A core of four in Baltimore

Since it’s now the dead of winter and the holidays are long since over, I should probably be more down with all the negativity about the Orioles. The Yankees got two pitchers, Tampa is still loaded with pitchers, Toronto is on the rise and Boston is still pretty good, I bet.

But after a weekend of reading more doom and gloom, I looked outside to see if the sun had come up and it had.

I checked with myself to see if it would be OK to see something good about the ballclub for a few minutes and it’s fine, I said. So what about the makings of a decent lineup and team that they can put on the field with a core of four that are pretty good in Baltimore.

I’m talking about catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy, center fielder Adam Jones and right fielder Nick Markakis. Those guys are pretty good ballplayers. I know. I’ve watched them play.

Wieters is coming off a season where he made his first All-Star Game and later became the first Oriole catcher to win a Gold Glove. He threw out 37 percent of base stealers and that led all American League catchers. He set career highs in runs (72), doubles (28), homers (22), RBIs (68), walks (48) and slugging (.450). He became the fourth O’s catcher to hit 20 or more homers in a season.

He is a strong and young, switch-hitting catcher whose career surely looks like it is on the upswing. Now we await the next step to see how much better Wieters may become as he enters into the prime years of his career.

Hardy went from six to 30 homers last year. He joined Cal Ripken Jr. and Miguel Tejada as the only O’s shortstops to have a 30-homer year. He tied Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki for most homers by a shortstop in the majors. He also led AL shortstops in fielding percentage, total chances per game and slugging percentage, a nice offense/defense combo.

Unlike with Wieters, it may hard to project Hardy topping those stats, but if he could just come close to duplicating his 2011 season, he’d prove worthy of the new three-year contract he signed last summer.

Jones’ 16 assists last year led all major league center fielders and he had a 2011 season where he set career highs in doubles (26), homers (25), RBIs (83), extra-base hits (53) and slugging (.466). At the end of the season, he was named Most Valuable Oriole.

At 26, Jones, like Wieters could be coming into the most productive years of his career and gives the Orioles a combo of speed, defense and power that not many teams have in center.

Some fans look at him and see an emerging star. Others can’t look past his lack of walks and stolen bases. They feel he makes too many careless mistakes in the field. While some of those points are valid, it is also valid that he is a productive young player for the Orioles at a premium position.

Markakis is one of two American Leaguers (along with Ichiro) to collect 180 or more hits in each of the last five years. He is one of four in the AL (with Robinson Cano, David Ortiz and Michael Young) to produce 30 or more doubles each of the past five seasons.

He became the third Orioles outfielder, joining Jones and Paul Blair, to win a Gold Glove. In 2011, he had a perfect fielding percentage of 1.000 for the first time by not making an error all year.

But fans expected even more from Markakis because he had delivered it in the past. His .284 average would be good for a lot of players, but was the lowest of his career. His 31 doubles were his fewest since his rookie year. Markakis averaged 100 RBIs from 2007 through 2009, but has averaged just 66.5 the last two seasons.

We know Markakis is a gamer and played some of last season banged up, maybe more than even he or the team let on. He left the last game of the season injured and underwent surgery about two weeks ago to repair a torn muscle in his abdomen, but the club expects him to be ready for opening day.

This quartet is a nice core of four and gives the Orioles the chance to have a decent lineup. Last season, Baltimore ranked fourth in the AL in homers, sixth in hits and batting average and seventh in runs scored. They could have used more speed, ranking 12th in steals and 14th in triples and they were only 10th best in team on-base percentage.

I am not trying to drive the dissenters crazy by pointing out a few positives, but there are a few. Maybe if it had just rained today ...

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