Orioles on cusp of .500 (again), other random thoughts

June 11, 2011 | Luke Jones

1. Déjà vu all over again.

After Friday’s 7-0 win over Tampa Bay, the Orioles once again find themselves on the brink of the .500 mark with a 30-31 mark entering Saturday night’s test against Tampa ace David Price. A win would put Baltimore at the .500 mark for the first time since May 26.

The problem was the Orioles responding to the achievement with a disastrous 1-5 West Coast trip from which they have yet to fully recover in the win-loss column. They are 2-4 this season when entering the day with a record of one game below .500.

“We understand the math of common denominators of teams that have a good season,” said manager Buck Showalter before the Rays series. “At some point, we’ve got to get to and pass that threshold as an organization.”

Of course, Showalter knows .500 is not the top of the mountain — notice how he said to “pass that threshold” — but it’s still a significant step for a franchise lacking a winning season since 1997. The Orioles have not been above the .500 mark since April 14 when they fell to 6-5 after suffering a two-game sweep to the Yankees in the Bronx.

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2. Hardy the offseason prize

The signings of veterans Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero grabbed the headlines. Third baseman Mark Reynolds was acquired via trade three days earlier in December.

But is there any doubt that shortstop J.J. Hardy — even after missing a month with a strained left oblique — has been the offseason prize for the Orioles?

Entering Saturday, Hardy has more home runs (six) than Guerrero (five) in only half the at-bats (118 to 236). He has more runs batted in than Lee (19 to 15) in 57 fewer at-bats, many coming far lower in the lineup.

His defense has been superb after replacing the slick-fielding, light-hitting Cesar Izturis of the past two seasons.

With Brian Roberts continuing to miss time with concussion-related symptoms, Hardy has recently taken over leadoff responsibilities and responded with two leadoff home runs this week. His .370 on-base percentage entering Saturday’s game is a welcome change at the top of the order from the impatient Felix Pie and allows Robert Andino to hit more comfortably in the ninth spot.

Though there are more than three months remaining in the season, the Orioles should already be contemplating a new contract for Hardy, who is scheduled to become a free agent. Manny Machado may be the future at short, but Hardy has been a pleasant surprise in the present.

3. Arrieta racking up wins while Guthrie and Britton bite the bullet

After pitching seven shutout innings Friday night, Jake Arrieta recorded his eighth win of the season, becoming the first Baltimore pitcher to record eight wins by June 10 since Sidney Ponson in 2003. A season ago, no Orioles pitcher recorded his eighth victory until August 29 (Jeremy Guthrie).

Arrieta’s eight wins equal the total number by Guthrie (two) and Zach Britton (six) despite both holding lower earned run averages. Entering Friday night’s game against the Rays, Arrieta benefited from the fourth-best run support (7.14 runs per game) in the American League. Wins are a poor indicator for how well — or how poorly — a pitcher is performing, but Arrieta has done what’s necessary to win in most instances.

The 25-year-old still walks too many hitters and needs to be more economical with his pitches, but no one can deny his array of four pitches and overall makeup. His strikeout rate per nine innings has increased from 4.7 his rookie season to 7.5 this year, but his walks per nine innings have increased from 4.3 to 4.5.

Britton and Guthrie have been better overall in 2011, but Arrieta has solidified his position in the starting rotation. His command issues may always keep him a notch or two below the seemingly more-polished Britton and Brian Matusz, but you have to be pleased with Arrieta’s progression through 14 starts in 2011.

4. Interleague Vlad

With interleague play set to pick up again next weekend, the Orioles will travel to D.C. to take on the Nationals followed by a three-game trip to Pittsburgh the following week. That, of course, means the Orioles will be without the designated hitter spot.

What do you do with your cleanup hitter?

Showalter will not reveal his plans just yet, but admitted Guerrero hasn’t made a strong request to play the outfield in National League ballparks. Anyone who watched Guerrero hobble around right field as a member of the Texas Rangers in the World Series last October should hardly be surprised.

Though hitting .288 entering Saturday, Guerrero hasn’t exactly provided the power (.394 slugging percentage and five home runs) that suggests the Orioles absolutely need his bat in the lineup. The defense lost in right field or first base — the only two positions you could conceivably imagine Guerrero playing — creates a simple decision.

The Orioles will likely have “one heck of a pinch-hitter,” as Showalter quipped on Friday, but it’s hard to justify putting Guerrero in the field for any reason.

5. Adams’ splinters continue

If you asked most fans, they probably couldn’t even tell you if Ryan Adams was even on the 25-man roster. The rookie second baseman has 16 plate appearances since being recalled on May 20.

Sixteen.

Instead of an anticipated platoon, Andino has solidified his job at second base, and the 2006 second-round pick continues to waste away on the bench while veteran infielders Brendan Harris and Nick Green hold spots for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides.

Showalter has conceded that Adams needs consistent at-bats somewhere, but the manager has also said the young infielder is gaining exposure to life in the big leagues by being in the clubhouse and dugout during games.

Maybe a hint of truth, but I’m not buying it.

Whether it’s Baltimore or Norfolk, Adams needs to be getting regular at-bats. It’s not helping the future of the club — especially with Roberts’ status becoming cloudier every season — to have Adams sitting on the bench on a nightly basis when he could be playing everyday for the Tides.

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