johnson emerged as a late-innings, shutdown groundball specialist.
The rotation heads into spring with four - yes, four - open spots. Only Guthrie is surely going to be in the starting five. Heading the candidates are Japanese acquisition Koji Uehara (who is no Daisuke Matsuzaka, let's put it that way) and former Cub Rich Hill.
Also acquired in trade from the Cubs was projected starting left fielder Felix Pie, formerly Chicago's top prospect. Teamed with center fielder Adam Jones and right fielder Nick Markakis, Pie gives the Orioles a very exciting young outfield that can cover a lot of ground, and Jones' offensive numbers should rise in his second full year of major league ball, too.
The offense will be led by Markakis, second baseman Brian Roberts and Aubrey Huff. Huff had a remarkable season in 2008 and served as the American League's most productive DH, a complete 180 of where his career appeared headed. Huff is taking over at first base this season, with Luke Scott moving into the DH role if Pie turns out offensively capable of handling the starting left field job.
Also acquired was defensive specialist shortstop Cesar Izturis, who can also be a benefit on the basepaths, as he stole 24 bases for the Cardinals last year.
The biggest thing here is future. The Orioles currently possess three of baseball's best prospects: Catcher Matt Wieters and pitchers Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. The two pitchers likely will play no role in 2009. Wieters, though, should wind up seeing significant playing time if all goes well.
Scott answers five questions...
Who will be the surprises of your team, both good and bad?
The major league team the Orioles put on the field in '09 really has no sleepers, or anyone on the verge of a collapse that would surprise anyone. Aubrey Huff likely will not repeat his '08 numbers, and it's very possible he doesn't come anywhere near them. On the plus side, if Rich Hill needed a change of scenery and less pressure to become the pitcher he surely could, he's got it. He could be a superb addition to the staff if he's healthy and Kranitz can find a way to fix his command issues.
Final standings and number of wins?
The Blue Jays would need quite a drop to move into fifth place, and some special things would have to happen for Baltimore to move up to fourth. It's quite likely that the Blue Jays have a good fall, but the O's aren't good enough to leapfrog them yet. Look for 70-75 wins from Baltimore, with strides made for the future.
What offseason acquisition(s) will have the most impact?
The Orioles made some good moves. If Hill is mentally and physically fit for the season, he should be the biggest contributor. Catcher Gregg Zaun is here only to fill a space until Wieters takes over, Pie is projecting as Carl Crawford Lite (great glove, some wheels, hopefully slaps the ball around enough), and Ryan Freel is just going to play as a utility man if he can stay off the DL. Ty Wigginton's bat could be a benefit off the bench and as a fill-in at three infield positions or in a DH platoon with Scott.
What offseason ‘loss' will have the most impact?
It hurts to say it, but Daniel Cabrera not being on the team will be the biggest loss. Yeah, he stunk every year and hardcore fans averaged five facepalms per Cabrera start, but he was also good for 30 starts. They were ugly starts, but starts and starts.
Strengths and weaknesses of your team?
The obvious, glaring weakness is the pitching, which could be a horrible disaster and is projected by everyone on earth as the worst staff in baseball, perhaps only because you just cannot project a rotation at this point. There are about 10 guys with legitimate shots at winning a spot in the starting staff. The strength is youth; Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Pie, Matusz, Tillman and Jake Arrieta are a great nucleus on which to build.