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By not selling, Orioles continue course toward 2019 cliff

Posted on 31 July 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Monday’s trade deadline came and went with the Orioles taking no detour from their path toward that 2019 cliff.

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette offered few specifics about any potential deals that were on the table for two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton or 2016 All-Star setup man Brad Brach. He did allude to Britton’s market being depressed because of his two-month absence for a left forearm strain in the first half and referenced the lucrative returns that the New York Yankees received for relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman at last year’s deadline.

“He’s one of the top relievers in the American League,” Duquette said. “There’s a steep price paid for the relievers that were traded last year, and that really wasn’t the market this year.”

Make no mistake, the Orioles were smart to aim high and not trade Britton if they couldn’t find a fair offer, especially with him being under club control through next season. He wasn’t just a rental for a contending club, but you’d certainly hope they plan to deal the talented — and increasingly expensive — closer this winter and not wait until a year from now when his hypothetical value would be considerably lower.

Keeping the likes of Britton, Brach, and third baseman Manny Machado for now isn’t necessarily the end of the world that many are making it out to be, but the Orioles remain on that ominous path when those three as well as veteran center fielder Adam Jones become free agents at the end of next season. You can’t help but feel that the longer they wait to deal such valuable pieces, the longer it will be until their next competitive window opens.

And just because the Orioles can still trade any of those individuals at some point over the next year doesn’t mean they will, which is an even scarier proposition.

Duquette talked at length about the organization not giving up on 2017, a notion that left many rolling their eyes as Baltimore entered Monday tied for the fifth-worst record in the American League. The acquisitions of veteran starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson — who’s only under contract through the end of the season — and 27-year-old infielder Tim Beckham are hardly the moves of a club that considers itself a serious contender.

At least Beckham, the first overall pick of the 2008 draft, is under control through the 2020 season and has developed into a useful major league piece after years of underwhelming results. The Hellickson deal reeks of pointlessness as even he admitted surprise when the fourth-place Orioles acquired him from Philadelphia late Friday night.

No, Duquette didn’t trade away the organization’s high-end minor-league pieces for a long-shot chance at a playoff berth, but middling activity such as these two deals once again left us wondering about the Orioles’ overall direction. Beckham could be the club’s starting shortstop for the next few years, but he’s not someone you’d point to as a difference maker, either.

“I still like this team. I like this team for this year; I like this team for next year,” said Duquette, whose contract expires at the end of next season. “You’ve seen fits and spurts of this team playing very, very good baseball. The consistency will come when we get a consistent, stable rotation.”

Duquette chuckled when asked how his and manager Buck Showalter’s contract status as well as the age of owner Peter Angelos — who turned 88 on July 4 — might impact the club’s overall plans, but those uncertain futures are even more problematic than what to do with the likes of Machado and Britton. It makes little sense to have a lame-duck general manager begin a rebuilding process, and he has little incentive to want to start such an arduous task without assurance of being able to see it through.

Angelos should have already decided what the future holds for Duquette and shouldn’t continue with him in charge if he isn’t going to be the architect after next season.

Instead, it appears to be all about the present, whether not selling at the deadline or continuing to move international signing bonus slots.

Are the Orioles committed to keeping the band together for a final run in 2018? If so, they’ll need to do a ton of heavy lifting to revive a starting rotation that’s been an utter disaster this season, and a veteran like Hellickson isn’t going to cut it. While they’re at it, the offense hasn’t been very good in 2017, either.

Will the Orioles start showing any regard for what happens beyond 2018 or stubbornly continue marching forward with a club that doesn’t appear to be good enough anymore?

Important questions, but no clear direction in sight.

Other than that cliff ahead.

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Report: Angelos gives Duquette approval to shop certain Orioles

Posted on 18 July 2017 by Luke Jones

The Orioles are apparently open for business with the non-waiver trade deadline less than two weeks away.

According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, owner Peter Angelos has given his approval to executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to pursue trades for Baltimore’s top bullpen arms as well as veteran outfielder Seth Smith. That list of relievers includes former All-Star selections Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach.

The Orioles are not entertaining offers for three-time All-Star third baseman Manny Machado or five-time All-Star center fielder Adam Jones at this time.

Of the aforementioned names now on the trading block, Britton would provide the most value as long as he continues to show no lingering effects from the left forearm strain that cost him more than two months of action. Under club control through next season, the 2016 American League Reliever of the Year winner has allowed two earned runs and six hits in five innings of work since being activated from the disabled list on July 5.

Brach would also figure to bring a good return as he is making just $3.05 million in 2017 and will not hit free agency until after next season. He has done an adequate job filling in for Britton in the closer role this season, collecting a career-high 16 saves in 20 chances.

O’Day’s value would be more questionable as he is only in the second season of a four-year, $31 million contract signed two winters ago. The 34-year-old has dealt with right shoulder issues over the last calendar year and is still owed $9 million in both the 2018 and 2019 campaigns.

Smith will become a free agent at the end of this season and wouldn’t figure to fetch much more than a marginal piece in a trade. The Orioles would also be looking to move outfielder Hyun Soo Kim and catcher Welington Castillo, who both can become free agents at the end of 2017.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 3-1 win over Toronto

Posted on 27 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their third straight game in a 3-1 final over the Toronto Blue Jays, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles jumped ahead early with Mark Trumbo’s two-run double with two outs in the first, but Adam Jones drawing a walk after falling behind 0-2 was the biggest at-bat of the inning. It was an impressive way to finish an eight-pitch battle with Joe Biagini.

2. Kevin Gausman showed good fastball command low in the strike zone as he pitched 5 1/3 innings to collect his first victory since May 31. You’d like to see him get deeper into the game, but he was able to build on encouraging signs from his last outing.

3. His command was shaky early in the game, but double plays in the first and second innings went a long way in allowing Gausman to settle down. He retired eight in a row after the twin killing in the second.

4. Toronto made some loud contact in the fourth, but Gausman dotted a 3-2 fastball at the bottom of the zone to strike out Josh Donaldson looking. That was one of his best pitches of the night.

5. Despite the Blue Jays featuring seven right-handed bats in their starting lineup, Gausman continued to use his split-changeup as his go-to secondary pitch and didn’t throw a single slider, according to Statcast. That’s an interesting development.

6. Thanks to the off-day, Buck Showalter was able to deploy his bullpen earlier than normal as Gausman was pulled after 99 pitches with a one-out jam in the sixth. That’s the kind of bullpen chain the Orioles have too frequently lacked over Zach Britton’s absence.

7. Mychal Givens was wild in the sixth, but he got Kendrys Morales to expand the zone for a strikeout to leave the bases loaded and then calmed down to toss a perfect seventh. His ability to pitch more than one inning as been huge all season for an undermanned bullpen.

8. The last seven weeks of Orioles baseball haven’t been easy, but watching Jonathan Schoop continue to grow as an offensive force has been fun. His two-out hits in the first and third started both of Baltimore’s scoring rallies on Tuesday.

9. I’ll never grow tired of watching encounters between Darren O’Day and Jose Bautista. The veteran reliever came out on top this time and has looked sharp in three scoreless innings since returning from the disabled list Friday night.

10. Brad Brach allowed a two-out home run to Troy Tulowitzki in the ninth, the first run he’d allowed since May 16. Other than his struggles from late April through early May, he’s done a commendable job filling in for Britton.

11. Hyun Soo Kim drew two walks, but he’s only 7-for-31 without an extra-base hit since the Chris Davis injury more than two weeks ago that led to more playing time for the left fielder. His season on-base plus slugging percentage is just .620.

12. The Orioles were one strike away from pitching a shutout four days after tying the major league record for allowing five or more runs in their 20th consecutive game. Baseball’s funny.

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Which Oriole(s?) should receive 2017 All-Star Game nod?

Posted on 27 June 2017 by Luke Jones

The Orioles haven’t been in this position in some time.

Having sent no fewer than three representatives to each of the last five All-Star Games, Baltimore has struggled to remain relevant in the American League with a number of past selections either injured or performing below career norms. No, the Orioles haven’t reverted all the way to a time when they once sent journeyman Ty Wigginton as their required All-Star selection in 2010, but identifying a clear-cut candidate to represent the club in Miami on July 11 is a complicated task.

The latest All-Star voting update showed no Orioles even ranking in the top three at their respective positions — Welington Castillo ranks fourth among AL catchers and Manny Machado fifth among AL third basemen — making it clear that no player from Buck Showalter’s club will be elected as a starter. The All-Star voting concludes Thursday with the teams announced on Sunday night.

Below is a look at the Orioles’ most appealing All-Star candidates:

Who will be the Orioles' 2017 All-Star selection?

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2B Jonathan Schoop
The case for: The 25-year-old is on pace to set new career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles, walks, and runs batted in. Entering Tuesday, Schoop ranks fourth in the AL in doubles and also leads the Orioles in hits, homers, RBIs, and total bases.
The case against: The AL is stacked at second base with MVP candidate Jose Altuve as well as former All-Star picks such as Robinson Cano, Starlin Castro, and Dustin Pedroia having reputations working in their favor. Schoops’s defense drops him to third in wins above replacement among AL second basemen.
Outlook: Even a couple weeks ago, I didn’t like Schoop’s chances in such a crowded position group, but Altuve is the only clear choice ahead of him and the Orioles need a rep, giving him a pretty good chance.

OF/1B Trey Mancini
The case for: If it weren’t for Aaron Judge, Mancini would be receiving plenty of Rookie of the Year hype as he leads the Orioles in batting average, OBP, and slugging and ranks in the top seven among AL hitters with at least 220 plate appearances in average, slugging, and on-base plus slugging percentage.
The case against: It’s difficult for most rookies to receive All-Star acclaim and it doesn’t help that Mancini has split time at first base and in the outfield as well as at designated hitter. He ranks just 15th in WAR among AL outfielders and, like Schoop, is competing with a deep talent pool in the outfield.
Outlook: AL manager Terry Francona could view Mancini as a bit of a wild card capable of playing more than one spot, but his chances appear totally dependent on whether Schoop gets the club’s bid.

RP Brad Brach
The case for: Look no further than the closer spot over the years for any so-so club needing an All-Star representative, and Brach ranks a respectable sixth in the AL in saves. He hasn’t come close to duplicating his amazing 2016 first half, but last year’s All-Star nod likely helps keep him on the radar.
The case against: Being 13-for-16 in save opportunities and a 2.43 ERA are numbers that hardly stand out when trying to put together an All-Star bullpen. Brach filling in as Baltimore’s closer may even hurt his case if we continue seeing more of a recent emphasis on taking a dominant setup man or two.
Outlook: Other than a rough patch from late April through mid-May, Brach has been very good with a club-best 0.87 walks and hits per inning pitched and has some history on his side to help his cause.

SP Dylan Bundy
The case for: Being Baltimore’s best starting pitcher is hardly a high bar, but Bundy is tied for second in the AL in quality starts and tied for fifth in innings, a surprising feat for a 24-year-old in his first full season as a starter. According to Baseball Reference, his value of 2.2 WAR leads all Orioles players.
The case against: Bundy’s 5.93 ERA in June has dropped him to 12th in the AL in that category among qualified pitchers. His 4.76 fielding independent pitching mark also reflects his underwhelming strikeout and home run rates compared to many of the top starting pitchers in the league.
Outlook: The right-hander looked like Baltimore’s most promising choice a month ago, but recent struggles and the Orioles’ desire to back off his workload around the break hurt his chances.

3B Manny Machado
The case for: The 24-year-old is a great case study in the debate over whether the All-Star Game should be a true showcase of the game’s brightest stars or a mere reward for having three good months. Machado’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked as he’s played third base better than anyone in the AL.
The case against: Entering Tuesday with a .228 average and a .299 OBP doesn’t help his cause while other third basemen such as Jose Ramirez and Miguel Sano have been far superior at the plate. His OPS ranks ninth among qualified AL third basemen, showing the overall quality of the position offensively.
Outlook: Little about his 2017 profile says he’s deserving, but he’s a Miami native and still celebrated as one of the game’s greatest stars, meaning I wouldn’t rule out his inclusion entirely.

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Saturday’s loss illustrates problem keeping Jimenez in Orioles bullpen

Posted on 04 June 2017 by Luke Jones

Orioles manager Buck Showalter was criticized as soon as Ubaldo Jimenez jogged in from the bullpen to pitch the top of the eighth inning on Saturday night.

Trailing only 2-1 to the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles still had a decent chance, prompting many fans to see red even before Jimenez gave up two runs to make it a three-run deficit entering the bottom of the eighth. The harsh reaction was fair with the struggling veteran now sporting a horrendous 6.89 ERA, but it illustrates how problematic stashing him in the bullpen is for a club currently without its All-Star closer or a starting rotation consistently pitching deep into games.

Asked why he used Jimenez in a one-run game, Showalter said right-handers Mike Wright and Mychal Givens were unavailable because of their recent workload and that he wasn’t going to use top relievers Brad Brach or Darren O’Day unless the Orioles had a lead. That left Jimenez and Donnie Hart as his only options to begin the eighth after Richard Bleier had already pitched two scoreless innings.

You may disagree with the philosophy of taking O’Day and Brach out of the equation there, but Showalter shying away from using his top relievers when the Orioles have trailed late in a game is hardly a new development. Especially with Zach Britton on the disabled list, the Baltimore skipper is trying to keep his best relievers fresh for the most winnable games, which will lead to some instances such as Saturday’s when he won’t use his best bullets despite facing only a small deficit. It looks strange when it happens and draws plenty of detractors, but there’s a method to his madness that’s worked extremely well for a long time with last year’s wild-card game being the ugly exception.

Yes, Showalter could have used Hart to begin the eighth, but the lefty specialist hasn’t been pitching well, either, and was only recently recalled from Triple-A Norfolk after being demoted last month for ineffectiveness. We don’t know how Hart might have fared against the top of the Boston order in the eighth, but he gave up a run in the following inning to make it a four-run deficit.

There was also the reality of Craig Kimbrel and his 0.75 ERA looming and the Orioles offense having, at most, three outs to work with before the Boston closer would be summoned. Showalter probably would have considered using O’Day — who briefly warmed up in the bullpen after Manny Machado homered to lead off the bottom of the seventh to make it 2-1 — had he known Kimbrel would give up his first two hits of the season against right-handed batters and allow a run for the first time since April 20. Managers don’t have the benefit of a crystal ball when making those decisions, however, and using your best relievers when you’re already losing and will be facing a terrific closer isn’t a great bet and will likely harm you more than help you in the long run.

Critics will say that’s waving the white flag, but you just can’t play every day of a 162-game schedule like it’s the seventh game of the World Series if you want to keep your bullpen healthy and effective.

I won’t argue if you want to blame Showalter for Saturday’s loss, but the real problem is having Jimenez in the bullpen and not having any trust that he can pitch in a semi-meaningful situation from time to time. In today’s game with such heavy bullpen use, few clubs are equipped to carry a long reliever who can neither be optioned to the minors nor be trusted to keep his team close when trailing by a run or two when other pitchers need a break. If Jimenez is relegated solely to mop-up duty, the Orioles will essentially be limiting themselves to a six-man bullpen most nights, and we already saw how that turned out earlier this season.

Asked last month about the possibility of Jimenez moving to a relief role before he was subsequently removed from the starting rotation in favor of Alec Asher, Showalter posed the question of whether that would be good for the Orioles bullpen.

We got our answer Saturday night.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 3-2 win over Boston

Posted on 03 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their third straight game in a 3-2 victory over Boston, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Alec Asher bounced back from his last start in a major way, registering his second quality start against the Red Sox and validating Buck Showalter’s decision to give him the ball again despite a disastrous showing in Houston.

2. After setting a major league record for home runs in June last year, the Orioles have hit six long balls in the first two days of the new month with two in the first inning Friday. Giving Asher an early lead was critical after his last outing.

3. Manny Machado becoming the first hitter to reach the second deck at Camden Yards since Mark Reynolds in 2011 was an amazing feat, but I was impressed with him admitting that the mammoth blast messed up his approach for his remaining at-bats Friday. He’s slowly getting himself straightened out.

4. Asher didn’t pitch out of the stretch until the sixth inning. It’s easy to see that the Boston lineup isn’t firing on all cylinders right now, but that’s quite an accomplishment for a pitcher who began the season in the minors.

5. His stuff doesn’t scare anyone, but Asher effectively commanded his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, throwing those two pitches 68 percent of the time and inducing plenty of weak contact throughout the night.

6. Hyun Soo Kim delivered the eventual game-winning RBI double in the fourth inning on an 0-2 pitch from Rick Porcello. The emergence of Trey Mancini has understandably diminished Kim’s role, but I’d still like to see his name in the lineup more frequently.

7. The Orioles missed a golden opportunity to add to their lead in the sixth inning when they had runners at the corners with one out. You’d really like to squeeze across one run there in a close game.

8. Despite Asher throwing more pitches in an outing than he had in a month, I didn’t have a problem with him starting the seventh. Showalter was wise to pull him when he did, however, and admitted after the game that he let him go a little longer than he intended.

9. Caleb Joseph throwing out Jackie Bradley Jr. attempting to steal to end the seventh inning was a big play, especially when you consider that the Boston center fielder had been caught stealing only two other times in his major league career.

10. There was much angst about Darren O’Day at the beginning of the season, but he’s now struck out 20 batters over his last 11 innings of work dating back to May 5. I’d say he’s put the rough start behind him.

11. Brad Brach has now converted all three of his save opportunities and has pitched five scoreless frames since his blown save at Detroit on May 16. Regardless of what happens with Zach Britton in the coming weeks, that’s an encouraging development.

12. Many were ready to give up on the Orioles just five days ago after they had lost 13 of 16 games, but they improved to a superb 21-11 against the American League East on Friday. Some home cooking and familiar opponents were just what they needed apparently.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 3-2 win over Yankees

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles snapping their seven-game losing streak to beat the New York Yankees in a 3-2 final on Memorial Day, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Dylan Bundy was the stopper, which is exactly what the club needed after dropping 13 of the previous 16 games. The 24-year-old registered his 10th quality start in 11 outings this season and did it against one of the best offenses in baseball. Where would the Orioles be without him?

2. The results over seven innings were paramount, but Bundy showed some of his best fastball velocity of the season, sitting comfortably around 93 mph over his final five innings and touching 95. For what it’s worth, this was about the point last year when his velocity began climbing.

3. Perhaps that velocity was the reason why Bundy relied so much on his fastball, throwing his four-seamer and two-seamer a combined 53 times against the powerful Yankees. We hear it over and over, but fastball command makes pitching so much easier and allows you to stay in attack mode.

4. Pitch efficiency allowed Bundy to complete seven innings for the fifth time this season as he had thrown only 72 pitches through six frames. A lengthy seventh prevented him from setting a new career-long outing, but he did quite a job staying out of trouble.

5. Jonathan Schoop delivered the key two-run double in the third after the Orioles had squandered some other opportunities early in the game. The second baseman added a nifty double play in the sixth inning with Bundy facing the heart of the New York order for the third time.

6. Bundy appeared to have struck him out on a questionable check-swing call earlier in the at-bat, but Aaron Judge showed off his monster power with a 429-foot home run to the bleachers on a 3-2 pitch in the seventh. He’s impressive to watch.

7. The Orioles made Jordan Montgomery throw a whopping 56 pitches over the first two innings, but they managed only one run. Give them credit for battling the lefty, but that’s the kind of result occurring far too often lately.

8. Buck Showalter would gladly take a young pitcher like Montgomery in his rotation, but his 100 pitches over 4 1/3 innings on Monday would fit right in with what we’ve been seeing in Baltimore. That’s not fun to watch.

9. The Orioles defense was trying to do too much early as Mark Trumbo cut in front of Joey Rickard on a fly ball — allowing Starlin Castro to advance to second — and Chris Davis deflected a Didi Gregorius grounder going right to Schoop. Those plays cost Bundy a run.

10. Darren O’Day is quietly looking like his old self again as he registered his fourth straight 1-2-3 inning and sixth consecutive scoreless appearance. He’s missing bats again, which the Orioles really needed.

11. That was as good as Brad Brach has looked all season as he struck out Judge and Gregorius to end the game. It isn’t coincidental that he and O’Day look much better when not having to pitch five times per week. Of course, the Orioles need to find middle ground.

12. Manny Machado struck out to lead off the bottom of the third and slammed his bat down at home plate, leaving the bat boy to go fetch it in the middle of an inning. His .216 average is concerning enough, but that wasn’t a good look at all.

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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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Orioles offense not making life easier for undermanned bullpen

Posted on 13 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We knew life wouldn’t be easy for the Orioles bullpen with two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton back on the disabled list.

But the sight of recently-recalled long reliever Vidal Nuno pitching in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game in Kansas City on Friday — the night after a rainout, no less — was jarring, and the result was predictable as he allowed the go-ahead run to score. The immediate reaction was to criticize the Orioles’ insistence on carrying a five-man bench in lieu of the seven-man bullpen that’s become standard in today’s game. The sentiment is more than fair when manager Buck Showalter regularly has just three or four relievers available on a given night with designs of keeping the bullpen healthy for the long haul.

Is the problem a lack of quantity or quality in the bullpen, however?

Sure, the Orioles could option Joey Rickard to the minor leagues, designate veteran Craig Gentry for assignment, or even look to trade the buried Hyun Soo Kim to open a roster spot for an additional bullpen arm. But does that merely open the door for another long reliever in the bullpen that Showalter can’t trust in close games or can the club find someone — at least in the mold of a Tommy Hunter or a Chaz Roe circa 2015 — that can be mostly trusted in the sixth, seventh, or occasionally the eighth inning? Perhaps that answer can become an Alec Asher or even a Norfolk reliever such as Stefan Crichton or Jimmy Yacabonis in the near future.

There’s another solution, however, that would help the Orioles as Britton continues to recover in Sarasota and Brad Brach and Darren O’Day try to regain their previous dominant forms of recent seasons.

The offense needs to pick it up.

The Orioles entered Saturday just 21st in the majors in runs scored per game (4.4) and have scored the fewest per game of the top 10 major league clubs in winning percentage. Known for the long ball, Baltimore ranks only 13th of 30 clubs in home runs so far in 2017.

They haven’t played an extraordinary number of one-run games –Baltimore does own a superb 8-3 record in that department — but the Orioles lead the majors with 21 save opportunities and just four of their 22 victories have come by more than three runs. In contrast, 11 of the New York Yankees’ 21 wins have been by a margin of four or more. In other words, the Orioles have needed to lean heavily on their best bullpen arms despite Britton now being absent for the better part of a month. Even when they’ve been successful in those tight games, there’s a price to pay for at least the next game or two after that.

Showalter wouldn’t have to worry about the availability of Brach or O’Day as frequently if his offense could provide more breathing room from time to time. Drop-off from the bullpen was inevitable with Britton on the shelf, but the Orioles lineup hasn’t really been at less than full strength beyond the current absence of catcher Welington Castillo, who has been more than adequately replaced by backup Caleb Joseph for the time being.

Now more than a fifth of the way through the season, the major league home run leaders from the last two years — Chris Davis (2015) and Mark Trumbo (2016) — entered Saturday with slugging percentages lower than Joseph’s and have hit a combined eight home runs. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has provided a timely hit or two, but his .534 on-base plus slugging percentage was the seventh worst among qualified major league hitters.

Is it more realistic to expect a collection of relievers on the Norfolk shuttle to start pitching like legitimate late-inning arms or to ask the offense to produce at a higher level to ease the relief burden? The Orioles will need some combination of both to continue playing at a high level in Britton’s absence, but the roster was built in the offseason with the vision of having an above-average offense that would hit a ton of homers.

Despite their overall success so far in 2017, the Orioles continue to wait for their lineup to fully awaken.

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Even by Orioles standards, superb start to 2017 tough to explain

Posted on 11 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We’ve been here before talking about the Orioles.

After another offseason in which the projection models and pundits didn’t like their chances in the American League East, the Orioles are off to their best start of the Buck Showalter era. Now a fifth of the way through the season, Baltimore entered Thursday on pace to win 108 games despite playing 24 of its first 27 games against division opponents and 21 contests against clubs currently above .500. It’s hardly been a cupcake schedule for the Orioles, who own a winning record on the road and the best home mark in the majors.

Veteran starting pitcher Chris Tillman and All-Star closer Zach Britton have missed most of the season with the latter not expected to return until the latter half of June at the earliest. Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman has a 6.63 ERA through his first eight starts. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis have a total of eight home runs and both have slugging percentages under .400 so far. Even Manny Machado is hitting just .227 despite leading the club in homers and RBIs.

Of course, the Orioles have had their share of surprises, too, with Dylan Bundy looking every bit the part of an ace over his first seven starts, Wade Miley overcoming a slew of walks to pitch to a 2.45 ERA, and Trey Mancini ranking second on the club in home runs, but how do you best explain a .667 winning percentage through the first 33 games?

The stock answer for most of their success since 2012 has been home runs and strong bullpen work, but even those assumed strengths have been only slightly above average through the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season.

The Orioles entered Thursday sixth in the AL in both home runs and bullpen ERA. The offense ranks seventh in the league in runs and eighth in on-base plus slugging percentage. The rotation has been better than expected without Tillman, but Baltimore still ranks just seventh of 15 AL clubs in starter ERA. It hasn’t been about elite defense, either, as the Orioles are tied for 12th in the AL in defensive runs saved.

In other words, everything about this club has been ordinary except its win-loss record, which is paramount and clearly nothing for which to apologize. An 8-2 record in one-run games and a plus-13 run differential reflect good fortune in amassing a 22-11 record, but the best way to describe the 2017 Orioles so far is to say they’ve been been really good at being opportunistic.

Their .303 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks second in the AL and their pitcher win probability added (WPA) leads the league, which are both indicators of “clutch” performance. The offense has been good when it’s absolutely needed to be while the pitching has been at its best in many high-leverage moments.

Even the most optimistic of fans would concede that the Orioles won’t continue winning two-thirds of their games, but such a strong start has given them some breathing room to tread water if we assume the young and surprising New York Yankees aren’t going to keep winning at their same impressive rate, either.

It’s reasonable to expect the likes of Trumbo, Davis, and Gausman to pick up their production while acknowledging the likelihood of regression for Bundy, Miley, and Mancini, but the bullpen has to be the biggest concern even before Wednesday’s meltdown in Washington. A healthy Britton was never going to be as dominant as he was in his historic 2016, but you just don’t replace the man who ranked second on last year’s club at 4.3 wins above replacement and led all major league pitchers in WPA by a wide margin. The 2016 AL Reliever of the Year made up for plenty of deficiencies last season that would have otherwise prevented the Orioles from qualifying for the postseason for the third time in five years.

Making matters more difficult for Showalter is the current five-man bench, which leaves the Orioles with just six arms in the bullpen on a given night. Yes, the organization has effectively used the Norfolk shuttle to receive some meaningful contributions in long relief, but you’d prefer having another reliable middle-to-late relief option to use in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning in a given night. It’s a lot to ask of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart to pick up the slack in Britton’s absence, and we’ve seen each struggle at times with Brach and his 10.29 ERA since April 28 most recently receiving the loudest criticism.

For now, the Orioles can feel good about their terrific start knowing they haven’t come close to firing on all cylinders yet. But if they’re going to continue to flourish, their old reliables must emerge sooner than later. The home runs need to start flying out of the ballpark more frequently and the bullpen must find a way to tighten up until Britton is hopefully ready to return early in the summer.

The latter is easier said than done, but if anyone can figure out the current relief puzzle, it’s Showalter. Once again, his club is showing to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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