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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 8-4 loss to Houston

Posted on 28 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering their 13th loss in 16 games in an 8-4 final at Houston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You mean removing Ubaldo Jimenez from the starting rotation wasn’t going to cure the Orioles’ many problems? As manager Buck Showalter likes to say, this, too, shall pass, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch until it does.

2. Alec Asher deserved an opportunity to start, but the 42 pitches he threw in the second inning alone were more than he’d thrown in any outing since May 7. His stuff and command weren’t close to being good enough against the red-hot Astros.

3. If you’re desperate for a silver lining, the Orioles took their first lead since Monday in the first inning. The drought felt like it had been that long, too.

4. After loading the bases with one out, the Orioles managed only one run in the third inning to take a short-lived 3-0 lead. This offense entered Sunday ranked 18th in the majors in runs per game and deserves as much blame as the pitching, at least relative to expectations.

5. Asher’s poor start only adds insult to the void now left in the bullpen that he’d filled quite nicely over the last few weeks. Then again, the Orioles haven’t had many late-inning leads to protect recently.

6. Jonathan Schoop is one of the few Baltimore regulars who hasn’t underachieved so far in 2017. His two-run home run in the first and RBI single in the second accounted for the Orioles’ only meaningful run production.

7. The pitch wasn’t quite as high as the one he hit off Washington’s Gio Gonzalez earlier this month, but Mark Trumbo hit a solo homer on one up around the letters from Astros reliever James Hoyt. That’s not easy to do.

8. Chris Davis isn’t the only one struggling right now, but he looks completely lost at the plate, swinging at pitches out of the zone and taking ones down the heart of the plate. He struck out three more times in the series finale, two of them looking.

9. Even with his good six-inning performance to preserve the rest of the bullpen, Jimenez pitching in relief now leaves the Orioles’ with a dead roster spot for at least the next couple games since you can’t option him to the minors. It’s just not sustainable.

10. Joey Rickard collected a single in the ninth inning, but he made an error in center field for the second straight day and now has a .617 on-base plus slugging percentage. He’s not offering much off the bench.

11. The current seven-game slide is the longest losing streak for the Orioles since 2011, the last time they had a losing season. You hope that’s not a sign of things to come, but this is easily their worst stretch since losing 12 of 13 in late August of 2015.

12. The Orioles aren’t as bad as they’ve looked over the last 2 1/2 weeks, but that 22-10 start is looking more and more miraculous as time passes. The starting pitching is bad and their long-standing strengths — the bullpen and the offense — have been very mediocre. That’s not a winning formula.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-3 loss to Minnesota

Posted on 24 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering a three-game sweep in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A team is never as bad as it looks in the midst of a losing streak, which is reassuring considering how ugly it’s been for the Orioles over this 3-10 stretch. I didn’t believe they were as good as their 22-10 start, but I’m not pushing the panic button, either.

2. Chris Tillman is typically a slow starter in his outings, but a 36-pitch first inning in which he allowed three runs was the last thing the Orioles needed. Similar to his first start of 2017, Tillman was consistently missing to his arm side early, and it cost him.

3. Tillman was eventually able to settle in and complete five innings after Jayson Aquino was warming up in both the first and second innings. The slider was particularly useful as he got five of his six swinging strikes with it. Still, the Orioles need better from him.

4. The pitching receives more attention, but the Orioles scored only five runs over the final 25 innings of the Twins series. With the current state of the pitching staff, it’s going to be very difficult to win if this offense can’t score at least five runs per game most nights.

5. J.J. Hardy’s third-inning home run broke a stretch of 21 consecutive Orioles hitters being retired dating back to the fifth inning of Tuesday’s 2-0 loss. The Twins pitched very well over the final two games, but there were far too many listless at-bats over that stretch.

6. After being aggressive early in the game, Chris Davis looked at three straight strikes with the tying run on second in the eighth. I’ve rarely harped on Davis’ strikeouts, but he’s now gone down looking a whopping 31 times this year, which is many more than anyone in the majors.

7. Jonathan Schoop hit his first home run since April 24 to make it a 4-3 game, but that came after he struck out with the bases loaded in the fourth. As Buck Showalter noted after the game, it’s home run or bust with this offense at the moment.

8. Jose Berrios gave up three solo shots over his 6 1/3 innings, but you can see why the Twins are so excited about the 22-year-old. That curveball was filthy while his two-seam fastball had sharp downward movement.

9. Despite doing a respectable job in the outfield so far, Trey Mancini looked the part of someone who’s never played there on Wednesday as he threw to the wrong base at one point and later misplayed a single into an extra base in the fifth. He’s still learning.

10. Alec Asher continued to draw praise from Showalter after two more scoreless innings, but you wonder if that outing took him out of play to start in place of Ubaldo Jimenez on Sunday. Besides Dylan Bundy, Asher has been Baltimore’s best pitching story so far.

11. I’m very reluctant to question a player’s concentration level or effort, but it was tough to watch Manny Machado’s play and body language over the last few days and not think that his slump at the plate is really wearing on him.

12. Even before Wednesday’s loss, Showalter complimented the Twins’ makeup as they continue to lead the AL Central. I still expect Cleveland to eventually take off to win that division, but let’s not forget the youthful Twins were 83-79 in 2015 before last year’s disastrous start from which they never recovered.

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Jimenez penciled in for Sunday’s start — for now

Posted on 23 May 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Those wanting the Orioles to finally move on from Ubaldo Jimenez will apparently need to wait a little longer.

But that doesn’t mean the struggling starting pitcher is in the clear, either.

Asked about his plans for the three-game series in Houston this weekend, manager Buck Showalter said the veteran right-hander’s turn was scheduled for Sunday, but he left himself wiggle room for that to change. What he doesn’t want to do is to move up the rest of his starting rotation at the expense of Jimenez or anyone else who could be in play to pitch the finale against the Astros.

The Orioles will be off on Thursday after concluding their three-game set with Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m going to give these guys the extra day with the off-day every chance we get, especially with Dylan [Bundy] and [Kevin Gausman],” Showalter said. “Jimenez’s next start is on Sunday, and we’ll see what happens when we get there. That’s when he’s scheduled to start again. But I’m going to keep Gausman and Dylan on that extra day with the off-day.

“We’ll take each day as it comes and see where we are as a pitching staff after each outing.”

After giving up six earned runs and squandering an early 5-0 lead in Monday’s 14-7 loss to the Twins, Jimenez now sports a 7.17 ERA, the worst among all American League pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched and second behind only San Diego’s Jered Weaver for the worst ERA in the majors. The 33-year-old is in the final season of a four-year, $50 million contract that pays him a total of $13.5 million in 2017.

In addition to the financial reality of any decision regarding Jimenez’s roster status, the Orioles would need to determine who would fill his spot in the rotation if they were to make a change. Right-handed reliever Alec Asher has registered quality starts in both of his starting opportunities this season and owns an impressive 2.33 ERA in 27 innings this season, but he hasn’t thrown more than 41 pitches in a game since May 7 and has been used in more and more key relief spots in recent weeks.

“I don’t think, on the surface, he’s that far removed from extended outings,” Showalter said. “Now, in a week or two, it probably wouldn’t be normal length if you went there. But I also think he’s shown an ability to serve a need in our bullpen, too, with Zach [Britton] being down. There’s some different challenges in our bullpen with Zach out that you need to have an optionable bullpen and you need to have some versatility down there and some guys who can pitch, physically, more than once every four days down there. It doesn’t work.”

Asked about the possibility of Jimenez moving to a relief role after Monday’s loss, Showalter alluded to the difficulty of carrying a pitcher who can’t be optioned to the minors and would need a few days to rest between outings. Of course, the Orioles probably wouldn’t be looking to use Jimenez in any close games, either, with the way he’s pitched so far in 2017.

NOTES: Needing a fresh long man in the bullpen for Tuesday’s game, the Orioles recalled left-handed pitcher Jayson Aquino and optioned right-hander Stefan Crichton to Triple-A Norfolk. Crichton threw a season-high 59 pitches and gave up two earned runs and six hits in 3 1/3 innings on Monday. … Outfielder Michael Bourn is no longer with Triple-A Norfolk as a decision looms for the organization regarding his opt-out clause. He has been temporarily transferred to Single-A Aberdeen in the meantime. … Right-handed pitcher Logan Verrett was activated by the Tides Tuesday after being on paternity leave and isn’t currently an option to be recalled by the Orioles since he hasn’t pitched since May 16. … Showalter celebrated his 61st birthday on Tuesday. The manager quipped that he was glad his birthday didn’t fall Monday when his club was blown out by Minnesota. “Remember when you thought 61 was old? It is.”

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Time for Orioles to reset bullpen — and find more quality

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

The idea of a six-man bullpen sounded good in theory for the Orioles.

Wanting to keep an extra position player for more flexibility off the bench late in games and having a collection of long relievers with minor-league options on the Norfolk shuttle, manager Buck Showalter tried to maneuver his way through games with at least one fewer reliever available on any given night. The plan may have worked had All-Star closer Zach Britton not re-injured his left forearm upon being activated from the disabled list in early May.

But the failure of the experiment came to a climax in Detroit Tuesday night with the kind of bullpen meltdown that’s been rare in these parts for a long time. Before putting Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Donnie Hart on full blast for their efforts in Detroit — and, yes, their performance was brutal — realize there are multiple reasons why the six-man bullpen hasn’t worked.

Many have fairly pointed to the lack of quantity in the bullpen, but the issue is as much about the need for more quality. You can argue that Showalter has relied too heavily on his top relievers in Britton’s absence if you want, but then you have to accept those times when he’s tried others in tight spots — like Alec Asher and Vidal Nuno during the recent four-game losing streak — and it hasn’t worked. Last year’s wild-card game in Toronto reminded us that the Orioles manager is hardly beyond reproach and maybe Darren O’Day’s recent shoulder issue should have landed him on the DL in favor of another healthy arm, but Showalter’s track record for managing a bullpen speaks for itself over the last five years and any skipper is going to look foolish when his top relievers perform like they have recently.

The Orioles need to find another bullpen arm — maybe two — who can be trusted in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of a close game, whether that guy is currently in their minor-league system or elsewhere. Frankly, a seventh pitcher in the bullpen isn’t going to help much if he can only be relied upon in mop-up situations.

The starting rotation hasn’t helped with Dylan Bundy being the only one offering both quality and length in his outings this season. Wade Miley’s 3.02 ERA looks good at first glance, but he’s averaging just over five innings per start and walking nearly six batters per nine innings. Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez both have ERAs above 6.00 while Chris Tillman is still building shoulder strength in his recent return from the disabled list. It doesn’t take a pitching guru to figure out what strain that kind of a rotation can have on a bullpen.

Until scoring 21 runs over the last two games, the offense also deserved blame for scoring at a below-average level over much of the first six weeks of the season and putting so much pressure on late-inning relief. All those narrow, low-scoring victories that we saw in April and early May take their toll on higher-leverage relievers when the starting rotation is averaging 5.4 innings per start and the best closer on the planet is on the DL. This roster was constructed to have an above-average offense that will hit gobs of home runs to give the pitching some breathing room from time to time at the very least. Instead, the Orioles continue to lead the league in save opportunities.

You can only hope the recent awakening of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo is a sign of better things to come for the offense.

Even without Britton, the rest of the bullpen is too good to continue like this. There’s little reason to think guys like Brach, O’Day, and Givens can’t return to pitching at a high level if they can stay healthy and relatively fresh, but they also have to take accountability for their own performance and rise up to get the job done without their normal ninth-inning man behind them.

The group must find a way to keep its head above water until Britton returns, which the Orioles hope will be sometime next month.

Still, you get the sense that the Orioles will need to average five or six runs per game more consistently to continue winning games in the short term. That and some reasonable improvement from the rotation would go a long way in calming the current relief crisis.

It’s time to reset the bullpen by adding a seventh man and auditioning the likes of Edwin Jackson, Stefan Crichton, and Jimmy Yacabonis for a legitimate middle-relief role. Perhaps the idea of using Mike Wright in middle relief should be revisited with several starting options ahead of him in the pecking order backing up the current rotation.

But a return to a seven-man bullpen may not matter if the group doesn’t get help from the rest of the roster.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 4-0 win over White Sox

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles completing a three-game sweep in a 4-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. No one quite knew what to expect from Chris Tillman after he gave up four home runs in his last rehab start pitching for Triple-A Norfolk, but everyone invested in the Orioles would have gladly taken the five shutout innings he threw in his season debut.

2. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised given his history of first-inning struggles, but seven straight balls and two walks to open the game made you wonder if Tillman would make it out of the first. Despite quite a few deep counts, he walked only one more after those first two.

3. Tillman’s fastball velocity wasn’t his best, but he comfortably sat at 90 mph and went no lower than 88, which is good enough for him to succeed. He also threw good secondary pitches, inducing all eight of his swinging strikes with those over the course of his outing.

4. The results were good to see, but how Tillman feels Monday and Tuesday is more important than anything occurring in his first start. He and the training staff have put a great deal of work into strengthening his right shoulder, so you hope that pays off.

5. The Baltimore lineup didn’t square up many against White Sox lefty starter Jose Quintana, but it was important to get Tillman an early lead after he escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first. An early 4-0 lead probably had Chicago thinking about getting out of town more than anything else.

6. Drawing the walk clearly isn’t a big part of the Orioles offense, but Adam Jones and Manny Machado came around to score after reaching on free passes in the first. You’d like to see a few more of those every now and then.

7. After homering off a right-hander the night before, Trey Mancini continues to make a strong bid to become an everyday player with a 3-for-4 performance that included a two-out RBI single in the first. His average now sits at .297 as he continues to maximize his chances.

8. Alec Asher was two outs away from the unorthodox three-inning-plus save before being lifted in favor of Brad Brach, but he did a superb job giving the bullpen a breather. His 2.55 ERA in 17 2/3 innings between starting and relief hasn’t gone unnoticed.

9. Francisco Pena said he’ll be OK for the start of the Washington series after his right thumb and much of his right arm cramped up in the eighth. If not, the Orioles will have an interesting decision on their hands with starting catcher Welington Castillo already on the disabled list.

10. The Orioles are 20-10 despite Tillman and Zach Britton missing significant time, Kevin Gausman struggling mightily, and Mark Trumbo slugging .314 with only two home runs so far. Just like Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette drew it up, right?

11. Jonathan Schoop missed his second straight game after being hit on the hand by a pitch in Friday’s win. The timing isn’t ideal with him swinging the bat so well and having reached base in 22 straight games, but Showalter hopes to have him back for the Nationals series.

12. Sunday marked the 2,000th game in the history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Needless to say, the last six seasons have been far more enjoyable than much of the park’s history. The Orioles are now 11-3 at home in 2017.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 2-1 loss to Toronto

Posted on 15 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles falling 2-1 on a walk-off home run from Kendrys Morales on Saturday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You won’t find a worse breaking ball than the one Tyler Wilson threw to Morales. Since Brad Brach warmed up in the top half of the inning, I was surprised to see Wilson still out there, but Brach was only available to close, according to Buck Showalter.

2. Marco Estrada labored early for the Blue Jays, but the starter gave the Orioles lineup fits with his changeup over seven shutout innings. Baltimore consistently has problems against pitchers who are more about finesse and changing speeds than velocity.

3. You never want to lose, but the performance of Alec Asher in his Orioles debut was an encouraging development for the big picture. Showalter couldn’t have asked for more from the former Philadelphia hurler, who was only acquired late in spring training.

4. Asher threw an impressive breaking ball to get some big outs when he needed them. He’s not going to overpower you with the two-seam fastball, so he needs his secondary stuff in order to compete.

5. The right-hander left a few too many fastballs up in the zone early as he benefited from some good defense behind him. The transition from the four-seam fastball to the two-seamer last year has paid dividends, but Asher clearly wants to live lower in the zone moving forward.

6. Asher certainly earned another opportunity as the fifth starter, but it’s fair to wonder how much of his success was the result of a Toronto offense that’s been woeful so far in 2017.

7. The Orioles certainly wasted early chances against Estrada, leaving five runners on over the first three innings. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position on Saturday.

8. Jonathan Schoop missed a golden opportunity to double off Jose Bautista with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. I’m still not sure what happened there as Darwin Barney then picked up the go-ahead RBI single off Donnie Hart two pitches later.

9. Adam Jones made a strong throw to the plate on Barney’s run-scoring hit to almost nail Bautista, but the one-bounce throw skipped away from Welington Castillo. The Orioles likely would have gotten a cleaner hop if that game were being played on grass instead of turf.

10. Craig Gentry showed in the ninth why the Orioles like him, stealing second and tagging up on a fly ball to go to third before scoring on Schoop’s game-tying sacrifice fly. His speed is an asset if he can hit a little bit, but that’s a big question right now.

11. You could tell by Mark Trumbo’s reaction that he missed a very hittable pitch from Estrada as he flied out to end the top of the third with two runners on. He was 0-for-4 and doesn’t have an extra-base hit since his walk-off homer and double on Opening Day.

12. Seeing all uniformed personnel wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day has become one of my favorite traditions in recent years. The importance of this man to both baseball and America needs to be celebrated and remembered.

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Orioles send Alvarez, Verrett, five others to minors

Posted on 30 March 2017 by Luke Jones

The Orioles made a series of roster moves as they wrapped up Grapefruit League action on Thursday and continue counting down to Monday’s season opener.

As expected, veteran Pedro Alvarez was reassigned to minor-league camp and will begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk to continue his transition to the outfield. Fellow outfielder Chris Dickerson and infielders Robert Andino, Johnny Giavotella, and Paul Janish were also reassigned to minor-league camp.

Baltimore optioned right-handed pitchers Logan Verrett and Alec Asher to Triple-A Norfolk. Asher was acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations earlier this week.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Sarasota that starting pitcher Wade Miley will be placed on the new 10-day disabled list and remains in line to start the fifth game of the season on April 9. Miley is still building up his stamina after using costly time due to an upper respiratory illness. Because of two off-days next week, Opening Day pitcher Kevin Gausman will be able to make two starts on regular rest before the Orioles need their fourth starter behind him, Dylan Bundy, and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Outfielders Joey Rickard and Craig Gentry as well as first baseman and outfielder Trey Mancini are expected to make the Opening Day roster and will go north with the club to Baltimore. It remains to be seen how long Showalter will be able to carry 14 position players, but the Orioles will not need a No. 5 starter until April 15.

Showalter also said his plan is to carry left-hander Vidal Nuno and right-hander Tyler Wilson as long relievers to begin the regular season, but that could change if the organization were to add any other pitchers between now and Monday.

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