Why the Orioles May Be Poised For a Breakthrough
In 2007, the Tampa Bay Rays lost 96 games, yet still felt they weren't too far away from being contenders, and saw 2008 as an opportunity to take a significant step forward. But they had allowed 944 runs in 2007, worst in the majors, and also finished last in the majors in defensive efficiency, the rate at which a team's defense turns balls-in-play into outs. These were the major moves ("major" being a relative term, as they were all at low cost) that they made in the offseason of 2007-08:
*Traded for RHSP Matt Garza and SS Jason Bartlett.
*Signed RHRP Troy Percival to a two-year $8 million contract.
*Signed OF/DH Cliff Floyd to a one-year $3 million contract.
*Traded for 3B/DH Willy Aybar.
*Signed LHRP Trever Miller to a one-year $2 million contract.
*Signed 1B/OF Eric Hinske to a minor-league contract.
(They also rid themselves of outfielders Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young in the interest of clubhouse chemistry.)
You know the rest of the story of the 2008 Rays. They gave up 273 fewer runs than the year before, went from last in defensive efficiency to first, won the AL East and went all the way to the World Series.
It has become fashionable of late to attempt to predict who might be this year's version of the Tampa Bay Rays, but it's a silly distinction for a couple of reasons. First, the Rays themselves were merely the 2008 version of the 2007 Colorado Rockies (who went from last place in 2006 to the World Series in 2007), and the Rockies, in turn, were the 2007 version of the 2006 Detroit Tigers, who also went from last place to the World Series in one year. In other words, it happens all the time.
But also, the whole charm of the 2008 Rays was not their worst-to-first run, but the franchise's long, hideous history of losing.
All that said, there is much to be learned from what the Rays did in addressing their weaknesses last winter. And it seems to me that one AL East rival in particular took the lesson to heart.
This was a long-winded way of saying I like the Baltimore Orioles' moves this winter, and I think they will take a big step forward in 2009. But I am certainly not saying they will be this year's Tampa Bay Rays.
Here is what ailed the 93-loss Baltimore Orioles of 2008: Their starting pitchers had the highest ERA in baseball. Their bullpen was fifth-worst. Their shortstops (and they used five different ones for at least 25 starts) collectively committed 28 errors, tops in the majors. And scouts came away saying the Orioles lacked energy and leadership.
And here are the Orioles' major moves of this winter:
*Traded for OF/IF Ryan Freel.
*Signed LHRP/SP Mark Hendrickson to a one-year $1.25 million contract.
*Signed RHRP Brad Hennessey to a minor-league contract.
*Traded for LHSP Rich Hill.
*Signed SS Cesar Izturis to a two-year $6 million contract.
*Traded for OF Felix Pie.
*Signed RHSP Koji Uehara to a two-year $10 million contract.
*Signed C Gregg Zaun to a one-year $2 million contract.
*Signed IF Ty Wigginton to a two-year $6 million contract.
*Signed LHSP/RP John Parrish to a minor-league contract.
A lot of low-cost, low-risk bargains there -- smart moves for a mid-market team that is probably one more year away from contending, giving them the financial flexibility to go after some bigger free agents next winter (Adrian Beltre? Matt Holliday? Jason Bay?).
Izturis, a light-hitting glove guru, plugs the Orioles' gaping hole at shortstop -- in the same way Bartlett did for Tampa Bay last year. Uehara and Hill will fill spots in a rotation that likely will see an 80 percent turnover from 2008 (with Jeremy Guthrie the lone holdover). Hendrickson and Parrish, as well as the expected return of closer Chris Ray, should help fix the leaky bullpen. And Freel, Zaun and Wigginton are high-energy veterans who can remake the team's clubhouse atmosphere -- in the same way Floyd and Percival, a pair of well-liked "character guys" were necessary in Tampa to provide some veteran balance in an exceedingly young clubhouse.
And there are other parallels. Like the 2008 Rays, the Orioles will be bringing up the favorite for AL rookie of the year in midseason -- the 2008 Rays had third baseman Evan Longoria; the Orioles will have catcher Matt Wieters. Longoria lived up to his hype, and it is difficult to find anyone who doesn't think Wieters will do the same.
The major difference between last year's Ray and this year's Orioles, however, is a biggie: The Rays were stocked with a half-dozen young, talented, major-league-ready starting pitchers -- none older than 26 -- who managed to stay mostly healthy all year long.
The Orioles' best young pitching hopes, meantime, are still a half-season or more away from the majors -- right-handers Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta, and lefty Brian Matusz.
But the good news is, those types of pitchers now exist in the Orioles' near future. And if everything breaks just right for the Orioles, the way it did for the 2008 Rays, they could get halfway to the promised land -- say, 90 wins, a major achievement in the treacherous AL East -- and position themselves as a no-doubt contender in 2010.
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