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.

Umpire ejects Blue Jays manager, pitcher and catcher in the space of a minute

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We have an Ump Show in Toronto.

Umpire Will Little ejected Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman and catcher Russell Martin on the same play in today’s A’s-Jays game after they took issue with a called ball. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons had been ejected just two pitches earlier. As the above photo shows, Martin took issue with Little’s strike zone earlier in the game when he was batting.

Stroman had issued six walks before his ejection and both he and the Blue Jays bench were unhappy with Little’s strike zone all afternoon. Stroman’s unhappiness, however, did not appear to be super demonstrative. He did not visibly show up Little or get into an argument with him. If anything, he seemed to be just muttering to himself which should not be a problem.

Little felt otherwise, however — acting as if his honor was being questioned or something — and tossed him. Stroman then charged toward Little, which is not a thing you see everyday. He’ll probably get a fine or a suspension for that, but really, this was a B.S. ejection, and the fact that Little ran both the pitcher and the catcher moments after running the manager compounds the B.S. Apparently Little’s ego is worth substantially impacting a team’s ability to compete in a game.

Here is the final walk, issued to A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell, followed by Stroman’s charge.

The Nationals hit five home runs in the third inning against the Brewers

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How’s your day going? Pretty good? Mine too, thanks.

Don’t ask Milwaukee Brewers’ pitcher Michael Blazek that, however. His day has been pretty bad. Why? Because he gave up six homers to the Washington Nationals in two and a third innings. Five of those came in the bottom of the third, four from consecutive batters. The breakdown:

First inning

  • Bryce Harper hit a two-run shot to right. No other damage.

Second inning

  • Blazek retired the side in order. Yay!

Third inning

That made it 8-0 and ended Blazek’s day. Wily Peralta came in and has since given up an RBI double to Jose Lobaton, making it 9-0. As I write this, the third inning just came to an end. Mercifully.

So, take heart. Even if you are having a bad day, it’s probably not as bad as poor Michael Blazek

UPDATE: Harper doubled in a run and Bryce Harper hit a two-run shot in the fourth to make it 12-0. Someone needs to put a stop to this before someone gets killed.

UPDATE: Now Jose Loboton has homered. This is madness. And it’s something to watch. The Nats now have eight homers: