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What will Wieters bring to 2015 Orioles?

Posted on 04 June 2015 by Luke Jones

It was just over six years ago when Matt Wieters made his major league debut.

At the time, the Orioles were in the midst of their 12th straight losing season and in search of a savior. The fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft was deemed by many as the next Johnny Bench or at least Joe Mauer with power, but it never quite worked out that way despite Wieters having a good career before undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Six years later, the defending American League East champions may not need a savior, but they sure need a lift after losing five of their last six to fall five games below .500, their worst start since the 2011 season. They hope their three-time All-Star catcher can provide the kind of spark that can help turn their fortunes around.

Of course, expectations should be realistic as Wieters will return to the major leagues for the first time in nearly 13 months Friday night in Cleveland. It remains unclear when he’ll be ready to catch on consecutive days, but the Orioles will take what they can get from the 29-year-old, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the season.

“All feel. It’s going to be a slow process with it,” said Wieters last week about his part-time status as a catcher. “I’ve sort of come to terms with it that it’s not going to come just like that back to catching four, five days in a row. It’s all by feel. Every other day is better than not playing at all for me right now.”

Of course, no one is suggesting that Wieters alone will make the dramatic difference on the field as the emotional lift of his return might be the biggest short-term benefit for an Orioles club desperately trying to regroup. After losing two clubhouse leaders in Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz over the winter, the club will welcome back one of its most respected members with open arms.

Caleb Joseph, the Orioles’ primary catcher over the last year, has played admirably in Wieters’ place from a defensive standpoint and has improved his offense in his second major league season. With the likelihood of Wieters departing via free agency, many view Joseph as an acceptable replacement — at least for a year or two.

For the time being, Joseph will continue to be a major part of what the Orioles do as he and Wieters alternate catching duties.

“He’s done great. I’m real proud of that guy,” Wieters said of his understudy. “To see as far as he’s come defensively is really amazing. He really put the time in and the effort in and really worked to make himself I feel like one of the better defensive catchers in the league.

“That’s saying something for a guy who for a while was thought of as an ‘offensive’ catcher. To really take the time and effort that it takes to making yourself good defensively, a lot of credit goes out to his work ethic.”

As well as Joseph has played, that doesn’t mean he’s as good as a healthy Wieters.

And therein lies the great unknown.

What exactly will the Orioles be getting with the return of the veteran backstop? Will he still provide plus offense at his position and Gold Glove-caliber defense as a part-time starter?

His opposite-field home run for Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday was a good way to conclude a rehab assignment in which he hit .313 with a homer and three RBIs in 19 plate appearances. Perhaps the absence of the wear and tear of catching over the last year will do wonders for his offense, which would be a positive development for a Baltimore offense that’s been horrendous since early May.

The Orioles can’t truly know how this will go, but they’re welcoming the opportunity to find out at this point.

If anything, they hope a change in karma will do them good.

Wieters won’t be a savior, but the Orioles hope he can be a catalyst to help turn around their season.

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Thoughts on Tillman’s struggles, Pearce, Jones

Posted on 01 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Even as Orioles pitching took a step forward with the second-best team ERA in the American League in the month of May, staff ace Chris Tillman has been unable to shake his early-season woes.

The 27-year-old allowed six runs (five earned) in 4 2/3 innings in Sunday’s 9-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, dropping his record to 2-7 with a 5.94 ERA after he went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA a year ago. Many have wondered if Tillman’s back spasms last month have continued to linger — he’s no stranger to needing to manage his cranky back over the last few years — but the 6-foot-5 hurler insisted again Sunday that he’s fine from a health standpoint.

If Tillman isn’t dealing with a physical issue, then what’s been different for the right-hander in 2015?

It’s important to note that early-season struggles plagued Tillman a year ago before he posted a 2.38 ERA over his final 21 regular-season starts of 2014. In his first 13 starts of the season, he pitched to a 5.20 ERA and had two different starts that lasted just one inning apiece before an impressive stretch of 20 consecutive starts in which he allowed three or fewer earned runs.

There’s plenty of time for a pitcher who’s posted 200-plus innings in consecutive seasons to turn it around, meaning the Orioles must remain patient for the time being.

Another factor that’s clearly been a concern in the first two months is Tillman’s rate of 4.8 walks per nine innings, his worst since averaging 5.2 free passes per nine in 2011. Both innings in which Tampa Bay scored multiple runs against Tillman on Sunday involved a critical two-out walk, one to .077 hitter Nick Franklin in the second inning and another to slugger Evan Longoria after the starter had struck out the first two hitters of the fifth.

Tillman walked only 2.9 batters per nine innings last year and 3.0 in 2013 when he was named to his first All-Star team.

Perhaps the most interesting change from 2014 to now is the absence of veteran catcher Nick Hundley, who departed via free agency in the offseason. Hundley caught 18 of Tillman’s career-high 34 starts last season with the pitcher posting a 2.78 ERA in those outings. In contrast, Tillman had an inflated 5.29 mark in the seven starts in which Caleb Joseph caught.

It’s neither an excuse for Tillman nor an indictment of Joseph — who’s more than proven his defensive capabilities behind the plate in the last two seasons — but could there simply be some chemistry issues between the two? That’s not to suggest a personal rift by any means, but many of us have experienced times in life when we haven’t necessarily worked best with certain individuals for whatever reason.

In fairness to Joseph, Tillman sports a 4.19 ERA with him behind the plate this season while the starter gave up 15 earned runs in three starts when now ex-Oriole Ryan Lavarnway was catching.

Asked late last season about the frequent pairing of Tillman and Hundley, manager Buck Showalter made it clear he was uneasy about pitchers having personal catchers because it can act as a crutch. Even if Tillman isn’t as comfortable with Joseph behind the plate as he was with Hundley, he’s not one to make excuses and needs to be able to adjust to someone who’s had plenty of success with the rest of the pitching staff.

The idea of certain pitchers having personal catchers is nothing new as Dennis Martinez famously preferred Dave Skaggs over Rick Dempsey years ago. In 1997, backup Lenny Webster caught 30 of Scott Erickson’s 34 starts when the sinkerballer enjoyed his best season in Baltimore.

Of course, Hundley isn’t walking through that Orioles clubhouse after signing a two-year, $6.5 million contract with Colorado in early January. But perhaps the return of Matt Wieters will help Tillman regroup as he pitched to a 3.41 ERA in 28 starts with the veteran catcher behind the plate for him in 2013.

As it stands now, Wieters is slated to catch his first game with the Orioles in Cleveland on Friday night.

That also happens to be the next date for Tillman’s regular turn in the rotation.

First-pitch Pearce

Arguably the most frustrating moment of Sunday’s loss came in the bottom of the fifth when Steve Pearce grounded out to shortstop with the bases loaded and the Orioles trailing 6-2 to the Rays.

What made it worse was that Pearce swung at the first pitch — a split-fingered fastball from Jake Odorizzi — after the previous two hitters had walked on a total of nine pitches. It continues a surprising trend for Pearce, who is hitting just .189 but has been known for being a patient hitter throughout his career.

The 32-year-old is swinging at the first pitch in 33.1 percent of his 2015 plate appearances despite a career 22.5 percent mark and only swinging at the first pitch 24.5 percent of the time in his career 2014 campaign. This has contributed to his walk rate falling from 10.4 percent last year to just 7.3 percent this season, which is below the major league average.

He does have two key home runs when swinging at the first pitch in recent weeks, but his .222 average when connecting on the first pitch — that’s not including the number of times in which he’s falling behind in the count when not putting the ball in play — makes you wonder if he needs to return to a more patient approach. This and a .195 batting average on balls put in play (his career mark in that department is .286) explain why Pearce hasn’t come close to matching his career-best .930 on-base plus slugging percentage from a year ago.

Showalter and the Orioles love Pearce’s work ethic and versatility and are trying to remain patient that his fortunes will turn around, but they need him to start producing soon as he was a key cog on which they were counting after a largely-inactive offseason.

As Jones goes, so do Orioles

It’s unfair to attribute the successes or struggles of any club to one player, but it’s difficult to completely ignore how the Baltimore offense has aligned with center fielder Adam Jones so far in 2015.

In April, Jones posted a remarkable .400 average and 1.147 OPS with five homers and 19 RBIs while the Orioles ranked first in the American League in team OPS and were tied for first in home runs.

However, the four-time All-Star selection hit just one home run while posting a .239 average and .556 OPS in the month of May. Jones wasn’t alone in his struggles, of course, as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in May while scoring fewer runs than every club in the league except Boston.

Jones was bound to cool off from his absurd April production, but the Orioles obviously need his bat to turn around once he returns from a mild ankle sprain. It’s never as simple as one player being responsible for prosperity or shortcomings, but the club needs its best player and leader to get going for the summer months.

Road “w-O’s” must end

There was obvious disappointment that the Orioles didn’t take advantage of a stretch of 17 of 20 games played at home — going just 10-10 over that time — and now they will play 15 of their next 23 on the road.

Baltimore tied for the second-best away mark (46-35) in the AL last year, but an 8-14 road record this season is a major reason why the Orioles have hovered below .500 for much of the first two months. Of those eight road victories, four have come at Tropicana Field, which included two in a series moved from Camden Yards to St. Petersburg in which the Orioles acted as the home team and batted last.

Even if Showalter’s club simply wants to remain within striking distance of first place and the .500 mark, the road failures need to be reversed starting this week against Houston and Cleveland.

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Wieters feeling good after first game of rehab assignment

Posted on 27 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After appearing in his first game at Double-A Bowie since 2008, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters felt good a day after beginning his much-awaited minor-league rehab assignment.

Eligible to be activated from the 15-day disabled list on June 4, Wieters went 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and threw out a runner trying to steal second base in his first professional regular-season game since May 10, 2014. With the 29-year-old still only catching every other day, the Orioles hoped Wieters would feel good the morning after beginning his rehab stint.

“I felt good. I thought yesterday went well,” Wieters said. “I felt good when I woke up this morning. That’s the big thing. Hopefully, keep feeling like we did yesterday and we should be good to go.”

Wieters will once again catch for the Baysox on Thursday and Saturday before the Orioles then decide where he will continue his rehab assignment. Manager Buck Showalter said it was possible that Wieters could serve as the designated hitter at Bowie on days he wasn’t scheduled to catch, but the veteran suggested that he feels pretty good at the plate and took batting practice at Camden Yards before Wednesday’s game against Houston.

Barring any setbacks, Wieters is expected to be activated by the latter half of next week despite the fact that it will be a while before he’s ready to catch on consecutive days. With Caleb Joseph sporting a .274 average with four home runs and 18 RBIs entering Wednesday, the Orioles can live with the idea of Wieters not being ready to handle his normal workload.

With Wieters not even throwing on non-catching days yet, the Orioles may need to give stronger consideration to keeping a third catcher than most would have thought. That would figure to be Steve Clevenger, who would give the Orioles another left-handed bat off the bench and is capable of playing some infield in a pinch.

For now, Wieters can see the light at the end of the tunnel while acknowledging his return to the Orioles won’t be the end of his long recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“It’s all feel, and it’s going to be a slow process with it,” Wieters said. “I’ve sort of come to terms with that. It’s not going to come just like that — catching four, five days in a row. It’s all by feel. The ‘every other day’ thing feels good now, and as soon as that little bit of soreness that we do have in between [is gone], we’ll start by picking up a ball on the day after I catch and go from there.

“Every other day is better than not playing at all for me right now.”

Bundy MRI confirms tendinitis

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said a magnetic resonance imaging exam on pitching prospect Dylan Bundy’s right shoulder confirmed the initial diagnosis of tendinitis.

Fortunately, there was no structural damage to the shoulder despite the MRI showing some inflammation. Duquette said Bundy has been prescribed rest as well as anti-inflammatory medication before the Orioles reevaluate when he’ll begin throwing again.

Bundy last pitched on May 21, a four-inning start that was his longest outing of the season as the organization was monitoring his innings in the early portion of the season. He is 0-3 with a 3.68 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 22 innings of work at Bowie.

Cuban left-hander Miranda signed

The Orioles officially announced the signing of Cuban left-handed pitcher Ariel Miranda on Wednesday.

The 25-year-old Miranda went 22-25 with a 3.78 ERA in seven seasons in the Cuban National Series. The plan is for him to report to Sarasota to get into better baseball shape before the organization assigns him to Bowie or Single-A Frederick, according to Duquette.

Wilson, Wright to start Thursday’s doubleheader

Showalter announced that right-hander Tyler Wilson will be called up as the Orioles’ 26th player for Thursday’s doubleheader and will start Game 1 against the Chicago White Sox.

Fellow rookie right-hander Mike Wright will start the nightcap of the single-admission twin bill beginning at 1:05 p.m.

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Orioles working out Wieters in Miami this weekend

Posted on 21 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A day after celebrating his 29th birthday, Matt Wieters is scheduled to join the Orioles in Miami for a three-game series against the Marlins.

It figures to be the final test for the three-time All-Star catcher before he’s scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment with Double-A Bowie on Tuesday. And it’s an opportunity for Wieters to finally escape the heat of Sarasota, where he’s spent much of the last 11 months rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

“I think Matt wants to get around [bench coach and catching instructor John Russell] and get around his teammates and get back in that environment,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I think it’s a good progression for him, and I think it’s what Matt wants to do, too. Nobody knows what’s going on with his elbow and everything else more than him.

“I think he needs to get out of the ‘Gulf Roast’ league, too. He’s been a diligent rehab guy, almost to a fault. I think he needs to get out of there physically, mentally, and emotionally. I think it’s a good time for him. Believe me, we’ll do a lot of work in Miami.”

Despite catching in a number of extended spring training games, Wieters has yet to play on consecutive days, leading many to speculate that he will share starting duties with Caleb Joseph upon being activated from the 60-day disabled list next month. Wieters is eligible to return as early as June 4, and that’s the date on which he’s expected to be activated barring any setbacks, according to Showalter.

It was more than two months ago that Wieters caught six innings in a Grapefruit League game on March 17, exactly nine months after undergoing ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery. He was shut down the following day with elbow tendinitis, but Showalter says he didn’t view that as a setback as much as he did a sign for the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft to slow down.

“It was the test to see where he was. I don’t know, who knows?” said Showalter when asked if he wonders where Wieters might be now had they not pushed the elbow so soon. “If anything, it helped us make better decisions to know that he was on more of the 11 [or] 12-month plan than the nine-month [one] that he was hoping. I think he showed a lot of maturity with it. Matt really knows what has to happen for him to be able to contribute here, and I think he kind of used that as a gauge a little bit.

“I look at it as a positive in the long run. I thought it was just part of the progression. In hindsight, it was actually positive that he was able to make a good decision there and not push it along where he would have really had a setback that would have required some other things.”

Of course, the clock is ticking for Wieters as he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season. The Orioles hope to benefit from his return to the lineup, but he needs to prove that he will be the same player despite undergoing a procedure not typical for catchers.

Showalter is confident that Wieters is in excellent shape when it comes to the other aspects of catching that go beyond throwing and estimates that he’s received somewhere between 200 and 300 at-bats since the start of spring training. The jump in competition level will be an initial obstacle, but the Orioles are eager to have the veteran catcher back in whatever capacity he’s ready to handle.

As they have throughout the process, the Orioles will lean on how Wieters says he feels as the biggest gauge when he’s ready to return.

“The one thing he’s in is he’s in really good catching shape,” Showalter said. “He’s been challenged there leg-wise and everything. He’s probably got more at-bats than anybody. It’s just where he is with the elbow.”

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Hot-hitting Paredes continues making his doubters wait

Posted on 20 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — You keep waiting for Jimmy Paredes to cool off, but the Orioles continue reaping the benefits.

He can’t possibly continue this, right?

That sentiment has been uttered over and over for a month now and the 26-year-old hasn’t slowed down yet, going 2-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in Tuesday’s 9-4 win over the Seattle Mariners. His .346 average is just a few plate appearances shy of officially being ranked third in the American League behind Prince Fielder and Nelson Cruz.

His 22 RBIs rank second on the club behind Adam Jones (25) and his 1.001 on-base plus slugging percentage is the best on the roster. A two-run single in the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s game was of the “seeing-eye” variety, but 15 of his 36 hits this season have gone for extra bases, including an opposite-field two-run shot in the sixth inning.

Of course, Paredes won’t continue hitting at a near-.350 clip, but the switch hitter — who entered spring training out of options — isn’t merely getting lucky by dinking and dunking singles into the outfield as even the poorest hitters can do over a short period of time. He continues making contact and hitting the ball hard with regularity while serving as the club’s everyday designated hitter.

“Jimmy’s such a sincere guy,” said manager Buck Showalter, who has repeatedly joked that he tries to say as little as possible to Paredes in fear of jinxing him. “Those guys give themselves such a chance to be successful because he never gives in in the effort department. I was watching him during the last out. He’s in every pitch.”

He’s currently hitting 86 points higher than Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, a fellow Dominican who has worked out with Paredes in past offseasons. Results aside, you don’t have to watch Paredes for long to see how he tries to copy elements of the six-time All-Star selection’s swing. With a career .752 on-base plus slugging percentage in parts of nine minor league seasons, Paredes is seeing years of hard work — which included plenty of failure in the minors and in the majors — pay off with a run of success he hasn’t experienced at any level of professional baseball.

After watching him bat .302 in the final month of the 2014 season and continue hitting this spring, the Orioles are quietly becoming more confident that they’ve found an everyday player. Of course, no one expects Paredes to continue to produce these video-game numbers, but his ability to keep the barrel of the bat square through the hitting zone has been impressive to watch. If he continues to prove he belongs in the majors as a regular, the next step is finding him a position in the field, which likely wouldn’t occur until the offseason with a plan to have him learn a corner outfield spot to utilize a strong throwing arm he’s shown off — erratically — at third base on occasion.

His 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame alone makes it easy to understand why the New York Yankees, Houston, Kansas City, and the Orioles each wanted Paredes in their organizations at one time. But now he’s offering the Orioles the justification for keeping him.

“He is so upbeat and I’m always pulling for the underdog,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, who spent seven years in the minors and lockers next to Paredes in the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. “For a guy to get claimed and [designated for assignment] and get claimed again and find a home, it’s big and we’re glad he’s on side. He’s real stable for us in the [No. 2 spot] right now.”

There’s no telling how long Paredes’ current hot streak will last as pitchers will adjust and teams will look for his weaknesses at the plate. He’s not particularly patient as he’s walked only five times in 109 plate appearances this season, but he’s been able to adjust to different pitch sequences in impressive fashion. He saw several changeups from Mariners starter Taijuan Walker on Tuesday night before he was able to slap one between third and short for his fourth-inning single.

Everyone keeps waiting for Paredes to come back to earth and understandably so for a player with no track record and such little fanfare. But watching him hit safely in 22 of his 25 games this season and reaching base in 20 straight contests makes it surreal to think how few would have predicted him to even make the club, let alone become one of the Orioles’ best players when spring training began three months ago.

Where would the Orioles be without Paredes over the last five weeks?

“You never know,” Showalter said. “We’ve seen so many guys do good things in spring training and the season starts and it doesn’t happen for them. We’ve seen guys that struggle like heck in the spring and then the season starts and the light goes on. Jimmy was not only trying to make the club and be a part of this, but he knows how you stay here because he’s been down this road before.

“He’s not playing like a guy that’s out of options.”

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Orioles surprises from first month of 2015 season

Posted on 06 May 2015 by Luke Jones

One month into the 2015 season, the Orioles have hovered around the .500 mark while remaining firmly in the American League East hunt.

Below is a look at the biggest surprises of the first month of action:

1. Ubaldo Jimenez becoming the Orioles’ best starting pitcher

Much of the starting rotation and bullpen struggled over the opening month of the season, but the maligned Jimenez was the club’s best starter, posting a 2-1 record with a 1.59 ERA in his four starts. After simplifying his mechanics late last season, Jimenez steadily improved during spring training and saw that continue into the regular season where he’s walked only eight batters in 22 2/3 innings, a significant improvement from the 5.5 walks per nine innings he issued last season. It was an unusual month for the 31-year-old as he was inexplicably ejected from a start at Fenway Park and pitched in the first empty-stadium game in major league history, but the results have been a pleasant surprise for manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles.

2. Jimmy Paredes emerging as a key member of the lineup

It was one thing to see Paredes hit well last September when the Orioles enjoyed a comfortable lead in the AL East and to follow that up with a strong spring, but who would have guessed the 26-year-old would become the everyday designated hitter and occupy the No. 2 spot in the order? Paredes’ .994 OPS is second on the club behind the scalding-hot Adam Jones, and he has collected nine extra-base hits in 56 plate appearances. Showalter has credited Paredes’ aggressive but professional approach — he’s walked only once this season — at the plate and will continue to pencil his name into the lineup until Paredes proves he shouldn’t. His defensive limitations hinder lineup flexibility, but the Orioles aren’t complaining about the offense Paredes has provided, especially with key contributors sidelined.

3. Matt Wieters still not being close to returning — and that being OK

The three-time All-Star selection caught six innings in an extended spring training game Tuesday, but he still isn’t catching on consecutive days, leading you to believe his return will be much closer to June than anyone would have expected a couple months ago. The good news is Caleb Joseph hasn’t made the Orioles miss Wieters too much as he’s hitting .286 with two home runs, seven RBIs, and an .836 on-base plus slugging percentage. Despite a slow start trying to control the running game, Joseph has stopped 33 percent of stolen-base attempts after gunning down 40 percent in 2014. I wrote before the season that it would be problematic if Wieters returned as a shell of himself defensively, but it’s clear the Orioles have slowed the pace of the veteran catcher’s rehab and Joseph’s strong play has made it easier to endure.

4. Steve Pearce starting games at second base

The 32-year-old has yet to approach his 2014 level of production, but Showalter using Pearce at second base illustrates how badly the injury bug has bitten the middle infield with J.J. Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, and Ryan Flaherty all on the 15-day disabled list. Fortunately, Hardy and Flaherty appear primed to return as early as this weekend, which will bring normalcy to the shortstop and second base positions. With Pearce and Jimmy Paredes seeing time at second base, Everth Cabrera may find himself in the minor leagues after posting a .464 OPS as the everyday shortstop in Hardy’s absence. Considering they’ve gotten below-replacement-level offense at shortstop and have used a carousel of options at second base, the Orioles should probably feel pretty good about their 12-12 record over the first month.

5. The Orioles playing an empty-stadium game and a “home” series at Tropicana Field

The unrest in Baltimore certainly disrupted the Orioles’ schedule, but Showalter, Jones, and the rest of the club handled the distractions with appropriate perspective while reflecting on the bigger issues facing the city. Playing a game in an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards and then traveling to Tropicana Field for a “home” series against the Tampa Bay Rays was less than ideal for all parties, but the Orioles went 3-1 over that stretch. It’s the latest example of how prepared and focused Showalter has kept his players over the last few years, a major reason why the Orioles are aiming for their fourth straight winning season and third playoff appearance in four campaigns. You only hope a packed Camden Yards welcomes the Orioles back to town on May 11.

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A memorable day we hope never happens again

Posted on 29 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Accompanied by the punchlines and photos on social media was a sadness as a recording of the national anthem played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Wednesday afternoon.

As if the sight of an empty ballpark moments before the start of an Orioles game wasn’t strange enough, it had just hit me that we wouldn’t hear the customary “O!” that we’ve come to expect at any major sporting event in Baltimore over the years. Out-of-towners don’t get it and even some within the community don’t care for the practice, but there are few things more “Baltimore” than our own Star-Spangled Banner trademark you’ll even hear when fans follow the Orioles or Ravens on the road.

It was just the latest reminder of how far from ideal the concept of playing a baseball game without fans truly was, but that’s when I heard the faint but audible “O!” from a few dozen fans standing beyond the left-center gate. The sound warmed the heart in a week filled with much tension and sadness in the city of Baltimore, and it suddenly made more sense for the Orioles to be playing a game at home before embarking on what will now be a nine-game road trip.

“Oh, they were heard,” said a smiling Buck Showalter when asked about those fans cheering from afar during an 8-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.

Of course, the Orioles returning to the field is of little consequence compared to the real problems our city is facing and will continue to deal with in the coming hours, days, and weeks. The decision not to allocate the law-enforcement officials required for a regular game was a wise one, but the quiet atmosphere was a reminder of just how important fans are to the product.

As one of the select few able to watch the game in person, I enjoyed the previously-unheard sounds of Jimmy Paredes sliding into third base or first base coach Wayne Kirby calling for Delmon Young to run out a popup, but the atmosphere reminded of a junior varsity baseball game without the pings of aluminum bats. It may have been a day that made major league history, but we can only hope it never happens again as we look ahead to the return of both the Orioles and fans to Camden Yards on May 11.

“It’s something that we hopefully don’t take for granted,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, who jokingly pretended to high-five fans and sign autographs before the game. “Days like today definitely remind you if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have jobs. Hopefully, everything can be resolved as quickly as possible.”

A game being played without any fans wasn’t what anyone truly wanted, but if it represented baby steps toward some normalcy, we’ll take it. After watching so many parts of the city burn on Monday night, just seeing baseball being played at Camden Yards again was movement in the right direction.

For those watching on television or listening on the radio on a weekday afternoon, the surreal game at least provided a temporary distraction.

“They’re always watching. You all know that,” said center fielder Adam Jones, acknowledging more fans viewing on television than those attending any game under regular circumstances. “Cameras are always on. It was good to come out and get six [runs] in the first [and] get a stronghold off a good pitcher.”

The day was helped by the Orioles rolling over starter Jeff Samardzija and the White Sox to win their third consecutive game. While players were quick to note the insignificance of winning a baseball game in the city’s current climate, you still sensed their purpose of wanting to do something positive for fans despite their inability to attend the game.

Of course, the run of baseball-related distractions and sacrifice isn’t over for the Orioles as they’ll now play a “home” series — with home uniforms and all — against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg this weekend. But leaving town on a winning note helps.

“You tried to stay focused on the competition and us trying to get where we want to be at the end of the season,” Showalter said. “But I also talked to [players] about the people who are going to be sitting around our city watching this game. How many things have really gone on normal here in the last few days in our society?”

Yes, the perception of playing in an empty stadium was less than appealing, but it beat the alternative of canceling a third consecutive game at an abandoned Camden Yards. If it served as even a few minutes of leisure from the tension that currently exists in our city, the unorthodox measure was worth it.

There are much bigger issues at work in Baltimore — ones that won’t be solved overnight — but to hear cheers from those fans standing beyond the gates was a reminder of just how important something so unimportant can be. It isn’t a coincidence that we’ve occasionally heard the “Seven Nation Army” chants from protesters over the last couple days, either.

Sports have brought and will continue to bring us together, which is why I look forward to once again seeing a packed Camden Yards — hopefully as early as May 11.

“The last 72 hours I think in this city have been tumultuous, to say the least,” Jones said. “We’ve seen good, we’ve seen bad, we’ve seen ugly. We’ve seen our games canceled, postponed, relocated, a lot of families relocated.

“It’s a city that’s hurting, and a city that needs its heads to stand up, step up, and help the ones that are hurting. It’s not an easy time right now for anybody. It doesn’t matter what race you are. It’s a tough time for the city of Baltimore.”

One day at a time.

As unusual and less than perfect Wednesday’s game was, it was comforting to have a diversion.

It was good to hear that familiar “O!” in the distance.

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joseph

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Five questions pondering Joseph, Garcia, others

Posted on 17 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions

1. Does Caleb Joseph make it easy to wait for Matt Wieters to take his time to return?
No, I don’t expect the former to continue hitting .375, but it’s difficult to argue how good his defense has been as Orioles pitching posted a 3.00 ERA with him behind the plate in 2014, he threw out 40 percent of runners trying to steal, and his pitch framing rates better than Wieters’ did in either of his his last two full seasons. The question isn’t whether Joseph is better than or as good as the pre-injury Wieters — he’s clearly not — but it remains to be seen if the post-surgery Wieters will be the same defensively and whether he’ll provide enough offense to justify being the undisputed starter if he’s a shell of his old self behind the plate.

2. Does Buck Showalter need to figure out exactly what he has with Jason Garcia sooner rather than later?
I know the Orioles love the Rule 5 pick’s arm and he has nice potential at age 22, but they can’t afford to carry him if it means they essentially have a 24-man roster. If his arm is special enough to warrant keeping him, he should be able to get some meaningful outs along the way. The early-season struggles of Tommy Hunter and and the rest of the bullpen have magnified the situation, of course, but Showalter needs to be able to use Garcia in some legitimate situations, especially if he’s not going to give the Orioles length in the same way that T.J. McFarland did as a Rule 5 pick in 2013.

3. Should third base coaches take more chances around baseball?
I thought about this at different times this winter after Kansas City elected not to send Alex Gordon home as the potential tying run in Game 7 of the World Series, and the question returns with Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson drawing the ire of fans with some questionable sends at the start of the season. Historically, a runner standing on third base with two outs will score only 27 percent of the time, but data shows only five percent of runners being sent home from second base on a single with two outs are thrown out at the plate. Yes, that success rate looks great, but how many potential runs are ultimately being stranded at third base to avoid the chance of a runner being thrown out in favor of the potentially lower-percentage chance of the next batter driving him in. Of course, there are many variables involved such as the speed of the runner, the location of the ball, and the arm strength of the fielder, but it’s still interesting to ponder how many potential runs are lost due to the fear of failure and the criticism that a third base coach can face.

4. Is the exuberant friendship between Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop a joy to watch?
I first watched these two play together when they were at Single-A Frederick in 2011, and it’s scary to think how young both still are with so much untapped potential. Of course, scenes like this don’t hurt, either:

5. Do we still not appreciate Jim Palmer enough? The Hall of Fame pitcher celebrated the 50th anniversary of his major league debut Friday and he continues to remain a fixture on Orioles telecasts five decades later. As someone who only remembers Palmer the broadcaster, I marvel at his numbers, which included a period of nine times in 10 years from 1969-1978 in which he posted an ERA below 3.00 and at least 4.1 wins above replacement. His 211 complete games, 53 shutouts, and four seasons of 300 or more innings are numbers we don’t even see in video games today.

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schoop

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Early thoughts on Orioles lineup

Posted on 16 April 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PH – Delmon Young (.333/.375/.333)

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

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jimenez

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Jimenez offers reminder why Orioles wanted him

Posted on 12 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — In the same way that it would be premature for the Orioles to bury Bud Norris after his poor start in the home opener, Ubaldo Jimenez can’t erase the memory of an awful 2014 season with one terrific outing.

But catcher Caleb Joseph said it best in describing the right-hander’s seven shutout innings in which he allowed only one hit while striking out eight and walking one in a 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.

“He was like a video game out there,” Joseph said. “I haven’t caught very many major league games, but that may have been one of the [most fun]. What he’s been through over the last year or so and then working really hard and getting better each and every spring training start, and then when the lights really come on — playing for real — he did such a great job.”

Despite the frustration of a fan base that expected big things from the 31-year-old when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract 14 months ago, it’s easy to see how well liked Jimenez is by teammates and coaches. Working hard to simplify and repeat his delivery this offseason, Jimenez has been praised for his commitment to improve from the time he arrived in Sarasota for spring training two months ago.

Asked what impressed him most about Jimenez this spring prior to Saturday’s game, manager Buck Showalter was direct in saying it was the results and how the veteran had improved a little bit each time he went to the hill. Jimenez pitched on the road — meaning he would face more of the opposition’s regular hitters — in all but one of his seven spring starts, posting a 2.88 ERA in his final 25 Grapefruit League innings and walking just six batters over that span.

That success carried over and then some on Saturday as Jimenez stifled a Blue Jays lineup that had piled up 12 runs and 16 hits just a day earlier. It began with fastball command and impeccable control as Jimenez delivered first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced. He also effectively mixed in his split-fingered fastball and curveball while his two-seam fastball induced 11 grounders that were turned into outs by the excellent defense behind him.

Jimenez is gradually learning to trust that defense, adopting pitching coach Dave Wallace’s philosophy of pitching to weak contact and not always needing to rely on the strikeout. Unlike other starters in the current rotation, Jimenez has the ability to consistently miss bats — he still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season — but it can’t come at the expense of control.

Yes, it’s only one start, but it was a glimpse into what the Orioles envisioned when they made a four-year commitment to the 2010 All-Star Game starter for the National League. While a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings average and a 4.81 ERA from last year are fresh in observers’ minds, Jimenez has pitched at a high level at various times in his career, which is the upside that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was attracted to.

For now, Jimenez can only take it one start at a time, one strike at a time while observers will understandably remain skeptical until he proves himself consistently.

“The only thing I’m worried about is being there for the team,” Jimenez said. “If I pitch good, they will forget [last year], but my main goal is be there for the team. I can’t be worried about what everyone is thinking.”

Saturday reinforced that the Orioles were right to give Jimenez a chance to reestablish himself in the rotation. He’ll need to prove he can remain there, but owing a pitcher $39 million over the next three years has a way of making an organization provide as many opportunities as humanly possible to fetch a return.

The Jimenez who’s surfaced over the last month dating back to spring training is one the Orioles would like to see pitching meaningful games in September and beyond. It’s the reason why they brought him to Baltimore in the first place despite his opening act being a dud.

“Nobody’s worked harder than him. You can tell he did it in the offseason, too,” Showalter said. “He came in here with a real purpose. Tonight was a good reminder why he’s been a good quality major league starter for a long time.”

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