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Springtime Storylines: How soon can Buck Showalter turn the Orioles into AL East contenders?

Mar 17, 2011, 12:32 PM EDT

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Buck Showalter and the optimistic Orioles.

The Big Question: How soon can Buck Showalter turn the Orioles into AL East contenders?

I tend to think the Orioles’ shockingly excellent 34-23 record after Showalter took over as manager on July 29 isn’t representative of the team we’re going to see in 2011. Don’t get me wrong, Showalter is good, but the best manager in the world can’t turn a .300 winning percentage team into a true .600 winning percentage team in his first two months on the job. Those first two months were incredibly impressive, but not necessarily a sign of things to come. At least not immediately.

On the other hand, I really like what Andy MacPhail and the front office did this winter and it seems as though as many people are overlooking the team’s offseason improvements as are overrating their August/September run. Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds each come with big question marks, but there’s also the upside there for a deep, fairly potent lineup and for $26 million and a few relief prospects they represent sound investments for a team looking to bridge the gap between rebuilding and contending.

I’m not as high on the Kevin Gregg signing, but at worst he’s a setup-caliber reliever being paid closer money, and along with whomever of Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez, and Jim Johnson is healthy should give Showalter decent late-inning options. However, the Orioles will only go as far as the rotation will take them. They need Brian Matusz to build on a promising rookie season and they need the young trio of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton to live up to their prospect hype, because Jeremy Guthrie and Brad Bergesen simply aren’t the frontline starters on a team that’s going to contend for much of anything.

So what else is going on?

  • I hesitate to say any season can truly be make-or-break for a 25-year-old, but this is probably the year we find out whether the sky high expectations for Matt Wieters were totally off base. It’s pretty safe to say that Wieters isn’t going to live up to the ridiculous “Joe Mauer with power” billing, but after hitting just .266 with a .721 OPS through two seasons the real question is whether he’ll develop into an All-Star. He hasn’t shown much power, displayed much plate discipline, or controlled the strike zone especially well, but I’m still holding out some hope.
  • This may also be the year we find out whether Adam Jones is capable of taking the next step from solid regular to top-notch center fielder. He failed to show any real improvement from 2009 to 2010, and last year’s ugly 119/23 K/BB ratio could be enough to keep him from developing into a star despite an abundance of tools and some pretty nice production through age 24.
  • I sort of touched on this already in talking about the offeason moves, but health is going to be a huge key for the Orioles. Guerrero, Lee, and Hardy are all brittle veterans and Brian Roberts can’t seem to shake the back problems that plagued him for much of last year. Toss in a bullpen full of guys with past arm problems and injuries could really wreck things for a team whose depth isn’t particularly strong.
  • What happened to Nick Markakis‘ power? His homer total has dropped from 23 to 20 to 18 to 12 and his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) has fallen from .185 to .160 to .138, which is much less pop than he showed as a still-developing rookie. Markakis’ all-around game is good enough that he has significant value even while hitting fewer than 20 homers, but that’s not the guy the Orioles signed to a six-year, $66 million extension.
  • Worth noting with Showalter is that he’s failed to last more than four seasons at any of his previous three jobs despite a .517 career winning percentage and two Manager of the Year awards. It’ll be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts in Baltimore.

So how are they gonna do?

If the veterans stay mostly healthy and two of Tillman, Arrieta, or Britton join Matusz as impact starters the Orioles can hang around the margins of contention all season, but more likely they’ll be headed toward a fourth straight last-place finish in baseball’s toughest division and looking ahead to 2012 by the time this July 29 rolls around.

  1. uyf1950 - Mar 17, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    I don’t know about contenders but they can certainly be respectable and even more in the next year or 2. That’s not bad considering there “recent” history.

  2. trevorb06 - Mar 17, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    That pic looks like it came straight from a kung-fu movie where Buck dropped them all to the ground with a bat and is walking off the battlefield.

    • WhenMattStairsIsKing - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:46 PM

      “I SAID HIT OR BE HIT!!!”

  3. apbaguy - Mar 17, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    I like Trevor’s comment.

    I also like Buck, but what I think we saw during his brief tenure last year was the flip side of the “bad” Orioles coin. Average the two parts of last season and improve it 10% and I think you get your 2011 O’s. That is, .500 is probably the ceiling for this year’s team. Look, Brian Roberts is already a question mark, as is Derek Lee. The pitching is all youngsters, so there is unpredictability there. And it’s a weird little park (but still beautiful), in that the fences are close, so more homeruns, but fewer doubles and triples and more fly ball outs. Also we have the owner’s track record to consider.

    Buck is certainly a terrific manager, but so was Davey Johnson. Terrific managers tend to have their own ideas about things, and I’m not convinced that anyone is allowed to have an idea in that organization other than the owner.

    I was an Orioles fan for a long time when I lived back East. I have hopes for an improved team, but until I actually see it, I have to remain skeptical. How many years in a row is the losing streak now?

    • yankeesfanlen - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:15 PM

      I think it’s just shy of the Pirates right now, apba. It’s always fun to go to Myrtle Beach during the summer and catch WBAL on the way down scenic I-95. The O’s are right in there, and then the deflation on the way back when they’ve dropped about 12 in a row.
      BTW, Camden Yards is still Yankee Stadium South. A friend’s son is getting married and has to maneuver the date around the August date because of hotel scarcity.

      • apbaguy - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:57 PM

        I remember. I went to a Yankees game there. Fun atmosphere, but I had to get lousy seats because the Yankees fans were quicker. A couple of them told me it was cheaper to drive down and back and get good tickets than the tickets alone would cost at old Yankee Stadium, so they were in a pretty good mood, despite looking at 3 hours on 95 north at 11:00 pm. Besides, they were assured of a win, playing the O’s.

  4. cur68 - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    As a Jays fan its in my teams best interests if the Orioles continue to own the basement BUT as a committed realist and person who through bitter experience learned to not just treat the numbers but to look hard at the patient, too, I’m saying something I really don’t want to say; the Orioles are going to be better. By a lot. Showalter is just what that team needs and after years of sucking they’ve accrued just enough talent to give him something to work with. Evidenced by the dramatic results when he took over. IMO that will not disappear so much as become the norm. This is not some new phenomena. The Rays did it, the Giants, Rangers and Sox all did it. The right manager, the right talent, the right strategy, the right time. Each thing adds a few portions of a percent difference and that’s all it takes to be a winner. I can’t wait for March 31.

    • bigharold - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:25 PM

      I think you are on to something. I think they have the wright GM and manager the question will be the talent.

      The O’s are going to hand the all AL East teams losses that they didn’t see coming. The O’s won’t be contenders but they will likely be right around .500. They could well make it out of the AL East because I don’t see this team as the AL East door mat they’ve been for do long. In the end the O’s will go as far as the talent takes them but I do see Showalter getting the most out of that talent.

      • cur68 - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:35 PM

        I agree, its going to be just a dog fight in the AL East this season. The Yankees & BoSox better not count their chickens when it comes to the Orioles & Blue Jays.

  5. atribecalledtwolves - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    I love this O’s team and as a Twins fan, hope they can cause some havoc in the AL East. The safe bet it for them to be around .500, but if a few things fall into place (young pitching pans out, Wietters, Markakis, Jones each take another step forward) they can contend.

    Also, Adam Jones is very tall in person!

  6. spudchukar - Mar 17, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    We should know in a hurry if the O’s can compete. Their April schedule is brutal. The only bright spot is a weekend in Cleveland. Outside of that they will be underdogs in ALL of their other games. Hardly seems fair for a team that was buried so early last year.

  7. pisano - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    Showalter is a proven winner, but without a good pitching staff the O’s will go nowhere. I know it’s spring training, but last night the Yankees pounded the pitching the O’s put out there. They should have enough offense to compete, but they don’t have enough pitching and pitching is the name of the game.

    • WhenMattStairsIsKing - Mar 17, 2011 at 2:51 PM

      Agreed.

      Current Orioles lineup + 2 additional bona fide starters = a team tough to beat.

    • randomdigits - Mar 17, 2011 at 3:50 PM

      You mean the game where the O’s didn’t start, you know, a starting pitcher? JJ started the game last night and after him it was more pen guys. Not saying the O’s have a bunch of 20 game winners on the staff but going by last night’s results is beyond SSS.

  8. bobwsc - Mar 17, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    is Buck pulling for all-cotton uniforms like he agreed to as Yanks skipper on Seinfeld? Camden Yards in summer is brutally hot.

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