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

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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.

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.

Alex Wilson broke his leg on a 103-MPH comebacker

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This one is brutal. Tigers’ right-handed reliever Alex Wilson was diagnosed with a broken leg after taking a blistering 103.8-MPH line drive off of his right leg during Saturday’s game against the Twins. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, it’s a non-displaced fibular fracture, but will still warrant an extended recovery period and signal the end of Wilson’s season.

Wilson replaced Drew VerHagen to start the eighth inning and worked a full count against Joe Mauer. Mauer roped an 93.3-MPH fastball back up the middle, where it struck the pitcher on his right calf. While Mauer took first base, Wilson got to his feet and tried to toss a warm-up pitch, but was in too much pain to continue and had to be helped off the field.

Even in a season that isn’t going anywhere in particular, this isn’t how you want it to end. The Tigers have yet to announce a recovery timetable for the 30-year-old reliever, but he won’t return to the mound until 2018. He exited Saturday’s outing with a 4.35 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 60 innings.

The Tigers currently trail the Twins 10-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning.