As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 1 – BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The 2011 season began with a lot of optimism because of the great job Buck Showalter did in turning around the Orioles at the end of the 2010 season.
But 2011 was much like every season for the Orioles since 1999. It fizzled into frustration in a hurry. They finished with a record of 69-93 and they were a distant fifth in the A.L. East, 28 games behind the Yankees.
This coming season promises to pretty similar because the Orioles have not made a lot of changes to their roster. With the exeption of Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott and Derrek Lee, this pretty much the same group that floundered through much of 2011.
One big reason is that the Orioles banked their future hopes on a collection of young starting pitchers like Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman. They progressed through the minors but none of them have established themselves as major-league quality starters. And if you want to compete in this division, you have to have good starting pitching.
The Orioles compounded that issue by trading their best starting pitcher, Guthrie, to the Colorado Rockies for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. As a result, the Orioles’ “ace” is former Rangers right-hander Tommy Hunter, who was 4-4 with a 4.68 ERA in an injury-shortened season.
The Orioles, led by general manager Dan Duquette, are now shifting their sites overseas and the team signed two pitchers from the Japanese League in Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada.
Chen, 26, is a left-hander from Taiwan who has compiled a 36-30 record and a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons. He also has pretty good stuff with 500 career strikeouts in 631 1/3 innings.
Wada, 30, is another left-hander and he has overcome two injury-plagued seasons to compile a combined 33-13 record with a 2.29 ERA in the last two seasons with Fukuoda Softbank Hawks. While Chen has better stuff, Wada is considered to have better control.
Both figure prominently in the Orioles plans for 2012 and both likely will be in the rotation this season, depending on how they progress in the spring.
Hammel, 29, was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA last season with the Rockies. The tall right-hander figures to be slotted as the No. 4 starter.
The Orioles still have high hopes for Matusz, Britton, Arrieta and Tillman. But it appears Britton and Arrieta are going to get most of the attention this spring. The lefty Britton suffered a shoulder injury last season and he finished the season 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA. Arrieta was 10-8 with 5.05 ERA.
The bullpen was a strength of this team when Koji Uehara was around but he was dealt to the Rangers at the trade deadline last July.
The closer job is up for grabs between incumbent closer Kevin Gregg, who saved 22 games but blew seven chances and was 0-3 with a 4.37 ERA, and Jim Johnson, who saved nine games and was 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA. Lindtsrom, who saved 23 games for the Astros in 2010, can also be shifted into the closer role.
The rest of the bullpen will likely be made up with lefty Darren O’Day and former starters Alfredo Simon, Brad Bergesen and Jason Berken.
A few years ago, the Orioles seem to invested their future into second baseman Brian Roberts, right-fielder Nick Markakis and center-fielder Adam Jones and have built around those players.
Unfortunately, Roberts has suffered through injury after injury and Markakis and Jones have underperformed expectations.
With the Orioles lack of ability to attract high-priced free-agent talent, the Orioles have to rely on that trio as the core of the team again.
The Orioles may also begin getting what they expected out of catcher Matt Wieters, who hit 22 home runs and won a Gold Glove for his defensive work behind the plate. The former No. 1 pick also is showing some signs of leadership on the team.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy finally shook off injuries that plagued him since he was with the Brewers in 2008 as he hit 30 home runs and drove in 80 runs.
Third baseman Mark Reynolds was pretty much as advertised. He did not hit for average and struck out 196 times but he also hit 37 home runs and drove in 87 runs.
Former Rangers first baseman Chris Davis is pretty much a carbon copy of Reynolds at first base only he does most of his striking out from the left side.
The Orioles will likely platoon veterans Endy Chavez and Nolan Reimold in the outfield and look for the Orioles to make a late bid for a DH.
They could re-sign veteran Vladimir Guerrero or chose from among Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to replace Scott.
Former Yankee Wilson Betemit will be the top reserve on the infield and middle infield reserve Robert Andino will return to provide glovework behind Roberts and Hardy. Former Rangers backstop Taylor Teagarden will be the backup to Wieters.
The Orioles could use the spring to look for some veteran help in the outfield to bolster their bench a bit.
With Jones, Wieters, Hardy, Reynolds and Davis the Orioles seem to have plenty of firepower. Plus when Roberts is healthy and Markakis is going good, they can get on base and steal a base or two. But the overall offense may be too geared towards power over putting the ball iin play and advancing runners.
The Orioles, as a team, strike out way too much and it cost them because their pitching is not that strong.
The Orioles are gambling on two Japanese League pitchers and two journeyman American starters (Hunter and Hammel) to give them time to develop their young pitchers like Britton and Arrieta. The jury is still out on Matusz, who looked like a surefire star in the making in 2010.
Without a consistent starting rotation, any effort Showalter makes in the bullpen could prove futile. A good bullpen only limits the damage. The bullpen should be strong but it is obvious they are going to tire quickly if they are constantly coming in the fourth or fifth inning.
Barring another Showalter miracle, this team is headed for more frustration in 2012. They simply can’t compete with the big boys (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox) and they merely hold their own against the Blue Jays. If I were a betting man, I would suspect that the Orioles will finish fifth again.
It is a spot for which they are built.
ON TUESDAY – PART 2 TORONTO BLUE JAYS
YANKEES 13, ORIOLES 2
The rain that fell throughout Camden Yards was a perfect metaphor for the game on Thursday night. Once the skies opened up, the Yankees dumped a umbrella-full of runs on the Orioles they could not possibly overcome.
Nick Swisher drove in four runs and Mark Teixeira homered and drove in three while CC Sabathia continued his personal domination of the Orioles as New York scored five runs in the first inning and went on to drown Baltimore at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in a game delayed at the start by a 48-minute rain delay. The Orioles, in retrospect, wished it was much longer.
Sabathia (4-3) pitched eight scoreless innings, giving up seven hits, walking none and fanning a season-high nine batters. Sabathia ran his career record over the Orioles to 16-2 and he was in command from his first pitch to his last, which struck out Vladimir Guerrero swinging.
The Yankees, fresh off a game against the Orioles in which they could not by a key hit until Robinson Cano’s two-run double in the 15th inning, jumped all over Orioles starter Brad Bergesen (1-5) in the first inning. Swisher capped off a nine-batter assault with a two-out bases-loaded double to left that plated all three base-runners. Bergesen gave up eight runs on five hits, three walks and hit a batter in just 3 1/3 innings. He entered the game with an 0-3 career record and a 6.65 ERA against the Yankees.
With the victory, the Yankees improved their season record to 23-19 and they moved to within one game of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. The Orioles are 19-23 and in last place, fives game behind the Rays.
- Swisher added a RBI single in the fourth inning for his second four RBI game of the season. It was a welcome sight for the Yankees to see Swisher getting key hits. He entered the game hitting .215 and he had been ineffective all season long hitting left-handed. He is now hitting .223 with two home runs and 19 RBI.
- The Yankees hit three triples in the game. Curtis Granderson hit an RBI triple in the first inning to plate the game’s first run. Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter hit-back-to-back RBI triples in the fourth that finally chased Bergesen from the game. In all, the Yankees collected nine extra-base hits. In Wednesday’s 15-inning game, Cano’s double was their only extra-base hit of the night.
- Sabathia cruised with the big lead he was handed. He has made two starts against the Orioles this season and the Yankees have won them by a combined score of 28-5. In those two games, Sabathia has given up just three runs on 13 hits and one walk and struck out 16 batters in 16 innings. Sabathia, in a word, simply “owns” the Orioles.
- Eduardo Nunez, 23, may be a bit rough in the field but he is showing great promise as a hitter. He entered the game to spell Alex Rodriguez in the eighth inning and hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning off reliever Troy Patton, his first of the season and his second in the major leagues. In limited play this season, Nunez is hitting .300.
There were no negatives in this one. The Yankees played as perfect as they possibly could. After losing six in a row, the Yankees have now won three straight.
Manager Joe Girardi chose to use Mark Teixeira as the DH on Thursday and inserted Jorge Posada at first base to give Teixiera a bit of a break. It was Posada’s first use in the field this season and his 28th career start at first base. He handled all the chances without an error. Posada, who has maintained he is better hitter when he plays in the field, was 1-for-3 with two walks and an RBI in the game. . . . A CT scan performed on outfielder Chris Dickerson indicated just a slight concussion and Girardi said he should be available to play on Friday. Dickerson was struck in the helmet in the 15th inning on a pitch by Michael Gonzalez in the 15th inning of Wednesday’s game against the Orioles. Dickerson sported a welt over his left eye and a small cut on his forehead but said he felt lucky he was not hit in the eye. . . . Bergesen hit Cano in the left thigh with a pitch in the first inning. Despite the fact Bergesen’s command was off, Sabathia chose to send a message to the Orioles in the bottom of the inning. After retiring the first two batters, Sabathia hit Nick Markakis in the back with a fastball. Home-plate umpire Larry Vanover warned both dugouts about further incidents. Yankee reliever Amauri Sanit hit rookie Brandon Snyder with a pitch in the ninth inning but Vanover elected not to eject him.
The Yankees return to the Bronx to open the first part of the 2011 Subway Series with the New York Mets.
The Yankees will start right-hander Freddy Garcia (2-3, 3.22 ERA). Garcia gave up a season-high four runs on six hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings against the Red Sox in his last start. Garcia has a record of 21-8 with a 2.92 ERA in interleague play. He is 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA against the Mets.
The Mets will counter with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (1-5, 5.08 ERA). Dickey gave up four runs on six hits in the first inning against Houston in a loss on Saturday. He is 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA against the Yankees in his career.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by MY9.
- Sabathia actually was dominant in seven of his eight innings. He shut out the Orioles in those seven innings on four singles and no walks and fanned six. However, in the seventh inning, he gave up a leadoff walk to Nick Markakis and a single to Derrek Lee. Then Adam Jones nicked the left-hander for an opposite-field three-run home run to right to get Orioles back into the game at 6-3. But the Yankees’ offense took off from there.
- Rodriguez opened the Yankees’ scoring with a two-run double in the first inning. He added the 22nd grand slam of his career with two outs in the eighth inning off Josh Rupe to make the score 13-3. A-Rod needs only one more grand slam to tie Lou Gehrig for the all-time lead. His six RBIs in the game moved him past Carl Yastrzemski into 10th place on the all-time RBI list with 1,847.
- Martin has more than served notice that he has regained his 2007 form at the plate. He now has six home runs, 15 RBIs and is batting .333 on the season. With two out in the top of the eighth inning Rupe hit Martin with his first pitch, which rankled Martin. But he is quickly earning the respect of A.L. pitchers.
- Posada hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning and he now has six home runs among his nine hits this season.
- Don’t look now but it appears Brett Gardner may be about to shake his season-long funk. He doubled in the second and hit a two-run home run in the ninth after Martin was plunked to close out the Yankees’ season-high 15-run assault on the Orioles.
- Nick Swisher was the only starter who did not register a hit in the game. He was 0-for-4 but he did draw a walk and scored a run. His batting average dipped to .254.
- Sabathia was rolling into the seventh inning having thrown only an amazing 56 pitches over the first six innings. But he was tagged for three runs on four hits and a walk in the next two innings and he threw 47 pitches over that span. He also did not help his cause by failing to cover first on an infield single by Markakis in the eighth. But Sabathia got out of the inning without giving up a run.
- Swisher missed three games last week due to a sore left knee and did not return to the lineup until Monday. He was 0-for-7 in the previous two games before going 2-for-4 on Wednesday. The two RBIs also give him 82 for the season, which ties the total he drove in for the Yankees last season. His career high in RBIs is 95 set with Oakland in 2006.
- Ivan Nova pitched a career-high six innings for the Yankees and he pitched well enough to have won. Nova gave up six hits and walked two (both intentional) and fanned six. His only mistake was serving up a 3-0 fastball that Matt Wieters slammed into the second deck in left-field for a two-run home run in the fifth inning. In his four starts, Nova is 1-0 with a 3.32 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings.
- Once again, the bullpen shined and allowed the Yankees to mount their comeback by holding the Orioles to two runs. Boone Logan, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain combined to give up no hits and no walks and strike out six in three innings. Chamberlain (3-4), who pitched a scoreless ninth inning, won the game in relief.
- Curtis Granderson, Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner worked in unison in the third inning to give the Yankees an initial 1-0 lead. Granderson drew a walk from Orioles starter Brad Bergesen and stole second. He moved to third on Cervelli’s groundout to first and scored on Gardner’s double to left. Gardner was thrown out at third base trying to stretch the hit into a triple.
- Derek Jeter was 0-for-4 and he finished the 10-game home-stand 5-for-36 (.139). He is hitting .172 for the month and his season average is down to .262. Yankee fans are still wondering what is happening to their captain.
- Mark Teixeira started the home-stand 9-for-13 (.692) in the four games against Oakland. In the next six games he was 3-for-20 (.150), including an 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Wednesday.
- Gardner really hurt the Yankees badly by getting thrown out at third in the third inning but he really hurt them worse with his at-bat in the fifth inning. With one out and Lance Berkman at second and Cervelli on first, Gardner grounded into an inning-ending double play and allowed Bergesen to wriggle off the hook for another inning.