Orioles building a bridge to the future

O's building a bridge to the future

BALTIMORE -- It was a step back in the standings, a step forward in terms of development. The Orioles may not have taken the next step in 2009, but they managed to successfully introduce several high-caliber prospects to the big leagues. And it's that facet of the season, inevitable as it may have seemed, that gives them the most hope going forward.

Manager Dave Trembley acknowledged that fact in the last week of the season, and he said that as difficult as it's been to compete against division rivals, the Orioles will be better for their growing pains.

"I look at the opportunities that have been afforded to so many first-year players in the Major Leagues. It's a young roster with a lot of guys under 25 years old," Trembley said. "One of the highlights for me was Matt Wieters making his debut at Camden Yards and the reception that he got. I think that reception was not just for him, but for the direction the Orioles are going. I think that reception was a reassurance that Wieters is here, and we're on our way."

And it wasn't just Wieters, who registered as one of the most hotly anticipated prospects in recent seasons. The Orioles also saw continued growth from Nick Markakis and a breakout from Adam Jones. Nolan Reimold made the big league leap, and the Orioles field-tested a whole fleet of rookie pitchers throughout the season.

Now, it can be said that the Orioles have an organizational core and even more talent on the way. Baltimore expects to be active in free agency, but it can count on future debuts of prospects like Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder. And as far as Trembley is concerned, that's a telling compliment to the Orioles' player development team.

"You know the inventory is deeper in most areas," said Trembley. "We know what our needs are, and I think they're pretty obvious. ... We traded [George] Sherrill for a future third baseman in Bell. We've got a kid like Snyder who might need a little more seasoning but is waiting in the wings at first base. There are more and more Orioles being developed and coming up through the system. And they're coming up through the system together."

The Orioles will be in the market for a big bat this winter, and they'll likely look to add a veteran starter to take some of the pressure of their younger arms. Part of the team's learning curve in 2009 was directly attributable to youngsters like Jason Berken and David Hernandez learning on the job in the thick of a big league season.

And if that was part of the problem, it was also part of the progress. Both Berken and Hernandez showed flashes of potential, and the Orioles also got to break in keepers like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen. They may add highly touted prospect Jake Arrieta to the mix next season, if only they have an open rotation slot.

"I think Matusz, Tillman and Bergesen will pitch in this rotation for a long time. I think they'll be the Big Three for a long time," said Trembley. "Berken and Hernandez have shown at times that they can succeed at the big league level, but there are questions about their role. Are they long guys, late-inning guys or fifth starters?"

Baltimore got the initial returns on its prospects in 2009, and it'll get a more detailed analysis as 2010 progresses. The Orioles may still compete in the toughest division in baseball, but now they do it with a young and talented nucleus of players that has the best of their collective careers ahead of them.

Contract issues
Free agents: Danys Baez, RHP; Mark Hendrickson, LHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Jeremy Guthrie, RHP; Chris Ray, RHP; Luke Scott, DH; Cla Meredith, RHP; Rich Hill, LHP; (And possibly Matt Albers, RHP; and Adam Jones, CF, via Super Two arbitration status).
Club options: Melvin Mora, 3B, $8,000,000; Chad Moeller, C, $850,000.
Non-tender possibilities: Chris Ray; Matt Albers; Rich Hill; Dennis Sarfate, RHP.

• Matt Wieters, .288 BA, 9 HRs, 15 2Bs, 43 RBIs, 35 Rs
• Chad Moeller, .258 BA, 2 HRs, 8 2Bs, 10 RBIs, 6 Rs

Wieters enjoyed a successful transition to the Major Leagues and should be in place for the long haul to come. The switch-hitter learned Baltimore's pitching staff -- and the big league strike zone -- on the fly. Moeller, by contrast, has an option for next season and is the favorite to return as Baltimore's backup catcher.

First base
• Michael Aubrey, .289 BA, 4 HRs, 7 2Bs, 14 RBIs, 12 Rs
• Brandon Snyder, .248 BA, 2 HRs, 18 2Bs, 43 RBIs (AAA)

First base is wide open in Baltimore's organization and will likely be a place the Orioles look to upgrade over the winter. Snyder thrived in a half-season at Double-A Bowie and struggled upon his promotion to Triple-A Norfolk. Aubrey is seen as a backup type, and the Orioles may also play Ty Wigginton at first base.

Second base
• Brian Roberts, .283 BA, 16 HRs, 56 2Bs, 79 RBIs, 110 Rs

Roberts provided a career year in 2009 and is signed through the 2013 season. In other words, expect the switch-hitter to be entrenched at second base and in the leadoff slot for at least the foreseeable future.

• Cesar Izturis, .256 BA, 2 HRs, 14 2Bs, 30 RBIs, 34 Rs
• Robert Andino, .222 BA, 2 HRs, 7 2Bs, 10 RBIs, 31 Rs

Izturis stabilized the position for Baltimore, but he will be a free agent after the 2010 season. There are no upper-level prospects to take over in the farm system, and the Orioles will likely make finding a future shortstop a top priority.

Third base
• Ty Wigginton, .273 BA, 11 HRs, 19 2Bs, 41 RBIs, 44 Rs
• Josh Bell, .295 BA, 20 HRs, 35 2Bs, 76 RBIs, 65 Rs (AA)

Bell, who was acquired from the Dodgers in exchange for Sherrill, is viewed as being at least a half-season away from making a big league impact. Wigginton may well be the team's stopgap at either first base or third base, but the Orioles will also scour the open market to find another capable starter.

• Nolan Reimold, .279 BA, 15 HRs, 18 2Bs, 45 RBIs, 49 Rs
• Adam Jones, .277 BA, 19 HRs, 22 2Bs, 70 RBIs, 83 Rs
• Nick Markakis, .293 BA, 18 HRs, 45 2Bs, 101 RBIs, 94 Rs
• Felix Pie, .266 BA, 9 HRs, 10 2Bs, 29 RBIs, 38 Rs
• Lou Montanez, .183 BA, 1 HRs, 5 2Bs, 6 RBIs, 5 Rs
• Jeff Fiorentino, .281 BA, 0 HR, 1 2B, 8 RBIs, 8 Rs

The outfield is the unabashed strength of Baltimore's team, and the Orioles may decide to trade some of their surplus to help out elsewhere on the roster. Jones and Markakis appear to be the team's cornerstone players in field and right field, and Reimold or Pie could slot in a time-sharing arrangement at left field and DH.

Designated hitter
• Luke Scott, .258 BA, 25 HRs, 26 2Bs, 77 RBIs, 61 Rs

Scott, one of the streakiest players in the league, started off hot and endured an extraordinarily cold slump in the second half of the season. Scott also attempted to learn first base, but will likely be counted on at DH next season.

• Jeremy Guthrie, 10-17, 5.04 ERA, 192 1/3 IP, 105 K's
• Brad Bergesen, 7-5, 3.43 ERA, 123 1/3 IP, 65 K's
• Chris Tillman, 2-5, 5.40 ERA, 65 IP, 39 K's
• Brian Matusz, 5-2, 4.63 ERA, 44 2/3 IP, 38 K's
• David Hernandez, 4-10, 5.42 ERA, 97 IP, 64 K's
• Jason Berken, 6-12, 6.54 ERA, 114 2/3 IP, 65 K's

The Orioles will seek a veteran bellwether to assist Guthrie in mentoring their young staff, but they seem prepared to progress with a rotation full of young arms. Bergesen, Tillman and Matusz all did enough to secure likely slots in next year's rotation, and Hernandez and Berken will likely be considered for back-end slots or bullpen jobs.

• Koji Uehara, 2-4, 4.05 ERA, 66 2/3 IP, 48 K's
• Jim Johnson, 4-6, 4.11 ERA, 10 SVs, 70 IP, 49 K's
• Cla Meredith, 4-2, 3.99 ERA, 65 1/3 IP, 37 K's
• Chris Ray, 0-4, 7.27 ERA, 43 1/3 IP, 39 K's
• Matt Albers, 3-6, 5.52 ERA, 67 IP, 49 K's
• Kam Mickolio, 0-2, 2.63 ERA, 13 2/3 IP, 14 K's
• Dennis Sarfate, 0-1, 5.09 ERA, 21 IP, 20 K's
• Brian Bass, 5-3, 4.90 ERA, 86 1/3 IP, 54 K's
• Alberto Castillo, 0-0, 2.25 ERA, 12 IP, 8 K's

The bullpen is wide open, but the Orioles appear to have some options for the late innings. Uehara, who was originally signed as a starter, will likely be evaluated as a closer next spring. Johnson thrived as setup man for the first half and stumbled when given closer duties in the wake of the Sherrill trade. Ray had a really tough season after returning from an elbow injury, and Meredith never seemed to get comfortable after arriving in a midseason trade.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.