New Orioles coming up empty as losses continue to mount

April 18, 2011 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Over the current losing streak, which grew to eight games with a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Monday, the Orioles haven’t hit or pitched well. Whether talking about young players or veterans, mainstays or newcomers, the Orioles simply haven’t performed, transforming a harmonious 6-1 start into a 6-9 crisis in a matter of only nine days.

No one is absolved from the last eight games, but it’s hard to overlook the newest Orioles and their struggles to begin the season.

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President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail set out to improve a club that finished 34-23 under manager Buck Showalter by adding offensive pieces to provide protection for developing positional players and alleviate the pressure on a young starting rotation. He also looked to add a veteran to the back-end of the bullpen after the disastrous early-season results from Michael Gonzalez a season ago.

The architect was applauded for signing two former All-Stars, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, to fill the third and fourth spots in the lineup. MacPhail traded for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy in separate deals to complete the infield transformation.

Kevin Gregg — along with his 37 saves — was lured to Baltimore with a two-year, $10 million contract and a not-so-secret agreement to be the closer despite Koji Uehara’s success in the role last season.

After 15 games — yes, only 15 games — it’s not looking too hot.

Lee and Guerrero have looked the part of two aging sluggers with their best years long behind them. Lee’s average dipped to .204 after an 0-for-2 night in which he drew two walks. The first baseman’s plate discipline and defense are as good as ever, but his bat has looked slow, with only two extra base hits and struggling to get around on good fastballs.

The free-swinging Guerrero’s average fell to .242 after going 0 for 4 against the Twins. The slugger has yet to draw a walk in 62 at-bats this season and is slugging an anemic .306 with only two hits going for extra bases. Entering the night, his 2.97 pitches seen per plate appearance was the lowest among American League hitters with 50 or more at-bats.

Meanwhile, Guerrero’s occupation of the designated hitter’s spot has pushed Luke Scott to left field on an everyday basis, weakening the defense and putting more pressure on the inexperienced pitching staff.

It’s not exactly the return the Orioles had in mind after spending $15.25 million for the third and fourth spots in the order.

Reynolds has fared better than the latter two with a .692 OPS, but his .224 average isn’t going to make anyone forget his struggles from a season ago in Arizona. His defense has also been erratic, looking like a Gold Glover on one play but then struggling to make the simple throw on the next.

Of course, Hardy is currently rehabbing a strained oblique in Sarasota, leaving the Orioles with a giant hole in the No. 9 spot in the order currently occupied by the combination of Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino.

With an offense sputtering near the bottom of the American League in numerous statistical categories, the offseason discussion of the Orioles having one of the best lineups in the league seem downright preposterous.

“I’m still excited about [the lineup],” said center fielder Adam Jones, who hit his third home run of the season in the seventh inning. “You’ve never heard about anybody going in a slump? It’s [15 games] into the season or however many games. Not everybody is going to rake the entire season, so it’s a spell. Let’s get it all out of the way now and come back tomorrow ready to swing the bats.”

The Orioles hope the struggles of Gregg are also just a spell as he melted down again in the ninth inning on Monday, allowing two runs — one coming on a wild pitch — and walking two batters to transform a narrow 3-2 deficit into an insurmountable three-run hole. The right-hander left to a showering of boos reminiscent of Gonzalez’s early-season struggles last season.

The Orioles paid handsomely for Gregg’s 37 saves a year ago, ignoring his career 4.02 earned run average and 1.33 WHIP that suggest he’s a solid enough reliever, but not the guy you’re going to feel comfortable with in the ninth inning, night in and night out.

While shopping for inexpensive, short-term solutions in the lineup, MacPhail has  invested $22 million over the last two offseasons on middle-of-the-road closers in Gonzalez and Gregg. Regardless of how the duo fares the rest of the season, giving multi-year contracts to pedestrian relief pitchers just doesn’t pay off.

Of course, I realize it’s still early. The Orioles weren’t as good as their 6-1 start and aren’t as bad as the current 0-8 spell sparking nightmares of last season among the frustrated fan base.

Lee and Guerrero deserve — and will undoubtedly get — plenty of time to snap out of their early-season slumps. Their track records speak for themselves.

Perhaps Gregg will figure out his issues and rebound to become the closer the Orioles envisioned in the offseason.

But these were the guys brought to Baltimore to prevent these types of losing streaks and late-inning meltdowns from taking place as they did a season ago.

And so far, none of it has worked.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Buck Showalter, Chris Tillman, and Adam Jones following the 5-3 loss to the Twins on Monday night.

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