Thursday, April 30, 2009

Developing Stories in the 2009 Minor League Season

I've decided that, mostly due to my inability to get out to some minor league games this week, I'm going to have to skip this week's Prospect Report. There have been some players who have absolutely warranted reports being done, particularly Brandon Erbe, but I want to get a longer look before I tackle some of the bigger prospects in this system. But I thought I would take this time to take a step back and look at some of the bigger storylines playing out through the O's farm system.

Brandon Erbe's surprising dominance: Brandon Erbe has absolutely exploded onto the scene this season; I won't go into too much depth, because I'd like to save it for a later Prospect Report. Erbe blasted onto the map a few years ago out of high school, but the Pasadena native struggled badly in Frederick in 2007 and had a decent, but not overwhelming season in 2008. Making the jump to Bowie this year, Erbe was not expected to be as dominant as he has been, pitching to a 0.90 ERA in four starts this season, striking out 19 while walking 8. Brandon Erbe has long been known as a pitcher with phenomenal stuff but severe inconsistency. Maintaining anywhere near this level of excellence throughout this season will be a huge storyline to follow.

Billy Rowell moving to right field: Okay, now this was a weird one entering the season. Billy Rowell was once the premier prospect in this organization, but after a horrendous year in Frederick and continuing questions about his attitude, Rowell has fallen off to the point of being considered a huge bust. Now the former third baseman has been moved to the outfield in an attempt to allow him to focus on his hitting, and it seems to be starting to work. His average has slowly climbed up after a poor start, and by many accounts Rowell has been working harder in his hitting and is consciously trying to fix his game. This is a desperate move by the organization, but a wise one; if his bat can be salvaged and the raw power can materialize, the Orioles can find a place for him at first, third, or DH. The first step for a player of his natural abilities is to get his bat in order and find a place for him defensively. But he certainly won't stay at right field forever.

Young position players struggling to take hold in Delmarva: While it's difficult to find many position prospects in the upper levels of the O's system, a number of draftees from last year are trying to establish themselves in Delmarva. Among them are second baseman L.J. Hoes, shortstop Greg Miclat, and outfielders Ronnie Welty, Xavier Avery, and Kyle Hudson. All five of these players started off very slowly, and aside from Welty, all continue to bat under .300 with zero home runs combined (Welty is batting .309 with 1 hr). While it is expected that players like LJ Hoes (.260 avg) and Xavier Avery (.180) would struggle early on because they are right out of high school, polished players like Kyle Hudson and Greg Miclat were not expected to struggle so much. This is particularly true for Miclat, who was very polished coming out of UVA as a high average hitter, but is only hitting .200 through 16 games. Expect him to bounce back strong and end with a higher average. Watching these young hitters sink or swim in their first professional season is an important storyline for the future of the Orioles down the line.

Nolan Reimold - The Man, The Legend: Okay, well he's not playing that well, but the point still remains. Reimold feels that he should be in the majors right now, and rather than raising a fuss to the media he's just going about his business and proving it through his play. Now, rather than it being just him telling the Orioles that they are making a mistake by keeping him in Norfolk, he has much of the fan base clamoring for him instead. Reimold has been on an absolute tear this season, batting .403 with 6 home runs, 19 rbis, and 4 stolen bases. He has even increased his walks and cut down on his strikeouts, with a decent 14:9 K:BB ratio. MacPhail will keep the Pie experiment alive for awhile longer, but the pressure is mounting to bring in the home prospect to replace him already. It's just important to remember that Reimold is known for being streaky; the question has not been whether or not he could hit .400 over a period of a month, but it's whether he can avoid following it with a few weeks of batting .200.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Free Kicks: Entirely Out of Place Wednesday Edition

When I sat down to write my piece for the middle of this week (Windsor had to cover for me yesterday), I couldn’t help but notice that I hadn’t written a true Free Kicks in a while. Additionally, with all the focus on the NFL Draft there were a host of stories that begged our attention. So, if you are not to aghast at moving things around, there were some thoughts I simply had to share. Let’s line up for the kick…

Freeling Unwanted
Sorry folks, I had to make that pun. When Ryan Freel was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in the Ramon Hernandez trade, I was just as excited as anyone to get Freel. His demeanor was supposed to maintain levity in the clubhouse a la Kevin Millar, provide a great utility option at a variety of positions, and give some veteran leadership to a young group. However, less than a month into the regular season, none of that has come to pass. Moreover, Freel is asking to get out of dodge, explaining that he doesn’t fit into the Orioles organization and isn’t happy with his role off the bench. Frankly, I don’t blame him for seeing it that way. Baltimore is stacked in the outfield, with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie as starters and Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimold tearing up the minors ready to take over for Pie at any point the young boom-bust project falters.

In that scenario, there is no room for Freel except as a utility guy, something he is suddenly unhappy with (compared to when he arrived here). I am not bitter, but I am a disappointed that Freel would do this so publicly after starting the season 2-15 and doing little to merit additional playing time. The O’s should try to work out a deal to get something for the versatile right-hander, but it won’t be much in this climate.

Grieving Vasquez
Most Terps fans met the news of Greivis Vasquez entering the NBA Draft with a shrug, and perhaps for good reason. Vasquez did not hire an agent, and may soon discover that he is not worth quite as much to the NBA as he would like, and would be very wise to stay another year with Maryland and make a run next season. He needs work on his ball distribution in running the point and generally needs to tighten up his game at the pro level- he won’t get away with a lot of his shots against professionals who won’t be duped by a simple step back jumper. To an NBA team, he is an incredible talent who needs time to develop- might as well do that development in the ACC.

And then there is the Lance Stevenson saga. Stevenson has been strongly linked with the Kansas Jayhawks over the last month or so, but that could change with CJ Henry bolting the Calipari-less Memphis squad for Lawrence. Lance wants to go one-and-done, and battling another (higher rated) top recruit for playing time can’t be that appealing. However, Stevenson has not expressed any additional interest in Maryland since Henry’s commitment to Kansas, so it is unlikely he will wind up a Terp. But if I had to choose between one year with Vasquez and one year with Stevenson, I will take the known commodity.

Was it a Balk? Does it Matter?
I don’t know if Jamie Walker’s pickoff throw to first was a balk or not- I have been traveling since Sunday and didn’t get to see it live. But honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to me whether it was or wasn’t. What was important was the reaction. Trembley’s emphatic defense of his pitcher was inspiring, and Walker’s defiance (and possible suspension) could help bring this team together. Sometimes in a season a team needs moments like these to rally around one another, get fired up, and take on that “us against the world” mentality. Seeing the manager get ejected always brings back memories of Earl Weaver for Orioles fans, but this move wasn’t just about the call. It was about giving a boost to a team whose energy was flagging after their hot start. I am a big fan of Dave Trembley, and he knows when to get upset. This was one of those times, and it could help jumpstart the club over the next few series.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Draft Still Leaves Ravens Wanting at Wide Receiver

It's very hard to argue with any of the Ravens' picks this weekend, particularly in the light of Ozzie & Co.'s history of success in the NFL Draft. The Ravens were able to take a top-15 player with the 23rd overall pick, a possible successor to Trevor Pryce in the 2nd round, a young cornerback/kick returner in the third, as well as excellent value picks in the later rounds. Each one of the picks has the potential to contribute in their first couple years and this draft again represents the good things that can happen when you don't panic and let the chips fall to you. But while everyone at the Castle is celebrating, still noone in that organization has seriously addressed the big elephant in the room: Flacco needs a deep threat.

The Ravens hit it big last year with Joe Flacco, and you would think that they would leap at the opportunity to complement him with a quality young wideout who he can develop with. Almost all great quarterbacks have a wideout with whom they develop. Aikman-Irvin, Montana-Rice, Manning-Harrison, Young-Rice; heck, even Roethlisberger-Ward and Palmer-Johnson (before that whole thing started falling apart). I understand that Joe Flacco has some targets and that they did produce adequately last season. However, even if Flacco has exemplary protection, there is no way that the defense can be kept honest unless there is a true vertical threat. Without one the Ravens will keep seeing what the Pittsburgh Steelers repeatedly did to them last season; drop seven, eight in zone and make Flacco thread the needle.

Ozzie has come out and stated that the deep threat will come in the form of a healthy Demetrius Williams. I'm sorry, but I'm not buying that: it's not that I don't like Demetrius and I don't think he's got the ability, it's that he was healthy at the start of last season too only to see another season end short. I would be shocked if he stayed healthy through this season, though I certainly would be elated to see that. There are still young wideouts like Marcus Smith and Justin Harper who were either invisible on the field (Smith) or injured (Harper) last season who have the potential to develop. I would talk up Marcus Smith again but after I talked him up bigtime last year and he didn't produce a single catch, I'll keep my mouth shut.

The Ravens are banking that a better line and a couple new tight ends will be the key this offense needs. They might be right in this, because too often the Ravens relied on 2-3 man routes while keeping everyone else in protection. This season expect the Ravens to utilize Todd Heap more in the passing game as they will have other tight ends to take some blocking duty, and expect some more receivers to make their names be known. If Joe Flacco (and by extension the entire offense) takes a step forward this year, we'll score another one for Ozzie. If not, we'll be looking back at some of the receivers in this draft and think of what might have been.

Update: Two of the Ravens' undrafted free agent signings are wide receivers: Eron Riley of Duke and Isaiah Williams of Maryland. Physically these two are nearly identical, both being 6'3" and about 200 pounds, with a 4.36 40 time for Riley and a 4.38 40 time for Williams. How either one develops will be an interesting storyline to follow; early edge to Riley because unlike Isaiah Williams, he produced significant numbers in college. Isaiah Williams never got into a groove at Maryland, only catching 10 passes as a senior.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ravens Draft- The First Day

If there is one thing we should know about Ozzie Newsome by now, it is that he often does not have the flashy draft or the one that everyone expects, but that he often gets the job done. All Ravens fans expected a wide receiver to be taken with the Ravens first pick, but they traded up to take an offensive tackle. It was quite the interesting first day.

The picks:
--1st Round, 23rd overall (from the Patriots): Michael Oher, OT, Ole Miss
--2nd Round, 57th overall, Paul Kruger, DE, Utah

The good:
Michael Oher is a wonderful story, coming from a family where his mother was a drug addict and he was at one point homeless. No one will ever question his character or his work ethic on the field because frankly he has been through tougher times. This pick was about giving Joe Flacco more protection on his line, a big 6'5'' 316 pound bulldozing lineman to protect him. Chances are he will have to play right tackle even though his natural position is at left, but Jared Gaither locks down the left side so Oher will have to switch to the other side. Paul Kruger to some is a steal at 57th, to others taken about where he should have been on the draft board. He is an athletic defensive end that has good speed, though not a lot of experience. The Ravens often like to get lineman, offensive or defensive, high on the draft board, and they got two good ones that should have an immediate impact.

The bad:
The Ravens have still not addressed their wide receiver needs. Newsome clearly was not targeting one of the bigger ones in the top-6, because the trade-up with New England was for Oher. Had the Ravens been looking for a wide receiver with the first pick, Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks were both available, and one of them would have likely fallen to 26th (in retrospect, both fell past 26th, but no telling what would have happened if picks were not traded). Plus the Ravens are not interested in Anquan Boldin right now, so it looks like the Ravens will be satisfied with the status quo unless someone gets moved.

The likely effects of the first day:
--With the drafting of Michael Oher, Willie Anderson will likely get cut soon. Anderson counts as about $4 million in salary, and the Ravens need to clear some cap room to sign draft picks. This may also lead to Trevor Pryce getting cut after the 2009 season.
--The Ravens have pretty much decided not to try for Anquan Boldin. Even if the Cardinals choose to once again lower the cost to get Boldin, the Ravens can not afford to pay him a new contract without serious issues down the line, so he will not come to Baltimore.
--A wide receiver is still a target. Players like Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma and Derrick Williams from Penn State are still around, and the Ravens may want to address that need with their third round pick.
--A few other targets could include a cornerback, a fullback, an outside linebacker, and a special teams returner.

The result:
Based on the picks, they are two solid players from the first day. Even though they did not address the primary needs of the team, Ozzie Newsome has shown himself to be a solid drafter, so I believe he did a nice job. They fill two positions currently occupied by veterans in their 30s and should address those positions for a good while if they pan out.

The Ravens have only four picks left in the 2009 draft, so they will need to choose wisely on the second day.

(Photo credit: Walter Football)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Free Kicks, Draft Preview Edition

Well, make this three weeks since you last got the sweet aroma of Free Kicks, and I am not sure if this will count as one. But the death of Nick Adenhart, me being overwhelmed with work-related activities and moving around (again) has put a delay into getting this up. I was going to talk about Vasquez going Pro, the NBA Playoffs, or even the tantalizing excitement of the Capitals getting knocked out in the first round, but then I realized… the draft is tomorrow and we haven’t broken it down nearly as much as we should have! So I have decided to highlight some of the players who have been linked to the Ravens’ 26th overall pick and given you my reactions. Let’s line up for the kick…

Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois: I have heard this one an awful lot, to be honest, and on some levels it does make sense. The Ravens could always use another cornerback, and Davis would fit the current situation. There has been a great deal of criticism about Davis’ fundamentals; that he lacks true cornerback skills but has hidden that with exemplary physical attributes. With the Ravens he would be able to gradually ease into his role behind Rolle, Washington, and Foxworth. However, I personally wouldn’t take the risk. Use a 4th or 5th round pick on a project corner who has measurables isn't necessarily smooth. Not your first rounder, and not when there are much more pressing needs on the team.

Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State: This one is clearly a reach, as it is highly unlikely that Pettigrew will fall to us. On the surface, I didn’t think we needed another tight end. Todd Heap is injury prone, but we have L.J. Smith to back him up… who is also injury prone. Additionally, both are approaching the end of their productive careers and the Ravens do not want to be left without a solid backup to enter the starting role. Pettigrew ran a disappointing 4.8 40 yard dash at the combine, but he played much faster than that. He was also a full package for the Cowboys, blocking and receiving in equal parts. Pettigrew is a consummate NFL style tight end, and it wouldn’t hurt to get Joe Flacco another target to throw to.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland: Okay Terps fans, stop salivating for a minute. This would answer the Ravens’ biggest need, but the question is… when? Bey needs a lot of work as far as route-running, and his speed may have masked other deficiencies. Additionally, despite the mediocre quarterback play, Bey completely disappeared for entire games, unable to get open- and it wasn’t just because he was triple covered. Many college receivers get additional attention and still are able to find a way to get noticed and get receptions. Darrius will need a lot of work, and it could be two or three years before he starts to contribute in a big way. Even then, there is a significant risk that he could wind up like another speedy wideout who shot up draft boards with a blazing 40 time, Troy Williamson. He could be a great pick, but he has a it of a red flag to me.

Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers: Britt is the opposite of Bey. Britt is a solid, polished route-runner with consistent college production. However, he lacks the top end, gamebreaking speed that the Ravens need to stretch the field on every play- I think we can all concede that sending Mark Clayton deep just isn’t natural. If Baltimore wants a rookie who can step in and contribute immediately, this could be the way to go. The only concern here is that Britt is more of a second round talent in my opinion, and this could be a stretch to take him here. If Ozzie wants Britt, he may want to trade down and wait to get him in the second round.

Percy Harvin, WR, Florida: This injury prone gamebreaker from Florida is a very interesting target. Harvin, if healthy, could answer the Ravens' problems at kick returner and deep threat, in addition to the plethora of roles he played in Gainesville. However, Percy seems to suffer from the greatest trouble a wideout can have- attitude problems. From all accounts teams are very concerned about his coachability and me-first outlook on the team, believing he is already a top flight receiver. He reminds me a lot of Heyward-Bey but has been used more underneath and even from the backfield- though it is unlikely that any NFL team would expose the 195lb receiver to that kind of punishment. The Ravens have to care about character, particularly if they are bringing in a loudmouth receiver who wants the ball. The last thing they want is Percy Harvin mouthing off to the press and putting Flacco and Harbaugh on ESPN for all the wrong reasons.

My take? I would take Pettigrew if he fell to us, stay away from Vontae Davis and Percy Harvin, trade down for Kenny Britt if a good deal presented itself and if not go with Darrius (if he is available). Will it go that way? If Ozzie this year is anything like he has been in the past, it won't be any of these players and will be someone we have never heard of who winds up a Pro-Bowler. Go figure.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prospect Report: Jason Berken

I promise, one of these days I will in fact profile a position prospect. Quite honestly this system still needs an awful lot of help with position prospects without the last names of Wieters and Snyder. So rather than reaching for a position player, I have to give credit where credit is due, and profile the oft-overlooked Jason Berken. Berken was part of the Baysox’s incredible run last season, ranking second in wins on that team only to Brad Bergesen. He started this season in AA to the surprise of many, but rather than grumbling about being slighted he went about his work and was recently promoted to Norfolk. In his debut with the Tides he dazzled, pitching 7 shutout innings with only 4 hits allowed to go with 3 strikeouts and zero walks.

So, who is Jason Berken? Jason Berken is a 25-year old right handed starter hailing from the small town of De Pere, Wisconsin. Berken started playing baseball at Clemson University, where he put together a couple solid seasons as a starter in 2004 and 2006, missing the 2005 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. His rebound from surgery in 2006 was impressive, as he posted a 9-3 record in 18 starts, pitching to a 3.22 ERA in 81 innings. In doing this he was able to strike out 75 batters while walking 34. At Clemson he was known as a team leader and pitched his best when against ACC competition. The Orioles decided to take a chance on him in the 6th round of the 2006 Amateur Draft, placing him at short season Aberdeen where he excelled. Jason took a small step back in 2007, going 9-9 at Frederick with a 4.53 ERA and posting a career high 49 walks. Last season Berken exploded onto the map at Bowie with his finest season, going 12-4 with a 3.68 ERA and a 124-38 K-BB ratio.

Strengths: Jason Berken has the full complement of pitchers that you would like in a starting pitcher. He throws a 91-92 mph fastball with a changeup, slider, and curveball to complement. Berken’s greatest strength is in his command of these pitches, particularly his fastball. His slider can become a valuable go-to pitch for Berken when he is locating it properly. Unlike other young pitchers, Jason Berken is unafraid to pitch to contact and go right after hitters, which is exactly the sort of mature approach that can help him translate his game to the majors. As has been seen very often, young pitchers who are afraid to pitch to contact find themselves trying to be too perfect and get hit around in the big leagues. Berken has shown resilience throughout his career from the Tommy John surgery to his early struggles at Frederick. Even this season he showed that resilience, in rebounding from his first two mediocre starts at Bowie (total of 8 IP allowing 5 ER), only to pitch 7 shutout after his promotion to Norfolk.

Weaknesses: Jason Berken, while having good command, does not have the great level of command like other current and former Orioles prospects Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen. His command of offspeed pitches needs improvement, or more experienced hitters will just sit on his fastball which is not a plus pitch. In the end, Berken relies heavily on having good command because none of his pitches grades out much above average. Another concern is the fact that Berken, aside from his short stint at Aberdeen, has never been the top pitcher on his staff, including all of his years at Clemson. Jason Berken is also an injury concern, because even though he has felt no ill effects from the Tommy John surgery in recent years, that surgery is still a red flag for scouts.

Projection: Jason Berken is a tough pitcher who has fought his way to recognition, in much of the same way that Bergesen came out from anonymity last year. Jason Berken had a tough hand dealt to him this year being placed at Bowie rather than Norfolk, but he handled it well and now has his shot at AAA. Berken does not command the heavy sinker that gives Bergesen significant success, but does have a good deal of polish and poise which makes him a good option for callup sometime this year. He might not be a top-tier prospect like Tillman, Arrieta, or Hernandez, but the O’s would be far wiser to bring Berken up this season ahead of those aforementioned prospects who need more polish first. It’s hard to see where Berken might end up down the road, as the bevy of top pitchers should block him from a permanent rotation spot. I expect Berken to have a rotation spot by the end of this season and compete for a back-of-the rotation place or long reliever spot next season.

Note: There is an excellent piece on discussing the early success of the top young pitchers for the Orioles in the minor leagues this season. Definitely check it out.

(Photo Credit: Kevin Pataky/

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Brad Bergesen Shines in First Start

Brad Bergesen, in sharp contrast to most Orioles callups in recent years, came into his first start and did just what made him so successful in the minors. He threw strikes, he induced groundballs, and most of all he never lost his poise when things started to go awry. His line on last night's game, a 10-3 victory over the visiting Chicago White Sox, was: 5.2 ip, 3 runs (1 earned), 4 hits, 2 bb, 4k with a total of 95 pitches thrown (58 strikes). While these numbers don't leap out as dominant (well, maybe it does for fans watching Orioles pitching recently), it's more about how he got to that line than the numbers themselves.

Brad was nearly unflappable last night despite clearly being amped up for the game. The most significant at bat, in my opinion, happened in the first inning. Brad Bergesen, after requiring only 8 pitches to get the first two outs, got stuck in a 12-pitch battle with Carlos Quentin, the major league leader in home runs. He ended up retiring him with a down-and-away slider in which Quentin swung and missed. For Bergesen to continue throwing strikes and not give into a hitter like Quentin in his very first inning of major league ball spoke volumes about his poise and confidence. Another example was in the fourth inning, where with 1 out and a runner on first, Bergesen induced a sharp ground ball only to see Wigginton bobble the ball on what would have been a routine double play to get out of the jam. Despite eventually allowing those two runners to score, Bergesen did not lose his composure and still kept the ball low and threw strikes. Unlike many young players coming up, Bergesen did not try to overthrow his fastball and thus avoided leaving his fastball high in the strike zone. There were only a few times all night in which he made a truly bad pitch, only one hammered solidly for a double.

The negative from last night's game was in that even though he only walked two, Brad Bergesen did not have his usual exceptional control. He had far better control than most young pitchers in their debuts, but it was far from his normal; both of his walks were to leadoff batters, so while that does tell that he can adjust as the inning goes on, it is altogether unacceptable for a guy like Bergesen. He pitches to contact, and thus he cannot afford free baserunners to the opposition. Last year in AA Bowie he allowed only 1.5 walks per 9 ip, and thus this performance was far from his capability.

Brad Bergesen is exactly what the Orioles need right now in their rotation. He throws strikes, works fast, and keeps the ball on the ground (as evidenced by his 10-3 GO/AO last night). Moving forward he should be able to reach the 6th inning consistently and let his defense do most of the heavy lifting for him. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect Bergy (as he's affectionately nicknamed) to be the ace of this staff because he doesn't have that raw stuff to dominate regularly. However, I do believe that he's the sort of pitcher who will take heat off the bullpen and put this team in a position to win regularly. The Orioles don't need a guy who'll shut out the opposition every other night; they need someone who can give them consistent performances that keeps the O's in the game.

I'm glad that last summer I got his Prospect Report out. Because he's not a prospect anymore; he's a major leaguer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Immediate Reaction to Montanez Call Up

Lou Montanez was the best outfielder in spring training not named Nick Markakis or Adam Jones. However, with the commitment the club had made to Felix Pie, Montanez’s hot bat and improving defense was relegated to AAA Norfolk. Let’s not forget that Montanez himself was once the top prospect in the Cubs’ system, now only to be trumped for an experiment with another top prospect in the Cubs’ system. Ryan Freel, still in the hospital recovering from being struck in the head, is being sent to the DL and has opened up the way for Montanez. Lou won’t be an everyday player for Baltimore, but he could be a great bat off the bench (and will likely do a great deal better than Freel, who was hitting .133 and complaining about playing time. Montanez, meanwhile, tore up in Norfolk, with a .429 average to go with a .500 on base percentage. While one cannot expect those stats, Orioles fans could point to the .295 average he hit in 112 at bats last year after being called up, having won the Triple Crown in the Eastern League with Bowie.

With Felix Pie looking completely lost defensively and starting the season off slow at the plate, the Orioles could use the help at the plate. The Pie experiment should continue all season, but it is good to know that the O’s have some quality insurance behind him.

Should the Pie Experiment Be Put On Hold?

This series against Boston is one the O's will want to forget quickly. Numerous problems were shown all around the field as Baltimore got their first losing record this year.

The Orioles are not just seeing woes in the pitching rotation, the outfield is not set in stone either. Ryan Freel had to leave on Monday after getting hit in the head with a ball on a pickoff move, Adam Jones is not 100% either with a sore hamstring, though at least he is still playing.

But perhaps the biggest issue is with Felix Pie. For the first time Andy MacPhail does not look good this season due to the play from the left fielders. Luke Scott is doing all right, but Pie has only hit is two games out of 11 and is sitting with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. Meanwhile in Norfolk, Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimold are tearing it up after 10 games, both batting above .400.

For the Orioles, they may need to bench Pie for the time being and use him sparingly. It is early and he has a lot of talent, but he has not had a season batting above .241. His defense could certainly use improvement as he had real problems in left. The Orioles don't want to go with just Luke Scott in left. It is very early to judge, but the way Montanez and Reimold are playing, they should probably get their chance.

Montanez had expressed his frustration after he was not chosen to join the majors for the season, and so far he is proving why he was right. Pie can't go to Norfolk because he is out of options and the Orioles would risk losing him due to waivers, where he would be lost to someone. At the very least though, with the injury to Freel, either Montanez or Reimold should get a chance in left.

(Photo credit: AP)

UPDATE, 12:15 PM- The Baltimore Sun is reporting that Lou Montanez has been called up after Ryan Freel was put on the DL.

Monday, April 20, 2009

March from the Minors Begins: Bergesen to Start Tuesday for O's

Every Orioles fan knew that at some point this season a long line of high-ceiling, young pitchers would start marching their way to Baltimore from Norfolk and even Bowie. However, I don’t think anyone thought that the first start would be on April 21st for this group. Overall, the pitching hasn’t been completely terrible- one could easily make a case that the bullpen has been worse than the starting rotation this season. Even so, none of Baltimore’s starters had been so reminiscent of Steve Trachsel as to force a young player up into the starter role before he was ready. No, instead it was Mexican Spring Training Surprise Alfredo Simon, who went down with an elbow injury that could sideline him for at least the next month. Now the Orioles are left with bringing up the first of their promising young pitchers (I am not counting Liz) in Brad Bergesen.

There are a number of advantages to bringing up Bergesen over the other minor league prospects. Bergesen, for one, is about as good as he is likely to get at the minor league level. The 23-year-old does not have overwhelming stuff- a 93 mph fastball is about what he will top out at. He is far better known for his control, having command of a two seamer, four seamer, slider, and changeup. I will leave the details in Windsor’s prospect report if you want a more detailed breakdown of Bergesen’s strengths and weaknesses. However, it is unlikely that his command will get any better at the minor league level- when you know how to hit the strike zone you know how to hit the strike zone, end of story. In that sense, there was no point in keeping him in the minors except to protect him for as long as possible. Finesse pitchers can last a long time in this league; the O’s may as well start him out now.

Windsor and I had the opportunity to watch him first hand last season, and what impressed us the most was his poise. He gave up a few hits as we watched him take on the Met’s minor league affiliate, but he never wavered and moved seamlessly from batter to batter. He is a very cerebral pitcher, never trying to blow guys away but instead using the count and forcing hitters to take bad swings. That is an essential element that clubs spend years trying to instill in their young pitchers; Bergesen will have it from Day One. Additionally, this cerebral approach and strong command could help in easing the transition to the majors. He is unlikely to be taken in by the magnitude of the situation and forced into foolish mistakes or trying to do too much. He knows what kind of pitcher he is and won’t try to play outside himself.

Does this mean he will be successful? Not necessarily. In 11 innings of work so far at Norfolk, Bergesen has only walked 3 batters and struck out 9 en route to a 2.45 ERA. However, it is just 11 innings. He spent all of last season facing AA hitters at Bowie, where he started out extremely strong and struggled a bit down the stretch- could that be wearing down or hitters figuring his approach out? Either way, Bergesen will be facing an entirely new level of competition, but could have early success as hitters try to get a read on him. Brad Bergesen is at best a third starter in the long run,

Is he Baltimore’s best option? Absolutely. A case could be made for Chris Waters, who is certainly as good as he is going to be at the minor league level as he nears his late 20’s and already finished out the season last year with the major league club. However, given the circumstances of the call-up, and the fact that Bergesen would have been called up at some point over the next few months, it makes sense. Like everything with the Orioles rotation, it might be painful to watch but it makes sense.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Boldin to Ravens? Think Twice.

There has been a flurry of talk around Anquan Boldin, one of the elite Cardinal wide receivers, possibly being traded soon to another NFL club. The Cardinals have said that they are looking for at least a first and a third round pick in exchange for this disgruntled Pro Bowl wideout. The Ravens have been mentioned as one of the teams interested in possibly making a move for Boldin. There are a good number of Ravens fans who might agree with this, but please please think twice about this before pulling the trigger.

The Ravens should absolutely not make this trade if it involves giving up their first and third round picks. Anquan Boldin, while he represents the ideal physicality and toughness for a wide receiver, doesn't provide that breakaway speed that the Ravens have been looking for to complement Flacco's arm. Boldin is brilliant over the middle and in space, but the Ravens already have two receivers who are best when going over the middle rather than down the field. To acquire Boldin would no doubt be a massive upgrade to the receiving corps, but I would argue that the benefits of having a receiver like Boldin are far outweighed by the costs of getting him.

Before I even get to the cost in draft picks, let's consider the fact that Boldin expects to be paid like a top-flight receiver in the area of Larry Fitzgerald (hence why the Cardinals have to trade him). The Ravens are already in a tightening cap situation, and adding on a contract like Boldin will carry would severely handicap the Ravens down the line. The Ravens would be far better off paying one of the many talented rookie wideouts in the draft and saving those many millions of dollars that Boldin would warrant. This brings me to the cost in draft picks that this potential trade would entail. The Ravens have built their franchise through the draft, and not through quick and easy rentals. When they have traded away picks (getting rid of a future first rounder for Kyle Boller, trading several draft picks for McGahee), they have not been resounding successes. Rather, the Ravens have had uncanny success when they hang onto their picks and rely on their scouting department.

This is a very above-average draft for the wide receiver position. It is loaded with high-ceiling wideouts, and is exceptionally deep with receivers of different molds. Some of the top-tier guys certainly will not be there at pick 26, but there are still quality receivers who should fall. There is talk of Percy Harvin dropping, who would be a bit of a project but still has unbelievable physical tools, and Kenny Britt out of Rutgers is a fast riser who is finding his way into the first round discussion. Hakeem Nicks out of North Carolina is not quite the vertical player that the Ravens might be looking for, but has an immense physicality to him and excellent size. Also, the Ravens could utilize later picks, as with last year in jumping to get Joe Flacco, to nab a player like Darrius Heyward-Bey if he drops to the late teens. The point is, there is immense opportunity in this year's draft, and I feel more than confident that Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens scouting department can find an excellent wideout within this year's draft class and make the moves to get him.

There is no way that Anquan Boldin is worth the draft picks and contract money necessary to acquire him. The Ravens have built their success upon the draft, and the last thing the Ravens should do is mortgage that philosophy for a band-aid. Anquan Boldin is an excellent player, but he is not the answer. Get a young receiver who can grow together with your budding franchise quarterback, and you'll be onto something special.

(Photo Credit:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Prospect Report: Oliver Drake

It’s great to be back doing these Prospect Reports, as this should be the first of many as we move through the 2009 season. Thankfully, Andy MacPhail has given more than enough for us to talk about given the recent drafts and pickups in trades, making this a more than fertile farm system. I’ll begin this year by profile a draftee from last season, Oliver Drake, who came from the nearby Naval Academy in Annapolis, skipping his junior and senior seasons such that he could have the opportunity to play professional baseball. He has already made a strong impression this season, pitching six innings of three hit ball for Delmarva, only allowing one run in the process.

So, who is Oliver Drake? Oliver Drake stands at 6’4”, and is a 22-year old right hander for the Delmarva Shorebirds. Prior to his drafting he pitched for the U.S. Naval Academy for two years, where in 2008 he started 13 games amassing a 6-3 record with a respectable 3.70 ERA. He accumulated a total of 78 strikeouts in 80.1 innings, although he walked 22 in the process. How he got the attention of the Orioles, however, was in his play for the Youse’s Maryland Orioles, part of the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League. Here he pitched for Dean Albany, the manager of the Maryland Orioles and one of the premier scouts for the Baltimore Orioles. In this league he made 5 starts with a 1.00 ERA and a 17-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Thus, the Orioles took a flyer on Drake in the 43rd round of the 2008 Amateur Draft and signed the young right hander with a 100k bonus. There is controversy amidst this signing, as Oliver Drake was able to avoid his military commitment by leaving the Academy prior to his junior year, meaning that he had received two years of free education only to stop short of actively serving.

Strengths: Currently, Oliver Drake relies mostly on three pitches: a fastball, which usually ranges between 89-93 mph, a changeup, and a slider. Of the three, his slider is the only one which could be considered a ‘plus’ pitch, and he can rely on that for most of his outs. Drake also commands an ideal frame for a starting pitcher, weighing in at a solid 210 pounds to complement his 6’4” frame; this should help his durability and endurance in the short and long term. The biggest complement to his repertoire, in my opinion, is the training and discipline that he learned in the Naval Academy. So many prospects are set off track by their egos and the lack of a strong work ethic, but Oliver Drake’s discipline and focus should be his greatest asset in development.

Weaknesses: Most of Oliver Drake is an unknown commodity to Orioles fans, as he only pitched limited innings last year out of the bullpens for Bluefield and Aberdeen, and has only made one start this year. The biggest concern is that he never dominated in his play for the Naval Academy, and has yet to show those dominant stretches that you look for in a top young prospect. He is still very much a work in progress, and needs to improve his changeup and begin establishing his curveball which he used sparingly in college.

Projection: This season will be crucial in gauging just what sort of a future Drake can have with the Orioles. He has a good enough arm, and an ideal physical and mental makeup for a professional starting pitcher, topping out most likely as a third starter. He should be promoted to Advanced-A Frederick later this season, at the very least following the anticipated Matusz promotion, and get a shot at Bowie next season. Given the fact that players like Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman should be cracking the majors around that time, I expect Drake to stay in Bowie all of next season, and possibly arrive the following year. Oliver Drake should get a chance at the majors sometime in the 2011 season.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rotation Issues Already Forming in Baltimore

It has been a great start for the Birds, winning their first three series, considering the bullpen and rotation issues. However, the Orioles were hoping the "stopgap rotation" would hold a little longer than this, but the injury to Alfredo Simon has already forced the O's to dip into the Tides for some help. While Simon has not yet gone to the DL, recent moves make it seem that he'll be out a little while.

According to the Baltimore Sun and MASN, the Orioles have bringing up Matt Albers and Radhames Liz after Melvin Mora was sent to the DL and Simon will have his shoulder checked. It would not be surprising if Brad Bergeson was brought up as well from the Tides. Bergeson has done a great job in his first two contests in Norfolk, striking out nine and just allowing three earned in 11 innings, but these are his only two starts in triple-A play, and there is no telling if he'll be ready to come up to Baltimore.

We all expected the Orioles rotation to be an issue this season. Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara were seen as the only reliable starters, so the rest of the rotation was up for grabs, which was won by Simon and Mark Hendrickson with Adam Eaton filling the last spot when needed. The Orioles, though feeling it would eventually happen, were hoping to avoid using Norfolk players to fill gaps already. The bullpen has been very scary to the O's, but they have at least been able to hold large leads. The starters have done a good job for now, especially Guthrie.

The overall key to all of this is to protect the potential stars of the rotation. Under no circumstances can the Orioles bring up Chris Tillman because they need to wait until he is ready, and since he is not on the 40-man roster this probably will not be an issue. Players like Bergeson, Liz, Chris Waters, and David Hernandez could be called up sometime this season as stopgaps. This is just the beginning of the season and the Orioles can't risk their big players just because of a nice start. First they need to ready their big pitchers and Matt Wieters. They'll compete as best they can, but don't get too excited about the start. The might of this rotation is about to be tested. But for now and for all the issues, the O's have won their first three series.

(Photo credit: AP)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ravens' Schedule Released, Games to Look Forward To

Okay, so it is April, and from now until at least the late-July swoon we will likely have our focus on the Orioles season, which has had unexpected drama and excitement. Until that time, we will have little Ravens’ reporting to do. Sure, there will be the NFL Draft next week, and even minicamps after that, but overall we will have to survive on the Orioles for the next few months. Today, however, we have been given a wonderful taste of the 2009 football season in the release of the Ravens schedule. Any analyst will tell you that trying to predict a record based on the schedule is a complete guess, but that won’t stop us from trying to find the best games of the bunch. Among them:

September 20th, at San Diego: The first Ravens’ cross-country trip of the season has them flying to the Qualcomm to face the AFC West Champion Chargers (sure they finished 8-8, but that doesn’t sound nearly as intriguing). This will be the first major test for the new Ravens’ defense, particularly up front in stopping LaDainian Tomlinson and the big-play ability of Darren Sproles. However, a bigger story might take place on the other side of the ball, where a rejuvenated Shawne Merriman will be matched on Jared Gaither. Despite his improvement last season, Gaither will need to be at the top of his game to keep Joe Flacco on his feet.

October 5th, at New England: Tom Brady should be fully recovered and have gotten back in rhythm with his receivers by this point, making this a huge test for a reassembled Ravens’ secondary. Not withstanding any additions in the draft, the Ravens should have two different starting cornerbacks (assuming Rolle is moved to nickelback) from the start of last season and have Dawan Landry back after missing 13 games last season. Teams have had success with a precision passing attack against the Ravens, and the last time these teams met in New England the Kyle Boller-led squad was thrashed 24-3 in 2004. Two years ago, a questionably called contest had the Ravens fall away late, the biggest test during the regular season for the team that went 18-0 before falling in the Super Bowl.

November 22nd, vs. Indianapolis: I don’t need to remind Ravens fans how the last few meetings between these teams have went. The Ravens have been completely stymied offensively in both the 15-6 Divisional Playoff loss in the 2006 season and the 31-3 blowout last season in Indy. This year Baltimore won’t have to contend with an exhausted Steve McNair or a wide-eyed and overmatched Joe Flacco. Likewise, the Ravens should be deeper at cornerback to counter the numerous pass-catching threats Indy can throw at the defense. Will the Colts continue to dominate the Ravens? This will be a critical late-season AFC game that could have major implications on the playoff picture.

December 27th, at Pittsburgh: This game will be taking place a little over a month after the first meeting between these two teams, and could decide the AFC North Champion. The Steelers swept three games against the Ravens last season, and Baltimore will have to learn to beat their biggest rival if they want to take hold of this division. The reigning Super Bowl Champ is incredible at home, particularly when taking on the equally physical play of Baltimore. This game could come down to which team has more energy and will to take over after a long and exhausting season for two hard-nosed clubs.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Johns Hopkins-Maryland: The Greatest Lacrosse Rivalry

These two schools are the perfect rivals. A small private school in the heart of Baltimore and a large public school near the D.C. area. These two institutions do not like each other at all. In earlier days students from each campus would attack the other with pranks. In the former era of athletics, these two squads used to play numerous games of all kinds against each other, but now, Maryland mainly plays Division I sports and Hopkins normally plays Division III. There is only one sport where these schools both have powerhouse programs, and everything is put on the line, on the lacrosse field, creating the best rivalry the sport has.

Today, these two will write the next chapter in the Hopkins-Maryland series at M&T Bank Stadium for the Smartlink Day of Rivals at 2:00 PM, the second game after another big rivalry game, Army-Navy.

To give you an idea on how deep this rivalry is, the two sides don't even agree on the series record. Johns Hopkins says the record has them ahead 66-37-1. But Maryland says some of the first games do not count on the official record because lacrosse was not an official sport yet, so they have the record with Hopkins ahead 57-37-1. The Blue Jays have won six out of the last seven contests.

Both have traditions that just ask for trouble from the other during games. Hopkins always brings a band to games, playing a fight song which counts each goal they score, then yelling "We Want More!" Maryland has a tradition too, leading their entrance with the Maryland state flag, signaling they represent the best team in the state.

To add, the current climate of the teams is not good either. Hopkins, 4-4 and ranked #9, is coming off a win against Albany after losing their previous three contests. Maryland, 6-4 and ranked #13, has lost their last two games against Virginia and Navy, the latter being a six-goal defeat. Both teams are struggling and will need a victory to have a decent tournament resume.

This contest will mainly be decided if the Hopkins defense can hold off the Maryland offense. Neither has played to their potential this season but both have the ability to be dominating. For Maryland, their attack core, expected to be a dominant force of talent, has not been as effective as predicted, partially due to a senior midfield not doing enough. Hopkins is relying on a number of new players on the longpoles and are having trouble sealing the deal. Maryland's big attacks Grant Catalino and Will Yeatman will be tested against the the Blue Jays defenseman Michael Evans and goalkeeper Michael Gvozden. On the other side, attacks Kyle Wharton and Chris Boland will lead the Blue Jay attack against Terps longpole Max Schmidt and the two-goalie system, which will probably have Brian Phipps starting since Jason Carter played the whole game against Navy.

To add, in a rivalry game, anything can happen. Hopkins is looking for their 67th win in the official series while Maryland is looking to avoid getting their 58th loss in the same official series.

(Photo credit: Maryland athletics (Reynolds), Press Box (Gvozden)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Not Just a Baseball Player- Nick Adenhart, 1986-2009

Nick Adenhart’s death is not about the death of a Marylander. His death is no more special because he was from this state, nor is it any more special because he pitched here in high school. Nor is his death any more special because he was a baseball player, because he was the top prospect in the Angel’s organization, or because he played with a major market club.

No, this death is tragic because he was a 22 year old kid with his entire life ahead of him. It is tragic that this boy, the same age as this writer, had his life stolen from him when it seems that he did not make the slightest mistake to cause it. Nick Adenhart had a promising career, yes, but no one knows where that may have led him. He gave his time on this Earth to this sport, putting years into honing his craft, for this game that we spend billions to support. He gave most of the years of his life to perfect his game, and will not be able to see that effort come to fruition.

It seems as though every year we hear another story about a young man who is cut down in the prime of life, and it is never fair, it is never right. These young men spend their lives under a microscope, every action scrutinized and every movement picked until they can turn on the TV any given night and hear why they aren’t the real deal. Let us hope that Nick is remembered for the passion he played with, and for the games he longed to play in his career.

The day of his death began as inspiring as the night was tragic. Nick Adenhart pitched six scoreless innings against the Oakland Athletics, showcasing the talent that had brought him to the big leagues. Within hours of the game’s conclusion, he had perished at the hands of a drunk driver.

Let us also remember the other people in the car with Nick that horrible night, the two friends of his whose lives were lost. We cannot, as many in the media often do, belittle their families’ losses by omission. Here also were young people with their entire lives to look forward to, 20 year old Courtney Stewart and 27 year old man whose identity has yet to be released as of the writing of this piece. Let us remember Nick Adenhart and his friends, and not as a baseball player. We must use this moment to consider every young person whose life is taken before it even truly starts. Let us remember how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy these games, and how fleeting these lives are that we analyze and dissect.

Nick Adenhart was not just a Marylander. He was not just a pitcher. He was not just a major leaguer. He was most importantly someone with an entire life left to live, a life he should have been able to enjoy. May he, Courtney Stewart, and their compatriot have the best of lives on the other side of this world.

Prospect Report: First Thoughts on 2009

After the long offseason break, I welcome you back to Around the Harbor's weekly Prospect Report, in which I'll either profile a noteworthy player or just give some general thoughts on the state of the Orioles farm. I was hoping to give a profile of Bowie's opening day starter Jason Berken this week, but I'm going to put that off until I have a chance to see him some more. So, to start things off I would like to share some of my thoughts as to what I'm looking for this year in the Orioles minor league system.

AAA Norfolk Tides
- The starting pitching for this year’s team should be night-and-day from last year, in which the Norfolk rotation was marked by veteran retreads and borderline prospects. The Norfolk rotation this season is headlined by Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who are all coming over from last year’s Bowie Baysox team which made the playoffs. My question is, how long will pitchers like Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez stay? Certainly I expect Bergesen to be pitching in the majors in one, maximum of two, months from now. Hernandez I expect to be up sometime this year, but I suspect the Orioles organization will not bring up Tillman at any point this season.
- The bullpen should be improved, but does have its share of questions. Bob McCrory and Kam Mickolio both have the arms to be solid bullpen pitchers, but both are coming off of disappointing 2008s in which they were given chances to make it with the big club and failed. Radhammes Liz is the other big question mark, as he moves from the rotation to the bullpen. Liz has the potential to be a great late-inning reliever, as does Mickolio, but I’m going to have to see a good deal from McCrory to be convinced.
- Nolan Reimold and Luis Montanez should be a huge boost to the Tides’ offense, as both are legitimate power hitters and were able to dominate AA pitching last season. Infielders Scott Moore and Oscar Salazar are returning, but none of the position players outside of Reimold and Montanez are considered legitimate prospects. Either way, the corps of hitters are good enough such that if injuries strike the big league club there are legitimate options at AAA to go to.

AA Bowie Baysox
- Again, pitching is the main story here. Jason Berken was roughed up a bit in his first start of the season, pitching only 3 innings and giving up 3 earned runs, but he leads a very impressive rotation along with Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe. Jake Arrieta is the real headline prospect from this group, but he has yet to pitch a full season in the minor leagues because of his stint last year in the Olympics. I’m eager to see how long Arrieta actually stays in Bowie if he excels; the organization has long let it be known that Arrieta is on the fast track to the majors, so I expect him to be in Norfolk sometime midseason.
- Brandon Erbe will be a major storyline for this team. Erbe has struggled somewhat with inconsistency, but started to return to form last season at Frederick. His stuff is as good as any in this system, so if he can begin to harness it at this level he can reestablish himself as a top prospect in this organization. And he’s a local boy, which doesn’t hurt at all.
- Brandon Snyder is another player to watch on this team. I’ve talked extensively about Brandon in previous prospect reports, and I still believe that he can be a major piece of the Orioles future if he can develop some power. Snyder has the frame to develop into a power hitter, but already has excellent bat control and can accumulate a high average despite drawing very few walks. I expect Snyder to be tried out some at third base as well given the fact that Billy Rowell has been moved to the outfield in Frederick and Snyder’s bat would seem to play better at third than first.

Advanced-A Frederick Keys
- Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and Chorye Spoone are the standouts on yet another impressive rotation in the Orioles system. Matusz is slated to get the Matt Wieters treatment, in that he will spend half of this season getting his feet wet in Frederick before moving up to Bowie at the season’s midway point. Zach Britton is a pitcher who went largely unnoticed last year in Delmarva, but like his counterparts Sean Gleason and John Mariotti, will have a chance to get noticed this year in Frederick. Britton comes in with a ton of potential and an excellent track record, and with a good season could make a push for Bowie.
- Chorye Spoone, as faithful readers of this blog might know, is a personal favorite of mine in the system. He is a local prospect from Pasadena, MD and is currently coming off of shoulder surgery which, although it isn’t supposed to be a long term issue, is always a big concern. Chorye was a vital part of the Keys’ playoff run two years ago, and has arguably the highest upside of any pitcher in this system. A big return from him this year would be a huge win for both the Keys and for the Orioles’ long term plans.
- Billy Rowell is the main position prospect to look for in this year’s team, as he holds immense power potential in his bat but failed to produce at even an average level last season. Rowell’s attitude problems and adjustment issues were more than apparent last season as he was clearly overmatched at Frederick, and this season is vital to determining whether or not he’s a flat-out bust.
- Another note from a position perspective at Frederick: Ryan Adams’ performance at second base will be a major storyline to watch, as he set a record last season for errors at Delmarva. Adams is terrific with the bat, and supposedly the errors he makes should be correctible. Whether or not that comes to fruition will determine not only his future down the line but whether or not Keys fans are in for a very long season.

That’s going to close it up for this week’s Prospect Report. Certainly yes, there are the Shorebirds, and yes, the progression of Xavier Avery and L.J. Hoes is crucial to the future of the Orioles system given the lack of quality position players in the system, but I think it wiser to save some material for later.

And a quick message to close: Why to we care about all of these players in the minor leagues. So that someday, someday, the Orioles will not have to rely on pitchers like Brian Bass.

Orioles Win Series Against Yankees, Looking For a Sweep

The Orioles have started their season off well, winning their first two games of the season against the hated New York Yankees at sit in first place in the AL East. Now they look to sweep the Evil Empire tomorrow night. Yes we all know this is only two games out of 162, but Baltimore sure is happy tonight. They have the chance to win their first three games for the first time in over a decade.

The two Baltimore starters, Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara, both earned wins. Each game involved a destruction of the Yankee starter, either C.C Sabathia or Chien-Ming Wang. Neither lasted more than 4.1 innings and neither notched a strikeout. The O's bullpen has had its shaky moments, but in the end they have at least held to win each game.

But this team seems to have developed some character and an image. Some were wondering if the departure of Kevin Millar and the depression of last season would hurt the clubhouse. But this team seems to be having a good time. From Gregg Zaun learning some Japanese to help Uehara to Adam Jones smiling in the outfield to a strange Aubrey Huff catch, to Dave Trembley working well with the team, this team seems to be enjoying themselves and not being afraid of their opponents. This could be because of the winning, but it is a nice sight to see considering last season. The fans are also getting more into the game. Despite that it was clear a Yankees contingent was in Camden Yards, the park was clearly in the hands of the Orioles fans. The constant booing attack on Mark Teixeira has clearly bothered him during this series. All in all, this has the look of a different Orioles team.

But make no mistake, this season has just started. Guthrie and Uehara are Baltimore's most reliable starters, and the O's don't have anyone else that is proven in the long term. Starters like Alfredo Simon and Mark Hendrickson will need to be ready. The bullpen has held on in the end in both games, but if the back of the rotation does not hold up, then the bullpen will fall with it. The Orioles look good to start, let's hope they can continue the success.

Tomorrow Alfredo Simon gets the call against A.J. Burnett as the O's go for the sweep.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Non-Orioles News and Notes

Can you feel it? Can you feel it? That's actually positive energy coming from Camden Yards! The Orioles, if only for a brief moment, have an unblemished record and are a model of perfection. So, naturally, I'm going to choose to stray away from our beloved Birds because there are some other notes that need addressing from the Charm City. Without further ado, let's run over some of the non-baseball goings on impacting the Baltimore sports world...

1. Samari Rolle signed to a 4-year contract -- It's still not certain just how much money this contract will be paying Samari Rolle, but it's still very surprising to see Samari back with the Ravens organization. After the signing of Foxworth the team asked Rolle to take a pay cut and, as could be expected, Samari refused and asked to be released if he wasn't wanted anymore. Rolle insisted that he would test the free agent market, but instead just briefly met with the Jets before coming back to the Ravens. An odd series of events, punctuated by a meeting between Rolle and Newsome in which they supposedly broke alot of barriers.

Listen, I don't know what was said, but there had to be some sort of vast misunderstanding for Rolle to come back so quickly. Samari Rolle was very angry at the organization, and based on the signings of Foxworth and Carr it was apparent that they had moved on as well. Nevertheless, Samari is back in the fold and it's a huge relief to the front office. With a healthy Rolle along with Washington, Foxworth, and Carr, there is no pressing need to draft a cornerback at the top of the draft. As I have said all along, I expect the Ravens to draft a receiver with their first pick even if they have to trade up to get him. This signing gives the Ravens the flexibility to do just that.

2. Terrapin recruits Padgett & Williams shine in Charm City Classic -- Yes, this is old news, but it bears mentioning on this blog. This past weekend some of the better basketball recruits in the country came to Towson, Maryland for the annual Charm City Classic in which the Baltimore All-Stars faced off against the U.S. All-Stars. On the U.S. team were power forwards James Padgett and Jordan Williams, who are headed to Maryland next year to give Gary Williams some much needed presence in the frontcourt. This tandem put on a show for the local Terrapin fans who came to watch, with James Padgett garnering MVP honors for the victorious U.S. team.

This might seem like trivial news to some, but considering the heat Gary Williams took this season for his recruiting, it's important that these two recruits look as good as they've been made out to be. Gary Williams did a good deal of talking up about his two big men, particularly the 6-10 Jordan Williams, and it's been well documented in sports what happens when a player (particularly a young one) is overhyped. Luckily for Gary and for all Terrapin fans, the two put on a show and reinstilled hope that net year could be a very special one for Maryland Basketball.

3. Preakness Stakes hanging by a thread -- Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley today introduced a proposal to the General Assembly giving the state the authority to acquire the tracks from their bankrupt order by eminent domain. This means the Pimlico Race Course (and by extension the Preakness Stakes), which are currently owned by the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp, can be seized by the state if needed to save it from being demolished.

This move is necessary, and I applaud the Governor. Recently there was discussion that Pimlico might be bought by certain people who would demolish it in favor of a shopping center. Yes, a shopping center! This would eliminate the Preakness Stakes as we know them in Maryland, and our greatest sporting event would depart for another state. Now, that being said, this situation should never have gotten as far as it has. The problem with Pimlico has been apparent for a very long time, and it took this catastrophe for the lawmakers to finally wake up and help out the tracks.

Listen, this is about more than just horse racing. This is about the state of Maryland, and the true heritage of Maryland sports. Maryland sports history is grounded in the old art of horse racing, and we have been a premier location for it for centuries. If the Preakness were to be eliminated, it would be an irreparable blow to this state's prestige and reputation. The fact that we sat idly by as Pimlico fell deeper and deeper into financial debt is a disgrace, and the fact it took lawmakers this long to take action is downright negligent. Next time we might not be so lucky.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What We Learned from Opening Day

It is very easy to make too much out of Opening Day and view it under a microscope. After all, you don’t judge a marathon on how a runner takes his first steps. However, yesterday afternoon’s 10-5 smash over many analyst’s pick to win the AL East (and perennial heart of evil in baseball) can give Orioles fans a host of reasons for jubilation, and a few reasons for concern moving forward. If nothing else, every win is one step closer to an improvement on last season. No matter what happens this season (100 losses is not out of the question), there will be plenty of story lines to follow.

Well, if yesterday’s game was any indication, the defense is for real. Aside from a ball falling out of Nick Markakis’ glove in foul territory late in the game, the fielding was exemplary. While the waterlogged infield may have helped slow the ball down slightly, Cesar Izturis played up to and beyond expectations in keeping balls from getting to the outfield and hustling to complete double plays. Brian Roberts should be able to play to his side and not worry about covering for a shortstop with limited range. Additionally, it seems as though Melvin Mora is putting off the defensive decline that comes with age for another year. His incredible grab to rob a base hit on a line drive showed that his reflexes are as good as ever- every year I am convinced that he will start to break down and every year he seems to prove me wrong at third. He isn’t the best defensive third baseman in the game, but he still does a solid job.

On the other hand, the bullpen might not be as strong as we thought. Chris Ray, coming off of a year-long absence from the game and a 0.00 ERA in spring training, served up a two run shot to Jorge Posada and Ray simply did not look like his old self. Let’s hope this was just due to jitters and not a greater problem with his health. He may need some time to readjust to the big leagues, but this pitching staff might not have much time to let him tinker away. Jamie Walker does not appear to have rebounded very well from last season (which he insisted was due to injury, but this writer is starting to doubt that), with the left-handed specialist struggling and failing to get out his one batter. Overall the Orioles had to burn through 6 relievers in 3 innings of work, with only Dennis Sarfate not allowing a man to get on base. Jim Johnson’s command was off, throwing way off the plate and showing obvious signs of frustration. He is going to have to get under control, as the 7-8-9 line of Ray, Johnson, and Sherrill will be critical for the starters to have a bit of rest now and then. Yesterday it didn’t happen, but Johnson’s wild pitching could have made things a lot worse for Baltimore.

As expected, these boys can hit. Every player except Luke Scott got at least one hit, but the biggest surprise has got to be Adam Jones’ patience at the plate. Jones consistently made pitchers throw him a good pitch before he’d swing, and it led to his 2 walks and 3 hits, with not a single at-bat wasted. Generally hitters who are impatient tend to stay that way; they can get slightly better or slightly worse but a high strike-out rate usually stays with a guy through his career. We had heard rumblings of Jones improving in that department, but I didn’t expect what I saw yesterday. It bodes very well for a 1-2 high on-base-percentage punch in Roberts and Jones at the top of the order. As I said earlier, Cesar Izturis came to play yesterday. His home run might or might not have come due to fan interference, but until I hear Yankee fans bemoaning the illegitimate “Jeffrey Maier” home run of 1996, I will take it with a shrug when playing New York. It was close enough not to overturn anything, anyway. Any time you score 10 runs it is a great output, and please let’s not pull the ESPN routine and blame the Oriole’s offense on CC’s bad day. As Manager Dave Trembley said in his postgame press conference, his players simply worked the count and forced CC to give them the pitch they wanted. No, the $161 million man didn’t have a great outing, but the O’s were not just cherry picking out there.

This was a great way to open the season, but there are still plenty of concerns. Luckily O’s fans have until Wednesday to bask in the glory of an Opening Day win. Enjoy it- there may be a rough season ahead, but yesterday’s performance was certainly uplifting. Let’s see how Koji Uehara fares in his MLB debut against this same vaunted Yankee lineup.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mark Teixeira Deserves The Oriole Fan Treatment

Sure it was for the money. Sure the hometown team did not give a great offer. Sure everything about the circumstances makes sense. The Severna Park native did what any player would do when offered 20+ million over eight years, take the money and play. But Mark Teixeira should expect everything he gets at Camden Yards forever.

Before the game, Teixeira said that in a perfect world he'd be an Oriole and that he has a lot of respect for the organization and loves the city.

Odd that it comes after he stated that he always wanted to be a Yankee and that he would wear Yankees gear to games.

The fact is that he is speaking both sides and expecting just the status quo to happen, Orioles fans booing him because he is a Yankee. Not from a local kid who was constantly saying he would love to be an Oriole before this season then says completely opposite things when he signs with New York. Nothing was going to stop booing from Orioles fans, but it is not helped at all by his statements or his attitude. He has not handled it well and he can't expect Orioles fans to understand that.

The fact is Orioles fans have a right to boo him incessantly for the rest of his career. Mark Teixeira should not be blamed period for taking the money, but for all the things he said teasing the city, he deserves any booing or harsh treatment he gets. Welcome to Baltimore Mark Teixeira, enjoy your stay.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Opening Day!

It is Opening Day in BirdLand and the Yankees are in town. It is great to see the men in orange and black on the field once again.

Jeremy Guthrie has the start against C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixiera, and the Yankees at Camden Yards. The new Orioles that will play today include Ty Wigginton and Cezar Isturis. It is not a very nice day, with the constant threat of rain, but we will have the first game.

So, for all of us at Around the Harbor, let's go O's! Cue the Orioles Magic!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Free Kicks

Okay, so this time we aren’t doing an all-anything edition, just three stories from three sports with only a little Maryland-centric stuff thrown in there. I felt like going old school today, that’s all. Windsor and Falco are in Charlottesville covering the Maryland baseball team’s series against the juggernaut Virginia Cavaliers and are just hoping not to see a sweep. Good luck on that, guys. Meanwhile, I am in Baltimore to line up for the kick…

Jay Cut-loose
At the beginning of this saga, I was firmly in Jay Cutler’s camp. Josh McDaniels was not happy enough to have a Pro Bowl quarterback who put up incredible numbers to overcome an awful defense and nearly win the division (okay, so they blew a 3 game lead with 4 to play but still). Josh McDaniels was simply an arrogant Bill Belichick protégé who simply had to have “his guy” regardless of how full the cupboard was at his new place. As the weeks wore on however, I realized that while McDaniels may be an over-his-head punk with delusions of grandeur, Jay Cutler still had the opportunity to play. He would have put up his numbers and year from now when Cutler went to another Pro Bowl all would be forgotten. You don’t have to like someone to work for them. He could have spent this time shoving it in McDaniels’ face how wrong he was to look to trade him. Instead he didn’t return McDaniels’ calls and wouldn’t meet with the team again. Josh McDaniels handled this situation just about as badly as he ever could have, refusing to tell Jay that he was “his” quarterback. But Jay Cutler was simply immature in his response by not being the bigger man and stepping up. Good luck in Chicago, Jay. You sure as heck won’t put up huge numbers there.

Rotation far Older than Most Predicted
At the beginning of Spring Training, the Orioles had plenty of young arms ready to battle it out for the three remaining spots in the rotation after Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara. Dave Pauley, Hayden Penn, Brad Bergesen, Rich Hill, Brian Bass, and others were supposed to inject some youth (and serve as a bit of a stopgap) for the younger pitchers working their way through the system. Instead, one by one they flamed out, and the only one who might be with the club on Opening Day is Brian Bass in a relief role. Why did this happen? Did we fans overestimate these AAAA talents and hope that one (or all) of them could round out an improved rotation? I did. While the Orioles are left with pitchers who didn’t get a sniff of other free agent interest in Adam Eaton, Mark Hendrickson, and Alfredo Simon, at least they will be able to dip into Triple-A early if necessary and have a range of options, it is disappointing to see all the young talent flame out so quickly. The O’s still have more pitching depth than they did last season, but it is very dicey.

Did the Wizards Just Do Something Right?
It has been since… well since before the season that we on ATH mentioned the Wizards. That’s for a few main reasons. 1) Their management is god-awful. 2) We just aren’t that into D.C. teams (when I do root in hockey and basketball, I root for the 76ers and even the Flyers). And 3) They are simply a terrible, terrible team. However, last night I saw something that shook my faith in existence- the Wizards hosted the Cavs and outscored them in every quarter but the 4th, showing consistent scoring to keep Cleveland at bay and taking the win, 109-101. It is no coincidence that this win comes just days after Gilbert Arenas decided to grace us all with his presence on the court after months of refusing to observe his contract because the team was too bad for him. He failed to note however, that the team was bad because of him and the huge salary that put the Wiz up against the cap. However, I digress. With Arenas, Butler, Jamison, and Haywood on the court at the same time healthy for one of the first times this season, this team finally started to play like it is capable of- the 4th or 5th best team in the East. It is too little too late, but it gave Wizards fans something to be optimistic about for next year.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Brenda Frese Under Fire......Really??????

After 1-seed Maryland's loss to Jeff Walz's 3-seed Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, many fans and writers are questioning Frese's ability to coach during that game. The main point was on the zone defense and how it not only did not stop Louisville but also did not change, so the Cardinals were able to take advantage of it. But this is not the only time Frese's coaching has come into question, and many are continuing after this game. Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun wrote a column about it plus message boards are talking about it too.

Apparently Maryland fans are not happy with a women's basketball coach who got the first ACC title in the sport in 20 years. Not happy with a national championship and two elite eights in the past four years, with that national title happening with a starting lineup of all non-seniors. Or a 31-5 record this season that included two wins each against Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. Or not losing a game in the Comcast Center in the last two seasons. Or constant top-10 recruiting classes.

I agree that there are certainly some questions to stem from that game. But Louisville was a great team from the Big East with a first-team All-American a coach that knew Maryland's best players very well. It is very hard to be entirely ready when the opposing coach who used to be Frese's right hand man knows the heart and soul of the team while the other does not have such a luxury.

Coming into this season, Maryland had the difficult task of replacing Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper from the starting the lineup plus Jade Perry and Ashleigh Newman from the bench. Lynetta Kizer and Dee Liles both had very slow starts, but eventually Liles became a huge player down the stretch and key in the Maryland frontcourt. Anjale Barrett started to come into her own as a point guard. And Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman had great seasons, both getting to be All-Americans. This team did something that Langhorne and Harper could not, win a conference title. Frese may have had some difficulties with coaching, but she did a great job all season molding this team considering its options.

Also consider what happened to the conference during the tournament. 1-seed Duke, 3-seed UNC, 3-seed Florida State, 5-seed Virginia, and 7-seed Georgia Tech were all gone before the Sweet 16. No ACC team other than Maryland went past that mark. None. Maryland almost had a slip up in the Sweet 16 against 4-seed Vanderbilt, but Marissa Coleman took over and Maryland won. That is a coaching aspect too; when you need a win a team needs to rely on its stars and not panic, and that is what Maryland did. This is a team that did great things, and Frese deserves a lot of credit, not attacks.

Obviously it is disappointing that Maryland did not reach the Final Four and have a chance at Oklahoma or Connecticut, but this was a great season, and Frese did a wonderful job with this team. This program has won 13 NCAA Tournament games in the last four years plus a national title. Congratulations to the Maryland women's basketball team, good luck to Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman, and we will see the rest of the team next year.

(Photo credit: AP)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Marlins Trade for Hayden Penn: April Fools?

No, really, the Marlins actually traded a young shortstop for Hayden Penn, as hard as that is to believe. Hayden Penn had pitched to an ERA over 10 over this spring, and yet the Marlins offered 24-year old shortstop Robert Andino in a trade for the 24-year old right handed pitcher. This trade simply boggles the mind and, quite honestly, sounded like nothing more than a bizarre April Fools joke at first sight. The Orioles were put in a position where they would be forced to release Penn given the fact that he is out of options and has pitched miserably this spring and would only be dead weight on the major league roster.

Don't get me wrong: there was a time in which Hayden Penn was the best pitching prospect in the Orioles organization, making his debut as a 20 year old in 2005 for a brief period. Hayden Penn came along quickly in the organization, blowing away hitters with a particularly nasty curveball. However, he began encountering a rash of bizarre injuries, starting with a bout of appendicitis in 2006 on the eve of his first major league start that season. Since that setback he has never been the same. Yes, his arm has been physically fine this spring, but something has been missing from Penn's game and he's just never fully recovered. Last year he had difficulty in regularly handling Triple-A lineups in the minor leagues, so it really was nothing more than wishful thinking that he would suddenly turn up his game when faced with major league competition.

The Marlins giving up Andrino for Penn is surprising yes, but not altogether unreasonable. Andrino in his own right has not lived up to lofty expectations, as he was once the shortstop of the future for that organization before the arrival of Hanley Ramirez. It's also symptomatic of just how desired young starting pitching is in this day and age. Consistent winners in today's game are built on having young pitching in their ranks, and thus if the Marlins feel that they can potentially uncover a young pitcher for a low price tag they'll take it. The Marlins' pitching coach, Mark Wiley, worked with Hayden Penn in the developmental league, so they're most likely looking for that connection to possibly re-ignite the magic.

Regardless of the rationale, the Orioles have to be thrilled with this. Robert Andrino is still young and is an excellent fielder at a position of need. This way the Orioles can ensure that Izturis is not overworked at short, and they can possibly uncover a good talent who has not gotten the opportunity to play significantly in recent years. The Orioles were expecting to have to release Penn, getting nothing in return. This way they get a cheap young shortstop with potential. And amazingly enough, this is not an April Fools joke.