Friday, April 21, 2006

Orioles Up Next

The Orioles have always been an enigma, and that came to a head during the 2005 campaign. A sexy pick for the AL Wild Card last year, they got off to a steaming start, only to stutter and eventually fall – as predicted by most people who don’t get paid to write about baseball. The reason was obvious to most of us: their pitching simply wouldn’t hold up over 162 games. And you know what? It didn’t.

Obviously, this was the No. 1 concern for Peter Anglos and Co. heading into the off-season. The only problem was that there was a shortage on available arms. The main way any team could improve their pitching was overpaying for A.J. Burnett, and the Blue Jays adequately filled that role. So who else? Who was left for the pickings? There were a few left – I even heard Kevin Brown’s name tossed out there, but I’m sure that was more a joke than anything – but none represented a significant upgrade over the potential-filled but thus far unimpressive group of Bruce Chen, Daniel Cabrera, Rodrigo Lopez, and Erik Bedard. But then, lightning struck.

Omar Minaya, obviously peeved about the number of whities on the Mets roster, decided that Kris Benson was expendable. With Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, and Rarely the Victor Zambrano (credit: Peter Abraham) in tow, and with Aaron Heilman and Brian Bannister ready to go, it only made sense to oust Benson, mainly because not even Jim Bowden would have traded for Zambrano.

[MORE]Enter Angelos, who used some of his cunning – no, all of his cunning – to obtain the inning-eating Benson (probably a cliché at this point). His offer: Jorge Julio. Now, most teams would have laughed in his face at this insulting offer, but Angelos knows the score. Minaya makes no secret of coveting his Latino players, and found the fireballing Julio irresistible. Angelos 1, Minaya 0.

Minaya couldn’t have done any research on this deal, because if he had, it would have been painfully obvious that hitters have simple figured Julio out. He’s consistently been around the 65 innings mark since 2002, and his ERA has steadily risen over that time, going from 1.99 in 2002 to 4.38, 4.59, and 5.90. Sure, a switch to the NL could have been the solution – a new crop of hitters would have to figure him out. But, as proven in 2003, it doesn’t take long for these guys to catch on. And, as most of us figured, he’s sucked this year, plating eight earned runs (and three unearned) in a mere 6.2 innings of work.

Benson, on the other hand, was a steal. If there is any aspect of the Orioles weaker than their starting pitching, it’s their bullpen, which was further decimated by the loss of B.J. Ryan. So, trading Julio for Benson was a complete and total upgrade for the team’s pitching. It 1) gave them a guy who can consistently work into the 7th inning, meaning less work for the bullpen and 2) rid them of Julio, who was one of the perpetrators out there. Looking back, this was possibly the most underrated move of the winter.

Otherwise, the Birds had a typical off-season, signing bats to compensate for their lack of defense. Possibly the strangest move of their hot stove season was inking Padres catcher Roberto Hernandez, with Javy Lopez still under contract. Lopez is getting on in years, but 1) he is consistently one of the Orioles top producers and 2) he has stated his desire to remain at the catcher position. With Miguel Tejada already disgruntled, you’d think Angelos and Co. would want to avoid ruffling more feathers. But, they did it anyway, and it has paid off, with Hernandez hitting .407/.450/.611 to this point. Of course, I expect these numbers to even out as the season progresses, just like I expect Lopez to improve upon his .261/.333/.478 start.

Corey Patterson should be a regular for the next few weeks, as Luis “Show ‘Em My” Matos will be DLed. This shouldn’t be much of a concern, considering Matos’s putrid start. They picked up Patterson on a flier, and now it’s time to see if he can prove that 2004 wasn’t a fluke. But here’s the thing with flier that most of us know: they rarely work out. As long as Perlozzo keeps him buried in the bottom of the order, there shouldn’t be a noticeable difference between him and Matos.

On tap for the weekend: Wang vs. Benson tonight, Chacon vs. Cabrera tomorrow, and the Sunday cap, Randy vs. Bruce Chen. I gotta say, I’m glad we’re not facing Erik Bedard at this point (and equally pissed that I had him on the bench in my fantasy league).