Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Future is Offensive

Excuse me if I am not sharing in the excitement of Chris Tillman's major league debut tonight. Because as eager as I am to see how the first call-up of the Big 3 performs, I am starting to worry about the rest of the Orioles' rebuilding process.

Andy MacPhail has preached that 2009 would be all about development. We assumed that said development would be evident over the course of the season, and in some cases it has, as MacPhail replaced rotation stop-gaps Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson with pitching prospects in Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez. And both Bergesen and Hernandez are among 2009's few bright spots. Meanwhile, Chris Tillman will replace Rich Hill and his 7.80 ERA, so there is sure to be more development to come.

But the Orioles are 2-9 since the All Star Break and are 19-31 since Matt Wieters joined the team along with the prospects who had been called up before him. That was when the Orioles were supposed to start playing their best baseball. Instead, they've played their worst.

It's not the pitching that I am so worried about in Baltimore. Because after Tillman, there is Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and a few other less-heralded pitching prospects who could always become the next Bergesen or Hernandez. There is, for once, depth in pitching, and I do have faith that it will work itself out.

What concerns me is the offense.

The Orioles are 10th in the AL in runs scored. In 2008 they finished the season 8th. They are regressing. Yes, it's true that veterans like Melvin Mora, Aubrey Huff and Ty Wigginton haven't pulled their weight. But only Wigginton will be back, and it'll only be for 2010.

But who will take the place of Mora and Huff? It looks like Wigginton and his .687 OPS will be the starting 3B in 2010, unless MacPhail pulls off a trade to net the Orioles a better 3B.

1B is where the concern lies, since Brandon Snyder, the only hitting prospect anywhere close to the majors, and he's currently struggling in AAA with an OPS of .654. If the Orioles don't bring Huff back for 2010, which they shouldn't, they aren't going to do any better than Huff based on what's available on the free agent market during the offseason. (I'm going on record today and saying that Eric Hinske is your Orioles 1B in 2010.)

That also doesn't include Brian Roberts, who will most certainly decline over the life of his contract. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold and Matt Wieters will almost certainly continue to improve, however, but it's unlikely that they will be able to transform this offense into a fearful one all by themselves.

To ease fans fears of a stagnant offense, MacPhail has preached that he'll "buy the bats" when the pitching comes around, but if MacPhail has never spent big money on marquee free-agents, then what bats is he talking about buying? So far his offensive free-agent signings in Baltimore have been a bench player in Wigginton and a defensive specialist in Caesar Izturis.

If the Orioles are going to rely on the Big 3 (Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta) as well as the Medium 2 (Bergesen and Hernandez), then they should give those pitchers some run support as they make their way through the early stages of their careers. Do the Orioles really want their best pitching prospects agonizing over every pitch in tight ballgames?

Looking over the AL offenses, only Seattle (last) and Detroit (11th) have bottom-5 offenses with winning records. The flip side is that their team ERA's are under 4.11. Asking the Big 3 and Medium 2 to do that in 2010 is expecting too much, too soon.

I hope MacPhail realizes how crucial it is to have something resembling an offense when you're relying on young pitchers to win. Jason Berken pitched a good game last night (6 IP, 2 ER) and left the game in line to get the win until the bullpen gave up the lead and the offense failed to score more than 3 runs despite leaving 10 runners on base.

That is why the future is not rosy in Baltimore. We might get the pitching very soon. But we're going to be on the wrong side of most 3-2 pitching duels unless something is done to fix this struggling offense.

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