Tag Archive | "Buck Showalter"

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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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Orioles lose Castillo to disabled list with testicular injury

Posted on 31 May 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles have placed starting catcher Welington Castillo on the 10-day disabled list with a testicular injury after he took a foul ball to the groin in Tuesday’s loss to the New York Yankees.

Castillo remained in the game and returned to the clubhouse on Wednesday, but he went to the emergency room after Tuesday’s game and would not have been available for at least a couple days, requiring the Orioles to make a move to add a second catcher behind Caleb Joseph. Castillo’s injury occurred exactly one year after Joseph took a foul ball to the groin that required emergency testicular surgery.

Fortunately, Castillo isn’t dealing with an injury as severe.

“He’s got a hematoma there in his groin that we’re going to monitor and see how it progresses,” manager Buck Showalter said prior to the move being announced. “We wouldn’t use him tonight to catch. We’re trying to decide whether we’ll DL him or not, so we’ve got the possibilities in place. We’ll make a decision shortly.”

After being designated for assignment and outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk earlier this month, Francisco Pena was promoted to take Castillo’s spot on the 25-man roster. Showalter acknowledged that the Orioles might have been able to hold off on making a roster move with Castillo had emergency catcher and utility infielder Ryan Flaherty not currently been on the DL with a right shoulder strain.

Pena took the open spot on Baltimore’s 40-man roster.

In addition to missing Castillo’s work behind the plate, the Orioles will now be without one of their best hitters so far this season as the offense enters Wednesday ranked 20th in the majors in runs scored per game. Castillo is hitting a club-best .317 with four home runs, 17 runs batted in, and an .805 on-base plus slugging percentage despite having missed the first two weeks of May with right shoulder tendinitis.

In other injury-related news, center fielder Adam Jones returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing four straight games with ankle and hip soreness.

The Orioles recalled right-handed pitcher Mike Wright and optioned right-hander Logan Verrett to Triple-A Norfolk to give themselves a fresh arm for the series finale against the Yankees.

Major League Baseball also announced that Orioles minor-league infielder — and former major leaguer — Robert Andino has been suspended 50 games for testing positive for amphetamines. He has been playing for Norfolk this season, hitting .234 with six home runs and 23 RBIs.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 8-3 loss to Yankees

Posted on 31 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering their eighth loss in nine games in an 8-3 final against the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The good vibes from Monday’s win vanished in a matter of nine pitches as Chris Tillman allowed a pair of solo home runs. We’ve seen Tillman straighten himself out after rough first innings numerous times in the past, but it was apparent that wasn’t happening Tuesday.

2. Tillman allowed nine of the 17 New York hitters he faced to reach base in what was easily his worst start of the year. His command wasn’t there as he either missed his spots badly or left pitches over the heart of the plate. That’s a lethal combination.

3. It was only a matter of time before the home runs allowed began to normalize as Tillman hadn’t allowed one over his first 20 1/3 innings of 2017. That was one of the lone factors keeping his ERA at a tolerable level through his first four starts.

4. Tillman showed his best average fastball velocity of the season at 90.8 miles per hour, but that’s still below his career average. He again said after the game that his shoulder feels good physically, but you wonder if this is the best we’re going to see from him moving forward.

5. Yankees starter Luis Severino deserves credit as he lowered his season ERA to 2.93 after 6 1/3 superb innings, but the Orioles scored fewer than five runs for the seventh straight game. Most of the lineup just looked lost as the quality at-bats were few and far between.

6. Manny Machado struck out four times in a game for the second time in his career as his average fell to .210. You could lower him in the order or sit him down, but perhaps a game at shortstop would get him to focus on something other than his struggles.

7. J.J. Hardy had an RBI single in the eighth, but three straight swinging strikes on Severino sliders with the bases loaded in the second were deflating as the Orioles had a chance to fight back against an early deficit. The 34-year-old shortstop has a .561 on-base plus slugging percentage.

8. Trey Mancini continues to be a bright spot as he went 3-for-3 with an RBI and a walk. His .873 OPS continues to lead the Orioles, and he continues to have impressive at-bats for a rookie.

9. Matt Holliday and Brett Gardner continue to be Oriole killers in 2017 as they each hit two home runs on Tuesday. Holliday has five homers against Baltimore this season while Gardner has four.

10. I hate the mentality of immediately blaming coaches when players aren’t performing, but hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh has to find a way to help get Machado going. The inconsistency of Chris Davis is one thing, but Machado is too good to be struggling this long.

11. Buck Showalter was asked about the possibility of shaking up the lineup Tuesday, and the time feels right to try it. With few hitting well, I’m not sure which direction to go, but maybe he should just draw names out of a hat like his mentor Billy Martin once did.

12. At some point, the obvious question needs to be asked about the Orioles’ starting rotation: How do you go about cloning Dylan Bundy?

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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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Jimenez penciled in for Sunday’s start — for now

Posted on 23 May 2017 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time for Orioles to reset bullpen — and find more quality

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What has happened to Kevin Gausman?

Posted on 15 May 2017 by Luke Jones

There’s been plenty to dislike during the Orioles’ season-worst four-game losing streak, but the latest poor outing from Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman tops the list.

Seemingly poised to become a top-of-the-rotation starter after a superb final two months of 2016, the 26-year-old has instead been one of the worst pitchers in baseball to begin the new season.

The fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft entered Monday last among qualified American League starters with a 7.19 ERA over his first nine starts and is better than only the 43-year-old Bartolo Colon in the major leagues. In blowing a 5-0 lead in Sunday’s 9-8 loss to Kansas City, Gausman surrendered at least five earned runs for the fourth time in his last six starts, an alarming stretch considering he entered the season with a total of 12 outings of five or more earned runs allowed in his entire career. Forgetting any visions of Gausman becoming an ace, where’s the solid pitcher who posted a combined 3.77 ERA over the previous three seasons to serve as a middle-of-the-rotation starter?

That’s what makes his horrendous start so troubling. Contrary to the many frustrated fans comparing him to Jake Arrieta — though his sudden fourth-inning collapse against the Royals on Sunday was quite “Arrietian” in nature — and Brian Matusz, Gausman has had much more success than either of those two ever did as starters in Baltimore. The right-hander hasn’t struggled to this degree since early in his rookie season when he was a year removed from being drafted and hadn’t pitched above Double-A Bowie.

So, what’s wrong with the talented young pitcher?

A career-low 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a career-high 4.6 walks per nine are red flags that beg to question whether Gausman is healthy, but his average fastball velocity is nearly identical to what it was last year and is in line with where it sat when he was exceptional over the final two months of 2016, according to PITCHf/x data. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t still be hiding an injury as diminished command can be an early sign of an ailment, but manager Buck Showalter has volunteered more than once that Gausman is in a good place physically after dealing with bouts of shoulder tendinitis in 2015 and early in 2016.

Gausman has spoken more than once about his mechanics being out of sync as the novice can see how frequently his fastball has leaked to his arm side this season. Even his biggest critics over the last few years acknowledge that he never had a problem with issuing free passes after walking just 2.5 per nine frames over his first four seasons. If his delivery is out of whack and causing his poor command, what is new pitching coach Roger McDowell doing to help matters?

Regardless of how hard he’s been hit overall, Gausman simply isn’t throwing as many strikes — a career-low 60.6 percent of his pitches have been strikes compared to 64.4 percent over the previous two years — and that’s clearly a problem.

There have been some changes to Gausman’s pitch usage early in 2017 that could either help explain or merely reflect his overall problems.

The development of an effective breaking ball has been a well-documented obstacle throughout his professional career, but he revealed in the spring that he was going back to his slider after leaning more on a curveball the previous two years. Gausman is throwing the slider more frequently than ever — with the occasional curve mixed in — and his average slider velocity of 84.3 mph is much faster than he’s ever thrown it, but the results still haven’t been there.

Making matters worse has been the regression of his split-changeup, which had easily been his best secondary pitch over his first four major league seasons. According to Brooks Baseball, Gausman is throwing his split a career-low 14.8 percent of the time, and the sharp break and consistent command of the pitch just haven’t been there. Though that pitch has been more effective against left-handed batters and he did face some righty-heavy lineups early in April, a 1.5-percent decrease in lefty hitters faced from a year ago is hardly meaningful enough to justify such a decrease in his usage of the split.

Has his spring focus and increased velocity on the slider somehow compromised the reliability of the fastball-split combination that had made him consistently competitive in the majors over the last few years?

Only Gausman can know this for sure, but could at least part of the problem be mental?

Despite looking every bit the part of an ace over the final two months of 2016, Gausman had to hear about the increased expectations throughout the offseason, especially with veteran Chris Tillman sidelined throughout the spring and over the first month of the season. Has the emergence of Dylan Bundy prompted Gausman to put more pressure on himself to be great since the 24-year-old has spent a fraction of the time in the majors compared to him?

After Gausman received little run support a year ago, no one can complain about the lineup’s contributions as he’s received the best run support of his career so far in 2017. Staked to a 9-1 lead at Yankee Stadium last month, Gausman gave up five earned runs and was chased in the seventh inning of a game the Orioles inexplicably lost in extra innings. On Sunday, it took him only minutes to squander a 5-0 lead as MASN broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer questioned his concentration level during the telecast.

Whatever the explanation, the Orioles need Gausman to rediscover himself quickly. With Tillman not pitching at full strength and Bundy still in his first full season as a major league starter, Gausman is too important to the fate of the 2017 club to continue performing like this. His track record as a reliable middle-of-the-rotation arm for the better part of the previous three seasons makes him deserving of at least a few more starts to get back on track and start showing consistent improvement, but he can’t continue holding a rotation spot as one of the worst pitchers in baseball for the long term — even with the lack of viable alternatives.

Those offseason thoughts of Gausman finally becoming a No. 1 starter may look foolish at the moment, but, at this point, the Orioles would take him being the solid pitcher he’s been for most of his career.

Aside from a start or two, even that guy is nowhere to be found in 2017.

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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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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 5-4 win over Washington

Posted on 10 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles earning their sixth straight win in a 5-4 final over Washington in 12 innings, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles snatched a comeback victory from the jaws of defeat when Mark Trumbo singled in the winning run. It’s been a rough start to 2017 for the major league home run champion from a year ago, but the liner into left was his second walk-off hit of the season.

2. Trumbo’s heroics wouldn’t have been possible if not for J.J. Hardy tying the game with an RBI single with two outs in the ninth. The shortstop’s offense hasn’t been pretty, but he came through in a big way after stranding two in scoring position in his previous at-bat.

3. Logan Verrett is making a name for himself in extra innings as he tossed three scoreless frames less than two weeks after pitching two scoreless in an 11-inning win at Yankee Stadium. Unlikely contributions from pitchers on the Norfolk shuttle continue to make a big difference.

4. Ubaldo Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for pitching into the eighth inning against the best offense in baseball so far this season. Considering the defending NL Cy Young Award winner was dealing on the other side, he answered the challenge and then some for his club.

5. It’s fair to question Buck Showalter leaving Jimenez in to surrender a pinch-hit three-run homer to Adam Lind, but he’s trying to preserve the long-term health of a bullpen without All-Star closer Zach Britton and already a pitcher short overall due to a five-man bench. It just didn’t work out.

6. You have to feel for Max Scherzer, who was brilliant over eight innings for Washington. Amazingly, that was the 10th time he’s taken a no-hitter into the sixth since joining the Nationals in 2015. His slider is a thing of beauty and fetched 13 of his 22 swinging strikes.

7. Just when it looked like the Orioles were in real danger of being no-hit, Seth Smith delivered a one-out home run to right-center to tie the game in the sixth. I continue to be impressed with how consistently calm he is at the plate to have great at-bats.

8. It didn’t feel like it mattered much at the time, but Adam Jones homering off Scherzer in the eighth put the Orioles in better position to tie the game an inning later. He also got a great read going first to third on Manny Machado’s single in the 12th.

9. Considering the bullpen was short and it took great execution on Bryce Harper’s throw home to Matt Wieters in the 11th, I didn’t have nearly as much of a problem with Bobby Dickerson sending Hardy — as slow as he is — as most fans reacting on social media.

10. Even with Britton expected to miss more than a month and the real danger of overworking the likes of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Mychal Givens, I’d still happily take the Orioles’ relief concerns over the Nationals bullpen. What a mess for an otherwise great team.

11. Daniel Murphy’s home run in the second gave the Orioles their first deficit since the fourth inning of last Thursday’s game at Fenway Park. It doesn’t get much better than that over a six-day period.

12. Despite their well-documented problems and so much weirdness to start the season, the 2017 Orioles currently have the best record in baseball and are 12 games above .500 faster than any other club of the Showalter era. Talent is paramount, but never question their intestinal fortitude.

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