Know Thy Enemy: 2005 Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles are just a couple pieces away from either being Wild Card winners or the division winner. Adding Sammy Sosa gives this lineup some serious thump. The only issue now is the pitching. New pitching coach Ray Miller turned this team around after the All-Star Break. If he can continue it, pitching might not be the issue. However, they are one big arm away from perennial contenders. Perhaps in 2006. One caveat: I am not an expert on the Orioles, nor have the 25-man rosters been set. Thusly, people covered here may or may not make the team, as I am guessing here as to who will make the team in terms of backend relief pitchers or reserves.
DH Rafael Palmeiro The 551-homer guy returns to Baltimore for another year and could reach 600 by the end of next year. Palmeiro had an off year for the Orioles which could be attributed to age. He hit .258/.359/.436 with 23 HRs, but in 2003 with the Texas Rangers, he hit .260/.359/.508 with 38 HRs. The year before he had 43 HRs, then 47. So he could be heading downwards this season, becoming a 20-HR guy. If he can rebound into the 30-HR range, he should be fine. Otherwise, he’s looking at being typecast too old and could miss out on 600 HRs. Either way, Palmeiro is still at this point in time a HR threat who gets on-base at a good clip. If he plays DH most of the time, he should put up some good numbers. He will also have protection (or hit behind) Sammy Sosa so either way, he could benefit. If Sosa protects him, Palmeiro will get pitched around and become a lot more selective in the pitches he swings at. If he hits behind Sosa, pitchers will go after him so Palmeiro might see a decrease in OBP but could get more hits to drive out of the park.
C Javy Lopez / Geronimo Gil In Lopez’s first year with the Orioles, he got more at-bats than he ever had, thanks to the DH. Logging 579 AB (previous high was 489 in ’96 and ’98) he hit .316/.370/.503. A far cry from the .687 SLG and 43 HR Lopez hit for the Braves in 2003, but the Orioles will take that over the 2000-2002 numbers he put up when it looked like he was on decline. It was also only the second time he hit over .300 since 1999. Lopez should continue catching and DHing this year and put up good numbers. The DH is going to greatly benefit Lopez. As for Geronimo Gil, he caught full-time for the Orioles in 2002 hitting .232/.270/.363 then split time between AAA and the majors in 2003. In 2004 he spent the majority of the time in AAA, where he hit .259/.327/.371. He’s not starter caliber, but he’s a more than adequate backup who can give Lopez time at DH for Gil is a good defensive catcher.
1B Jay Gibbons Gibbons looked to be on the upswing as he posted three straight SLGs over .456 until he had an abbreviated 2004 and fell to .246/.303/.379. The average and OBP is in line with his previous statistics, but the .379 is a far cry from .456. If the 28-year old can rebound, and get back to .475 slugging percentage status, he gives the Orioles yet another home-run threat. If not, the Orioles are in the market for a first baseman (hmm…Eric Hinske?).
2B Brian Roberts Jerry Hairston lost the second-base job to Brian Roberts. Hairston is no longer in town and the 27-year old Roberts, if he can repeat his 2003 and 2004 seasons, should be an adequate 2B. However, if he falls back, the O’s are also in trouble here. In 2004, when he got 641 AB, he hit .274/.344/.376. Not a lot of pop, but more than enough OBP differential and the average was good. He has some speed too, stealing 29 bases (being caught 12 times). Always someone who can give you enough but always a position you look to upgrade.
3B Melvin Mora / David Newhan What else does Melvin Mora have to do to stop all the doubters? Yes, Mora came out of nowhere in 2003 to post a .317/.418/.503 line, but he followed it up with a .340/.419/.562 line, and yet people are calling for him to crash and burn. Well, I don’t buy it. Mora should continue his excellence and perhaps finally get his name among the pantheon of best third-basemen in the majors. Newhan is another person who just came out of nowhere – or rather, finally got an extended shot in the majors. The 31-year old played his way into a bench spot this year after hitting .311/.361/.453 in 373 AB last year. He is an excellent backup who can play at multiple positions and could play his way into the starting lineup supplanting Brian Roberts if he can handle second or Mora moves to second.
SS Miguel Tejada / Chris Gomez Tejada pulled off the move from Oakland to Baltimore with success, posting his best MLB season ever. It’s a little scary how good of a season Tejada had and yet didn’t get much MVP consideration. He hit .311/.360/.534 with 34 HR and 150 RBI, all career highs. Considering last year he was only 28, he should post similiar statistics again this season and will help Sosa carry the O’s to fighting for a playoff spot. Gomez, the starting shortstop for the NL Champion San Diego Padres has settled into a backup position but did get 341 AB for Toronto last year when he hit .282/.337/.346 and hit a home-run off Curt Schilling that lost a game for the Red Sox. He is a very good backup infielder.
LF Larry Bigbie / BJ Surhoff Bigbie finally fought his way into a starting spot last year when he logged 478 AB, hitting .280/.341/.427. The incoming 27-year old still has room to improve and could become a .500 SLG hitter this year or the next. If he still remains the way he is, he is still an above average outfielder offensively but does strike out a bit too much. As for Surhoff, he keeps defying nature. At age 39 in 2003, he had 319 AB and hit .295/.353/.404 for the Orioles. At age 40 last year in 343 AB, he hit .309/.365/.420. He and Bigbie could combine to make a pretty lethal LF tandem.
CF Luis Matos / Tim Raines Jr. Matos has a lot to prove this year. Last year before injury ended his season, he hit .224/.275/.333 in 330 ABs. The year before in 439 AB he hit .303/.353/.458 and this year he should probably fall somewhere in between – as in, .260/.310/.400, which just doesn’t cut it and the Orioles will probably search for a center-fielder in free agency (Johnny Damon? Bernie Williams?) and probably ignore their pitching staff yet again which could use a playmaker, which they don’t have. Raines is basically a poor man’s Luis Matos and is entering his age 26 season, so there’s not much room for optimism here. If Matos can get back to .300 batting average range, they’ll be fine. If not, this is a hole. (Note: Tim Raines Jr. was sent down to AAA. Not a bad move, but I have no idea who will replace him. They could go with an extra pitcher, John Parrish, Todd Williams, Matt Riley, or Rick Bauer. Or they could carry OF Midre Cummings or INF Enrique Wilson. Either way, we’ll keep the Raines Jr. coverage on here because I already wrote about it. And since I don’t know who will take this 25th spot, I’ll just pretend the O’s are going with 24 players.)
RF Sammy Sosa Sosa is moving to a better park, a new start with a team, a new attitude, and a chip on his back. Last year he hit 35 HRs, the first time under 40 since 1997 – and he did it in 478 AB. If he can get into 500 range, he can hit over 40 again, and the 36-year old is a no-risk high-reward shot for the Orioles who pay next to nothing to Sosa, paid next to nothing to the Cubs, and Sosa is a free agent after this year. If Sosa can repeat his 2002 season which I think he can, he can get a lot of money on the FA market. In 2002 he hit .288/.399/.594 with 49 HR.
SP Sidney Ponson / Rodrigo Lopez / Erik Bedard / Daniel Cabrera / Eric Dubose / Bruce Chen Ponson, who will open the season as the #4 starter, is still the ace of this staff. In 2003, it looked as if Ponson had finally morphed into a good pitcher – not an ace, but could have been a #2 pitcher on any other team. He had a 3.75 ERA but after coming back to Baltimore (he was traded to San Francisco mid-season) his ERA ballooned to 5.30 although it did come back down quite a bit after new pitching coach Ray Miller settled him down. At age 28, time is running out for him to become an ace. While he probably never will be, if he can get back to 2003 levels consistently, chalk this down as a win. In two of the last three years, Rodrigo Lopez has started the majority of the games he has pitched in and had an ERA under 3.60. If he can repeat that and not 2003 (5.82 ERA) then Ponson and the 29-year old Lopez could combine for a pretty good staff. The 26-year old Bedard starts his second season starting. Last year in 137.1 IP (26 GS) he had a 4.59 ERA. Considering he’s only 26, he can improve even more and perhaps give the O’s their third starter with an ERA under 4.00. He is one of three lefties in the six-man rotation listed here, and Bedard has had a great spring training, 2.11 ERA in 5 GS. The 24-year old Cabrera came up last year to make 27 starts and ended up with a 5.00 ERA. He has always had pretty good stuff and could eventually evolve as ace of this staff down the road assuming the two GMs that run Baltimore continue to ignore the pitching staff. DuBose, the second lefty, had ten starts in 2003 for the Orioles, at a 3.79 ERA and fell to a 6.39 ERA in 14 GS for the Orioles last year. In spring training, he hasn’t looked so hot. Bruce Chen bounced all over the majors (Braves, Phillies, Mets, Reds, Expos, Red Sox, Astros, Toronto) before finally having success with Baltimore, starting 7 games for them and relieving in one for a 3.02 ERA. If he can harness the potential he has always had, then the Orioles have a steal on their hands. Bets are he’ll regress to a 4.50 ERA and bounce back and forth all season long between the bullpen and rotation.
RP BJ Ryan / Jorge Julio / Steve Kline / Jay Witasick / Steve Reed / Jason Grimsley BJ Ryan takes over the closer duties from Jorge Julio this year. Ryan has progressed each year into an absolutely filthy pitcher, and he pitched 87 innings last year with a 2.28 ERA. He should take to the closing duties well and rack up the saves. The banished closer, Julio, will try to capture his 2002 magic when he had a 1.99 ERA in 68 IP. This past year he had a 4.57 ERA and lost his closing job. If he can get back to 2002 form or at least to sub-3.00 ERA then he and BJ form a devasating tandem, the 2004 answer to 2002 and 2003’s Troy Percival and K-Rod. Steve Kline is one of the premier lefties in the game and had a 1.79 ERA last year in 50.1 IP. He did not allow one single earned run in Busch Stadium and has long been a great lefty reliever. Look for Kline’s workload to increase to about 70 IP. He’s long flown under the radar and it’s time he gets recognized for the great reliever he is. Ever since 2001, when Witasick became a full-time reliever, he’s been a quality reliever but always seems to have to fight for a spot every year. He might not even make the Orioles, but if he does, the O’s should be happy with what they get out of him. Steve Reed has also long been a quality reliever – even in Coors. If he pitches like he did outside of Coors last year, this is a sub 2.00 ERA guy. Grimsley is currently injured but figures to be a factor when he gets back. He’s never been a great reliever, but has been pretty solid and should round out the bullpen nicely. This pen could be the best in the majors.
When It’s All Said And Done…
This team has a ton of potential. If the offense clicks, the bullpen throws up blanks and the starting rotation achieves its potential, they could win 90 games. If all stumble, all are dead in the water. Odds are that the offense and bullpen will throw up blanks, but the starting rotation will continue to be a weakness. You can’t rule out a midseason trade for an impact pitcher. If they do, watch out. For now, though, I would cast an eye to 2006. Best case: 90-72. Worst case: 75-87. Most likely case: 86-76.
Don’t forget – leave a question for Will Carroll to answer!

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