Tag Archive | "Jason Hammel"

Ejection call on Hammel possibly avoidable but understandable

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Ejection call on Hammel possibly avoidable but understandable

Posted on 01 June 2013 by Luke Jones

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BALTIMORE — Needless to say, the main topic of conversation following the Orioles’ 10-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers was the fourth-inning ejection of starting pitcher Jason Hammel.

The right-hander had just surrendered three consecutive home runs before plunking left fielder Matt Tuiasosopo in the left shoulder on the first pitch of the at-bat. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt immediately tossed Hammel — the first ejection of his career — despite objections from the pitcher, manager Buck Showalter, and catcher Matt Wieters arguing that he had thrown a slider.

Many fans were infuriated by the decision with it commonly accepted that pitchers will use their fastball to drill hitters intentionally, but allowing three straight homers eliminates most benefit of the doubt in that instance. The Orioles’ position was predictable, acknowledging where the umpire was coming from but maintaining Hammel’s innocence as the pitcher expressed there was “zero intent” to drill the Tigers outfielder after the game.

Truthfully, I don’t believe Hammel was throwing at him intentionally and a warning probably would have been as effective considereing it was a breaking pitch, but the starter’s own ineffectiveness eliminated most benefit of the doubt and put Wendelstedt in a difficult position that can escalate quickly and become very emotional if not treated with assertiveness.

“I understand his position; I still don’t understand why he threw me out,” Hammel said. “That was the quickest toss I’ve ever seen. It was almost immediate, so, he didn’t have time to asses the situation.”

Unless you talked to the Tigers fan base, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who is 100-percent convinced that Hammel was intentionally throwing at the batter in frustration. His command was poor throughout the short outing and both he and Showalter mentioned that several sliders had slipped out of the pitcher’s hand on a 90-degree day in Baltimore.

But, ultimately, no one knows for sure whether Hammel was trying to hit Tuiasosopo on purpose other than the pitcher himself, so it’s a tough call to make with almost two-thirds of the game remaining. In most situations like these, umpires are instructed to err on the side of order before an altercation can potentially take place later on.

“It’s tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the major league offices,” Showalter said. “But obviously we’re biased, very biased. I understand what the umpire’s trying to do, but it’s very tough for them to judge intent.”

The decision in this case was more about taking a preventative measure than it was about disciplining Hammel. And in the heat of an emotional moment, the umpire threw him out even though Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters after the game his club didn’t feel Hammel hit Tuiasosopo on purpose.

The Orioles were understandably unhappy, but there’s no way of proving the general rule of using the fastball to hit someone intentionally as an absolute. And it’s likely the hometown fans would have been calling for the same outcome if opposing starter Justin Verlander had done the same exact thing.

“I know you’ve seen guys trying to get by with doing that with a breaking ball,” Showalter said, “but most guys that I’ve ever seen do it want to make sure everyone knows. If you’re doing that, you’re going to throw a fastball — not a breaking ball.”

As for the impact of Hammel’s ejection on the game, it didn’t really matter as the right-hander was clearly unable to command his fastball like he had in each of his last two starts — both victories — and T.J. McFarland, Troy Patton, and Tommy Hunter went the rest of the way for the Orioles.

Showalter said after the game he felt the bullpen should be in decent shape for Sunday’s series finale in which rookie Kevin Gausman goes against the Tigers’ powerful lineup. Steve Johnson only threw four pitches on Friday night and should be available in a long-relief role while Hunter was appearing in his first game since Wednesday and threw only 12 pitches in a scoreless ninth.

A day off on Monday should do the trick in providing the necessary rest to get the bullpen back on track, regardless of how Gausman fares.

After the game, Hammel was angriest about the position his ejection put on the bullpen — telling Showalter after the game he could pitch in relief on Sunday if needed — but he put himself in position to be judged harshly.

“You can issue a warning there,” Showalter said. “Obviously, three balls left the park and then a breaking ball hits the guy. You put yourself in their shoes and put yourself in our shoes. That’s what I try to do. I can’t speak for the umpire. I understand the intent of what they were trying to do.”

And maintaining control of the game was more important than giving Hammel a break in that situation.

Even if it might have been the wrong call.

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Orioles have no choice but to circle back patiently with starting options

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Orioles have no choice but to circle back patiently with starting options

Posted on 19 May 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

It’s never a good idea to definitively assess any team in the midst of its worst stretch of the season in the same way that you shouldn’t ignore weaknesses while enjoying the prosperous times.

With the Orioles suffering their first four-game losing streak of the season and surrendering a staggering 30 runs and 45 hits over their last three games, it’s easy to panic over such an ugly stretch of baseball. Early questions over starting pitching have transformed into serious concerns as the club has endured the losses of Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez to the disabled list and the recent struggles of Opening Day starter Jason Hammel while attempting to piece together the back end of the rotation.

The poor starting pitching has placed even more reliance on the bullpen as the Orioles have seen All-Star closer Jim Johnson blow consecutive saves this week. Showalter insists the bullpen hasn’t been overworked and is very meticulous with everything from innings pitched down to the number of times a reliever even gets up to throw during games, but that won’t remain the case if the poor performance of the starting pitching continues into the summer.

Chen is sidelined indefinitely with the always-unpredictable strained oblique injury, meaning Chris Tillman is the only starter on which manager Buck Showalter can currently rely as Orioles starting pitching has allowed 32 earned runs in 39 1/3 innings — a 7.32 earned run average — over the last eight games. The club hopes the 2012 version of Gonzalez will surface beginning with his scheduled return on Tuesday and that Hammel will find the proper release point to improve his fastball command after a miserable recent stretch.

Beyond those concerns, the picture becomes even more frightening with the final two spots in the rotation. Yes, it’s easy to look back at the offseason and criticize executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette for not acquiring any impact starters — I shared that very sentiment at the start of spring training and again at the beginning of the season — but Duquette and Showalter also expressed great faith in their internal options.

Now, one time through a lineup of “second-tier” starters that includes Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Freddy Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, and Josh Stinson, only Arrieta and Garcia have received more than one start to this point. Arrieta doesn’t really fall into the same category as the others after beginning the season as the fifth starter, and a strong debut in Anaheim bought the 36-year-old Garcia two more starts that have been underwhelming at best.

Understanding that even the brightest pitchers in the game will have a handful of less-than-stellar outings over the course of a season, is a one-start audition really the best way to determine if a pitcher can be an asset for the major league rotation?

Make no mistake, gone are the days when a young prospect such as Brian Matusz will be afforded the opportunity to accumulate a 10.69 ERA in 12 starts as he did over two different stints in the 2011 season. Higher expectations are here to stay and competition is paramount with Duquette and Showalter as they look beyond the 25-man roster while viewing Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie as essential partners in fielding a competitive club in the American League East.

However, the problem with higher expectations is the emphasis it places on smaller sample sizes when trying to evaluate. And you wonder if the possibility of such a short audition for the likes of Britton and Johnson creates too much of a mindset of looking over your shoulder and trying to be too perfect. It also devalues their minor-league performances that earn them their chance in the first place.

Showalter acknowledged this weekend most of these immediate demotions couldn’t have been avoided due to the strain placed on the bullpen as a direct result of the short outings. There is plenty of merit to that explanation, but at some point, the Orioles need to find the proper balance between having higher expectations and exercising the faith expressed this offseason in their internal options by showing just a bit more — brace yourself for that all-too-familiar word — patience.

No one is endorsing that Britton or Johnson or whichever pitcher sitting at the top of the totem pole for the next chance automatically receives six weeks’ worth of starts in the big leagues, but a reasonable opportunity of three or four starts might be more conducive to the potentially fragile psyche of a young pitcher. Fringe pitchers such as these certainly need to feel urgency playing for a contending club, but trying to be too perfect in fear of being sent down isn’t setting them up with the mindset for success, either.

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Ten Orioles thoughts with April in the books

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Ten Orioles thoughts with April in the books

Posted on 01 May 2013 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles concluding the opening month of the 2013 season by tying a franchise record with 16 wins in April, here are 10 thoughts to ponder as May begins:

1. Jason Hammel leads the club with four wins, but we’ve yet to see the 2012 version of the de facto ace show up this season. That’s not to say the right-hander hasn’t been one of the Orioles’ better starting pitchers, but the two-seam fastball that led to his renaissance last season hasn’t shown nearly the same bite through six starts this year. Despite a 3.79 earned run average, Hammel is averaging just 5.9 innings per start and his 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings is down dramatically from the 8.6 rate he held last season. Always possessing strong breaking stuff, Hammel needs to find a better feel for his two-seamer in order to make the rest of his repertoire more explosive. There was little debate that 2012 was a career season for Hammel prior to the knee surgery in July, but the Orioles didn’t actively pursue an impact starting pitcher with the thought — wise or not — that they had a pitcher with top-of-the rotation stuff. They’ll need better from Hammel over the next five months of the season.

2. Chris Davis’ historic opening-week start gained the most attention, but the free-swinging first baseman also collected 16 walks in April. His nine home runs have garnered plenty of press as opponents are pitching the left-handed slugger very carefully since the beginning of the season, but the walk totals have led many — including me — to praise Davis for an improved level of patience at the plate after he walked only 37 times during the 2012 season. However, the 27-year-old is seeing just 3.79 pitches per plate appearance after averaging 4.00 pitches per trip to the plate a year ago. Part of this can be explained by Davis’ strikeout rate decreasing (one every 3.5 at-bats compared to one per 3.0 at-bats last year), but it also indicates his walk numbers may not be sustained as his bat inevitably cools off at different points in the season. Regardless of just how much more patient Davis has become at the plate or not, it’s difficult to dispute how much of a force he’s become since the beginning of last season, making his acquisition in the Koji Uehara deal in 2011 a brilliant one by former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail.

3. The decisions to let go of Mark Reynolds and Joe Saunders weren’t the problem, but electing not to replace them is looking more and more like a mistake. Anyone who expects the former Orioles first baseman to continue hitting .300 like he did in his first month with Cleveland will likely be disappointed, but his eight home runs would look very good in the Baltimore lineup right now. Considering Orioles designated hitters batted .144 and posted a .502 on-base plus slugging percentage in April, Reynolds occupying that role or first base — with Davis handling the other — would be a major boost to the lineup. Meanwhile, Saunders pitched a complete game against the Orioles on Monday night but has been abysmal away from Safeco Field (12.51 ERA) so far. As I said during the offseason, letting go of Reynolds and Saunders was fine if the intention was to upgrade each of their spots and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette expressed the desire to acquire a middle-of-the-order bat and a veteran starting pitcher. However, neither of those goals were accomplished and that could continue to plague the Orioles throughout 2013.

4. Zach Britton turned in a poor 2013 debut, but his quick demotion sends the wrong message to the organization’s young pitchers. No one expected the 25-year-old left-hander to have a long leash given the higher expectations in Baltimore these days, but I can’t subscribe to the idea of sending down a pitcher who you hope will fit into your future after only one rough start. This creates the impression that young pitchers looking for their chance in Baltimore need to be perfect, which isn’t a mindset conducive to being successful. I also wonder what kind of message it sends to Norfolk manager Ron Johnson and pitching coach Mike Griffin, who gave their recommendation for Britton to be the next call-up after Josh Stinson’s failed start last week. A spot start for an organizational depth guy like Stinson or even a journeyman like Freddy Garcia is fine, but if the expectation all along was for Britton to only receive one chance, the club would have been better served leaving him in Norfolk and not messing with his head. Again, allowing six earned runs in six innings was far from acceptable, but it wasn’t the type of disastrous outing that warranted an immediate exit.

5. It’s safe to say Nolan Reimold has yet to adjust to his new role as the club’s primary designated hitter. Reimold has two home runs, five RBIs, and a 1.029 OPS in 29 plate appearances as the club’s left fielder, but the 29-year-old has posted an ugly .477 OPS with one homer and two RBIs in 52 plate appearances while serving in the DH spot. The problem for Reimold is the remarkable play of Nate McLouth, who has been more productive at the plate and is better defensively in the outfield. Manager Buck Showalter can’t justify taking McLouth out of left field, so Reimold needs to adjust to his new role, which can be difficult for individuals accustomed to being in the game as a defensive player. The good news for Reimold is that he’s remained healthy after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last year, but the Orioles must get better production from the designated hitter or will need to begin looking at other options for the role. It’s fair to acknowledge he’s still regaining strength and is adjusting to not having quite as much range of motion in his neck after the surgery, but Reimold would be the first to tell you he needs to be better at the plate.

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Starting rotation performance headlines Orioles’ uneven start

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Starting rotation performance headlines Orioles’ uneven start

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Luke Jones

Before anyone goes off the deep end over the Orioles’ 3-4 start to the 2013 season, consider this your much-needed reminder that it’s early.

It’s very early, in fact, as Baltimore has completed just over four percent of the 162-game schedule. That’s the equivalent of the Ravens approaching the end of the third quarter of their season-opening game if you needed a football comparison to put it in the proper context.

But issues have already begun to arise, specifically with the injuries to Wilson Betemit, Nolan Reimold, and Brian Roberts that have left designated hitter and second base as early albatrosses in the lineup. Ryan Flaherty is 0-for-14 to begin the season and Steve Pearce has yet to collect a hit in his first 10 at-bats after securing the final spot on the 25-man roster at the end of spring training.

Fortunately in Reimold’s case, the Orioles are hoping the 29-year-old outfielder will be ready to return to the lineup as early as Wednesday after leaving Sunday’s game with a tight hamstring.

The bullpen experienced a hiccup against Tampa Bay and a Chris Davis error contributed to Jim Johnson taking the loss in Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, but there’s little other evidence to suggest the group won’t be up to the task this season. It just might not be as dominating as it was a year ago with a plethora of relievers pitching at their absolute best for the better portion of six months.

After going 29-9 in one-run games last year, the Orioles have dropped their first three contests decided by one run, but no one could have reasonably expected the club to repeat that type of a historically-efficient performance.

The biggest concern – again, based on a week’s worth of games – has been the starting pitching with both the numbers and, more importantly, the eyeball test. Though Wei-Yin Chen pitched well in a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox on Monday, the Orioles entered Tuesday ranked last in the American League in starters earned run average at 5.45.

Of the seven outings turned in by the starting five, only three have been quality starts (if you subscribe to the minimum requirements of six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed being anything special). The numbers don’t mean much when you’re not even through the rotation a second time, but the eyeball test raises bigger concerns.

De facto ace Jason Hammel is struggling to command both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a deadly combination that baffled opposing hitters prior to the knee injury that largely derailed his 2012 season. He hasn’t looked like the dominating pitcher he was in the first half last season and his lower strikeout numbers (five in 12 2/3 innings pitched) confirm that.

The Orioles need Hammel to be the veteran standing at the front of the rotation and not just another pitcher in the starting mix.

Chen’s 3.75 ERA is perfectly acceptable, but the same issue of running out of gas right around the 85-to-90 pitch range that we saw last year has resurfaced in his first two starts. Entering the seventh inning having thrown 87 pitches on Monday, Chen gave up a three-run homer to Daniel Nava before departing with one out.

Many will criticize Buck Showalter for not pulling the Taiwanese lefty sooner, but the manager likely wants to see if Chen can add another gear for the late innings or whether this is as good as it gets for the 27-year-old. Entering Monday, Chen had pitched to a 7.42 ERA after the sixth inning in his major league career. If that’s the best the club can expect when the lefty approaches 90 pitches and beyond, it’s difficult to view Chen as anything better than a fourth starter for the long haul.

Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez appeared the best of any starter the first turn through the rotation, but Showalter has elected to push the 28-year-old’s next start back to the Yankees series, citing a desire to give him a few extra days of rest. That action sounds prudent in August and September, but it raises a red flag this early in the season despite the manager insisting there are no health concerns with Gonzalez.

If making a start every fifth day is a challenge already, you have to wonder how much the Orioles can expect from Gonzalez over an entire season.

Jake Arrieta? He looked very much like the same Arrieta we’ve seen in past seasons on Friday, pitching well in spurts but allowing a four-run fourth inning to derail his overall outing. It’s the same inconsistency that landed him out of the rotation and in the minor leagues midway through last season.

The 27-year-old power arm figures to have the shortest leash of any of the current starters.

Coming off the 15-day disabled list to make his first start against Minnesota on Saturday, Chris Tillman was all over the place and looked nothing like the successful pitcher we saw in the second half of last season in allowing five earned runs and walking four in 3 2/3 innings. It was one start, but it won’t quiet those who question whether the 24-year-old’s 2012 campaign was more fluke than transformation.

It’s a very small sample size — just like this piece is one of many that will examine the various stages of the season – but these seven games will count as much as any seven-game stretch over the course of the year. It’s not a definitive indictment or a final verdict by any stretch of the imagination but rather an honest assessment of what we’ve seen so far.

The injuries and shortcomings in the lineup and questions of how closely the bullpen can match its 2012 performance are all manageable concerns if the starting rotation rises to the occasion like it did for the final two months last season. Showalter said countless times this spring that the Orioles will only go as far as their starting pitching will take them.

And with the club sporting a 3-4 record in the first week of the season, the very early return in that department has been underwhelming.

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Orioles’ rare victory against Price not one to take for granted

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Orioles’ rare victory against Price not one to take for granted

Posted on 02 April 2013 by Luke Jones

The Orioles’ season-opening win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday had just about everything you’d like to see.

A five-run seventh inning turned a 3-2 deficit into a 7-4 a comeback victory over an American League East foe.

Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis combined to go 6-for-12 with two home runs, three walks, and seven runs batted in. Wieters’ two-run home run provided the early lead, Jones’ two-run double in the seventh put the Orioles back in front, and Davis’ three-run blast later that inning finished off Tampa Bay for good. You can’t ask for much more from the heart of the order.

Starting pitcher Jason Hammel pitched six solid innings and allowed only three runs despite being up in the strike zone for a good portion of the afternoon. The de facto ace earned his first victory of the season and was picked up by Troy Patton and Darren O’Day in the seventh and eighth innings.

All-Star closer Jim Johnson earned his first save in an uneventful ninth inning.

20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado picked up where he left off in the field last year with a couple smooth plays and collected a single and a walk hitting in the No. 2 spot.

Even Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold, two players the Orioles are depending on to remain healthy this season, went a combined 4-for-8 at the plate.

The euphoria accompanying any Opening Day win aside, we know pennants aren’t won or lost in April except in the most extreme cases, but a victory in a game pitched by 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner David Price is one to put in your back pocket over the course of a 162-game schedule. Price didn’t factor into the decision, but the patience and tough at-bats put together by Baltimore hitters — including a 13-pitch walk drawn by Wieters in the third — pushed the left-hander’s pitch count to 100 through six innings and forced Rays manager Joe Maddon to go to his bullpen earlier than he wanted to with his ace on the mound.

The Orioles made life more difficult than it needed to be for themselves by going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving four runners stranded on second or third with Price in the ball game, but that’s as much a credit to the 27-year-old pitcher as any shortcoming of Buck Showalter’s lineup. Jones finally broke the 1-for-9 drought overall with runners in scoring position with the double off lefty Jake McGee, who relieved Price to start the seventh.

In three starts against Baltimore last season, Price was 2-0 and allowed one earned run and 13 hits in 22 1/3 innings. No player on the current 25-man roster had ever hit a homer against Price until Wieters launched one into the left-field seats to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

The Orioles weren’t fazed by the power lefty, even after he threw four shutout innings against them in Sarasota last week. And they came away with a win in the first of 19 meetings with the Rays, who are regarded by most as a division favorite along with the Toronto Blue Jays this year.

Tueday’s victory is only one in a 162-game marathon, but it’s one you put on the positive side of the ledger that you typically wouldn’t expect to have when facing one of the best pitchers in the game. Of course, it means nothing if you don’t win the close games in which you have a chance, an area in which the Orioles excelled last year with their 29-9 record in one-run games, 16-2 mark in extra-inning affairs, and astonishing 74-0 record when leading after seven innings.

As we would have said had they lost 11-1 at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, it’s only one game. But it is one game just as important as the 161 to follow. And for what’s expected to be an extremely tight division race, Tuesday’s victory represents one the Orioles won’t have to make up in September.

It’s a new season and the improbable 2012 season is only a memory, but the Orioles have already come away with one that you would not have expected.

And that was a familiar feeling.

 

 

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Orioles unveil Opening Day lineup against Tampa Bay

Posted on 01 April 2013 by Luke Jones

The Orioles begin their 2013 season on Tuesday in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays and unveiled their lineup for the first game of the season on Monday.

Right-hander Jason Hammel will take the hill against Rays southpaw David Price, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.

Nick Markakis will pick up where he left off last season as the club’s leadoff hitter after proving to be healthy over the final week of spring training. The 29-year-old right fielder missed most of March with a small herniated disc in his neck.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of manager Buck Showalter’s lineup for the season opener is third baseman Manny Machado hitting in the second spot in the order. Machado displayed improved patience during the spring and the Orioles are facing a tough left-hander on the mound, meaning Nate McLouth will be on the bench in favor of right-handed designated hitter Steve Pearce.

Nolan Reimold will play left field and hit seventh in what’s likely an effort to keep the pressure off the outfielder in the same way that Showalter has elected to put second baseman Brian Roberts in the No. 9 spot in the lineup to begin the season. Against right-handed pitching, McLouth will start in left field and Reimold will serve as the DH in most cases.

BALTIMORE
RF Nick Markakis
3B Manny Machado
CF Adam Jones
C Matt Wieters
1B Chris Davis
SS J.J. Hardy
LF Nolan Reimold
DH Steve Pearce
2B Brian Roberts

SP Jason Hammel (2012 stats: 8-6, 3.43 ERA)

TAMPA BAY
CF Desmond Jennings
RF Sam Fuld
2B Ben Zobrist
3B Evan Longoria
LF Matt Joyce
SS Yunel Escobar
1B James Loney
C Jose Molina
DH Kelly Johnson

SP David Price (2012 stats: 20-5, 2.56 ERA)

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Orioles don’t stand out in “ifs, coulds, and maybes” AL East division

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Orioles don’t stand out in “ifs, coulds, and maybes” AL East division

Posted on 01 April 2013 by Luke Jones

From the moment catcher Matt Wieters grounded out to end Game 5 of the American League Division Series and the Orioles began setting their sights toward the 2013 season, the same question has been asked over and over.

Will they build upon the surprising success that resulted in their first postseason appearance in 15 years?

Regardless of what executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter try to tell you, it wasn’t a successful offseason. The stated goals of acquiring a middle-of-the-order bat and an established starting pitcher were never realized unless you count the minor-league signings of Jair Jurrjens and 36-year-old Freddy Garcia, who will each begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Orioles can’t and won’t compete in the AL East this season. Critics arguing that the Orioles won’t repeat their 29-9 record in one-run games and 16-2 mark in extra-inning affairs overlook the fact that the club was built to excel in late-and-close situations with a stellar bullpen and arguably the best tactician in the game with Showalter in the dugout.

That success rate will be very difficult to repeat, but the Orioles will point to last year’s injuries to Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Jason Hammel, and Brian Roberts and the overall lack of progress by their young starting pitchers last year as evidence that they didn’t need a perfect set of circumstances to win a year ago. Better overall health for the aforementioned group as well as the emergence of just an arm or two from the likes of Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Dylan Bundy, and Kevin Gausman would do wonders in overcoming a more realistic record in games decided by one run.

“I like our guys” has been Showalter’s battle cry since the end of last season, and the Orioles will need to validate that feeling if they’re to break the 90-win mark for the second straight year. It’s difficult not to trust the Baltimore skipper after orchestrating a 24-game improvement from 2011 to 2012.

A core group of position players including Adam Jones, Wieters, Manny Machado, and Markakis as well as top pitching prospects Bundy and Gausman paint a very bright future in Baltimore in the years to come. The ceiling for the 2013 Orioles — and even more so in the next few years — is substantially higher than it’s been in a very long time.

This year’s AL East lacks Yankees and Red Sox teams — or even one of them — that will inevitably run away with the division crown. The parity existing top to bottom has made this race more difficult to forecast than any in recent memory.

Toronto appears to be the best on paper, but will a plethora of new additions mesh quickly or experience growing pains as many revamped teams often do?

Tampa Bay has more than enough starting pitching to offset the departure of James Shields, but will the Rays have enough offense to separate themselves?

The Yankees are old and banged up and the Red Sox are coming off their worst season in 47 years, but both clubs still have enough talent to hang in the division race with enough good fortune.

It’s a division full of ifs, coulds, and maybes everywhere you look, but there aren’t enough answers present to place the Orioles a cut above the rest.

The lineup has quality but not enough depth to overcome an injury or two, whereas the starting rotation has plenty of options but lacks the necessary quality to give you great confidence in the Orioles getting what they’ll need on the mound for 162 games.

Baltimore’s Opening Day order top to bottom is good enough to compete, but there’s little help waiting in the minors if the injury bug strikes virtually any position on the field. The club will depend on the return of Reimold and the continued development of Machado to offset the loss of power hitter Mark Reynolds for a club that finished ninth in the AL in runs score last season.

The starting rotation was in flux most of last season but was able to depend on Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and a revamped Chris Tillman in the second half of the season. You have to wonder if Chen and Gonzalez can duplicate their rookie success with the book now out on how they work and it’s difficult to trust any other young pitchers to simply put it together after the underwhelming results of the past few years. Even Hammel, the de facto ace, doesn’t have a track record you’d like to see in a No. 1 starter. Any combination of hurlers put together by Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair feels too much like a group of third, fourth, and fifth starters.

The late-season arrival of Gausman or Bundy would spark plenty of excitement, but expecting either young pitcher to thrive in the thick of a pennant race is — again — asking a lot.

Lots of promise, but more questions than answers at this point.

A bullpen that competes with Tampa Bay to be the best in the division will again be asked to shoulder an extremely heavy load, but it’s difficult to demand Jim Johnson and his mates to do what they did last year in throwing more innings than all but two bullpends (Minnesota and Kansas City) in the American League. Johnson’s club-record 51 saves sent the 29-year-old to his first All-Star Game, but an underwhelming rate of 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched strongly suggests the sinkerballer is in line to come back to the pack when pitching to contact so frequently as a closer.

The performance of relief pitchers is more difficult to project than any other position, with peaks and valleys consuming most careers like unpredictable investments on Wall Street.

The Orioles don’t have the lineup or starting rotation of the Blue Jays, but Toronto’s bullpen has plenty of uncertainty.

Baltimore’s lineup tops the Rays’ order, but the starting five doesn’t stack up to Tampa Bay’s rotation.

Ironically enough, the Orioles appear to match up well against the traditional heavyweights that beat the rest of the division like a drum for the better part of 15 years, but New York and Boston are no longer the class of the AL East.

The outlook of the division appears murky, with the Orioles having enough going for them to envision them at the top if all goes well but not enough to feel strongly about that possibility.

These questions have answers that are tough to predict as the Orioles aren’t terribly different from the rest of the division in that regard.

It could mean an AL East title or even a last-place finish if most of their questions fetch negative answers this season.

You could even draw the order of finish out of a hat if you’d like, which might be as accurate as any expert trying to look into a crystal ball.

My guess is the Orioles will fall somewhere in the middle, but that doesn’t mean anything as Showalter’s Orioles are used to hearing their critics doubt them.

And they know ifs, coulds, and maybes will only be answered on the diamond.

To view The D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction 2013 MLB Predictions, click HERE.

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Five questions to ponder for Orioles spring training

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Five questions to ponder for Orioles spring training

Posted on 13 February 2013 by Luke Jones

The Orioles held their first workouts for pitchers and catchers to officially kick off spring training in Sarasota on Wednesday.

Trying to build on a 93-win campaign that included their first trip to the playoffs in 15 years, the Orioles have several questions marks after a quiet offseason void of significant moves.

Here are five questions to ponder as Baltimore begins preparations for the 2013 season:

1. Can Nolan Reimold stay healthy and be the impact bat the Orioles failed to acquire in the offseason?

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette failed in his quest to acquire a middle-of-the-order bat, but a healthy Reimold would go a long way in providing the extra offense the Orioles are looking for after they finished ninth in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage in the American League last season. Of course, expecting Reimold to stay injury-free has only resulted in frustration over the years as the left fielder missed most of last season after undergoing spinal fusion surgery.

The good news is Reimold is already taking live batting practice and appears to be 100 percent for spring training as he will compete with Nate McLouth for the starting job in left field. McLouth is the superior fielder and has more speed, but few would argue Reimold’s ability at the plate as he hit .313 with five home runs in 67 at-bats last season.

The club could elect to use Reimold as the designated hitter more frequently to keep him healthy, and he would be an ideal fit in the No. 2 spot because of his plate discipline (a career .338 on-base percentage in 916 plate appearances in the majors) or in the fifth or sixth spot because of his power. At 29, Reimold appears to be running out of time as a viable option on which the Orioles can depend moving forward, but the club signed him for $1 million in the offseason and maintains control of him through the 2015 season.

Duquette didn’t acquire an established veteran bat and also parted ways with slugger Mark Reynolds, so this spring will be critical for Reimold to prove he can provide extra punch to the lineup. If he’s again unhealthy, the Orioles will be forced to lean more heavily on McLouth, who carries his own baggage despite a 2012 renaissance in Baltimore.

2. What will the starting rotation look like when the Orioles come north to Baltimore?

The starting rotation would appear to have a more definitive outline than it did as this time last year as Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman all put forth career seasons in 2012, but none of those four come without questions this spring. Concerns over Hammel’s knee were eased with his ability to pitch effectively in the postseason, but the Orioles hope he can replicate his first half last season when he looked like an ace and was included in the fan vote for the final spot on the AL All-Star team.

Chen and Gonzalez will need to prove their rookie campaigns weren’t flukes as the rest of the league will be more familiar with each and the latter’s 170-pound frame will always cause some to question his durability over a full season. Adjustments made to Tillman’s mechanics by director of pitching development Rick Peterson paid major dividends last year, but the 24-year-old will need to replicate that success over an entire season in the big leagues.

Even if those four pick up right where they left off, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair must sift through a number of other candidates to replace the fifth spot in the rotation left behind by veteran left Joe Saunders, who signed with Seattle last week. Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, and Tommy Hunter will all be in the mix, but each comes with their limitations and concerns.

The Orioles continue to point to strength in numbers as it pertains to the starting rotation as 12 pitchers made starts for Baltimore last season. And to offer some perspective on how quickly things can change due to injury or ineffectiveness, three-fifths of the rotation that began the 2012 season landed in the minor leagues by the All-Star break.

The top four will have the inside track for rotation spots entering the spring, but Showalter won’t hesitate to make changes quickly if anyone isn’t up to the task.

3. Who will step up to play second base?

Yes, Brian Roberts is still with the Orioles as he enters the final season of a four-year contract that’s seen him play 115 games combined in the last three years. The 35-year-old infielder appears to be recovered from hip surgery and an offseason surgery to correct a sports hernia, but viewing Roberts as a viable option feels more like you’re being polite than at all realistic.

The Orioles acquired the slick-fielding Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Minnesota Twins after the switch-hitting second baseman played in a career-high 106 games last season. The 28-year-old is a career .250 hitter and provides good speed (21 stolen bases in 2012), but it remains to be seen whether he can handle full-time duties at the plate or he’ll be exposed over a bigger sample of at-bats.

The most intriguing option from an offensive perspective would be Ryan Flaherty, who split duties at second base with the departed Robert Andino at the end of last season. Thought limited defensively, Flaherty hit six home runs in 153 at-bats as a Rule 5 player who stuck on the 25-man roster all season.

Because of Showalter’s preference for strong defense up the middle, Casilla would appear to be the favorite to handle the bulk of the duties at second base due to Roberts’ frailty and Flaherty’s limitations in the field. However, this will remain a very fluid position to watch as the spring progresses.

4. How will Showalter handle the designated hitter spot in the order?

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Orioles avoid arbitration with J. Johnson, Hammel

Posted on 08 February 2013 by WNST Staff

The Orioles have avoided arbitration with closer Jim Johnson and starting pitcher Jason Hammel by agreeing to one-year deals just days before the start of spring training.

The Johnson deal is reportedly worth $6.5 million and the right-handed reliever could earn an additional $50,000 based on games finished, according to The Sun. This winter was Johnson’s third time being arbitration-eligible, but the reliever will not become a free agent until after the 2014 season.

The 29-year-old posted a 2.49 earned run average and led the big leagues with 51 saves last season as he earned his first trip to the All-Star Game.

The 30-year-old Hammel was 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts for the Orioles and fought back from knee surgery to pitch in the postseason.

Right-handed relief pitcher Darren O’Day is the Orioles’ only remaining arbitration-eligible player that hasn’t yet signed a contract for the 2013 season.

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Orioles get “Sabathia’ed” — My final post-card from The Bronx

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Orioles get “Sabathia’ed” — My final post-card from The Bronx

Posted on 13 October 2012 by Drew Forrester

As I sat in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium on Friday night and watched Game 5, all I kept thinking about was how unbelievably thin the margin of quality was between the Orioles and Yankees in 2012.

They played 23 times.  New York won “the series” 12-games-to-11.  I assume if they started another 7-game playoff series today, the Yankees would win that one, 4-games-to-3.  It truly was “that close”.

Or was it?

Sure, the 5th and final game went right down to the final three outs for the Orioles, but a few things stood out over the last six days that clearly displayed the difference(s) between the two clubs.

Without sounding like I’m part of the TBS broadcast crew, let’s go ahead and give credit where credit is due for the victors.

Make no mistake about it, New York won the series because of one man: C.C. Sabathia.

It’s that simple.  He beat the Orioles twice.  The Yankees won three games total.  That says it all.

Some players get paid 20 or 25 million dollars and put up a season or two worthy of that kind of production before starting to show cracks in the armor.  Sabathia earns every penny of his $23 million salary.  He’s a horse.

With all due respect to what turned out to be an Orioles strength in 2012 – starting pitching – the biggest reason why the Orioles will be on the golf course this Monday and the Yankees will be flying to Detroit is because New York has a true, legitimate #1 starter and the Baltimore team does not.

No disrespect to Jason Hammel.  Or Wei-Yin Chen.  Or Joe Saunders.

Those guys are decent major league starters.  Good pitchers more often than not.

But they’re not even close to Sabathia.

And that’s the biggest reason why New York won the series.  Sabathia beat us.  And, I guess, for $23 million a year, he probably should beat us.

Lesson learned for the Orioles moving forward:  If you want to be a champion, especially coming out of the American League East, you need to spend big money on a #1 starter.   Or Dylan Bundy better wind up being awfully freakin’ good someday down the road.

The play Derek Jeter made in the 8th inning of Game 5 should be the one they show on a continuous video loop in Cooperstown when his bust gets bolted into place sometime around 2020.

He’s no longer even close to the best shortstop in baseball, but when he needed to make a difficult play – with the game and perhaps his team’s season on the line – #2 moved gracefully to the top of the infield grass and made one of the most stylish plays of the year to nip J.J. Hardy at first on the slow chopper that snuffed out the Birds’ 8th inning rally.

If Jeter doesn’t come up with that play, Lord only knows what kind of inning the Orioles wind up producing.  I might be sitting in a coffee shop in Detroit right now getting ready for Game 1 of the ALCS between the Birds and Tigers.  That play from Jeter was a monster.

The final piece of bragging I’ll do on the Yankees centers on Joe Girardi.  Because he manages the Yankees, everything he does gets magnified x 100.  He has his detractors, as nearly all managers do, but Girardi had a spectacular series, aided greatly by the fact that his team swept Boston at season’s end to help give his aging roster a rest and set up the possibility of having Sabathia pitch twice if the series went five games.

I don’t think it’s fair to say Girardi “out-managed” Buck Showalter in the five games.  Buck made nearly all the right moves as well, particularly with his stellar use of the bullpen.  But Girardi got an “A” on his report card.  The biggest move, of course, was his decision to sit Alex Rodriguez for Game 5.  I heard lots of Yankee fans on Friday night bemoaning the fact that Girardi sat A-Rod, but it was the right call.  The $30 million man was making Chris Davis look like Babe Ruth.  And it was clearly getting to him.  So Girardi did the right thing, as tough it was.  He went with his “best line-up” for Game 5.  That’s what you do when you want to win.  We might not ever know if Sabathia bucked Girardi late in Game 5 or whether the skipper himself decided C.C. was going to pitch the whole night, win or lose, but the manager won again when he his workhorse finished the game off with runners all over the place and the Orioles foaming at the mouth for one big hit in the 8th or 9th inning.

(Please see next page)

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