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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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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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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 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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2015 Orioles preview: Caleb Joseph

Posted on 24 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman
March 18 – Alejandro De Aza
March 19 – Tommy Hunter
March 20 – Manny Machado
March 21 – Brad Brach
March 22 – Steve Pearce
March 23 – Darren O’Day

C Caleb Joseph

Opening Day age: 28

Contract status: Will become a free agent after the 2020 season

Minor-league options remaining: Three

2014 stats: .207/.264/.354, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 22 R, 0 SB, 275 PA

Why to be impressed: After seven seasons in the minors, Joseph had a reputation for not being very good defensively, but he threw out 23 of 57 runners (40 percent) trying to steal when he was promoted in May to replace the injured Matt Wieters. Joseph had only 171 plate appearances in Triple A, but he showed solid power as a rookie, hitting nine homers in a 47-game span.

Why to be concerned: Joseph was hitting .236 with a respectable .697 OPS in early September before he tired down the stretch and went 0-for-30 with 13 strikeouts to close the regular season. With pitchers having seen Joseph at the major league level, he’ll need to make significant adjustments to improve on his 25.1 percent strikeout rate from a year ago.

2015 outlook: With Wieters sidelined for at least the start of the season, Joseph is expected to handle the bulk of the catching duties in his place, which could allow him to solidify his standing as the backup. If you eliminate his 1-for-26 start and 0-for-30 finish, Joseph put up some respectable numbers (.263 average) in his rookie season. Finding enough consistency to raise his average to the .240 range will be the challenge, but his track record as a hitter in the minor leagues suggests it’s a reasonable expectation along with an ability to hit a few homers in the process.

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Recovering Wieters focused on 2015 season despite looming free agency

Posted on 28 February 2015 by Luke Jones

SARASOTA, Fla. — Watching Orioles catcher Matt Wieters during the first few days of full-squad workouts, you could almost forget he’s less than nine months removed from having Tommy John surgery.

He may not yet be cleared to fire bullets down to second or third base to gun down a runner trying to steal, but there have been no signs of apprehension to this point as he’s participated in other fielding drills and caught bullpen sessions. The Orioles hope it stays that way as Wieters will catch in the club’s first intrasquad game on Sunday, which won’t include any throwing for him beyond tosses back to the pitcher.

“He’s doing everything [else],” manager Buck Showalter said. “I saw him throw a ball [the other day] and I had to catch myself because it looked like normal and I thought to myself, ‘Jeez.’ There wasn’t that recoil or decel at the end that you see with a lot of guys that are [recovering from arm injuries].”

It’s so far, so good for Wieters, who is part of a small group of major league catchers to have undergone the elbow ligament reconstruction surgery more commonly associated with pitchers. The track record of catchers coming back from the surgical procedure isn’t encouraging, but most in the group were fringe major league catchers to begin with and lacked Wieters’ ability behind the dish and in the batter’s box.

Defense has been Wieters’ biggest strength throughout his major league career as he’s thrown out 33 percent of runners trying to steal. Until the 28-year-old is fully cleared to throw behind the plate, however, uncertainty remains about what kind of catcher he’ll be in his seventh season and beyond.

The three-time All-Star selection and two-time Gold Glove winner may not have to worry about throwing breaking balls or preparing for 100-pitch outings like a hurler coming back from Tommy John surgery, but making a high volume of throws from different angles behind the plate does make projecting an exact timetable for recovery tricky compared to the expected 10 to 14 months for most pitchers or the six to eight months for other position players not throwing as often as catchers.

“The rehab is going as well as we could have expected, which is a blessing in itself,” Wieters said. “To be able to get out there and just do partial throwing and be able to just be with the guys is great. I’m going through the throwing program, and it feels good throwing. I haven’t gotten into actual positional throwing yet, so that will be the next step of getting into a squat and making throws as a catcher. I’ll do that for a little bit before actually getting behind the plate in a game.”

The Orioles are currently targeting March 17 for Wieters’ first game behind the plate in Grapefruit League action. In the meantime, he’ll receive at-bats as a designated hitter and catch in minor-league spring games — once again with no runners trying to steal — at the organization’s Twin Lakes facility. Showalter plans to have Wieters’ legs fully in shape to allow him to catch five to seven innings when he makes his Grapefruit League debut behind the plate.

The organization and Wieters remain hopeful that he’ll be ready for Opening Day on April 6, but returning to the lineup for good is the 2007 first-round pick’s ultimate goal in not wanting to experience a setback or to need to baby the surgically-repaired elbow over the course of a 162-game season.

“I think about what’s going to be best for the team and what’s going to be best health-wise going forward,” Wieters said. “It’s something where missing all that time last year was tough. I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to make the decision, ‘What’s the best way for you to be on the field as much as possible?’ This game is what I love playing, and we’re going to do whatever is going to give me the best chance to be on the field the most this year.”

There’s also the reality of looming free agency to consider as Wieters is scheduled to hit the open market next winter. The catcher insists his singular focus is on getting ready for the season, but he and agent Scott Boras have to be thinking about his health and showing the Orioles and potential suitors that his elbow problem will be completely behind him.

It isn’t an easy position for a soon-to-be 29-year-old catcher to be in after he’s already logged 5,533 innings behind the plate in his major league career. In that way, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of his body in 2014 as he was only able to contribute from a mental standpoint, which even included some advanced scouting of the Detroit Tigers ahead of the American League Division Series.

Showalter has frequently pointed to Wieters as a potential manager one day and credited his work with catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley as a major reason why the pitching staff thrived in his absence.

“It just verified what we thought. That doesn’t surprise anybody,” Showalter said. “He was in the film room with those guys every day. His words carry a lot of weight. He projects a real self-confidence when you’re willing to help other people like that.”

Wieters is confident that his familiarity with the club’s pitching staff — which lost only lefty reliever Andrew Miller in the offseason — will allow for a smooth return behind the plate.

Having not played in a game since May 10 of last year, Wieters is itching to return to action, whether it’s as soon as Opening Day or a more conservative track. He gained perspective from watching Showalter in the dugout and believes the mental side of his game has improved over the last year, but watching his teammates play in the 2014 postseason wasn’t easy.

“It was tough and great at the same time to be able to watch those guys have the success they had last year,” Wieters said. “I felt a part of it but not as much a part of it as I would have liked to be. When the season ended last year, I was probably the only guy in that clubhouse that was already thinking about spring training. Those guys deserved their time off, but I was ready to come down here and get going as soon as possible.”

Wieters can see the light at the end of the tunnel in the rehabilitation process, but the last few hurdles remain. Meanwhile, the Orioles know the clock is ticking before the catcher hits free agency, with few expecting him to sign an extension to stay with the organization that drafted him.

Those realities present an interesting juxtaposition as Wieters must understandably focus on the big picture while the Orioles would like to maximize their return in their final season of control before free agency. Unclear of his future beyond 2015, Wieters is hoping to take advantage of a healthy season while trying to help the Orioles defend their 2014 AL East title.

“I love Baltimore and Baltimore’s a great town,” Wieters said. “Right now, I’m really thinking about getting back on the field, which could be a blessing. [Free agency is] something that always looms for players, but for me, it’s really just about getting back out there and enjoying it.”

Listen to my exclusive interview with Wieters from Sarasota HERE.

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Orioles must slow speedy Royals in quest for AL pennant

Posted on 09 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles manager Buck Showalter almost sounded coy when asked about the speed of the Kansas City Royals as his club made final preparations for the American League Championship Series scheduled to get underway Friday night.

With five Royals players recording double-digit steals in the regular season and another rookie — Terrance Gore — stealing three bases in his first four postseason games, the Orioles face a tall order in slowing Kansas City’s speed demons, a factor many view as a potential tipping point between two clubs that are very similar beyond their contrasting offensive styles.

“They’re not automatically going to all of a sudden run slower tomorrow,” Showalter said. “If anything, they’re going to run faster. You don’t control that. It’s impossible. It’s one of those givens. Try to keep them off base as much as you can.”

Sure, there’s no better remedy for neutralizing speed than preventing runners from reaching first, but the Orioles don’t sound nearly as concerned about the Kansas City running game Thursday as the many outsiders trying to break down this matchup. As some ponder whether the season-ending elbow injury to Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters will finally catch up to Baltimore in this best-of-seven series, the Orioles spent Thursday pointing out that their regular style of play always involves containing an opponent’s running game.

Most of the attention falls on the shoulders of the catching tandem of Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, but the ability to stop potential thievery runs deeper.

Even with the two-time Gold Glove selection Wieters limited to just 22 games behind the plate this season before an elbow injury eventually led to Tommy John surgery, opponents still attempted the fourth-fewest number of steals in the AL against Baltimore this season. The Orioles ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners trying to steal with Joseph — a 28-year-old rookie not known for his defensive work in the minors — and the veteran Hundley handling the catching duties for much of the season.

And that’s when you begin to see where the real responsibility lies in controlling an opponent’s running game.

“The easiest way [to neutralize it] is quick times to the plate, no question,” said former Orioles outfielder and current vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, who swiped 315 bases in his 15-year career. “As a base stealer, you steal bases off the pitcher. It doesn’t matter to me if [13-time Gold Glove winner] Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate; if the pitcher was slow, I’m going.”

Look no further than Game 1 starter Chris Tillman to see how much emphasis the Orioles have placed on pitchers being fast to the plate and holding runners since Showalter’s arrival during the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was admittedly poor when it came to holding runners during his early years with the Orioles before Showalter and Wieters preached the need for him to shorten his delivery to prevent runners from going wild on the bases.

It was a mindset that several pitchers have needed to learn the hard way during Showalter’s tenure, with some even earning demotions to the minors as a result.

Tillman has not only posted back-to-back 200-inning seasons to emerge as the ace of the Baltimore rotation, but the 26-year-old has allowed only two stolen bases since the start of the 2013 season.

“When Buck got here, it was a big pet peeve of his,” Tillman said. “You’ve got to be quick and give your catchers a chance. Anytime the opposing guys get an extra 90 feet for free, you’re not doing yourself a favor. It’s an organizational thing now. Early on, I don’t think it was. I was young and immature and didn’t know any better, to tell you the truth.”

Of course, the Royals aren’t just any other club in stealing 153 bases to lead the majors in the regular season, and they appear to have only gotten better in that department with the addition of the speedy Gore to go along with Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, and Nori Aoki. They have gone a remarkable 12-for-13 attempting to steal in four postseason games.

But the Orioles feel confident in their scouting and preparation and their biggest weapon in helping to neutralize an opponent’s running game, which is none other than bench coach John Russell.

“A lot of it comes from the bench,” Hundley said. “John Russell does an unbelievable job knowing tendencies, knowing when to throw over, knowing when to pitch out. He doesn’t get enough credit. He controls all the pick-offs and all that stuff. How good he is at it helps us out — me and Caleb — a bunch. And it takes a lot of pressure off the pitchers, because they know he’ll put them in a very successful position.”

It remains to be seen how Showalter will distribute the catching duties over the course of the series, but Hundley is expected to start Game 1. The 31-year-old veteran acquired from the San Diego Padres in late May handled a larger portion of the playing time down the stretch despite throwing out only 19 percent of runners trying to steal this season. In contrast, Joseph gunned down 40 percent during his rookie season even though his defense was often viewed as a hindrance in his minor-league development for years.

Regardless of who might be behind the plate, the mindset isn’t expected to change for Orioles pitchers as they will do what they always do — even against the speedy Royals.

“All the pitchers feel comfortable with it, because it’s something we’ve always put the onus on,” Wieters said. “It shouldn’t be anything different in their minds as far as what they need to do. They stick with their same times to the plate, and it gives us a chance. As a catcher, that’s all you want. There are certain guys that you won’t throw out, but we feel like every pitcher out there is giving the catcher a chance to make a good throw and hopefully get an out.”

Ultimately, the Orioles know they can’t reinvent the wheel when trying to slow a club that ran wild against the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card Game and continued their aggressiveness against the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series. They’ll simply stick with their regular habits of being quick to the plate and holding runners effectively while likely being savvy in attempting to interrupt runners’ timing with pick-off attempts or by simply holding the ball a little longer in some instances.

Showalter isn’t going to change who the Orioles are at this late stage, nor should he try to with a club that won 96 games this season with plenty of its own strengths. And he saw firsthand in September how a pitcher can fall apart on the hill if he’s dwelling on a fast runner and not focusing on the hitter at the plate.

“We’ve talked about it, but we’re not going to rob from Peter to pay Paul,” Showalter said. “I think one time we had Quintin [Berry] pinch‑running for us late in the year, and without naming the [opposing] pitcher, you could tell his whole delivery changed trying to keep him from stealing second. He gave up three hits, back to back to back. We didn’t steal a base, but we didn’t have to.

“But we’ve got some things that they might have to adjust to, too.”

The biggest key will be maintaining their mental toughness by not allowing Kansas City’s preference for a track meet to take away from what they do best.

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