What do you see the first four spots in the Orioles' batting order looking like?
-- Andrew R., Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
When asked about his batting order during Saturday's FanFest, Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has been writing mock lineups all winter, joked that he hoped to get the chance to use his eraser in the next week or two, alluding to the club's offer to free agent Vladimir Guerrero.
While Baltimore waits to see if Guerrero accepts its one-year deal, the team's offense has been upgraded -- with or without the veteran slugger. While Guerrero's arrival would strengthen the O's and give Showalter flexibility in the middle-of-the-order bats, I think you're looking at a lineup that most days has Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds penciled into the top four spots, with Luke Scott and Adam Jones following them.
Roberts is a critical part of the Orioles' lineup, and after missing most of last season with a back injury, he has been working out in Sarasota, Fla., this winter and said Saturday that everything feels "really good." Markakis, along with Jones, Scott and Matt Wieters, should benefit the most from having the power threat of Lee and Reynolds following him in the order, a presence that should cut back on the high number of walks opposing teams issued to Markakis last season.
If Baltimore does get Guerrero, he will take over for Scott at designated hitter, but Showalter will keep both bats in his lineup most days by shifting Scott over to left field. While that scenario would weaken the team defensively, it definitely would give the lineup a more intimidating look. However, the Orioles haven't been given any indication of Guerrero's timetable and are proceeding right now with the mindset that Scott will be the DH, with a platoon of Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie in left field.
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Do you suppose that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's willingness to spend money this offseason relates at all to the fact that in the coming years, more money will need to be devoted to contracts for the young stars on the rise? Therefore, that money will be controlling the budget, as opposed to the free spending he is capable of now?
-- Avi M., Baltimore
I'm going to have to disagree here, Avi, on both parts of the question. I don't think anyone would categorize MacPhail's offseason as a spending spree. In fact, the organization has been pretty much tapped out budget-wise for a while, but it never expected Lee to sign so late and a guy like Guerrero to be still available.
MacPhail said on Saturday that although he's gone over budget, principal owner Peter Angelos has given him the OK to proceed in finding some late-winter steals.
"We've had conversations that maybe we would not have anticipated this time of year, but you're trying to take advantage of those things that the market offers you," MacPhail said.
With a payroll that will be under $90 million, it's not exactly "free spending" by the Orioles. It's more like carefully calculated risks that could end up playing favorably. While I do agree with you that the payroll will go up in the next few winters, I don't think it's solely based on the assumption that the team will dole out multiyear deals, an aspect Baltimore has been very cautious about under MacPhail. Instead, I think the club will be willing to invest more money on the supporting cast around its young arms, as that core group of starters begins to flourish in the Major Leagues.
Keep in mind that a lot of the Orioles' offseason signings -- and most of their current roster in general -- is playing on one-year deals, giving the organization flexibility to perhaps land a premier free agent in the winters of 2011 or '12. As for MacPhail, his contract expires after this season, and you'd think a lot of his future in Baltimore hinges on the team's performance this year.
With all of the offseason acquisitions thus far, who do you think will make the biggest impact and why?
-- Casey D., Westminster, Md.
My gut feeling is Lee, both for the production he will provide and the example he'll set in the clubhouse.
A two-time All-Star and three-time National League Gold Glove Award winner, Lee is a career .282 hitter with 312 home runs, and he is just one season removed from 35 homers and 111 RBIs with the Cubs in 2009. The 35-year-old saw his power numbers drop last season, when he hit .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs, and he made it no secret in his introductory conference call that he's motivated to get back on track.
"I hear people say I'm old, I'm declining. I want to prove that theory wrong," Lee said. "I've had some pretty productive years. I feel like I'm kind of getting thrown by the wayside because of this one year, so yeah, I've got a chip on my shoulder."
Everything I've heard about Lee -- from other reporters, former teammates, those in the Orioles' organization and those who knew him from back in the Minor Leagues -- has said the same thing: this is a guy whose going to demand effort and integrity.
Keep in mind this is a guy who played with a torn ligament in his right thumb all year and probably should have been on the disabled list. Lee's a perfect example of what Showalter has tried to foster in the O's clubhouse. Lee's a guy with a lot of "want-to" and a presence I think will reverberate on the younger, more impressionable players.
How do you think Showalter is going to build his bullpen with all the new additions?
-- Matt B., Denver
Good question, Matt. I think it's going to be one of the most interesting storylines in camp and throughout the first half of the season. In addition to at least two guys -- Koji Uehara and Kevin Gregg -- battling it out for the closer's role, Jim Johnson and Michael Gonzalez have both closed before, and Showalter still isn't ruling out Johnson as a potential starter, although that's more of a long shot.
It's safe to say all four of those guys will be at the back end of the bullpen, although only Showalter knows whether the closer's job will be given out on a nightly basis or if the team will have a go-to ninth-inning guy regardless of the situation. Given how Showalter loves competition, it's unlikely he'll tip his hand during Spring Training. Both Uehara and Gregg have closing incentives in their contracts and will get time at the start of the season to prove their worth. Uehara, like Johnson and Gonzalez, is coming off an injury in 2010 that forced him to the disabled list twice, so the bullpen depth acquired this offseason is no mistake.
With a young pitching staff, getting to those four late-inning arms is equally important, which is why the club went out and signed several arms in Jeremy Accardo, Clay Rapada and Mark Hendrickson to compete with the current crop of middle relievers and long men. Barring injury, five guys -- Uehara, Gregg, Gonzalez, Johnson and Jason Berken -- have roster spots, although it remains to see how Berken bounces back from a season-ending right shoulder injury, which could give an opening to a guy like Accardo. Lefties Rapada and Hendrickson will get a long look, and Hendrickson could also be used as the team's long man over Rick VandenHurk, although VandenHurk is out of options. Fellow southpaws Pedro Viola and Troy Patton and Rule 5 Draft pick right-hander Adrian Rosario are also options.