Tag Archive | "Buck Showalter"

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Will Orioles’ fascination with Rule 5 draft finally pay off?

Posted on 29 March 2016 by Luke Jones

If there’s been one absolute with Dan Duquette’s first five offseasons with the Orioles, it’s that the executive vice president of baseball operations is fascinated with the Rule 5 draft.

The December event is used to prevent organizations from hoarding minor-league talent worthy of being on a major league roster, but contending clubs often sit out the proceedings, not wanting to hamstring their 25-man rosters by attempting to carry an inexperienced player for a full season. That obstacle hasn’t stopped the Orioles from coming away with at least one player each winter and successfully keeping a Rule 5 pick in the organization in three of the last four seasons. In 2014, they didn’t carry infielder Michael Almanzar on the 25-man roster, but he was reacquired from Boston later that year.

It’s debatable whether the return has been worth the struggle of playing shorthanded at various times over the last few years while trying to contend. Utility infielder Ryan Flaherty (2012) and left-handed relief pitcher T.J. McFarland (2013) have been useful pieces at times, but you’d be hard pressed trying to argue that players of their ilk aren’t available at minimal cost every winter. The 23-year-old Jason Garcia will be in Double-A Bowie’s starting rotation to begin 2016, so it remains to be seen whether he was worth hiding in a bullpen that lacked flexibility for much of last season.

Will the latest Rule 5 pick, outfielder Joey Rickard, finally bring the kind of return for which the Orioles have been looking?

They certainly hope so as it appears the 24-year-old will not only make the club, but the former Tampa Bay farm product may even begin the season as the starting left fielder, a reflection of his strong spring and a byproduct of the struggles of newcomer Hyun Soo Kim. Entering Tuesday, Rickard was hitting .386 with a .462 on-base percentage and a 1.040 on-base plus slugging percentage in 65 plate appearances.

But are the Orioles jumping the gun on a small sample size?

Buck Showalter has praised Rickard’s abilities throughout the spring and the evaluation extends beyond Grapefruit League results, but the Baltimore manager is also fond of telling reporters how easily you can be fooled by player performance in March when opponents are often using minor leaguers with little chance of playing in the majors that season. Praised for the quality of its farm system for the better part of a decade, Tampa Bay was ranked only 13th in minor-league talent by Baseball America this winter, making you think the Rays could have made room for Rickard on their 40-man roster if they really wanted to.

Were the Rays — not to mention the 13 other clubs eligible to pick before the Orioles in December’s Rule 5 draft — missing something? What haven’t the Orioles discovered about the 2012 ninth-round pick that Tampa Bay might have already known?

Seeing time at high Single A, Double A, and Triple A in 2015, Rickard hit a combined .321 with a .427 on-base percentage and an .874 OPS. He batted .360 with a .909 OPS in his 29 games for Triple-A Durham, his best average of his stints at each level.

Walking 69 times and striking out just 75 times, Rickard also stole 23 bases and played good defense at all three outfield spots.

But the right-handed batter had just two home runs in 480 plate appearances last season. Of course, the Orioles are more intrigued with his ability to get on base and play good defense, but a lack of power can hinder walk totals at the major league level where pitchers aren’t going to be as afraid to challenge a hitter incapable of taking them deep.

It will be interesting to see how the Rickard experiment plays out. At worst, the Orioles hope he can be an upgrade from David Lough and back up Adam Jones in center, but they also had high hopes two years ago for Lough, who hit .310 with an .808 OPS in his first spring with the club before going on to post a .634 OPS over two seasons.

If we’re being honest, the Orioles deserve to be questioned after the 2015 corner-outfield committee failed miserably.

The organization would do cartwheels if Rickard could do what Delino DeShields, Jr. did as a Rule 5 pick for Texas last year when he posted a .718 OPS and 25 stolen bases and finished seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting, but he was once a distinguished prospect and a former first-round pick of the Houston Astros.

After putting much stock in the Rule 5 draft in the Duquette era, the Orioles hope they’ve finally found a gem who just might satisfy their needs in left field as well as in the leadoff spot.

It’s a lot to ask, but Rickard will at least be interesting to watch.

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Tillman starting Opening Day, Gausman starting 2016 on DL

Posted on 28 March 2016 by Luke Jones

For the third straight year, Chris Tillman will take the ball for the Orioles on Opening Day.

Manager Buck Showalter announced the news on Monday morning after confirming that starting pitcher Kevin Gausman will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

Tillman becomes the first Baltimore pitcher to start three consecutive season openers since Mike Mussina from 1998-2000. The 27-year-old went 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA in 31 starts last season and has struggled with a 9.31 ERA in 9 2/3 innings in the Grapefruit League, but no other projected Orioles starter has performed to a level seriously challenging Tillman for the honor.

As it stands, free-agent newcomer Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez are slotted to start the second and third contests of the three-game series against Minnesota to begin the season next week.

Gausman starting the season on the DL isn’t surprising considering he hasn’t pitched since March 16 and received a cortisone injection for his right shoulder on March 20. Showalter said the 25-year-old right-hander could still return as soon as April 10 when the Orioles would need a No. 5 starter for the first time, but it remains to be seen whether that’s a realistic goal. His stint on the DL will be backdated to March 25, the earliest it can be done for the regular season.

Entering his first full season as a starter after bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen over the last three years, Gausman is being counted on to take a big step forward to help the Orioles compete in 2016.

Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Vance Worley remain candidates for the rotation should Gausman not be able to return as soon as the club hopes. Veteran Miguel Gonzalez also remains on shaky rotation footing after a poor spring and has a minor-league option remaining, meaning his starting spot isn’t guaranteed.

The Orioles also announced that right-handed pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday. The 28-year-old is expected to be a member of the Tides rotation and posted a 6.75 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.

Baltimore has 41 players remaining in major league camp, including seven non-roster invitees.

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Final week of spring anything but smooth for Orioles

Posted on 28 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The final days of spring training are supposed to be used for determining the last couple roster spots and setting the starting rotation for the first few weeks of the regular season.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are doing that, but the process couldn’t look much rockier than it does right now.

The future of newcomer Hyun Soo Kim remains in flux as he was out of the starting lineup for the sixth time in the last seven Grapefruit League games on Monday. Chris Tillman was named the Opening Day starter on Monday, but that decision was made by default with none of the projected members of the rotation having even a decent spring. The Tillman news came shortly after Showalter confirmed that the talented Kevin Gausman would begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

Questions about the rotation were going to persist no matter how starters performed this spring, but the Kim situation is surprising after the Orioles lauded the South Korean product as a projected starter from the moment they signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal in December. Instead, he’s been outplayed by Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard and speculation persists about him being returned to the Korean Baseball Organization since the Orioles can’t option him to the minors without his permission. A similar situation played out last March with Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon requesting his release and the Orioles obliging.

Making the situation more bizarre is the fact that Kim’s benching has come with him going 8-for-21 since beginning the spring in an 0-for-23 slump, but he has yet to record an extra-base hit and has just one walk while playing underwhelming defense in left. Despite struggling to make hard contact, Kim has struck out only six times in his 44 at-bats, which isn’t an indication that he’s completely overwhelmed against big-league velocity and off-speed pitches.

But the red flags have been there since early in the spring with Kim not expressing much confidence when speaking to reporters through an interpreter and Showalter not providing many ringing endorsements over the last month. The Orioles really must not like what they see to potentially part ways with a player at a position where they have such little depth.

Whether the Orioles are giving up on Kim much too soon and are putting too much stock in Rickard’s tremendous spring or they simply signed a player who was poorly scouted and has since shown that he’s in over his head, the situation is not a good look for an organization that’s had other missteps in the Pacific Rim since the successful signing of Wei-Yin Chen four years ago.

No matter what happens with Kim, the corner-outfield situation will not doom the Orioles in 2016 in the same way that the starting pitching could. The projected rotation entering the spring — Tillman, Gausman, free-agent pickup Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Miguel Gonzalez — has posted an astronomical 11.51 ERA in 45 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.

The only member of the bunch with an ERA under 9.31 is Gausman (4.50), who hasn’t pitched since March 16 due to his shoulder ailment. Showalter said Monday that Gausman could still return as soon as April 10, the first time the Orioles would need a fifth starter, but it remains to be seen whether that’s realistic.

In the meantime, the performance of Mike Wright (5.74 spring ERA), Vance Worley (4.61), and Tyler Wilson (2.92) over these final spring games becomes more important to watch.

We know the spring may not mean anything — whether evaluating good or bad performances — but it really is staggering how poor the starting pitching has been statistically. The common refrain from starters is that they’re feeling good and still getting their work in despite the results, but you’d think there would have been a few more decent outings even by accident.

Fans would like a couple reasons for optimism at this point after the starting pitching was the biggest reason why the Orioles fell to 81-81 last year.

The good news is that the games don’t count until next Monday. The bad news is, well, that the games count starting next Monday, creating more scrutiny for the final turn through the rotation this week.

With Kim’s uncertain future and the starting rotation’s nightmare spring, the final week before the Orioles’ return to Baltimore is less than ideal.

But it will be interesting.

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Spring bringing little optimism from Orioles starting rotation

Posted on 23 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Hope springs eternal for the Orioles starting rotation.

Three former All-Star selections are projected members of this year’s rotation.

Three starters remain from the group that thrived in the second half of 2014 and contributed to the Orioles running away with the American League East title.

Baltimore may have lost its most consistent starting pitcher from the last four years — Wei-Yin Chen — but his replacement, Yovani Gallardo, sports a 3.66 career ERA.

Then you actually take a look at what’s transpired this spring and wonder how a club that increased its payroll to roughly $150 million can be living under such a black cloud with its starting pitching entering the 2016 season.

Miguel Gonzalez, one of the great stories of the Orioles’ resurgence beginning in 2012, has been nothing short of disastrous in the Grapefruit League after posting a 6.14 ERA in the second half last season. In 14 1/3 innings this spring, the 31-year-old has allowed 20 earned runs, 28 hits, six walks, and five home runs while striking out just four. Against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gonzalez continually missed up in the strike zone and threw fastballs sitting in the upper 80s as he allowed four earned runs, six hits, and two homers in 4 1/3 innings.

Strong track record or not, Gonzalez has struggled dramatically dating back to June of 2015 and should not be assured a spot in the rotation, but the alternatives are few and far between. Gonzalez will have a couple more starts to turn it around before the season begins, but it’s worth noting that he has a minor-league option remaining if his poor performance continues.

The talented Kevin Gausman is dealing with shoulder tendinitis for the second straight year and received a cortisone shot to alleviate the discomfort. Even if the ailment proves to be minor, this isn’t the start that the 25-year-old was looking for with the Orioles needing him to take a major step forward in his first full season as a starter.

Manager Buck Showalter has remained optimistic about Gausman’s availability at the start of the season, but the Orioles won’t know how practical that is until he begins throwing again later this week. Gausman avoiding the disabled list appears unlikely at this point.

Signed to a two-year, $22 million deal that was restructured after apparent concerns about his shoulder, Gallardo has allowed four homers in 4 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League and surrendered two runs, six hits, and three walks while striking out one in four innings of a Single-A game on Monday. A late start to the spring gives the 30-year-old the benefit of the doubt, but there was much discussion about his declining velocity and strikeout rate before the Orioles signed him in late February.

The next couple outings are important for him.

Slowed by a hip issue earlier this spring, Chris Tillman threw the ball well on Sunday despite mediocre results — three earned runs and two homers in four innings — but he also acknowledged during that MASN telecast that his hip still isn’t 100 percent. The Orioles need Tillman to pitch more like the guy he was from 2012-2014 and not the pitcher who posted a 4.99 ERA in 2015.

And then there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up six runs and retired just one batter in his spring debut on March 2. Fortunately, the enigmatic right-hander has allowed just two earned runs in 17 innings split between Grapefruit League and minor-league outings since then.

It speaks volumes about the current state of the rotation when Jimenez looks like the surest bet.

So, who else might the Orioles turn to, especially if Gausman isn’t ready to return when a fifth starter is needed on April 10?

Of a group that also includes Mike Wright (5.74 ERA), Vance Worley (5.56 ERA), and Odrisamer Despaigne (7.15 ERA), Tyler Wilson has stood out this spring as he’s posted a 2.89 ERA in 9 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old doesn’t blow you away with his stuff, but a strong 3.50 ERA in 36 major league innings last year showed that the stage wasn’t too big for him and he has yet to walk a batter this spring.

Wright’s spring ERA isn’t stellar, but his 15 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings at least keep him in the conversation.

Beyond those names, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette continues to look for reinforcements, whether it’s that elusive left-handed starter or another right-handed one who can simply get hitters out.

You never want to read too much into spring training performance — good or bad — but it’s getting late early for the starting rotation and there hasn’t been much evidence from Florida to discount the biggest concern about the 2016 Orioles. We know spring numbers don’t count in the long run, but you’d like to see a little more to be optimistic about at this late stage.

Who knows?

Maybe the pre-2015 light bulb goes back on for Gonzalez, Gausman’s shoulder isn’t an issue and he takes that big step forward, Tillman puts last year behind him, Gallardo proves to be one of the best signings of the offseason, and the good Jimenez surfaces for an entire season. Such a series of events would make us forget all about an ugly spring training and might even make the Orioles the favorites in the AL East.

Hope springs eternal this time of year, right?

As long as you don’t pay attention to anything that’s happened so far.

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Fourteen Orioles thoughts counting down to Opening Day

Posted on 21 March 2016 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just 14 days away, I’ve offered 14 Orioles-related thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Even if it proves to be minor, Kevin Gausman missing time due to shoulder tendinitis for the second straight year is concerning and once again makes you question the Orioles’ handling of their prized pitching prospect over the last few years.

2. J.J. Hardy hitting .370 and continuing to say his left shoulder feels good this spring are positive signs as the veteran shortstop attempts to rebound from the worst season of his career.

3. Speaking of Orioles middle infielders, Brian Roberts sounded like a natural as part of Sunday’s MASN telecast, and I look forward to hearing more from him this season. His in-game discussion with third base coach Bobby Dickerson about infield shifts was particularly enlightening.

4. Buck Showalter is the first to warn against being fooled by spring training, but it’s difficult not to be intrigued by Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard — and his .426 on-base percentage this spring — based on the Orioles manager’s positive comments about the 24-year-old outfielder.

5. I didn’t love the Pedro Alvarez signing because it shifted Mark Trumbo to right field, but you can’t help but think the slugger’s opposite-field power is going to land a few balls in the Orioles bullpen this summer. Camden Yards should be a good fit for the former Pittsburgh Pirate.

6. I’m interested to see how Dylan Bundy is used in the bullpen. Many have compared him to a Rule 5 pick, but you don’t have that finish line of being able to send him to the minors next year. Bundy needs to pitch if he’s going to realize his potential.

7. Hyun Soo Kim is 8-for-17 since his 0-for-23 start in the Grapefruit League, but he’s still looking for his first extra-base hit and has drawn only one walk after his on-base percentage was supposed to be a strength. The South Korean newcomer is looking better, but he’s still very much a work in progress.

8. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Series, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the Orioles adopt the uniform from that era as a Sunday throwback. At the very least, I hope we see that classic look make a cameo appearance at some point this season.

9. Dan Duquette has already said that Christian Walker would need more time at Triple-A Norfolk to learn the outfield, but showing an ability to play there would make the blocked first baseman an interesting possibility in Baltimore at some point this season.

10. The fact that Nolan Reimold is out of options helps his case in an underwhelming corner outfield competition, but the 32-year-old is just 6-for-34 and not making much of a statement this spring.

11. The poor performance of his starting pitchers this spring has probably forced Showalter to think more and more about the potential — and annoying — need to have an eight-man bullpen this season.

12. Despite the 2016 investment made in Matt Wieters and his current elbow issue, the catching position reverting to more of a timeshare with Caleb Joseph wouldn’t be the worst thing given the latter’s pitch-framing ability and defense that could help improve a rotation needing every edge it can get.

13. It’d be unfair to expect more than what Manny Machado offered as the club’s most valuable player in 2015 — with apologies to local media-voted Most Valuable Oriole Chris Davis — but it’s still fun to ponder whether the gifted 23-year-old has even reached his full potential as a player.

14. Already third on the franchise list in wins and games managed, Showalter is entering his seventh season in Baltimore and would be just 34 games shy of Paul Richards by the end of 2016. As the manager often says about others, the Orioles are very lucky he’s passed their way.

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Gonzalez’s struggles, Wieters’ elbow more concerning than spring record

Posted on 14 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The question is being asked over and over about the Orioles’ poor start in the Grapefruit League.

Are you concerned?

My short answer is no, at least as it relates to a 1-11-2 record entering Monday’s game against Philadelphia. A simple look at each box score illustrates how many outcomes have been impacted by many players who are unlikely to be real factors for the Orioles this year. If you need historical perspective to feel better, the 2012 Washington Nationals began spring training with an 0-10-1 record before winning 98 games in the regular season.

But dismissing the Orioles’ spring training record doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons to be concerned as Miguel Gonzalez was crushed for the second time in his first three starts on Sunday. The right-hander allowed six earned runs, seven hits, three walks, and a home run in 1 2/3 innings against Minnesota, elevating his spring ERA to 22.24 in three outings covering just 5 2/3 innings.

His nightmarish start has brought memories of Bud Norris last spring, but the ex-Oriole only had an 11.74 ERA through his first three spring starts in 2015, reinforcing how dramatic Gonzalez’s struggles have been. It also doesn’t help that his poor spring performance comes after he pitched to a 6.53 ERA over his final 14 starts of 2015 upon returning from the disabled list in late June.

It’s true that spring training is the time for pitchers to work on different parts of their craft with the goal of being ready for early April, but giving up 18 hits and 14 earned runs in less than six innings of work takes that notion to an absurd level. The veteran right-hander spoke about his mechanics being off against the Twins on Sunday, but even his best outing of the spring saw him giving up three hits, a walk, and a home run in 2 2/3 innings.

To be clear, Gonzalez deserves some benefit of the doubt after serving as one of the Orioles’ best starting pitchers from 2012-2014 and posting an ERA of 3.78 or better in each of those seasons. He even had a 3.33 ERA in his first 12 starts last year before going to the DL with a groin strain, making you wonder if poor health was the biggest reason for his struggles the rest of the way. Gonzalez also spent most of September on the DL after concerns rose about his shoulder and elbow.

Gonzalez will be 32 in late May and never had dominating stuff even when he was at his best, making you wonder if he’s going to get back to being the pitcher he was prior to last year. Manager Buck Showalter will certainly give him more opportunities to figure it out based on his track record, but those chances shouldn’t continue too long if progress isn’t being made over his next three or four starts.

Ubaldo Jimenez also had a horrendous spring debut (six earned runs in 1/3 inning), but he’s bounced back over his last two starts and has allowed just one run over his last 6 1/3 frames despite a spring ERA that still sits at 9.45. Gonzalez needs to start showing a similar progression.

Unlike last year when Norris was struggling, the Orioles don’t have a slam-dunk replacement for Gonzalez waiting in the wings like the talented Kevin Gausman, who is already part of the starting rotation in 2016. Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright would all figure to be in the mix to be the fifth starter, but those options don’t provide much hope that they could be what Gonzalez was for the Orioles prior to last year.

It’s only mid-March and Gonzalez still has time to figure it out, but his three spring starts become magnified after his final three months of 2015.

Wieters worry

The Orioles and Matt Wieters are trying to downplay the right elbow soreness that forced him out of Saturday’s game in the first inning, but you can’t help but be concerned until he’s back behind the plate.

Arm soreness at this time in the spring isn’t uncommon for pitchers, catchers, or other position players, but Wieters is just 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery and only caught on consecutive days a total of five times last season. It’s also worth noting that Wieters caught consecutive games for the first time in the spring last week, making you wonder if the issue was related to that.

Even if he returns in the next few days, you wonder if this is a sign that Wieters isn’t yet ready to be the guy he was prior to surgery when he would catch 135 games or more per year. Based on the limited number of major league catchers to have the procedure over the years and the unknown that remains, it’s possible that Wieters will never be that guy again.

It wouldn’t be the worst scenario for Wieters and Caleb Joseph to more evenly share the workload despite the $15.8 million salary the former is making in 2016 after he accepted the Orioles’ qualifying offer. In fact, you can make a sound argument that Joseph is the superior defensive option at this point, which could bring more value to a questionable starting rotation.

Either way, you hope that Wieters’ elbow issue isn’t anything serious with what he’s already endured over the last two years and what the Orioles are paying him in 2016.

Kim’s rough start

An 0-for-23 start isn’t what Hyun Soo Kim or the Orioles envisioned in his first spring training, but going 3-for-6 since then has eased some concerns for now.

Showalter didn’t sugarcoat his assessment of the South Korean outfielder’s performance last week, making you wonder if Kim will be the club’s starting left fielder on Opening Day as many anticipated. Of course, the Orioles are already facing the likelihood of playing Mark Trumbo in right field, so Kim’s slow start just creates more doubt in the corner outfield spots for the second straight year.

Perhaps the 2015 spring performance of South Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang provides some encouragement as he went 3-for-27 to begin his first spring with Pittsburgh before ultimately posting an impressive .816 on-base plus slugging percentage in the regular season. The quality of competition in the Korean Baseball Organization is generally viewed as similar to the Single-A or Double-A level of the minor leagues, making for a difficult adjustment to succeed in the majors.

That doesn’t mean that Kim is destined to figure it out, either, but you hope his last few games are a sign of better things to come for the 28-year-old.

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Wieters leaves Saturday’s game due to elbow soreness

Posted on 12 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles won their first game of the spring on Saturday, but with the victory came concerning news about their starting catcher.

Just 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Matt Wieters left the 8-1 win over Minnesota with what the club described as right elbow soreness. The 29-year-old felt discomfort attempting to throw out Eduardo Nunez trying to steal in the top of the first and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Sarasota that X-rays did not reveal any concerns, and Wieters will be reevaluated over the next couple days.

“Doctors examined him and everything, and we’ll see,” Showalter said. “I think everybody gets alarmed because of, rightfully so, with the surgery there. Hopefully, it’ll manage and be OK.”

For now, the Orioles remain hopeful that Wieters is merely experiencing soreness that many catchers do at this point in spring training. However, it’s worth noting that Wieters caught consecutive games for the first time this spring earlier in the week, and the three-time All-Star selection caught on consecutive days just five times last season after returning to action in early June.

Though he was set to become a free agent last November, Wieters accepted the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season.

Backup catcher Caleb Joseph was already scheduled to start on Sunday after missing a few days due to illness. He would serve as the starter should Wieters miss extensive action.

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Seven questions for Sarasota: 2016 Orioles spring training

Posted on 16 February 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s about that time.

Pitchers and catchers officially report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Thursday as the Orioles begin preparations for their 63rd season in Baltimore. With their arrival comes the annual optimism of spring training, but there are plenty of questions to be answered as the club tries to bounce back from its first non-winning season since 2011.

Below are seven questions that will begin to be answered in Sarasota this week:

1. Are any high-profile additions still on the way?

Having already invested more than $250 million this offseason, the Orioles don’t appear to be finished spending with multiple reports indicating they were moving closer to a deal with free-agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo last week. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette also remains interested in adding another bat with free agents Dexter Fowler and Pedro Alvarez as well as Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce all being mentioned as possibilities. Of course, any additions of this caliber would have a substantial impact on not only the club heading north to Baltimore in April but on the 40-man roster that the Orioles have manipulated as frequently as anyone in baseball over the last few seasons. Duquette hasn’t hesitated to make substantial moves with spring training already underway in the past, so we’ll see if the Orioles are willing to spend a little more than they already have.

2. Can the Orioles win with the current starting rotation?

Of course, the addition of Gallardo would figure to help — even if there are real questions about him moving forward — but the Orioles lost their most reliable starter in Wei-Yin Chen and finished 14th in the AL in starter ERA last year. We won’t know whether Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have recaptured their pre-2015 form until the season begins, but it would be encouraging to see both pitch well in Grapefruit League action. Meanwhile, Kevin Gausman enters the spring knowing he will be in the rotation after being bounced between starting and relief and Baltimore and Norfolk over the last three years. The Orioles need the 25-year-old to put it together for a full season. Then, there’s the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, who had a 2.81 ERA in the first half and a 5.63 mark after the All-Star break in 2015. If Gallardo isn’t signed, the fifth starter competition is less than encouraging for a club hoping to contend.

3. Just how good is Hyun Soo Kim?

The Orioles signed the Korean outfielder to a two-year, $7 million contract in December, an indication that they believe he can be a starting-caliber player in the major leagues. However, there haven’t been many players to come to the majors from the Korean Baseball Organization, a league many consider to be comparable to the Single- or Double-A level of the American minor leagues. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang was a big success story last season, but the Orioles hope Kim’s ability to get on base and to consistently hit line drives will translate into major league success. Early projections have compared him to Nick Markakis and Melky Cabrera, and the organization would be thrilled to get that kind of production from the 28-year-old. Kim handling a starting job would go a long way in quelling concerns about a corner outfield situation that was a nightmare in 2015 and is still a major concern.

4. How healthy is J.J. Hardy’s shoulder and back?

I discussed this situation in depth on Monday, but the Orioles must figure out a way to maximize whatever production the 33-year-old shortstop has left after the worst season of his career in 2015. Manager Buck Showalter is known for leaning hard on his veterans, but it may be time to take the foot off the gas in terms of expecting Hardy to play close to 162 games like in 2012 and 2013 when he missed a total of just seven games. It will be interesting to see if Manny Machado takes more reps at shortstop during the spring with thoughts of him playing games at his natural position when Hardy is out of the starting lineup like we saw last September. Of course, before any discussion or tinkering can take place, the Orioles need to see that Hardy’s left shoulder is healthy after he elected to forgo surgery on the torn labrum sustained late last spring. The health of his back is always something to monitor as well.

5. Will Dylan Bundy be ready to pitch in the big leagues?

The 2011 first-round pick made his major league debut as a 19-year-old more than three years ago and has pitched a total of 63 1/3 professional innings since then because of Tommy John surgery in 2013 and a shoulder problem last year. Bundy is only 23, but he’s out of minor-league options, meaning the Orioles must carry him on their 25-man roster if they don’t want to risk him having to clear waivers. Even if he is healthy — a question that will be of great interest this spring — the organization must try to marry his development with the reality of him occupying a spot in the bullpen. In a perfect world, Bundy would report to Sarasota healthy and gradually emerge as an effective middle reliever in a deep bullpen, but little has gone to plan with the prospect. His presence will resemble that of a Rule 5 pick, but there’s no finish line in sight as Bundy is now stuck in the majors unless he lands on the disabled list yet again.

6. How will Showalter handle the catcher situation?

The Orioles may not have expected Matt Wieters to accept the $15.8 million qualifying offer they made in November, but you would have to think Showalter intends to use the three-time All-Star selection as his primary catcher over Caleb Joseph. That being said, there are compelling arguments in favor of Joseph catching more and Wieters was just getting to a point in the final month of the season when he was able to catch on consecutive days, something he did only five times after returning in early June. Wieters said in December that he was happy to finally be finished with the rehabilitation process and to have a normal offseason, but he will still need to see how his elbow responds to a full spring training and full-time catching duty. The Orioles hope that Wieters stays healthy and lives up to his lofty salary, especially after Joseph showed the last two years that he was capable of being a solid starter for a fraction of the cost.

7. Who will be the biggest surprises of the spring?

Adding Gallardo and Fowler would shrink the number of open jobs, but there are a few players who could force the club’s hand in deciding who heads north in April. Outfielder Joey Rickard was considered one of the shrewder picks of the Rule 5 draft, and the Orioles are intrigued by the combined .427 on-base percentage the 24-year-old posted at the Single-, Double-, and Triple-A levels in Tampa Bay’s system in 2015. With at least one corner outfield job still open, could Dariel Alvarez or a returning L.J. Hoes have a spring strong enough to make the club and beat out veteran Nolan Reimold? And though the Chris Davis re-signing seemingly blocks Trey Mancini, could the 2015 Orioles minor league player of the year hit at such a high clip this spring that he forces the club to find a way to make room? Will someone off the radar do what Jimmy Paredes did last spring (a 1.005 on-base plus slugging percentage) to win a spot?

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Orioles should copy Mets’ plan for David Wright with one of own

Posted on 15 February 2016 by Luke Jones

Last spring, the question was whether shortstop J.J. Hardy would bounce back from a season in which he hit only nine home runs, by far his lowest total in four years with the Orioles.

A year later, the Orioles would gladly take his 2014 production — which still included a .268 average and a .682 on-base plus slugging percentage —  after the worst season of his 11-year career in the majors in 2015. Playing all year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and also dealing with back and groin issues, Hardy hit just .219 with eight homers, 37 RBIs, and an anemic .564 OPS.

The 33-year-old was a shell of the hitter who clubbed 25 homers and posted a .738 OPS just two years earlier as an All-Star Game starter and the AL Silver Slugger winner at shortstop.

With Hardy still owed $26.5 million over the next two years, manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles must figure out the best way to maximize the veteran infielder’s production, especially after he elected to rehab his shoulder in lieu of surgery this offseason. Hardy told reporters at FanFest in December that he underwent labrum surgery on the same shoulder when he was playing in the minor leagues and didn’t want to repeat a process that took 12 months until he felt like himself again.

The Orioles would be wise to adopt a plan similar to what the New York Mets intend to do with veteran third baseman David Wright, who is also 33. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said over the weekend that Wright, who missed more than four months last season due to spinal stenosis, will play a maximum of 130 games in 2016 in hopes of keeping him fresh with scheduled days off.

Hardy’s shoulder injury coupled with chronic back issues over the last few years should make it an easy call for the Orioles to treat their shortstop in a similar fashion. Though he missed 48 games in 2015, 39 came with Hardy on the disabled list and he rarely received routine days off that weren’t related to injury, evident from the 59 consecutive starts he made from June 5 through Aug. 11.

With Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado more than capable of playing his natural shortstop position and utility man Ryan Flaherty filling in at third, there’s no reason not to give Hardy routine days off over the course of a 162-game schedule at this point, especially if it helps keep him more productive at the plate.

More rest doesn’t mean Hardy will return to his pre-2014 levels of offense, but his strikeout rate increased from 11.3 percent in 2013 all the way to 20.1 percent in 2015. He’s also not pulling the ball (40.1 percent of the time in 2015 compared to his 44.5 percent career mark) or making hard contact (23.7 percent in 2015 compared to 29.9 percent in 2014) as frequently, according to FanGraphs.

Hardy’s rapid decline probably isn’t all because of injuries as middle infielders don’t age well historically, but the Orioles would be wise to do everything they can to keep him as productive as possible at the plate and in the field. That plan should no longer include the expectation of him playing every day.

If the Orioles can slow Father Time’s impact and Hardy can post numbers at least closer to what he did in 2014, the club will be better for it as he was worth 3.3 wins above replacement that season, according to Baseball Reference. The three-time Gold Glove winner posted a 0.0 WAR last season, and only his above-average defense (a 1.1 defensive WAR) neutralized his negative offensive value.

Even Hardy acknowledged that more scheduled days off would “probably” help his production when asked about the possibility in mid-December.

“It’ll be up to Buck,” said Hardy, who reiterated that he wants to play as much as he can if healthy. “If he puts me in there, I’m going to do what I can.”

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Former Oriole Pearce set to join Tampa Bay

Posted on 21 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The last of the Orioles’ free agents has finally found a home.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, veteran outfielder and first baseman Steve Pearce has agreed to a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. The deal is pending a physical.

Though a favorite of manager Buck Showalter, the 32-year-old Pearce was not expected to return as the Orioles hadn’t made any real effort to re-sign him after a disappointing followup to his career year in 2014. With the acquisition of Mark Trumbo early in the offseason and the re-signing of Nolan Reimold, Pearce became expendable with the Orioles having a number of right-handed bats to fill a similar role.

In 325 plate appearances in 2015, Pearce hit just .218 with 15 home runs, 40 runs batted in, and a .711 on-base plus slugging percentage. He received starts at first base, second base, left field, right field, and designated hitter in 2015.

The journeyman was a major reason why the Orioles were able to endure the losses of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis on their way to finishing 96-66 and winning their first American League East title in 17 years two seasons ago. Playing a career-high 102 games, Pearce hit .293 with 21 homers, 49 RBIs, and a club-leading .930 OPS. Despite receiving only 383 plate appearances, he led the Orioles with 5.9 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

The Lakeland, Fla. native would appear to be a perfect fit with Tampa Bay, especially when you consider his career numbers at Tropicana Field. Pearce has seven homers and a 1.039 OPS in 86 career plate appearances playing at the Rays’ home ballpark.

Beginning the offseason with six free agents, the Orioles ultimately kept three as catcher Matt Wieters accepted a $15.8 million qualifying offer, relief pitcher Darren O’Day signed a four-year, $31 million contract, and first baseman Chris Davis agreed to a seven-year, $161 million deal last weekend. Starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen (Miami) and outfielder Gerardo Parra (Colorado) joined Pearce as free-agent departures.

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