The Baseball Notebook

March 5, 2010 11:00 AM

Baltimore Orioles Preview

It’s been a long time in the desert for the Baltimore Orioles. Through the 1970s, this was the sport’s model organization, producing young players with regularity, built on sound fundamentals and deep pitching, and always finding a way to surge after the All-Star break. They won a World Series in the 1980s and had back-to-back playoff appearances in the 1990s. But the ‘00s were unkind, and they haven’t had a winning record since the last playoff year of 1997. The town where I live is a proud baseball town,and is suffering a case of depression. But the 2010 team finally has the chance to give them a spark.

Baltimore’s offense is built around five players who are credible threats with both power and getting on-base: Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Miguel Tejada and Luke Scott. There are caveats in this. Markakis had a good year in ’09, but did slip from his numbers the previous year, which were touching MVP-caliber. Tejada, back in town after two years in Houston, has seen his OBP dip. Scott needs to pick the same stat up a little bit. Jones has had injury tendencies in late summer that makes one wonder if his body is ready to stand up to a long season. Most serious is that Roberts has a knee problem and is not yet ready to start playing spring training games. So far, nothing has been indicated that he won’t start on Opening Day, but until he’s on the field, O’s fans need to be a little edgy. The drop-off from one of the game’s most underrated players to Justin Turner is huge.

The Birds have further offensive potential in catcher Matt Wieters and leftfield Nolan Reimold. Wieters is a highly touted prospect whose call-up last summer sparked sudden surges in attendance and a buzz around town that gave an inkling to just how much the city will embrace this team if they get even mildly competitive. Reimold was very solid last year in a 365 at-bat year and he will be the starter this time around from the get-go.

Pitching has been the problem in Baltimore, as is often the case for most struggling franchises. They went out and signed Kevin Millwood, but this is a risky move. Millwood is a proven starter, but also has a proven history of injuries. He’s strong year in Texas last year wasn’t unusual given it was his contract year, and I think the O’s may have overreached in targeting him in this year’s free-agent crop. After strong years in 2008-09, Jeremy Guthrie slipped back to a 5.04 ERA a year ago. On the plus side, he threw 200 innings for the first time in his career. Beyond these two, Baltimore has a quartet of young starters headed up by Brad Bergesen, their best pitcher a year ago. Bergesen is recovering from a slight shoulder strain caused while filming a commercial for the team, but he is anticipated to be ready. Brian Matusz, David Hernandez and Chris Tillman all showed flashes after being called up last year.

And the bullpen will be Baltimore’s best since B.J. Ryan left town in free agency after the 2005 season. Mike Gonzalez was signed to be the closer, and the setup crew looks good. Jim Johnson was one of the AL’s best in this role in 2008 and still respectable last year. Former starter Koji Uehara has been moved back here, an area the talented, but fragile veteran from Japan can probably thrive in. And Cla Meredith is a good righthander to balance things out.

All in all, Baltimore has the personnel to make Toronto and Tampa Bay be very nervous about the coming year. And there are even whispers starting in Boston and New York about an emerging threat on the East Coast. Now they have to make it happen on the field and end the streak of losing seasons.

Up Next: Arizona Diamondbacks tomorrow
Final AL East PIcks & Preview: April 1

A Member Of