I remember this time of year last season. The Ravens had just been knocked out of the playoffs by a team they just cannot seem to beat (yea, the other team they just can’t seem to beat) and so my attention swung over to the upcoming baseball season. The Orioles were looking good, coming off of a bad season but seemed poised to take a turn for the better. We were even talking about finishing above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Nolan Reimold would surely take steps forward in their development as young player, and it wouldn’t be long before Chris Tillman became an established part of a rotation anchored by the ever-reliable Kevin Millwood. Sure, Mike Gonzalez wasn’t the ideal closer candidate, but he would sure be better than the Jim Johnson experiment. Oh yea, and Garrett Atkins wasn’t taking over at first base. Well, we know how that turned out. Almost none of the elements the Orioles hoped would come together did come together until Buck Showalter turned the team around in August and September.
But naturally, there will be comparisons between the tepid optimism of this season and last season, and whether the orange-colored glasses we put on in the winter has any more merit in 2011 than it did back in 2010. The needs were much the same each offseason, so how do the club’s solutions compare?
|2010: Miguel TejadaTejada had clear defensive liabilities throughout his second stint in Baltimore, even as fans tried to shield their eyes and pretend he was improving. The fact is, Tejada isn’t meant to be a third baseman. That said, he was picked up for his bat, not his glove. He was coming off of two strong seasons in Houston, which validated taking a chance on him. However, his bat simply was not hot enough in the AL East to make up for the poor defense, and he was tossed to the Padres at midseason. At the time, it seemed like as good a move as Reynolds does now, though Tejada was seen as a stopgap while Reynolds has some long term potential.||2011: Mark ReynoldsReynolds’ weaknesses are well-known- leading the league in strikeouts, hitting for a very low average (the Mendoza Line used to be humiliating, now it gets you a contract), and a reputation for mediocre defense. The last might be an overstatement, since scouts (and Cal Ripken) have said great things about the progression of his defense last season. However, we cannot assume that Reynolds will fix anything on his swing and will cut down on the strikeouts. That said, for a lineup badly in need of some power, Reynolds provides a fearsome bat. But how fearsome is he when the odds of him making contact are so low?|
|2010: Garrett AtkinsAtkins was coming off of a dismal 2009, one that saw him ride the pine for much of the season’s second half. Orioles fans were banking on him to return to his 2006 – 2008 form, when he combined to hit over .300 and averaged 25 home runs. 2009 was considered a blip on the radar of an otherwise stellar career in Colorado. Orioles fans would discover it was not a blip as he lasted just 44 games in a Baltimore uniform, remained a free agent for the rest of the season, and recently signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time it was considered a high-risk, high-reward move. It just utterly failed.||2011: Derrek LeeIt is clear that Derrek Lee really did not want to play for the Orioles, but that might be as much because he didn’t want to be on the East Coast as it is play for a losing franchise. If Atkins was a high-risk high-reward guy, then Lee is a relatively low risk acquisition. His numbers did dip last year in Chicago as he tired of playing for the same losing franchise, but his rebound in Atlanta provides some hope that his career is not downward trending. At 35 he certainly isn’t getting any better, but Orioles fans should be confident that he won’t crater out the way Atkins did.|
|2010: Mike GonzalezThe only one so far who is still with the team, Gonzalez was the uninspiring choice to take the ball where George Sherrill had left off. I say Sherrill because Jim Johnson had looked shaky at best when given the closer’s job and now seems permanently locked in to middle or late relief. Fans had little to go on aside from praise for Gonzo from the front office, and were more disappointed than surprised when he struggled throughout spring training and flopped in the opening series, landing on the DL. As far as hype going into 2010, there wasn’t much due to Gonzalez.||2011: Kevin GreggThere is a big difference in need between 2011 and 2010. In 2011, the Orioles already had a closer. Koji Uehara emerged as a strike throwing, efficient machine as a closer, converting 13 of 15 chances and went an astonishing 44 strikeouts before allowing a walk. Due to his injury concerns and small body of work, the O’s brought in Kevin Gregg from the Blue Jays. As our own Ross Gore pointed out, he is nothing to get too excited about, but he strengthens a suddenly powerful bullpen. With Gonzalez, Uehara, and Gregg with closing experience, the Orioles will have plenty of options that they didn’t have going into last season.|
Note: I didn’t include left handed reliever Will Ohman because the Orioles have yet to sign a lefty specialist, not that I think they necessarily need to sign one. I also didn’t include shortstop, since it was not a perceived need by the club going into 2010.
Odds are there will be less hype for the Orioles going into this season than there was last season. O’s fans have too fresh a memory of getting worked up for a .500 season with the cavalry arriving and making the AL East more competitive only to watch them collapse, on track for one of the worst seasons in MLB history before Buck Showalter arrived. The Orioles’ acquisitions for 2011 have one major difference with those in 2010. In 2010, fans were hoping. That is, they were hoping that Tejada made the smooth transition to third and his bat stayed strong. They were hoping that Garrett Atkins regained his stroke from 2008 and was a steal for the club. They were hoping that Mike Gonzalez would be a solid closer when he had a very thin resume in that department.
In 2011, even if the acquisitions all play exactly the same way they did last season (or even slightly worse), it will be an upgrade over what Baltimore trotted out last season. There is a lower risk for all of them. None of them individually will change a franchise, and caution is certainly appropriate. But a bit of buzz is deserved when compared to last year’s pickups.