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Looking Long-term: 5 Keys for the Baltimore Orioles

Matusz Buck Showalter has made a great early impression on the Baltimore Orioles during his first weeks on the job already guiding the O’s to more wins in August than they have registered in any previous month this season. As we look toward the long-term future for the Orioles, there are five keys that Showalter will have a chance to evaluate over the final 40 games.

1.Starting pitching – The biggest reason for the turnaround during the month of August has been the performance of the starting pitchers. After barely averaging five innings per outing and posting an ERA above 5 for the first 100 games of the season, the starting pitcher has pitched at least six innings in 15 of the first 18 games for Showalter with an ERA under 3. 

The question moving forward is whether Showalter and crew have found the key to pitching success or if at some point the starters will return to their old ways. With three of the five starters in just their first or second season in the majors, the hope is that they are building for long-term success.

Though veteran Kevin Millwood has pitched better in August, if the Orioles hope to make significant improvement in 2011 they will need to add at least one additional proven winning pitcher to the starting rotation.

2.Corner Infield – When the Orioles were the best team in baseball in the early 1970s they had superstars at both third base in Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson and at first base in 1970 league MVP Boog Powell.

In 2010, those two positions are significant weaknesses for the Birds. Showalter will have the next six weeks to see if rookie third baseman Josh Bell can be the long-term answer for the Orioles. So far, Bell has definitely not earned the spot for next season as he is hitting just .216 with no home runs and 4 RBI in 23 games. With the Orioles out of contention it doesn’t hurt to give him a long look. However, if he doesn’t turn things around soon the Orioles will definitely need to address the position in the off season.

At first base, Ty Wiggington has been seeing most of the action lately. Though he earned an All-Star trip, Wiggington has been inconsistent over the last couple months. He has a .252 average with 18 home runs and 61 RBI, but since the All-Star game he has only four home runs and 16 RBI. While Wiggington is a good utility player to have on the squad, if he is the regular first baseman for the Orioles in 2011 they will not be a contender in the American League East.

3.Closer – You get the sense that of all the Orioles auditioning for a spot on the team in 2011, reliever Alfredo Simon is getting a very hard look from Showalter. He has pitched in nine of Showalter’s first 18 games and registered two saves and one blown save. However, since blowing a save against the White Sox on August 9th, all four of his appearances have been in non-save situations and as early in the game as the seventh inning.

The hard-throwing right-hander has a 3-2 record with 17 saves and 32 strikeouts and a 4.50 ERA in 40 appearances since joining the Birds in late April. Though he is 29-years old and has been in professional ball since 1999, Simon has little more than a year of major league experience, is earning $450,000 this season and is not arbitration eligible in 2011. So, I think Showalter is trying to assess if Simon can be a quality set-up man or closer for the O’s in 2011.

4.Leftfield – The Orioles have players in center and rightfield that should be anchors of the team for years to come. However, they have not been able to find the same consistency in leftfield. Entering the season many thought that Nolan Reimold would build on his solid rookie season and join Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in forming one of the best young outfields in the game.

Unfortunately, Reimold struggled from the beginning and was demoted after hitting only .205 with two home runs in 29 games. If he does return to the Orioles it could possibly be at first base instead of in the outfield.

Corey Patterson has had a solid season seeing significant action at the position, but at 30-years-old Patterson makes the team stronger if he is the fourth outfielder and not an everyday player.

The 25-year-old Felix Pie could still become that third regular starter, but injuries have hampered his season. He is hitting .284 with four home runs, 15 RBI and 21 runs scored in 46 games, but will have to put up greater production if he wants to play every day. If he can remain healthy over the final 40 games he should get plenty of chances to prove to Showalter that he deserves a spot in 2011.

5.Designated Hitter – One player who is definitely making the most of his audition for Showalter is Luke Scott. Seeing action primarily as the designated hitter, Scott is hitting .353 with five home runs in the month of August. He has seen some action at both first base and leftfield this season, but has primarily been used as the designated hitter.

Scott is earning $4.05 million in 2010 and is eligible for arbitration in 2011, but is not eligible for free agency until 2013. A good sign of whether the Orioles think they can contend in 2011 could be what they do with Scott. He will likely get another raise, so if they are willing to pay him and not deal him in the off-season it would be an indication that they are looking to make significant improvement in 2011.

The final six weeks should be interesting for the Orioles as they prepare for 2011. Showalter has certainly resuscitated a floundering franchise, but the question remains whether he can keep that momentum over the long term.

Baltimore seems to have components in place to start making major strides, but they will still have to make some big decisions regarding payroll and free agency before they are ready to compete in baseball’s toughest division.


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