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Orioles with little to offer at upcoming trade deadline

Posted on 20 July 2015 by Luke Jones

The trade deadline is in sight and the names reportedly being linked to the Orioles are enticing.

San Diego outfielder Justin Upton.

Milwaukee outfielder Carlos Gomez.

Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto of Cincinnati.

Even the mighty Cole Hamels in Philadelphia.

Despite being just 46-45 less than two weeks away from the trade deadline, the Orioles remain in the thick of the American League East race and trail the first-place New York Yankees by just four games entering a three-game set in the Bronx on Tuesday. Any of the aforementioned names would certainly help a club lacking corner outfield talent and needing better starting pitching than it received over the first four months of the season.

But the sound of snapping fingers should bring the Orioles back to reality.

After an offseason in which veterans Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis departed via free agency and the Orioles completely whiffed in their plan to replace them, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette now faces the task of trying to improve a corner outfield situation that’s largely been a wasteland in 2015. But he’ll keep coming back to the same problem while engaging in discussions with other clubs about potential trade targets between now and July 31.

What exactly do the Orioles have to offer in return?

Opposing clubs will immediately bring up Kevin Gausman’s name, but are the Orioles in a position to trade the 24-year-old away when there are already questions about the starting rotation now and for the long haul with Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris set to become free agents?

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop has often been targeted by opposing clubs, but the 23-year-old is too valuable as part of a core group that will be expected to lead the way with the likes of Matt Wieters and Chris Davis possibly — if not likely — departing as free agents following the season.

What about Dylan Bundy?

The 22-year-old right-hander remains shut down with a right shoulder issue and is unlikely to pitch again this year. On top of that, he’s out of minor-league options next year and would need to remain on any club’s 25-man roster despite having thrown all of 167 innings in the minor leagues. His value has never been lower, but he’s still young enough that it wouldn’t make sense to move him unless another club is willing to buy high despite these concerns.

Hunter Harvey drew plenty of interest at the deadline last year, but the 20-year-old pitcher is in the midst of a throwing progression and is an injury risk with a right flexor mass strain — an injury that sometimes leads to Tommy John surgery — until he proves otherwise. Again, not exactly a situation that screams for other teams to buy high on him.

There’s a substantial drop-off in upside after these currently-injured names.

That’s not to say the likes of outfielder Dariel Alvarez, catcher Chance Sisco, and pitchers Zach Davies, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson wouldn’t offer some appeal to other clubs, but it’s difficult envisioning any of them headlining a trade for an impact outfielder or pitcher. And with so many pending free agents this winter, the Orioles need to be careful selling off the few pieces they currently have in their farm system for rental players or veterans with limited ceilings, the only commodities they’re likely to be able to afford at the deadline.

It’s certainly nice to hear the Orioles are interested in a high-impact outfielder — and pending free agent — like Upton or a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter like Johnny Cueto, but those options just don’t seem realistic unless the Orioles are willing to trade Gausman or Schoop — or both.

Perhaps Duquette will find a poor man’s Andrew Miller — hopefully for a price far less than an Eduardo Rodriguez this time around — or a spark plug reminiscent of Nate McLouth in 2012, but the reported interest in high-profile names feels hollow if the Orioles are going to be honest with themselves.

Duquette and the organization are trying to make up for what they failed to do last winter.

And they have very little to offer in order to do it, making it far more likely that the Orioles will need to count on what they already have rather than any hope of finding a real difference-maker.

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Gonzalez expected to miss Sunday’s start against Yankees

Posted on 10 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez is expected to miss his next scheduled start against the New York Yankees on Sunday.

The right-handed starter left Tuesday’s game with a right groin strain and will likely be placed on the 15-day disabled list, but manager Buck Showalter said a roster move was unlikely to come before Thursday at the earliest. Gonzalez said he was still sore prior to Wednesday’s game against Boston.

“I would say his start Sunday is definitely in jeopardy, which is a nice way of saying he ain’t making it,” Showalter said. “Unless something really strange happens from the time he came in, it looks like we’re going to need a starting pitcher for Sunday.”

Triple-A Norfolk starters Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson are the top candidates to make Sunday’s start, but the maneuvering could be tricky if the Orioles want to recall the former to pitch against New York. Optioned to the minors last Friday, Wright would only be eligible to return for Sunday’s start if he is the one to replace Gonzalez — or another player — in a DL move since he hasn’t been in the minors for the required 10 days. However, the Orioles would probably prefer to go back to their customary seven-man bullpen as they continue to play a man down with Brian Matusz serving the four remaining games of his suspension.

If the Orioles were to place Gonzalez on the DL and recall another pitcher such as left-handed reliever Cesar Cabral, that would likely signal Tyler Wilson as Sunday’s starter. Baltimore could also elect to recall Wright as a reliever to replace Gonzalez with the idea of keeping him on track to start Sunday if he isn’t needed out of the bullpen in the meantime.

In four starts for the Orioles this season, Wright is 2-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 24 1/3 innings, striking out 16 and walking four.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop practiced sliding for the first time Wednesday in Sarasota as he continues to recover from a Grade 1 tear of the posterior cruciate ligament and a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered on April 17. With extended spring training wrapping up this week, the 23-year-old is expected to return to Baltimore to continue working out with the Orioles before potentially beginning a rehab assignment.

Showalter said Schoop has still not been cleared to play the field in extended spring training games — he has been working on fielding elements in controlled settings — but the Orioles are still projecting him to be activated before the All-Star break. The Baltimore manager added that Schoop is now faster running straight ahead than he’s ever been, a reflection of how hard he’s worked over the last two months.

“It’s a pretty major injury he had, a pretty serious injury,” said Showalter, who reiterated that surgery is not an option being considered for Schoop. “There are things he’s going to have to do the rest of his career. There are guys playing in the NFL with that same injury who never had surgery. It’s going to be a challenge for him and the people around him. He’s going to have to continue to do some things and strengthen some things to play at the level he’s capable of.”

Lefty relief pitcher Wesley Wright (left trapezius strain) will pitch in an extended spring game Friday before being sent out on a minor-league rehab assignment.

Scheduled to make his next rehab start at Double-A Bowie on Thursday, right-hander Kevin Gausman said he felt great after Saturday’s start for Single-A Frederick and is feeling no effects of the shoulder tendinitis that landed him on the DL last month. He is expected to be kept to 65 pitches in his second rehab start.

Yankees closer and ex-Oriole Andrew Miller was placed on the DL with a strained flexor mass in his left forearm on Wednesday, meaning he won’t be available for the weekend series in Baltimore.

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Fruitless use of resources costing Orioles dearly so far in 2015

Posted on 02 June 2015 by Luke Jones

This isn’t about the three names who’ve been discussed over and over and over in assessing the Orioles’ offseason and disappointing start to the 2015 campaign.

Frankly, it’s not my place to say the organization should have invested more than $34 million in those three players for the 2015 season, which doesn’t include the $102.75 million that departing trio will command from their new clubs in future years. At the same time, I won’t applaud the Orioles for showing the restraint to allow them to walk away, either, when it was clear what value they provided to the 2014 club.

What we do know is it would have been naive to expect the franchise to increase its payroll by tens of millions of dollars, meaning executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette had difficult decisions to make. In fact, lost in the handwringing over a disappointing offseason is that the payroll is actually higher than it was a year ago.

And that’s where we come to the real problem plaguing manager Buck Showalter’s club as it continues to hover below the .500 mark in early June. For all of the discussion about who the Orioles didn’t keep, not enough attention has been paid to the ones they did choose to retain who haven’t provided a return in 2015.

Because of the timing, we often forget the big-name free agent that the Orioles did retain when they re-signed J.J. Hardy to a three-year, $40 million contract on the eve of the American League Championship Series last October. Injuries have limited the Gold Glove shortstop to just 23 games as he’s batted only .190 when he has been in the lineup.

Time will tell whether the Orioles made the right decision in extending the 32-year-old shortstop, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the biggest indictment of the offseason:

It’s the overwhelming portion of the $57.51 million paid to arbitration-eligible players this winter that looks like a sunk investment in early June. The Orioles invested just under $38 million in Chris Tillman ($4.32 million), Bud Norris ($8.8 million), Tommy Hunter ($4.65 million), Brian Matusz ($3.2 million), Steve Pearce ($3.7 million), Alejandro De Aza ($5 million), and the injured Matt Wieters ($8.3 million), and what exactly have they gotten in return?

Of course, that’s not to say the Orioles shouldn’t have tendered any of the aforementioned players as no one would have predicted Tillman or Norris struggling as dramatically as they have thus far and Pearce still looked like a huge bargain after leading the 2014 Orioles in on-base plus slugging percentage. There was cautious optimism that Wieters might be ready by Opening Day, but the club knew it was possible that he’d need a couple more months to rehab as has turned out to be the case.

But what about the others?

Designated for assignment last week, De Aza’s name was mentioned by many as a candidate to be non-tendered over the winter, but the Orioles were fooled into thinking what they saw last September and in the postseason was what they would get this year. His struggles over the last few years with the Chicago White Sox spelled out why he was available last August, but the organization forked over $5 million for him anyway.

It’s understandable that the Orioles didn’t want to invest a long-term contract in a relief pitcher, but was it wise to pay a total of $7.85 million to two middling relievers like Hunter and Matusz? Was it a good use of resources to tender Matusz and sign left-hander Wesley Wright for an additional $1.7 million?

Non-tendering De Aza and Matusz and passing on the Everth Cabrera signing — which has been another $2.4 million investment providing no return — would have created an additional $10.6 million to spend on other players if they’d kept the same payroll. Think of the possibilities of what could have been done with that money with just a hint of creativity.

The Orioles showed little interest this winter in outfielder Nori Aoki, who is essentially a present-day Nick Markakis clone and signed a one-year, $4 million contract with San Francisco that includes a $5.5 million option for 2016. He alone wouldn’t fix the current offense, but he’d sure look good hitting in the leadoff spot for Baltimore right now and hadn’t shown the same inconsistency of De Aza in Chicago the last couple years. A signing like that still would have left Duquette more money with which to work.

That’s only one simple example, of course.

As much as critics have labeled it a “cheap” offseason for the Orioles, it was an unimaginative one more than anything else. Even if the departures of Nelson Cruz, Markakis, and Miller were unavoidable from a financial standpoint, the Orioles still had plenty of resources to tinker and try to improve the club while continuing to remind everyone that Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis would be rejoining what remained of a playoff roster.

Instead, the Orioles lost significant pieces and paid too much of the money they did have to role players to fill in the cracks. To borrow a line from “Jurassic Park” uttered by Dr. Ian Malcolm, the Orioles were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should” pay all of their arbitration-eligible players.

Fans can only wonder how much the flirtation between Duquette and the Toronto Blue Jays might have contributed to an inactive offseason in which the most significant additions were Travis Snider, Wright, and Cabrera.

Meanwhile, the Orioles continue to wait and hope for the players in which they did invest this winter to finally provide a positive return.

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Orioles let one get away against Yankees

Posted on 14 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It’d be tough to sugarcoat the Orioles’ 6-5 loss to the New York Yankees on Monday night.

That one stung.

No, it isn’t crushing in the sense that the Orioles currently own a 3-4 record, and it’s premature to be concerned about an up-and-down week to begin the season. But Monday brought the kind of defeat that you can’t help but feel should have been a win if not for a series of missteps. Those are the losses on which you’ll reflect, depending on where you ultimately stand in the pennant race a few months from now.

Of course, right-hander Tommy Hunter received much of the blame for failing to locate a 3-1 fastball that resulted in a go-ahead grand slam off the bat of pinch hitter Stephen Drew in the top of the seventh inning. Despite only giving up a bloop single to Chris Young and an infield hit to Jacoby Ellsbury — a play that could have resulted in the third out of the inning had Chris Davis corralled Jonathan Schoop’s bullet throw from close range — Hunter had walked John Ryan Murphy earlier in the inning and had already labored through 24 pitches when Drew stepped to the plate.

Manager Buck Showalter had Brian Matusz ready in the bullpen before electing to let Hunter face Drew, explaining after the game that he was trying not to use the lefty specialist who had thrown 26 pitches in Sunday’s loss. Drew was 0-for-5 in his career against both pitchers, but the decision to stick with Hunter appeared counterintuitive since Matusz was ready to go and is paid to get lefty hitters out. Drew owns a career .227 average against southpaws and had batted .129 against them in 2014.

With Wesley Wright expected to miss the next four to six weeks with left shoulder inflammation, the Orioles currently have just one lefty in the bullpen aside from closer Zach Britton.

“I was trying to stay away from Brian,” Showalter said. “We’ve had a couple short starts and we only had three pitchers we were going to use in the bullpen, so it’s tough. [Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s] also got another weapon over there in [Chase] Headley, so he can [then hit for Drew] if he wants to.”

Matusz eventually pitched to two batters in the ninth inning anyway, but the damage had already been done.

That sequence aside, the Orioles didn’t help themselves by making three outs on the bases with Alejandro De Aza and Adam Jones both being thrown out trying to steal and catcher Caleb Joseph failing in trying to stretch a single into a double with two outs in the fifth. Jonathan Schoop would have made another out on the bases trying to stretch an RBI single into a double in the second inning, but a nifty slide resulted in the original out call being overturned after a Showalter replay challenge.

Many clamored this offseason for the Orioles to be more aggressive on the bases, but there’s a fine line between pushing the envelope and wasting precious outs, something they’ve been guilty of doing on several occasions in the opening week. There’s no way of knowing if any of these instances could have resulted in more scoring had they been handled differently, but you’d like to think the Orioles having three extra outs might have made a difference in a one-run game.

The rotten cherry on top of a frustrating night was watching former Oriole and new Yankees closer Andrew Miller convert a five-out save to hand Baltimore its fourth loss in the last five games. It’s no secret that Miller is a dominating presence, but the early-season struggles of the Orioles bullpen have only magnified his departure.

After the game, there was no panicking about a bullpen that’s now allowed at least one run in each of the club’s first seven contests.

“I have the utmost faith and respect for those guys,” said Jones, who hit a clutch two-run homer to break a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth. “Hey, get it out of the way now. No one wants to see that in August or September. It is just how it works. I am pretty sure they are all frustrated, but me being the center fielder, I have all the faith in those guys.”

Losing is a part of the game as even the best teams will likely experience it upwards of 60 times this season, but letting potential wins slip away will wear on you. Because you never know where you might be in September and how much losses like this one can potentially cost you in the long run.

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Showalter makes Orioles best bet in question-filled AL East

Posted on 06 April 2015 by Luke Jones

I’ll admit I don’t love this Orioles roster going into the 2015 season.

While fighting the thought that they may have missed their last best chance to go to the World Series last October, the Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller this offseason while making no sure-fire additions to replace their production. Yes, the payroll rose to just under $120 million to account for a laundry list of players receiving raises in arbitration, but that still doesn’t erase the feeling of it being an underwhelming winter.

Those factors alone make it easy to pick against the Orioles this year before you take a step back to examine the remaining roster.

Will the Orioles miss Cruz and Markakis? Absolutely, but will they miss them more than they might have yearned to have the injured Matt Wieters and Manny Machado last season while still managing to win 96 games? Will they ache for Cruz quite as badly if Chris Davis rebounds from a horrific campaign to look more like the slugger he was in 2012 or, better yet, 2013?

And while Miller found a lucrative contract in Yankee pinstripes, the rest of a pitching staff that finished third in the American League in ERA last season remains intact. So does a defense that’s been the best in baseball over the last three years and might be the biggest reason for the Orioles’ success.

If you’re not yet convinced, a look around the rest of the AL East might do it.

Boston? That’s one hell of a scary lineup, but four of their five starting pitchers posted an ERA above 4.00 last year and the bullpen headlined by ailing closer Koji Uehara is shaky at best.

Toronto will again hit the baseball with the additions of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin, but the bullpen is a major weakness and the loss of Marcus Stroman puts too much stress on veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and three starters below the age of 25.

The Yankees? That roster would have scared you five years ago, but age and injuries will be their undoing as it was a year ago.

Tampa Bay will have a strong starting rotation if early-season injuries are overcome, but the Rays will struggle to score runs all year and the magic maneuvering of former manager Joe Maddon is now gone.

No, the Orioles won’t run away with the division, but there’s vulnerability anywhere you look. And that’s where the potential tiebreaker comes into play that will push Baltimore over the top.

Taking nothing away from Boston’s John Farrell and New York’s Joe Girardi for having won World Series rings with their respective clubs, but I’ll count on Buck Showalter to get the absolute most from his roster while hiding deficiencies better than any manager in the AL East.

For the last three years, the Orioles have thrived on overcoming adversity while relishing opportunities to prove their doubters wrong. Showalter and his players were already talking about many naysayers picking them to finish in last place weeks ago, even if those slights are more fabrication than reality.

The knee-jerk reaction in assessing the Orioles after an underwhelming offseason is to drop them substantially in the standings, but then you remember they clinched the division in mid-September and won the AL East by a whopping 12 games. That’s a lot of ground that the others in the division needed to make up.

The Red Sox appear to have emerged as the media favorite to win the AL East, but that didn’t stop 30 of ESPN’s experts from picking Baltimore to take the division compared to 36 forecasting Boston. A number of other national outlets are giving the Orioles plenty of respect as well, and even their bigger critics are generally picking them no worse than second or third.

After watching the Orioles average 91 wins per year while outperforming projections over the last three seasons, we should know better at this point. The questions that exist elsewhere in the AL East should only confirm the truth.

You don’t bet against Buck.

And even if I may not like the Orioles as much as last year, they will still be the best that the AL East has to offer in 2015.

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Ex-Orioles reliever Miller agrees to join Yankees

Posted on 05 December 2014 by Luke Jones

In a move that was expected after the Orioles hadn’t pursued him in free agency, left-handed relief pitcher Andrew Miller agreed to a four-year, $36 million contract to join the New York Yankees on Friday.

The news comes at the end of a very difficult week for the Orioles after they had already lost free-agent outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis to the Seattle Mariners and the Atlanta Braves, respectively. It remains undetermined whether Miller will assume the closer role in New York, but his deal would be the richest awarded to a non-closer relief pitcher in major league history.

Acquired from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez on July 31, Miller was a major part of the Orioles’ push for their first American League East title since 1997. The 6-foot-7 lefty pitched to a 1.35 ERA and struck out 34 hitters in 20 innings for Baltimore to close out the regular season, stepping into a late-inning role to set up for closer Zach Britton.

Miller’s work was even more dominating in the postseason as he pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed only one hit while striking out eight.

The Orioles were never in the picture in terms of keeping Miller as he was always expected to receive lucrative money, but his destination is bad news for the rest of the AL East.  Miller will join right-hander Dellin Betances in forming what could be the most dominating relief duo in the major leagues.

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Other offseason moves not doing Orioles any favors

Posted on 18 November 2014 by Luke Jones

While it’s been a quiet start to the offseason for the Orioles, this week has brought moves elsewhere that wouldn’t figure to do them any favors.

The Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to sign 31-year-old catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract will undoubtedly influence the asking price of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters when he hits free agency next offseason. Martin is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in which he hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 runs batted in to go with a career-best .402 on-base percentage, but it’s a steep investment to make for a catcher who will be 32 at the start of spring training and hit below .240 in each of his previous three seasons.

Martin’s career on-base plus slugging percentage is .754 compared to Wieters’ .743.

This signing on the heels of the New York Yankees inking veteran catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract last winter must have agent Scott Boras licking his chops while waiting for Wieters to complete his rehab from last season’s Tommy John surgery.

Assuming he makes a full recovery and displays a throwing arm comparable to what he had prior to 2014, Wieters figures to get a deal that will trump what Martin or McCann received in free agency. The 2007 first-round pick doesn’t turn 29 until May and will have a full season to prove to all suitors he’s 100 percent after the procedure that cost him all but 26 games last season.

Of course, the Orioles have known all along that it would be difficult to sign their All-Star catcher to an extension as players typically don’t employ Boras with thoughts of a hometown discount when it comes to free agency. He isn’t getting nine years or the $164 million San Francisco gave Buster Posey a couple years ago, but it appears quite feasible that Wieters will approach or even reach nine figures with a strong and healthy 2015 campaign.

The Blue Jays giving $82 million to a catcher on the wrong side of age 30 only reaffirms that Wieters is going to get paid lucratively.

Another smaller signing Tuesday confirms the growing emphasis on relief pitching with the Chicago White Sox agreeing to a three-year, $15 million contract with left-hander Zach Duke. Free-agent lefty Andrew Miller and his representation must be salivating to see the 31-year-old Duke cash in on a good 2014 season amidst mediocre career numbers.

In 74 appearances with Milwaukee, Duke pitched to a 2.45 ERA and averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but he sports a 4.46 career ERA — much of that coming as a starter earlier in his career — and has averaged just 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 seasons pitching only in the National League. Lefties batted .198 against Duke while right-handed hitters posted a .242 mark in 2014.

The veteran southpaw had a good season, but if a club was willing to hand out a three-year, $15 million contract to a lefty reliever after only one good season, how much is Miller — who’s posted three impressive seasons in a row — ultimately going to fetch as arguably the most sought after bullpen arm on the market?

Another move to keep in the back of your mind was the Atlanta Braves’ decision to trade outfielder Jason Heyward to St. Louis in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller, the first blockbuster trade of the winter. As right fielder Nick Markakis remains unsigned and available, it’s interesting to note that the 31-year-old spent much of his life growing up in Georgia and the Braves now appear to have an opening in the outfield depending on what they do with some other position players.

To be clear, there haven’t been any tangible indications that Atlanta would pursue the 2014 Gold Glove winner as it’s still expected that the Orioles and Markakis will get a deal done.

The news of Miami inking young slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract doesn’t appear to have any direct impact on the Orioles, but it does compel some to again bring up the possibility of signing 22-year-old third baseman Manny Machado to a long-term contract.

Machado is certainly the kind of talent that you’d like to keep as long as possible, but the Orioles need to make sure he is fully healthy in 2015 after having both knees surgically repaired in less than a year’s time. Until he makes it through a full season — which his rehab schedule indicates he’ll have a good chance to do — the organization should be holding off on any talk of a lucrative deal.

The 2010 first-round pick isn’t scheduled to become a free agent until after the 2018 season.

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Duquette noncommittal on plans for free agent Cruz

Posted on 17 October 2014 by Luke Jones

At a quiet Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was asked to not only reflect on the Orioles’ 96-win season that resulted in their first division title in 17 years but also how he planned to attack the offseason in hopes of returning to the playoffs for the third time in four years in 2015.

One of the most prominent items to address will be the pending free agency of slugger Nelson Cruz, who was voted the club’s most valuable player after signing a one-year, $8 million contract last spring. Though several teams are expected to be interesting in his services should he hit the free-agent market, the Orioles are expected to at least make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Cruz, which would mean they’d receive a draft pick if he’d sign elsewhere.

Asked about his plans for Cruz in the coming weeks, the Orioles executive was noncommittal.

“The important thing for our fans to know is that we’ve increased our payroll over the last couple years,” Duquette said. “I expect we have the foundation for an additional increase, and however we invest that, we’re going to give them the most competitive and compelling and entertaining team we can to support.”

With the sheer number of young players in line to receive raises through arbitration, an increase in payroll was all but guaranteed, but what does that mean for Cruz? After hitting a career-high 40 home runs in his first season with the Orioles, the slugger has expressed several times that he’d like to remain in Baltimore if possible.

The Orioles have engaged in some preliminary contract talks with Cruz’s representation since the All-Star break, but the 34-year-old recently changed agents and is now represented by Diego Bentz of Relativity Sports, according to a FOX Sports report from earlier in the month.

“It’s good to know that Nelson likes it here,” Duquette said. “I can tell just by watching him, he’s the leader of the ball club, and the young players look up to him, especially the young Latin players. He’s an excellent leader, he’s a very good role model, he led the league in home runs, and he had a great year. I really appreciate the veteran leadership that he gave the team.

“Having said that, he came here to have a platform year to get himself reestablished so he could get a long-term deal, and that’s something that we’ll have to consider.”

While Cruz is expected to garner plenty of attention, trying to assess the market for right fielder Nick Markakis will be more complicated as the Orioles are not expected to pick up the $17.5 million mutual option on his contract. The option includes a $2 million buyout should the club not use it.

Markakis has been one of the more productive players in franchise history, but his on-base plus slugging percentage was only .685 in 2013 and only .729 this season, which aren’t eye-popping numbers for a corner outfielder who lacks speed. A cornerstone of the organization for nearly a decade, Markakis is adored by manager Buck Showalter and ownership and has made his home in Maryland, making it likely the sides will eventually agree on a reasonable extension.

Duquette said it was “always a possibility” that the Orioles would negotiate a long-term contract with Markakis, who will turn 31 next month, during the World Series.

The Orioles are less optimistic that they’ll be able to retain the services of left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, who only made himself look more attractive to potential suitors by pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason. The 6-foot-7 southpaw is expected to be courted as a closer and receive lucrative money from another team this offseason.

“There’s a lot of interest in Andrew Miller,” Duquette said. “We knew that when we traded for him. He pitched well for us. Good for us that we had him because I think he was the difference in the Tigers series that allowed us to advance. Obviously, we like Andrew and we like to have pitchers of that ilk on our ball club.”

NOTES: Even though Chris Davis has one game remaining on the 25-game suspension he received for amphetamine use, the first baseman will be allowed to be a full participant during spring training and in Grapefruit League games. According to Showalter, the Orioles will benefit from not having to keep Davis on the 40-man roster during the winter, which is an advantage for an organization that manipulates its roster as much as any team in the majors. … Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Sarasota on Feb. 18 with the first day of workouts the following morning. Position players will participate in their first official workout on Feb. 24. … Asked his thoughts on the remainder of the postseason, Showalter offered a reply that many Orioles fans can appreciate as well as relate to. “Watching it makes me ill. I’m not one of those guys that likes watching other people do what we wanted to do.”

 

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Future’s uncertainty always most painful as Orioles bow out of postseason

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Luke Jones

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A sweep was a bitter way for a season to end after the Orioles won 96 games to secure their first American League East title in 17 years.

Overcoming season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado as well as enduring the 25-game suspension and poor performance of slugger Chris Davis, the Orioles arguably had their most rewarding year since their last World Series title in 1983. But that magic and mojo finally expired against the Kansas City Royals, who didn’t embarrass Baltimore but was just a little bit better across the board as they won their first AL pennant since 1985.

Even if 2014 ultimately proves to be the Royals’ year — and an 8-0 postseason mark certainly suggests it is — the end still hurts.

“There’s a lot of positive things there. But it’s kind of shallow,” manager Buck Showalter said. “There’s so many things that during the year, it’s just an unspoken word, a look at each other, there’s a real respect for each other. And like I just told them, the game’s not always fair. Someone’s going to be extremely disappointed.”

The Orioles have quite a juxtaposition of half-full and half-empty outlooks as they conclude 2014, but the uncertainty of navigating another offseason and another 162-game marathon to try to get back to this same point next year — with a different outcome, of course — always makes you wonder if they’ll make it back. The AL East doesn’t figure to feature underwhelming versions of both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox for a second straight year, so that alone forces you to take pregnant pause.

Even as disappointment wanes and fans begin to reflect on the Orioles’ third straight winning season and first division title since 1997, expectations have only soared for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, Showalter, and the current club. But as is the case with any offseason, some change will be inevitable.

“You know, [2012] was unexpected, in ’13 we had expectations, and here we were doing something that hasn’t been done in a long time,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “I think expectations have risen a little bit in Baltimore and that’s good. I don’t mind expectations being risen, because I’m going to come back to spring training ready to get back to this position. It’s a great position to be in the ALCS.”

With those heightened expectations in mind, how do the Orioles improve for next season? As always, the quest will continue to improve their pitching depth while hoping 23-year-old Kevin Gausman takes another step forward, but do Duquette and Showalter tinker dramatically with an offense that relied too much on the home run?

The addition of some speed would benefit, but the Orioles also expect to have Wieters, Machado, and Davis back in the picture, which should provide significant overall improvement to the offense. But the lineup could look different without Nelson Cruz anchoring the cleanup spot.

After signing a one-year, $8 million deal during spring training to come to Baltimore, Cruz will be seeking a long-term deal for lucrative money, but he is 34 years old and coming off a career season in which he hit 40 homers. As we saw with Davis’ disastrous 2014 campaign a year after he hit a franchise-record 53 home runs, you don’t want to make a snap reaction based on a career season and set your price based on that.

Cruz acknowledged he may have played his last game with the Orioles after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss in Kansas City.

“It’s there, but I want to come back,” Cruz said. “We’ll just wait and see what happens. I love the clubhouse. I love all my teammates. The whole organization is great — even the guys you don’t see every day. I appreciate that.”

The Orioles also face difficult decisions with right fielder Nick Markakis and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, who will also become free agents. Miller was the club’s best pitcher in the postseason, but he is expected to receive an enormous amount of attention on the open market and could be paid lucratively to become a closer elsewhere.

Though they were able to re-sign shortstop J.J. Hardy to a contract extension last week, the Orioles know that Wieters and Davis will be free agents after 2015. Duquette was more aggressive this year than he was over his first two offseasons running the club as he signed Cruz and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, so will we see the Orioles once again be bold to set up for another run next season or take a more conservative approach even though they face the loss of two more key players next winter?

It’s tough to say as even the career-long Oriole Markakis doesn’t know for sure if he’ll be back or if the organization will elect to go in a different direction as his power has declined over the last few seasons.

“I don’t know; you never know,” Markakis said. “Baseball is a funny game and anything can happen. Take some time off and see where that ball goes.”

It’s that unknown that makes Wednesday’s loss and the abrupt end of a terrific season that much more frustrating.

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Late innings suddenly not so comfortable for Orioles

Posted on 11 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Amidst changing faces and three different closers over the last three seasons, Darren O’Day has remained the backbone of the Orioles bullpen.

We saw it firsthand against the Kansas City Royals in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series as he inherited a disastrous situation created by closer Zach Britton in the ninth inning and induced a 6-4-3 double play from designated hitter Billy Butler to escape a bases-loaded jam and keep the Orioles tied 5-5.

But the right-hander’s fortunes changed in the top of the 10th as Alex Gordon led off with a tie-breaking homer to help send Kansas City to an 8-6 win on Friday night. In isolation, the Orioles could chalk it up as a rare mistake for the submarine pitcher who posted a 1.70 ERA in the regular season, but Gordon’s blast continued a disturbing trend that began right around Labor Day.

After allowing only three home runs in the first five months of the season, O’Day has now surrendered five long balls since Sept. 2, with four of them against left-handed hitters. Batters from that side of the plate hit only .189 against him in the regular season, but O’Day’s recent difficulty against left-handed bats suddenly makes the Orioles’ back-end trio of Britton, O’Day, and Andrew Miller appear mortal. And it spells trouble against a lineup featuring Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas.

“Highs and lows of playoff baseball,” O’Day said. “I came in the inning before and got out of a situation you don’t expect to get out of and, as easy as that, just like I’m throwing batting practice, I gave up a home run. I take great pride in being able to get left-handers [out]. Lately, I haven’t been. Forget getting them out. You have to keep guys in the yard, left- or right-handed.”

Of course, O’Day wasn’t the only factor in explaining why the Orioles lost their first game of the postseason Friday as starter Chris Tillman struggled, the offense squandered some golden opportunities, and the defense missed a chance to limit the damage in a four-run fourth. But in a series in which the Orioles face a bullpen as imposing as their own, O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed hitters could make for a trying series.

Since the acquisition of Miller, Baltimore has flourished while often creating a six-inning game for opponents with O’Day and the former Boston Red Sox lefty handling the seventh and the eighth before Britton would slam the door in the ninth. But it doesn’t take much for a bullpen to suddenly find itself in disarray.

As anyone in baseball will tell you, there’s nothing more volatile than relief pitching.

Just ask former Oriole Jim Johnson, who went from record-setting closer to unemployed in less than two years. He’s still trying to fully pick up the pieces from his failures in the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees two years ago.

“They’re good hitters and they’re good pitchers, and sometimes it doesn’t work out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Those guys that all pitched tonight are the reason we’re sitting here playing a seven-game series for the American League championship. It will continue tomorrow.”

Showalter will continue to go with O’Day and Britton just as he should. As spectacular as Miller has been in the postseason — tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings — he can’t pitch multiple innings every night in a best-of-seven series.

Britton expressed confidence after the Game 1 loss that his wildness was an aberration, but Friday’s outing in which he threw only five strikes out of 20 total pitches did follow a shaky ninth-inning performance in Game 3 of the ALDS in which he allowed back-to-back doubles and needed a 5-4-3 double play to close out the series. You have to trust – and hope – his inability to throw strikes against the Royals in Game 1 was more a product of having not pitched in four days and not evidence of developing the yips on the second-biggest stage you’ll find in the majors.

The left-handed closer held up just fine pitching in the first two games of the ALDS, which earns him some benefit of the doubt.

But O’Day’s vulnerability against left-handed pitching has now lasted the better part of six weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this from the veteran as lefty hitters batted .309 with five home runs against him in 2013, but it does complicate the bullpen’s pecking order if he can’t be trusted in certain situations.

Lefty specialist Brian Matusz certainly didn’t inspire confidence later in the 10th by allowing a two-run homer to the lefty-hitting Moustakas, which ended up being the difference in the game after the Orioles staged their 10th-inning rally.

It could mean a few more high-leverage opportunities for the 23-year-old Kevin Gausman, but Showalter wants to use the right-hander to bridge the gap to the late innings if a starter runs into trouble as we saw with Tillman on Friday and Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2 of the Division Series last week.

To be clear, the Orioles shouldn’t panic after their series-opening defeat as 13 of 28 Game 1 losers have recovered to win the ALCS since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1985. Showalter will continue to ride the horses that got the Orioles to this point, and there’s a track record to suggest they’ll bounce back for the remainder of the series.

But with O’Day’s recent struggles against lefties and Britton’s alarming lack of control Friday night, the late innings suddenly aren’t as comfortable as they’ve been for most of the season.

And that will make you hold your breath even more when you’re just four victories away from advancing to the World Series — and now three losses from elimination.

“We will go get them [Saturday],” Britton said. “We have to win four, and it doesn’t matter what four you win so we’ll bounce back [Saturday]. We’ve done it before.”

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