Bottom of the barrel no longer. Orioles hope to make impact in AL East, Part 2

Part 1 here.

For many years, life was miserable for teams in the AL East other than the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.  In the past decade, the Yankees have won their division seven times, and the Red Sox have finished second in the division seven times, winning it outright in 2007.

With no salary cap in Major League Baseball, teams are free to spend however much they would like on contract extensions and free agent pickups.  And make no mistake; huge six-figure deals are the bread and butter of the two northeastern juggernauts.  Projected for 2011, the Yankees’ team salary tips the scales at $206 million, while the Red Sox are in second at nearly $161 million.  To put that in perspective, these two teams’ salaries are more than the Indians, Marlins, Rangers, Athletics, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Pirates salaries combined ($341 million).

Derrek Lee (L) and Vladimir Guerrero proved they still had some pop left in their bats and hope to give a jolt to the Orioles offense.

Normally, the Orioles are close to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to payroll.  This year, however, they are right in the thick of things, with a projected opening day payroll of $81 million (ranked 17th in the league).  Although that places them in the bottom half of the league, Baltimore may be getting the most bang for their buck.

First, the steal: Adam Jones, a true five-tool player, and also a guy who has yet to reach his full potential.  The 25-year-old center fielder will be making a paltry $465,000 in 2011.  Not too bad for a player who is on the verge of having his first 20-20 season of his career.

The Orioles bullpen is full of great deals.  Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year, Jim Johnson (3.42 ERA), and newcomer Koji Uehara, who had a ridiculous 11-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, will make an average of $2.48 million in 2011.  This is most impressive considering what teams were paying for relievers this offseason, headlined by New York’s 3-year/$35 million deal for Rafael Soriano.

Impact-wise, the largest improvement to the Orioles came in the form of veteran bats.  Both Derrek Lee (19 HR, 80 R, 80 RBI last year) and Vladimir Guerrero (.300, 29 HR, 115 RBI) will both be 36 this year, but each has shown that they can still swing the bat.  And although they are coming off down years, JJ Hardy and Mark Reynolds are two players entering the primes of their careers.

Along with homegrown talent such as Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters, the new additions make the Orioles’ offense one of the scariest in the league for opposing pitchers – on paper that is.  How the season actually unfolds could be another story.

Buck Showalter will try to pick up where he left off after finishing 34-23 to end the 2010 season.

What about the intangibles, like the leadership of new skipper Buck Showalter?  After being appointed manager late in the season, the Showalter-led Orioles finished 2010 at 34–23, the best record among American League East clubs during the same stretch.

And what about the starting rotation?  Unless you’re a diehard Orioles fan, there’s a good chance you can’t name three of Baltimore’s starting pitchers.  Their ace, Jeremy Guthrie, has pitched better than his stats have indicated.  He lost more games than he won last year, but he kept was walks down and held opposing batters to a .243 average.   Brian Matusz, the young fire-baller entering just his second full season, has a lot of potential.  With a more potent offense backing him up this year, there little doubt that he will be able to improve on his 10-win rookie season.

Brian Matusz could be primed for a breakout year in 2011.

The rest of the rotation, consisting of Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Justin Duchsherer, is a huge question mark.   Other than Duchsherer, who is coming off of a hip injury that kept him out all of 2009, the 3-4-5 guys are young, unpolished, and wild.

There’s no question that, on the offensive side, the Orioles can compete with the best in the AL East.  But with such a thin starting rotation, it might be a struggle to win three or four game series.  Fortunately, their cast of relievers is compiled of enough solid veterans that they should be able to consistently limit the damage in later stages of the game.  Indeed, the Orioles management had “crisis control” on their minds when they focused on bolstering the bullpen.

My prediction for the 2011 AL East final standings?

1.)    Boston Red Sox

2.)    N.Y. Yankees

3.)    Baltimore Orioles

4.)    Tampa Bay Rays

5.)    Toronto Blue Jays

Will the Orioles win their division?  Not this year.  But they won’t lose 90 games in 2011.  And they won’t be in the AL East cellar, either.

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