The Washington Times - March 25, 2009, 12:00AM

The Orioles ranked near the middle of the American League pack in most of the major hitting categories last season, but horrendous pitching - only the Rangers allowed more runs or posted a worse team ERA than Baltimore’s 5.13 - resulted in a disappointing 68-93 record and a last-place finish in the ultracompetitive A.L. East. President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has improved the lineup through free agency and the bullpen is stocked with a good mix of reliable veterans and promising youngsters, but several question marks remain at the back end of the rotation. Help is on the way from the restocked farm system, but with a few notable exceptions, most of the team’s best prospects are at least a year away.

Lineup: All the big bats are back, with right fielder Nick Markakis (right), second baseman Brian Roberts, first baseman Aubrey Huff and third baseman Melvin Mora headlining what should be one of the A.L.’s better lineups. Markakis has star potential and could take the step forward to .300/30/120 territory as soon as this year. The O’s improved through free agency, adding Ty Wigginton, who brings 20-homer pop, and Cesar Izturis, who swiped 24 bases for the Cardinals last year. Adam Jones should take a step forward in his second full season, and though the Cubs had grown tired of waiting for Felix Pie to adjust to big league pitching, the O’s will be more patient. Luke Scott gives manager Dave Trembley a powerful weapon against right-handed pitchers and will get at bats in the outfield and at DH. Phenom Matt Wieters, a switch-hitting catcher, will likely be hitting in the middle of Baltimore’s lineup by mid-May. Veteran Gregg Zaun will hold down the fort in the meantime.

SEE RELATED:


Rotation: No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie is one of the more underrated starters in the A.L., but he’d be a No. 2 or No. 3 on most teams. Koji Uehara (right) twice won the equivalent of Japan’s Cy Young award, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu or something in between - Hiroki Kuroda, perhaps? - in his first season in the states. Guthrie and Uehara are good bets to get the job done, but after them the O’s rotation isn’t scaring anyone. Underwhelming right-handers Adam Eaton and Danys Baez appear likely to occupy the Nos. 3 and 4 spots at the beginning of the year, with lefty Mark Hendrickson serving as a swingman, but righty Alfredo Simon has been impressive this spring and could force his way into the mix. Arm troubles have put lefty Rich Hill behind schedule, but he should be ready to join the rotation by mid-April. Hill struggled with his command last season but was one of the National League’s best left-handed starters with the Cubs in 2007. Righty Brad Bergesen will start the year in triple-A but could provide a boost at some point.

Bullpen:George Sherrill (right) made a smooth transition from lefty specialist to All-Star closer in 2008, but Chris Ray’s recovery from Tommy John surgery is going well and the Orioles would like him to reclaim closer duties and push Sherrill back into his former role. In the meantime, reliable veteran Jamie Walker will be called upon to retire tough left-handed batters. Promising right-handers Jim Johnson, Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate should see most of the action in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, with the most effective of the trio serving as the final bridge to Sherrill or Ray. Hendrickson will likely serve as the long man once Hill is ready to join the rotation. Hayden Penn, who has been on the verge of breaking into the rotation for years but hasn’t gotten over the hump, will likely join Hendrickson in long relief. Flame-throwing righty Radhames Liz struggled too much with his command to be an effective big league starter, but the Orioles are hoping his stuff will translate better to bullpen work.

Defense: Orioles pitchers will be happy when they turn around to see Pie in left, Jones in center and Markakis in right, as that trio should cover more ground than just about any other A.L. combination. The outfield defense will suffer somewhat when Scott is playing left; he’s not error prone, but lacks range. Baltimore is solid in the middle infield. Izturis is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, having won the award in 2004 in the N.L., while Roberts (above) made just eight errors at second last season. The Orioles’ corner infielders are known more for their bats than their gloves. Mora is usually adequate at third but has, at times, been a defensive liability. Huff, who’ll spend most of his time at first base this year, is also capable of playing third and manning the outfield, but he’s not above average at any spot. Similarly, Wigginton can play all four infield positions and the corner outfield spots, but is no better than average at any of them. Ryan Freel, who came over in a trade from the Reds, has experience at second, third and all three outfield spots. With Wigginton likely to start, he’ll be the Orioles’ top utility man. Zaun handles a staff well but threw out just 26 percent of base stealers last year. Wieters nailed about 40 percent in the minors but obviously can’t match Zaun in the experience department.

Spare Parts: Outfielder Lou Montanez won the double-A Eastern League’s Triple Crown in 2008 and held his own in the bigs, but is unlikely to force his way into the Orioles crowded outfield mix at the beginning of the year. Veteran Chris Gomez saw time at all four infield spots with the Pirates last season and hit a respectable .273. He’s the favorite to serve as the team’s utility infielder, though veteran Jolbert Cabrera is giving him a run for his money this spring and Donnie Murphy is also in the mix. Journeyman catchers Chad Moeller and Robbie Hammock are competing for the right to back up Zaun while Wieters bides his time in triple-A. David Pauley and Brian Bass have seen time in the Red Sox and Twins rotations, respectively, and are likely the next two in line for spot starts. Jim Miller, Bob McCrory and Kam Mickolio are likely ticketed for the minors, but all three will probably see time in the bullpen at various points this season, as will former Giant Brad Hennessey, who also may see spot starts once he puts his spring elbow issues in the rear-view.

Prospects: Wieters (right) hit .355 with 27 homers in the minors last season and is clearly major league ready, but will likely start the season in triple-A to push back his arbitration clock. Nolan Reimold slugged 25 homers in double-A last season and was impressive this spring before being sent to minor league camp. He could probably hold his own in the bigs, but the Orioles have so many options in the outfield that he’ll start the year in triple-A as well. The only other positional player with a chance to make an impact is shortstop Blake Davis, who hit .284 with four home runs in double-A last season and is solid defensively. Bergesen, the 2008 double-A Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, doesn’t have overpowering stuff but uses what he has well enough that he could probably be an adequate big league starter this year. Righty David Hernandez isn’t as advanced as Bergesen but used his above-average stuff to lead the Eastern League in ERA (2.68) and strikeouts (166) last year. He could get his first taste of the bigs this year. 2007 fifth-rounder Jake Arrieta projects as a front-line starter but is probably a year away, as is the 2008 No. 4 overall pick, lefty Brian Matusz.

Outlook: The Orioles are headed in the right direction, but with perennial contenders Boston and New York looking strong and Tampa Bay coming off a season in which they shocked the world by capturing the A.L. pennant, the Birds are unlikely to seriously contend in the A.L. East. A realistic goal for the 2009 Orioles would be to post the franchise’s first winning season since 1997. With Markakis and Roberts locked up for the next several years and a farm system ranked in the top 10 by Baseball America, the Orioles are on the verge of contending once again, but O’s fans will need to be patient for a little bit longer. Expect progress and a far more competitive team, but the playoffs are still at least a year or two away.

Check back tomorrow for National Pastime’s 2009 Washington Nationals Preview

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Nick Markakis, Koji Uehara and George Sherrill photos by the Associated Press; Matt Wieters photo courtesy of the Frederick Keys