The State of the Orioles With Spring Training Coming

Blogging’s been pretty light recently because, well, “pitchers and catchers soon to report” hasn’t brought with it the usual sense of excitement. The Orioles will obviously not be very good this year – not new – but things also seem relatively boring. Despite people sometimes saying to the contrary, I’ve tended to be an optimist about the O’s in recent years (“maybe they’ll get to .500!”, “maybe the pitching won’t be awful!”, etc.) – I don’t think it’s been really likely, like some, but I’ve at least held out hope that those were real possibilities. That just isn’t coming in 2012.

Another year of Nick Markakis not bouncing back in 2011 means that hope of it ever happening is pretty much gone. Matt Wieters and JJ Hardy had nice seasons in the power department, but expecting improvement from either seems somewhat doubtful* (and regression from the latter is fairly likely). Whereas last Spring there was some hope that Brian Matusz could turn into an above average starting pitcher, now I’m left hoping that he can just be a major leaguer again. It’ll be interesting to see how Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel do, I guess, and if Zach Britton can build on his rookie season – but the stakes for the former pair are relatively low, and it’s unfair to expect Britton to become the ace of this stuff already (though it may happen, perhaps more by default than anything else).

* Projections for 2012 coming soon – guess off the top of my head says 70 wins.

Beyond the issues at the major league level, the farm system seems pretty shallow after the first few names (looks like I underrated Machado at the time of his draft, and Bundy might be up quicker than I expected). I’m not as down on Dan Duquette as some, since the really important things he can be doing now involve rebuilding the organization as opposed to signing Prince Fielder to a stupid contract to make them a slightly better 5th place team in 2012. Things still don’t look too promising in the short term though – something ESPN’s power rankings of teams’ prospects over the next five years indicated (note; Insider required).

Jim Bowden, Keith Law and Buster Olney got together to rank all 30 teams based on five categories; major league talent, minor league talent, finances, management, and mobility (sort of the liquidity of their player assets, I guess). The Orioles, not terribly surprisingly, came in 30th (just behind the Astros, who I certainly would have said are in worse shape before their recent front-office turnover – now it’s a toss-up).

The main culprit, also not terribly surprisingly, is management. I’ve defended Peter Angelos against people criticizing him for not wanting to “open up the purse strings”, since adding a huge contract or two to a last place team isn’t going to do a lot in the AL East, but his impact on baseball operations seems to have been bad enough that the Orioles had trouble even finding someone who wanted to be the GM. The unfortunate part is that even if you give the O’s a competent management score (say, 15), that still only launches them up just passed the Brewers into 21st place. The team is behind the eight-ball in too many places to be competitive in the near term without huge amounts of luck.

Here’s how they’d rank in the five categories, just in the AL East in my opinion – the ranking for 1-20 aren’t out yet):

Major League Talent: 5th. Probably not too too close to the Jays.

Minor League Talent: 5th. Maybe within striking distance of 4th (or even 3rd!) but the O’s need Machado and Bundy to hit (and their history of developing prospects in general isn’t exactly encouraging).

Finances: 4th, ahead of the Rays. Depending on how Toronto would support a contending Jays team, maybe the O’s get up there with them. Clearly behind Evil Empires I & II though.

Management: 5th. I’d go 6th or 7th if I could think of some snarky stuff to put in front of them. The gulf between 5th and 4th (Yankees maybe?), seems pretty massive.

Mobility: 4th, ahead of the Yankees. Could argue maybe ahead of the Red Sox.

That is not a particularly cheerful next five years. But! These things can change. If Dan Duquette gets free(ish) range, and turns out to be a more forward-thinking GM than his long time spent away from the game would indicate, then it’s not unreasonable to think a true-talent (ie, not fluky) winning Orioles team could be coming down the bend. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but perhaps some time before Matt Wieters Jr. is the team’s starting catcher. For now we more or less have to be content with whatever little victories we can find (maybe Matt Antonelli will post a .330 OBP!).