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Defining “Meaningful Improvement” For the Orioles

The moment the Orioles‘ 2009 season drew to a close the 2010 season became about two words: Meaningful Improvement. Andy MacPhail said so himself when picking up Dave Trembley‘s option, and O’s fans from blog to bay seized on it as a sign that we were out of rebuilding and on to Phase Two.

We measured the Hot Stove moves accordingly. Kevin Millwood, Mike Gonzalez, and Garett Atkins all arrived in town with a charge to keep. Young players like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Brian Matusz (among others) enter the new year with the training wheels off and expectations raised accordingly.

That’s the idea, anyway.

The path from here to there remains clouded by reality. The Orioles still have holes to fill, and a lot of cards need to play right in order for 2010 to look and feel like a step forward. The process gets started Tuesday in Tampa Bay, and continues with a grueling first month schedule. The large task begins immediately.

As we wait, a question: what does Meaningful Improvement say to you?

Does it mean noticeable steps forward from the young players? Improved consistency? Avoiding a late-season collapse? Or does it mean significantly more wins? Do they need to sniff .500 for this season to be considered a success?

“All of the above” is the easy — and probably correct — answer, but I want to get specific. For me, that means wins.

2010 cannot be considered a success unless the team takes a significant step forward in the win column. I don’t see this as Lost Season III, and I don’t see it as a developmental year. I see it as the first year of the next era of Orioles baseball. Like any new venture, there will be struggle and hard times. They won’t compete for a playoff spot and probably won’t fare too well against the elite teams. But they must play better. That means more than 64 or 68 wins (’09 and ’08, respectively).

The last time the O’s won at least 75 games was 2004, when they reached 78 (they also came close in ’05 with 74). The last time they finished fewer than 20 games out of first was 2000 (13.5 games back). It’s fair to expect them to get back to 75 wins and finish less than 20 games out in 2010. Indeed, I actually expect them to do a little better than that — 78-80 wins wouldn’t surprise me at all.

I still care a great deal about continued development of young players and overall consistency. I’d even go so far as to say that those things matter more than wins. I think, though, that wins should and will come as a result. If they don’t, we’ll have some hard questions to ask.

This is a big season in Birdland. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’d like, then, to get a full picture of the “pulse of the fan” as Opening Day approaches. Fire away with your expectations for the season and what Meaningful Improvement will look like to you. I’m eyeing benchmarks here. Let’s define our tools for measuring 2010.

If nothing else, we’ll need something to abandon if things don’t go according to plan.

(photo via Keith Allison)

32 comments to Defining “Meaningful Improvement” For the Orioles

  • sci

    75-80 wins with consistency (i.e. no late season swoon) would be a success, in my opinion. Just as important is for the following players to have good years and truly establish themselves as stars or no-doubt future stars: Markakis, Jones, Wieters, Matusz. I think Markakis will have a great year and go to the all-star game. I think the other three will eventually be perennial all-stars, but will they bust out this year?

    And I’ll put it down here: Reimold is going to have a big year. I sense it.

  • Andrew

    As you could probably expect, I have a slightly different barometer. If the Orioles win 77 games, but Kevin Millwood is responsible for 3 of them and Miguel Tejada is responsible for 3 of them and Garret Atkins is responsible for 2 of them, what does it all mean? And yes, I’m talking in terms of WARP.

    So, I’m thinking of this season as The Springboard, and success in my book comes down to the combination of how well the team does and what fraction of that pie is on Wieters, Pie, Reimold, Jones, Markakis, Matusz, Bergesen, Tillman, and the other young pitchers. In other words, success is how well the young core does, not how well the Orioles do.

    Because those are the guys who are gonna lead us whereever we go, not Millwood, not Izturis, not even Brian Roberts. I’m pretty sure I’d kill someone for a 82-win season, and that would make my year (barring another UNC/Steelers/Yankees trifecta of championships), but realistically, if the core gets the team to 74 wins, and the non-core pushes it to 83 wins, that’s sort of a hollow victory.

  • Ballmer Bruce

    Success will be seeing these guys play fundamentally sound baseball after the debacle last year. And solid sub 4.0 era for the young pitchers. Other than that, the wins are going to be a function of the offense and that will not be up to snuff until McPhail keeps the promise to buy a big bat.

    I will take the above with 75 wins if McPhail keeps his promise this offseason.

  • Andrew

    @Ballmer Bruce – Well, at this point there don’t appear to be any good bats on the free agent market for next winter at this point (certainly not in the first base/third base department), and I’m not convinced it’d be a good idea to send five prospects to whereever to get a power hitting first baseman at the point I think the Orioles will be at in November.

  • dan the man

    @Andrew – Isn’t Prince Fielder supposed to be a free agent after this year, or am I just making that up?

    Regarding your comment on the Tatum decision from the previous post, I was going to ask you if you liked that move considering Moeller’s strengths are his intangibles. I still think it remains to be seen whether or not Tatum can hit better than Moeller, but it’s likely to be a wash. I hope Chad stays with the organization because his experience can’t hurt, but kudos to DT for making a tough and unpopular decision for the sake of extra defense. You don’t like to hear that Schmuck report about some players being pissy about it, but that’s the kind of thing that hopefully subsides once the games start.

    The big question for me on Tatum is: can he call a good game against dangerous hitters that he doesn’t know? He’s got to learn a lot real fast.

    On Meaningful Improvement, I too would like to see more hard wins. 75 sounds like a good barometer, but I’ll be crossing my fingers for .500. But like Andrew said, if those 75 wins come with Reimold batting .250, Wieters showing no power, Jones getting injured, and Bergesen’s sinker failing him, then it’s a bad-tasting 75 wins.

  • Andrew

    @dan the man – that’s after next season, and its way too early to see who will actually make it to the market.

    Also I think Schmuck’s just being pissy about it. Which is cool, since I’ve been pretty pissy myself about a lot of things. But it’s like the least important roster decision ever, I can’t imagine getting this much vitriol up about it.

  • dan the man

    @Neal – As far as getting a “pulse” of Orioles Nation, I can tell you that I’m nervous as crap. Excited for the Game, but still nervous.

    For the first time in a long time, this is a season where we can’t use the rebuilding excuse (well, we can, but we don’t want to). But Meaningful Improvement means our young core is going to have to not only repeat what they did last year, but improve on it for the course of a full year. Bottom line is, most of these guys didn’t fail at the big league level, but none of them have downright proven themselves yet with the exception of Markakis. O’s fans are nervous because there are still so many questions in a year that so much is expected:

    -Can Jones hit consistently for a whole season?
    -Will Wieters show us the power scouts say he is capable of?
    -Will Reimold continue his great approach at the plate and repeat with his good power?
    -Can Bergesen repeat his success?
    -Will Matusz live up to the hype?
    -Can Hernandez keep the ball in the ballpark?
    -Will Markakis finally have the breakout power year?
    -Can Guthrie return to form?
    -Can Mike Gonzalez close effectively?

    And with each one of those, you can go ahead and add “Can they stay healthy”?

    O’s fans know they finally have a legitimate, talented, young core in the outfield, at catcher, and on the mound. We’ve finally rid the team of the dead weight, the young talent is “real” rather than over-valued, and damnit it’s going to really, really suck if it doesn’t hold together. That’s the pulse, I think. It’s exciting, if not the ideal kind of excitement. But when’s the last time we were really cared about players on the team as much as we do now? It’s progress.

  • dan the man

    @Ballmer Bruce – I agree about the fundamentals for sure, but I think a sub-4.00 ERA for the young pitching is setting the bar pretty high. We’re talking an ERA in the 3′s for each young pitcher, which is quite a feat. I really only expect one pitcher to accomplish that, and that’s Matusz. I’ll be happy with low 4′s for pretty much everyone. That would be a huge improvement after Guthrie’s 5.00ERA and Berken’s 6.00ERA last year.

  • Greg

    @Andrew – If Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder are the real deal, I don’t think that MacPhail is going to hamstring their path to the majors by buying a big bat. If anything, the Orioles will pay big for a shortstop or a pitcher.

  • Andrew

    @dan the man – I can add two more things:

    -Is the second-half Pie the real Pie?
    -What do we get from Tillman and Arrieta?

    As much as you want to say “this isn’t rebuilding” it is. It really is. It’s phase two, but it’s phase two of rebuilding. It’s the springboard, where development still has to be priority one, but where the “meaningful improvement” comes at the major league level and not just the minor league level (though as I said at the open of camp, I think it’s absolutely critical that a lot of focus remains on the amateur side)

    Oh, and I think the offense between Moeller and Tatum over 100 PA is a wash, or very close to it, and the defensive difference can make up the offensive difference (if there is one). Tatum has more upside, too, because of his age, and I don’t think intangibles are a valid reason to keep a lesser player around (if they were, they’d be called “tangibles” because they would make a difference). Moeller sounds like a nice guy, sure, but Tatum’s probably a terrific guy, too.

  • Andrew

    @Greg – True, but that remains to be seen. But anyway, look at MLBTR’s list of 2011 FA and tell me who you see worth putting down good money for at first, third, short, or pitcher.

    I see…a re-up with Izturis, a lot of complimentary pieces like Jorge Cantu (not really a “big bat”), and no big-time pitchers on the right side of 30. Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett are really good pitchers, but on the open market the price of a 32 year old pitcher would be prohibitive in my book, especially with more young’uns coming up.

    Anyway, it’s much too soon to be thinking about next winter.

  • ryan97ou

    looks like sci and andrew about covered my thoughts. great point re: the up and comers contributing to more wins than our stop gap players. I hadn’t thought it through that detailed enough and just lumped that into the “lets see some improvement in the young core” category.

    as for wins, i guess i’d like to see us flirt with .500, although not expecting us to reach it. i heard the vegas odds have our over/under as 74.5 and i would like to think we could be over that, hopefully around 78.

    (sidenote: apparently the odds of DT getting fired before the season ends: 6/1 via 105.7)

    here are my expectations/overly optimistic projections of said young core:

    markakis: I think this is gonna be his blow-up year, possibly garnering him a spot on the all-star team, and think he will open up even more eyes this year both defensively and offensively, especially offensively.

    Jones: he will continue to get better offensively, and i would like to see him get a bit more walks this year, as i am sick of seeing him behind the count after the first 2 pitches. I also think it’s gonna be hard for him to match his defensive output last year, but i am hopeful he can. I would also like to see him make some more steals, the time is now to start being more aggressive there, as roberts probably isn’t gonna be getting his normal #’s in this category.

    Reimold: he’s more than likely gonna start off slow based on what i’ve seen thus far, and i don’t see him increasing his output from last year nearly as much as jones/markakis. And i am ok with that, as he’s still pretty young and will probably be dealing with that injury til mid season. one thing i have to see from him is getting more comfortable in left field.

    Pie: Yes, i admit, i was part of the crew that was ready to ship him out of town last season, but how can you deny his last couple months of last season? Considering he was in the absolute basement last year in meeting his potential, in my mind he can only go up…and if he does: gravy.

    Wieters: maybe this is me being hyper-critical, but i still haven’t seen him really get on a ball. most of the home runs last year he was a bit late, but still had enough power to squeak it into the left field seats (this is purely on memory, so call me on this if i’m wrong), so i think he has some work to do on his swing/bat speed. That said, i think of all the core young players, he has the ability to do it much faster. I think he will start off slow, and really start to find his offense a couple weeks before the break. I also wanna see some more consistency from his arm to second base. It was all over the place most of the time last year and so far it’s looked better in the games i’ve seen in ST. Also expect some better results in blocking balls from lats year.

    Matusz: he’s looked great in ST, but that aint the big show…so i am cautiously optimistic. with pitchers there’s always the chance of teams figuring out a guy by the end of the season, but based on what i’ve heard about his pitches, he probably has the lowest probability of this happening (among matusz, tillman, bergeson). So that being said, i wanna see him getting more comfortable on the mound, including getting out of jams, and consistently placing his pitches. I am projecting that he ends up having a pretty good season, but i am cautiously optimistic.

    bergeson: speaking of teams figuring out a guy…bergy probably has the highest chance of this happening, since he’s a “contact pitcher”, relying on ground balls and quick pace to keep things going. I am probably most nervous with him going into the season, but am thinking he will overall be pretty consistent with the occasional blow up game.

    Hernandez: If he ends up surprising everyone: gravy. i expect him to start off well enough, but eventually lose whatever magic he had that got him that 5th spot. hope it doesn’t happen, and if it doesn’t: gravy (i’m talkin’ thick biscuit gravy)

    Tillman: this is a crap shoot for me. i watched almost all of his big league games last year, and when he got hit, it was generally of the hard variety (lucking out quite a bit by good defense and the warning track). i’m no jim palmer, but it looked to me like he didn’t have near the movement on his pitches as matusz, and his flat fastballs generally ended up (far) in the field more often than not because of it. Which is one of the reasons i am quite content with him starting in AAA, having been told in so many words “this isn’t gonna be handed to you”.

    So there yah go…long winded, and heavy on the personal opinion side.

    at least i have it documented somewhere so i can eat crow at a later date. or maybe i’ll be eating gravy. mmmm….gravy.

  • ryan97ou

    whoa, that’s long. sorry guys…just had my coffee and dealing with a bit of caffeine.

  • Greg

    BTW, these are my wagers:

    This is Jeremy Guthrie’s final year in Birdland. There’s too much going on in AAA this year to warrant keeping an older, more expensive, inconsistent starting pitcher on the roster.

    I think that by next year the rotation will be Matusz, Bergesen, Tillman, Hernandez and MacPhail shells out for a big name free agent pitcher to be the staff ace, perhaps even co-ace with Matusz.

    Seeing as how this is Izturis’ final year on the O’s, we either draft a big MLB ready SS, trade for a decently average one (Hardy), or sign a free agent who won’t be a huge liability (Peralta). Jeter would be a nice “f*** you”, but I think he will be priced out of the O’s range or re-signed.

    Given that these things happen:
    Rotation: FA staff ace (Harden? Lee?), Matusz, Bergesen, Tillman, Hernandez
    Lineup: Wieters, Snyder, Roberts, Peralta/Hardy/Jeter?, Bell, Reimold, Jones, Markakis, Scott, Pie
    Pen: Gonzalez, Johnson, Mickolio, Meredith, Berken, Arrieta? Erbe? Lebron? Patton? Spoone? Johnson?

    That’s a talented young team, poised to win 90 games in 2011.

  • dan the man

    @ryan97ou – Good stuff. Pretty much agree all around, although Wieters did end up pulling exactly three of his nine home runs at the end of the season last year (I think, don’t quote me), which was a good sign. I think he might be a slow starter in general, sort of like how Huff was always labeled a slow starter. It took Wieters awhile to starting hitting in AAA last year and it took him awhile to get comfortable when he got the call up. And this year it’s taking him a little while to start hitting in ST. Regardless, I think he’s only going to get stronger and better (obviously).

  • ryan97ou

    @dan the man – i hear yah. i’m hopeful that’s the case.

  • dan the man

    Man, it’s fun to be jiving O’s isn’t it? Can’t wait til Tuesday for…. the Trop… ughhhh. Immediate test for the O’s defense right off the bat.

    I’m really excited to see what Pie is capable of. ST stats are ST stats, but it’s getting to the point where you expect him to get a hit every time he’s up there. If he can keep up his plate discipline that he’s shown this spring, he’ll be such a nice bonus player. That’s how I see him. Any good that he does is just a nice bonus.

  • Andrew

    @dan the man – As you know, I disagree about Pie. I think he’s capable of being (if used correctly) the cornerstone left fielder. Not to take anything away from Nolan Reimold. I love love love Reimold’s bat. But I don’t see Pie as gravy, or whipped cream, or anything less than as important a cog as Reimold or Jones or Markakis.

  • dan the man

    @Andrew – I hear you. And I would agree that he’s definitely capable of being a cornerstone left fielder. There’s nothing that I find wrong with that statement. The “bonus” thing I’m speaking of strictly from the standpoint that until very, very recently, he was a terrible major league baseball player. With the Cubs, then at the beginning of last season. He couldn’t hit, he couldn’t run the bases, he threw to the wrong bases. In the minors, however, he was every bit as good as Reimold was in the minors. The difference was when Crow got a look at Pie, he had to break him down and start from scratch. Reimold, meanwhile, was having immediate major league success.

    I guess what I’m saying is when we acquired him, there weren’t a lot of expectations. If we did, in fact, catch lightning in a bottle with that acquisition, then awesome. Is he capable of being the cornerstone left fielder? Yes. But I don’t think he was ever expected to be the cornerstone left fielder.

    I have no problem with Reimold seeing more DH time, Pie seeing more LF time, and Scott seeing more 1B time, especially if all three are hitting and Atkins is not.

  • neal s

    @Andrew – With all due respect, that sounds insane. Even if we put aside the Reimold vs. Pie argument it’s way too soon to put him on par with Markakis and Jones.

    If he beats out Reimold over the long run and becomes that guy then great. Lightning in a bottle like Dan said. Until he proves it, though, I’m staying at least a little skeptical.

  • neal s

    And on a more general level I gotta say that reading all of this has completely reinvigorated me re: this year’s Orioles and TLC. It’s going to be fun.

  • Greg

    My fantasy team (12-teams, $50 buyin, 3 keepers) looks like this:

    C Russell Martin
    1B Ryan Howard (K)
    2B Placido Polanco
    3B Evan Longoria (K)
    SS Derek Jeter
    OF BJ Upton
    OF Jacoby Ellsbury (K)
    OF Bobby Abreu
    OF Carlos Lee
    OF Johnny Damon
    2B/SS Ian Desmond

    SP John Danks
    SP Matt Garza
    SP Joel Pineiro
    SP Chad Billingsley
    SP Ricky Nolasco
    SP Wade Davis
    RP Ryan Madson
    RP Chad Qualls
    RP Rafael Soriano

    Should I dump Desmond for SP Madison Bumgarner or C Buster Posey? I picked up Desmond as insurance against Polanco plus starting rookie value, but would I be better off snagging Posey or Bumgarner for future value instead? Desmond is projected to be a league average SS, but at least he’s starting and has 2B eligibility as well.

  • Andrew

    @neal s – Well, it’s optimistic, but I dunno about “insane”. But what we saw last year was that Pie is completely capable of becoming a really, really good player. Like, All-Star left fielder Felix Pie. He needs to harness those tools more and more, but he definitely took the first big step from “big time prospect” (which he once was) to “big time professional player” last year in a way that was really very similar to what Matt Wieters did.

    I’m not really interested in rehashing Pie vs. Reimold because rehashing is stupid and also because I do not see it as Pie vs. Reimold. I think they both can have a huge part of this team’s future.

  • Andrew

    @Greg – Bumgarner’s got that velocity problem going on, so I’m not so sure that’s a good pick-up. Posey though looks terrific at a very limited position.

  • neal s

    @Andrew – I don’t see how they could both be part of the future. If they end up being the players we want them to be then putting one of them at DH would be a huge waste of talent. At that point I think you’d have to take advantage of the surplus and move one of them in trade.

    Which, yeah, would be a great problem to have.

  • ryan97ou

    my friend also reminded me about miggie…who i unfortunately left out, as i was focusing on the core. and while the long run really is about just that…the CORE, it can’t go without saying that i think miggie’s offensive contributions are being way under rated going into this season. i think he’s gonna generate a lot of runs and have quite a good season.

    don’t prove me wrong migs.

  • Andrew

    @neal s – I won’t argue with you on that, but I will say that I disagree. Let me ask, out of curiosity as much as anything: What, in your opinion, makes someone “fit” for DHing? Do they have to be a bad defender?

  • neal s

    @Andrew – In general, yeah, I’d say that the DH spot should go to someone with limited defensive ability. More importantly, though, I don’t believe in putting young players either in or entering their prime in that spot. It’s just a waste.

  • Andrew

    @neal s – Seems reasonable. What about a compromise then!

    One of Pie’s deficiencies as a ballplayer seems to be his platoon splits, which Reimold doesn’t suffer from nearly as much. So, in the post-Scott landscape, why don’t the Orioles find a hitter who completely owns lefties. Then your platoon situation looks like:

    vs. lefties:
    LF Reimold
    DH FA Dood

    vs. righties:
    LF Pie
    DH Reimold

    Yes? No?

  • dan the man

    Scratch the 75 win thing. If we just break Lester’s 10-0 streak against the O’s, I think I’ll consider it Meaningful Improvement.

  • neal s

    @Andrew – That seems reasonable enough.