By Louis Berney
The Orioles completed the first half the of their season seven games under .500, lodged in their sadly familiar home, fourth place in the American League East. At the mid-point, the Birds rank closer to the last-place Devil Rays than to the third-place Blue Jays. A finish in the cellar at the season's end is a distinct possibility. Finishing higher than fourth would be a surprise.
Considering the players that manager Sam Perlozzo puts on the field every day, the Orioles are where they should be. As a sub-par team competing in a tough division, they regularly get creamed by winning teams and struggle to hold their own against poor teams. At the end of the first half, the O's are 15-30 against winning clubs and 22-14 against losing clubs.
That said, here are my mid-term report cards.
Starting pitching: C -
Starting pitching was expected to be one of the team's strengths this season. It has instead been the opposite. Bruce Chen struggled so much he was bumped from the rotation, and the man who replaced him, Adam Loewen, proved just as ineffective, getting sent back to the minors. Opening Day starter Rodrigo Lopez, despite showing some improvement in June, has had a horrible season, leading the league in runs allowed and posting an embarrassing 6.32 ERA. Kris Benson has been the most consistent Baltimore starter with a 9-6 record. He has generally been good, with 11 quality starts in 17 outings. But he is far from dominating, and it is a sign of the rotation's overall weakness that he is probably its most reliable pitcher. Lefty Erik Bedard pitched very well at the end of the first half and could easily become the ace if he exhibits some consistency in the second half. At the mid-point, he was 8-6 with a 4.72 ERA and didn't allow a run in his last two starts. Consistency is a word never to be associated with Daniel Cabrera, the Orioles' talented right-hander who is plagued by a lack of control. Cabrera is one of the most difficult pitchers to hit. Among AL pitchers, Cabrera held opponents to the seventh lowest batting average. But he also leads the league in walks and wild pitches. If he can't get the ball over the plate more dependably, he won't see any further progress.
Like their pitching counterparts, Oriole hitters have been unreliable. They hit one day, and their bats go cold the next. The team batting average (.274) ranks ninth in the league. The 2005 All-Star contingent of infielders Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora, batting at the top of the order, has been strong offensively. Tejada and Roberts have hit over .300 all year and Mora has been a steady .280s hitter. The big boost to the O's offense has come from catcher Ramon Hernandez, who has been carrying the team when he's hot and battling Tejada for the team lead in RBIs. Center fielder Corey Patterson has also provided punch and speed, leading the league in stolen bases and regularly bunting successfully for base hits. Designated hitter Javy Lopez also has been stable, although he has missed time due to injury. The big offensive disappointments are Kevin Millar, Jeff Conine and Luis Matos. Rookie Nick Markakis ended the first half as the team's best hitter, raising his average to .270 after slumping in April and May. The Orioles' extreme patience in sticking with Markakis will be rewarded if he continues to hit this way in the second half.
Relief pitching: C -
The bullpen got off to a rocky start. Changes were made, and the relief corps has settled down for the most part, although, like the rest of the team, unpredictability has been its hallmark. Closer Chris Ray has been exceptional, blowing only one save opportunity in the first half. And rookies Kurt Birkins and Chris Britton have added surprising stability. Veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Williams have been satisfactory at best, but both have cost the team games.
Although the team ranks eighth in the league with a .285 fielding average, that statistic doesn't tell the real story. This a sloppy and flawed team on defense. Mental mistakes abound and too often fielders don't even get to the balls that should be caught. The Orioles simply lose too many games due to poor defense.
It's still too early to give Perlozzo a grade. To his credit, he has given his young players a chance to play. He sometimes sticks with his pitchers a little too long, but he often has little choice with his faltering middle-relief staff. Perhaps he should be tougher with his apparently complacent team. The Orioles' biggest need is a winning culture in the clubhouse and the path back to that begins with the manager.
Issue 1.11: July 6, 2006