I've been meaning to continue my series on the coverage of the Orioles in the media with reviews of the Washington Times and the York Daily Record. But the original Orioles-related content (i.e., non-wire stories) in those two publications has been so paltry that to dissect them would be akin to picking through scraps. So I've moved those articles toward the back burner for now and will begin a new series starting tomorrow. But first, a few comments on the team as it stands today.
Thanks to the September roster expansion, the Orioles are no longer short-handed these days; they now have a surplus of options at virtually every position. But are any of these extra guys good enough to be a major part of next year's team?
José León: A twenty-seven-year-old corner infielder, León (whose surname means "lion" in Spanish) was an offensive and defensive star in Monday's win against Minnesota, hitting a two-run homer and making several sparkling plays at first base. León will be out of minor-league options after this season, so he will probably start a good chunk of the remaining games at first base as the Orioles see if he can translate his potent 2004 Triple-A production to the major-league level.
León's glove, whether at first or third, is solid; the career-limiting skill for him has been his bat. He has hit like a lamb in his previous chances in the big leagues (his career major-league OPS is under .600) and prior to this year, his minor-league numbers have been mostly unexceptional: decent power offset by low on-base percentages. Prior to this year, he had looked like a poor man's Tony Batista. If that sounds unappealing, it is.
But León's bat has been undeniably lethal this year, at least in his days with Ottawa. His .322 batting average, .382 on-base percentage, and .590 slugging percentage led all Lynx batters with 100 or more plate appearances. And it can be said in León's defense that none of his major-league auditions have amounted to an extended opportunity; his prior stints allowed him only spotty, irregular playing time, not the multiple-week window of starts that would ideally acclimate a player to big-league pitching. So it is understandable that he made so little of his earlier opportunities.
On the other hand, smart pitchers routinely thwart impatient hitters like León by throwing pitches out of the strike zone, so it's no surprise that major-league pitchers have dominated him initially. In León's professional career, he has drawn a walk in roughly 7% of his plate appearances and struck out nearly four times as often. (As a reference, the AL averages in 2003 were 8.3% BB/PA and 2.0 K/BB.) Even this year, his Ottawa production has not been buttressed by many walks: just 24 walks in 314 AB+BB for a ratio of 7.8%, accompanied by 68 strikeouts for a K/BB ratio of about 2.8. León's surge in production this year has been built on a batting average and extra-base hit total far above his career norms; his plate discipline is marginally improved, if at all. Now, if he possessed the ability to hit .320 with great power every year, his lack of walks would be forgivable. But he has, on balance, shown no such ability; his career batting average is a pedestrian .265, and his career isolated power is .180, which is about average for a corner infielder. Moreover, León is at an age when his skills are likely peaking, so this may be the best he may ever get.
Manager Lee Mazzilli thinks León can make a difference in the short term. He said in yesterday's Washington Post, “I think he could be a right-handed batter against left-handers that could help.... We've been looking for that.”
This is something to consider when planning for next year's team. Although Rafael Palmeiro's bat has undergone a mini-revival of late, Palmeiro has not recovered from his unexpected season-long slump against left-handed pitching; his 2004 OPS against left-handers at last check was .503, compared to .874 against righties. (As I mentioned earlier, this discrepancy is a significant departure from his career averages.) And the career major-league splits for León (warning: small sample) show that he indeed has hit left-handers (.694 OPS) better than right-handers (.373). Not well, mind you, just better, and certainly better than Palmeiro has this year. So using León as half of a right-left platoon at first base would not be a poor idea—for the remainder of this season, anyway.
The Orioles appear to be running out the clock on Palmeiro by sitting him more often to avoid triggering his $4.5 million option for 2005, which will activate if he plays 140 games in the field this year. They publicly say that the benching is based on performance, not finances, and their contention is supported by the data.
If the Orioles choose not to sign a big-name first baseman like Carlos Delgado—who will have some caveats of his own, as he is having a subpar, injury-stricken year—they might bring back Palmeiro for a reduced salary and concentrate their money on reinforcing the pitching staff and other positions. If that happens, it would be advisable to have a righty-hitting first base option at the ready should Palmeiro continue his struggles against lefties. Would León be the answer there? At this point, given the totality of his career, I would say no. Plenty of more established options will likely be available at little cost. And perhaps Javy López will see more action at first if the Orioles find a better-hitting backup catcher.
As for the other infield addition this month, DH/1B David Seguí, the appropriate words would be those of Woody Guthrie: “So long, it's been good to know you.” Seguí has always been able to swing the bat, but unless he replaces his padding-less knees with prosthetics, his career will end at this season's conclusion if not sooner. He clearly loves to play the game or else he would not persevere through such pain, but he would be foolish to risk his health further by continuing to play baseball with such fragile knees.
Gerónimo Gil: The Birds decided to bring back Gil to be their third catcher down the stretch. Gil had a so-so year offensively at Ottawa, hitting a flat .259/.327/.371. None of the categories in his batting line was exceptionally good or bad. Compared to his career averages, his walk and strikeout rates were slightly improved, but his batting average and power numbers were down. He was a respectable Triple-A catcher, a good candidate for a major-league backup job, but not more than that.
There isn't a great difference between Gil and the Orioles' other backup catcher, Robert Machado. Machado hit markedly better at Ottawa this year (.317/.368/.484 in 126 AB), but he appeared to leave his bat behind in Canada upon joining the Orioles. Gil is two years younger (29 versus 31) and has a better cumulative hitting record in the minors. Both are decent defenders. Both have failed to exceed a .650 OPS in the majors. If forced to keep only one of them, the Orioles probably would be better served with Gil because of his age and track record. But it wouldn't really matter either way.
Catcher is not a position of great depth in the system, but there is at least one promising alternative. Twenty-four-year-old Eli Whiteside showed impressive power at Double-A Bowie this year (.253/.310/.495), outdistancing all of his past hitting performances. If he carries that power to Triple-A next season and improves his on-base percentage (a very big if), he would be a viable candidate to spell or even supplant Javy at catcher for the Orioles. The next-best catching prospects are Matt Houston and Ryan Hubele, both of whom struggled to adjust to Single-A pitching this year.
Val Majewski: Majewski had a fine year for Bowie (.307/.359/.490) at age 23. His minor-league hitting record is consistent and well rounded. From Aberdeen to Delmarva to Frederick to Bowie, he has shown the ability to hit for average (.300 career) and power (.205 IsoP). He can even steal a base occasionally. The only thing to gripe about is his rather low walk rate (about 7% BB/PA this year), but his high batting average makes that easier to stomach. While Majewski can handle center field without obvious breakdowns, his eventual destination is most probably an outfield corner. He has a chance to crack the Orioles' starting outfield next year, although he will likely begin the campaign at Triple-A Ottawa. At the very least, he will put pressure on Luis Matos, Larry Bigbie, and Jay Gibbons to produce. Majewski's star is on the rise. Whether he will end up a star, an average starter (probably), or a backup is up to him.
Tim Raines Jr.: Raines, like Majewski, was promoted from the minors last month, although he has been at this level before. His legs have carried him through the minors, as his bat has run hot and cold from year to year. This year has been of the wintry kind (.262/.314/.330 at Ottawa). Raines, who just turned 25, has never had much extra-base sock (.091 IsoP), but in the lower minors he compensated for that somewhat by drawing walks and stealing bases at a high rate. At the higher levels, though, those skills have not served him as well; his walk rate has roughly fallen by half going from Single-A to Triple-A. This season he has walked in just 6% of his plate appearances and has struck out in nearly a quarter of his at-bats—way too much for a singles hitter. He does have 30 steals in 39 attempts with Ottawa and Baltimore, but unless he can increase his on-base percentage, his lack of other offensive skills will prevent him from getting playing time with the Orioles or any other major-league team.
Darnell McDonald: McDonald, who showed enough promise in 2002 to be added to the 40-man roster, was recalled yesterday for another brief visit. Neither he (.234/.294/.368 at Ottawa) nor Raines has done enough with the bat this year to merit a big-league call-up, but the season-ending injuries to Luis Matos and Jerry Hairston left the Orioles with a lack of center fielders and right-handed-hitting outfielders. As a prospect, McDonald is on the same tenuous level as Raines. He has a bit more power (.112 IsoP career, including .134 for Ottawa in 2004) than Little Rock, but considerably less base-swiping ability (12 SB, 6 CS this year). Like Raines, McDonald has been so-so at drawing walks (8% career BB/PA) and strikes out rather often for a non-slugger (roughly 22% of his AAA at-bats). And he turns 26 in November. It's quite possible that the Orioles will let go of Raines or McDonald this winter. If it were up to me, I would hold onto McDonald because of his power potential, but losing either outfielder would be no great tragedy, considering how little they have shown with the bat.
Matt Riley: The Orioles' problem child No. 1 this year, Riley responded well to his last demotion by dominating Triple-A hitters. He finished with 51 punch-outs and 23 walks in 42 innings for Ottawa while allowing a parsimonious 26 hits. Called up from exile for the season's final month, he immediately had an outstanding start against Minnesota Tuesday night, allowing one run in seven-plus innings. Riley's high strikeout rate is evidence of his tremendous stuff, but his elevated walk rate indicates that his command betrays him far too often. Consistency is the obstacle he must overcome to be an effective major-league starter. At 25 years of age, Riley is not really a kid anymore; his development time is nearing its end. If he is unable to harness his pitches—not to mention his emotions—the best role for him may be in relief. But it is in the Orioles' interests that he be given additional opportunities to succeed as a starter.
Rick Bauer: Bauer last left Baltimore in a ball of fire and confusion, but pulled himself together and had a decent couple of months at Ottawa, notching 42 strikeouts and 19 walks in 63 innings, although he gave up 69 hits. Now 27, he is past prospect age, and his Orioles future is in some doubt. Unlike Riley, Bauer pitches in a style less about scorched-earth confrontations and more about persuading weak grounders out of opposing hitters. This approach is more compatible with Ray Miller's style of coaching, which stresses throwing strikes, keeping the ball down in the strike zone, and mixing pitches. If Bauer is backed by strong infield defense and is able to keep his pitches low, he can be a serviceable long reliever and spot starter. But because his stuff is not overwhelming, his future is not as bright as Riley's.
Eddy Rodríguez: E-Rod will be making a return trip to the O's bullpen. After cruising through the lower minors as a short reliever by posting high strikeout rates and allowing few hits, Rodríguez has met some bumps in the road this year pitching for Ottawa and Baltimore. His strikeout rate has remained high at 8.4 K/9, but his shaky control has begun to catch up with him, as he has allowed an unsightly 5.8 BB/9 combined across the two levels. Since he just turned 23 in August, he has time to refine his command, but he has some work to do to become a successful big-leaguer.
Aaron Rakers: Following an excellent season in relief for the Lynx, Rakers (pronounced like "rockers") was rewarded with a promotion to the majors. If you haven't heard of Rakers, you're not alone; he was a lowly 23rd-round pick from an unheralded Illinois college in 1999. Though not as hyped as other pitchers in the Orioles' system, Rakers has always put up good K/BB numbers as a reliever in the minors, and this year was no exception: 80 strikeouts and 25 walks in 78 2/3 innings for a ratio of 3.2 K/BB. His overall minor-league averages are 9.5 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, both impressive rates. A fairly mature pitcher at 27 years old, Rakers is in a position to provide immediate right-handed help for the Orioles' bullpen. Is he going to supplant Jorge Julio as the Orioles' closer? Probably not, but it would not be a total surprise if he has as much success as the erratic Julio. Rakers has shown good command of his pitches so far, and although his stuff is not as electrifying as Julio's, it was good enough to strike out one International League batter per inning this year. If his big-league trial goes okay, Rakers will compete for a spot in the Orioles' bullpen next season.
Bruce Chen: I've already said my piece about Chen. He has the kind of ability worth taking a chance on, but it would be overly optimistic to expect much improvement from him at this stage of his career. Chen has a lot in common with Eric DuBose. One year apart in age, they are both lefties with unusually deceptive off-speed offerings but average fastballs and thus little margin for error. If they can keep their walk rates below three per game, they will have a good chance to succeed. Otherwise, they will run into trouble.
In Chen, DuBose, Riley, and Erik Bedard, the Orioles have four capable left-handed pitchers. All have above-average stuff but have struggled to command the strike zone upon reaching the majors. Given the way Baltimore's hitters have fared against left-handed starters this year, it's too bad these hurlers haven't been able to pitch against their teammates; it would have made their growth period a little smoother. But if one or two of these guys make the right adjustments and turn into decent starters, the Orioles will have to be pleased.
Birds trying out some ugly ducklings
Of the Orioles' late-season call-ups, Majewski holds the most promise for the future, although he is probably not quite ready for the majors. The pitcher with the greatest ability to make an impact is the enigmatic Riley. Most of the others are familiar faces trying to make the most of second and third (and in Chen's case, umpteenth) chances.
Rakers is an exception. He is a complete newcomer to the majors who will be most interesting to watch. His strong minor-league results intrigued the Orioles enough to give him this chance to prove himself against the stiffest competition, but because of his obscure background, not much is expected of him. No matter how Rakers performs this month, he has already shown that high performance can lead to a big-league promotion regardless of draft pedigree or physical tools. That's a good message to send to the Birds' minor-leaguers for next year and years to come.