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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 4-2 win over Minnesota

Posted on 08 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins to complete a three-game sweep on Thursday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the third game of the 2016 season.

1stUbaldo Jimenez didn’t look like he would complete seven strong innings early on, but he induced a 1-4-3 double play from Trevor Plouffe to escape a jam in the third inning and turned his outing around from there. The right-hander retired 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced, striking out eight over that stretch. Minnesota hitters were on his fastball early, but Jimenez mixed in his secondary pitches more effectively the second and third times through the order and his split-finger fastball was particularly sharp. Known for his occasional control issues, Jimenez didn’t walk a batter while striking out nine and scattering eight hits. His outing not only allowed the Orioles to remain within striking distance, but he saved a bullpen that had worked 11 innings over the first two games of the series.

2ndManny Machado was moved out of the leadoff spot for the Orioles on Thursday, but he still served as the catalyst for a lineup that was scuffling against Minnesota starter Phil Hughes for much of the evening. His home run to left with two outs in the bottom of the sixth reminded the rest of the order that a 2-0 deficit was far from insurmountable and the Orioles responded with three more runs over the next couple innings to surge ahead. The first-pitch homer came after Machado was locked in during his previous at-bat, a nine-pitch battle in the fourth that resulted in a line-drive single.

3rd Darren O’Day did have a two-run lead and has proven to be more than capable of handling the closer duties in the past, but he was very impressive in striking out the side to complete the 4-2 victory. The right-hander was also making his third appearance in four days, a heavy workload for this early stage of the season. O’Day recorded six strikeouts in three scoreless innings in the series.

HomeJoey Rickard continued his storybook start to the 2016 season with his first major league homer in the bottom of the eighth. The Rule 5 pick received a curtain call for his efforts as the crowd chanted his name repeatedly. … Jonathan Schoop knocked in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh with a single to center. … Dylan Bundy made his first major league appearance since Sept. 25, 2012 and pitched a scoreless eighth inning after he had warmed up at several other times during the series. … Caleb Joseph threw out two runners attempting to steal, one of them being Danny Santana right before Joe Mauer homered off Jimenez in the first inning. … After throwing only 22 pitches because of a rain delay on Opening Day, Chris Tillman returns to the hill on Friday where he’ll be opposed by Tampa Bay ace Chris Archer to begin a three-game set.

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Five things that can’t happen for 2016 Orioles

Posted on 01 April 2016 by Luke Jones

At the start of every season, we try to pinpoint what must go to plan and what cannot happen if the Orioles are to have a successful year.

In truth, there are very few absolutes you can count on over the course of a marathon 162-game schedule filled with twists and turns.

No one would have predicted a division title if they knew the Orioles would lose both Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries in 2014. Last season, the discussion centered around the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and the Orioles ended up scoring more runs than they did the year before — and still finished 81-81 and out of the playoffs.

You just never really know and that’s what makes the game great.

With that truth in mind, below is a stab at five things that can’t happen for the Orioles in 2016 after looking at the factors that must go right. In an effort to not be too redundant in the wake of the first piece, I tried to avoid discussing the previous points needing to go well.

1. The starting pitching collapses

Yes, we touched on the starting pitching in the previous piece, but what else could possibly top this list — the entire starting lineup adopting Marty Cordova’s tanning bed strategy for the season?

In the AL in 2015, the Baltimore starting pitchers finished 14th in in ERA, 10th in strikeouts, sixth worst in walks, and second worst in home runs allowed. On top of that, the club’s most dependable starter, Wei-Yin Chen, signed with the Miami Marlins in the offseason.

Veteran newcomer Yovani Gallardo was tabbed as the man to replace him and carries a 3.66 ERA for his career, but his strikeout rate and velocity have plummeted over the last few seasons and the Orioles renegotiated his original three-year contract because of concerns with his right shoulder. The hope is that an impressive ground-ball rate keeps the 30-year-old effective pitching at Camden Yards.

Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman provide the most upside, but the former dealt with a hip issue early in camp and is coming off his worst season since 2011. Meanwhile, Gausman will begin the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and the Orioles have already pushed back his projected return date from April 10 to April 19, making you wonder if the ailment is more serious than they first indicated.

You never know what you’re going to get from Ubaldo Jimenez, but he’s been more bad than good in his first two seasons with the Orioles. And now with the Orioles having severed ties with Miguel Gonzalez, they’ll be counting on the likes of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and veteran newcomer Vance Worley to fill out the last spot in the rotation with Wright getting the first shot.

If this group can bring middle-of-the-pack quality — probably the most upside you could reasonably hope for — the Orioles are strong enough elsewhere to be in contention. A repeat of 2015 or worse could lead to a long summer in Baltimore.

And then you’d fear how dramatic struggles from the rotation could wear out a strong bullpen, no matter how effectively it’s managed.

2. Corner outfield wasteland repeats

The Orioles failed in their plan to use a committee of fringe veterans to handle the spots flanking center fielder Adam Jones a year ago, but questions remain for a second straight season.

Projected to be the primary starter in right field, Mark Trumbo should be an upgrade with the bat, but his limitations in the outfield are no secret and negative defensive value would wipe away much of what he brings at the plate. Fortunately, there isn’t a ton of ground to cover in right at Camden Yards, so the test will be how quickly Trumbo can get used to playing balls off the out-of-town scoreboard.

Left field was supposed to be handled by Korean newcomer Hyun Soo Kim, but his poor spring has his future in limbo. Putting aside the scouting failure of signing a player who isn’t able to catch up to fastballs and is poor defensively to a $7 million contract, the Orioles haven’t exactly treated Kim in the most hospitable way by benching him and then speaking at length to the media about his shortcomings as they’re trying to get him to accept a minor-league assignment, something he’s under no contractual obligation to do.

Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard is the wild card here after he posted a 1.029 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, but are the Orioles putting too many eggs in this basket? What did Tampa Bay not like about Rickard that the Orioles could be missing?

Veteran Nolan Reimold will factor into the mix as well, but he is better suited to be a fourth outfielder at this stage of his career. The minor-league options include Dariel Alvarez, Xavier Avery, Henry Urrutia, and converted first baseman Christian Walker, who is intriguing if he proves himself defensively.

3. Chris Davis reverts to his 2014 form

You can’t expect Davis to be any better just because he signed the richest contract in franchise history in the offseason, and it will be difficult for the 30-year-old first baseman to match what he did last season with his 47 homers.

That said, few events would be more deflating than to see Davis have a season more closely resembling what he was in 2014 when he hit .196 with just 26 home runs. If the Orioles are to contend, they’re going to need to hit a ton of home runs and Davis needs to again lead the way in that department.

His ever-increasing pull rate is something to monitor and could cause him to age poorly, but the Orioles hope Davis will continue being a great power hitter for the next three to four years before crossing their fingers that the final few years of the contract aren’t as painful as some fear they will be.

4. Buck Showalter leans too heavily on J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters

I touched on these topics at length in the offseason, but the Orioles would be wise to better manage Hardy’s health after two injury-plagued seasons and shouldn’t overlook defense when it comes to the catching pair of Wieters and backup Caleb Joseph.

Hardy has stayed healthy and slugged .521 with three home runs this spring, drastic improvement from his .564 OPS while playing the entire 2015 season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 33-year-old shortstop would likely benefit from more routine days off and should no longer be treated as the guy who missed only seven games combined in 2012 and 2013. Keeping Hardy fresh would presumably go a long way in keeping him healthy and productive at the plate and in the field.

The spring scare with Wieters’ right elbow could be a sign that he isn’t yet ready to be the guy who regularly caught 135-plus games per season prior to Tommy John surgery. Even if he is, the tools Joseph brings behind the plate shouldn’t be ignored despite Wieters being the better offensive player. If Wieters isn’t tearing the cover off the ball, the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to use Joseph more often because of his ability to frame pitches and handle a pitching staff, especially since the former is only under contract through this season.

5. The Orioles are unable to block out the noise

It was a weird offseason a year after executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette flirted with the Toronto Blue Jays’ job promotion, and questions continue about whether members of the organization are on the same page.

The Orioles enter 2016 with a franchise-record payroll, but negotiations didn’t exactly go smoothly with Davis and the early-spring drama with both Gallardo’s physical and the twists and turns with free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler were nothing short of bizarre.

The decision to release Gonzalez this week may have been the correct one from baseball and business standpoints, but it’s no secret that the well-liked pitcher’s departure didn’t sit well with his teammates. Yes, they’re professionals and will move on, but these are human beings with emotions, as Showalter often likes to remind us.

The Kim situation threatens to linger if the Orioles choose not to eat $7 million and instead carry him on the 25-man roster after saying he wasn’t good enough to make the club. Such a scenario wouldn’t exactly send a great message to the rest of the clubhouse, either.

On top of all that, the Orioles spent a great amount of money to essentially maintain a similar roster to the group that needed a five-game winning streak just to finish .500 last season. And few experts are giving the Orioles much of a chance to make the playoffs for the third time in five years after they failed to make any significant improvements to the starting rotation.

Over the past few years, the Orioles have often thrived under such circumstances, which should give fans hope.

None of this is quantifiable, of course, but with a higher payroll come greater expectations and this is a club with a window of just three seasons before All-Star pillars Manny Machado and Adam Jones hit free agency. And the minor-league well is quite dry when it comes to reinforcements to help address deficiencies.

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2016 Orioles preview: Caleb Joseph

Posted on 22 March 2016 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day less than two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2016 Orioles every day as they try to return to the playoffs for the third time in five years this season.

March 1 – Adam Jones
March 2 – Chris Tillman
March 3 – Jonathan Schoop
March 4 – Brad Brach
March 5 – Nolan Reimold
March 6 – Yovani Gallardo
March 7 – Matt Wieters
March 8 – T.J. McFarland
March 9 – Dariel Alvarez
March 10 – Brian Matusz
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Mychal Givens
March 13 – Ryan Flaherty
March 14 – Ubaldo Jimenez
March 15 – Mark Trumbo
March 16 – Darren O’Day
March 18 – Pedro Alvarez
March 19 – Oliver Drake
March 20 – Mike Wright
March 21 – Zach Britton

C Caleb Joseph

Age: 29

Contract status: Under club control through the 2020 season

2015 stats: .234/.299/.394, 11 HR, 49 RBI, 38 R, 0 SB, 355 PA

Why to be impressed: Known as an offensive-minded catcher in the minors, Joseph was again impressive behind the plate, throwing out 33 percent of runners trying to steal and finishing in the top 10 in the majors in pitch-framing statistics. He also improved offensively in his second season, finishing fifth in on-base plus slugging percentage among AL catchers with at least 350 plate appearances in 2015.

Why to be concerned: For the second straight year, Joseph’s production at the plate plummeted in September as he posted a .386 OPS, the kind of slump that ruined what was an otherwise strong season at the plate for a catcher. It’s reasonable to project Joseph as the starter in 2017, but this tendency coupled with a slight 180-pound frame makes you wonder if he can hold up as the full-time guy.

2016 outlook: I’ve made no secret about my affinity for Joseph as a catcher and believe he brings better all-around value than Wieters when considering the latter’s $15.8 million salary. Because of Joseph’s defensive prowess and ability to handle the staff, manager Buck Showalter shouldn’t hesitate to give him two or three starts per week to keep his starting catcher healthy and fresh for the entire season.

2016 not-so-scientific projections: .244/.311/.403, 9 HR, 38 RBI, 31 R, 0 SB, 290 PA

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

Posted on 14 March 2016 by Luke Jones

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

Are you concerned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wieters worry

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

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

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

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

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

Kim’s rough start

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

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

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

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

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Wieters leaves Saturday’s game due to elbow soreness

Posted on 12 March 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven questions for Sarasota: 2016 Orioles spring training

Posted on 16 February 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s about that time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Just how good is Hyun Soo Kim?

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

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

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

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

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

6. How will Showalter handle the catcher situation?

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

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

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

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Improving starting pitching complicated matter for Orioles

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Luke Jones

We know the Orioles need another starting pitcher.

In an ideal world, they’d add two to help fill the void of free-agent departure Wei-Yin Chen — their most consistent starter over the last four seasons — and provide more assistance to a staff that finished 14th in the American League in starter ERA last year.

But even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette does add a starter between now and the start of the season, refining from within will be paramount if the Orioles are to improve from the 81-81 record that left them on the outside looking in last October.

The starting pitching details from the end of 2015 are all too familiar by now.

Bud Norris was downright awful before finally being jettisoned in late July.

A declining strikeout rate (7.8 per nine innings in 2013 down to 6.2 last year) and a nightmarish 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto — his ERA against the rest of baseball was a respectable 3.84 — led to Chris Tillman’s worst ERA (4.99) since the 2011 season when he was still trying to establish himself as a major league pitcher.

Miguel Gonzalez had a shiny 3.33 ERA in his first dozen starts before a groin injury sent him to the disabled list in mid-June. He was never the same after that, posting a 6.53 ERA in his remaining 14 starts and going on the DL again in September.

For the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, improved command and a greater reliance on his two-seam fastball led to a 2.81 ERA in the first half of 2015 before he relapsed with a 5.63 mark following the All-Star break.

And the Orioles are hoping that a full season in the starting rotation for the 25-year-old Kevin Gausman will allow him to take the giant step forward many believe he’s capable of.

It’s easy to say that manager Buck Showalter needs more from these four starters, but what about other factors impact their pitching results?

As discussed extensively at the end of last season, the defense performing more like it did in 2014 would go a long way in helping a starting rotation that largely pitches to contact. However, the man receiving the pitches is also an important factor in their results.

That’s where the discussion becomes complicated with Matt Wieters accepting the $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season. The three-time All-Star catcher is better than Caleb Joseph offensively, but is Wieters — who won Gold Glove awards in 2011 and 2012 — the best catching option for Orioles pitching at this point?

Not according to the 2015 numbers with the departed Chen included below:

     2015 ERA pitching to Joseph      2015 ERA pitching to Wieters
Tillman 3.51 in 77 IP 4.88 in 83 IP
Gonzalez 4.18 in 71 IP 5.98 in 46 2/3 IP
Jimenez 2.87 in 144 1/3 IP 8.62 in 39 2/3 IP
Gausman 4.07 in 59 2/3 IP 4.38 in 51 1/3 IP
Chen 3.67 in 108 IP 3.18 in 65 IP

 

To be clear, these numbers alone don’t prove anything conclusive as Chen was the Orioles’ top starter and the only one to find more success with Wieters than Joseph last year. There are plenty of other factors impacting pitcher performance in this breakdown such as the opponents and the ballpark. Wieters also received most of his work behind the plate in the second half of 2015 when Gonzalzez and Jimenez were out of whack, and it would be wrong to significantly attribute their struggles to the veteran catcher’s return.

With Wieters being another year removed from Tommy John surgery, it would be fair to assume he’ll be more comfortable with pitch-calling after not catching in the majors for over a year and still spending time rehabbing even after his return in early June. It’s not as though Tillman and Gonzalez weren’t successful working with Wieters in 2012 and 2013 when both had consecutive seasons pitching to ERAs well below 4.00.

But more and more data is quantifying pitch-framing and how important it can be to a staff’s success, and this is where Joseph has proven to be valuable over the last two seasons. According to Baseball Prospectus, Joseph ranked ninth in the majors in called strikes above average and 10th in framing runs among qualified catchers last season after ranking seventh in CSAA and ninth in framing runs in 2014 when the starting rotation was among the best in the league in the second half.

Simply put, Joseph positions himself and receives the ball so effectively that he receives more called strikes on borderline pitches than the average catcher.

In contrast, Wieters — who is listed to be two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Joseph — has been a below-average framer over the last few years after being a top 10 performer in that area early in his career. Before posting below-average framing numbers in parts of the last two seasons, Wieters ranked 25th in CSAA and 26th in framing runs in his last full season in 2013 and finished 13th in both categories in 2012.

When you have starters who mostly lack the electric stuff required to miss bats consistently, pitching along the edges of the strike zone becomes even more important than it already is. Stealing as many borderline strikes as possible may not turn a terrible pitching staff into a great one, but it can still go a long way over the course of a full season. This is how Orioles pitching would benefit having Joseph behind the plate more often than Wieters.

We’ll see how Showalter ultimately distributes the playing time, but all signs point to Wieters being the primary catcher and that wouldn’t be surprising given the steep financial commitment being made to him for the 2016 season. This will likely provide a boost from an offensive standpoint, but you hope the hidden cost won’t be too harmful to a starting rotation needing all the help it can get if the Orioles are to jump back into serious contention after their first non-winning season since 2011.

Ultimately, the Orioles need better performance from their incumbent starting pitchers and that responsibility mostly falls on their shoulders, but effective framing and stronger defense would further augment the strides they hope to make in 2016.

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Five questions pondering Machado, Ravens tight ends, Pittsburgh’s woes

Posted on 28 August 2015 by Luke Jones

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

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or is it almost impossible to believe Manny Machado is the active “iron man” in the majors? As the Orioles prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record next week, how is it possible that someone who doesn’t yet have the 131 in “2131” owns the longest active streak with 127 consecutive games played entering Friday night? Credit Machado for being the only player in the majors to appear in each of his club’s games so far this season — especially after he underwent season-ending knee surgeries in the two previous years — but the 23-year-old would have to continue for nearly 15 1/2 seasons to catch Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games. We’ll see you in 2031 when Machado is 39 years old? I suppose we should never say never when no one thought Gehrig’s record would ever be broken, but the juxtaposition of Machado and Ripken 20 years later shows how remarkable “The Streak” really was.

2. Is it just me or does the tight end position become even more important with the Ravens’ current injuries at wide receiver? The long-term absence of Breshad Perriman and recent Michael Campanaro injury have taken attention away from the tight end position, but the Ravens have to be nervous at the thought of needing to count on their tight ends more than expected. Baltimore still has the incomparable Steve Smith as well as Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown at wideout, but none of them are field-stretchers, meaning the Ravens will need more precision in the short-to-intermediate passing game if Perriman isn’t ready to make an early impact. Young tight ends Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Nick Boyle have much upside, but they have 10 career receptions and one year of professional experience among them. In Saturday’s dress rehearsal for the season, offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will want to see his tight ends have a good showing to quell concerns.

3. Is it just me or is it embarrassing to look back at the Orioles’ corner outfield “crunch” of a couple months ago? It wasn’t long ago that we were discussing the Orioles’ difficulty in trying to make room for Delmon Young, Steve Pearce, Nolan Reimold, David Lough, Travis Snider, and Chris Parmelee. Two months later, only Pearce remains on the 25-man roster as the Orioles released Young and Snider and outrighted Parmelee, Lough, and Reimold to Triple-A Norfolk. Allowing both Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis to part via free agency was one thing, but the plan for trying to replace them was a colossal failure when there were better moves that could have been made that even wouldn’t have wreaked havoc on the payroll. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has done good things since arriving four years ago, but it’s difficult to recall a worse offseason for an individual that immediately followed an Executive of the Year campaign.

4. Is it just me or are the Pittsburgh Steelers in pretty rough shape early in the season? The Ravens have dealt with their share of injuries and face the daunting task of playing five of their first seven games on the road to begin the 2015 season. However, I’m still not sure it tops what Pittsburgh will face early on, especially with Thursday’s news that wide receiver Martavis Bryant will be suspended for the first four games. This comes after Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell was already serving a two-game ban, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a long-term ankle injury, and reliable kicker Shaun Suisham was lost for the year in the Hall of Fame Game. Of course, none of this should make the Ravens or their fans feel sorry for their hated rival, but it’s a simple reminder of just how much every team goes through over the course of a season. Taking nothing away from the team ultimately holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy at season’s end, but the NFL really is a war of attrition and involves plenty of luck.

5. Is it just me or are there some significant positives to take away from an otherwise disappointing campaign for the Orioles? It’s easy — and fair — to deem 2015 a failure if the Orioles do not qualify for the postseason for the third time in four years, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some important developments for the future. The organization and fan base will collectively knock on wood, but Machado has remained healthy while also blossoming into an MVP-caliber player as he’s already set career highs in home runs, stolen bases, and walks and is on track to finish with personal bests in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, RBIs, and runs scored. Despite missing nearly three months, second baseman Jonathan Schoop had an .845 on-base plus slugging percentage entering the weekend and would be on pace for 30 homers and 90 RBIs over a full season. The Orioles face an uncertain offseason, but two All-Star-caliber infielders under age 24 are golden pieces to build around.

 

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Joseph, Clevenger offer possible glimpse into Orioles catching future

Posted on 18 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Over the final two games of the Oakland series, Orioles catchers on the 25-man roster collected two home runs, three doubles, and nine RBIs.

That production came with Matt Wieters sidelined due to a hamstring issue as Baltimore completed a four-game sweep over the hapless Athletics. And it could offer a glimpse into the Orioles’ future at the position with Wieters set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Could the combination of Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger — or another quality backup paired with the former — make the decision not to re-sign Wieters an easier one?

The notion isn’t as far-fetched as it would have sounded a year ago when you consider the three-time All-Star selection still isn’t catching consecutive games 14 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wieters was always going to be a challenge to re-sign because of super agent Scott Boras, but would giving a lucrative long-term contract to a catcher approaching the wrong side of 30 even be the right move for a club with other holes to address this offseason?

In 272 plate appearances this season, Joseph has hit .255 with 11 homers, 43 RBIs, a .323 on-base percentage, and a .780 on-base plus slugging percentage. In contrast, Wieters has batted .278 with five homers, 17 RBIs, a .305 on-base percentage, and a .755 OPS in 167 plate appearances. Couple that similar offensive production with the fact that the 29-year-old Joseph is under club control through the 2020 season and you have a sound argument in favor of going with the cheaper option, especially if you pair Joseph with a good backup catcher that can spell him two or three times a week in a timeshare that would keep him fresh and help his offense as we’ve seen it do since Wieters has returned.

That’s where Clevenger could enter the picture as he was recently recalled from Triple-A Norfolk after hitting .305 for the Tides this season. Serving as the designated hitter over the final two games of the Oakland series, Clevenger collected four hits in Sunday’s 18-2 win and blasted a three-run shot off All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray on Monday night, making him the first Oriole actually from Baltimore to homer at Camden Yards.

He’s 10-for-24 with three extra-base hits in his brief time with the Orioles this season.

The sticking point with Clevenger receiving an opportunity to be Baltimore’s backup over the last couple years has been his defense, but manager Buck Showalter and other members of the organization have credited his work ethic and improvement behind the plate, making him a distinct possibility to factor into the catching picture for 2016 and beyond. Of course, the Pigtown native is more of a unknown than Joseph at this point — at least playing with the Orioles — but he has a track record for handling the bat well in the minors despite his defense holding him back.

Similar sentiments were shared about Joseph in the past as he was stuck at Double-A Bowie for four straight seasons, making you wonder if Clevenger could follow in those footsteps as a late bloomer to find success at the major league level.

In his second season in the majors, Joseph has shown himself to be capable of serving in a role much bigger than the traditional backup catcher who plays only once a week. And in limited opportunities this season, Clevenger is stating a case to be the complementary piece to help fill the catching void should Wieters depart.

Taking nothing away from the All-Star catcher, but the Orioles are looking more and more capable of being able to survive without him as his free agency is rapidly approaching.

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Davis quietly continuing bounce-back season

Posted on 04 August 2015 by Luke Jones

A year ago at this time, Orioles slugger Chris Davis was in the midst of the worst season of his career and just over a month away from being suspended 25 games for Adderall use.

The nightmare campaign landed him at an uncomfortable crossroads in his career, but the 29-year-old has responded with a bounce-back season that hasn’t garnered as much praise as deserved. No one should have ever expected Davis to duplicate his 53-homer output in 2013, but a three-run shot in the first inning in Oakland on Monday — his 27th of the season — moved him past his totals for home runs and RBIs from a year ago with still two months remaining in the 2015 season.

Still, Davis’ biggest critics dwell on the 132 strikeouts that lead the majors or a .245 batting average that dwarfs his anemic .196 mark from a year ago but still underwhelms in traditional baseball eyes. Davis isn’t the perfect hitter, but an .834 on-base plus slugging percentage and a pace to finish with 42 homers and 116 RBIs spell out what’s clearly been a good season.

Since May 27, Davis has 19 homers and 52 RBIs to go along with a .269 average and .915 OPS in 254 plate appearances. That type of production over more than one-third of a season is in the neighborhood of what he accomplished in his MVP-caliber 2013. His 31.1 percent strikeout rate is down from last season (33 percent) while he has homered in 6.4 percent of his plate appearances, the second-best rate of his career.

All along, it was a reasonable goal for Davis to bounce back to the level he achieved in 2012 when he hit 33 homers with 85 RBIs and an .827 OPS. He appears on his way to doing that as he’s positioned himself for a nice payday when he becomes a free agent after the season.

Now you only wonder how much of a push the Orioles will make to keep a player on his way to hitting more than 30 home runs for the third time in the last four seasons in a day and age when power isn’t easy to find.

Wilson finds a way

Acknowledging it was a favorable matchup against a punchless Oakland lineup in cavernous O.co Coliseum, you still had to be impressed with what Tyler Wilson accomplished in his second major league start, tossing 7 2/3 innings and allowing two earned runs in a 9-2 victory on Monday.

In 24 2/3 innings for the Orioles this season, Wilson has relied heavily on a fastball with good sink to frequently induce grounders while pitching to a 2.19 ERA. He doesn’t blow you away with a fastball that only averages 90 mph and he hasn’t missed as many bats as you’d like in striking out only 2.6 batters per nine innings, but his control has allowed him to compete as he’s issued five walks in his six appearances in the majors.

It remains to be seen whether Wilson’s stuff will be good enough to sustain success as a major league starter, but the 25-year-old right-hander did a commendable job filling in for Chris Tillman and helping the Orioles get off to a good start on their nine-game West Coast trip.

Road Gausman

It was interesting to hear Kevin Gausman talk about his initial fears as a rookie pitching at Oriole Park at Camden Yards after his seven-inning performance against Detroit over the weekend as he’s now posted a 0.86 ERA in his three home starts (21 innings) this season.

However, he hasn’t found the same success away from his home ballpark, posting a 7.98 ERA in his three road starts spanning 14 2/3 innings.

If the Orioles are to complete a successful road trip and have their best chance to contend over the final two months, Gausman needs to find success on the road like he’s been able to find pitching in his home ballpark.

Joseph benefiting from more rest

Catcher Caleb Joseph hit his ninth homer of the season and drove in three runs on Monday, raising his average to .250 and continuing a respectable season at the plate.

Much was made about the return of Matt Wieters in June, but Joseph has a better on-base percentage (.325 to .292) and OPS (.754 to .733) than the three-time All-Star catcher. Since moving into a part-time role alternating games with Wieters, Joseph is hitting .263 with five homers and 19 RBIs in 86 plate appearances.

Even if they were able to re-sign Wieters this offseason, the Orioles still might be better off trying to find a good backup type of a catcher — think Nick Hundley from a year ago — to pair with Joseph instead of throwing big money at a backstop rapidly approaching age 30 and still not catching consecutive days following Tommy John surgery.

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