O's young hitters have failed to develop

Hoped to be cornerstones, Jones, Wieters, Reimold aren't living up to expectations

May 31, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK — —

Adam Jones flails helplessly at a slider that is well out of the strike zone. Matt Wieters grounds out meekly to second base. Nick Markakis slaps an opposite-field single, and his homerless streak continues. Nolan Reimold takes an 0-for-4 against Triple-A pitching.

These snapshots have dominated an Orioles' 2010 season, which was supposed to yield substantial improvement and a more competitive team. Instead, the Orioles have the worst record in the major leagues, a manager who could be entering his final days in charge and a disabled list dotted with some of their highest-paid players.

But perhaps of even more concern than any of that, the team's core of young hitters has seemingly regressed or, at the very least, not made the progress expected this season. That has been one big reason the Orioles' scoring the fewest runs in the American League and being near the bottom of the league in pretty much every prominent offensive category.

"We have guys that are not having the same kind of years they had last year," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "Some of it might be the usual, what they refer to as the sophomore slump. The league is starting to make adjustments to them, and they are going to have to make adjustments back. And they are going to have to demonstrate the ability to do that or their stay in this league isn't going to be as long as we hope it is going to be and they hope it is going to be."

While MacPhail and other team officials never expected this team to compete for a playoff berth, they figured, at worst, the organization's long-suffering fans could go to Camden Yards and watch the components of the next good Orioles team mature on a nightly basis.

Jones, Reimold and Markakis — all 26 or younger — would form one of the game's most promising outfields. Wieters, a 24-year-old switch-hitter, would be behind the plate, catching a young and talented staff and working in front of an infield that included Brian Roberts and perhaps Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell, the latter two having forced their way up from the minor leagues.

Markakis is the only member of that group who is hitting above .270. Bell, a 23-year-old third baseman, leads the group with six home runs, all coming for Triple-A Norfolk, whose roster includes first baseman Snyder (232 average, two home runs). Only Markakis has an on-base percentage above .325, and nobody from that group has a slugging percentage above .450.

"I think regression is an easy response. That's something that people can just assume," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I could probably point out a big sampling of players around major league baseball with numbers down as well, but I also understand that those guys are earmarked as very key and important guys on the Orioles. It's been the center of attention since the beginning of the season.

"Guys are not totally developed yet. They're not finished products, and I still honestly believe before it's all said and done that they'll be very good, bona fide, productive major league players. It's just unfortunate the way that they have started, but they still have a lot of at-bats left."

Who's to blame?

The offensive struggles extend throughout the organization — Norfolk and Double-A Bowie each entered Monday with only one player with more than 40 at-bats for his current team hitting over .280 — and have prompted questions about the club's approach to developing hitters.

Did MacPhail, he of the "grow the arms, buy the bats" mantra, do a poor job surrounding the young hitters with productive veterans? Is it more of a player-development and scouting issue, where the club is failing in drafting and teaching young hitters? How much has the loss of leadoff man Roberts affected all the young big league hitters, specifically Jones? And how much of the blame should fall to Terry Crowley, the longest-tenured hitting coach in the majors, who has worked under five managers and five different general managers?

"One-hundred percent unfair," Markakis said of the criticism of Crowley. "He's doing everything a hitting coach should do. It's up to us players to make those adjustments. Right now, we're lacking in that department. As a big league hitter, you have to go up there, face the pitcher and figure it out yourself."

The only unanimous view from scouts and talent evaluators who have followed the club and its affiliates this season is that the Orioles were probably expecting way too much, way too soon, specifically in the pitching-rich AL East.

MacPhail acknowledged that it would have been "naïve" for the organization to think every one of its young hitters would take a step forward, but it had to expect much more than this.

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