Hot Stove Daily: Baltimore Orioles
Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Baltimore Orioles.
2008 record: 68-93
Finish: Fifth place in the American League East, 28½ behind the Tampa Bay Rays
2008 opening-day payroll: $67.1 million
2009 estimated opening-day payroll: Between $72 million and $75 million
The Orioles raised expectations by taking a run at native son Mark Teixeira, only to see him sign with the despised New York Yankees, which merely served to remind Orioles fans of star Mike Mussina’s defection to the Yankees eight years earlier. Negotiations with Teixeira never progressed beyond the team’s initial seven-year, $140 million offer, as the Orioles never got the impression the switch-hitting first baseman was interested in returning home to play a Ripkenesque role for a franchise in desperate need of another icon.
Orioles president Andy MacPhail was active on a number of other fronts, however, making the team’s first foray into Asian markets when he signed Japanese right-hander Koji Uehara to a two-year, $10 million deal. The Orioles also signed a shortstop, Cesar Izturis, after rotating four different players at the position last season, traded catcher Ramon Hernandez to Cincinnati for utility player Ryan Freel, acquired failed Cubs outfield prospect Felix Pie for left-handed pitcher Garrett Olson and signed veteran catcher Gregg Zaun to mentor top prospect Matt Wieters.
They also cut ties with 6-foot-7 right-hander Daniel Cabrera, long considered one of the team’s prime pitching prospects, by nontendering him. Cabrera, who was snapped up by the neighboring Washington Nationals, had the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the big leagues (95 whiffs, 90 walks in 180 innings) and also hit 18 batters, most in the majors. The Orioles signed free-agent left-hander Mark Hendrickson, who made 19 starts for the Florida Marlins last season.
The Orioles also made a major commitment to their future by signing third-year outfielder Nick Markakis to a six-year extension worth $66 million. The contract will buy Markakis out of three years of arbitration, as well as his first three years of free agency. The club also talked with fan favorite Brian Roberts about an extension, but those talks stalled, and Roberts remains a prime trading chip.
By trading Hernandez, the Orioles are ushering in the era of Wieters, who was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year after he went .355/.454/.600 in a season split between high Class-A and Double-A. Wieters is a 6-5, 230-pound switch-hitter out of Georgia Tech, which also produced another switch-hitting catcher of note, Jason Varitek. The plan is for Zaun to start the season behind the plate, but Wieters comes into camp with a chance to blow up that idea with a strong showing.
MacPhail said he is trying to make the Orioles younger and more athletic, and the additions of Freel, Pie and Izturis should help do so. Freel and Pie are expected to platoon in left field, though Pie, 24, could also find some time in center field behind Adam Jones, who is 23 and entering his second full season. Freel can also play the infield.
The middle of the diamond should become a defensive strong point, with Wieters behind the plate, Izturis and Roberts around the bag and Jones in center field. Luke Scott, who made 100 starts in left field, projects as the regular DH after hitting 23 home runs in 2008, while former DH Aubrey Huff, the team’s best hitter last season (.304, 32 HRs, 108 RBIs), replaces Kevin Millar as the first baseman. Huff’s defense will be a concern.
But manager Dave Trembley’s biggest worry will be stitching together a starting rotation. Trembley used his bullpen 492 times last season, most in the American League, and that phone promises to be just as busy this season, as right-hander Jeremy Guthrie is the only returnee certain of a spot in the rotation.
Uehara, 33, was twice named Japan’s best pitcher and was an eight-time all-star pitching for the Yomiuri Giants, but while former big-league manager Bobby Valentine, now in Japan, predicts success for the control artist, he said Uehara has slipped in recent years.
The possibility remains that the Orioles will sign another free-agent starter. In the meantime, they must choose among Radhames Liz, who posted a 6.84 ERA as a rookie last season; Hayden Penn, a one-time top prospect out of options after a series of physical setbacks; Danys Baez, who didn’t pitch at all last season because of elbow surgery and now wants a shot at starting for the first time since 2002; Matt Albers, who missed last season with a torn labrum; and Brian Burres and Brad Hennessey.
The Orioles have had 11 consecutive losing seasons; even with an improved lineup, a 12th appears unavoidable.
NEXT: Chicago Cubs