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.

Cardinals encourage players not to hide injuries

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In Major League Baseball, players are routinely pressured to play through injury and pain. Sometimes it’s just a minor ache, and sometimes it’s a very serious injury. The pressure comes from everywhere: the players themselves, their peers, coaches, front offices, media, and fans. Players who develop a reputation for landing on the disabled list are described as “soft” and “fragile.” Players who battle through the pain get talked about as “gritty” and “dedicated.”

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Cardinals are trying to encourage their players to be more honest about their health. The culture surrounding this is tough to change, but manager Mike Matheny wants his players to come to him if “anything that is off.” As Goold notes, Alex Reyes and Matt Bowman revealed they were, in Bowman’s words, not “entirely forthcoming.” Carlos Martinez said he pitched tentatively because he was “scared” of re-injuring himself. Matheny also called pitcher Michael Wacha “a great liar” when talking about his arm health.

Matt Carpenter has also played through injury and takes pride in it. He’s an example of the old mentality the club is trying to pierce through. Caarpenter said, “I’m a believer in if you’re getting paid to do a job and you’re capable of doing the job — even if it’s 85 percent of your best — I feel you have the obligation to be out there. That is the mentality I’ve always used. I could have very easily, at times last year, sat on the [disabled list], but I felt like I could still go out and do my job.”

Goold points out that players approach dealing with health issues differently depending on where they’re at in their careers. A young player who just got called up has pressure to stay in the big leagues and appear in games, so he may not want to address a health issue. A player who has already secured a multi-year contract may have less pressure on him and thus may be more willing to come to the trainer’s room.

I’ve long believed that player health will be the next arena in which front offices will separate themselves from the pack. Analytics had been that battleground for a while, but with every club now having an analytics department in some capacity, front offices will have to find value in new ways. Limiting the amount of time that players miss due to injury would be a significant boost for a team and it will start with players being forthcoming about what’s bothering them rather than trying to fight through pain.