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Pot-committed Orioles may need to push chips in on Gallardo

Posted on 06 February 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have pushed plenty of chips to the center of the poker table this winter.

A seven-year commitment to first baseman Chris Davis worth $161 million, the richest contract in franchise history.

Making All-Star relief pitcher Darren O’Day one of the highest-paid setup men in the majors.

Paying just under $25 million for the services of three-time All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and designated hitter Mark Trumbo for the 2016 season.

In other words, the Orioles are what the poker world labels as “pot-committed” with a projected payroll now north of $130 million. But there’s still a problem with that spending.

They’re currently no better than they were a season ago when they finished 81-81. In fact, they’re worse on paper after the free-agent departure of starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and his 3.72 ERA over the last four seasons.

It’s reasonable to expect Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to rebound — at least somewhat — from last year’s difficulties, but that doesn’t mean a return to their exceptional performances of 2014, either. Kevin Gausman could be ready to take off at age 25 and the Orioles may see more good Ubaldo Jimenez than the bad Jimenez in 2016, but that would still be too much hoping and not enough improving.

After turning their nose up to the cost of starting pitching all winter, the Orioles find few viable options remaining. The likes of David Price or Zack Greinke were never realistic, but second- and third-tier options such as Scott Kazmir (three years, $48 million) or even Doug Fister (one year, $7 million) were still available to slot into a thin rotation.

That finally brings us to Yovani Gallardo, the man linked to the Orioles throughout the offseason and probably the best option remaining on the market. Soon to be 30, the veteran right-hander is far from a sure bet despite a career-best 3.42 ERA in 2015 and a 3.66 lifetime mark in the majors.

Signing him would require the Orioles to forfeit the 14th overall selection of the 2016 draft after Texas made him a qualifying offer at the start of the offseason. That is an understandable deterrent for an organization in need of restocking its farm system, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has said several times this offseason that the Orioles would prefer not to forfeit the pick.

Despite a strong ground-ball rate hovering around 50 percent that would figure to be perfect for Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a strong infield defense, Gallardo has seen his average fastball velocity dip from 92.6 miles per hour in 2011 to 90.5 with the Rangers last season. His strikeout rate has declined in three straight seasons and fell to a career-low 5.9 per nine innings in 2015 after averaging more than a strikeout per inning in his first six major league seasons.

Those numbers make a long-term commitment to Gallardo a risky one, but he’s still a much better option than the newly-acquired Odrisamer Despaigne, Vance Worley, Mike Wright, or Tyler Wilson, who are more scratch-off lottery tickets than good starting candidates for a club already lacking dynamic talent in its first four starter spots. Even if you’re not keen on the Orioles giving Gallardo a long-term contract, he would instantly move to the top half of the rotation and slide the aforementioned names into more appropriate roles as relievers or depth at the Triple-A level.

Losing the 14th overall pick would be disappointing, but the Orioles would still hold five selections in the first 100 spots. An increased financial commitment to international talent — something the organization should be making anyway — could also offset that sacrifice.

At the start of the offseason, Gallardo would have been far from the top choice, but the Orioles are now less than two weeks away from spring training and haven’t replaced their best starter from a year ago when their rotation finished 14th in the American League in ERA. Beggars can’t be choosers when you’re in need of starting pitching at this late stage of the winter.

Gallardo’s addition wouldn’t guarantee a trip to the playoffs, but it would be foolish to spend as much as the Orioles have this winter without seriously addressing a rotation that was the biggest reason for their downfall in 2015. There’s no sense in playing a high-stakes hand of poker if you’re just going to muck your cards after committing more than $200 million earlier this offseason.

If you’re going to do it, go all the way.

The Orioles’ spending says they’re in win-now mode — especially with both Manny Machado and Adam Jones hitting free agency after the 2018 season — but their starting rotation suggests otherwise. There isn’t enough depth, and there certainly isn’t enough quality depth.

Signing Gallardo comes with risk and sacrifice, but he could help a neglected rotation compete in 2016.

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Davis deal creates window Orioles can’t squander

Posted on 16 January 2016 by Luke Jones

After years of clamoring for owner Peter Angelos to spend big money, Orioles fans finally got their wish on Saturday with first baseman Chris Davis agreeing to a seven-year, $161 million deal.

Even with the $42 million deferred without interest through 2037 easing the short-term burden, the contract nearly doubled the $85.5 million deal awarded to Adam Jones in 2012, which had been the richest in franchise history. No, Davis wasn’t cheap as many have criticized the length and money in the deal, especially with the apparent lack of competitors vying for his services. There’s little disputing the likelihood of the last few years of the deal not being pretty, but that’s the drawback of signing most marquee free agents in baseball.

In the end, the Orioles kept the most prolific home-run hitter in the majors over the last four seasons, and that’s something fans can rightfully celebrate, especially after watching the trio of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller depart via free agency last offseason.

But what does this mean for 2016 and beyond? After all, you better be looking at the big picture when you’ve committed to paying an individual a total of $161 million through his 51st birthday.

No one can say the Orioles haven’t spent big money this offseason after giving a four-year, $31 million contract to a non-closer reliever — even if it is 2015 All-Star selection Darren O’Day — and now making a nine-figure investment in Davis. The problem is that paying incumbents more money doesn’t magically make them better players, nor can you expect them to be.

These are the types of moves a club makes when it’s going “all in” to try to win a championship, which is why fans can hope there’s more to come. There needs to be more, quite frankly.

Already with a franchise-record payroll — which also includes one-year deals of $15.8 million and $9.15 million for Matt Wieters and Mark Trumbo, respectively — the roster isn’t terribly different from where it stood at the end of 2015 with an 81-81 record. Swapping out starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and outfielder Gerardo Parra for Trumbo and Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim all but covers it.

The Orioles have the makings of a powerful lineup with a good infield defense and an excellent bullpen for 2016, but what about the starting pitching?

Bounce-back seasons from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez and a breakthrough campaign by the young Kevin Gausman would go a long way in making up for the departure of Chen, but you’d still likely be looking at no more than an average starting rotation with a total question mark in the No. 5 spot. You can’t lose your top starter in a rotation that ranked 14th in the American League a year ago and expect to contend without doing something beyond crossing your fingers.

And Baltimore remains too vulnerable at the corner outfield spots — offensively and defensively — the same flaw that helped sink their fortunes a year ago.

The Orioles have spent plenty, but they have too many holes to be a serious pennant contender as presently constructed. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette doesn’t need to take the payroll to ridiculous lengths, mind you, but he needs a starting pitcher and another corner outfielder of some quality.

The organization needs to be all in — not just two-thirds of the way.

Spending long-term money on Davis and O’Day makes little sense if the Orioles aren’t going to do what it takes to try to get over the hump while making improvements to the farm system over the next three years. That’s how long the window figures to stay open with the current core before Manny Machado and Adam Jones are scheduled to hit free agency at the end of 2018.

Short of having a payroll more closely resembling the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees, you wouldn’t think the Orioles will have a great chance of keeping both Machado and Jones, so they need to be willing to spend a little more in the meantime while finding and developing young talent.

It’s up to ownership and management to determine whether the Davis signing means that they’ve merely kept a big-time power hitter and popular player on an OK club or that they are going to give themselves a good chance to win a championship. What amounts to a $42 million interest-free loan from Davis should provide the flexibility to do some more this offseason and over the next couple winters.

At the end of the day, putting yourself in position to try to win the World Series is what matters.

Re-signing Davis was a big step, but only if more is done to get there.

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Orioles reportedly agree to four-year deal with O’Day

Posted on 06 December 2015 by Luke Jones

After watching him serve as the backbone of the bullpen over the last four years, the Orioles couldn’t afford to let Darren O’Day get away.

According to CBS Sports, Baltimore has agreed to a four-year, $31 million contract with the right-handed relief pitcher. The race for the 33-year-old’s services was believed to be down to Baltimore and Washington, but the Orioles’ willingness to offer a fourth year and his familiarity with the organization appeared to be the difference. O’Day’s wife, Elizabeth Prann, is also a TV reporter based out of Washington, further reinforcing his preference to remain in the area.

However, O’Day himself made it clear on Sunday afternoon that the deal has not been finalized as he still needs to take a physical, something that isn’t always a formality given the Orioles’ history with free agents.

O’Day has been the leader of a bullpen that’s been a major factor in the Orioles’ resurgence over the last four seasons. Averaging just over 68 appearances per year since his first season in Baltimore in 2012, O’Day has pitched to a 1.92 ERA and 0.939 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in 263 innings with the Orioles.

Manager Buck Showalter has received much credit for his handling of O’Day with the right-hander appearing in 68 games in three straight seasons and pitching no more than 68 2/3 innings. Though his age creates some cause for concern, O’Day has steadily decreased his ERA every season since joining the Orioles and has improved his strikeout rate in each of the last two years.

A four-year contract for a non-closer reliever is a rarity, but O’Day has been worth 9.7 wins above replacement over the last four seasons, which helps to justify a long-term investment. He has also been considered one of the strongest leaders in a clubhouse that lost veterans Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz last season.

Named to his first All-Star team in 2015, O’Day posted a career-best 1.52 ERA and averaged an impressive 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 65 1/3 innings this past season. The submariner also collected a career-high six saves, four coming while filling in for an ailing Zach Britton in September.

While questions about the starting rotation, first base, and the outfield remain, the Orioles have now solidified a superb bullpen that features O’Day, Britton, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens.

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Facing many changes, Orioles can only wonder what’s next

Posted on 05 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Chris Davis hit two home runs, Matt Wieters drove in two runs, and Darren O’Day pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the Orioles’ 9-4 win over the New York Yankees on the final day of the 2015 season.

A day earlier, Wei-Yin Chen pitched six solid innings to earn the win.

For their four biggest free agents, the weekend served as a final reminder of just how important they’ve been to the club’s turnaround as the Orioles finished their fourth consecutive non-losing season on Sunday, something they hadn’t done in three decades. Of course, 81 wins in 2015 were disappointing after 96 victories and an American League East title a year ago, but even a .500 standard felt unreachable just five years ago when Buck Showalter first arrived.

Now, it’s considered a failure.

“Every time there’s the first hint of fall in the air, I want people to think about playoff baseball and the World Series,” said Showalter, who managed Sunday’s game after his mother passed away on Saturday. “That’s why we get up in the morning, that’s why you go to spring training, that’s why you do the things we’re going to do between now and next February. We’re not giving in.

“It’s not good enough though. It’s not good enough. [A record of] 81-81 ain’t good enough. We’re trying to win. We want to be the last team standing, the last city standing. Our city deserves that.”

By now, no one should doubt Showalter leading the way in the dugout, but even the most optimistic fans are questioning the future after the Orioles posted the best record in the AL over the last four seasons with a .543 winning percentage. With so many pending free agents and the Orioles’ offseason track record, many doubt whether 81 wins will even be a reasonable goal for the 2016 club without ownership making significant financial commitments.

The general consensus is that the Orioles will survive without Wieters, who still hasn’t proven he can be an everyday catcher again after last year’s Tommy John surgery. For a fraction of the price, Caleb Joseph can provide respectable offense and better defense than Wieters at this stage of his career.

But replacing the other big-ticket free agents is a different story.

Davis just led the majors in home runs for the second time in three years and has clubbed 159 over his four full seasons in Baltimore. It’s the kind of power rarely seen in this pitching-rich era of baseball, but are the Orioles willing to offer a nine-figure contract to even sit down at the negotiating table with agent Scott Boras?

We know what history says until executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and owner Peter Angelos prove us wrong. If not, the Orioles will be allowing a major league home run champion to depart for a second consecutive winter.

Though far from an ace, Chen was the Orioles’ best starting pitcher in 2015 with a career-best 3.34 ERA. The 30-year-old lefty has never pitched 200 innings in a season and will likely command more money than he’s worth as a middle-of-the-rotation starter on the open market, but Baltimore lacks the pitching depth to replace him from within like the best organizations will often do. For a club that finished 14th in the AL in starter ERA and gave up 100 more runs than it did a year ago, replacing Chen will be much more difficult than letting him leave.

And then there’s O’Day, who was claimed off waivers after the 2011 season and has been the backbone of the Orioles’ biggest strength over the last four years. The right-hander just made 68 or more appearances for the fourth consecutive season and lowered his ERA each year. Rarely is it wise to spend significant money on relievers, but the 32-year-old has arguably been the best non-closer relief pitcher in the majors over the last four years. Baltimore has other young relievers such as Brad Brach and Mychal Givens who pitched well in 2015, but weakening the club’s biggest strength would be a dangerous proposition.

The Orioles will also need to make decisions on the likes of Gerardo Parra, Steve Pearce, and Nolan Reimold as they try to fix the corner outfield spots that were a disaster in 2015. Parra disappointed after being acquired from Milwaukee at the trade deadline while Pearce and Reimold should only be viewed as reserves at most.

Reinforcements in the minors appear few and far between at this point as outfielder Dariel Alvarez and first baseman Christian Walker barely garnered a look in September promotions. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson may eventually settle into bullpen roles, but neither are viable options to pencil into the 2016 starting rotation if the Orioles have visions of contending. Oft-injured pitching prospect Dylan Bundy is out of minor-league options next year, but to expect anything more than a bullpen role for him to begin 2016 would be foolish.

The harsh truth is that the aforementioned decisions all involve players who were already part of a .500 club. The goal is to be better than 81-81, right?

For example, even if the Orioles were to re-sign Davis, O’Day, and Parra, what do they do to improve their starting rotation and the other outfield spot flanking Adam Jones in center?

Improving from .500 in 2016 will also depend on at least a few incumbents bouncing back from underwhelming seasons. Starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were clear disappointments while the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman didn’t take the step forward you would have liked to see. Given the track records of the previous three seasons for Tillman and Gonzalez and the potential of Gausman, it’s probably reasonable to expect at least two of those three to be better in 2016 than they were this season.

But that still leaves an open rotation spot and doesn’t even consider the enigma that is Ubaldo Jimenez, who has two years remaining on his $50 million contract. To be serious about contending in 2016, the Orioles need to find another starter to at least slot into the top half of the rotation and should probably add another arm to compete for the No. 5 spot at the very least.

Easier said than done.

More improvement from within is always possible as the Orioles hope that shortstop J.J. Hardy can be better at the plate after playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder all season. Even a return to his 2014 production would be welcomed after Hardy was a liability at the plate with a career-worst .564 on-base plus slugging percentage this year.

Can Jonathan Schoop be even better have improving his OPS from .598 as a rookie to .788 this season?

Is there yet another level for the 23-year-old Manny Machado to climb after he already became one of the best players in baseball this year? It’d be unfair to expect that, but he’s certainly a special talent.

Many questions and few answers for the Orioles as they potentially say goodbye to a number of key contributors from the last four years while exploring ways to not only fill those voids but improve from an 81-81 record in 2015. And that’s not even taking into account the concerns surrounding the working relationship of Duquette and Showalter.

No, the Orioles reaching the .500 mark in Sunday’s finale wasn’t the end goal they had in mind.

But you wonder whether they can even reach that plateau next year with such an uncertain offseason ahead.

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Five biggest Orioles surprises of the first half

Posted on 16 July 2015 by Luke Jones

Though standing at just 44-44 and in third place in the American League East, the Orioles have benefited from their share of surprises as they now look toward the second half of the 2015 season.

A staple of the prosperity during the Showalter-Duquette era has been the emergence of at least a couple relative unknowns to make key contributions each season while counting on established players to either rebound from previous disappointments or to take their talents to a new level. Even if their season hasn’t gone exactly to plan through the All-Star break, the Orioles have experienced a little bit of everything in terms of pleasant surprises.

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

Honorable mention: Darren O’Day, Ryan Flaherty

5. Zach Britton

Why does an All-Star closer with an ERA just a shade higher than it was a year ago belong on the list of surprises? A deeper look at the numbers shows just how dominant Britton has been in his second year as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man.

Relying on a heavy sinker to induce grounder after grounder last season, Britton converted 37 of 41 save opportunities and pitched to a 1.65 ERA, slightly lower than his 1.72 mark this year. However, the lefty benefited greatly from opponents batting .219 on balls in play (BABIP) in 2014, much lower than the league average of .297.

Such numbers would have made it reasonable — if not very likely — to expect some regression similar to what fellow sinkerballer Jim Johnson endured in 2013, but Britton has been even more imposing despite not being nearly as fortunate. Opponents have a .304 BABIP against Britton, but he’s overcome that with an improved slider to help increase his strikeout rate per nine innings (7.3 in 2014 to 10.1) while decreasing his walk rate per nine (2.7 to 2.0).

Simply put, Britton hasn’t been nearly as “lucky” as he was a year ago, but he’s pitching to less contact and still inducing a boatload of grounders when opponents do hit the ball. Britton had a great season in 2014, but he’s established himself as one of the best closers in the game by converting 23 of 24 save chances so far in 2015, numbers that rightly earned him a trip to his first All-Star Game.

4. Manny Machado

It was difficult to know what to expect from the 23-year-old third baseman after he suffered a second serious knee injury in less than a year last August. Machado’s defense and gap power established him as an All-Star-caliber player in 2013, but he’s blossomed into one of the best players in the AL this season and the kind of performer the Orioles hoped he might become one day.

Serving in the leadoff role out of necessity — who else could even handle the role right now? — Machado is hitting .298 with a .361 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 35 walks, and 13 stolen bases, numbers which are all already career highs. And while the Orioles will continue to knock on wood and keep their fingers crossed for his health, Machado has started all 88 games at third base and you’d never know he has two surgically-repaired knees while watching him play.

Machado has been the club’s best player by a significant margin, continuing to play Gold Glove defense and providing the kind of offense that’s turned him into an MVP candidate in 2015. According to Baseball Reference, the 2010 first-round pick ranks second behind only Mike Trout in the American League with 4.8 wins above replacement.

Taking nothing away from Adam Jones who is having a fine year and has been the club’s best player for several years, we could be seeing the passing of the torch this season with Machado emerging as the kind of rare superstar who makes the game look easy. The Orioles and their fans just pray the injuries are finally behind him.

3. Chaz Roe

Though it’s also a reflection on a disappointing winter, I doubt anyone would have projected the minor-league signing of a 28-year-old reliever with a career 4.44 ERA last December to be their best offseason addition so far in 2015.

Beginning the season at Triple-A Norfolk, Roe quickly established himself as a viable option for manager Buck Showalter in the late innings with a two-seam fastball and a devastating slider that’s helped him strike out 30 hitters while posting a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings with the Orioles.

Roe has struggled of late by allowing six earned runs in his last five outings, but it’s clear the Orioles saw something in the right-hander as he’s throwing his two-seamer more than ever and the movement on his slider has baffled hitters since he was called up in May. His stuff should allow him to remain an effective member of the bullpen even as he’ll need to make adjustments in the second half.

2. Ubaldo Jimenez

Perhaps his track record suggests his rebound shouldn’t have been so surprising, but anyone who watched Jimenez pitch in 2014 couldn’t have easily imagined him being one of their two best starters in his second season in Baltimore.

Simplified mechanics, the heaviest reliance on his two-seam fastball since his 2010 All-Star season with Colorado, and a dramatically improved walk rate (just 2.9 per nine innings this year after an awful 5.5 in 2014) have made Jimenez the pitcher the Orioles envisioned when they signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract last year. His improvement is a major reason why the Orioles remain firmly in contention despite poor seasons from Chris Tillman and Bud Norris.

After throwing his two-seamer just 16.4 percent of the time a year ago, Jimenez has used the pitch more than a third of the time (37 percent) this year to induce more grounders while still striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings. It was a brilliant adjustment to make for the 31-year-old to better take advantage of one of the best defensive infields in baseball.

In the second half, consistency will be the key for Jimenez as it has been throughout his career, but the Orioles couldn’t have asked for much better from him than a 7-4 record with a 2.81 ERA and a 3.21 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark that is easily the best of the rotation. Other than maybe only Wei-Yin Chen, there’s not another starter Showalter would want to take the ball more on a given night as Jimenez will make the first start of the second half in Detroit on Friday.

1. Jimmy Paredes

Who else could it really be?

After hitting .302 in 55 plate appearances late last year, the 26-year-old was a name of interest in spring training but hardly someone most predicted to make the 25-man roster. Paredes was out of minor-league options and lacked a position with the defensive-minded Orioles, but he stated his case by hitting .364 with a 1.005 OPS in 55 Grapefruit League at-bats before a back injury landed him on the disabled list to begin the year.

Once Jonathan Schoop went down with a knee injury in mid-April, Paredes got the call and hit an astounding .353 in his first 143 plate appearances this year. A 4-for-41 slump that dropped his average 59 points in two weeks appeared to signal the end of a nice story, but the switch hitter has bounced back to hit a very steady .310 in his last 91 plate appearances dating back to June 12.

Clearly better from the left side of the plate, Paredes hinders Showalter’s lineup flexibility with his defensive limitations — the Orioles want him to learn to play the corner outfield spots this winter — but it’s difficult to nitpick a man who was such an unknown. Paredes is hitting .299 with 10 homers, 39 RBIs, and an .809 OPS in 277 plate appearances this year and has been the club’s third-best offensive player behind Machado and Jones.

His 69 strikeouts are the highest on the club behind only Chris Davis, but Paredes has drawn six walks in his last 51 plate appearances, which the Orioles hope is a sign of improved discipline at the plate. Time will tell whether Paredes sticks, but it’s hard not to be impressed — and really surprised — with what he’s accomplished so far in 2015.

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Jones starting in left field for All-Star Game

Posted on 13 July 2015 by Luke Jones

After learning late last week he would be in the American League starting lineup, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones will play left field in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

On Monday, Kansas City manager Ned Yost revealed his lineup, which included the 29-year-old Jones batting sixth in left field. After Royals outfielder Alex Gordon suffered a groin injury last week, Jones was given the privilege of starting his third consecutive All-Star Game as he makes his fifth appearance overall.

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout will lead off and play center while normal Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain will move to right field for the AL squad. Jones had started in center in each of the previous two All-Star Games with Trout playing left.

Former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz will bat cleanup and serve as the designated hitter for the AL after hitting 21 home runs in his first season with the Seattle Mariners.

Of course, the Orioles will have a strong presence in Cincinnati with third baseman Manny Machado and relief pitchers Zach Britton and Darren O’Day also chosen as All-Star reserves. The 23-year-old Machado was scheduled to participate in Monday night’s Home Run Derby despite heavy rain threatening the event.

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Predicting the Orioles’ All-Star selections

Posted on 30 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The latest American League All-Star voting update made it clear that no Orioles players will be elected as starters, but that doesn’t mean Buck Showalter’s club won’t be well-represented in Cincinnati.

Starters voted by the fans will be announced on Sunday night while the All-Star reserves and pitchers will be revealed on Monday evening.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s top candidates to be invited to baseball’s All-Star Game on July 14:

The most deserving: 3B Manny Machado
Skinny: The Orioles and their fans still pray that the 22-year-old’s knee problems are finally behind him, but there’s no disputing that Machado has blossomed into a superstar this year. Leading the club in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, stolen bases, and runs, Machado has already set a career high in home runs and will surpass his career mark in walks before the All-Star break. The 2010 first-round pick has played Gold Glove defense at third base from his first day in the majors, but Machado is rapidly developing the kind of bat that could make him an MVP candidate in the years to come. He ranks fourth among AL position players in wins above replacement — according to the rankings from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and ESPN — making him a lock as an AL All-Star reserve.

The first-time selection: LHP Zach Britton
Skinny: Instead of again spelling out why Britton should become the 10th Orioles closer to make an All-Star Game since 1979, I ask you to check out the piece I wrote over the weekend explaining why.

The mainstay: CF Adam Jones
Skinny: Despite the fact that he’s already missed more than twice as many games in 2015 (11) than he had in his previous three seasons combined (five), Jones still makes a strong case for an invitation to Cincinnati as he entered Tuesday sporting a career-high batting average and on-base percentage. Already a four-time Gold Glove winner in center field, Jones might be having the best defensive season of his career, which is high praise for an outfielder already possessing that kind of a track record. Already a four-time All-Star selection in his career, Jones will likely be given a boost by his league-wide reputation and still ranks third among Orioles players in homers and RBIs despite missing close to two weeks of combined action.

The deep sleeper: RHP Darren O’Day
Skinny: Considering Kansas City manager Ned Yost is managing the AL and loves using a bullpen, I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see him give a nod to O’Day. The submarine hurler has struck out a career-high 12.1 batters per nine innings and sports a career-best 1.21 ERA, which ranks seventh in the majors among relief pitchers. Because the game determines home-field advantage for the World Series, Yost could see the National League’s unfamiliarity with O’Day as enough reason to add him to the roster.

My All-Star picks: In order of most confident to least, I’ll go with Machado, Britton, and Jones to make it, but a deep list of outfield candidates could squeeze the 29-year-old center fielder out, especially with injuries stunting his numbers a bit and because he wasn’t voted in this year for the first time since 2012.

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After slow start, bullpen becoming steadying force for Orioles

Posted on 26 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Monday brought an even bigger surprise than the Orioles’ ability to hand Houston starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel his first loss of the 2015 season.

After Steve Pearce had clubbed a two-run home run to right-center to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning, you figured manager Buck Showalter would turn to Darren O’Day or Tommy Hunter to pitch the eighth. O’Day hadn’t pitched since Saturday and Hunter hadn’t worked since Friday, but Showalter instead called upon rookie Oliver Drake, who had pitched three scoreless innings in the 1-0 loss to Miami in 13 innings on Saturday night.

The move raised a few eyebrows, but Drake came through once again, pitching a perfect inning with two strikeouts in his second major league appearance. Showalter cited Drake’s ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate as his rationale for going to the Naval Academy product — two left-handed hitters were due up in the inning and Brian Matusz wasn’t available — but it’s no secret that the 27-year-old right-hander has already impressed with his nasty split-fingered fastball.

“It all works off his fastball command. He has a way to make you look between velocities,” Showalter said. “Even if you’re right on one of the velocities, you might not get there. You saw it on the fastball to [Colby] Rasmus. He doesn’t have to throw 95 [mph] to get a reaction. When you have to defend the other-speed pitch, that 90 looks 100.”

Monday’s win featured three scoreless innings from Brad Brach and Drake before closer Zach Britton slammed the door on the Astros in the ninth, continuing an impressive run for Orioles relievers after a rocky April. Dating back to April 29, the Baltimore bullpen has posted a 2.23 ERA in its last 65 2/3 innings.

The group has been even better of late by allowing just six earned runs in its last 30 1/3 innings. The success has improved the club’s bullpen ERA to 3.32, which ranks sixth in the American League. It’s helped that the Orioles rank only 12th in the AL in relief innings, a reflection of starters working deeper into games than they did in April.

It’s a pleasant change after the bullpen posted a 4.35 ERA in the opening month of the season.

With the bullpen being the backbone of their success over the previous three seasons, the Orioles figured to lean heavily on Britton, O’Day, and Hunter this year, but the emergence of Brach since the second half of last season has been an encouraging development. The 29-year-old right-hander leads the club with 22 2/3 relief innings this season and has lowered his ERA to 3.57 after a difficult start. Since being scored upon in his first four outings of 2015, Brach has pitched to a 2.00 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 18 innings of work.

Despite an uneven beginning to the season for the 20-22 Orioles, seeing the likes of Brach and Drake pick up the slack in some meaningful situations bodes well now and for the long haul.

“That helps with us later on in the season,” Brach said. “You don’t have to throw the same guys out there every single time. You see some of the teams that kind of have the same guys they go to every time. It kind of keeps us on our toes. On the same token, any situation could be any guy and everybody’s got to be ready to go, so it keeps us ready to go and sharp during the game.”

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Walks again pivotal in Orioles’ 7-5 loss to Boston

Posted on 25 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles pitching entered Friday’s series opener against the Boston Red Sox leading the major leagues with 67 walks in 16 games.

And free passes at inopportune times once again hurt the Orioles in dropping their fifth consecutive game in a 7-5 final at Camden Yards.

“We only walked two guys tonight, and the two really bit us against a good team,” said manager Buck Showalter, who pointed to the high number of bases on balls being his biggest pet peeve of the young season prior to Friday’s game. “The walks hurt us, but at least we cut down on them. They really bit us.”

In the fifth inning, starter Miguel Gonzalez issued a bases-empty, two-out walk to Mookie Betts before eventually allowing a three-run homer to David Ortiz and a solo shot by Hanley Ramirez. The four-run frame spoiled an otherwise-solid outing by the Orioles right-hander.

With the scored tied 4-4 with two outs and the bases empty in the top of the eighth, lefty specialist Brian Matusz was summoned to pitch to the switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval, who was 0-for-13 against southpaws so far in 2015. Instead of following up Tommy Hunter’s 1 2/3 innings of strong work by getting his man, Matusz walked Sandoval and was promptly lifted in favor of Darren O’Day. A Manny Machado fielding error and a Brock Holt three-run homer later, Baltimore trailed 7-4.

Of course, the home runs were the death knells, but the two-out walks paved the way for trouble.

“We didn’t do the little things tonight,” said O’Day, who credited Holt for hitting a quality 1-2 pitch over the right-field scoreboard. “We made a lot of small errors, and our strength is paying attention to detail. We just didn’t do it tonight — both sides of the ball.”

Machado’s fielding miscue — the Orioles have now committed eight errors over their last five games  — came after he had struck out in an eight-pitch at-bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.

It didn’t take much, but the Orioles continue to do the little things poorly and it cost them another game on Friday.

* Baltimore has now lost five straight for the first time since a six-game losing streak from Sept. 19-24, 2013.

* Matusz has walked seven batters in 7 1/3 innings, which is tied for fourth on the club. He’s tied for 11th in innings pitched.

* Gonzalez gave the Orioles only their fifth start of the season to go six innings or more. The 30-year-old has provided the last two, both coming at home.

* Counting the 2014 postseason, O’Day has given up seven homers in his last 20 innings dating back to Sept. 2 of last year.

 

 

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Numbers behind Orioles’ 6-5 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 08 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 6-0 lead through two innings typically leads to a relaxing night of baseball, but it was anything but that for the Orioles Tuesday as they held on for dear life in an eventual 6-5 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite being staked to the early lead, starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled his way through 4 1/3 innings as his fastball velocity was down and he lacked his normal crispness with his off-speed pitches. Kevin Gausman worked 2 1/3 innings in relief to earn the victory, but the right-hander allowed a two-run shot off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier in the sixth to make it a one-run game.

Instead of a night in cruise control for the Orioles, the pitching staff consistently found deep counts and needed a whopping 176 pitches to secure the victory, including a combined 42 from Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. With O’Day (24 combined pitches) and Britton (42 total pitches) having pitched in each of the first two games and potentially unavailable for the series finale, the Orioles will need a strong outing from No. 3 starter Miguel Gonzalez.

Fortunately, Baltimore will receive a day off to rest up before the home opener at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday afternoon.

* One of the biggest questions facing Steve Pearce in his quest to prove his 2014 campaign wasn’t a fluke will be whether he can sustain the success against right-handed pitching that he found a year ago.

The soon-to-be 32-year-old owns an underwhelming career .700 on-base slugging percentage against right-handers, but that’s including his .856 mark in 272 plate appearances last year. Pearce has always hit southpaw pitching well (a career .878 OPS), which is the main reason why major league clubs continued to give him opportunities despite a reputation as a “Quad-A” player over his first eight major league seasons.

The all-too-early verdict in 2015 has been encouraging to say the least as Pearce has clubbed two homers against right-handed pitching in two games.

It’s remarkable to think how important Pearce has become to this club after he was designated for assignment less than 12 months ago.

* When he acquired outfielder Travis Snider from Pittsburgh in late January, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette cited his strong second half in 2014 as a sign that the former first-round pick had finally begun realizing his potential.

After the All-Star break last year, the former Pirate posted an .880 OPS with nine homers and 24 RBIs. Small sample size alert aside, Snider has reached base in seven of eight trips to the plate and already has three RBIs in two games.

The Orioles hope Snider is just hitting his stride at age 27 and can give them good production this season for a fraction of what Nick Markakis commanded in free agency.

So far, so good.

* You think Chris Davis was eager to make his 2015 debut and play in his first real game since Sept. 10, 2014?

Serving as the designated hitter on Tuesday, Davis swung at six of the first seven pitches he saw in his first two at-bats and appeared too anxious early in the game. However, his best at-bat came in the eighth when he flied to deep right after a nine-pitch encounter with Rays right-hander Kevin Jepsen.

Davis finished 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning.

It goes without saying how critical a bounce-back season from Davis would be in replacing the power production left behind by Nelson Cruz. And it’s even more critical for the 29-year-old’s future as he’s set to become a free agent this coming offseason.

* The Orioles collected six runs and five hits over the first two innings against Tampa Bay starter Nathan Karns, but Everth Cabrera had their only hit the rest of the way as he collected a single in the top of the seventh.

Yes, the pitching staff should have been better in minimizing stress after an early six-run lead, but the offense essentially checked out after Pearce’s two-run homer in the second.

 

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