How does any team replace a player who has averaged 46 doubles over the last six years, 39 stolen bases over the last four, and made two All-Star appearances?
More importantly, how do you replace a guy like that when you are the Orioles, and the player in question is Brian Roberts?
That is the dilemma currently facing the Orioles as they draw ever closer to Opening Day 2010.
Roberts has been sidelined for all of spring training with a herniated disc in his back, and while he has been cleared to resume baseball activities as of this week, you have to wonder if he can keep up his standard level of intensity all season without his disc rearing its ugly herniated head.
Roberts has battled numerous injuries during his nine-year career with the O's, and he's managed to bounce back from all of them. I'm a little nervous about this one though. Back injuries are more serious than a broken wrist. Take Jim Abbott as an example. You can play baseball with one arm. Last time I checked, you can't play it without a back.
Furthermore, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe Roberts' time as the Orioles stud second baseman is coming to an end. I almost feel blasphemous for saying such a thing, but the point still stands.
Roberts got a late jump on his O's career, and didn't cement the second base job until he was 26 years old. He'll be 33 this year. Seven years of quality production as a double-machine, base-stealer, and prime defender is something teams like the Red Sox, Giants and Mets would kill for.
All that said, who do the O's have in their inventory that could possibly be capable of replacing Roberts, both short and long-term?
Assuming Roberts is forced to the DL sometime this season, the main in-house candidate would seem to be Justin Turner. Turner has notched 26 at-bats this spring and has performed well at the plate (.308 average). In addition, he is also coming off a pretty good 2009 season, most of which was spent at AAA Norfolk.
At Norfolk, Turner turned a terrible start to the season into a final line of: .300 average, 28 doubles, 43 RBI, 54 runs scored, and a 34:37 walk to strikeout ratio.
Turner doesn't necessarily offer the speed that Roberts does (only 38 steals in three and a half seasons), but he does show good athleticism and decent enough footwork to be an above-average second baseman defensively.
Like Roberts, JT is a scrapper, doing whatever he can to get on base (career .370 OBP). He doesn't offer nearly as much power as B-Rob (only 26 career HR), but he strokes the ball well enough to challenge for the team lead in doubles.
Like I said, Turner should be the first guy the O's turn to should Roberts be felled once again by his ailing back. But, he's not the only option.
Hanging down at AAA this year should be Blake Davis.
For three years in college (2004-06) Davis and Justin Turner were actually teammates for the Cal State Fullerton Titans. Together they formed one of the most impressive double-play combos in college baseball. Now, here they are, together again.
Davis is a shortstop, but is widely considered to have the best defensive skills of any infield defender in the system.
I wouldn't be shocked if the O's tried to slide him over the second base, which I have no doubt he could handle. Mind you, that would only be if the O's decided that they needed more defense from the position than Turner has to offer.
I say that, because Davis isn't the most awe-inspiring hitter. His 13 career home runs and career high of 53 RBI pale in comparison to the offense that Turner projects.
Beyond Davis and Turner is help that is at least 3-4 years away. L.J. Hoes was a much hyped prospect from the 2008 draft. Hoes was the O's 3rd round pick, taken because of his extreme athleticism and overall ability.
A high-schooler, Hoes was seen as raw, but with as much ceiling as any infielder in the system. He has speed to burn, good pitch recognition, and above-average defensive skills.
The O's drafted Hoes with the anticipation that he would be groomed into Roberts' long term successor.
Beyond Hoes, however, the situation gets murky. The organization could always turn to a older player, a la Scott Moore, but Moore hasn't played second-base consistently since the early 2000s. Paco Figueroa is toiling down at AA, and could be a long-shot possibility.
The one "super sleeper" in the competition to replace Roberts could emerge in the form of Jonathan Tucker. Yes, I know he's played nothing but the outfield in spring training, but any true Gator baseball fan should remember Tucker playing stellar defense at second for three years in the SEC.
And anyone else who doubts Tucker's skills should note this: HE'S PLAYING IN SPRING TRAINING!!
Check out the O's current roster of spring training players. The one that sticks out like a sore thumb, and who doesn't look like he should be there is Tucker. And yet, there he is, tearing it up I might add.
Tucker leads the O's in batting average (.391), runs scored (six), and games played. And he's also playing for a life-long minor league manager who appreciates guys who play the game right, work hard, and give a little of themselves to the game.
Tucker has worked his way up to AAA, and should play there this season, and like a Bordeaux (or a Brian Roberts), he appears to be getting better with age.
His batting average has hovered consistently around .260-.280, but without a doubt he has the best batting eye of any hitter in the organization. In two of his five seasons, he has had more walks that strikeouts.
Tucker also offers some decent speed, with two 20+ steal seasons to his name, including a career high 34 last year.
He's shown the ability to help the team out any way he can. He's played at least 68 games at third base and in the outfield, in addition to the 235 he's played at second base.
He may be an underdog, but I wouldn't count Tucker out, especially as long as Trembley is in charge.
Whichever way the O's go in "life after Roberts" they'll be lucky if they can find a guy like Roberts who will man the position for a good decade.
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