Starting this season, the Orioles will be one of the more interesting teams in the division for what should be the better part of the decade. The top of the minors are awash with upper echelon pitching prospects (Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta) to go along with plenty of reinforcements in the low minors. The lineup card is stocked with building blocks that are either locked up long-term (Nick Markakis) or have just started their arbitration clock (Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nolan Reimold).
While the 2010 season may not be the year of the Oriole, it will be a significant landmark in the progress of the club. The team is not expected to “compete” in the classical sense, in that they will still likely finish either fourth or fifth behind the Sox, Rays, and Yanks. Yet, the team could, with a couple of breaks in the right direction, finish with a .500 record – the first time Baltimore has done so since 1997.
Now, on to the sleepers:
C Matt Wieters: This one should come as no surprise. Coming into 2009, Wieters was at the top of nearly every meaningful prospect list known to man. Switch-hitting catchers with the plate discipline, power, AND defensive capabilities of a Matt Wieters come around once in a generation. Accordingly, he was expected to perform much better than he ultimately did, .288/.340/.412. Even the perennially underwhelming and modest PECOTA projections pegged Wieters to hit 30 home runs.
Still, a .753 OPS for a rookie catcher is nothing to scoff at. In fact, if he weren’t so highly touted it would have been a successful season – just another example in how expectations shape our opinion of everything we with which we come into contact.
While most in Baltimore will sit back and expect Wieters to have his belated breakout season, he actually has a ways to go before claiming his throne to city. First off, the discerning eye he showed at the plate during his short minor league career (693 PAs between A+, AA, and AAA; 102 BBs v. 106 Ks) must return. A 1:3 BB:K ratio does not cut the mustard in the major leagues and will not allow him to achieve his potential.
Certainly, the 24.3 strikeout percentage is far too high, which will have to be remedied by improving his 77.5 contact percentage.
The good news for Baltimore is that Wieters plate discipline failings weren’t the product of any single, glaring weakness. It was more the combination of making poor, but not terrible, contact and swinging at pitcher’s pitches a little too often (25.4 percent O-Swing%). These can both be improved upon – and expect him to do it.
If these attributes fall in place, the only task left will be for Wieters to rediscover his power stroke. If he is more selective, comfortable, and confident at the plate, then the power will come. He has the strength and the swing to do it – his 27 HRs in 2008 were no fluke – so it is now a matter of time and patience before it comes to fruition. With just one year against his arbitration clock, time is certainly on his side. Whether it will be this season or next is the big question.
SP Brian Matusz: The first, and perhaps most talented, in Baltimore’s procession of pitching prospects, Matusz was very impressive in his 8 starts in 2009. Total 44.2 innings pitched, he struck out 38 big league hitters while walking just 14. His 4.63 ERA was a little worse than his numbers indicated – he finished with a 4.08 FIP – so he should rebound next season. Especially given his .343 BABIP, expect a quick improvement.
With a 78.2 contact percentage and a 54.3 zone percentage, Matusz has what it takes to be a control-oriented pitcher who also gets his share of Ks. As evidenced in ’09, he won’t walk many batters, though, he’ll have to try to get batters to chase a little more often if he wants to increase his K potential.
Even so, that is inconsequential compared to the need to fix his flyball tendencies. Certainly, there is a small-sample issue here, but allowing 47.5 percent of batted balls to be hit in the air is unacceptable. Home run tendencies have sunk better pitchers than Matusz, so he’ll have to prove that this is not the norm for him. Otherwise, he’ll struggle from year to year. This is item #1 on the laundry list. And, though it is rectifiable, it bears watching and will be one of the more important developments of any Baltimore prospect in 2010.
SP Chris Tillman: Though the case can be made to place every Baltimore pitching prospect on this list, we’ll hold it at just Mastusz and Tillman since they’re the two expected to break with the big club at the start of the season. Sure, Spring Training can change all that, but we’ll go with the information we have at hand.
Tillman’s 2009 was a season of ups and downs. Though he wowed in the minors, posting 99 Ks against 26 BBs in 96.2 AAA innings, he stumbled after his promotion. In 12 major league starts, he registered just a 5.40 K/9 rate while walking 3.32 per nine innings.
Though the walk rate is certainly acceptable, his 83.1 percent contact rate was certainly not what Baltimore was expecting from their prized arm. Certainly, his three-pitch mix of 92 mph fastball, curve and changeup has the stuff to miss bats, but its all meaningless until he actually performs.
In addition, he, like Matusz, will have to bring down his frightening fly ball tendencies – having allowed 45.2 percent fly balls in ‘09.
His development is just a bit behind Matusz’s, as he is the lesser pitcher at the moment with more kinks to work out.
Still, as both pitchers have yet to register a single season on their arbitration clock, Baltimore can count the two towards its rotation of the future.
Maybe the more prudent move would have been to keep Matusz, Tillman, and Wieters down on the farm for all of ’09. Though they were all ready individually, it doesn’t matter if their early arbitration years are being wasted on teams with no hope of contention. If they had all been kept in the minors for all of ’09, they could be left in AAA for a good part of ’10, delaying their arbitration clock by a full season. With the rest of the prospect field trying frantically to catch up, this would have gone a long way in assuring that they reach maturity at the same time. Remember, age and individually “readiness” is not what matters for prospects anymore. Bringing them all up at the same time so that the team can have its competitive window open for the longest possible time is the new paradigm.
So much for making the most of a good situation. At least these guys all have 5 years to go.
OF Felix Pie: This guy is quickly becoming one of the more underappreciated players in the big leagues. In a slightly different fashion than Wieters, Pie was able to drown out any good will in the Chicago organization due to failing his lofty expectations.
Now 25 (actually, his birthday was today), Pie is the happy owner of the “trash-heap prospect” status. With just over 2 years of major league service time, Baltimore has a quality centerfield option on its bench for the next four seasons. Blocked in left by the slugging Nolan Reimold, in right by Nick Markakis, and in center by
Adam Jones, Pie has nowhere to go but another organization. Perhaps that would be the best move for the club if it were a little further along in developing its pitchers, as selling Pie for a quality first baseman could actually make the team a legitimate sleeper if they had a proven rotation.
Even so, the best move at this point would be to test him in the field and at the plate as much as possible to see what they have. As such, they could deal him or Reimold at the beginning of 2011 – once they have a better sense of who can do what and how good their rotation is.
Remember, this is not the same Felix Pie who hit .215/.271/.333 in ’07 and .241/.312/.325 in ’08. His 9 home runs in ’09 allowed him jump his slugging percentage by an additional 100 points, while raising his batting average into the .260s.
Sure, the strikeouts will need to drop, but his 7 percent improvement in his contact percentage shows there is potential for a turnaround. And, a centerfielder who can top 20 bombs is a welcome asset on any team. Though he may never get on base enough to be a legitimate leadoff hitter, he doesn’t need to be. His overall game will make him an asset to any team.
On the to-do list for 2010 will be to maintain the gains he made in ’09 and to get a verdict on his true fielding abilities. If his game continues to mature, then Baltimore has a prime asset locked up through 2013. At that point, it will be up to them whether to keep Pie or Reimold when dealing for a first baseman.
SP Koji Uehara: Before I begin, I must admit that Uehara was one of my favorite pitchers in ’09 before he went down with hamstring issues. While his greatest problem is whether he can be counted on for 200 innings, he is quite the pitcher for what the Orioles have invested in him.
Signed for the 2010 season for just $5 million, if he can stay healthy he will be one of the MLB’s best bargains.
Though he doesn’t throw like a #3 starting pitcher with an 87 mph fastball, he certainly performs like one, tossing up a 3.56 FIP in ’09. With impeccable command (1.62 BB/9) and a surprisingly high K-rate for his lack of velocity (6.48 K/9), he would have the potential to be a legitimate #2 starter if it weren’t for his huge fly ball rates (52.6 FB% in ’09). Still, for what he costs, a league average pitcher is quite the return on investment.
If the Orioles could find some way to lock up Uehara to a multi-year deal past 2010, they would have the makings of a very talented, deep rotation for 2011 and beyond. Behind Uehara, the team could have any combination of Matusz, Tillman, Jake Arreita, Brandon Erbe, Zach Britton, Brad Bergesen, or even a resurgent David Hernandez.
Bergesen and Uehara are already league-average pitchers while Matusz gives the rotation some star-power. Arrieta, Tillman, Erbe, Britton, and Hernandez could all breakout or, at the very least, settle into back of the rotation starters. With almost too many starting pitching options, there is little standing in the way of this team having an above average rotation by 2011. There’s just too much talent here to fail. And, once the pieces are in place, there are plenty more that can be moved to the bullpen or traded for missing parts.
The outfield is set with Jones in center, Markakis in right, and Reimold/Pie in left. Reimold or Luke Scott could settle in at DH while either of the two or Pie could be traded for a first baseman.
Brian Roberts will handle the keystone through 2013, while Matt Wieters is the team’s catcher for the next five years. The only positions that are question marks are 1B, 3B and SS, though Josh Bell (AA) has his eye on 3B with an arrival at somepoint in 2010 a possibility.
That leaves 1B and SS as the only true “needs” of the organization. With the wealth of prospects elsewhere, expect them to make a swap in the near future to shore up these spots.
With the wealth of talent at the top of the minors, Baltimore certainly has its ticket stamped for sometime in the 2011 or 2012 seasons. With the bulk of their prospects expected to reach the major leagues within that timeframe, this team is primed to make a meteoric rise to the top – much like Tampa Bay did in ’08.
Exciting though it will be for many baseball fans to see a competitive Orioles team for the first time in over a decade, Boston needs to keep a watchful eye on their pesky division-mates. Though it is unlikely that they will be a playoff contender in 2010, they will spoil someone’s party in September and have a realistic shot at .500. Just don’t miss these guys when they reappear on radars come 2011 and beyond.