Brian Roberts - 2B (2001-2013)
In 21st century baseball, one player staying on the same team for 13 straight seasons is not something that happens all that often. It is an uncommon player who gets to play in 13 seasons at all, and with free agency well established, it’s more likely than not he’ll change teams after six or seven years, if he doesn’t get traded sooner.
Brian Roberts made his major league debut the year that I turned 18. He was still playing on the Orioles in the year I turned 30. For the first dozen years I was an adult, he was there as an Oriole. It felt like he would be around forever because in baseball terms, he had been. Roberts was teammates as a rookie with Cal Ripken Jr. and in his final year as an Oriole he was teammates with Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman.
In between, Roberts played with a whole lot of Orioles, including 15 of the players who have made it onto our top 50 greatest Orioles list. He had six different Orioles managers and six different Orioles general managers. Unfortunately for Roberts, most of those general managers didn’t do much to get him to be part of a good Orioles team, so the only era he was a part of was the one that ran from 1998-2011, known for so many consecutive losing seasons.
Perhaps it’s because the teams he were on stunk so bad that Roberts’s performance stands out all the more. He could have just ended up being another ho-hum guy who comes through, hangs around for a while, and is replaced, and instead he worked hard and grinded out a fine Orioles career.
The Orioles picked Roberts with the #50 selection of the 1999 draft, a supplemental pick they received under the rules of the time when Rafael Palmeiro - a future Roberts teammate - left as a free agent. Roberts was the seventh player the Orioles picked in that draft. Three of the seven never made it to MLB. Two had careers with negative WAR. The other one of these was a source against the Orioles clubhouse, and Roberts specifically, in the Mitchell Report.
On June 13, 2001, then-Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick suffered a separated shoulder in a game. The next day, Roberts made his MLB debut, playing shortstop for your Baltimore Orioles. This was a bit of an aggressive jump for a player who had all of 44 games above the Double-A level under his belt. It showed in how he played. Roberts hit just .253/.284/.341 in 75 games after his call-up. He does not go on the list of stellar Orioles rookies.
With Bordick healthy to start the 2002 season and Jerry Hairston Jr. ensconced at second base, Roberts started off at the Triple-A affiliate, then in Rochester. A late May call-up got Roberts about six weeks worth of games, during which he batted .227/.308/.297 before getting sent back down. Again, he did not look like the future #16 guy on a top 50 greatest Orioles list.
On May 20, 2003, Hairston was injured in Anaheim. On May 21, Roberts was there to play second base. The third time proved to be the charm for Roberts, who was able to do enough to show the Orioles that it should be him, instead of Hairston, to be the second baseman of the future. In 112 games, Roberts hit .270/.337/.367, a below-average OPS+ of 87 for that time, but good enough for a middle infielder who brings some positives with the glove as well. He had another gear ready to go.
All of this stuff is preamble to what you probably remember Roberts for, if you have fond memories of him. Roberts the leadoff hitter, Roberts hitting a lot of doubles, Roberts stealing a bunch of bases and scoring a bunch of runs.
The 50 doubles Roberts hit in 2004 set an Orioles single-season record. It also set an AL record for doubles in a season by a switch hitter. Roberts topped both when he hit 56 doubles in 2009 - this one an MLB record for a switch hitter. He still holds these records today, though he shares the MLB record with Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, who equaled Roberts in 2017.
The next year, Roberts was even better still. He broke out in a big way offensively, jumping from four home runs in 2004 to 18 home runs in 2005. The previously light-hitting Roberts was batting .314/.387/.515 for the season when his year ended in gruesome fashion in late September after a collision with Bubba Crosby of the Yankees. If you remember the injury, you probably just winced. It was a brutal close to his first of two career All-Star seasons.
Roberts was never as good again as he was in 2005, when according to Baseball Reference he was a 7.3 WAR player. The injury did not knock his career off track, though, as Roberts was worth at least 3.0 WAR per season from 2006 to 2009. In the six year stretch beginning in 2004, Roberts hit .290/.365/.438 in 910 games and over 4,000 plate appearances for the Orioles. There are not many O’s batters who have done better than that over so many years, and that’s one reason why Roberts is #16 on our countdown.
Prior to the 2009 season, that strong performance earned Roberts a four year, $40 million contract extension from the Orioles, running from 2010-13. Although Roberts was in his age 31 season, it didn’t seem like too bad of a bet. He’d played at least 138 games every year since 2004 and played 155 or more three times.
During that extension, Roberts played only a bit more than a full season’s worth of games, battling injuries that included repeated concussions whose symptoms sounded frightening for any human being, let alone one trying to be a professional athlete. I’m not here to dwell on the bad, so let’s just move on and not look at his stats from these seasons.
Roberts did, at least, rally to play in 77 games in 2013, and while he wasn’t playing like in his peak, he was able to be a capable contributor to a decent Orioles team at least once. Roberts hit .249/.312/.392 in that final year in Baltimore, and the O’s themselves won 85 games. He deserved better, but at least he could experience that much.
Even with his late-career injury problems, Roberts still finds his way high up a lot of Orioles leaderboards. He’s 12th in games played, sixth in runs scored, ninth in hits, fourth in doubles, and second in stolen bases, to name just a few. For people my parents age who lived through the glory days, maybe Roberts doesn’t seem like much, but in my lifetime there haven’t been very many Orioles better than him. I’m glad I got to see him be a part of my favorite baseball team for such a long time.
For those fans who have hoped for more Roberts in their life, he has been a part of the MASN broadcast team here and there for a couple of years now. He is a guy who has interesting things to say about playing baseball and I hope that he ends up being the next long-standing former Oriole with a long broadcast career.