What do the Orioles need more, pitching or power? Obviously, they could use a healthy dose of both.
Early this offseason, the O's front office has indicated that the priority is to improve the pitching, focusing on the bullpen. To date, the team has zeroed in on six major targets: Jaret Wright, Jamie Walker, Justin Speier, Carlos Lee, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson. So far the O's are batting .500.
With a limited amount of talent on the market, there may be little the Orioles can do.
If they have to choose between offense and pitching, which should they pursue?
When the Orioles signed Rick Sutcliffe to be the No. 1 starter in 1992, it was not because they believed him to be the Cy Young Award-winning pitcher that he once was. In fact, he was far from it. Sutcliffe was brought in to be a veteran presence on a staff of young pitchers. His task was to eat innings. He met and surpassed those expectations.
Sutcliffe pitched 237.3 innings, won 16 games and helped tutor the promising Mike Mussina and young phenom Ben McDonald. Every night Sutcliffe went out to pitch, he was giving the youngsters a lesson in tenacity. Even if it meant recording a walk, Sutcliffe would make his pitch and not give in to hitters. The difference in his walks compared to those of the current Oriole pitchers is that Sutcliffe could throw it over the plate whenever he wanted.
Given that he no longer had the stuff to get guys out on talent alone, guile was Sutcliffe's best friend. That meant painting the corners and sometimes nibbling. That year he taught the young pitchers to trust their stuff, to trust their heads and to take advantage of the fact that baseball is the only game in which the defense has the ball.
Pitching coach Leo Mazzone's philosophy has traces of Sutcliffe's values. Always down and away. No matter what, never give in to the hitter. But that philosophy requires command and control. As is the case with most young pitchers, command is one of the main things that the present talent lacks. Of the Orioles' four potential homegrown 2007 starters -- Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn -- only Bedard seems close to figuring it out.
No matter how good a pitching coach is, nothing beats watching the techniques shared among teammates. In the early-'90s it was Sutcliffe, playing the role of poor man's ace. Now the Orioles again need to find a true ace in order to find a solution to their pitching woes.
Back in the day, the saying was that singles hitters drove Chevys and home run hitters drove Cadillacs. If someone said that to former Oriole Gary Matthews Jr. or Juan Pierre, they would laugh. Both players have signed lucrative long-term contracts with the Angels and Dodgers, respectively.
The distance between slap hitters and long ball hitters has been bridged a bit. While Matthews has some power, he is far from the middle of the order and Pierre is a singles hitter. These two contracts alone will make the Orioles' pursuit of offensive talent considerably more difficult.
With the trend in free agency cycling back toward outrage, more pressure is on the team to step out in front of everyone. Having lost Lee to the Houston Astros, the Orioles have to be asking themselves if this was another situation in which the organization was used only to drive up the price for the player. In Lee's case, six years and $100 million dollars was the number the front office could not match.
The Orioles watched several of their players play through mediocre years in 2006. In many cases, power numbers dropped. If the Orioles strike out in the free agent market on the offensive side of the ball, the team's best hope may be the continued development of Nick Markakis. If he avoids a sophomore slump, the Orioles may have a nice No. 3-4 combination in Markakis and Miguel Tejada.
If it comes down to a choice, the choice is simple. The 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 2006 Detroit Tigers have shown that pitching wins. The Orioles are on the right track with their young, developing talent.
The Orioles are right to focus on the bullpen. Starters, young ones in particular, always seem to relax and find their talent when they can trust the guys behind them. With the two major impact free agents gone from the market, the team may have no choice but to continue on this path.
Defense is the one remaining factor that this team can look to improve. High quality defense would make the entire pitching staff better. Of all of the positions on the field, first base should be the focus. A good defensive first baseman is the most under-appreciated defensive player on the field. A top-notch first baseman can make an average infielder look like a Gold Glover and turn pitching mistakes into outs.
The Orioles might do well to treat their bench as a National League team might, and fill it with sure-handed players who can move in at shortstop or first in late innings. Egos aside, it might be best for the team.
As always, pitching and defense is the right combination to build around. This free agent market is moving quickly and for the Orioles, time may be short.
Allen V. McCallum Jr. is a baseball analyst for AM 1570, WNST.
Issue 1.33: December 7, 2006