New-look O's will pack a wallop, but there are still question marks

February 05, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Vladimir Guerrero will arrive in Baltimore later this week to take his physical, bringing with him a potential Hall of Fame resume, a towering presence and some questions about how much he has left in his soon-to-be 36-year-old body.

If Guerrero passes his physical and finalizes a one-year, $8 million dollar deal that was agreed to early Friday evening, he'll become the team's biggest free agent addition since the Orioles signed Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal before the 2004 season.

He'll also likely complete a busy offseason in which president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has overhauled the lineup, adding Guerrero, first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy, solidified the bullpen with the signings of Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo and Koji Uehara, and taken a flier on oft-injured starter Justin Duchscherer.

But the addition of Guerrero is clearly the headliner as the team — at long last — gets a bona fide cleanup hitter. As per team policy, Oriole officials won't comment on the deal until Guerrero's physical is completed, but there are plenty of conclusions to be drawn after the addition of the nine-time All-Star, coupled with the club's other offseason moves.

The Orioles are a much better offensive team

That would have been true even had the Orioles not gotten Guerrero, but he certainly adds an element that the team just hasn't had. Even if the Guerrero the Orioles get is closer to the one that the Texas Rangers saw in the second half of the 2010 season — he batted .319 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs in the first half compared with .278 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in the second — he still brings a presence that should benefit the rest of the lineup.

"We've had some guys they've put there, that certainly in their prime — [Rafael Palmeiro] and even [Sammy Sosa] — were legitimate four hitters," said leadoff man Brian Roberts, whose health will be a key factor in the performance of the lineup. "But a lot of times, we were using people like [Miguel Tejada], who is a phenomenal hitter, but that's not the place he should be hitting. When you have somebody like Vladdy, it forces everyone else to hit in slots that are more comfortable for them. It takes some pressure off the young guys. When you look at some of the guys we have developing — [Adam Jones], [Matt] Wieters, even Reynolds — it doesn't fall all on their shoulders."

During what he acknowledged was an "embarrassing" year in 2010, Reynolds belted 32 homers to go along with 85 RBIs. Orioles third basemen last year totaled 16 homers and 71 RBIs, though they batted .260 compared with Reynolds' .198. Hampered all season by a thumb issue, Lee turned in a .260 average with 19 homers and 80 RBIs. Orioles first basemen in 2010 batted .226 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs.

Hardy is also a significant offensive upgrade over Cesar Izturis at shortstop, while Luke Scott moving from designated hitter to the outfield should improve the Orioles' production in that position as well.

Overall, the various components will give manager Buck Showalter more balance and plenty of options. The Orioles also should be much more dangerous against left-handed pitching, long a problem area for the club in a division that includes ace left-handers CC Sabathia, David Price, Ricky Romero and Jon Lester.

The Orioles have been weakened defensively

All along, team officials felt that this was the main downside of a Guerrero signing. The outfield defense, shaky for parts of last season, was great over the final two months. Left fielder Felix Pie was a big part of that, both with his legs and his strong and accurate arm.

Now, Scott, considered by scouts a below-average outfielder, goes out to left, pushing Pie to the bench or another team. The Orioles feel that Scott is better defensively than he is given credit for, pointing out that he catches the balls he should catch, makes accurate throws and positions himself well. But the fact remains that he won't be able to get to some balls that Pie would make look routine.

"I'm going to go out and work hard to be the best defensive left fielder I can be," said Scott. "I can make the plays I need to make, cover the ground I need to cover. I have a good enough arm. I play solid defense. There's never a question as far as my defense is concerned."

The presence of Reynolds and Lee should improve the infield corner defense, though Hardy is a downgrade from Izturis at shortstop.

If nothing else, the Orioles might have some nice trade chips

With the way things have been going in recent years, it would be foolish not to look at worst-case scenarios for the Orioles. If this season gets off to a disappointing start — if the young pitching staff buckles and the lineup doesn't live up to expectations — the Orioles might be in a decent position to make some moves to add some more young talent to a minor league system badly in need of it.

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