Originally posted on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 1/8/12

 

The Baltimore Orioles are viewed as one of the worst organizations in baseball. They play in the toughest division in baseball, have a weak farm system and lack the necessary talent at the big league level to be competitive. Peter Angelos, one of the most unpopular owners in baseball, seemingly has been hesitant to adjust to the baseball industry of the 21st century. Angelos has alienated Orioles fans by refusing to spend money on his team and making questionable personnel decisions. He refused to allow Tony LaCava, viewed as a great GM candidate, to hire his own baseball operations staff. Instead, Dan Duquette was hired and promptly dissolved the pro scouting department. The Orioles finished in last place in the American League East last season, with a 69-93 record. Barring an unforeseen miracle, they will hold up the rear once again next season.

So why is 2012 important for the Orioles, especially since it is pretty obvious that they will finish in last place? Baltimore has a bunch of players who are at somewhat of a crossroads in their career. It seems that if some of these players continue to underperform in 2012, they will fade away into the AAA abyss or be relegated to a permanent bench role. Baltimore has a barren farm system. Aside from Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado, who are a few years away from contributing at the big league level, the Orioles do not have any prospects to get truly excited about. Therefore, if these players continue to struggle in 2012 things could get ugly in Baltimore this summer.

Nolan Reimold burst onto the big league scene in 2009, when he hit .279/.365./.466 with 15 home runs in 411 plate appearances. Amongst rookies with a minimum of 350 plate appearances, Reimold’s .187 ISO and .461 SLG% each ranked 5th. Although at 25 he wasn’t exactly young for a rookie, it seemed that Reimold would entrench himself as the Orioles’ everyday leftfielder and if nothing else, contribute a solid amount of power. Reimold struggled out of the gate in 2010 and after hitting .205/.302/.337 through 96 plate appearances, was shipped off to AAA Norfolk in mid-May. He was called back up in September, but the results were uninspiring. Since the additions of Derek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero pushed Luke Scott back into left field to start 2011, Reimold started off the year at AAA. Lee was placed on the disabled list on May 19th and Reimold made his season debut for the Orioles on the next day. 2011 was somewhat of a bounce back year for Reimold, as he finished off the year with a .247/.328/.453 line with 13 home runs in 305 plate appearances. Reimold will enter 2012 once again penciled as the everyday leftfielder for Baltimore.

While Reimold doesn’t have much competition for playing time going into Spring Training, he will need to continue to hit for power in order to stay in the Orioles everyday lineup. Since Reimold has virtually no platoon splits throughout his career, if he struggles he would probably be sent to AAA rather than being kept around as Baltimore’s designated lefty masher. At 28 years old, Reimold doesn’t offer much projectability so if he starts off this season like 2010 we will probably see the Matt Angles and Kyle Hudsons of the world patrolling left field for the Orioles for the majority of the summer.

Acquired from the Dodgers for George Sherrill at the 2009 trade deadline, Josh Bell was ranked as the Orioles’ #2 prospect and the #37prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America going into the 2010 season. Bell was immediately dubbed as Baltimore’s third baseman of the future after posting an OPS of .892 in AA for both the Dodgers and Orioles in 2009. With only Ty Wigginton and an aging Miguel Tejada standing ahead of him, it seemed that the switch-hitting Bell was poised to make a big impact in 2010. Bell made his major league debut on July 1, 2010 and was sent down twice before being recalled on July 30th, at which point he became the Orioles starting third baseman. He did not live up to the hype however, hitting .214 and striking out 53 times in 161 plate appearances for a K% of 32.9. Bell did post solid numbers in 344 plate appearances at AAA though, with an ISO of .203 and a .341 wOBA. Coming into 2011, the acquisitions of Lee and Mark Reynolds left Bell with nowhere to play. As a result, Bell only accrued 65 plate appearances this past season. The results were poor once again, as Bell struck out 25 times in 65 plate appearances none of his 10 hits went for extra bases.

Unlike Reimold, Bell has the pedigree of top prospect attached to his name. Bell also has age on his side, as he doesn’t turn 26 until the middle of November. However, Bell enters Spring Training with nowhere to play. Mark Reynolds will be the Orioles third baseman once again in 2012. While the Orioles tried Bell out in the outfield last year, it would be safe to assume he will not start the season as one of the Orioles’ starting outfielders. If Bell has a hot spring training though, he will force Baltimore’s hand and could potentially be the team’s DH. Another scenario would be to push Reynolds to DH, with Bell manning the hot corner. The amount of playing time Bell gets will also be connected with the success of Chris Davis, who is in need of a breakout season of his own.

Ranked by Baseball America as the Rangers’ #2 prospect and #65 in baseball in 2008, Chris Davis burst onto the big league scene with Texas in late June, hitting 17 home runs and slugging .549 in 317 plate appearances, while splitting time between first and third base. Davis became everyone’s favorite fantasy sleeper going into 2009, but was unable to perform up to the lofty standards everyone set for him. Davis was sent down in early July to make room on the roster for Josh Hamilton after hitting .202/.256/.415 in 277 plate appearances. While he did hit 15 home runs, Davis also struck out at an absurd rate (41.2 K%). After mashing in AAA being recalled in late August, Davis hit .308 and struck out far less frequently, ending the season with a .238/.284/.442 line. While Davis certainly didn’t live up to expectations, his 21 home runs and .205 ISO certainly were not bad for a 23-year-old over 419 plate appearances in the big leagues.

Davis started 2010 as the Rangers’ first baseman, but struggled and did not last through April. After being recalled at the beginning of July, Davis struggled again and was sent down at the end of the month. That was significant because Mitch Moreland was called up at that point, effectively ending Davis’ chances of being the Rangers’ first baseman of the future. After the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre last offseason, Davis went into Spring Training without anywhere to play. He even made some noise about wanting to be traded. During the season’s first few months, Davis was up and down from AAA and while he continued to struggle at the big league level, he absolutely raked at Tulsa. He posted a ridiculous .368/.405/.824 line with 24 home runs and an ISO of .456 in just 210 plate appearances, essentially forcing the Rangers’ hand to either promote him for good or send him away in a trade. The latter occurred and Davis was sent to the Orioles as part of the deal for Koji Uehara at the trade deadline. Davis hit .276/.310/.398 in 123 plate appearances for the Orioles down the stretch.

Davis will enter 2012 as the Orioles’ starting first baseman. Turning 26 in March, he will need to do a couple things in order to ensure that he remains an everyday player in Baltimore. The first is cutting back on his strikeouts. Davis has struck out in 31.5% of his plate appearances in the big leagues. It’s probably not a coincidence that Davis’ most successful season was the one in which he had the lowest K% of his career. Next, Davis needs to rediscover his ability to hit for power in the big leagues. We know that he hit for power at AAA last year, but he managed only 5 home runs in the show. Maybe the drop off can be partially attributed to the shoulder injury Davis had in August. Whatever the case, if Davis doesn’t hit for power in 2012 he won’t be long for the starting first base job.

I would be remiss to not mention a couple of veteran Orioles players who have dealt with various injury problems throughout their careers. The first is J.J. Hardy. Hardy was arguably Baltimore’s best player last season, as he slugged 30 home runs and was worth nearly 5 wins (4.8 WAR). The question for Hardy has never been about whether he can be a productive player. For him it has simply been about staying on the field – he has missed significant time to injury in three of his seven seasons in the big leagues, not including a month spent on the disabled list last year due to a strained oblique. In July, the Orioles handed Hardy a 3 year $22.25 million extension, which would keep him in Baltimore through the 2014 season. In order for the Orioles to have a prayer of being competitive this season, Hardy needs to stay on the field and contribute like he did last season.

The last player to mention is Brian Roberts, the longest tenured active Oriole. Brian Roberts is a great player and one of the best second baseman of the 2000s. However, he has played in just 98 games over the past two seasons due to injury. He missed the majority of the first half in 2010 due to a herniated disc, but after returning to the lineup in late July he was his productive self, hitting .278/.354/.391 with 12 stolen bases over 261 plate appearances. Last season, Roberts did not play after May 16th due to a concussion and recurring symptoms that set back his rehab process. He enters this season as a huge question mark because neither he nor the Orioles really knows how he will respond to working out in Spring Training. If Roberts is healthy, he will leadoff for Baltimore and be a force at the top of the lineup as usual. However, if his concussion symptoms linger the Orioles will have to turn to a utility type player to fill the void. Robert Andino, who filled in for Roberts for the majority of last season, is the leading candidate. Ryan Flaherty, who was acquired from the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft, who posted a .280/.347/.478 line with 19 home runs between AA and AAA is also an option.

The most intriguing replacement candidate for Roberts is Matt Antonelli, a former top prospect from the Padres. After being ranked the #50 prospect in baseball by Baseball America in 2008, Antonelli’s career has gone by the wayside. He hit .215/.335/.332 at AAA Tucson in 2008 and didn’t fare any better during a cup of coffee with the Padres later that summer. Antonelli struggled to stay on the field in 2009 and 2010 due to a hand injury, but when he played his stats were not pretty. He somewhat revived himself last season with the AAA Syracuse Chiefs (Nationals), hitting .297/.393/.460 in 359 plate appearances. The Orioles decided to take a flyer on him this offseason and gave him a major league contract. He could prove to be a nice steal if he can somewhat live up to his prospect hype.

The reason it is important for some, if not all of these players to succeed in 2012 is because the Orioles have no quality minor league reinforcements at the ready. While everybody loves Endy Chavez (how can you not?), I doubt that Orioles fans will be thrilled to watch him everyday if Nolan Reimold struggles. While the Astros are widely viewed as the worst team in baseball coming into 2012, the Orioles will not be far behind them if a lot of things go wrong. Personally, I’m most intrigued by what Chris Davis can do, now that is playing in a relatively pressure free environment, with no immediate replacement breathing down his neck. Antonelli is also an interesting player to monitor, although I’m a big Brian Roberts fan and am hoping he makes a full recovery. If all of these players can have a successful year, Matt Wieters can continue to build on his All Star season and their young pitching staff (which I’ll talk about in part two) can continue to grow than the Orioles can be a fun team to watch this summer. The odds are against them though and it will probably be another long summer in Baltimore.

-Cohen

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