Tag Archive | "Chris Tillman"

joseph

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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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machado

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Orioles agree to deals with Machado, three others

Posted on 15 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles agreed to terms with four of their six remaining arbitration-eligible players on Friday when major league clubs and players exchanged arbitration figures.

Headlining the list was All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who reportedly agreed to a $5 million contract with additional performance incentives in his first year of arbitration. The 23-year-old received the biggest raise of any Orioles player after making just $548,000 last season.

Baltimore also agreed to terms with starting pitchers Chris Tillman (a reported $6.225 million plus incentives) and Miguel Gonzalez (a reported $5.1 million) and infielder Ryan Flaherty (a reported $1.5 million). First baseman and outfielder Mark Trumbo and relief pitcher Brad Brach agreed to terms on Thursday.

Left-handed relievers Zach Britton and Brian Matusz did not come to agreements with the club and exchanged salary figures on Friday. According to multiple reports, Britton is asking for $7.9 million while the Orioles offered $5.6 million, and Matusz filed for $4.4 million with the organization countering at $3.5 million.

Hearings for both players will now be scheduled for February, but the sides are allowed to continue negotiating in the meantime. Outfielder Alejandro De Aza was the only Orioles player to go to arbitration last offseason, but he lost his case and was signed to the organization’s $5 million figure.

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Despite focus on offensive woes, rotation has sealed Orioles’ 2015 fate

Posted on 08 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles’ offseason departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis need to be rehashed about as much as Chris Tillman desires another start against the Toronto Blue Jays at this point.

We get it.

Even if you might have agreed with the decision not to sign either outfielder to a four-year contract, there’s no excusing an offseason plan that essentially consisted of writing checks to a long list of arbitration-eligible players and trading for a failed former first-round pick (outfielder Travis Snider) after one good half in 2014.

But even with the corner outfield woes that have lingered all year, the reeling Orioles entered Tuesday averaging 4.36 runs per contest, a mark nearly identical to last season’s 4.35 scored per game. It may not feel that way with the offense’s extreme peaks and valleys during a difficult 2015 season, but the numbers don’t lie.

Would the Orioles still be in contention for a playoff spot with Cruz and Markakis? Certainly.

But would Buck Showalter’s club be even with Toronto and the New York Yankees in the American League East race? Based on the way the starting rotation has performed, probably not.

That failure has ultimately sealed the Orioles’ fate as they entered Tuesday a season-worst seven games below .500 and 7 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.

After ranking fifth in the AL with a 3.61 starter ERA in 2014 — the rotation was even better after the All-Star break with a 2.98 ERA — Orioles starters had a 4.59 ERA through their first 137 games, ranking 13th in the AL. Baltimore posted no worse than a 3.55 ERA in each of the final four months of 2014 while this year’s rotation has pitched to no better than a 3.84 mark in any single month.

You simply can’t expect to sustain success when your starters have been nearly an entire run worse per nine innings than they were a year ago. When you strip away the names and perceptions, the offensive numbers and bullpen ERA are very similar to 2014 while the starting rotation has woefully fallen short of last year’s pace.

Entering Tuesday, the Orioles had scored three or fewer runs in 46 percent of their games this season and held a 9-54 record under such circumstances. A year ago, Baltimore scored three or fewer 44.4 percent of the time and was 21-51 in those games.

Say what you will about the offensive struggles putting pressure on the pitcher, but it’s a two-way street when only one member of the starting rotation holds an ERA below 4.00. The offense has prompted much hair-pulling over significant stretches of 2015, but the times when Orioles starters have picked up the lineup have been few and far between.

Even if Dan Duquette anticipated the Orioles offense matching last year’s overall run production, he failed in leaving no margin for error for a rotation that exceeded expectations in 2014. That said, even the executive’s biggest detractors couldn’t have expected the starting pitching to be quite this poor.

Short of the Orioles making a marquee signing for an ace such as 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, few called for Duquette to make significant changes to the rotation this offseason after such a strong 2014. Less than a year later, the Orioles are left wondering who will even fit into the 2016 equation.

Tillman sports an ERA above 5.00 after three straight years of pitching to a 3.71 mark or better to establish himself as the club’s de facto ace.

After three straight years as a reliable starter, Miguel Gonzalez has been a disaster since late June and is currently on the disabled list.

Kevin Gausman was not only mishandled at the beginning of the season, but the 24-year-old hasn’t been able to build on a 2014 season in which he posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts.

A 15-game winner a year ago, Bud Norris didn’t even make it to August with a 7.06 ERA.

Ubaldo Jimenez has followed the narrative of most of his career with a strong first half (2.81 ERA) followed by a 6.88 ERA since the All-Star break, but there has been no attractive option to replace him like there was with Gausman last year.

Wei-Yin Chen is the only starter you can feel good about this season, but even he has allowed a club-leading 28 home runs. On top of that, the Taiwanese lefty is set to become a free agent at the end of the year and appears unlikely to return.

It’s easy to say the Orioles would be fine if they still had Cruz and Markakis — they’ve clearly been missed — but the story of last year’s 96-win club was more about a starting rotation that took off over the final four months of the season than offensive firepower. At a time when the Orioles needed to bear down this season, the starting rotation has instead saved its worst performance for August (5.23 ERA) and September (8.76 in the first six starts).

Most of the attention has naturally remained on an inconsistent offense after such a failure of an offseason, but the starting rotation that picked up the Orioles a year ago has instead helped hammer the final nails into the coffin for 2015.

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LOUGH

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Lough becomes latest Orioles outfielder to be designated for assignment

Posted on 14 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles continued their purge of disappointing corner outfielders on Friday by designating David Lough for assignment prior to their series opener against the Oakland Athletics.

With Matt Wieters currently nursing a hamstring strain, catcher Steve Clevenger was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to take Lough’s place on the 25-man roster. Lough, 29, became the fifth Orioles outfielder to be designated for assignment since late May, joining Alejandro De Aza, Delmon Young, Chris Parmelee, and Travis Snider as players who failed as part of the offseason plan to replace free-agent departures Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.

Originally acquired to replace former Oriole Nate McLouth in left field two winters ago, Lough never established himself at the plate and was relegated to a role as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch runner for much of his two seasons with Baltimore. The July 31 acquisition of Gerardo Parra made Lough even more expendable because of his ability to back up Adam Jones in center field, a role that he held for the last two years.

After hitting .247 in 197 plate appearances last season, Lough was hitting just .202 in 2015 and was mired in a 2-for-26 slump in early July.

Manager Buck Showalter expressed hope that Lough would remain with the organization and accept an outright assignment to Norfolk if he goes unclaimed on waivers. The Orioles would then consider him for a September call-up.

Clevenger went 5-for-11 in a brief stint with the Orioles earlier this year and has had an impressive season for Norfolk, batting .305 with four home runs, 32 RBIs, and a .769 on-base plus slugging percentage. The organization has also been pleased with his improved defense behind the plate, a weakness of his when acquired from the Chicago Cubs in 2013.

The Orioles have also summoned Norfolk outfielder Henry Urrutia to Norfolk and are expected to activate him for Saturday’s game, meaning another roster move is coming. The Cuban outfielder hasn’t played for Baltimore since hitting .276 in 58 plate appearances in 2013, but the lefty is batting .292 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs for the Tides this season.

It doesn’t look like the Orioles will make room for Urrutia by placing Wieters on the disabled list as the three-time All-Star catcher said prior to Friday’s game that his hamstring is feeling much better, joking that he’s closed to being back to his normal “slow speed” on the bases. The 29-year-old said he would be available off the bench if needed, but Clevenger being recalled reflects a desire to stay away from using Wieters for at least another day or two if possible.

Right-hander Chris Tillman will complete his bullpen session on Saturday and is still in line to make Monday’s start despite being struck with a line drive on the right triceps during his last start in Seattle.

Right-handed relief pitcher Chaz Roe received a cortisone injection in his right shoulder and is responding well, leading to optimism that he’ll be ready to return after the 15-day minimum on the DL.

Steve Pearce is now taking batting practice in Sarasota as his injured oblique continues to improve. The Orioles hope he can begin a minor-league rehab assignment as early as the beginning of next week.

Right-hander Mike Wright is still feeling “tentative” when running and pushing off with his calf as Showalter did not make it sound like his return from the DL was imminent.

According to Showalter, pitching prospect Hunter Harvey’s throwing program is proceeding well as he continues to throw off flat ground. The organization is deciding whether he will pitch this fall and where that might take place.

Showalter also said that 22-year-old pitcher Dylan Bundy will have an appointment with Dr. James Andrews at the end of the month to determine how his shoulder is progressing after extensive rest.

Right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson is currently on the minor-league seven-day DL and is improving, but his return from an oblique strain is not considered imminent.

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Tillman’s next start pushed back to Friday

Posted on 02 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — After turning his left ankle in Wednesday’s win over Atlanta, Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman will have his next start pushed back to Friday in Anaheim.

Rookie right-hander Tyler Wilson has been summoned to Baltimore and will now start Monday’s game in Oakland. The 25-year-old is 1-1 with a 2.12 ERA in five appearances (one start) spanning 17 innings with the Orioles this year.

Tillman’s ankle is improving, but he was unable to complete his normal bullpen day, creating the need to push back his next start. Miguel Gonzalez will start Tuesday’s game against the Athletics with Wei-Yin Chen pitching the finale in Oakland on Wednesday afternoon.

To make room for Wilson, the Orioles could option Mychal Givens or Jorge Rondon. The latter was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday after right-hander Mike Wright was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a calf injury.

The Orioles traded away middle reliever Tommy Hunter and designated Bud Norris for assignment on Friday with visions of Wright and Givens picking up the slack in the bullpen.

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It’s time for Orioles to start looking toward future

Posted on 23 July 2015 by Luke Jones

The 2015 season isn’t over, but it’s time for the Orioles to look in the mirror and acknowledge what they’ve seen for almost four months.

A mediocre club.

No, Baltimore isn’t as bad as a 5-12 record in July would indicate, but we can’t be fooled again into thinking a run of 18 wins in 23 games last month is the real indication of who the 2015 club is when the Orioles have just one other winning streak of even three games outside that lone extended stretch of prosperity. They were bound to level off after their hot June in which they briefly climbed atop the American League East, but losing 14 of 19 is an unacceptable way for a streaking club to cool off — if not freeze entirely — if it wants to be taken seriously as a contender.

Trailing the New York Yankees by a season-worst seven games after being swept in the Bronx this week, the Orioles should not be in full-blown fire-sale mode with more than 60 games to go, but trying to be buyers with so few assets in their farm system would be irresponsible at this point. The truth is that with seven notable players set to become free agents this fall, the Orioles need to have more than just an eye toward the future with this year’s outlook not looking promising anymore.

For fans remembering the dark days of 14 consecutive losing seasons, this situation shouldn’t resemble the purge of 2000 that netted only Melvin Mora and what amounted to several bags of cheap fertilizer for the likes of B.J. Surhoff, Mike Bordick, Harold Baines, Charles Johnson, Will Clark, and Mike Timlin in a series of lousy trades. Baseball’s new qualifying offer system makes it clear that the Orioles shouldn’t trade Matt Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen, or Chris Davis for anything short of a return markedly exceeding the value of the draft pick they would receive for any of their departures as free agents.

In other words, this isn’t an endorsement to sell just because of frustration and a desire for change.

But executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette should look to move pending free agents for returns that could help position the Orioles nicely as early as next year. With a core of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, Kevin Gausman, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Zach Britton in place and secured beyond next season, the Orioles aren’t in a position where they need to completely rebuild, especially when remembering how much money will come off the payroll in the offseason.

Some forward thinking would help that cause, however, and the Orioles cannot have a repeat of the unimaginative and poor offseason that included problems beyond the obvious free-agent departures of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller last winter.

If a club is desperate for an All-Star reliever like Darren O’Day and is willing to part with major league talent or prospects close to being ready for the big leagues — remember what the Orioles gave up for Andrew Miller last July? — Duquette should pull the trigger, especially if he isn’t willing to re-sign him after the season.

A contender willing to put together an impressive package for Chen, Wieters, or Davis should be heard and negotiated with. If you can somehow move what remains of the salaries of Bud Norris or Tommy Hunter, you do it without giving the compensation much thought.

The Orioles shouldn’t feel an intense need to dump all of these players, but trading at least a couple could provide some nice pieces for the near future and may not even completely destroy whatever chance the current team still has to make a run at a wild card. If Buck Showalter’s club is going to rebound from a 46-48 start, the substantial improvement is going to come from within more than anything Duquette might be able to add as a buyer at this point.

Maybe adding a couple young players to the mix is what the Orioles need.

Why not take a look at what 26-year-old Cuban outfielder Dariel Alvarez has to offer? He really couldn’t be much worse that what the Orioles have received from the corner outfield spots so far this season.

If you sell high on Chen, reward 22-year-old pitcher Zach Davies with an audition in the rotation after his strong season at Triple-A Norfolk. Or do the same for Tyler Wilson or Mike Wright.

Over the last couple months, we’ve continued to remember last season as justification for why this year’s Orioles could still turn it around.

But after a disastrous July got even worse in three days of frustration at Yankee Stadium, it might be time to make a few moves to brighten the future instead of continuing to look back at a past further dimming in the rear-view mirror.

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machado

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Pondering next Orioles roster move, Machado, Tillman

Posted on 19 July 2015 by Luke Jones

With Kevin Gausman set to make Wednesday’s start against the New York Yankees, the Orioles will be faced with their latest decision to make room on the 25-man roster.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Detroit that it is likely to be a position player since a seven-man bullpen that now includes Bud Norris is without a pitcher holding a minor-league option. Even if the Orioles could option a reliever, you can only go with a short bullpen so long in this modern age of baseball.

So, who will be the next position player to go?

Much of the discussion from when the organization parted ways with Delmon Young earlier this month still applies now, but the continuing struggles of first baseman Chris Parmelee appear to have landed him in a vulnerable position. Since homering three times and going 5-for-9 in his first two games with the Orioles, Parmelee was hitting just .183 with a .216 on-base percentage and a .338 slugging percentage in 74 plate appearances entering Sunday’s game.

Parmelee started two of the three games against Detroit over the weekend, but the fact that Showalter has lowered him to ninth in the order speaks volumes about how much the 27-year-old has struggled. Meanwhile, Steve Pearce — who has platooned with Parmelee at first base — is hitting .292 with a respectable .779 on-base plus slugging percentage since June 1.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see outfielder Nolan Reimold designated for assignment as he’s hitting just .224 and is not playing much, but Parmelee is clearly in more danger than he was the last time the Orioles needed to part ways with a position player.

Machado continues rolling

Can we put to rest any concerns about the aftermath of Manny Machado participating in the Home Run Derby?

The 23-year-old hit his 20th home run of the season on Saturday night, becoming the youngest Orioles player to hit his 20th of a season since Cal Ripken did it just a few days after his 23rd birthday in August 1983. In his first two games after the All-Star break, Machado went 3-for-6 with a homer, a double, and four walks.

Facing All-Star lefty David Price in the third inning of a scoreless game, Machado hammered a slider an estimated 434 feet down the left-field line, an impressive display of power against one of the finest pitchers in all of baseball. For those wondering what Machado can aim for in terms of Orioles players age 23 or younger, Boog Powell holds the highest single-season homer total with 39 in 1964.

Eclipsing the big first baseman would be difficult, but Machado appears to have a solid chance to hit more home runs this year than he did in his first three seasons combined (33). As frustrating as the 2015 season has been at times for the Orioles, watching the young third baseman blossom into a superstar has been a blast.

Tillman’s masterpiece

How good was Chris Tillman on Saturday night?

After allowing a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler and walking No. 3 hitter Victor Martinez in the bottom of the first, the tall right-hander retired 23 hitters in a row in what was arguably the best start of his major league career. His eight strikeouts were a season high as he masterfully used his high fastball to help induce 18 swinging strikes from Tigers hitters.

Tillman’s game score of 87 was not only tied for the 24th best in the majors this season, but it was the highest of his career, even surpassing his shutout in Kansas City last May. Saturday’s win also marked his sixth career outing in which he allowed no more than one hit.

The 27-year-old lowered his season ERA to 4.96 with his eight shutout innings. His ERA against non-Toronto clubs is now 3.14, illustrating how skewed his numbers are by a horrendous 15.00 ERA in four starts against the powerful Blue Jays. It’s not an excuse for pitching so poorly against a division rival, but any remaining talk about Tillman potentially losing his spot in the rotation should cease when you acknowledge how good he’s been against everyone else.

 

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norris

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Five biggest Orioles disappointments of first half

Posted on 15 July 2015 by Luke Jones

Standing at 44-44 and in third place in the American League East, the Orioles have faced their share of disappointments as they look toward the second half of the 2015 season.

Though just four games behind the first-place New York Yankees and sporting the fifth-best run differential (plus-39) in the league, the Orioles and their fans could certainly point to the uncertain future of executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and a disappointing offseason as the biggest factors contributing to an underwhelming first half. It’s easy to point to the decisions not to re-sign any of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller, but the problems have run deeper than that.

On Wednesday, left-handed reliever Wesley Wright was designated for assignment, becoming the fifth veteran — joining Ryan Webb, Alejandro De Aza, Everth Cabrera, and Delmon Young — scheduled to make at least $1.6 million this year to be designated since the start of the season. Not only did the Orioles fail to keep their top free agents, but they spent a lot of money poorly elsewhere.

Below are my five biggest individual disappointments of the first half of the season:

Dishonorable mention: Everth Cabrera, Wesley Wright, Travis Snider

5. Alejandro De Aza/Delmon Young

It’s appropriate to lump these two together after they were both designated for assignment in the first half of the season. At the beginning of the year, manager Buck Showalter envisioned De Aza as his leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching while Young was expected to handle a larger role after the free-agent departures of Cruz and Markakis in the outfield.

Instead, De Aza hit just .214 with a .636 on-base plus slugging percentage and further saw his playing time diminish due to lapses on the bases and in the field. After being traded to Boston in early June, De Aza has provided a spark for the last-place Red Sox with a .323 average, making Orioles fans wonder where that production was earlier in the season.

Young’s .270 average may not have looked bad on the surface, but he offered little else as he homered only twice and posted an anemic .628 OPS in 180 plate appearances. Because of a crowded outfield situation and his limited versatility, Young was designated and eventually released last week.

While neither De Aza nor Young were necessarily projected to be everyday players, both were obvious disappointments after the Orioles committed to paying them a combined $7.25 million to contribute in 2015.

4. J.J. Hardy

It’s often forgotten that Hardy was the one big-name free agent the Orioles were able to keep last fall with a three-year, $40 million extension, making the first half of his 2015 season that much more frustrating after other veterans departed.

A left shoulder injury cost Hardy more than a month, but he hasn’t been able to gain his bearings at the plate beyond a few clutch hits here and there. His defensive ability remains a clear strength, but Hardy’s .226 average and .584 OPS must improve in the second half as the Orioles try to advance to the postseason for the third time in four years.

The fact that Hardy hit only nine homers last year while dealing with a lingering back issue was concerning enough, but a second straight season of diminished power (five homers in 225 plate appearances) creates doubt whether the 32-year-old will ever again approach the power numbers he posted in his first three years in Baltimore. Even if that’s the case, the Orioles need more offensive production in terms of average and at least a few more doubles from the veteran infielder.

You never want to discredit Hardy’s value in the field, but he’d be the first to tell you much more is needed with the bat.

3. Steve Pearce

Even his biggest supporters wouldn’t have predicted Pearce to duplicate his magical 2014 campaign in which he hit 21 homers, posted a team-leading .930 OPS, and was worth 5.9 wins above replacement, but the numbers were so strong that you could reasonably hope the journeyman had finally established himself as a solid everyday player.

That hasn’t been the case as Pearce hit .176 in his first 74 at-bats of 2015 and has largely been relegated to part-time duties against left-handed pitching. An .812 OPS since May 16 shows that Pearce has done a better job over the last two months, but most of that has come against left-handed pitching as he’s hitting just .207 against right-handers and .228 overall this year.

In addition to not matching the same power he found a year ago, Pearce’s walk rate has dropped considerably, a part of his game that was solid even before the 2014 season. What has likely saved the 32-year-old’s roster spot has been his versatility as he’s able to play four or five different positions, including second base for the first time earlier this season.

It will be interesting to see if Showalter will give Pearce more opportunities against right-handed pitching with Chris Parmelee struggling immensely of late, but it’s difficult foreseeing a return to the success from a year ago as Pearce is scheduled to hit free agency at the end of the season.

2. Chris Tillman

Predicting a down season for Tillman after he posted no worse than a 3.71 ERA in three straight seasons might not have been out of the question, but a 5.40 ERA and 3.8 walks per nine innings are numbers that would have landed him in the minors if not for the fact that he’s out of options.

The 27-year-old has been better since a nightmarish start in Toronto last month that elevated his ERA to 6.22, but his struggles are a major reason why the Orioles currently rank 10th in the AL with a 4.20 starter ERA. If you eliminate his 15.00 ERA in four starts against the Blue Jays, Tillman owns a very solid 3.48 mark against the rest of the league, but you can’t dismiss that part of the picture when Toronto is one of the clubs the Orioles are competing with in a tight division race.

His strikeout numbers are fairly similar to the last few seasons, but his walk rate is his highest since 2010 and the lack of fastball command has gotten him in trouble too often in 2015. Opponents have sported a .331 batting average on balls in play against Tillman, indicating he’s run into bad luck that’s made him pay even more for the control issues.

You hope the worst is behind Tillman as he pitched too well from 2012-2014 to continue languishing in the second half, but the Orioles wouldn’t figure to have much of a chance to be playing in October if the tall right-hander doesn’t start resembling the guy who had back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2013 and 2014.

1. Bud Norris

A look at his track record told you Norris was unlikely to win 15 games or match the 3.65 ERA he posted a year ago, but few have had a more dreadful season entering free agency in recent memory than Norris, who was demoted to the bullpen before the All-Star break.

Sporting a 6.86 ERA and being paid $8.8 million this season, Norris has been helpless against left-handed hitters who have posted a 1.005 OPS and hit nine homers against him, prompting opposing managers to stack their lineups with lefties in his starts. The changeup that worked so well against lefty hitters last year hasn’t been much of a factor in 2015, leaving Norris much too reliant on his fastball and slider.

With Kevin Gausman stepping into the rotation, Norris has the stuff to profile as a decent reliever, but the move now leaves Showalter without the “swinging-door” bullpen spot he likes to have to summon a fresh arm from the minors when necessary.

At this point, it doesn’t look like Norris will get another chance in the rotation unless someone else falters or is injured, but he’ll need to be able to pitch effectively out of the bullpen to keep his roster spot as he is out of options. Duquette will undoubtedly try to find a trade partner, but Norris would be difficult to give away at this point with a high salary attached to him.

Very few would have expected Norris to be Baltimore’s best starter in 2015, but the most disastrous season of his career couldn’t have come at a worse time for him or the Orioles.

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Orioles once again looking part of first-place club

Posted on 29 June 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles pitched two shutouts, their top six relievers threw a combined 18 pitches, and Adam Jones finally made his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The Buck Showalter garden gnome giveaway was a huge hit.

And, oh yeah, the Orioles found themselves back in first place in the American League East for the first time since April 19.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona might have been asking himself why he waited until the ninth inning of Game 2 to get ejected after his team’s abysmal day, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for a better doubleheader. In tossing shutouts in both games of the twin bill — a 4-0 win in the opener and an 8-0 final for the nightcap — the Orioles did something they hadn’t accomplished since Sept. 6, 1974 when they twice blanked the Indians in a doubleheader at old Cleveland Stadium.

“It was big. It was a good day,” said Game 2 winner Chris Tillman, who pitched a much-needed seven shutout innings to help his own psyche after Ubaldo Jimenez tossed eight scoreless frames in the opener. “Ubaldo went out and did an outstanding job. There was a lot of offense today in both games. It was really fun to watch.”

On the same day they won the 5,000th game in club history, the Orioles came out of the weekend only reinforcing what many have begun thinking more and more over the last four weeks. They’re looking like a first-place club and woke up Monday morning in that very position, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in a division where four clubs are currently separated by one game.

It’s a different season and a different club, but you couldn’t help but notice that the Orioles seized first place for good on July 3 last season. The similarities are there with an excellent defense, a stellar bullpen, and a revitalized offense hitting home runs, but even the starting pitching got into the act after struggling in recent weeks by allowing just two earned runs in 21 innings of work against the Indians.

Right now, the AL East is far from the poor division it looked to be six weeks ago as three clubs — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York — would have qualified for the playoffs if the season had ended on Sunday. Whether the Orioles will follow the same script of 2014 remains to be seen, but 18 wins in 23 games to move to the top of the division would have any club feeling good about itself.

“It’s a return for that, but it can be very fleeting,” Showalter said. “The only thing I look at is the loss column now and then. I don’t pay much attention to the other part of it.

“See if you can stay engaged and have a chance to roll the dice in September. That’s what it’s about. Position yourself to be in it in September and play meaningful games when the leaves start turning. It’s not that complicated.”

Continuing to win at a .783 clip as they have for more than three weeks isn’t sustainable, but the Orioles learned last year that it doesn’t take prolonged winning streaks to pull away from the pack if you consistently win series. If you combine the four games — two home and two away — against Philadelphia, Baltimore has now secured seven consecutive series wins.

Unlike the Orioles clubs from a few years ago, this group of players has the experience of bouncing back — like when they were six games below .500 earlier this month — that brings confidence the rest of the way. They know it won’t be this easy over the final three months of the season, and Showalter makes sure his players are prepared for that reality, never wanting them to be too high or too low after any result.

“We have the ups and downs,” said third baseman Manny Machado, who hit his career-high 15th homer on Sunday and continues sprinting toward superstar status a week shy of his 23rd birthday. “We started off a little slow. We had players injured, and we’re just getting back into it. Everybody’s starting to get healthy. This is just the midway point.

“There’s a lot more baseball ahead, a lot more slumps, a lot more games lost coming ahead, but we’ve got to stay focused and stay with the mindset that we have.”

The Orioles know they aren’t perfect.

Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are still sifting through a crowded corner outfield situation that will likely require parting ways with one or two options. As a whole, the group has been more productive in June, but the Orioles have to hope they’ll make the right decisions and the remaining pieces will continue getting the job done.

Tillman’s strong performance on Sunday was a step in the right direction as he and Bud Norris still have a long way to go to quell concerns over their immense struggles in the first half of 2015.

But these issues don’t feel insurmountable and certainly aren’t any worse than the weaknesses the other AL East contenders are facing. Even in winning 96 games and the club’s first division title in 17 years last year, the Orioles had their flaws.

It’s tough to ignore the similarities with 2014, even down to the contributions from unexpected sources such as Jimmy Paredes, Chaz Roe, and Chris Parmelee a year after Steve Pearce, Brad Brach, and Caleb Joseph emerged from the shadows.

“This team tries as much as we can not to think about last year,” said Chris Davis, who hit his club-leading 16th homer on Sunday night. “It was obviously a great year, but it’s over with. You have to turn the page and focus on what’s at hand. I think we’re proud of the way we’re playing right now and battling these last few days and playing with somewhat of a short roster.

“Guys have stepped up and have done a great job.”

And the Orioles have stepped to the top of the AL East as a result.

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Orioles continue rolling despite June rotation struggles

Posted on 25 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have played their best baseball of the season over the last three weeks.

Having won 15 of their last 20, Baltimore returns home Friday with a 38-34 record, one game better than the club was through 72 games last year. After a nightmarish May, the Orioles lineup has averaged 5.9 runs per game and outscored opponents by a 118-69 margin in the last 20 games.

The bullpen continues to excel with a 2.08 ERA in 164 2/3 innings dating back to April 29, but Thursday’s 8-6 win over Boston offered a tiny glimpse into what has to be a lingering concern in manager Buck Showalter’s mind despite his club’s recent success.

Returning from the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, Miguel Gonzalez lasted just five innings and allowed four earned runs and eight hits while laboring to hold the comfortable 6-1 lead he was presented in the fourth inning. It would have been unfair to expect too much from the right-hander in his first start for the Orioles since June 9, but it was the 14th time in the last 20 games in which a starting pitcher has failed to complete six innings. The Orioles have received only one start of seven or more innings over that time, which was Wei-Yin Chen’s eight shutout innings against Philadelphia on June 15.

Showalter told reporters following Thursday’s game that he needed to rest Darren O’Day, Chaz Roe, and Brad Brach, leaving him to use T.J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter to bridge the gap to Zach Britton. It worked out for the Orioles as they won their sixth consecutive series, but not before the left-handed closer was working in his fourth game in six days to pick up his 21st save of the season.

The bullpen continues to be terrific, but the starting rotation must get deeper into games if Showalter wants to keep his relievers fresh for the second half. In 23 June games, starters have posted a 4.58 ERA and are averaging just 5.22 innings per outing while the bullpen has posted a miniscule 1.80 ERA.

In 2014, the starting rotation pitched to a mediocre 4.49 ERA in April and May before taking off in June with a 3.47 mark and posting an exceptional 2.98 ERA in the second half of the season.

Gonzalez, Chen, and Ubaldo Jimenez have performed well enough this season to feel confident in the trio moving forward, but Chris Tillman is having the worst season of his career thus far and Bud Norris still can’t avoid the big inning as we witnessed again in Wednesday’s loss to the Red Sox. Every time either of the two struggles, there is a growing temptation to turn to Kevin Gausman, who pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts last season and is the most talented hurler in the organization.

For now, the Orioles continue to benefit from a swinging-door spot in the bullpen that’s been filled by the likes of McFarland, Tyler Wilson, Oliver Drake, and Mychal Givens at various points to give their most reliable arms a breather when possible. But such a luxury would disappear if they’re forced to move either Norris or Tillman to a long relief role since neither pitcher has a minor-league option.

The results of the last three weeks remind us of last year when the Orioles took off in the second half of the season to win their first American League East championship in 17 years. Their offense has come alive, the defense has been excellent, and the bullpen has dominated for two months now.

If the starting rotation can step up like it did right around this time a year ago — at least closer to that  2014 level — the Orioles will not only take off, but they’ll become the clear favorite in the AL East.

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