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Jones not receiving much help in Orioles outfield

Posted on 18 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Arguably off to the best start of his major league career, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones rarely knows who will be playing to his left or right on any given night.

That unrest at the corner outfield spots has been one of the Orioles’ biggest problems through the first six weeks of the 2015 season as the quintet of Delmon Young, Alejandro De Aza, Travis Snider, Steve Pearce, and David Lough haven’t met expectations. After the offseason departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, the Orioles planned to mix and match their options in left and right depending on opposing pitchers and whoever might be swinging a hot bat at any given time.

Instead, it’s been no man’s land, leaving manager Buck Showalter searching for any production he can find. Entering Monday, Orioles left fielders have hit only .208 with a putrid .593 on-base plus slugging percentage. Right field has looked good from a batting average standpoint (.301), but that traditional power spot has provided only one home run and a .397 slugging percentage.

Playing more regularly than last season, Young has hit .292, but he has just four extra-base hits and an anemic .337 slugging percentage, making him less than desirable as a choice for the cleanup spot where he’s often appeared. His defense has been better than expected in right field, but Young rarely makes you feel comfortable watching him roam the outfield.

De Aza is second on the club with 27 strikeouts and has relinquished his role as the regular leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching due to a .209 average and just four walks in 92 plate appearances. His defense has also been inconsistent as he’s misjudged balls and occasionally thrown to the wrong base.

Snider was decent with the bat early and currently sports a .700 OPS, but his defensive lapses in April clearly led to him falling out of favor with Showalter. The former Pittsburgh Pirate has started just seven games in May.

Despite a dramatic walk-off homer against Boston on April 25, Lough has done nothing else to present himself as a player who should receive more playing time since returning from the 15-day disabled list.

And though he’s been reinvented as a second baseman this month due to a rash of injuries at the position, Pearce has failed to approach the same stratosphere of his 2014 success as he’s hitting just .188 on the season. A .208 batting average on balls put in play indicates Pearce has hit into tough luck, but that can’t completely make up for below-replacement level numbers from a veteran hitter who posted a .930 OPS a season ago.

Beyond searching for a time machine to travel back to the offseason, what can the Orioles do?

The organization has long-term visions of making current designated hitter Jimmy Paredes a corner outfielder, but much of that work will need to be done next offseason and moving him now would likely only shift one of the struggling outfielders to the DH role anyway.

Mentioned in the spring as possibilities to make contributions in the Orioles outfield at some point this season, Nolan Reimold is hitting just .238 and Dariel Alvarez is batting .240 at Triple-A Norfolk.

Beyond the possibility of a trade — which appears to be an eventual necessity at this point — the Orioles might be inclined to take a look at Chris Parmelee, a 2006 first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins who signed as a minor-league free agent in the offseason. The 27-year-old is only a career .249 hitter in 901 major league plate appearances, but he has raked for the Tides in 2015, hitting .338 and posting a .904 OPS with three homers, 11 doubles, 22 RBIs, and 21 walks in 139 at-bats.

Parmelee has experience playing the corner outfield spots as well as first base in the majors, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said over the weekend that he’s someone on the Orioles’ radar as a potential call-up. Of course, no one can view Parmelee as a long-term solution, but perhaps it’s time for Baltimore to shake up the current outfield roster with some different competition in hopes of sparking more production.

Regardless of how they proceed, the Orioles cannot continue to receive such little production from two positions traditionally viewed as run-producing spots.

One of the biggest questions entering the season would be how the corner outfield spots would shake out with Markakis and Cruz no longer options to flank Jones.

So far, the plan has been nothing short of a colossal disappointment.

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An Orioles performance only a mother could love

Posted on 10 May 2015 by Luke Jones

There was something ironic about the Orioles turning in a performance only a mother could love in a 6-2 loss to the New York Yankees on the holiday Sunday.

In their fifth loss in six games, the Orioles struck out a club-record 18 times as Michael Pineda turned in the first 16-strikeout performance without a walk in the majors since Johan Santana did it in 2007. To be clear, the Yankees starter deserves plenty of credit as he lowered his season ERA to 2.72, but Baltimore’s frustration was evident throughout the afternoon, perhaps captured best in the fifth inning when Manny Machado slammed his bat in frustration after striking out.

Despite Sunday’s dubious achievement, the strikeout hasn’t been a universal problem for the Orioles — they entered the day ranked 15th in the majors — but Chris Davis struck out twice more on Sunday to give him a league-leading 48 in 116 plate appearances. Davis has managed to produce an .805 on-base plus slugging percentage with a club-leading seven home runs, but his contact rate of 61.9 percent entering Sunday was even lower than last season’s 63.6 percent, which doesn’t bode well for future performance.

Hoping to build on back-to-back quality starts, Bud Norris reverted to the pitcher we saw throughout spring training and most of April when he allowed four earned runs before being chased in the fourth inning. It would be unfair to ignore his last two outings in which he posted a 3.95 ERA over 13 2/3 innings, but the leash is shrinking rapidly as we approach Memorial Day.

Of course, the question of who would replace Norris was complicated with Kevin Gausman being placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis on Friday. Injuries are a cruel reality of the game, but it’s impossible not to wonder what role irregular work might have played in the most talented pitcher in the organization developing a cranky shoulder. It was one of the biggest concerns mentioned as a reason why some wanted Gausman to be working on a regular schedule in the starting rotation at Triple-A Norfolk if not pitching every fifth day in Baltimore.

The day also brought the latest cringe-worthy outing from Rule 5 pitcher Jason Garcia, who walked four batters and allowed an earned run in 2 1/3 innings. His performance mattered little to the final score, but the 22-year-old has now walked 11 batters in 13 2/3 innings and once again was sitting in the low 90s with his fastball, a far cry from the electric stuff club officials raved about as enough reason to try to carry him on the 25-man roster.

There are simply too many pitchers — Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Steve Johnson, just to name a few — performing well at Norfolk to justify continuing the Garcia experiment if he can’t even pitch in mop-up situations. And his diminished velocity makes you wonder if the long-term payoff of keeping him in the organization is even worth it.

The corner outfield spots continue to create cause for concern as right fielder Delmon Young threw to the wrong base to allow a run to score in the fourth inning and left fielder Alejandro De Aza got a bad read on Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-run double. Even with a proper break, De Aza likely wouldn’t have caught the deep liner, but Orioles pitching simply doesn’t strike out enough hitters to survive with the spottier-than-usual defense we’ve continued to see over the first five weeks of the 2015 campaign.

Even the 2013 Gold Glove winner Machado has struggled to find his usual consistency in the field with a club-leading seven errors this season.

On top of his shaky defense, De Aza struck out twice more to drop his average to .211 with a .632 OPS. He has the second-worst strikeout rate on the club behind Davis, but he hasn’t provided near the production to justify much playing time.

De Aza and Steve Pearce (.556 OPS) were counted on to be consistent contributors in 2015, but both have struggled to even stay in the lineup with such disappointing numbers. Their struggles have provided plenty of ammunition to criticize an offseason in which Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis departed via free agency and only Travis Snider was added to the outfield.

The Orioles return home 13-16 and 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees in the American League East. Panic and hopelessness are still premature, but it’s fair to be concerned with Baltimore having already suffered separate losing streaks of five and four games in the season’s first five weeks.

As manager Buck Showalter would say, blaming the underwhelming start solely on the losses of Cruz, Markakis, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller — who still has a 0.00 ERA in New York — would be a convenient excuse to overlook other problems. The Orioles have received poor pitching performances from Norris and No. 1 starter Chris Tillman and not nearly enough offense from the likes of De Aza and Pearce as well as former All-Star shorstop Everth Cabrera prior to the recent return of J.J. Hardy.

There’s no such thing as must-win games in mid-May, but the Orioles now play 17 of their next 20 games at Camden Yards. To quell concerns and keep pace as the geriatric Yankees continue to play strong baseball, the Orioles would serve themselves well to take advantage of the home cooking after a brutal stretch on the road.

They can start by putting an ugly Mother’s Day behind them as quickly as possible.

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Machado might be best fit in leadoff spot for Orioles

Posted on 04 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Amidst the weirdness of a “home” series in St. Petersburg this weekend, the Orioles trotted out a new leadoff hitter in a series win against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Third baseman Manny Machado batted first in wins on Saturday and Sunday, his first games in the top spot in the order since doing it twice in 2013. With both Alejandro De Aza (a .219 batting average) and Everth Cabrera (.221) struggling at the plate, the 22-year-old Machado might be the best option the Orioles have for the role after the offseason departure of Nick Markakis.

It’s clear that using Machado in the No. 1 spot is something that manager Buck Showalter has considered for a while after the young infielder served in that role a number of times in spring training. His current .250 average is largely a product of an 0-for-15 start to the 2015 season as he’s batted .308 with a .927 on-base plus slugging percentage since then.

A deeper look reveals Machado might be a better fit as a leadoff hitter than most would think. He has already laid down a couple impressive bunt singles this season and leads the club with three stolen bases without being caught yet, signs that his well-documented knee concerns are hopefully behind him for good.

The biggest factor working in Machado’s favor is his improved patience at the plate. The 2010 first-round pick leads the club with 11 walks and has increased his walk rate from 5.7 percent in 2014 to 13.3 percent of his plate appearances this year. Of course, that will likely level off some as the year continues, but there’s no doubt that he’s showing more willingness to draw the base on balls since walking only 29 times in 667 plate appearances in his first full year in the majors in 2013.

So far, Orioles leadoff hitters have posted a .703 OPS while drawing only six walks — two coming from Machado in the last two games — and striking out 22 times. That’s just not what you’re looking for from the top hitter in the order who will receive more opportunities than any other spot over 162 games.

Baltimore still hopes Machado will settle into a spot in the heart of the order in the long run, but he is probably their best option as the leadoff hitter for the time being. Yes, it’s unconventional, but Showalter proved he wasn’t afraid to go a different route when he slotted Markakis in the top spot a few years ago with positive results.

Cabrera not getting it done

Shortstop J.J. Hardy beginning a minor-league rehab assignment at Double-A Bowie on Monday is great news as it appears an All-Star player is on the verge of returning to the lineup.

The Orioles have survived without Hardy through the first month of the season, but there’s no doubting they’ll welcome his production at the shortstop position where they’ve received very little so far this season. Cabrera has been acceptable defensively (three errors in 76 chances), but his .481 OPS was the third worst in the majors among qualified hitters entering Monday.

With Hardy and fellow infielder Ryan Flaherty potentially returning by the weekend, the Orioles are faced with interesting decisions with the 25-man roster. Career minor-league infielder Rey Navarro figures to be optioned, but might we see Cabrera — who has an option remaining — sent to Triple-A Norfolk as well?

Perhaps Showalter has experimented with Steve Pearce at second base this past weekend to determine whether he could be reliable enough to go with the combination of Hardy, Flaherty, and Pearce at the middle infield spots with Flaherty able to play either second base or shortstop. It would help solve — at least temporarily — a roster crunch that exists with other fringe position players such as David Lough not having any minor-league options.

Snider vs. Markakis

While no one doubted the Orioles would miss Nelson Cruz’s bat — he’s already hit 13 home runs for Seattle to lead the majors — the debate over Markakis’ departure was more interesting as most acknowledged he was already on the decline before undergoing offseason neck surgery.

In Atlanta, Markakis is hitting .292 and has drawn walks in 14.4 percent of his plate appearances, the highest walk rate of his career. However, the 31-year-old right fielder has collected just three extra-base hits — all of them doubles — and is slugging just .326 with a .720 OPS.

Travis Snider, who has seen the most time in right field for the Orioles so far, has batted .281 while posting a .773 OPS and is tied for third on the club with eight walks. Of course, Snider has struggled in the outfield with several gaffes in the early going, which you wouldn’t have seen from Markakis.

Could the Orioles use Markakis in the leadoff spot right now? Sure, but his numbers so far in 2015 don’t exactly suggest the Braves are getting the bang for their buck after awarding the former Oriole a four-year, $44 million contract. Meanwhile, Snider is making just $2.1 million and doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2016 season.

Gonzalez quietly on tear

He’s always among the first names observers talk about trying to replace, but Miguel Gonzalez continues to get the job done for the Orioles after pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings to earn his third win of 2015 in Saturday’s 4-0 final.

In the last calendar year, the 30-year-old right-hander has posted a 2.71 ERA over 159 2/3 regular-season innings. Entering Sunday, his 2.31 ERA since last year’s All-Star break was third in the American League (minimum 15 starts) behind Houston’s Dallas Keuchel (2.00) and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez (2.07).

He rarely wows you with his stuff, but Gonzalez has been as reliable as anyone for the Orioles since 2012 and is off to another good start with a 2.59 ERA this season.

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No excuse for Orioles’ sloppy play to begin season

Posted on 23 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 7-8 record for the Orioles is nothing over which to panic.

Every team in baseball will undergo a three-game losing streak this season and will go through stretches when the pitching or the hitting — or both — will fail to do the job.

But the sloppiness with which the Orioles have played at times through the first 2 1/2 weeks of the season is concerning. And you know that isn’t sitting well with manager Buck Showalter.

Yes, they’re missing All-Star players in J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters and lost young second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a knee injury last weekend, but that can’t excuse the fielding miscues and the baserunning gaffes uncharacteristic of Showalter clubs that we’ve seen. The Orioles may not play small ball, but they’ve still done the little things well for the most part.

Over the last few years, they’ve hit the cutoff man, minimized mistakes on the bases, and made the plays they’re supposed to make.

That hasn’t been the case in the season’s first 15 games.

Their current three-game losing streak has included six official errors, but the defensive struggles came to a head Tuesday night with right fielder Travis Snider making a few gaffes that had fans pining for Nick Markakis’ steady defensive work. Aside from the last few games, the defense hasn’t been awful, but it’s certainly fallen short of the high standard the Orioles set over the last few years.

Baltimore has done a poor job controlling the running game as catcher Caleb Joseph had failed to throw out the first eight runners attempting to steal against him this season before finally gunning down Toronto catcher Russell Martin at second base on Wednesday night. Opponents are 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts this year after Joseph threw out 40 percent of runners last season. Of course, the pitching must also take blame in failing to hold runners as several stolen bases have come after huge jumps.

Perhaps the signature play of the sloppy start to the season was Alejandro De Aza’s inexplicable attempt to steal third base in the top of the seventh of Wednesday’s game. Chris Davis was at the plate as the potential tying run before De Aza was gunned down to end the inning and protect the Blue Jays’ 4-2 lead.

Any baseball fan knows you never make the third out of an inning at third, but it’s an even worse play with one of your best power hitters at the plate and you’re facing a two-run deficit in the seventh.

Brutal.

To be clear, the Orioles need to play better overall as the pitching has been poor — starters have completed six innings just four times this season — and the offense squandered a slew of opportunities to score more than two runs on Wednesday night.

But you can minimize the damage when you’re not pitching or hitting at your best by doing the little things well — the parts of the game that don’t always show up in the box score.

And that’s where, as Adam Jones would say, the Orioles need to clean it up.

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Early thoughts on Orioles lineup

Posted on 16 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Providing the ever-popular caveat that “it’s still early” in making any observations, below are some thoughts on each regular member of the Orioles lineup — with an additional nod to Delmon Young coming off the bench — through the first nine games of the 2015 season.

While many are understandably pining for former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz with him homering in five straight games, Baltimore leads the majors in home runs and has had few problems scoring runs so far.

Each player’s slash line, which includes batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, is noted in parentheses.

1. Alejandro De Aza (.314/.333/.571)

The left fielder’s .905 on-base plus slugging percentage is impressive, but he’s walked only once and has struck out 13 times, second on the club to only Chris Davis. He is the most experienced option that Buck Showalter has for the leadoff spot and he’s seen 4.28 pitches per plate appearance so far this season (the major league average is 3.81), making you think he’ll begin to draw more free passes as the year goes on. The high volume of strikeouts (36.1 percent of plate appearances) sticks out, but De Aza’s 21.2 percent career strikeout rate makes you believe this is more an early-season aberration.

2. Steve Pearce (.161/.278/.355)

Drawing starts at four different spots already (first base, left field, right field, and designated hitter), Pearce looked like he was picking up where he left off in 2014 by hitting a home run in each of the first two games. Since then, however, it’s been a struggle as he’s been mired in a 2-for-26 slump with eight strikeouts over that time. Showalter gave Pearce the night off Wednesday, so hopefully that coupled with Thursday’s off-day will allow the 32-year-old to clear his head. The Orioles don’t expect him to repeat his .930 OPS from a year ago, but they are counting on him to provide above-average offense.

3. Chris Davis (.226/.273/.387)

The cries have already started for Davis to be lowered in the order as he’s struck out in 45.5 percent of his 2015 plate appearances, which is alarming even for the first baseman’s standards. That said, he’s still found a way to contribute offensively, including three RBIs in Wednesday night’s win. It’s difficult to know what to expect from Davis at this point, but Showalter will — and should — keep writing his name in the lineup. You can happily live with him striking out 30 percent of the time like he did in 2012 and 2013 if he hits 35 home runs, but his contact rate continues to trend in the wrong direction.

4. Adam Jones (.406/.459/.844)

The Orioles may need to drag Jones onto the plane to Boston as he just finished one of the best homestands of his career by going 12-for-21 with four home runs and nine RBIs while hitting safely in all six games. As Showalter noted, several of those big hits came on pitches outside the zone as Jones was completely locked in. We know the drill as Jones will go through stretches where he’s not producing and many will complain about him failing to draw walks and expanding the zone. You take the good with the bad, and Jones has certainly provided much more of the former with a 1.303 OPS.

5. Travis Snider (.333/.467/.500)

We haven’t seen Snider in the outfield since a critical three-run error against Toronto on Sunday, but he leads the club with six walks and a stout .467 on-base percentage so far. He won’t continue to draw walks in 20 percent of his plate appearances, but Snider does give the Orioles more patience in the lineup, which is something they’ve obviously lacked over the last few years. Even with the rough defensive day against the Blue Jays, the left-handed hitter has given the Orioles everything they could have asked for so far and should continue to see regular at-bats.

6. Manny Machado (.161/.250/.290)

A .161 average would suggest we should be asking what’s wrong with the young third baseman, but he’s hit a number of balls hard for which he didn’t receive a return. Machado connected on his first homer of the season in Wednesday’s win, but the part of his offensive approach that’s been most impressive has been the willingness to take pitches. Machado walked in just 4.1 percent of his 2013 plate appearances, increased that rate to 5.7 percent last year, and has drawn free passes in 11.1 percent of his trips to the plate in 2015. It’s only a matter of time before good at-bats produce good results.

7. Jonathan Schoop (.292/.346/.708)

Jones has been the Orioles’ best offensive player, but Schoop has taken the largest step forward so far as he’s second on the club in home runs (three) and RBIs (seven). He’s only drawn one walk, but his power has been impressive as four of his seven hits have gone for extra bases. Showalter complimented Schoop’s approach in his final at-bat Wednesday that followed his home run to jump-start the five-run sixth inning. He didn’t get a hit, but Schoop drove a ball hard to right-center that was flagged down by Jacoby Ellsbury. The second baseman has a long way to go, but he has scary potential at age 23.

8. Everth Cabrera (.269/.310/.269)

Cabrera has filled in nicely for Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy by playing strong defense and offering a few singles here and there at the plate. The interesting question will be what the Orioles decide to do with Cabrera and utility player Ryan Flaherty once Hardy is ready to return to his starting role. Cabrera has been solid at shortstop and provides speed, but he hasn’t played any other positions and we know Flaherty can play good defense at more than one spot. Of course, both players have options, making this a good problem to have once Hardy is ready to be activated from the disabled list.

9. Caleb Joseph (.375/.444/.542)

It remains unknown when Matt Wieters will be ready to return, but Joseph has held his own in the three-time All-Star catcher’s absence and even picked up the Orioles’ first triple of the season. He is 0-for-4 throwing out runners trying to steal, but his 40 percent success rate from last season proved he can do the job defensively. The offense has been a nice development after Joseph posted a .618 OPS as a rookie. Showalter reminded reporters this week that the 28-year-old had a career .753 OPS in the minors, suggesting the Orioles might be able to expect a little more from him with the bat this year.

PH – Delmon Young (.333/.375/.333)

Young hasn’t played as much as some might have expected so far, but he recaptured his 2014 magic coming off the bench with a pinch-hit RBI single in the Orioles’ comeback win over the Yankees on Wednesday night. The 29-year-old will receive plenty of opportunities as the DH against left-handed pitching and the occasional start in the outfield, but Showalter loves having his bat as a weapon off the bench. The likes of De Aza, Snider, and Pearce producing in regular roles for this club will allow that to continue to happen.

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Offseason script works perfectly for Orioles in opener

Posted on 06 April 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles couldn’t have followed a much better script for their season-opening 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.

After hearing concerns all winter about how the club would replace the production of outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, a trio of Orioles did everything they could to quell concerns for at least the first day of the season.

Becoming the first Opening Day right fielder for the Orioles not named Markakis since Jay Gibbons in 2006, Travis Snider collected three hits and two RBIs while also gunning down a runner at the plate and making a diving catch in the outfield. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette hopes Snider can finally realize his potential as a former first-round pick and give the Orioles similar production to the former right fielder for a fraction of the price Atlanta paid.

It was a pretty good impression of the longtime right fielder in his club debut.

The man who replaced Markakis in the leadoff spot, Alejandro De Aza, delivered a two-run homer off Rays starter Chris Archer to conclude a 10-pitch at-bat in the fifth to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. De Aza only went 1-for-5 and struck out three times, but he saw an impressive 31 pitches in five plate appearances, which is the patience Baltimore is seeking in a leadoff hitter.

Filling in for Chris Davis at first base, Steve Pearce took an encouraging first step in trying to prove his surprising 2014 season wasn’t a fluke by hitting a solo shot in the sixth. Baltimore is banking on his production to go a long way in helping ease the loss of Cruz’s power production while expecting other established stars — Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, and Davis — to bounce back from injuries or down 2014 campaigns.

The winning formula on Monday was reminiscent of last year as the Orioles clubbed three home runs and received a strong outing from ace Chris Tillman, who allowed one earned run in 6 2/3 innings. The right-hander has now allowed three or fewer earned runs in 21 of his last 22 regular-season starts going back to early June of 2014.

The Orioles won their fifth consecutive season opener on Monday, but what does a Day 1 win really mean for the remainder of 2015? Baltimore’s longest run in franchise history was winning seven straight openers from 1970-1976, which came in the midst of the glory days. The second-longest streak was six consecutive season-opening wins from 2001-2006, days that could be described as anything but glorious.

Yes, it’s only one of 162, but a win always feels good on Opening Day.

Especially when it reflects the plan of success laid out in the offseason.

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Five things that can’t happen for 2015 Orioles

Posted on 03 April 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s funny how we annually try to pinpoint absolutes in assessing what must go right or what can’t go wrong for the Orioles to have a successful season.

There are very few absolutes on which you can count over the course of a 162-game schedule. Look no further than last year to realize just how true that can be.

You might have predicted last spring that nearly everything needed to go right for the Orioles to win their first American League East title in 17 years. Instead, they endured the absence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for most of the year, another season-ending knee injury to Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado, and an abysmal campaign from 2013 home run king Chris Davis that ended with a 25-man suspension for Adderall use.

If given a preview of only those subplots last spring, you would have been more inclined to predict a 96-loss campaign as opposed to 96 victories and winning the division by a dozen games.

You just never know and that’s what makes it fun, as manager Buck Showalter would say.

With that reality in mind, below is a stab at five things that can’t happen for the Orioles in 2015 after we looked at what factors must go right on Thursday. In an effort to avoid being redundant in the wake of the first piece, I avoided the polar opposites of the factors already discussed.

1. The worm turns on the health of the pitching

In addition to recapturing the success from last season, Orioles pitching would desperately like to extend its run of good fortune in the health department as only four pitchers — Tommy Hunter, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez –visited the 15-day disabled list in 2014. Of those four, only Jimenez spent more than 18 days on the DL and there was plenty of external debate over the severity of his ankle injury as he was in the midst of a disappointing season.

Injuries are a part of the game and it’d be difficult for the Orioles to expect that same level of health, but you can only hope the baseball gods don’t decide to exact revenge in 2015. Baltimore was one of only 10 teams in the majors last year to have four pitchers make 25 or more starts while only two clubs — Kansas City and Washington — had five pitchers make 25 or more.

The odds are not in the Orioles’ favor to repeat last year’s injury-light run as any given club has a 65 percent likelihood of having two starters ailing at the same time at some point in a season, according to FanGraphs. That reality makes it clear why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was so hesitant to part with any of the club’s top six starters this winter.

While many focused on the misfortune of the injuries suffered by Wieters and Machado last season, the rotation and the bullpen were as healthy as you could have hoped for on the way to 96 wins.

2. Corner outfield spots become a wasteland

It’s been impossible to escape the lamenting over the departure of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis this offseason as the Orioles weren’t willing to invest the combined $101 million that the pair received elsewhere in free agency. The veterans accounted for a total of 207 starts at the corner outfield spots that others will need to assume in 2015.

No two individuals will be expected to fill their roles exclusively as some combination of Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, Delmon Young, Travis Snider, David Lough, and possibly Nolan Reimold will receive early opportunities. Even if you thought Cruz and Markakis were overpaid, the Orioles still need to account for the 116 extra-base hits the two produced last year.

Of course, the club can reasonably expect better offensive returns from the likes of Davis, Machado, Wieters, and J.J. Hardy at their respective positions, but there’s a lot of unknown that Showalter will be facing in trying to pull the right strings with a cast of unproven or flawed characters flanking center fielder Adam Jones.

The Orioles don’t necessarily need the overwhelming success of platoons resembling the best days of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke, but poor production from the corner outfield spots is a recipe for a lineup likely struggling to score runs.

3. Matt Wieters is a shell of his old self defensively

There was a reason why I didn’t include Wieters having a bounce-back year as one of the things that must happen for the Orioles. The truth is they proved they could win without him last season.

Make no mistake, the Orioles would benefit from a better offensive catcher than Caleb Joseph, but a more uncomfortable proposition might be a Wieters behind the plate who is a shell of what he used to be defensively. If Wieters is fully cleared, Showalter will immediately reinstall him as the starter, but that doesn’t guarantee his defense will warrant him being the overwhelming regular, potentially creating an awkward situation.

Last season, Joseph produced 1.5 defensive wins above replacement — a better mark than Wieters in either of his last two full seasons — and the Orioles allowed the eighth-lowest total of stolen bases in the majors. For a club that prides itself in controlling the opponent’s running game, Wieters’ defense is more important than his offense.

Yes, it’s important to have Wieters back, but him returning as a defensive liability while also remembering that his on-base plus slugging percentage steadily declined from 2011 through 2013 would be worrisome. With a small number of catchers having undergone Tommy John surgery at the major league level over the years, it’s impossible to truly know what to expect.

4. Injuries continue to zap J.J. Hardy of his power

A back injury that lingered for much of the 2014 season limited the three-time Gold Glove shortstop to just nine home runs and a .372 slugging percentage, which is what made the news of a shoulder injury last week disheartening for the 32-year-old.

Hardy isn’t expected to miss much time, but the Orioles are counting on him to be part of the equation to fill the power void left behind by Cruz. Before Hardy signed a three-year, $40 million contract last fall, the organization had to be expecting a return to power numbers similar to what he posted in his first three years in Baltimore.

Back and shoulder issues for a shortstop on the wrong side of 30 are worrisome, especially when you’re counting on Hardy to hit a few more out of the ballpark this season. His defense is his best asset, but the Orioles need more than that while paying him an average of just over $13 million per season over the next three years.

5. The underwhelming offseason and the reality of 11 pending free agents create a tight clubhouse

Several players made no secret about their disappointment in this past offseason in watching the departures of Markakis, Cruz, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller while seeing minimal additions for the 2015 season. Duquette has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, but it’s human nature for veterans to be disappointed to see a longtime Oriole like Markakis depart.

On top of this, the club has 11 players currently slated to become free agents next offseason including position players such as Davis, Wieters, Pearce, De Aza, and Young and starting pitchers Norris and Wei-Yin Chen. That’s why many are viewing 2015 as the Orioles’ last chance to seriously contend for at least a couple years.

Showalter is as good as any manager in baseball in cultivating a loose clubhouse and strong player leadership remains despite Markakis’ departure, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to wonder if players might be too tight this season, especially if the club were to get off to a slow start.

And the memory of a disappointing four-game sweep in last year’s American League Championship Series could creep back into players’ psyche in the process.

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2015 Orioles preview: Alejandro De Aza

Posted on 18 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just less than three weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman

OF Alejandro De Aza

Opening Day age: 30

Contract status: Under club control through the 2015 season

Minor-league options remaining: Need player permission to option due to five years of major league experience

2014 stats: .252/.314/.386, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 56 R, 17 SB, 528 PA

Why to be impressed: The left-handed hitter provided a spark for the Orioles down the stretch after coming over from the White Sox, posting an .877 on-base plus slugging percentage in 89 plate appearances. His speed can be an asset as he’s expected by many to take over the leadoff spot against right-handed pitching and has stolen 79 bases in his career.

Why to be concerned: De Aza’s overall OPS has declined steadily from .920 in 2011 to just .700 last season, and he walked just 39 times a year ago, which isn’t exactly what manager Buck Showalter is looking for at the top of the order. His defense is better at the corner outfield spots than in center, but De Aza has profiled as a below-average defensive player in his career.

2015 outlook: De Aza was a good starting outfielder in 2011 and 2012, but his career path has been declining ever since, making it concerning if the Orioles entrust him with a near-everyday role. He’ll provide some speed and reach double digits in homers, but an OPS in the low .700s, mediocre defense, and struggles against left-handed pitching aren’t qualities you’re looking for in a starting outfielder on a contending club.

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De Aza last man standing in Orioles’ busy arbitration season

Posted on 08 February 2015 by Luke Jones

Orioles outfielder Alejandro De Aza is the last man standing on a docket that included 11 arbitration-eligible players to address this winter.

Most attention understandably has been placed on the free-agent departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, but the Orioles will have given more than $21 million in raises to De Aza, pitchers Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz, outfielder Steve Pearce, infielder Ryan Flaherty, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Matt Wieters this winter. It’s the reason why Baltimore’s payroll is estimated to rise from $107 million in 2014 to a projected $120 million despite minimal additions this offseason.

While the ongoing MASN dispute raises fair questions about owner Peter Angelos’ willingness to expand the payroll any further, the high volume of arbitration cases adds context to the losses of Cruz, Markakis, and Miller. Simply put, the Orioles are now paying the price for the cheap and productive labor they’ve received from the likes of Tillman, Gonzalez, Britton, and Pearce over the last couple seasons.

While the sting of this winter’s losses is apparent, the Orioles will be faced with even more difficult decisions next offseason when De Aza, Pearce, Davis, Wieters, Norris, and left-hander starter Wei-Yin Chen all become free agents.

De Aza is set to become the first Orioles player to go to a hearing since pitcher Brad Bergesen in 2012. The club has an impeccable record in arbitration cases, going 7-0 in cases handled by Russell Smouse, and hasn’t lost a hearing since pitcher Ben McDonald defeated the Orioles 20 years ago.

The left-handed hitter is projected by most to become the Orioles’ new leadoff hitter and asked for $5.65 million while the organization countered at $5 million. De Aza made $4.25 million last year in splitting time between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore.

After being acquired a day before the waiver trade deadline on August 30, De Aza hit .293 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in over 89 plate appearances with the Orioles to close the regular season. He also hit .333 with three doubles and three RBIs in 21 postseason at-bats.

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Orioles come to terms with closer Britton

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles resolved their penultimate arbitration case of the winter by coming to terms with left-handed closer Zach Britton on Wednesday.

According to MASN, the 27-year-old will make $3.2 million in base salary after emerging as the club’s closer a year ago. In 76 1/3 innings, Britton posted a 1.65 ERA and converted 37 of 41 save opportunities for the American League East champions.

With Britton working out of the bullpen for the first time after a few underwhelming seasons as a starter, his sinker reached the mid-to-high 90s working in relief as hitters struggled to square up his pitches. Britton finished the 2014 campaign ranked fourth in the American League in saves and became the 10th different Orioles pitcher to record a 30-save season in club history.

He made only $521,500 last season after he entered spring training with no assurance of even being on the 25-man roster and was out of minor-league options. When the sides exchanged figures earlier this offseason, Britton asked for $4.2 million while Baltimore countered with $2.2 million, meaning they split the difference as is often the case.

Outfielder Alejandro De Aza is the only remaining arbitration case for the Orioles to settle this offseason.

 

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