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How Much Would Losing Brian Roberts Hurt?

Spring Training has been underway for just under a month, and less than that for the position players, but Brian Roberts has already dealt with neck issues and now back spasms. After he came to Spring Training 2010 with back problems which limited him to just 59 games, it's entirely fair to ponder just how healthy Roberts is right now.

I just asked my girlfriend, who is not particularly an Orioles fan but knows her baseball, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad would it be for Brian Roberts to miss 100 games this season?". She answered "7-9", and that seems about right for the general perception around these parts, too. Words like "doom" and "apocalyptic" seem pretty spot on (if not overly dramatic) to describe the general mood of any Brian Roberts-related injury news. We all did, after all, get to experience life without our lead-off hitter last year. It was, to be generous, not pleasant.

Even playing with some level of injury and rust last year, Roberts was still the Orioles third best hitter (by weighted on-base average and the simpler but still important on-base percentage). Of the new Orioles, only Vlad Guerrero's 2010 bat can be considered stronger than Brian's. Additionally, Brian is the Orioles only real base-stealer, which isn't as important an aspect of run scoring as common sense would seem to say, but taking the run game away from the Orioles entirely would be sour.

On top of all of that is the idea that Roberts, the fourth best hitter in the lineup, would be replaced by some combination of Cesar Izturis, Robert Andino, Nick Green, and Brenden Harris. I feel pretty confident in estimating that any of those four would be the worst hitter in almost any team's lineup. So a nightmare scenario could realistically see the Orioles losing .100 points of weighted on-base average for 450 plate appearances. That's a lot of runs down the drain (context-free, it's in the rough neighborhood of 40 offensive runs lost), before you consider that Roberts is the Orioles only established lead-off hitter. Apocalyptic indeed.

The shortcomings of the farm system really hurt the team in a situation like this, as there is no depth whatsoever for any of the up-the-middle positions. That the Orioles have an aging, injury-worrying second baseman and lead-off batter - and the only runner on the team that can actually steal bases - with basically no back-up plan is a flaw in the organization that perhaps needs to be exposed like this.

Maybe the Orioles need to experiment and see if a guy like Nick Markakis, who has stats that are perfect to take over the lead-off spot, can fit comfortably in that role, regardless of how much time Brian Roberts misses. Maybe not having any second basemen in the system while our direct rivals stock up on international amateur talent needs to be highlighted by a prolonged Roberts absence, so that the lack of Oriole efforts in international free agency can be rectified.

That's a sucky thought, isn't it? Sorry to be such a downer. The good news is that Roberts seems to be okay so far, despite dealing with nagging things that keep a veteran out of Spring Training workouts. And you know, even in the worst case scenario of Roberts missing the entire year there is still a lot to be excited about with this Orioles team. But these are reluctantly important questions that really need to start be asked, because as great as Brian has been and as glad and downright honored I am to have him on my favorite baseball team, his future is very probably shorter than his past.