Well Spring Training has concluded and Baltimore fans are waiting for the Orioles to start the season, a year that will be very telling for the progression of this rebuilding project and the future of the organization. The O’s will not win a pennant this year, will not make the wild card, and will not contend in any meaningful way. However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t huge goals for this team that will affect whether it can do any or all of these things in 2011 and beyond. Here’s my dozen goals for the Baltimore Orioles in 2010.
1) Find a bullpen: The bullpen, expected to be a strength of this team, struggled massively in spring training, giving few signs of hope considering it lacks a true closer. Even Mike Gonzalez, signed from Atlanta to close for Baltimore, blew 7 out of 17 save opportunities in 2009- for comparison, Jim Johnson managed to blow 6 out of 16. Koji Uehara is incapable of staying healthy, and the rest of the bullpen will have to pick up the slack if the starters are run off in the 5th.
2) Get (and keep) Roberts, Reimold, and Jones healthy: Adam Jones has yet to finish a full season with the Orioles, Nolan Reimold is still nursing his surgically repaired Achilles tendon, and Brian Roberts’ back could be an issue throughout the season. Keeping these players healthy is key for this team to have any hope of finishing respectably in the division. Felix Pie can come in for Reimold, but there is not enough depth in the world to replace the defense and leadoff abilities of Brian Roberts.
3) Survive the first two months of the season: I can’t wait to read the comments in May and see that the sky is falling, that this team is destined for 55 wins and that the organization should abandon its rebuilding project. That might be how it looks when this team has gone through a stretch of 16 straight games to start the season, then 12 straight against the Red Sox & Yankees, en route to the 2nd toughest schedule in baseball. If this team can make it through May within 3 or 4 games of .500 it would be a tremendous victory.
4) Keep the same starting rotation for at least a month at a time: It doesn’t seem like much, but as this team tries to make the turn from rebuilding to contending they need to form some sense of continuity. This team can’t afford to play musical chairs with a host of pitching prospects and veteran also-rans- keeping the same starters will be a sign that this foundation is staying healthy and effective.
5) Produce RBI, power numbers from the heart of the lineup: Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins, were signed in no small part due to their ability to drive in runs and perhaps increase the paltry 160 home runs that the Orioles mustered in 2009. With Atkins and Tejada’s power numbers in decline, it could be up to Wieters, Jones, and Reimold to find the power they had in the minors a bit faster than otherwise. Perhaps Nick Markakis will finally live up to the 30 home run potential O’s fans have been waiting for.
6) Turn prospects into major leaguers: Nolan Reimold, Matt Wieters, and Brian Matusz are entering their second seasons at the major league level (albeit at different levels of experience). Adam Jones is starting for the third straight year. If we can look at these young players in July not as prospects with potential but as major league players here to stay, that will be a sign that this team is ready to make a move in the AL East.
7) Rediscover the stolen base: This team has no shortage of fast players who are capable of stealing bases- Roberts, Pie, and Jones are only a few. However, this team that led the AL in stolen bases in 2007 with 144 had just 76 in 2009 and 81 in 2008. Certainly this is an entirely different team than the one in 2007, but there is speed on this team- it is time to take advantage of it. With so many good doubles hitters in the lineup, you need to have a man to second to drive in.
8) Fix the fundamentals: Baserunning errors killed the Orioles last season, whether it was by a lack of communication, focus, or simply trying too hard to get the extra base. I don’t know how one fixes them, but the coaching staff has tried to come up with unique ways of teaching it during spring training. Let’s hope it translates to the field.
9) Help Atkins and Guthrie bounce back from ‘09: Garrett Atkins and Jeremy Guthrie had their share of struggles last season, and this team will not succeed if they both fall flat on their face. I am pretty sure Guthrie’s struggles this spring training could be due to injury- he may have sprained his neck last season watching all the home runs fly over his head. Atkins will have to rediscover his swing from 2006-2008 and silence critics who claim that his bat was juiced by the stadium at Coors Field.
10) Avoid the late season swoon: Whether due to being out of contention or simply due to wearing out, this team has been an absolute abomination in August and September, and it isn’t because they are bringing up a million prospects. This team falls apart at the end of the season, making their record even worse than their performance over most of the season. Good teams get better at the end of the season. Baltimore will have to as well.
11) Put batters away: In 2009 this team had the fewest strikeouts of any AL team and the 3rd fewest in the majors- and it wasn’t because they were inducing ground balls. Across the pitching staff which was the worst statistically in the majors there was a tendency to pitch behind or allow batters to get back in it after a, 0-2 count. Perhaps having Brad Bergesen healthy for a year (though he won’t add many strikeouts) and Brian Matusz with the team for the entire season will help these numbers, but this rotation needs a lot more help than the natural progression of a couple of young pitchers.
12) Win 75 games: At the end of the day, it all comes down to wins and losses. Looking at this division, the 2nd toughest schedule in baseball and the number of question marks on this team I can’t see how they finish at .500 without something unexpected happening. That isn’t to say they won’t be massively improved from last season regardless. I think 75 games should be expectation for this squad, with 81 being a pretty lofty goal. It’s all part of the process, Orioles fans.