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PLAYER TO WATCH
It was just another midsummer game, but Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones can't forget one play in yet another loss to the Red Sox last July. Boston speedster Jacoby Ellsbury was motoring home from second base on a single to right, looking like a sure bet to score. But Baltimore rightfielder Nick Markakis scooped the ball and threw a dart to the plate, nailing Ellsbury by a couple of steps. Jones was still marveling this spring: "Who throws out Ellsbury?"
The better question: Who runs on Markakis? Over the last three seasons he has 43 outfield assists, the second-most in the majors to the Mets' Jeff Francoeur (44). What's more, over that same span, he ranked third in doubles (136), eighth in hits (561) and 10th in times on base (787). That overall talent makes the 26-year-old the leader of the Orioles' young outfield, now the foundation for the perpetually rebuilding franchise. Markakis; Jones (a Gold Glove winner in 2009), 24; leftfielder Nolan Reimold, 26; and backup Felix Pie, 25, are all under team control for at least three more seasons.
When his OPS fell from .897 in 2008 to a still respectable .801 last year, Markakis realized he took too many first-pitch strikes, forcing him to swing at too many balls out of the strike zone late in counts. He says he will be more aggressive at the plate this year—another good example for his fellow young outfielders to follow.
Percentage of batters the Baltimore staff struck out in 2009—the second straight year the O's had the AL's worst rate of strikeouts per hitters faced. When your pitchers can't miss bats, bad things happen: Baltimore had the majors' worst ERA (5.15) as well.
The Orioles elected to reinforce their roster over the winter by signing or trading for veterans such as Miguel Tejada, Kevin Millwood, Mike Gonzalez and Garrett Atkins. It was a curious choice for a franchise that has no hope of competing in the short term with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. Signing Atkins was particularly questionable, as he's been in decline since 2006 and doesn't bring much defense or any speed to the lineup. The Orioles would be better off giving Michael Aubrey a chance to win the first base job. Aubrey was a first-round pick of the Indians in 2003 who had his development crippled by injuries. He can hit for average and has doubles power; in 95 plate appearances for Baltimore last year he had a .500 slugging percentage. Aubrey turns 28 this month and has some upside. That's the type of player the Orioles should be playing.