Mailbag: What's with Millar's pitch?
Beat reporter Spencer Fordin answers questions from fans
So what's with Kevin Millar throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park last week? I know he has ties to Red Sox Nation, but come on now, you're an Oriole for at least another year.
-- Michael N., Bristow, Va.
Millar has already tried to clear the air and will state his case later in the week on MLB.com, but there's no question that his appearance in Boston during the American League Championship Series has raised the ire of Baltimore fans.
Message boards have taken to the topic in a big way, and several local beat writers have gotten reams of e-mail correspondence in censure of the action. In short, Millar believes that throwing out the first pitch was an innocent display of affection for his former team, and he correctly notes that he did things the right way by seeking permission from the Baltimore organization.
The veteran wasn't the only player with ties to the 2004 World Series champions to throw out a first pitch, but he was the only one who currently plays for a division rival. New York's Johnny Damon, for instance, didn't make an appearance. Millar has never worried about setting precedents, though, and has certainly never hid his affinity for his time spent in Boston.
The way he sees it, he gave his all to the Orioles from February through September. Millar put all of his physical and mental energy toward making Baltimore a better team, and when it was eliminated, he saw nothing wrong about rooting on the Red Sox. Perhaps next time he'll do it from the comfort of his own home, but Millar has never been a shrinking violet.
Are players allowed to have rooting interests after their teams are eliminated? That depends on who you ask. It can certainly be galling for a fan to see a player they root for cheering for someone else, but players are human beings just like everyone else. As long as they give their all during business hours, they should be allowed to be fans when their year is done.
With Chris Ray on the shelf for most or all of 2008, who do you envision as the closer?
-- Shane V., Beltsville, Md.
Whoever will serve as the closer probably isn't in the organization yet. Baltimore will likely try to corral several low-cost free agents this winter in the hope of building a better bullpen, and the team's closer may well have to come from the bargain bin. Veteran relievers Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker are expected to return to situational setup roles next year.
Those two and southpaw swingman Brian Burres make up the current relief staff, but the Orioles will need to fill several roles. They need to find a pitcher who can capably handle the ninth inning, and they need one who can pitch the seventh or eighth. Rookie James Hoey may eventually help late in games, but Baltimore would like to get him more experience first.
Ray's injury really hurt the Orioles, because they had mentally committed to him as the closer for the next few seasons. The youngster had a spotty season in 2007, but nobody knows how long he was pitching with a damaged elbow. Ray should return with his skills intact from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, but he probably won't pitch again until Spring Training in 2009.
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The Orioles spent $42 million on relief pitching last year -- much to the chagrin of several industry-related analysts -- and will look for safety in numbers this season. Look for Baltimore to assemble several lower-profile arms and let them compete in Spring Training, where pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Alan Dunn will pick and choose carefully.
Will Ramon Hernandez bounce back in '08 and be a power threat like he was in '06?
-- James C., Southington, Conn.
Hernandez was hurt with an oblique injury when the regular season started last year and never truly got untracked. And while it's true that he's entering an age where catchers typically deteriorate statistically, Hernandez seems to have a lot left in the tank. He does appear to be a good bet to rebound in '08 -- but maybe not to the level he enjoyed in 2006.
The backstop was locked in all year that season, and he set career highs in games played and at-bats in addition to home runs (23), RBIs (91), on-base percentage (.343) and slugging (.479). This year, Hernandez was at the other end of the spectrum, setting his lowest marks in batting average (.258), homers (nine) and slugging (.382) since 2002.
That year appears to be an injury-related anomaly, though, and Hernandez finished his season with a strong final month. The veteran said that he plans on being in better shape next season, which would help as he approaches his 32nd birthday. Hernandez isn't done yet, but his trade value is low and may not rebound until after the All-Star break.
When will Danys Baez pitch again in a game for the Orioles?
-- Jacob C., Richmond, Va.
Much like Ray, Baez is out for most or all of the 2008 season and probably won't pitch again until Spring Training in '09. That injury risk was one of the many reasons that the veteran's signing was cited as risky by analysts last offseason, and it's also a big factor in shaping the way Baltimore will likely approach the relief situation this winter.
Several teams -- the Angels of recent vintage are likely the best example -- have specialized in finding relievers on the cheap and plugging them into important roles in the bullpen. Baltimore will look to follow that example, and if it doesn't work out immediately, the plan is to have roughly interchangeable options waiting down at Triple-A Norfolk.
Baez was ineffective for the Orioles even before he got hurt, but he never shied away from taking the ball and taking his lumps. He met the media calmly and dependably after each and every setback and basically conducted himself as a professional. The Orioles also thought he was a positive clubhouse influence even as he struggled through the worst year of his career.
If he hadn't gotten hurt, Baez may have been a candidate to be released this winter, which would've meant that the Orioles basically paid him to walk away. Now, they'll let him rehab for a year and attempt to recoup some of their lost investment in 2009. By then, Baltimore should be a completely different team that Baez may not even recognize.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.