Cumberland Times-News

December 10, 2010

O’s offense already an improvement

Mike Burke
Cumberland Times-News

— The Baltimore Orioles on Thursday completed an overhaul of the left-side of their infield, acquiring former All-Star shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins, three days after trading with the Arizona Diamondbacks for slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds.

Hardy, who comes to Baltimore along with utility player Brendan Harris, will provide the Orioles with an immediate offensive upgrade at the position and, though he’s not going to remind anybody of Mark Belanger, he will play a good defensive shortstop.

As for Reynolds, the guy has struck out over 200 times in each of the past three seasons, while nobody in the history of the big leagues had ever done it once. But he also has career averages of 35 home runs and 100 RBI over 162 games, which is far more than anything anybody dressed in “Orioles” has put up in recent vintage. His defense at third improves every year.

Hardy is 28, while Reynolds is 27, so if the Orioles decide to extend Hardy’s contract, which expires after 2011, both could be around for awhile — perhaps long enough for Reynolds to lose about 20 strikeouts to get his season total under the once-unchartered Reynolds Line.

All told, Andy MacPhail seems to have delivered on his promise to upgrade the offense, with all due respect to Cesar Izturis, whom MacPhail says still could sign on as a utility infielder, and gamer Ty Wigginton, who this week signed a two-year deal with the Colorado Rockies. Not only that, all indications are MacPhail isn’t finished as the Orioles are hot and hungry for a first baseman or another third baseman, as Reynolds could be moved to first.

If the Orioles were in the American League West, folks in Bawlmer, hon would be downright ducky as they currently do everything in their power to block out what happened Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium. But the Orioles aren’t in the AL West, or the AL Central; or, for that matter, the NL West, the NL Central or even the NL East.

Oh, that’s right, the Orioles are in the American League East, which means the New York Yankees are on the verge of giving free-agent starter Cliff Lee a seven-year contract in knee-jerk panic to the Boston Red Sox acquiring Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. And, oh, yes, the Tampa Bay Rays have the deepest farm system in baseball and have won two out of the last three division titles, while the Toronto Blue Jays seem to win 85 games every season after being left for dead every season.

Naturally, the Orioles, to use a Brian Billick expression, must be cognizant of what’s going on in their own division; but there is no need for them to be overly cognizant. When you live on the Gilligan’s Island of your division, as the Orioles do, 19 games behind the next-to-last-place team, you really only need to be concerned with improving yourself. And, so far, it appears this is what the Orioles are doing. Not only that, folks in Baltimore aren’t the only people in the world who noticed the surge with which the Orioles played in the final two months under manager Buck Showalter.

“Just looking at the roster of the Baltimore Orioles, I think we’re going to be pretty good,” Hardy told reporters on Thursday. “Looking at what they did in the second half last year, I think we’re going to be a team that might fly under the radar and be a lot better than people expect.”

Putting Reynolds and Hardy, whose 162-game averages are .263, 30 doubles, 20 homers and 73 RBI, in the lineup immediately makes Nick Markakis the hitter he was up to last year. Meaning, while his average and doubles total will remain high, more home runs and RBI are going to come naturally, because he’s going to see better pitches. But then everybody in the lineup should since a healthy Brian Roberts, Markakis, Luke Scott, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Felix Pie give the Orioles a lineup that has the potential to turn over quite a bit.

Besides Markakis, Wieters should benefit the most if Hardy is at the bottom of the order, and if Nolan Reimold can return to the form he displayed two seasons ago, this could end up being a very good lineup.

But, again, MacPhail is not finished; or at least he says he’s not, and of the available free-agent corner players, Adam LaRoche, who goes .273, 40 doubles, 26 homers and 93 RBI, and who can flat-out pick it at first, looks to be the best. Although the Washington Nationals, who just paid Yankee/Red Sox money to Jayson Werth, are said to have come to the same conclusion.

So during a week in which Baltimore sports fans were in dire need of any kind of good news, the addition of Reynolds and Hardy, while hardly the second coming of Frank Robinson and Luis Aparicio, and the potential for adding another RBI producer, provides some good news.

Not to mention an excuse for, however briefly, having something other than last Sunday night to grind teeth over.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com