There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Baltimore Orioles.
When the Orioles hired Buck Showalter last summer to manage a 32-73 squad, nobody could have imagined he would guide the O's to a 34-23 record the rest of the way.
The turnaround was stunning, and particularly in terms of run prevention. From April through July, the Orioles' five projected 2011 starters posted a 5.70 ERA in 418 innings; afterward it was 3.47 in 291 innings.
Was that improvement "real"? Well, the optimist will note that Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen were all 24 or younger last season, and just needed -- like so many young pitchers -- a bit more time in the majors to figure things out.
The pessimist will note the unlikelihood of everyone figuring things out at the exact moment Showalter showed up. The pessimist might also note that the Orioles' underlying pitching performance didn't improve as dramatically as the ERAs suggest. Baltimore's pitching might have been the worst in the majors before Showalter took over, and probably improved to just average afterward. The Orioles' defensive efficiency -- the percentage of batted balls turned into outs -- skyrocketed upon Showalter's arrival, and can't be explained completely by the return of Brian Roberts and the dispatching of Miguel Tejada.
Let's just 1) say it was a strange couple of months, 2) acknowledge that Showalter is a fine manager but probably not Divine, and 3) assume the Orioles' pitching and defense is probably due a bit of regression from their lofty heights of last August and September. And if anyone in management really thought those two months were real, the O's probably wouldn't have gone out and signed Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee this winter. Because the club's 34-23 record under Showalter projects to 96 wins over a whole season, good enough for a playoff berth.
With the pitching and defense out of the way (for now), let's turn to the two hitters who were supposed to be -- and might yet still be -- the foundation of the franchise for some years.
When Adam Jones was 20, he more than held his own at the Triple-A level. At 21, he fared even better. If you're looking for a young hitter with a great chance of becoming a big star in the majors, that's exactly what you look for, someone who's been among the youngest hitters in his league and still thrived. That was Adam Jones.
When Matt Wieters was 20 and 21, he was still in college. At 22, though, he did ridiculous things in Class A and Double-A, leading to the general opinion that Wieters was the No. 1 prospect in the game. At 23, he smoked Triple-A pitchers for a few weeks before the Orioles submitted to the (seemingly) inevitable and summoned him to the majors, where he was supposed to become an All-Star immediately.
Best-laid plans, and all that.
Adam Jones joined the Orioles in 2008, thanks to the deal that sent Erik Bedard from Baltimore to Seattle. In his three seasons as an Oriole, Jones has a .278/.324/.424 line, due largely to his inability to control the strike zone. He doesn't strike out a ton, but he's also averaged only 27 walks per season. This limits (obviously) his on-base percentage and (presumably) his ability to work the count in his favor and get pitches he can drive.
Perhaps most discouraging, Jones doesn't seem to be improving at all.
And the same may be said of Wieters. One non-brilliant season (2009) might be chalked up to rookie adjustments. But two? Wieters' numbers last season weren't as bad as they looked, as he probably hit in some tough luck. But let's not make excuses for him. Future superstars usually look like future superstars before they turn 25, which means Wieters has just a couple of months to rebuild his credentials. And yes, catchers sometimes develop late but Joe Mauer and Brian McCann certainly didn't.
As impressive as the Orioles' pitching might become, this franchise simply won't compete in their division without a couple of big stars in the lineup. With Nick Markakis fading, it looks like Jones and Wieters are the Orioles' best bets for big stars. The window is closing, though ...