The day is nearing when Wieters and a host of young batterymates will make the Orioles a force again.
Having lost 92, 93 and 93 games the past three years to stretch its streak of losing seasons to 11, Baltimore prefers to measure improvement in ways not easily quantified. Start, for instance, with a clubhouse of players who actually want to be there and honestly believe that the Orioles, given a year or two, can be the next version of the Rays. "Changing the culture" is the mantra of president Andy MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley.
"It's definitely gotten better," says rightfielder Nick Markakis, who provided his own endorsement of the team's direction in February, when he signed a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension. "A month into the season we used to have guys already talking about the end of the season. It's changing a lot around here."
An upgrade in attitude may have to suffice before MacPhail's reinvestment in young players noticeably takes hold. Baltimore has three of the top 25 prospects in baseball as ranked by Baseball America: switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters, 22 (BA's top-ranked prospect), and pitchers Chris Tillman, 20, who's ranked 22nd, and Brian Matusz, 22, who's 25th. In addition, the Orioles' inventory of nearly-ready young pitchers includes Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez and Troy Patton, all of whom are 23. "All of them will be pitching in the big leagues and all of them will be pitching for a long time," Trembley says of the six pitching prospects.
"Tampa gave us a great road map," says MacPhail, mindful of how young pitching helped the Rays reach the World Series after 10 straight losing years. "It can be done here. And the reason it can be done is pitching and defense. We're taking the same path."
Baltimore has only just started on that path. To bridge the gap until the young arms begin to arrive, the Orioles broke up a dreadful staff from last season and signed inexpensive veterans who can provide innings. Gone are six pitchers who combined to start 91 games last year from a staff that gave up the most home runs, walked the most batters, struck out the fewest and had the next-to-worst ERA in the American League. Signed to provide triage were lefthander Mark Hendrickson, 34, who could be starting for his fifth team in seven years, and righthander Koji Uehara, 33, who walked only 206 batters in 276 games for the Tokyo Giants and had more than six times as many strikeouts as walks.
The entire pitching staff should benefit from an improved defense, especially at shortstop, where the sure-handed, if light-hitting, Cesar Izturis was signed to stabilize a position that ran through six starters last season. If fleet former Cubs prospect Felix Pie, 24, can hit enough to seize the opportunity the Orioles are providing him in leftfield, Baltimore will have an athletic, young outfield with Adam Jones, 23, set in center and Markakis, 25, a fixture in right.
Having tinkered with the roster and attitude, MacPhail's next set of difficult decisions is when to bring his best prospects to the big leagues. Wieters is banging, not just knocking, on the major league door. Last year he hit .355 with 27 home runs in his first season of pro ball, which he split between Class A and Double A. "He's Joe Mauer with power," Trembley says. Though he was sent down to Triple A Norfolk to begin the season, there's little doubt that he'll be back soon -- and making an impact much like Evan Longoria did with the Rays in '08 after starting the season on the farm.
The crop of young pitchers may not be far behind Wieters. "In spring training last year I said the Rays were going to win 90 games," says ace-by-default Jeremy Guthrie. "The reason I said it was because you could see they had five strong starters. Our guys are not as far along as those guys were, but you can see they are all good pitchers."
Playing in the treacherous East, the Orioles still could wind up with more defeats than victories this year. But success in Baltimore these days has its own definition. "I'm hoping by the end of the season," MacPhail says, "people are convinced we have the foundation to contend."
-- Tom Verducci
Issue date: April 6, 2009