There's no pitching around these Orioles

With a new heart of the lineup, Orioles expect to put up more runs

March 30, 2011|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, FLA. — When Kevin Gregg pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays last year, his team had a simple plan to stifle the Orioles' offense: Pitch around No. 3 hitter Nick Markakis.

"That was our goal coming in last year: Don't let him beat us," said Gregg, who signed with the Orioles this offseason. "We said: 'We'll just pitch around him. We won't give him anything to hit and get him frustrated.' … It's frustrating for a younger player to have that happen."

Markakis' run-production numbers dipped considerably in 2010, and the Orioles finished second to last in the American League in runs scored, prompting the club's front office to target a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter in the offseason.

In December, the Orioles traded for free-swinging third baseman Mark Reynolds, who has averaged 35 homers the past three seasons. In January, they signed first baseman Derrek Lee, a career .282 hitter with 312 big league home runs. Then, in February, the Orioles inked designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, one of the most accomplished sluggers of his generation.

Suddenly — in theory, anyway — the Orioles have a formidable and deep lineup, led by a beefed-up middle of the order.

"Now, you don't have that choice to pitch around [Markakis]," Gregg said. "Now, you go do that, and you'll have to face D-Lee or Vlad, or a guy [Reynolds] that can hit 50 home runs."

Brash center fielder Adam Jones sums it up this way: "Now, please pitch around Markakis."

The trickle-down theory is evident here. A healthy Brian Roberts will set the table for Markakis, who is in his more natural spot batting second this year. Lee will protect Markakis, and Guerrero will clean up the bases batting fourth.

Luke Scott, who hit a team-leading 27 homers last year, will bat fifth, followed by Jones, Reynolds, catcher Matt Wieters and new shortstop J.J. Hardy, a ninth hitter who has smashed 26 homers in a season.

"We tried to get a little more of a pass-the-baton-type mentality; that way the weight of the world isn't on one part of the batting order," manager Buck Showalter said. "You got to create spots where the opposing pitcher has to grind all the way through the lineup."

In 2010, Jones was in just his third full season in the big leagues yet moved all over the order, hitting in seven spots, including once at cleanup.

"That was awesome. One time is cool. But now we've got Guerrero; he is a four hitter. D-Lee is a three hitter," Jones said. "They give us the option of the long ball that we sure as hell didn't have last year."

Consider this: The 13 hitters who made the Orioles' 2010 Opening Day roster headed into that season with 896 career home runs. The trio of Guerrero, Lee and Reynolds has 869 career homers. Throw in Hardy, the Orioles' other offseason offensive acquisition, and that quartet has hit a total of 950 in the big leagues.

"We have a number of guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, so it is nice," said Lee, who hit 19 homers in 2010, his lowest total since 2006. "One through nine, at some point, anybody can. That helps you come back, that helps you increase your lead. That creates wins."

Last year, only Scott, Ty Wigginton, now with the Colorado Rockies, and Jones homered more than 12 times. The club finished 10th of 14 American League teams in home runs.

"You have to look at last year with the injuries they had and all that, after a while they were piecemealing the lineup. That takes a toll on offensive stats," new hitting coach Jim Presley said. "But since we have added these three or four guys, you are talking big-time power, professional hitters. I am not saying we are going to go out and score six, seven, eight runs a night, but we will put some numbers up."

Long overdue

The lack of a true bomber in Baltimore is nothing new. Since 2000, the Orioles have had just three players with 30 or more homers in one season: Tony Batista (31) in 2002, Miguel Tejada (34) in 2004 and Aubrey Huff (32) in 2008.

In comparison, Guerrero has done it eight times since 1998 and almost made it nine last year, but fell one short. Lee has hit 30 or more homers four times, including 35 in 2009. Reynolds has done it each of the past two seasons, including 44 in 2009.

"We were looking for one or two power hitters and came up with three. I was pretty excited," Markakis said. "I think I can speak for the other guys, everybody else was excited too."

This will be the 11th season in an Orioles uniform for Roberts. He was part of the 2005 club that led the AL East through June 23 while boasting a lineup that included Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez, Sammy Sosa and Jay Gibbons.

This order, however, has more potential than any he has been a part of, Roberts said.

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