Tag Archive | "Chris Tillman"

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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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britton

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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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Even after huge win, Orioles facing tough dilemma with Tillman

Posted on 21 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles had much to be happy about following their 13-9 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday to earn their biggest series victory of the season.

Despite blowing an early 7-0 lead, the Orioles secured their fifth consecutive series win and moved back to three games above .500. Not only did they snap the Blue Jays’ eight-game winning streak at Rogers Centre on Saturday, but the Orioles have now won two straight series against their American League East foe after a 1-5 start against the highest run-producing lineup in the majors.

You could argue their wins on Saturday and Sunday were the biggest of the season so far as the Orioles outscored the Blue Jays by an 8-1 margin in the final three innings of both games.

But the impressive resiliency reminiscent of last year doesn’t erase a major problem staring manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles squarely in the face.

Once again, Chris Tillman was bad on Sunday.

Really bad.

After the Orioles scored seven runs off Scott Copeland in the top of the second, their best starter over the previous three seasons could only record one out in the bottom half of the inning before giving way to the bullpen. Everything he threw was up in the strike zone and over the heart of the plate, once again making you wonder if his lower back issues continue to linger and are impacting his ability to fully extend with his delivery.

You don’t go from being so good for three seasons to this poor without wondering if there’s something wrong physically. Tillman threw first-pitch strikes to only two of the 10 Blue Jays hitters he faced and allowed six runs, six hits, and two home runs in just 1 1/3 innings on Sunday.

“Chris has just got to get back into attack mode,” Showalter told MASN after Sunday’s win. “You trust the pedigree and the background, but he’s capable of better than that. We need to get that from him.”

How poorly has Tillman fared in four starts against Toronto this year? The right-hander has a 15.00 ERA in 15 innings against the Blue Jays. Against everyone else, Tillman has a respectable 3.92 mark.

Of course, the Blue Jays have hung a slew of crooked numbers on the scoreboard this season, but Sunday’s outing elevated Tillman’s season ERA to 6.22, which dwarfs Ubaldo Jimenez’s 4.63 mark at this point last season that led to the latter being sent to the disabled list and, eventually, the bullpen. Even with numbers skewed by Toronto, you just can’t forgive Tillman’s poor 2015 performance because he’s frequently faced the Blue Jays as they’re a major league opponent just like every other lineup he’s faced.

At least the Orioles don’t face Toronto again until early September.

A few weeks ago, we pointed to Tillman’s difficult first two months a year ago as good reason for remaining confident as he rebounded from a 5.20 ERA in his first 13 starts of 2014 to allow three or fewer earned runs in his next 20 outings to ultimately finish the regular season with a 3.34 ERA. But we’re less than two weeks away from the Fourth of July and last year’s early struggles pale in comparison to what we’ve seen so far in 2015 as he’s registered just five quality starts in 14 outings and is averaging 4.5 walks per nine innings.

Forget about the longtime debate over whether Tillman is really an ace as the 27-year-old isn’t currently performing like someone worthy of remaining in a major league rotation, but herein lies the problem. The right-hander is out of minor-league options and the Orioles obviously aren’t releasing him — he’s under club control through the 2017 season — but you wonder how many more chances Showalter can give his Opening Day starter of the last two seasons before he has little choice but to send him to the bullpen.

To be fair, fellow starter Bud Norris sports an ERA (7.57) more than a run higher than Tillman’s, but his 3.78 ERA in three starts since returning from the DL at least provides some optimism that he’s made some adjustments after a month-long absence.

Both need to be on notice at this point as it relates to their spots in the rotation.

With Kevin Gausman healthy and back in a starting routine after being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday, the Orioles have a starter waiting in the wings who posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts for a division-winning club last year. Time is running out for Tillman to reverse a nightmarish start to the 2015 campaign.

As Showalter pointed out, the 6-foot-5 hurler is a major reason why the Orioles completed three straight winning seasons and twice made the postseason over that time, but the starting pitcher would be the first to tell you he’s been a weak link in 2015.

You just wonder how much longer the Orioles can wait as they find themselves in the midst of another tight division race while their de facto ace entering the season continues going nowhere fast.

 

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Regardless of where, Gausman needs to pitch every fifth day

Posted on 20 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Darren O’Day’s escape act and clutch hitting from Caleb Joseph and Manny Machado provided the Orioles their biggest win of the season on Saturday, but a familiar question was being asked after the game.

What’s next for 24-year-old pitcher Kevin Gausman?

Activated from the 15-day disabled list to make his first start of the season, Gausman was far from Walter Johnson against Toronto, but it was good seeing the right-hander on the hill once again. Struggling to command his pitches through five innings, Gausman was fortunate that several balls squared up by Blue Jays batters were hit right at his fielders, but his ability to keep the Orioles in the game eventually led to their first win at Rogers Centre in five tries this season.

Despite throwing first-pitch strikes to only 11 of the 21 hitters he faced and inducing only seven swinging strikes, Gausman allowed two earned runs and four hits while walking one and striking out one while facing the top run-producing offense in the majors.

With Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez both expected to return this coming week, it appears Gausman will again be squeezed out of the starting rotation for the time being. Many have clamored for Bud Norris to be sent to the bullpen, but it’s unlikely to happen right now with the right-hander posting a solid 3.78 ERA in his three starts since returning from the DL. Chris Tillman has been the other starter in question with a 5.58 ERA entering Sunday, but his track record over the previous three seasons likely gives the Opening Day starter a little longer leash.

What shouldn’t happen with Gausman is a return to the Orioles bullpen where he developed shoulder tendinitis after receiving sporadic work to begin the season. The idea of a shortened-up Gausman is fine at the end of the season like we witnessed last October, but it’s shortsighted with more than three months to go in the regular season and two question marks in the current rotation.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea to have Gausman on call at Norfolk with Tillman and Norris being put on notice in the meantime. And the best thing they could do from a health standpoint would be to allow the 2012 first-round pick to remain in a starting routine.

To be clear, Gausman isn’t a finished product as anyone who has watched him closely agrees he needs to improve his secondary stuff. His split-changeup is a devastating pitch when he commands it — he couldn’t against the Blue Jays on Saturday — but he must continue to work on his curveball, a pitch he began throwing this spring for the first time since college.

The good news is his curve looked better against Toronto than his slider ever did in his first two seasons, but the breaking pitch remains a work in progress. And it’s something he should harness as a starter with the Tides if he isn’t taking the ball every fifth day for Buck Showalter.

As talented as Gausman is, the Orioles certainly haven’t made things easy on him as he’s ping-ponged between Triple A and the majors since May 2013. Even Saturday’s start in which he threw 91 pitches came on short rest and after he had only thrown a maximum of 61 pitches in any of his three rehab outings earlier this month.

You’d like to see what the kid could do if he’s simply left alone to pitch every five days, but we know how Dan Duquette and Showalter look for every possible edge in micromanaging the 25-man roster.

Though far from his best day, it was good seeing Gausman in a starting role on Saturday.

It needs to stay that way, even if that means his latest trip down to Norfolk.

 

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Thoughts on Tillman’s struggles, Pearce, Jones

Posted on 01 June 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-pitch Pearce

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

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

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

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

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

As Jones goes, so do Orioles

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

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

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

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

Road “w-O’s” must end

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

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

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

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Orioles failed to get well despite May home cooking

Posted on 31 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Having limped home after a 1-5 trip in New York in early May, the Orioles envisioned getting well entering their most inviting portion of the 2015 regular-season schedule.

Despite owning a 13-16 record through the first five weeks of 2015, the Orioles were playing 17 of their next 20 games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an opportunity to not only climb back above the .500 mark but to seize first place in the underwhelming American League East. Instead of taking advantage of the home cooking, however, manager Buck Showalter’s club continued to take one step forward and the next one back with a 10-10 record.

It was far from a disaster as the Orioles incredibly moved 3 1/2 games closer to first place over those 20 games, but that’s more an indictment of a mediocre division than progress as we now turn the calendar to June. And it doesn’t reflect anyone feeling much better about the Orioles’ fortunes than we did three weeks ago as inconsistency has been the theme of the 2015 season through 49 games, just over 30 percent of the way through the 162-game marathon.

After averaging a robust 5.6 runs per game in April, the Baltimore lineup managed just 3.3 per contest in the second month of the season, not the only but certainly the biggest reason why the Orioles finished 13-16 in May. Showalter and players have cited opponents continuing to pitch backwards against Baltimore hitters by offering a steady diet of off-speed pitches, but the adjustments haven’t been made as the Orioles ranked last in the AL in batting average (.231), on-base percentage (.287), and slugging percentage (.358) in May. They can only hope two home runs each from Manny Machado and Delmon Young in Sunday’s 9-5 loss to Tampa Bay are a sign of better things to come in June.

It couldn’t get much worse at the plate than it was in May.

“We are just out there playing baseball,” said Machado when asked to pinpoint the offensive struggles. “We don’t care about how many runs we score. We [just] want to get the win at the end of the day. We’ll just going to go out there and score as many as we can and win a ballgame.

“We’ve got to keep swinging the bats. There are days you swing the bat well and pitchers are going to be dealing. You have to tip your cap off to them, [because] they have a job to keep as well. We’ve just got to keep swinging the bats and at the end of the day, it’s all about the [win].”

A number of hitters have underperformed, particularly at the corner outfield spots where the Orioles have already designated veteran Alejandro De Aza for assignment. You’d figure more changes could be coming if the organization was willing to part ways with De Aza despite currently being on the hook for what remains of his $5 million salary in 2015.

The Orioles hope the imminent return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters will provide a lift, but it’s impossible to know what they’ll get from the veteran who hasn’t played in a major league game in nearly 13 months. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop continues to rehab a right knee injury, but the club is being deliberate with his recovery in fear of a setback that could require season-ending surgery.

In fairness, there’s still too much talent in the Baltimore lineup to be as poor as it was in May, but that doesn’t mean they’ll score enough runs moving forward, either.

Overlooked because of the struggling offense, spottier-than-normal defense, and a losing record, the Orioles have pitched exceptionally well in recent weeks, finishing second in the AL in staff ERA (3.38) in May. It’s easily the most encouraging development of the month and the biggest reason why the club shouldn’t panic. The Orioles did this despite Opening Day starter Chris Tillman sporting a 5.94 ERA, the talented right-hander Kevin Gausman on the disabled list, and 2014 15-game winner Bud Norris an absolute mess.

This pitching prosperity followed a 4.78 ERA in April that ranked 13th in the AL.

Processing the first two months of the season, it’s no wonder Orioles fans are ready to pull out their hair.

It would be cavalier to assume the offense won’t continue to be a concern given the chasms — offensively and defensively — flanking center fielder Adam Jones that have yet to be filled, but there’s evidence to support the pitching can continue to succeed given the talent that hasn’t been much of a factor so far. There’s no sugarcoating how much Tillman has scuffled, but many were similarly concerned about the tall right-hander at this time last year before he finished as one of the best pitchers in the league over the final four months of 2014.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, but I feel like we’re heading in the right direction,” said Tillman, who allowed all six runs in Sunday’s outing with two outs. “I saw a lot of positives today. The negatives kind of overwhelm, but I think we are getting somewhere. I just have to make that last big step, and I think we’ll be all right.”

After playing .500 over the home-heavy last 20 games, the Orioles will now play 15 of their next 23 on the road after beginning the season 8-14 in away games. Showalter’s club will need to reverse that trend if they even want to continue hovering close to the .500 mark.

In the end, the Orioles may still be all right in what could be the worst division in baseball, but there are no guarantees. The AL East is begging for someone — anyone — to get hot at this point with New York and Tampa Bay occupying first place with just 26-25 records.

But you can’t help but feel the Orioles squandered a great chance to get well over these last few weeks that they might look back on with regret once September rolls around.

 

 

 

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Orioles lineup continues firing blanks in month of May

Posted on 27 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Buck Showalter rarely dwells on the negatives after a loss.

It’s just not his style — at least publicly anyway — as he prefers focusing on the positive after any given contest over a 162-game schedule. But his reaction to Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Houston Astros was a little different.

While recognizing the strong performance of starter Chris Tillman that was spoiled by a few suspect pitches in the seventh inning and the failures of reliever Brian Matusz an inning later, Showalter continued coming back to the same theme that has plagued the Orioles throughout the month of May.

“We obviously haven’t been giving our pitchers much margin for error,” Showalter said, “but [Tillman] gave us a real good chance to win tonight. Probably even a little bit better than that.

“Once again, we can sit here and talk about [other factors] and rightfully so, but until we start getting some things going offensively, it really makes for a tough atmosphere to pitch in.”

The Orioles have scored just seven runs over their last 40 innings.

They’ve produced three or fewer runs in 13 of their 23 games this month and two or fewer in 11 of those.

Tuesday night’s cleanup man (Chris Davis) sports a .208 average and the No. 5 hitter (Steve Pearce) is batting .188. Delmon Young — who’s spent plenty of time in the heart of the order — is slugging a paltry .333 despite a respectable .287 average.

Beyond the white-hot Jimmy Paredes, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Caleb Joseph, the Orioles haven’t gotten nearly enough production from the rest of the lineup. And with Jones struggling recently — he was 0-for-3 Tuesday and has just three hits in his last 25 at-bats — the run shortage has been even more magnified.

“I just think we’ve got to slow the game down,” said Davis, who struck out two more times and hit a sacrifice fly in the sixth for the only Baltimore run on Tuesday. “When you’re not scoring a lot of runs, you’re not swinging the bats like you know you can, the tendency is to press and try to overdo it. I think you’ve seen that in the last few games, just guys getting out of their approach, out of their rhythm and trying to do too much with pitches that aren’t good pitches to hit.”

The Orioles were counting on Davis to look more like the force he was in 2013 — or at least in 2012. Instead, he’s looked just like the frustrated hitter we saw a season ago and has struck out 64 times in 170 plate appearances, registering the highest strikeout rate of his career by a substantial margin.

You keep waiting for veterans like of J.J. Hardy and Alejandro De Aza to start swinging the bat like they have in the past and for Young to start showing a little bit of power. Aside from a couple key home runs in the last week, Pearce hasn’t come close to approaching his 2014 production. Travis Snider hasn’t been the young replacement for the declining Nick Markakis that the Orioles envisioned.

The many clamoring for some change are justified, but Triple-A Norfolk doesn’t have many appealing options to even try at the moment. Former Minnesota Twins first-round pick Chris Parmelee has an .818 on-base plus slugging percentage and Nolan Reimold has begun heating up recently, but that’s about it.

Perhaps a returning Matt Wieters provides a spark as early as next week, but can you realistically expect him to offer much more offense than Joseph after not playing in the majors in more than a year?

The Orioles hope Jonathan Schoop can return sometime next month, but there’s no guarantee how soon that will be.

For now, Showalter has little choice but to ride out the storm — or the drought — by continuing to mix and match in hopes of finding some semblance of consistent production beyond the top three spots in the order. And executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette needs to be exploring what might be out there on the trade market over the next two months.

At 20-23, the Orioles still find themselves in the thick of the American League East and are just one game out in the loss column behind first-place New York. There are 119 games remaining in the 2015 regular season for Baltimore.

But much more is needed from the offense than it’s provided all month if the Orioles want to remain within striking distance.

 

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