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September 12, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Baltimore Orioles

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

Today we look at the Baltimore Orioles. It's time to kiss 'em goodbye.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
Three position players established themselves as the foundation of a better team. Matt Wieters displayed exceptional defense while becoming more of an offensive presence than he had been in his first two seasons. J.J. Hardy not only stayed healthy but found the power stroke he had left in the pocket of his last Brewers uniform and was rewarded with a contract extension that will keep him on Chesapeake Bay until 2014. Adam Jones, still just 25 years old, had his third straight season of offensive growth. Building strength up the middle is one of the best ways to become competitive; the corner pieces should be easier to find, at least in theory.

Signs of disaster: The Buck Showalter Autumn of 2010 did not turn into the Showalter Spring of 2011. What seemed like a promising young starting rotation disintegrated right from the outset. Brian Matusz was emblematic. Having guided the team to a 10-1 record in his last 11 starts of 2010 and posting a 2.18 ERA along the way, he opened 2011 on the disabled list and was relentlessly hammered when he returned. Matusz wasn't any better after a demotion to the minors, ultimately failing to make a single quality start in 10 tries before Showalter pulled him from the rotation for his own safety. Other than Zach Britton and reliever Jim Johnson, no major league pitcher still in the organization made a strong case to be part of next year's staff. The best of the rest was probably Jake Arrieta, who missed much of the second half due to surgery for bone spurs in his elbow. Overall, the staff was last in the majors in ERA. As for the offense, its prowess with the home run was blunted by its finishing second to last in the league in walks.

Signs you can ignore: Britton's 4.33 ERA doesn't scream dominance, but he's a ground-ball pitcher performing in front of the worst defense in the league. In all of baseball, only the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs allowed a higher batting average on balls in play than the Orioles. When Showalter arrived in 2010, the O's went from last to first in defensive efficiency, but they were back at the bottom this year. A big part of the problem was third baseman Mark Reynolds, who was mercifully shifted over to first base after the Derrek Lee trade. The Orioles still need to find stability at the hot corner (neither Josh Bell, Robert Andino nor Chris Davis is an heir to Brooks Robinson) as well as at second base, where Brian Roberts' concussion has put his career in doubt. If they can give their young pitchers the defensive support they deserve, they can recapture some of the magic of last September. Steve Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Baltimore Orioles are prepared for the resignation of team president Andy MacPhail and should hire former Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes to replace him as the head of baseball operations. Byrnes grew up in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area and understands the marketplace. And, despite some failed trades and some poorly assembled bullpens, he deserves a lot of the credit for the Diamondbacks team that will soon clinch the National League West title. With Byrnes at the helm in '08, the D-backs also spent a franchise-best 136 days in first place before relinquishing it in early September, and in 2007 his club went 90-72.

Byrnes is intelligent and understands all aspects of new- and old-school evaluating and roster structuring. He was the runner-up for the Mets job last year when New York hired Sandy Alderson. He also has the experience of working in a big market and the winning culture of the American League East. Byrnes was the assistant GM of the Red Sox under Theo Epstein during a time when the Red Sox never won fewer than 95 games and won a World Series in 2004. He played a role in the drafting of current Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, and continuing to build homegrown talent is crucial in Baltimore.

After hiring Byrnes, the Orioles then need to delve into free agency like they did during the brief Pat Gillick years and make the highest bid for Prince Fielder. Baltimore has been reluctant to make the highest offer in years and dollars for recent free agents—two things that Scott Boras, Fielder's agent, would surely want—but Fielder would be the perfect sign for the Orioles with his power and personality.

Baltimore could also upgrade the starting rotation with Edwin Jackson as it finds ways to straighten out Brian Matusz and Zach Britton. Dylan Bundy, their first-round pick this year, figures to play a large role in the future, but he is at least a couple of years away in his development. Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 82-80

The O's 2011 plan to be successful, or at least get above .500, necessitated two or three of their young starting pitchers taking a huge step forward. Most of their young starters had terrible seasons and have at least slightly worse outlooks for 2012. Wieters and Jones are both players in their early prime years who retain some significant upside, and ZiPS gives them odds of joining the elite players at their position (top 20 percent of starters) at 28 and 32 percent, respectively.

Worst-case scenario: 60-102
With the Orioles looking like they will have the worst pitching staff in baseball unless they spend big on the free-agent market this offseason, adding in some bad luck could easily result in Baltimore once again fighting to avoid a 100-loss season. ZiPS pegs Baltimore's chances of possessing not even one league average or better starting pitcher at 33 percent, a frighteningly high number. While the Orioles quietly had a league-average offense this year, the depth is wafer-thin, leaving the team with a substantial downside. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
With rumors swirling that Andy MacPhail will step down, a potential new general manager for the Orioles will step into a difficult situation to say the least. Not only is the big league team the worst in the American League East by a wide margin, but so is the strength of the minor league system. After 2010 first-round pick Manny Machado, a young shortstop who had an outstanding full-season debut in 2010, there's not a position prospect in the system to get excited about, and while 2011 first-rounder Dylan Bundy oozes potential, the overall strength of the pitching isn't much better. There are no quick fixes in Baltimore, and any sort of turnaround is going to take a long, long time. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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