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Tillman starting Opening Day, Gausman starting 2016 on DL

Posted on 28 March 2016 by Luke Jones

For the third straight year, Chris Tillman will take the ball for the Orioles on Opening Day.

Manager Buck Showalter announced the news on Monday morning after confirming that starting pitcher Kevin Gausman will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

Tillman becomes the first Baltimore pitcher to start three consecutive season openers since Mike Mussina from 1998-2000. The 27-year-old went 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA in 31 starts last season and has struggled with a 9.31 ERA in 9 2/3 innings in the Grapefruit League, but no other projected Orioles starter has performed to a level seriously challenging Tillman for the honor.

As it stands, free-agent newcomer Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez are slotted to start the second and third contests of the three-game series against Minnesota to begin the season next week.

Gausman starting the season on the DL isn’t surprising considering he hasn’t pitched since March 16 and received a cortisone injection for his right shoulder on March 20. Showalter said the 25-year-old right-hander could still return as soon as April 10 when the Orioles would need a No. 5 starter for the first time, but it remains to be seen whether that’s a realistic goal. His stint on the DL will be backdated to March 25, the earliest it can be done for the regular season.

Entering his first full season as a starter after bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen over the last three years, Gausman is being counted on to take a big step forward to help the Orioles compete in 2016.

Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Vance Worley remain candidates for the rotation should Gausman not be able to return as soon as the club hopes. Veteran Miguel Gonzalez also remains on shaky rotation footing after a poor spring and has a minor-league option remaining, meaning his starting spot isn’t guaranteed.

The Orioles also announced that right-handed pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday. The 28-year-old is expected to be a member of the Tides rotation and posted a 6.75 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.

Baltimore has 41 players remaining in major league camp, including seven non-roster invitees.

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Final week of spring anything but smooth for Orioles

Posted on 28 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The final days of spring training are supposed to be used for determining the last couple roster spots and setting the starting rotation for the first few weeks of the regular season.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette are doing that, but the process couldn’t look much rockier than it does right now.

The future of newcomer Hyun Soo Kim remains in flux as he was out of the starting lineup for the sixth time in the last seven Grapefruit League games on Monday. Chris Tillman was named the Opening Day starter on Monday, but that decision was made by default with none of the projected members of the rotation having even a decent spring. The Tillman news came shortly after Showalter confirmed that the talented Kevin Gausman would begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis.

Questions about the rotation were going to persist no matter how starters performed this spring, but the Kim situation is surprising after the Orioles lauded the South Korean product as a projected starter from the moment they signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal in December. Instead, he’s been outplayed by Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard and speculation persists about him being returned to the Korean Baseball Organization since the Orioles can’t option him to the minors without his permission. A similar situation played out last March with Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon requesting his release and the Orioles obliging.

Making the situation more bizarre is the fact that Kim’s benching has come with him going 8-for-21 since beginning the spring in an 0-for-23 slump, but he has yet to record an extra-base hit and has just one walk while playing underwhelming defense in left. Despite struggling to make hard contact, Kim has struck out only six times in his 44 at-bats, which isn’t an indication that he’s completely overwhelmed against big-league velocity and off-speed pitches.

But the red flags have been there since early in the spring with Kim not expressing much confidence when speaking to reporters through an interpreter and Showalter not providing many ringing endorsements over the last month. The Orioles really must not like what they see to potentially part ways with a player at a position where they have such little depth.

Whether the Orioles are giving up on Kim much too soon and are putting too much stock in Rickard’s tremendous spring or they simply signed a player who was poorly scouted and has since shown that he’s in over his head, the situation is not a good look for an organization that’s had other missteps in the Pacific Rim since the successful signing of Wei-Yin Chen four years ago.

No matter what happens with Kim, the corner-outfield situation will not doom the Orioles in 2016 in the same way that the starting pitching could. The projected rotation entering the spring — Tillman, Gausman, free-agent pickup Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Miguel Gonzalez — has posted an astronomical 11.51 ERA in 45 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League.

The only member of the bunch with an ERA under 9.31 is Gausman (4.50), who hasn’t pitched since March 16 due to his shoulder ailment. Showalter said Monday that Gausman could still return as soon as April 10, the first time the Orioles would need a fifth starter, but it remains to be seen whether that’s realistic.

In the meantime, the performance of Mike Wright (5.74 spring ERA), Vance Worley (4.61), and Tyler Wilson (2.92) over these final spring games becomes more important to watch.

We know the spring may not mean anything — whether evaluating good or bad performances — but it really is staggering how poor the starting pitching has been statistically. The common refrain from starters is that they’re feeling good and still getting their work in despite the results, but you’d think there would have been a few more decent outings even by accident.

Fans would like a couple reasons for optimism at this point after the starting pitching was the biggest reason why the Orioles fell to 81-81 last year.

The good news is that the games don’t count until next Monday. The bad news is, well, that the games count starting next Monday, creating more scrutiny for the final turn through the rotation this week.

With Kim’s uncertain future and the starting rotation’s nightmare spring, the final week before the Orioles’ return to Baltimore is less than ideal.

But it will be interesting.

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Spring bringing little optimism from Orioles starting rotation

Posted on 23 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Hope springs eternal for the Orioles starting rotation.

Three former All-Star selections are projected members of this year’s rotation.

Three starters remain from the group that thrived in the second half of 2014 and contributed to the Orioles running away with the American League East title.

Baltimore may have lost its most consistent starting pitcher from the last four years — Wei-Yin Chen — but his replacement, Yovani Gallardo, sports a 3.66 career ERA.

Then you actually take a look at what’s transpired this spring and wonder how a club that increased its payroll to roughly $150 million can be living under such a black cloud with its starting pitching entering the 2016 season.

Miguel Gonzalez, one of the great stories of the Orioles’ resurgence beginning in 2012, has been nothing short of disastrous in the Grapefruit League after posting a 6.14 ERA in the second half last season. In 14 1/3 innings this spring, the 31-year-old has allowed 20 earned runs, 28 hits, six walks, and five home runs while striking out just four. Against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gonzalez continually missed up in the strike zone and threw fastballs sitting in the upper 80s as he allowed four earned runs, six hits, and two homers in 4 1/3 innings.

Strong track record or not, Gonzalez has struggled dramatically dating back to June of 2015 and should not be assured a spot in the rotation, but the alternatives are few and far between. Gonzalez will have a couple more starts to turn it around before the season begins, but it’s worth noting that he has a minor-league option remaining if his poor performance continues.

The talented Kevin Gausman is dealing with shoulder tendinitis for the second straight year and received a cortisone shot to alleviate the discomfort. Even if the ailment proves to be minor, this isn’t the start that the 25-year-old was looking for with the Orioles needing him to take a major step forward in his first full season as a starter.

Manager Buck Showalter has remained optimistic about Gausman’s availability at the start of the season, but the Orioles won’t know how practical that is until he begins throwing again later this week. Gausman avoiding the disabled list appears unlikely at this point.

Signed to a two-year, $22 million deal that was restructured after apparent concerns about his shoulder, Gallardo has allowed four homers in 4 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League and surrendered two runs, six hits, and three walks while striking out one in four innings of a Single-A game on Monday. A late start to the spring gives the 30-year-old the benefit of the doubt, but there was much discussion about his declining velocity and strikeout rate before the Orioles signed him in late February.

The next couple outings are important for him.

Slowed by a hip issue earlier this spring, Chris Tillman threw the ball well on Sunday despite mediocre results — three earned runs and two homers in four innings — but he also acknowledged during that MASN telecast that his hip still isn’t 100 percent. The Orioles need Tillman to pitch more like the guy he was from 2012-2014 and not the pitcher who posted a 4.99 ERA in 2015.

And then there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up six runs and retired just one batter in his spring debut on March 2. Fortunately, the enigmatic right-hander has allowed just two earned runs in 17 innings split between Grapefruit League and minor-league outings since then.

It speaks volumes about the current state of the rotation when Jimenez looks like the surest bet.

So, who else might the Orioles turn to, especially if Gausman isn’t ready to return when a fifth starter is needed on April 10?

Of a group that also includes Mike Wright (5.74 ERA), Vance Worley (5.56 ERA), and Odrisamer Despaigne (7.15 ERA), Tyler Wilson has stood out this spring as he’s posted a 2.89 ERA in 9 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old doesn’t blow you away with his stuff, but a strong 3.50 ERA in 36 major league innings last year showed that the stage wasn’t too big for him and he has yet to walk a batter this spring.

Wright’s spring ERA isn’t stellar, but his 15 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings at least keep him in the conversation.

Beyond those names, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette continues to look for reinforcements, whether it’s that elusive left-handed starter or another right-handed one who can simply get hitters out.

You never want to read too much into spring training performance — good or bad — but it’s getting late early for the starting rotation and there hasn’t been much evidence from Florida to discount the biggest concern about the 2016 Orioles. We know spring numbers don’t count in the long run, but you’d like to see a little more to be optimistic about at this late stage.

Who knows?

Maybe the pre-2015 light bulb goes back on for Gonzalez, Gausman’s shoulder isn’t an issue and he takes that big step forward, Tillman puts last year behind him, Gallardo proves to be one of the best signings of the offseason, and the good Jimenez surfaces for an entire season. Such a series of events would make us forget all about an ugly spring training and might even make the Orioles the favorites in the AL East.

Hope springs eternal this time of year, right?

As long as you don’t pay attention to anything that’s happened so far.

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Fourteen Orioles thoughts counting down to Opening Day

Posted on 21 March 2016 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just 14 days away, I’ve offered 14 Orioles-related thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Even if it proves to be minor, Kevin Gausman missing time due to shoulder tendinitis for the second straight year is concerning and once again makes you question the Orioles’ handling of their prized pitching prospect over the last few years.

2. J.J. Hardy hitting .370 and continuing to say his left shoulder feels good this spring are positive signs as the veteran shortstop attempts to rebound from the worst season of his career.

3. Speaking of Orioles middle infielders, Brian Roberts sounded like a natural as part of Sunday’s MASN telecast, and I look forward to hearing more from him this season. His in-game discussion with third base coach Bobby Dickerson about infield shifts was particularly enlightening.

4. Buck Showalter is the first to warn against being fooled by spring training, but it’s difficult not to be intrigued by Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard — and his .426 on-base percentage this spring — based on the Orioles manager’s positive comments about the 24-year-old outfielder.

5. I didn’t love the Pedro Alvarez signing because it shifted Mark Trumbo to right field, but you can’t help but think the slugger’s opposite-field power is going to land a few balls in the Orioles bullpen this summer. Camden Yards should be a good fit for the former Pittsburgh Pirate.

6. I’m interested to see how Dylan Bundy is used in the bullpen. Many have compared him to a Rule 5 pick, but you don’t have that finish line of being able to send him to the minors next year. Bundy needs to pitch if he’s going to realize his potential.

7. Hyun Soo Kim is 8-for-17 since his 0-for-23 start in the Grapefruit League, but he’s still looking for his first extra-base hit and has drawn only one walk after his on-base percentage was supposed to be a strength. The South Korean newcomer is looking better, but he’s still very much a work in progress.

8. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Series, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the Orioles adopt the uniform from that era as a Sunday throwback. At the very least, I hope we see that classic look make a cameo appearance at some point this season.

9. Dan Duquette has already said that Christian Walker would need more time at Triple-A Norfolk to learn the outfield, but showing an ability to play there would make the blocked first baseman an interesting possibility in Baltimore at some point this season.

10. The fact that Nolan Reimold is out of options helps his case in an underwhelming corner outfield competition, but the 32-year-old is just 6-for-34 and not making much of a statement this spring.

11. The poor performance of his starting pitchers this spring has probably forced Showalter to think more and more about the potential — and annoying — need to have an eight-man bullpen this season.

12. Despite the 2016 investment made in Matt Wieters and his current elbow issue, the catching position reverting to more of a timeshare with Caleb Joseph wouldn’t be the worst thing given the latter’s pitch-framing ability and defense that could help improve a rotation needing every edge it can get.

13. It’d be unfair to expect more than what Manny Machado offered as the club’s most valuable player in 2015 — with apologies to local media-voted Most Valuable Oriole Chris Davis — but it’s still fun to ponder whether the gifted 23-year-old has even reached his full potential as a player.

14. Already third on the franchise list in wins and games managed, Showalter is entering his seventh season in Baltimore and would be just 34 games shy of Paul Richards by the end of 2016. As the manager often says about others, the Orioles are very lucky he’s passed their way.

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Gausman receives cortisone shot for shoulder tendinitis

Posted on 20 March 2016 by Luke Jones

On the same day that Matt Wieters resumed throwing, the Orioles have another health concern with just two weeks remaining until Opening Day.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Sarasota that starting pitcher Kevin Gausman received a cortisone injection for tendinitis in his right shoulder on Sunday morning. The right-hander had been scheduled to make a minor-league start on Monday, but he won’t pick up a baseball for at least a couple days.

“I don’t know if it’s a big concern,” Showalter said. “He’s had some inflammation in there, and we just want to get rid of that. We feel good about it structurally, [but it] hasn’t managed to go away completely. When we have some time here, try and clear it up before we break camp. Hopefully, that’s all it is. See where we are in two or three days.”

Gausman spent time on the disabled list last year with a similar issue.

With plenty of uncertainty in the starting rotation entering 2016, the Orioles are counting on the 25-year-old to take a major step forward in his first full season as a starter. The 2012 first-round pick pitched to a 4.22 ERA in his 17 starts last season and posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts in 2014.

In two Grapefruit League starts this spring, Gausman has allowed three earned runs, five hits, one home run, and a walk while striking out six in six innings.

Wieters took batting practice once again on Sunday and made 25 throws from up to 60 feet. The veteran catcher hadn’t thrown since leaving a game on March 12 due to right elbow soreness.

It remains unclear whether Wieters will be ready for Opening Day, but a magnetic resonance imaging exam last week revealed no structural concerns in his surgically-repaired elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery 21 months ago.

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Even with late additions, key to 2016 Orioles comes from within

Posted on 18 February 2016 by Luke Jones

If the Orioles are finally able to reach agreements with Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler, they will have entered new territory.

Not only will the signings likely make the Orioles the biggest free-agent spender of the offseason — let that notion marinate for a few moments — but you could finally say that the 2016 club looks better than last year’s 81-81 outfit on paper. That is both an encouraging sign as well as a reminder of just how expensive the current Orioles have become without even mentioning the countdown to Manny Machado’s free agency after the 2018 season.

However, it’s important to remember that Gallardo isn’t an ace and Fowler isn’t an MVP-caliber player. Their additions alone won’t propel a .500 club into the postseason as they are more complementary pieces than dynamic difference-makers, regardless of their price tags.

If we’re being realistic about Gallardo’s declining strikeout rate and diminished velocity over the last few seasons, his biggest value will likely come through an ability to make 30 or more starts like he’s done in seven straight seasons. Even if his ERA doesn’t sparkle, the Orioles need Gallardo to take the ball every five days and alleviate some pressure from the rest of the rotation and a talented bullpen that figures to be busy once again in 2016.

The Orioles need Fowler to set the table at the top of the order with his .363 career on-base percentage and to play good defense at a corner outfield spot, which will be a change after spending his entire career in center. In a lineup filled with plenty of power, the switch hitter can simply do what he does best.

Even if the free-agent newcomers live up to expectations, the Orioles need much more from several incumbents than they received a year ago if they’re to return to the postseason for the third time in five years.

No matter whom the Orioles were realistically going to add to their rotation this offseason, bounce-back seasons from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were going to be a necessity. Can Tillman put his 4.99 ERA from a year ago behind him and pitch more like the right-hander who had a 3.42 mark from 2012-2014? Was Gonzalez’s 4.91 ERA in 2015 more about poor health or did the perceived good fortune of outperforming his peripherals over the previous three seasons — a 3.45 ERA compared to a 4.59 fielding independent pitching mark — finally catch up with him?

Manager Buck Showalter said several times this offseason that Kevin Gausman is ready to “pop” as a full-time member of the starting rotation, but the 25-year-old will need to back up the confidence he expressed in his curveball late last season. No one doubts the 2012 first-round pick’s ability, but the Orioles would like to see him at least pitching like a top-half-of-the-rotation starter to improve their chances.

Shoulder and back injuries have zapped J.J. Hardy’s ability to be the hitter he was from 2011-2013, but can he at least rebound to produce at a level closer to what he did in 2014 when he still managed a .682 on-base plus slugging percentage? His defense would need to be at an elite level to offset a repeat of his .564 OPS from a year ago if he wants to remain a player of any value.

Will being another year removed from Tommy John surgery allow Matt Wieters to play at a level coming close to justifying his $15.8 million salary while the capable Caleb Joseph is likely relegated to backup duties? Wieters’ handling of the staff will be even more important than what he’ll bring with the bat after Orioles pitchers had a superior ERA with Joseph behind the plate (3.65 to 4.38) in 2015.

And then there’s the defense, arguably the biggest factor explaining the Orioles’ ability to run away with the AL East title by 12 games two years ago. In 2015, the calling card of Baltimore’s success in recent years was underwhelming due to injuries and frequent turnover at several positions. Fowler and Korean newcomer Hyun Soo Kim will try to stabilize the corner outfield defense, but improved health for Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, and Adam Jones should keep the Orioles defense strong up the middle.

Even if you don’t love the prospects of forfeiting two draft picks, the Gallardo and Fowler signings would address a rotation that lost the reliable Wei-Yin Chen and improve a corner outfield situation that was nothing short of horrendous a year ago. They are the best of what remains on the free-agent market in late February.

But their additions will mean much more if several incumbents are able to put last year behind them.

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Seven questions for Sarasota: 2016 Orioles spring training

Posted on 16 February 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s about that time.

Pitchers and catchers officially report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex on Thursday as the Orioles begin preparations for their 63rd season in Baltimore. With their arrival comes the annual optimism of spring training, but there are plenty of questions to be answered as the club tries to bounce back from its first non-winning season since 2011.

Below are seven questions that will begin to be answered in Sarasota this week:

1. Are any high-profile additions still on the way?

Having already invested more than $250 million this offseason, the Orioles don’t appear to be finished spending with multiple reports indicating they were moving closer to a deal with free-agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo last week. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette also remains interested in adding another bat with free agents Dexter Fowler and Pedro Alvarez as well as Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce all being mentioned as possibilities. Of course, any additions of this caliber would have a substantial impact on not only the club heading north to Baltimore in April but on the 40-man roster that the Orioles have manipulated as frequently as anyone in baseball over the last few seasons. Duquette hasn’t hesitated to make substantial moves with spring training already underway in the past, so we’ll see if the Orioles are willing to spend a little more than they already have.

2. Can the Orioles win with the current starting rotation?

Of course, the addition of Gallardo would figure to help — even if there are real questions about him moving forward — but the Orioles lost their most reliable starter in Wei-Yin Chen and finished 14th in the AL in starter ERA last year. We won’t know whether Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez have recaptured their pre-2015 form until the season begins, but it would be encouraging to see both pitch well in Grapefruit League action. Meanwhile, Kevin Gausman enters the spring knowing he will be in the rotation after being bounced between starting and relief and Baltimore and Norfolk over the last three years. The Orioles need the 25-year-old to put it together for a full season. Then, there’s the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, who had a 2.81 ERA in the first half and a 5.63 mark after the All-Star break in 2015. If Gallardo isn’t signed, the fifth starter competition is less than encouraging for a club hoping to contend.

3. Just how good is Hyun Soo Kim?

The Orioles signed the Korean outfielder to a two-year, $7 million contract in December, an indication that they believe he can be a starting-caliber player in the major leagues. However, there haven’t been many players to come to the majors from the Korean Baseball Organization, a league many consider to be comparable to the Single- or Double-A level of the American minor leagues. Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang was a big success story last season, but the Orioles hope Kim’s ability to get on base and to consistently hit line drives will translate into major league success. Early projections have compared him to Nick Markakis and Melky Cabrera, and the organization would be thrilled to get that kind of production from the 28-year-old. Kim handling a starting job would go a long way in quelling concerns about a corner outfield situation that was a nightmare in 2015 and is still a major concern.

4. How healthy is J.J. Hardy’s shoulder and back?

I discussed this situation in depth on Monday, but the Orioles must figure out a way to maximize whatever production the 33-year-old shortstop has left after the worst season of his career in 2015. Manager Buck Showalter is known for leaning hard on his veterans, but it may be time to take the foot off the gas in terms of expecting Hardy to play close to 162 games like in 2012 and 2013 when he missed a total of just seven games. It will be interesting to see if Manny Machado takes more reps at shortstop during the spring with thoughts of him playing games at his natural position when Hardy is out of the starting lineup like we saw last September. Of course, before any discussion or tinkering can take place, the Orioles need to see that Hardy’s left shoulder is healthy after he elected to forgo surgery on the torn labrum sustained late last spring. The health of his back is always something to monitor as well.

5. Will Dylan Bundy be ready to pitch in the big leagues?

The 2011 first-round pick made his major league debut as a 19-year-old more than three years ago and has pitched a total of 63 1/3 professional innings since then because of Tommy John surgery in 2013 and a shoulder problem last year. Bundy is only 23, but he’s out of minor-league options, meaning the Orioles must carry him on their 25-man roster if they don’t want to risk him having to clear waivers. Even if he is healthy — a question that will be of great interest this spring — the organization must try to marry his development with the reality of him occupying a spot in the bullpen. In a perfect world, Bundy would report to Sarasota healthy and gradually emerge as an effective middle reliever in a deep bullpen, but little has gone to plan with the prospect. His presence will resemble that of a Rule 5 pick, but there’s no finish line in sight as Bundy is now stuck in the majors unless he lands on the disabled list yet again.

6. How will Showalter handle the catcher situation?

The Orioles may not have expected Matt Wieters to accept the $15.8 million qualifying offer they made in November, but you would have to think Showalter intends to use the three-time All-Star selection as his primary catcher over Caleb Joseph. That being said, there are compelling arguments in favor of Joseph catching more and Wieters was just getting to a point in the final month of the season when he was able to catch on consecutive days, something he did only five times after returning in early June. Wieters said in December that he was happy to finally be finished with the rehabilitation process and to have a normal offseason, but he will still need to see how his elbow responds to a full spring training and full-time catching duty. The Orioles hope that Wieters stays healthy and lives up to his lofty salary, especially after Joseph showed the last two years that he was capable of being a solid starter for a fraction of the cost.

7. Who will be the biggest surprises of the spring?

Adding Gallardo and Fowler would shrink the number of open jobs, but there are a few players who could force the club’s hand in deciding who heads north in April. Outfielder Joey Rickard was considered one of the shrewder picks of the Rule 5 draft, and the Orioles are intrigued by the combined .427 on-base percentage the 24-year-old posted at the Single-, Double-, and Triple-A levels in Tampa Bay’s system in 2015. With at least one corner outfield job still open, could Dariel Alvarez or a returning L.J. Hoes have a spring strong enough to make the club and beat out veteran Nolan Reimold? And though the Chris Davis re-signing seemingly blocks Trey Mancini, could the 2015 Orioles minor league player of the year hit at such a high clip this spring that he forces the club to find a way to make room? Will someone off the radar do what Jimmy Paredes did last spring (a 1.005 on-base plus slugging percentage) to win a spot?

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Improving starting pitching complicated matter for Orioles

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Luke Jones

We know the Orioles need another starting pitcher.

In an ideal world, they’d add two to help fill the void of free-agent departure Wei-Yin Chen — their most consistent starter over the last four seasons — and provide more assistance to a staff that finished 14th in the American League in starter ERA last year.

But even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette does add a starter between now and the start of the season, refining from within will be paramount if the Orioles are to improve from the 81-81 record that left them on the outside looking in last October.

The starting pitching details from the end of 2015 are all too familiar by now.

Bud Norris was downright awful before finally being jettisoned in late July.

A declining strikeout rate (7.8 per nine innings in 2013 down to 6.2 last year) and a nightmarish 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto — his ERA against the rest of baseball was a respectable 3.84 — led to Chris Tillman’s worst ERA (4.99) since the 2011 season when he was still trying to establish himself as a major league pitcher.

Miguel Gonzalez had a shiny 3.33 ERA in his first dozen starts before a groin injury sent him to the disabled list in mid-June. He was never the same after that, posting a 6.53 ERA in his remaining 14 starts and going on the DL again in September.

For the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, improved command and a greater reliance on his two-seam fastball led to a 2.81 ERA in the first half of 2015 before he relapsed with a 5.63 mark following the All-Star break.

And the Orioles are hoping that a full season in the starting rotation for the 25-year-old Kevin Gausman will allow him to take the giant step forward many believe he’s capable of.

It’s easy to say that manager Buck Showalter needs more from these four starters, but what about other factors impact their pitching results?

As discussed extensively at the end of last season, the defense performing more like it did in 2014 would go a long way in helping a starting rotation that largely pitches to contact. However, the man receiving the pitches is also an important factor in their results.

That’s where the discussion becomes complicated with Matt Wieters accepting the $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season. The three-time All-Star catcher is better than Caleb Joseph offensively, but is Wieters — who won Gold Glove awards in 2011 and 2012 — the best catching option for Orioles pitching at this point?

Not according to the 2015 numbers with the departed Chen included below:

     2015 ERA pitching to Joseph      2015 ERA pitching to Wieters
Tillman 3.51 in 77 IP 4.88 in 83 IP
Gonzalez 4.18 in 71 IP 5.98 in 46 2/3 IP
Jimenez 2.87 in 144 1/3 IP 8.62 in 39 2/3 IP
Gausman 4.07 in 59 2/3 IP 4.38 in 51 1/3 IP
Chen 3.67 in 108 IP 3.18 in 65 IP

 

To be clear, these numbers alone don’t prove anything conclusive as Chen was the Orioles’ top starter and the only one to find more success with Wieters than Joseph last year. There are plenty of other factors impacting pitcher performance in this breakdown such as the opponents and the ballpark. Wieters also received most of his work behind the plate in the second half of 2015 when Gonzalzez and Jimenez were out of whack, and it would be wrong to significantly attribute their struggles to the veteran catcher’s return.

With Wieters being another year removed from Tommy John surgery, it would be fair to assume he’ll be more comfortable with pitch-calling after not catching in the majors for over a year and still spending time rehabbing even after his return in early June. It’s not as though Tillman and Gonzalez weren’t successful working with Wieters in 2012 and 2013 when both had consecutive seasons pitching to ERAs well below 4.00.

But more and more data is quantifying pitch-framing and how important it can be to a staff’s success, and this is where Joseph has proven to be valuable over the last two seasons. According to Baseball Prospectus, Joseph ranked ninth in the majors in called strikes above average and 10th in framing runs among qualified catchers last season after ranking seventh in CSAA and ninth in framing runs in 2014 when the starting rotation was among the best in the league in the second half.

Simply put, Joseph positions himself and receives the ball so effectively that he receives more called strikes on borderline pitches than the average catcher.

In contrast, Wieters — who is listed to be two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Joseph — has been a below-average framer over the last few years after being a top 10 performer in that area early in his career. Before posting below-average framing numbers in parts of the last two seasons, Wieters ranked 25th in CSAA and 26th in framing runs in his last full season in 2013 and finished 13th in both categories in 2012.

When you have starters who mostly lack the electric stuff required to miss bats consistently, pitching along the edges of the strike zone becomes even more important than it already is. Stealing as many borderline strikes as possible may not turn a terrible pitching staff into a great one, but it can still go a long way over the course of a full season. This is how Orioles pitching would benefit having Joseph behind the plate more often than Wieters.

We’ll see how Showalter ultimately distributes the playing time, but all signs point to Wieters being the primary catcher and that wouldn’t be surprising given the steep financial commitment being made to him for the 2016 season. This will likely provide a boost from an offensive standpoint, but you hope the hidden cost won’t be too harmful to a starting rotation needing all the help it can get if the Orioles are to jump back into serious contention after their first non-winning season since 2011.

Ultimately, the Orioles need better performance from their incumbent starting pitchers and that responsibility mostly falls on their shoulders, but effective framing and stronger defense would further augment the strides they hope to make in 2016.

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Orioles running out of time, excuses while waiting on Davis

Posted on 13 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles never expected to keep Wei-Yin Chen.

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that the starting pitcher was overrated or wasn’t worth the five-year, $80 million contract — opt-out clause and vesting option included — he was awarded by the Miami Marlins on Tuesday. The Taiwanese lefty isn’t a bona fide ace, but the Orioles were more than happy having him in the top half of their rotation over the last four years and the price was in line with what others of similar age and value have fetched on the open market.

Entering the offseason, you knew that Chen was replaceable, but not easily replaceable for an organization lacking quality arms in the minor leagues. You can either pay for quality arms or develop them, but being in between is a dangerous place.

As the curtain fell on the 2015 season, Dan Duquette said he wanted to acquire a starting pitcher for the front half of the rotation — to presumably replace Chen — but he’s yet to address the Achilles heel of the 2015 team unless you consider yourself the president of the Vance Worley fan club. Spring training is a month away, and the available free-agent options are dwindling with Yovani Gallardo, Mat Latos, Ian Kennedy, and Doug Fister topping the list.

Signing Gallardo or Kennedy would require the Orioles to forfeit their first-round pick, which should be a deterrent for an organization needing to rebuild its farm system. Neither provides the kind of upside you’d like to have before surrendering a draft choice.

The Orioles always figured they would have to depend on bounce-back seasons from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez as well as a big step forward from Kevin Gausman to contend in 2016, but the No. 5 spot in the rotation remains wide open while the rest of the group — which also includes the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez — already faces questions.

That’s less than ideal if you’re trying to compete.

Shortly after the news broke about Chen, outfielder Gerardo Parra agreed to a three-year, $27.5 million contract with the Colorado Rockies. Again, the departure wasn’t surprising as the 2015 trade deadline acquisition was a flop in his two months with Baltimore, but the Orioles still have a gaping hole in right field — and that’s with left field already being occupied by the difficult-to-project newcomer Hyun Soo Kim.

With Colorado now having a surplus of outfielders that includes two-time All-Star Carlos Gonzalez, the reports of the Orioles engaging in trade discussions with the Rockies have resurfaced, but they’ve been down this road before. Short of trading Gausman and opening another hole in a thin rotation, what exactly does Duquette have to offer for Gonzalez — whose career is trending in a concerning direction — or one of the other Colorado outfielders who have benefited from hitting at Coors Field?

Meanwhile, All-Star outfielders Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes are jumping up and down in the free-agent corner, waiting for someone — anyone — to notice them.

Alas, the Orioles seem content waiting on first baseman Chris Davis, even though they said more than a month ago that they’d pulled their offer. Owner Peter Angelos is willing to give Davis $150 million over seven years, but that money doesn’t appear to be in play for anyone else — even options that could be more desirable in the long run — or won’t be until it’s likely too late. You can’t tell people you’ve moved on if you’re not truly willing to pony up comparable funds for other high-quality players.

It’s easy to understand the allure of the home run and that Davis has become a fan favorite over the last few seasons, but when did he become Mike Trout or Cal Ripken? Why will Angelos give lucrative money to a player who two years ago hit .196 and was suspended 25 games for testing positive for Adderall but not to a younger and steadier player like Upton, who also addresses a clear need?

The 28-year-old Upton may have never developed into the superstar many anticipated, but he is also less likely to turn into present-day Ryan Howard over the course of a long-term contract.

Signing next-tier players such as the combination of outfielder Alex Gordon and starting pitcher Scott Kazmir would have been cheaper in the long run and, arguably, more valuable than Davis in the short term, but the Orioles continue to play the waiting game with agent Scott Boras. They’ve allowed the slugging first baseman to take their offseason hostage while other commodities gradually disappear from the free-agent market.

How much longer can they afford to wait if they have real interest in competing in 2016?

The willingness to offer Davis nine figures — an amount some already feel is a bad investment — and to wait out the entire offseason to do so makes it all the more baffling why the Orioles weren’t willing to give Nelson Cruz a fourth year on a more reasonable contract last winter.

And what will the excuse be if they don’t land Davis and other viable options are gone? The Orioles stood on the returns of Davis, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado as reasons why they’d be able to overcome last year’s free-agent exodus, but there is no such crutch this time around.

They can say they tried, but attempting to sign a high-priced free agent and actually doing it are different things entirely. Continuously underestimating market prices and complaining about opt-out clauses don’t make you any better on the field.

Despite Wieters’ acceptance of the $15.8 million qualifying offer — a development that shouldn’t cripple a club’s long-term plan — the Orioles made some solid moves early in the offseason in trading for first baseman/designated hitter Mark Trumbo, re-signing All-Star reliever Darren O’Day, and taking a two-year, $7 million flier on Kim. But the offseason has come to a screeching halt since then with major holes still needing to be addressed.

Baltimore continues to wait on Davis as if he were the Holy Grail, the only direction they can possibly go this offseason.

But a month after saying they’ve moved on, the Orioles appear stuck on plan A and have apparently forgotten what comes next in the alphabet.

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

Posted on 08 September 2015 by Luke Jones

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

We get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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