Record doesn't reflect Orioles' progress
Emerging young nucleus generating excitement for future
BALTIMORE -- The late-season swoon struck the Orioles again in 2009, complicating the evaluation process and obscuring some of the positive developments that took place during the year. The Orioles will go into the winter with their worst record in two decades, but they'll do so with one of the youngest rosters in the league.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the mound, where Baltimore spent most of the season with a rotation full of rookies. None of the team's veteran stopgaps worked out, forcing the team into an aggressive promotion schedule that allowed many of the best arms in the organization to reach the big leagues earlier than expected.
Perhaps nobody inspires more optimism than twin prospects Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz, who both made it to the Majors before their 23rd birthday and held their own in their late-season auditions. The future is now for both youngsters, who will go into Spring Training with some much-needed experience under their belts.
Baltimore also uncovered a potential gem in Brad Bergesen, who had been named the team's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008. The right-hander joined the big league club in April and immediately began establishing himself, and only a season-ending injury on a ball back through the box was able to slow his momentum.
The Orioles saw a breakout season from Adam Jones and a pain-free introduction to the Major Leagues for catcher Matt Wieters, who was billed by many analysts as the best prospect in baseball. Wieters slowly became more comfortable at the plate as the season progressed and ended the year on an impressive surge.
Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts reprised their roles as the team's two most dangerous hitters, and Nolan Reimold established himself as a keeper. But Ty Wigginton struggled to find his power stroke in his first season as an Oriole, and Baltimore suffered through a power outage from corner infielders Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora.
Through it all, the Orioles found themselves with one of the most difficult schedules in baseball. Baltimore was unable to thrive with the top-flight competition in the American League East and wound up finishing 39 games out of first place, a development that had occurred just once previously in franchise history.
Despite that fact, it's impossible to miss the stark contrast from this roster to the core of previous years. Baltimore lost Huff to a midseason trade and will likely say goodbye to Mora over the winter. That will leave them with gaping holes at both infield corners, but with room for prospects Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell to grow into.
With their current roster, the Orioles will have just three regulars -- Brian Roberts, Luke Scott and Cesar Izturis -- who are 30 or older. That may change due to offseason signings, but it's clear that the team has begun to switch gears. Baltimore had 96 starts by rookie pitchers in 2009, and they'll all be back to compete in Spring Training.
Baltimore will likely focus on adding an impact bat during the offseason, and it may also look to rebuild its bullpen from scratch. The rebuilding movement has reached a point where most of the prizes are already on the field, though, leaving little to the imagination and creating an atmosphere where the youngsters can grow together.Record: 64-98, fifth place in American League East Division Defining moment: The Orioles were sitting 14 games under .500 and 18 1/2 games back of first place on July 30, when they opted to trade closer George Sherrill to the Dodgers in exchange for Bell. That move ripped a gap in the bullpen and forced the team to shuffle its relievers into new roles, a process that had disastrous implications for the rest of the season. And if that wasn't enough, the Orioles lost Bergesen to a season-ending injury later in the day. Baltimore went 21-41 and dropped 23 games in the standings since the Sherrill trade, a precipitous skid that has caused a wholesale re-evaluation of the season's progress to date. What went right: Say what you will about the standings, but the Orioles have presided over a wholesale changing of the guard. Baltimore has successfully integrated several youngsters into the starting rotation, starting with Bergesen and extending to top prospects Matusz and Tillman. The Orioles also saw successful debut seasons from Wieters and Reimold, further fleshing out their core of positional talent. Jones made a quantum leap in his second season, turning his potential into All-Star production. And if that wasn't enough young talent, Baltimore also saw a successful reclamation project for outfielder Felix Pie. The Orioles have young and exciting players dotting their entire roster, and they have a farm system on the verge of providing some company. What went wrong: The Orioles saw veterans Rich Hill and Adam Eaton implode in their brief run through the rotation, and Spring Training favorite Alfredo Simon went down with an arm injury after just two starts. Huff and Mora weren't able to provide a fitting encore to their productive 2008 campaigns, and ex-closer Chris Ray struggled mightily in his return from a year lost due to ligament replacement surgery on his pitching elbow. Jason Berken and David Hernandez experienced acute growing pains in their first big-league season. Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie regressed, while Jim Johnson didn't take well to the closer's role after Sherrill's departure. Bergesen, Jones, Reimold and Pie saw their breakout seasons cut short by injuries. Biggest surprise: Bergesen served notice in Spring Training that he was ready to pitch in the big leagues, but you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone who expected him to be Baltimore's most effective starter. The right-hander struggled in his second big league start, but he allowed more than one home run in just one of his last 17 outings. Bergesen allowed two earned runs or fewer 10 times, and he completed six innings in 15 of his final 16 starts. His teammates jokingly began calling him "Roy" for Rookie of the Year, but his injury likely ended his candidacy. In any case, Bergesen has to be considered a favorite to break Spring Training with a rotation slot in 2010.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.