Midseason Musings About Orioles
By Jim Henneman
Random remarks and idle thoughts while trying to assess whether the Orioles get good marks for reaching the mid-point of the season with a winning record or poor grades for the way they have been stumbling into the All-Star break:
Putting infielders in the outfield is not a recommended recipe for success. It's hard to imagine a team playing as many games with only one legitimate outfielder in the lineup as the Orioles have this year. They got away with it occasionally, but as anybody that has followed the game for any length of time can attest -- eventually the ball will find those least likely to catch it.
Going into the season, the master plan was for Mark Reynolds to play third, Chris Davis first and Wilson Betemit to serve as the primary designated hitter against right-handed pitching. I don't have the exact number, but I'm guessing you could count on two hands the number of games with that alignment. It would also take as many hands to count the number of players that have manned each of the corner outfield positions.
You suspect that manager Buck Showalter knew from the outset that defense would not be this team's strong suit, but not even he could have guessed how much he'd have to mix and match this lineup. Let's just say that the Orioles have regularly fielded a lineup that included more than one player ideally suited to be the designated hitter. Injuries, particularly the ones to left fielder Nolan Reimold and right fielder Nick Markakis, have been a major factor, but they aren't totally to blame for the recent meltdown.
The O's already led the American League in the category of first baseman- and designated hitter-type players before they acquired Jim Thome from the Philadelphia Phillies in an attempt to spruce up an offense that had lost power faster than the metro area did last weekend. Now, with one of the game's premier home-run hitters on board, some of the DH candidates are going to lose at bats.
If that's not enough, with Brian Roberts back on the disabled list, the defense suffers even more, and there are serious concerns about what the second baseman might be able to contribute the rest of the way. As much as he proved to be invaluable in a utility role, Robert Andino has struggled defensively at times, particularly turning the double-play at second base.
At the very least, the lineup figures to be a struggle for Showalter, who can only hope that Markakis' return solidifies one of the corner outfield spots -- as well as the No. 3 hole in the lineup. The mixing and matching will only get tougher during the second half of the season.
In the meantime, Showalter's starting rotation, which started the season as a strength, has become as disjointed as the lineup. Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have provided a sense of stability, but finding quality starters for the other three spots has proven to be even tougher than getting quality starts from those in contention. Eventually the bullpen, which has been the saving force to this point (and when was the last time you heard that?) will wear down. Needing 10-12 outs from relief pitchers every game is no more a recipe for success than infielders in the outfield.
With Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz apparently banished to Norfolk for at least the foreseeable future, the Orioles have to remain committed to Jake Arrieta, who was good enough to be their Opening Day pitcher and has too much natural ability to be shunted aside, while also making decisions about others within the organization.
Chris Tillman's recent efforts at Norfolk would seem to offer enough hope for the Orioles to take an extended look at him. As soon as his minor league numbers match his physical readiness, Zach Britton will be ushered into the mix. Some other clubs, most notably the Toronto Blue Jays, have expressed interest in Tillman, and now would appear to be the time for the O's to make a decision about the right-hander, who is now 24.
Steve Johnson has also quietly made his way into the picture as either a starter or long reliever. The Orioles brought him up from Triple-A Norfolk this week, but sent him back after two days without giving him a chance to make his major league debut. With all the emphasis the Orioles have put on building a young pitching staff, and with phenom-in-waiting Dylan Bundy in the wings, now is the time to make some decisions -- while hoping a patchwork lineup can somehow be held together.
Most interesting statistic of the first half -- the Orioles had actually scored more unearned runs (38) during their first 80 games than they'd given up (36). Try to sell that one to Ripley.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Posted July 4, 2012