Spring training will officially open for the Orioles tomorrow so it’s time to get off the fence and go on the record. The offseason officially ended today as the Orioles head down to warm Ft. Lauderdale while leaving behind all this cold, icing weather for us.
Doesn’t it always seem to be the coldest day of the year when the Orioles start spring training? I mean seriously, it’s hard to get into the “spring” mode when you are facing five-degree wind chills.
Either way, I’m going to take my winter hat off and get into spring mode, even though I’ll be spending the entire “spring” here in Maryland.
I get asked often what my opinion is on this and that with the O’s all the time, so let’s see if I can go on the record with my official opinion before the 2007 season. This will make it much easier for everyone to quickly look up how wrong I was at the end of this season.
I’ll be doing a few of these but tonight we’ll start off with the rotation and bullpen.
The rotation took a big hit before the season even started when Kris Benson went down with a shoulder injury and will miss the season. Now I’m into going to get into the questionable timing off his announcement or the fact that his peripheral numbers continued to drop last season after the move to the American League, but either way, his loss could be bigger than many pundits believe.
I know, I know, my fellow statistically-based Hangouters are going to argue that his STF (Stuff rating: Based on normalized strikeout rates, walk rates, home run rates, runs allowed, and innings per game) was below replacement level last year (-3) and that he’s only been league average twice in the last six seasons.
Without a doubt Benson was not better than a number four starter on a good team, but what he did do well was save the bullpen better than anyone else on the Orioles staff. Last year Benson pitched seven or more innings 13 times or 43.3% of his 30 starts. Compare that to the O’s number one starter Erik Bedard (39.3%) and then to Daniel Cabrera (26.9%), Adam Loewen (10.5%) and Jaret Wright (0%), and I think you get the picture. Benson was not and is not a stud, but he kept his team in the game enough to pitch into the 7th inning more frequently then any other O’s starter or projected Orioles starter.
Just a few hours after the Benson injury was announced, the Orioles signed Steve Trachsel. Trachsel, 36, went 15-8 with a 4.97 ERA with the New York Mets in 2006, tying for 7th in the National League in wins. He has won 11 or more games in five of the last six seasons, all with the Mets, starting in 2001. He has made at least 30 starts in nine of his last 11 big league seasons and has pitched 200 or more innings seven times. Last year he made into the 7th inning or later in only 10% of his 30 starts and his STF rating put him well below replacement level meaning he was extremely lucky to come up with that 15-8 record. So lucky in fact he was still available relatively cheaply on 13 February for the Orioles to grab him once Benson went down.
Now, I know that all sounds negative but hear me out, this rotation has its flaws, but it also has some outstanding arms at the top of the rotation. Bedard has some of best southpaw stuff this side of Johan Santana and post All-Star break, he pitched to a 3.10 ERA while going seven innings or more in 50% of his 14 second half starts last year.
Everyone knows of Cabrera’s raw stuff. With a fastball that can reach 100 MPH and a breaking ball that can be unhittable, the only person that can beat Cabrera is Cabrera himself. After getting sent to the minors in mid-July last year to work on his command, he returned in August and went seven or more innings on 40% of his starts while pitching to a 4.04 ERA. His K:BB rate improved to 67K to 29BB in 62.1 innings. He ended his 2006 season by carrying a no-hitter into the 9th inning against the Yankees before settling for a complete game one-hitter with 14 strikeouts. Needless to say the Orioles hope this is turning point for the six-foot-nine right-hander.
Loewen took advantage of Hayden Penn’s appendicitis by getting a call to the Orioles and never went back to the minors. The 22-year old lefty showed flashes of brilliance, especially against the Yankees who he went 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings over four starts. Over the last two months of the season, he pitched to a 4.50 ERA while going at least six innings in 45% of his 11 starts over the same time period. Like most young starters, he can be erratic from starts to start and even sometimes inning to inning, but batters hit just .237 and hit just three home runs off him over the last two months of the season suggesting he’s ready to take another step forward on 2007.
Wright and Trachsel should fill out the rotation although Penn and top prospect Garret Olson will get some looks as well. Both Penn and Olson have better stuff than Wright and Trachsel, but both may need more seasoning at Norfolk (AAA) this year. Wright is the epitome of a five inning starter, going five or less innings in 44.4% of his 27 starts while never pitching more than 6.1 innings in any start. Basically you get about 75 pitches because after 75 pitches batters hit him at a .314 clip compared to .277 before. The hope of course is that Orioles pitching guru Leo Mazzone can help Wright find the same magic that allowed him to have his best year in the majors with Atlanta in 2004 when he went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA. That season he held lefties to a .259 average and righties to a .225 compared with his career .297 vs lefties and .256 vs righties.
So when you look at the rotation, I’m willing to say the Orioles have four pitchers with an upside (counting on Mazzone’s magic with Wright) and three with significant upside in Bedard, Cabrera, and Loewen. My major concern with this rotation is no horse to lean on to give you that seven to eight innings on a regular basis to give the pen a break. With Benson gone, it’s very possible the Orioles could have four starters (I’m going to say Bedard develops into a consistent seven inning starter) who end up averaging less than six innings a start. This is going to put a huge strain on the Orioles rebuilt bullpen. A bullpen I might add that’s primarily made up of one inning relievers.
The Orioles bullpen last year was absolutely dreadful. Its 5.25 ERA last year was 29th out of 30 team with only Kansas City being worse. How bad were they? They allowed a baseball worse 86 home runs along with the worse OPS allowed (.836) while striking out the least amount of batters per nine innings (5.88/9). In fact, besides closer Chris Ray (2.73) and Chris Britton (who was traded for Wright) there was not a reliever with an ERA under 4.44 who pitched more than eight innings.
Needless to say this unit needed to be upgraded and that’s exactly what Jim Duquette and Mike Flanagan went out and did this winter.
Although they missed out Justin Spiers, who they coveted over all the other relievers on the market, they wasted little time in picking up right-handers Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson along with he best left-hander on the market in Jamie Walker.
The 29-year old Baez was a former closer with Cleveland and Tampa Bay who saved 41 games in 2005. He struggled a bit last year going 5-6 with nine saves and a 4.53 ERA in 56 games between Los Angeles and Atlanta and his season prematurely ended on August 26 after an emergency appendectomy. Despite his struggles last year, he allowed only three home runs in 59.2 innings and has allowed just 16 in his last three years covering 200 innings. Of concern though is his falling strikeout rate that has fallen three straight year from 7.85/9 innings in 2003 to 5.88/9 last year. At 3 years - $19 million, Baez did not come cheap and could fill in at closer if Ray is hurt or dealt. For now though he’ll start the year as the 8th inning guy.
The 32-year old Bradford uses a submarining style to get an amazing amount of groundballs. Last year he got 3.10 groundballs to flyballs while allowing just 10 of 53 runners inherited to score. He allowed only one home run last year in 62 innings and only seven in 144 innings r the last three seasons. He’ll inherit Todd Williams old role of coming into to get that crucial groundball.
Left-hander Walker pitched to a 2.81 ERA while holding lefties to a .238 average and .265 OBP. Over the last three years lefties have hit just .226 off him. He’s not just a one trick pony since righties only hit .262 off him last year, but he did allow 8 home runs in 48 innings and has history of giving up the longball on occasion. Either way, he should be solid left-handed reliever as long as he’s used correctly.
After those four (including closer Ray), the rest of the bullpen will be a competition between Jeremy Guthrie, Scott Williamson, Todd Williams, Brian Burres, John Parrish, Kurt Birkins, Sendy Rleal and possibly Hayden Penn and James Hoey although both are expected to start the year in the minors.
The only concern I have with the bullpen is the amount of one inning pitchers. Bradford and Baez have been traditional one innings guys and Walker is more of a LOOGY. With the starters most likely going to struggle to get into the 8th inning very often, the Orioles may want to consider going with a few guys who can go 2-3 innings on occasion like Parrish, Birkins, Burres, or Guthrie.
No matter what, this unit is improved and should help the Orioles improve in 2007.
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Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.