At the quarter way mark of the season, all teams have injury concerns – some more than others. The O’s haven’t been hit particularly hard with the injury bug, although with Tsuyoshi Wada, Zach Britton, Brian Roberts, Matt Lindstrom, Mark Reynolds, Endy Chavez, and Nolan Reimold all currently on the disabled list, they haven’t been immune from it either. Others – like Jason Hammel – have avoided a trip to the DL but are hampered by nagging injuries. The O’s don’t have a $200 m+ team with starting-caliber players waiting in the wings on the bench and in the minors. In order to continue to have success, the team is going to have to be fortunate enough to benefit from a certain amount of luck. In baseball, luck often manifests itself in the form of player health. If the O’s can get back the players they are currently missing and stay reasonably healthy over the remaining 119 games, it will go a long way in helping them maintain their standing atop the AL East. Below are the five players currently hampered by injuries who are the most crucial to the O’s continued success in 2012.
5. Brian Roberts
There are two reasons I include Roberts on the this list – one is more concrete and the other is a bit whimsical. First, the concrete reason. A healthy Brian Roberts, even one that shows expected signs of regression due to age and rust, is an upgrade on the bench over the likes of Steve Tolleson and Bill Hall. His ability to have good at bats even if they don’t end in a hit and his base running abilities are the real upgrades there. If Roberts is playing 4-5 days a week, Andino can shift over to 3B, providing another temporary solution to the O’s defensive woes at the hot corner. Roberts as a pure bench player is very interesting to me. I love the idea of him being able to pinch hit leading off the 9th, with the O’s down by a run. I like the notion of Matt Wieters leading off the 11th inning of a tied game with a walk, Roberts pinch running, stealing second, and giving the 6-8 batters three chances at getting him in. The Orioles don’t currently have a player with Roberts’ skill set who can impact the game in so many ways off the bench.
The whimsical reason is that if the O’s are going to continue to achieve success this season and have a somewhat magical run, can you think of a better story than a resurgent Brian Roberts contributing to the team down the stretch?
4. Mark Reynolds
The Orioles offense in 2012 has been built off of homeruns. There is a good chance that at some point, guys like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and JJ Hardy are going to slow down their homerun pace. The concern is that when the team does regress back from its likely unsustainable homerun pace, that they will be unable to score many runs through other means. There is a hope for keeping the power surge going and that hope is Mark Reynolds. Reynolds has never hit less than 30 homeruns in his career. After belting 37 in 2011, he only has two thus far in 2012. It might be difficult for him to reach the 37 mark in 2012 now, but based on his history it is difficult to believe that he won’t increase his 2012 homerun pace once he returns from the disabled list. If he can, Reynolds could pick up a lot of the “slack” that might potentially occur as other less prolific Orioles’ homerun hitters slow down their homerun hitting pace. In addition, it would be a huge help if the time on the DL allows Reynolds to stop thinking for a bit and come back much more sure-handed at 3B then he has shown thus far in 2012. Reynolds will never be a great defender, but he was clearly in his own head before being injured. Hopefully the time off will allow him to clear his head and cut down on the mentally-induced fielding errors. If the O’s are going to stick around, the defense is going to have to be better and Reynolds improving his play at 3B is a huge part of the equation.
3. Jason Hammel
Over the last decade and a half, Orioles’ fans have gotten use to all of the team’s “upside acquisitions” flaming out. It seems that any time the O’s took a gamble on a player to have a breakout season, finally reach his potential, or even just perform at prior career levels, that player failed to meet any of those expectations. Their luck has changed in that regard the past couple of seasons. JJ Hardy and Mark Reynolds both proved to be valuable pickups last season, while nearly the entire bullpen consists of role players that were brought in on the cheap and have all performed very well. However, through April and the early part of May, Jason Hammel was the poster boy for that sort of acquisition. When Jeremy Guthrie was traded for Hammel and Matt Lindstrom this winter, reaction ranged from indifference to anger. Instead, Hammel has been the O’s best starting pitcher. Players and analysts agree that he looks like a different pitcher with a heavy two-seamer that he is using to induce a large number of groundball outs. Hammel has been shaky recently, thanks in no small part to a lingering knee injury. If Hammel can get over the injury and prove that the first 6 weeks of the season were no fluke, it will go a long way in solidifying the O’s rotation for the last 3/4’s of the season.
2. Nolan Reimold
Reimold was the O’s hottest hitter when he went on the disabled list at the end of April. He was filling in admirably atop the order and showing off significant power with 5 homeruns. Unfortunately, as he has been prone to throughout his career, Nolan has struggled to stay healthy and on the field. This year’s cause are neck spasms, should soreness, and tingling in his fingers, all the result of a bulging discs in his neck. It is unclear when Reimold will return, but his return to the lineup would certainly be welcomed. When healthy, Nolan is far too good of a hitter not to have a positive impact on the team. Through his speed and power, he can create runs in a number of different ways. Of the offensive players on the disabled list currently, Nolan is the one who I would expect to have the largest positive impact upon his return.
1. Zach Britton
Dan Duquette sought to establish depth, pitching depth specifically, this winter. As we’ve seen time and time before, no matter how much pitching depth a team appears to have at the start of a season, that depth can disappear in a hurry. At the start of Spring Training, it looks like the Orioles had no less than a dozen serviceable starting pitchers. By the end of March, that list was down to 9 or 10. Right now, the list is even shorter depending on your definition of “dependable starter”. Tommy Hunter isn’t performing like a Major League starter, Dana Eveland doesn’t appear to be a serious long-term answer, Brad Bergeson has struggled mightily at Norfolk, Tsuyoshi Wada is out of the year after having Tommy John surgery, and Chris Tillman is his usual inconsistent self.
The O’s still have once ace up their sleeve, though – Zach Britton. Britton experience elbow soreness in Spring Training that sidelined him all of March. The O’s have been very cautious with the young lefty and it appears that Britton is finally close to game action. This week, he threw 80 pitches in an extended Spring Training game and is tentatively scheduled to make his first rehab start with a minor league affiliate this Saturday. We don’t know how many starts Britton will make in the minors, but 2 to 3 would be a solid guess. With Hunter struggling, it seems all but certain that Britton will assume Hunter’s spot in the rotation as soon as his health permits. As he showed flashes of last season, Britton has the talent to be a difference-making pitcher at the Major League level. If he is healthy and pitching well, his impact to the rotation cannot be understated. All good teams need at least 6 serviceable starters (and a lot of luck) to get through an entire season. A healthy Britton would provide a huge spark for the O’s rotation at a time when they certainly need some reinforcements.