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Tillman a fine flier, but Orioles shouldn’t view him as safe bet

Posted on 19 February 2018 by Luke Jones

A reunion with Chris Tillman made sense for the Orioles.

Entering the winter with three vacant spots in the rotation and rarely ever spending extravagantly on pitching, the organization re-signing the 29-year-old as a bounce-back candidate always felt like a likely outcome. Frankly, there are worse ways to spend $3 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the cash wasted on the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley in recent years.

Given the familiarity and his track record over the five seasons prior to 2017, Tillman is a fine flier with the potential to reap good value if his shoulder issues are behind him and he rediscovers his old arm slot, a problem examined in great detail by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs last June. However, he shouldn’t just be penciled in as the No. 4 starter if the Orioles are truly serious about trying to make noise in 2018.

Not after Tillman had one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in major league history, a significant reason why Baltimore suffered its first losing season and last-place finish since 2011.

That’s why it’s encouraging that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said the club was still in search of starting pitching after coming to terms with Tillman on Monday. Whether that means only scouring the waiver wire for a fringe minor-league arm or two or still being in play for a legitimate free-agent starter like Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb remains to be seen.

Based on last year’s payroll, the Orioles should still have upwards of $30 million to spend on the 2018 club, but that’s assuming Duquette is working under a similar budget. Baltimore reportedly deferring $3 million of Andrew Cashner’s two-year, $16 million deal is a red flag suggesting that may not be the case.

Finding another starter for one of the top three spots in the rotation would not only improve the context of the Cashner and Tillman signings by moving them to the No. 4 and No. 5 spots, but it would give the Orioles a group more in line with where it stood a few years ago and that’s not factoring in the upside offered by both Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Of course, that still isn’t going to prompt anyone to pick Baltimore ahead of New York and Boston in the heavyweight American League East, but adding Lynn or Cobb would make wild-card discussions more realistic if some other variables were to break the Orioles’ way like in 2012, 2014, or 2016.

No matter what he did prior to 2017, Tillman really shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a candidate for the fifth starter job competing with Miguel Castro, Nestor Cortes, and others. Both he and the Orioles will try to call last season an aberration, but it still happened as Tillman became the eighth pitcher since 1929 to produce an ERA of 7.50 or higher with at least 90 innings of work, according to Baseball Reference.

Throwing fewer fastballs than ever with diminished velocity, he allowed an obscene 2.3 home runs and 4.9 free passes per nine frames, his highest walk rate since 2010. No peripherals can soften these brutal numbers as he was worth minus-2.2 wins above replacement in 2017, meaning the Orioles could have expected better performance from a pitcher at Triple-A Norfolk.

To his credit, Tillman never used the shoulder problems that began late in 2016 as an excuse and repeatedly insisted he was healthy over the course of his nightmare season. But if all parties are being honest a year later, that hopefully wasn’t the case and perhaps he’s finally right physically.

The Orioles know him better than anyone else, making their reunion a good fit as he tries to get his career back on track and the club tries to improve its chances for 2018. He was never a bona fide ace at his best, but the right-hander was still the backbone of the rotation for the better part of five seasons.

It’s a fine bet at such a low cost to see if Tillman can rediscover his old form.

But the Orioles shouldn’t yet view their efforts to fill the starting rotation as being complete.

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Orioles officially sign veteran starter Cashner to two-year deal

Posted on 15 February 2018 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

It may have taken until the first week of spring training, but the Orioles have finally added a veteran to their shallow starting rotation.

Right-handed pitcher Andrew Cashner officially signed a two-year, $16 million contract on Thursday. The deal includes performance incentives as well as a vesting option for the 2020 season if he reaches a total of 340 innings over the first two years.

The 31-year-old went 11-11 with a 3.40 ERA in 28 starts covering 166 2/3 innings after signing a one-year, $10 million deal with Texas last offseason. He was able to rebound from the worst season of his career — a 5.25 ERA split between San Diego and Miami in 2016 — with a career-best 4.6 wins above replacement for the Rangers.

In eight major league seasons, Cashner is 42-64 with a 3.80 ERA in 893 innings. He’s averaged 7.0 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine innings with a very solid 49-percent ground-ball rate over the course of his career. He throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, curve, and a slider-cutter.

Having arrived in Sarasota with the only definite members of the 2018 rotation being Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, Baltimore is adding an established starter to the mix who should be a clear upgrade over the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and last year’s version of Chris Tillman. However, Cashner repeating his 2017 ERA could prove to be a tall order when considering his worrisome peripheral numbers that will remind some of the Yovani Gallardo signing two years ago that proved to be a major disappointment.

Though possessing a fastball that still sat at 94 miles per hour last year, Cashner saw his strikeout rate plummet to a career-worst 4.6 per nine innings as the opposition made more contact than ever against him. That coupled with a career-low .267 opposing batting average on balls in play would suggest the right-hander was very fortunate to post the third-best ERA of his career. His Fielding Independent Pitching mark (FIP) was 4.61 in 2017 while the Steamer system found on FanGraphs projects a 5.40 ERA for Cashner in 2018.

Durability has also been an issue in the past as he’s pitched 160 innings just three times in his career. He had stints on the disabled list last season with right biceps tendinitis and an oblique strain.

Ultimately, the Orioles are adding a legitimate major leaguer to a rotation that had nothing established behind Bundy and Gausman. The cost is reasonable and he brings 2017’s 15th-best ground-ball rate among qualified pitchers to Camden Yards, but this move should really be judged based on what else executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette does between now and the start of the season.

If the Orioles are serious about competing, they’ll add at least one more veteran such as Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn to slot ahead of Cashner as he should be no more than a No. 4 starter on a contending club and ideally would be the No. 5 guy. But if he remains their biggest acquisition and the Orioles fill out the rest of the rotation with internal options or only throw in a Tillman re-signing, Cashner could prove to be little more than a marginal upgrade from Wade Miley in the No. 3 spot for a rotation that finished last in the majors in ERA last year.

Either way, the Orioles will cross their fingers that Cashner won’t be the second coming of Gallardo and is able to outperform his peripherals for a second straight year. Such an outcome would better help them compete or at least provide the club another decent piece to sell off at this summer’s trade deadline.

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Orioles’ lack of direction taking optimism out of spring

Posted on 14 February 2018 by Luke Jones

Orioles pitchers and catchers have reported to Sarasota and participated in their first workout on Wednesday.

This is supposed to be a warm and fuzzy time for those longing for baseball and warmer weather while reminding themselves that hope springs eternal, right?

You’ve read the primers with the top five or 10 biggest questions going into spring training, but what’s currently happening on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex feels rather inconsequential. Musings about another left-handed bat, the utility infielder competition, or even the vacancies in the starting rotation simply don’t measure up to the colossal question emanating from this organization.

What the heck is going on?

The Orioles finished in last place in 2017 and posted the worst starter ERA in the major leagues and worst in club history, but the most notable rotation candidate added this offseason has been Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes. The loudest and most consistent buzz about a veteran signing continues revolving around Chris Tillman, who last year posted the worst ERA (7.84) by any major leaguer throwing more than 90 innings since Scott Erickson (7.87) in 2000. His track record prior to 2017 makes him an acceptable flier to compete for the final rotation pot, but he’d currently be penciled in as the No. 3 or No. 4 starter.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the projected 2018 payroll is currently around $40 million lower than last year’s, but reports and speculation continue to suggest reluctance to commit to long or even medium-term contracts, making one wonder if the decrease is deliberate. Players who’ve meant so much to their recent success like Adam Jones have indicated that the club isn’t even engaging in extension talks. And Baltimore still hasn’t traded Manny Machado as the 25-year-old superstar is now nine months away from walking away as a free agent.

Why, why, and why?

The Orioles certainly don’t appear to be “going for it” with Machado, Jones, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach all scheduled to become free agents at the end of the season and haven’t yet signaled a rebuilding process by dealing any of the aforementioned names. Blame executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette if you want, but both he and manager Buck Showalter are also in the last year of their contracts, only adding to the perceived lack of direction exhibited by ownership.

Do Peter Angelos and family have a plan for 2019 and beyond?

Of course, excuses are there if you want to entertain them. Duquette has regularly conducted business late in the offseason and well into spring training and an abnormally-stagnant market has left dozens of free agents still looking for jobs, but you’d assume that increased supply will be accompanied by more demand from other clubs whenever the thaw occurs.

Perhaps the Orioles will silence critics by still signing an Alex Cobb or a Lance Lynn, but we know they historically don’t win bidding wars and rarely even engage in them. Would such an addition make enough of a difference anyway or only increase the likelihood of the organization keeping Machado and others through the trade deadline with ill-advised thoughts of chasing the second wild-card berth as we saw in 2015 and last year? Those pondering the future should feel conflicted about that possibility since the current club is hardly devoid of talent despite its clear deficiencies.

You could try to argue that the rotation can’t be any worse than it was a year ago and the removal of Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, and Tillman — at least the 2017 version — is addition by subtraction, no matter who ends up making those starts. Of course, that “glass half full” outlook still doesn’t translate to consistently competing with a group currently comprised of Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and three shoulder shrugs. The bullpen also isn’t as strong on paper with Britton sidelined indefinitely and former All-Star reliever Darren O’Day another year older and having dealt with different ailments over the last two seasons.

Even with baseball’s bizarre market, the organization isn’t proceeding all that differently from recent offseasons, but the reality is that it’s entering the ninth inning of the current era with the same old flaws more magnified than ever. It’s no longer 2012 or 2014 when most of the club’s top commodities remained comfortably under contractual control, meaning there should have been much more urgency.

The organization deserves credit for accumulating the most wins in the American League from 2012-16 and ownership has steadily increased the payroll over the last six years, but frustrating peculiarities have remained such as the philosophical refusal to participate in the international market. The farm system is quietly improving, but the shortage of impactful starting pitching has hindered the major league club for years and crushed it in 2017.

No one will forget the surprising 2012 team, the 2014 AL East champions and Delmon Young’s double, or the wild-card appearance two years ago, but the Orioles are now an unimpressive 113-124 since the 2016 All-Star break and only four games above .500 over the last three seasons. After years of proving naysayers wrong and outperforming projection models, that old mojo feels like it’s on life support at best with the futures of so many key individuals in doubt.

The 2018 club will grind it out to the best of its ability, using the doubts and criticism as fuel for competitive fire. The group will once again be led by Showalter in the dugout and Jones on the field, the two most important individuals in this decade of Orioles baseball. Both will say and do the right things, but they deserve better in what could be their final year in Baltimore.

A last-place team from a year ago begins spring training after treading water all winter, neither making one last big run with the current core nor taking meaningful steps to start building for future success.

The current Orioles, the future Orioles, and those fans typically excited for spring deserve better.

At least some semblance of a direction would be nice.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts counting down to spring training

Posted on 08 January 2018 by Luke Jones

With Orioles pitchers and catchers reporting to Sarasota for spring training in a little over a month, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It bears repeating how problematic it is having a general manager whose contract expires in less than a year navigating one of the more pivotal offseasons in club history. The lack of evidence of any direction or long-term thinking from ownership is maddening.

2. That hasn’t been helped by the overall inactivity of the market as MLB Network reported only 31 of 166 free agents had signed deals entering Monday. That sounds fishy, regardless of whether you believe it’s collusion or the effect of the luxury tax and next year’s free-agent class being better.

3. No one’s suggesting the Orioles should just give Manny Machado away, but this is what happens when you punt on the future for so long. This current process should have started from the moment they knew a long-term deal very likely wasn’t in the stars.

4. Speaking of long-term deals, signing Jonathan Schoop to one should be a top priority right now, but you wonder if watching the organization’s handling of his close friend leaves him more inclined to wait for free agency after 2019.

5. Kevin Gausman changing his jersey number to honor the late Roy Halladay is a touching gesture, and the Orioles hope the 27-year-old builds off his 3.41 ERA in the second half of 2017. Home runs remained an issue, but his strikeout and walk rates improved markedly after the All-Star break.

6. Part of that improvement should be credited to Caleb Joseph as pitchers posted a 4.23 ERA throwing to him compared to a 5.60 mark with the departed Welington Castillo. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the staff has usually fared better when Joseph has caught over the last several years.

7. Chris Davis was worth minus-0.2 wins above replacement in 2017, according to Baseball Reference. He’ll only be 32 and can still turn things around, but the seven-year, $161 million deal he signed two years ago is looking more disastrous than many feared it could be at the time.

8. Looking at 2017 batting average on balls in play and remembering the league average is just below .300, Machado is a no-brainer pick to rebound after a career-worst .265 mark. On the flip side, Trey Mancini’s .352 clip makes him a candidate for some regression in his second full season.

9. The club has high hopes for Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro, but the former’s 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings and .263 opposing BABIP are worrisome for projecting future success. Castro’s 5.2 per nine strikeout rate and .231 BABIP should also temper expectations about a possible move to the rotation.

10. Hunter Harvey is a bright spot for an organization still lacking pitching prospects, but you hope the Orioles aren’t so desperate for starting pitching that they potentially compromise the 23-year-old’s health and development. Unlike Dylan Bundy two years ago, Harvey has minor-league options remaining.

11. You’ll hear plenty about Nestor Cortes and other Rule 5 picks over the next few months, but this annual exercise that’s put numerous strains on the roster has netted a total of 1.7 WAR during the Dan Duquette era, according to Baseball Reference. Way too much effort for minimal value.

12. Maybe they’ll prove us wrong in the coming weeks, but the Orioles’ approach to this offseason with a slew of expiring contracts after 2018 feels like a basketball team running a Four Corners offense while trailing by 10 points. Where’s the urgency?

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following West Coast trip

Posted on 17 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles dropping their final two games in Seattle to finish a 4-6 trip on the West Coast, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A losing road trip doesn’t cripple their playoffs chances, but the Orioles entered Thursday with six clubs ahead of them for the second wild card. They’ve played better since the All-Star break, but repeatedly falling to the back of the line among so many mediocre teams isn’t encouraging.

2. With a bullpen in good shape going into an off-day, Buck Showalter stayed with Ubaldo Jimenez entirely too long in the fifth inning Wednesday. The already-struggling veteran was facing the top of the order a third time, but Showalter instead saved his best relievers and lost the lead.

3. Showalter letting Chris Davis bat against lefty Marc Rzepczynski was a tougher call. He’s 8-for-24 over the last week after being lowered in the order, and Rzepczynski has been tough against righties, too. If you’re trying to get Davis going for the stretch, I understand not testing his confidence further.

4. Of their six losses on the road trip, the Orioles held a lead in five of those defeats. Whether it was shaky pitching or the offense going to sleep after scoring an early run or two, the trip should have been better. That’s just another sign of mediocrity.

5. Tim Beckham will cool off eventually, but it’s fun thinking about the possibility that there was more to the idea that he didn’t like hitting at Tropicana Field than anyone thought. In 16 games, he already ranks seventh on the 2017 Orioles in wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

6. I’ve said this before, but Trey Mancini’s development has a left fielder continues to amaze after he only began learning the outfield this past offseason. I would never bet on him winning a Gold Glove, but he looks very capable, which is a nice bonus to accompany his dangerous bat.

7. Davis has fairly received plenty of heat in the midst of his worst season since 2014, but Mark Trumbo has been just as disappointing. Expecting him to match what he did in 2016 was unrealistic, but his .711 on-base plus slugging percentage is the second-worst mark of his career.

8. Since the All-Star break, the Orioles are 1-5 in games in which they’ve had an opportunity to move back to the .500 mark. Talk about beating your head against a brick wall as the second wild card sits there begging for someone to take control.

9. Kevin Gausman has allowed two or fewer runs in five of his last six starts and sports a 3.13 ERA when Caleb Joseph catches. Welington Castillo was behind the dish for that one non-quality start, and Gausman owns a 7.30 mark with him behind the dish. Stick with what’s working.

10. I don’t have a major problem with temporarily sending Joey Rickard to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for Anthony Santander, but Rule 5 players since 2012 have netted the Orioles a combined 2.4 WAR, per Baseball Reference. That’s a minimal return for so often playing with a shorthanded roster.

11. Speaking of questionable value, Jimenez and Chris Tillman have combined for a minus-2.4 WAR despite making a total of $23.55 million in 2017. That’s a heck of a price tag for below-replacement-level production.

12. The 25th anniversary celebration of Camden Yards will be a nice nod to the 1992 Orioles, who showed a 22-game improvement from the previous year. I’m a little bummed Randy Milligan — one of my favorites as a kid — won’t be there though. His .391 career on-base percentage was underappreciated.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following series split with Detroit

Posted on 06 August 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning two straight to salvage a four-game split with Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A series split is an underwhelming result on the heels of the five-game winning streak, but the Orioles bouncing back from Friday’s brutal defeat with two victories was encouraging. A 7-3 West Coast trip would sure make you start thinking differently about their wild-card chances.

2. Manny Machado had a five-RBI game Sunday and is hitting .352 since the All-Star break. With an improved approach and better luck, he’s raised his average from .215 on July 6 to .257 a month later. He’s so dangerous when he isn’t trying to pull the ball exclusively.

3. Despite allowing 12 batters to reach over 5 2/3 innings, Ubaldo Jimenez was serviceable and made big pitches when necessary to protect a sizable lead. That’s three straight respectable outings for the maddening right-hander.

4. The optics were cringeworthy, but the Orioles received competitive starts from Wade Miley and Jimenez over the final two games of the series. Yes, the bar is very low for both, but Buck Showalter’s club has a chance when they’re able to turn in results like that.

5. Tim Beckham continues to be a spark plug as he’s gone 14-for-24 with seven extra-base hits in six games with Baltimore. J.J. Hardy has deep respect within the organization, but Beckham would have to fall off a cliff — perhaps literally — to justify the former returning to the starting role.

6. Beckham hit the 10,000th regular-season home run in club history Saturday and the 2,505th for the Orioles in 26 seasons at Camden Yards. They hit only 2,490 long balls over 38 seasons at Memorial Stadium. Yes, the current park is a homer haven, but the game has sure changed.

7. Jonathan Schoop tied his career high with his 25th home run of the season Sunday, matching his total from 2016 in nearly 200 fewer plate appearances. He continues to amaze in a breakout 2017.

8. The bullpen let him down, but Kevin Gausman pitched another gem on Friday and has posted a 0.65 ERA over his last 27 2/3 innings since his disastrous July 14 start to begin the second half. This is the pitcher we saw over the final two months of 2016.

9. Caleb Joseph caught all four of those Gausman starts and the staff ERA is 4.12 when he catches compared to 5.75 with Welington Castillo this season. The improvement with the bat stands out, but his work behind the plate is why the playing time is virtually even since the break.

10. Sending Chris Tillman to the bullpen wasn’t an easy conversation, but the Orioles had no other choice. It will be interesting to see how often he pitches and how a relief role will impact his nightmarish 8.10 ERA in 66 2/3 innings.

11. With his fifth-inning blast Saturday, Adam Jones reached the 20-homer mark for the seventh straight season, a streak that ranks third in Orioles history behind only Cal Ripken (10) and Eddie Murray (nine). He won’t be a Hall of Famer, but few have been more important over this club’s history.

12. Thanks to Justin Upton’s grand slam off the typically-superb Mychal Givens, the Orioles suffered their ninth straight Friday loss with a few of those occurring in gut-wrenching fashion. Maybe it’s time to retire the Friday “O’s” cap that’s an inferior look to the regular home and away caps anyway.

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Lost weekend sweeps away any glimmer of hope for 2017 Orioles

Posted on 17 July 2017 by Luke Jones

You may have talked yourself into there being hope for the Orioles coming out of the All-Star break after they’d defied logic so many times in the Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette era.

Then came the bucket of ice water to the face that was the weekend sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs. The reigning World Series champions may have entered Friday only a game ahead of Baltimore, but it was evident that these were two teams moving in opposite directions in 2017 and beyond.

Friday night felt like the final nail in the coffin for the 2017 Orioles, who impressively managed to erase an 8-0 deficit to tie the game in the eighth inning before Brad Brach surrendered the game-winning home run to Addison Russell in the ninth. In a season filled with painful losses, that one was the most deflating as the Orioles were outscored 18-3 the rest of the weekend to fall a season-worst seven games below .500.

Yes, it’s time for the Orioles to start thinking about improving their outlook for the future. It’s no secret that they’re set to fall off a cliff at the end of next season when the likes of Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones, and Brach hit free agency, but going 20-39 since May 9 offers similar imagery.

Desperation has been there for a while now as we’ve seen Jonathan Schoop shift to shortstop to make room for journeyman second baseman Johnny Giavotella and Jones move back into the leadoff spot, a role not suited for someone with a .301 on-base percentage no matter what anyone tries to tell you about last year. The mere fact that Kevin Gausman, Wade Miley, and Ubaldo Jimenez started the first three games of the second half really says all you need to know about the state of the Orioles and their starting rotation. The four 20-game winners from 1971 aren’t magically walking through that clubhouse door.

The truth is that the Orioles haven’t played like contenders for a long time now despite qualifying for the postseason for the third time in five years last October. Dating back to the beginning of last July, they hold an 84-91 record. An offense once feared around baseball ranks an underwhelming 11th in the American League in runs scored over the last calendar year. Their minus-94 run differential for 2017 is the worst in the American League and indicates that the Orioles have actually been fortunate to be as good as 42-49.

Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but the failure of the 2017 club begins and ends with a starting rotation on track to be the worst in club history — the 2008 Orioles currently own the worst starer ERA at 5.51 — and one of the worst in baseball in over 100 years. The Orioles entered Monday with an AL-worst 6.02 starter ERA that’s more than a full run worse than 14th-ranked Chicago and a staggering 1.3 runs worse than last year’s rotation that was already viewed as a major weakness.

The starting rotation has been astonishingly terrible.

Amazingly, Cincinnati owns an even worse starter ERA at 6.04. According to Baseball Reference, the Reds currently sport the seventh-worst starter ERA and the Orioles the 10th-worst in major league history going back to 1913.

Misery loves company, right?

It’s easy to view the Orioles as sellers at this point as FOX Sports insider Ken Rosenthal reported as much on Sunday, but will it happen to the degree that it needs to under owner Peter Angelos? The Orioles do not have to trade their biggest chips in the next two weeks if they don’t find the right deal, but the longer they wait, the more diminished the return will be — at least in theory. Everything should now be on the table, however, making the indication that the Orioles won’t even listen to offers for Machado disconcerting.

But there’s a bigger question that needs to be addressed, one that could shape the club’s outlook for the next decade.

Do the Orioles want to retain Duquette beyond 2018 and does he even want to stay? Allowing a lame-duck executive to begin a rebuilding process would be unwise, so you’d hope there’s some resolution — at least privately — in the coming weeks and months as we move toward the offseason. His successes and shortcomings have been discussed at length in recent years, but it’s certainly fair to question whether Duquette would be the right choice to undertake a rebuilding effort.

If he isn’t going to be around after next season, there’s no sense waiting to find his replacement at such a critical time for the organization. That’s also a potential argument for the Orioles to abstain from dealing their best pieces now and instead wait until a long-term general manager is in place.

Of course, we know how the Orioles typically proceed on matters such as these. It’s rarely conventional and can often be detrimental despite their overall success in recent years.

How they handle Duquette’s status would undoubtedly impact the future of Showalter, who will also see his contract expire at the end of next season.

With most attention shifting away from the ugly results on the field and toward what’s happening behind the scenes, the Orioles are at a crossroads full of uncertainty.

It became painfully obvious over the weekend that contention in 2017 isn’t in the cards.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 3-1 win over Toronto

Posted on 27 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning their third straight game in a 3-1 final over the Toronto Blue Jays, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles jumped ahead early with Mark Trumbo’s two-run double with two outs in the first, but Adam Jones drawing a walk after falling behind 0-2 was the biggest at-bat of the inning. It was an impressive way to finish an eight-pitch battle with Joe Biagini.

2. Kevin Gausman showed good fastball command low in the strike zone as he pitched 5 1/3 innings to collect his first victory since May 31. You’d like to see him get deeper into the game, but he was able to build on encouraging signs from his last outing.

3. His command was shaky early in the game, but double plays in the first and second innings went a long way in allowing Gausman to settle down. He retired eight in a row after the twin killing in the second.

4. Toronto made some loud contact in the fourth, but Gausman dotted a 3-2 fastball at the bottom of the zone to strike out Josh Donaldson looking. That was one of his best pitches of the night.

5. Despite the Blue Jays featuring seven right-handed bats in their starting lineup, Gausman continued to use his split-changeup as his go-to secondary pitch and didn’t throw a single slider, according to Statcast. That’s an interesting development.

6. Thanks to the off-day, Buck Showalter was able to deploy his bullpen earlier than normal as Gausman was pulled after 99 pitches with a one-out jam in the sixth. That’s the kind of bullpen chain the Orioles have too frequently lacked over Zach Britton’s absence.

7. Mychal Givens was wild in the sixth, but he got Kendrys Morales to expand the zone for a strikeout to leave the bases loaded and then calmed down to toss a perfect seventh. His ability to pitch more than one inning as been huge all season for an undermanned bullpen.

8. The last seven weeks of Orioles baseball haven’t been easy, but watching Jonathan Schoop continue to grow as an offensive force has been fun. His two-out hits in the first and third started both of Baltimore’s scoring rallies on Tuesday.

9. I’ll never grow tired of watching encounters between Darren O’Day and Jose Bautista. The veteran reliever came out on top this time and has looked sharp in three scoreless innings since returning from the disabled list Friday night.

10. Brad Brach allowed a two-out home run to Troy Tulowitzki in the ninth, the first run he’d allowed since May 16. Other than his struggles from late April through early May, he’s done a commendable job filling in for Britton.

11. Hyun Soo Kim drew two walks, but he’s only 7-for-31 without an extra-base hit since the Chris Davis injury more than two weeks ago that led to more playing time for the left fielder. His season on-base plus slugging percentage is just .620.

12. The Orioles were one strike away from pitching a shutout four days after tying the major league record for allowing five or more runs in their 20th consecutive game. Baseball’s funny.

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Orioles pitching staff making history for wrong reasons

Posted on 23 June 2017 by Luke Jones

Frustration turned to astonishment at some point over the last week watching the Orioles try to pitch.

Even the best clubs endure a poor stretch from time to time, but a streak of 19 consecutive games allowing five or more runs is nothing short of historic. It’s the kind of American League record a team never wants to set, but the Baltimore staff has been a special kind of bad over the last three weeks after merely being below average before that.

That reality begs the question of where it ranks among the most infamous periods of futility in franchise history. A 6-13 record over the streak isn’t anything memorable from a historical context, but a 7.33 ERA over that long of a stretch is difficult to fathom. Since starting a surprising 22-10 with a respectable 3.85 ERA, the Orioles have gone just 13-27 while pitching to a horrendous 6.13 ERA.

Those pitching numbers are worse than virtually any other stretch that Orioles fans have tried to forget over the years.

Remember that 14-42 conclusion to 1986 that sent the Orioles to the first last-place finish in club history? The team ERA of 5.05 over that stretch pales in comparison to the current club’s streak.

The historic 0-21 start for the 1988 Orioles was accompanied by a 5.96 ERA. That number is worse than it looks today in what was a lower scoring environment at the time, but it still doesn’t measure up to the current pitching streak on the precipice of a major league record.

The Orioles posted a 5.63 ERA over their unthinkable 4-32 finish to complete the 2002 season. It was an incredible collapse after that young club had reached the .500 mark in late August, but the pitching still wasn’t historically poor.

The only notable period of time that stands out as being worse statistically than the current staff’s run is a 3-18 stretch for the 2007 Orioles that included an absurd 8.95 ERA as well as the previous club record for the most consecutive games (11) allowing five or more runs. That run included the humiliating 30-3 loss to Texas – which does skew the team ERA during that stretch – but removing that outlier still leaves a 7.89 ERA over the other 20 contests.

Even if you give the 2007 Orioles the nod for the most pathetic run of pitching in club history, there’s no denying the current staff being on a very short list of the worst.

“The Streak” has just put it under an unwelcome spotlight for the entire baseball world to see.

Positive signs for Gausman

If you’re looking for any semblance of hope in regards to the starting rotation, Kevin Gausman showed positive signs despite so-so final results in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Cleveland.

The right-hander struck out a season-high nine batters and walked only two, showing improved fastball command and throwing strikes on 66 percent of his pitches. An obvious difference in his performance was the increased use of his split-changeup, which had been his best secondary pitch in the past and has fallen by the wayside too frequently this year. Gausman threw it a season-high 23.2 percent of the time against the Indians, inducing swings and misses on nine of the 26 he threw.

It’s worth noting that the Cleveland order did include six left-handed bats and the split-change plays better against lefties, but Gausman also threw it effectively against right-handers, twice striking out the dangerous Edwin Encarnacion with the pitch. It was a welcome change after seeing the 26-year-old rely too much on his slider this season with such underwhelming results.

Another potentially interesting development from his start came from BrooksBaseball.net. According to the data-collecting site, Gausman threw his sinker more than 54 percent of the time after barely throwing the pitch all season. Statcast data still reported his fastball as a four-seamer, however, and Gausman made no mention of a change in his post-game interview Wednesday. It’s worth noting that his average fastball velocity was down a bit from recent starts, which could also support the possibility of him using a different grip.

Of course, Gausman ran into trouble in a three-run fifth inning as his command wasn’t as sharp and he relied too heavily on his fastball at times despite getting into plenty of favorable counts that called for secondary stuff. But the overall eyeball test showed a better Gausman than we’ve seen throughout 2017.

Now he needs to prove whether that was a turning point or a mere aberration.

Buyers or sellers?

Much has been made about reports of the Orioles’ intentions to be buyers at the trade deadline, but we’re still four or five weeks away from any definitive calls needing to be made.

It’s understandable not to want to concede anything publicly as Baltimore entered Friday just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card, but even the eternal optimist would have to scoff at the notion of the Orioles being a legitimate contender if there isn’t some substantial on-field improvement sooner than later. And then there’s the issue of what exactly the Orioles have in their system to give up if they want to try to add any pieces to truly move the meter.

Keep in mind there are various degrees of buying or selling that could play out. Even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette concludes that contention isn’t in the cards by the time late July rolls around, that doesn’t mean a full-blown fire sale would take place. Moving the likes of Seth Smith, Welington Castillo, Hyun Soo Kim, and Wade Miley in the short term might fetch a complementary piece or two and not necessarily wreck the potential to make another run in 2018, regardless of whether that’s the wisest way to proceed.

However, it’s difficult envisioning the Orioles trading Manny Machado or Zach Britton before ownership at least determines the long-term status of Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, who are both under contract through only next year. At this point, moves of that magnitude feel more like offseason agenda items.

Regardless of how the next few weeks play out on the field, these conversations need to happen before any meaningful roster decisions should be made to shape the present and, more importantly, the future of the organization.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 14-3 loss to Yankees

Posted on 11 June 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles being swept in a lopsided 14-3 loss to the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Who would have guessed that Orioles pitching giving up eight runs Friday would be the group’s best performance of the weekend? The club already entered Sunday with the worst road ERA in the majors, and it only grew worse in the series finale in the Bronx.

2. Putting aside any hopes of Kevin Gausman becoming an ace, this is a young pitcher who posted a combined 3.77 ERA from 2014-16 to establish himself as no worse than a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’s way too talented to be pitching this horribly 2 1/2 months into the season.

3. Fastball command borders on being a cliché used to explain any pitcher’s problems, but just look where Gausman’s fastball consistently ended up in relation to Welington Castillo’s target. The 26-year-old hasn’t commanded it all year and doesn’t have the secondary pitches to survive without it.

4. No matter how resilient and mentally strong you fancy yourself being, watching a starting rotation give up 15 first-inning runs in a four-game stretch will suck the life out of anyone. The Orioles needed a lift after Chris Tillman’s debacle Saturday, but Gausman only increased the frustration.

5. That reality was evident with a few defensive miscues and Chris Davis barely rounding first on a ball to the right-field wall that should have been an easy double leading off the sixth. The Orioles rarely look like a team that’s given up, but they did on Sunday.

6. Buck Showalter should go a step further from his famous decision years ago to intentionally walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and just give Aaron Judge a free pass when he’s still standing in the on-deck circle. That guy is unbelievable to watch.

7. Trey Mancini drew two walks in a game with few offensive highlights for the Orioles. The rookie has drawn only 11 free passes in 169 plate appearances this season, but nine have come in his last 31 games.

8. The debut of Jimmy Yacabonis started well with a strikeout of Chris Carter on a 98 mph fastball, but it crumbled quickly after that. Given the state of the bullpen, you hope his performance was more a product of nerves as the Orioles need all the help they can get.

9. I thought the Yankees were a year away from being a serious contender at the start of the season, but their plus-115 run differential and the highest-scoring offense in the majors tell me their first-place standing is no fluke. That’s bad news for the rest of the division.

10. Remember that crazy extra-inning win the Orioles had in Detroit last month? They haven’t had a road victory in nine tries since. Their .333 road winning percentage is behind only Oakland (.281) for the worst in the American League.

11. I’m the last person to start calling for drastic changes nor am I suggesting that will happen, but this is the kind of stretch in any sport that can get someone fired. There’s no sugarcoating how embarrassing this series was.

12. The Orioles dropped behind Tampa Bay for fourth place in the AL East, and you have to wonder if these are the last few days they’ll spend above .500 without a dramatic turnaround. Since starting an impressive 22-10 to begin the season, Baltimore has gone 9-20.

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