The Situation: Brian Roberts(notes), the Baltimore Orioles' table setter, highest-paid position player, and arguably the face of the franchise the past few years, has been in so much back pain this spring that he had to travel to Johns Hopkins Hospital for an epidural injection. The Orioles, who edged out the Indians and Royals for the worst record in the American League last year, can ill afford an injury to their most popular veteran.
Then again, they do have Matt Wieters(notes), who sometimes impatiently homers from the on-deck circle, according to MattWietersFacts.com. And according to a few projection systems (Pecota and CHONE), the Orioles are likely to win somewhere between 10-16 more games in 2010 than they did in 2009, and finish ahead of the Roy Halladay(notes)-less Blue Jays. With Wieters, Adam Jones(notes), Nick Markakis(notes) and Nolan Reimold(notes), the Orioles have a quartet of talented under-26 hitters who are all approaching their prime.
Reimold isn't assured 162 games in left field — the O's also have Luke Scott(notes) and Felix Pie(notes) on the roster — but Wieters, Jones and Markakis are guaranteed a starting role. Throw in the return of Miguel Tejada(notes) and the possibility for a very potent lineup in Charm City is there.
The Question: Who will be the offensive star of the 2010 Baltimore Orioles?
The Analysis: I think it comes down to three candidates. Markakis has the résumé, Jones has the tools and Wieters is already an Internet legend. All of them are good bets for an average between .275 and .300, a slugging percentage between .450 and .500, an OPS between .800 and .900, and between 10 and 25 homers. Then again, Wieters and Jones seem destined for great things, and prodigiously talented players sometimes put it all together and realize their potential before anyone realizes.
Let's take a look at Nick Markakis first. Though he's only 26, he's been an everyday player for the O's for four years, averaging 156 games and 19 homers a season, which tells you all you need to know about him. He's a durable corner outfielder who hits enough to be useful, but doesn't have enough power to be a superstar. Last year was a particular disappointment because it was such a step back from his successful 2008 — he went from an OPS of .897 to .801, and watched his walks fall almost by half, from 99 to 56. Jack Moore of FanGraphs argues that the biggest problem was that Markakis swung at a lot more pitches outside the strike zone last year and his BABIP concurrently declined. CHONE, ZiPS and Bill James project Markakis to hit somewhere in between his 2008 and 2009 seasons, perhaps a bit better than his career averages.
Adam Jones' 2009 was a tale of two seasons, as Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs writes in the G Second Opinion book. Through the first two months of the year, Jones had a 1.005 OPS on a .385 BABIP. But Lady Luck caught up with him after that, and he managed only a .658 OPS on a .262 BABIP for the rest of the season. He has power, speed and projectability, and while he isn't likely to repeat his performance in April and May 2009 over the course of a whole season, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility. But it's pretty far from likely. The three aforementioned projection systems see his bat producing an OPS between .800 and .850.
Matt Wieters (above) had the opposite experience, starting off listlessly (a .693 OPS through the end of August), but substantially heating up as he posted an .882 OPS in the season's final month. It was a slight disappointment to Orioles fans who had little else in 2009 to look forward to, but his final contributions for the year (nine homers and a .753 OPS) were still great for a rookie catcher who received a midseason call-up. He has nowhere to go but up. Wieters isn't quite Joe Mauer(notes) — at least not yet — but he's probably ready to challenge Mike Napoli(notes), Victor Martinez(notes) and Jorge Posada(notes) to be the second-best hitting catcher in the American League. He has the biggest spread in projected OPS, from ZiPS' .773 to Bill James's .865, which are respectively the lowest and highest projections for any of the three.
The Forecast for 2010: If he puts it all together this year, Wieters could explode. When he reaches his prime, he'll be their best hitter, but he's not there yet. Neither is Jones. For right now, the Orioles' most important bat is the man who's been in the middle of their lineup since 2006: Nick Markakis. He probably won't get much better than he already is, but for 2010, Markakis remains the O's biggest bat.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• What's next for Ryan Zimmerman?
• Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his impressive 2009?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
• Will Marco Scutaro solve Boston's shortstop problem?
• How many more wins will a healthy Beltran and Reyes bring the Mets?
- Nick Markakis
- The Orioles