As of this writing the O’s are sitting at 5-2 in second place in the American League East. They have taken 2 of 3 from presumptive powerhouses Tampa and New York. They’re hitting .303 as a team. Their ace (c’mon you know who it is - Jeremy Gutherie) is 2-0 as is their hot Japanese import Koji Uehara. So why do I think they’re going to end up in 4th place by the time September rolls around?
Simply put - the pitching.
There is no way around it, this team will get as far as the pitching staff lets it. When you factor in that Mark Hendrickson and Adam Eaton compose 40% of the starting rotation - that means their not going to go too far. They are 5-2 with a team ERA over 6.00. That’s not exactly playoff material. Making things worse, they just lost Alfredo Simon, a promising young right-hander who claimed the 5th spot in the rotation out of spring training.
Guthrie is an interesting case. He may be one of the few “aces” that took a pay cut going into a season where the team knew he was going to be the number one starter. In 80 games (59 starts) with the O’s over three seasons he has amassed a 19-17 record. That is pretty consistent for a team that is 46 games below .500 in that same stretch.
Back to his contract. In 2008, Guthrie was playing under a one year contract that paid him $770,000 base on a deal he signed with Cleveland when he was drafted in 2002. According to The Baltimore Sun. going into 2009 the O’s had the right to cut his salary by 20% under the current labor agreement. The final deal he signed was for about $650,000 which is about 15% less than what he was making.
Only the O’s could find a way to pay their ace less despite him having a decent year. Of course if he continues his effective above .500 pitching he could be in for an AJ Burnett type deal in a few seasons. Meanwhile, he’ll be fighting the good fight while the O’s management grooms the next generation of starters.
Well sure, the starting pitching has some holes, but the bullpen is strong right? Well it could be. Chris Ray was a solid closer before he blew his arm out two seasons ago. How he rebounds has yet to be determined. If he is strong he could take over the closing role from George Sherrill, the lefty known as much for his comically flat-billed cap as he is for his prowess as a closer.
Getting from the starter to the closer will be an adventure based on a bullpen filled with names such as Danys Baez, Jim Johnson, Brian Bass, Dennis Sarafate, and Jamie Walker. With lackluster starting pitching these guys could be logging a ton of innings. I tend towards optimism when it comes to my teams and even I have to admit that there is a minor sense of trepidation when I see those names in print.
So while the pitching will be the weak spot, the offense will be explosive. Headlined by star in the making and the newest multi millionaire from Glen Cove, NY - Nick Markakis this team will put some runs on the board. They are solid in the 1-4 slots with Brian Roberts leading off, future All Star Adam Jones hitting second, Markakis third and Aubrey Huff in the cleanup sport.
Once you get past those four the production drops off a bit with the likes of Cesar Izturis and Greg Zaun hitting. It’s no secret that Zaun is just holding a spot until the club feels uber-prospect Matt Weiters is ready to don the orange and black. What Izturis lacks in offense he’ll make up for in defense.
A key spot in the lineup will be Melvin Mora. He has quietly provided solid offense from the third base spot over the last 7 seasons. He’s never hit less than 14 home runs or under .274. Another average year from him give the O’s 7 of 9 spots that could hit .300 with double digit home runs.
After years of wondering the baseball no man’s land - spending money like they’re the Yankees or Red Sox, but playing the Royals or Pirates the O’s management made a true rebuilding commitment last year. That rebuilding centered around strong, young pitching and locking up their good talent like Markakis.
Strengthing their defense has also been important, hence the off season signing of the slick fielding Izturis. In 2008, the Rays showed how improving your defense improves your pitching. The young pitchers that will start getting called up this season will only be helped by infielders that can turn the ground ball up the middle into an out instead of a base hit.
So to wrap things up the O’s should have the guns to compete in the AL East, but their lack of major league quality arms will be their undoing over the long season.