Orioles spring training in review: 3 good things, 3 bad things

Vlad, Britton, Fox among positives

struggles of young starters and bullpen, as well as injuries, provide reasons to worry

March 29, 2011|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — With Tuesday's Grapefruit League exhibition finale in the books, the Orioles have completed their first spring training at renovated Ed Smith Stadium and under manager Buck Showalter.

Impressive new digs and Showalter's orderly, purposeful camp helped the Orioles prepare for Friday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. But celebration and instruction were each only a part of the Orioles' 2011 spring experience.

Here's a look at three positives to take from this spring and three things that did not go well.

The good

Guerrero chugging along: When the Orioles signed designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year, $8 million contract in February, some panned the move, pointing to Guerrero's second-half decline last season. Guerrero, now 36, followed up a Most Valuable Player-type first half (20 homers, 75 RBIs, .319 batting average) with a pedestrian post-break output (9 homers, 40 RBIs, .278 average). Time will tell whether he's worth the contract, but he has shown he can still swing the bat.

In 66 spring at-bats, he hit .364 with five homers and a team-leading 20 RBIs. He has played with unbridled passion, running out every ground ball and begging to be in the lineup. He also doesn't stop smiling and is already popular among teammates.

Britton at top of class: There had been a lot of talk about the Orioles' top pitching prospect, Zach Britton, as he climbed the organizational ladder. He backed it up this month, allowing just three runs in 20 big league innings (1.35 ERA). Simply put, he was the club's best starting pitcher this spring.

Still, he won't be breaking camp with the Orioles, spending at least 20 days in the minors so the club can delay his free-agent clock for a full year. That may not seem particularly fair, but he's made just 12 starts above Double-A and could use some more work on his secondary pitches and command. His 94 mph, biting sinker couldn't be nastier, though.

Slugging like a Fox: Oftentimes, an unheralded player makes a splash in spring training. This year it's Jake Fox, who belted 10 homers, driven in 15 runs and batted .297 in 74 at-bats. Because he can play several positions, he was a favorite for a bench spot coming into camp. He seized the opportunity and made it impractical for the Orioles to try to slip him through waivers.

The club's cautiously optimistic that the 28-year-old is a late bloomer and will continue to flash power. However, his defensive skills at catcher and in the infield are limited. Barring injuries, he has almost no shot to crack the starting lineup. Still, his homer display has been worth watching.

The bad

Young starters scuffle: The hardest thing to do in spring is to gauge pitching because everyone is working on something. But without proven track records, the young starters' struggles are alarming.

Brian Matusz (5.93 ERA, 24 base runners in 132/3 innings), Jake Arrieta (5.79 ERA, 29 base runners in 182/3 innings), Brad Bergesen (5.82 ERA, 31 base runners in 17 innings) and Chris Tillman (3.93 ERA, 31 base runners in 181/3 innings) all scuffled. Even staff veteran Jeremy Guthrie (6.43 ERA, 25 base runners in 14 innings) failed to put up good numbers in his four major league games this spring.

Needing some relief: The Orioles' strength, on paper anyway, should be its bullpen. The club will spend a combined $16 million this year on five relievers: Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara, Michael Gonzalez, Jeremy Accardo and Jim Johnson, all of whom previously have saved at least 10 games in a big league season.

Johnson (1.00 ERA in nine innings) and Accardo (2.08 ERA in 82/3 innings) have been superb, but the three highest-paid guys had it rough. Gregg attempted to tweak his mechanics and had a 9.82 ERA in eight games. Gonzalez (4.50 ERA) allowed earned runs in three of his eight outings. And Uehara pitched in just three games because of a sore elbow.

Feeling the pain: Brian Roberts (back) and Derrek Lee (wrist, foot) missed a chunk of time, as did Uehara, Justin Duchscherer (left hip) and Craig Tatum (muscle tweak). Duchscherer is the only one heading to the disabled list to start the season, which is encouraging.

But within a three-day period this week, Bergesen and Matusz each were struck on the arm by liners, potentially jeopardizing their first starts of the regular season. That provided a stark reminder of just how little depth there is in the organization.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

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