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Five questions pondering Machado, Harbaugh, Lough, others

Posted on 29 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or does Manny Machado need to be careful not to develop a reputation as a hothead with umpires? The talented 22-year-old was ejected in the eighth inning of Thursday’s doubleheader after throwing his bat down in disgust upon being called out on a check-swing attempt. Machado said he wasn’t concerned about already having three career ejections, stating that “there’s going to be more where that came from.” Of course, this comes a year after the infamous bat-throwing incident that fetched him a five-game suspension and drew the ire of teammates and fans. The sky’s the limit for Machado, but there has to be some concern about his tendency to lose his temper, which includes him often throwing his helmet or bat after unsuccessful trips at the plate. With situations like this, I’m often reminded of Cal Ripken telling the story of how veteran teammate Ken Singleton once scolded him as a rookie for throwing his helmet, simply saying, “We don’t do that here.” Perhaps someone needs to have that conversation with Machado if it hasn’t happened already.

2. Is it just me or did John Harbaugh react too harshly to questions on Thursday about another offensive coordinator impacting Joe Flacco? The Ravens coach was in no mood to address queries about having his fourth coordinator in four years, going on the defensive and saying it was “irrelevant” and a non-story the media was trying to create. Anyone paying attention over the last few years understands the circumstances that led to coordinator changes and wouldn’t criticize the Ravens for any of them, but it clearly is a challenge for a franchise quarterback and an offense to experience that much change in a short period of time. It’s a testament to Flacco that he’s worked so well with so many different coaches and it’s a credit to the organization for finding individuals who have made enough of an impact in Baltimore to earn head coaching gigs elsewhere. The Ravens feel confident that success will continue under a talented offensive mind in Marc Trestman, so I’m not sure why the head coach took such exception to being asked about another change.

3. Is it just me or is now the time to give David Lough an extended look in the outfield? With Alejandro De Aza designated for assignment on Wednesday, it creates more opportunities for other Orioles outfielders, but Lough has received far fewer chances than Delmon Young, Travis Snider, and Steve Pearce this season. He hasn’t started consecutive games all year, but Lough does provide strong defense and speed, two assets the other outfielders who currently aren’t thriving at the plate lack. Truthfully, I don’t think Lough is an everyday player, but it can’t be easy to produce when you receive roughly one start per week and feel like you have to get three hits are you’ll be right back on the bench the next night. It might not be a bad idea for manager Buck Showalter to start Lough every day — at least against right-handed starters — for two or three weeks for a final assessment to determine whether he can be a starting player. If he doesn’t take advantage, the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to move on from Lough if they want to explore other options in the outfield.

4. Is it just me or is criticism for established NFL veterans skipping voluntary organized team activities absurd? Yes, rookies and veterans on shaky footing are only hurting themselves by skipping OTAs, but entrenched veterans should not feel obligated to attend voluntary workouts. Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady was the latest to suffer a season-ending knee injury in a voluntary workout this week. I realize injuries can happen at any point, but why put yourself in harm’s way if you don’t feel the need to? This notion would be much different if NFL players had guaranteed contracts, but do you think the Broncos will hesitate cutting Clady next year when he’s coming off a major knee injury and is scheduled to make $9.5 million if they feel it will help their salary cap situation? Loyalty is a two-way street, but NFL teams typically take up the entire road in these matters. Of course, players can’t do anything about the lack of guaranteed contracts until it’s time for the next collective bargaining agreement, but that doesn’t mean they need to show up for voluntary workouts.

5. Is it just me or are the Orioles benefiting from their best pitching depth in a long time? Not that they were all great in Thursday’s doubleheader, but rookies Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Oliver Drake combined to pitch 12 of the 18 innings as the Orioles split with the Chicago White Sox. With all attention paid to the Orioles’ top six starting candidates and a crowded veteran bullpen this spring, it’s been refreshing to see pitchers come up from Triple-A Norfolk while Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman are currently on the 15-day disabled list. With Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter all scheduled to become free agents this offseason, the Orioles will likely have some opportunities available in both the rotation and bullpen for 2016, and that doesn’t seem like a bad thing with the contributions they’ve received from young pitchers so far. Of course, it’s also worth noting that pitching prospect Dylan Bundy will be out of options next year and will need to be on the 25-man roster, giving the Orioles more incentive to want to see him in Baltimore at some point later this season. Bundy is currently dealing with right shoulder tendinitis.

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davis

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Orioles lineup continues firing blanks in month of May

Posted on 27 May 2015 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Orioles offer latest example that it isn’t 2014 anymore

Posted on 17 May 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — A year ago, starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez too often let down his Orioles teammates in a nightmarish campaign that ultimately landed him in the bullpen.

On Saturday, the Orioles wasted a stellar outing from the right-hander in a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels that dropped Baltimore four games below .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011 season. It was just the latest reminder that it isn’t 2014 anymore.

Continuing his excellent start to 2015, Jimenez pitched six shutout innings before two infield singles and a Chris Iannetta chopper off the glove of Manny Machado — not an easy play, but one we’re used to seeing the 2013 Gold Glove third baseman make — tied the game at 1-1 in the seventh. A single by Marc Krauss plated the second Angels run and gave them a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish in another frustrating loss for the Orioles.

Sporting a sparkling 2.43 ERA in seven starts spanning 40 2/3 innings, Jimenez was victimized by bad luck in the seventh, but the lack of support from the other phases of the game is an all-too-familiar theme so far this season as the Orioles lineup managed just one run — a Steve Pearce solo home run in the fourth — and three hits, none of them coming after the fourth inning. In fact, not a single hitter even reached base after Pearce hit his third homer of the season for the first run of the game.

“We are just not getting the timely hits right now,” Pearce said. “Hitting a lot of balls hard right at people. Tomorrow is a new game, and we have to shake it off. We’re still [only] five games back. It’s still a long season, and we are hoping to turn this thing around starting tomorrow.”

Matters weren’t helped with relievers Darren O’Day and Zach Britton allowing four more runs in the final two innings, making what was a one-run deficit an insurmountable five-run hole for an offense that’s managed just two runs and eight hits in the first 18 innings of a three-game set against the Angels, who have shaken off a slow start of their own with their current five-game winning streak. Those offensive numbers wouldn’t be as frustrating if not for the fact that Jered Weaver and Matt Shoemaker each arrived in Baltimore with ERAs of 4.98 and 6.61, respectively.

With Memorial Day just over a week away, the Orioles still haven’t been able to find that consistent winning combination they mastered in running away with the American League East a year ago. When they’ve scored plenty of runs, the pitching hasn’t gotten the job done. And when they receive good performances on the mound, the offense has too often disappeared like it did on Friday and Saturday.

Only 34 games into 2015, the Orioles know they have plenty of time, but their play has just felt off with even the defense and bullpen — arguably the two components most responsible for three consecutive winning seasons — faltering at critical times.

“We just have to deal with it,” manager Buck Showalter said. “We had challenges last year. We have good people. We’ll overcome it. I have a lot of confidence in that.”

Yes, it’s still early, but the Orioles need to recapture their mojo from a season ago. Or, it could get start getting late a lot quicker than they would have anticipated.

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machado

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Machado’s off-key defense concerning in early going

Posted on 13 May 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s been a strange start to the 2015 season for Orioles third baseman Manny Machado.

Offensively, he’s on pace to hit a career-high 31 home runs and currently boasts an .868 on-base plus slugging percentage, which dwarfs his previous best of .755 last year. His .354 on-base percentage and club-leading 13 walks — his career high was just 29 in 2013 — have prompted manager Buck Showalter to move the 22-year-old into the leadoff spot in the order. He’s also stolen five bases, one shy of his career high and a sign that his knee issues are hopefully behind him for good.

But the young infielder’s trademark defense hasn’t been so “Machadian” thus far with a club-leading eight errors in 31 games. His seventh-inning throw behind Chris Tillman on what would have been a 3-5-1 double play eventually led to Toronto breaking a 2-2 tie and scoring four times in the Orioles’ 10-2 loss to the Blue Jays on Tuesday night.

It was his latest miscue to hurt the Orioles this season after he made two late-inning errors in a home series against Boston in late April, one that preceded a tie-breaking three-run homer in a loss and another that resulted in a blown save for closer Zach Britton.

To be clear, Machado has made his share of highlight plays this year, but several of his errors have been costly for a pitching staff so reliant on the Orioles’ usually-stellar defense. Opponents have scored 11 runs in the remainder of innings following a Machado error. Of course, a defensive lapse isn’t an excuse for a pitcher to melt down, but it does illustrate how costly it can be to award extra outs to the opposition.

Of his eight errors, six have been on throws, most of them being rather routine plays.

He’s committed six in the seventh inning or later.

At this point, is he too confident or not confident enough with his throwing? How did the 2013 Gold Glove winner explain the uncharacteristic struggles after Tuesday’s loss?

“I don’t know. Playing baseball,” said Machado, who’s shown his frustration on several occasions this season. “I’m trying to make outs and it’s not turning out like it’s supposed to be. I’ve got to keep grinding, keep catching grounders, and keep making those throws.”

It’s clear that Machado and the Orioles recognize the inconsistency as he was out on the field early on Tuesday afternoon working with third base coach and infield instructor Bobby Dickerson.

No one who’s watched Machado over the last few years doubts his special ability after he won the American League’s Platinum Glove award as its best defensive player in 2013, but he’s currently on pace to commit 42 errors this season. His eight errors are just one shy of his total from last year in 51 fewer games. He made just 13 in 484 chances in his first full season in the majors when he was 20 years old.

Is it an early-season aberration or something bigger to be concerned about?

Much like their slow start to the 2015 season, the Orioles hope the young third baseman snaps out of it sooner rather than later.

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Machado might be best fit in leadoff spot for Orioles

Posted on 04 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Amidst the weirdness of a “home” series in St. Petersburg this weekend, the Orioles trotted out a new leadoff hitter in a series win against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Third baseman Manny Machado batted first in wins on Saturday and Sunday, his first games in the top spot in the order since doing it twice in 2013. With both Alejandro De Aza (a .219 batting average) and Everth Cabrera (.221) struggling at the plate, the 22-year-old Machado might be the best option the Orioles have for the role after the offseason departure of Nick Markakis.

It’s clear that using Machado in the No. 1 spot is something that manager Buck Showalter has considered for a while after the young infielder served in that role a number of times in spring training. His current .250 average is largely a product of an 0-for-15 start to the 2015 season as he’s batted .308 with a .927 on-base plus slugging percentage since then.

A deeper look reveals Machado might be a better fit as a leadoff hitter than most would think. He has already laid down a couple impressive bunt singles this season and leads the club with three stolen bases without being caught yet, signs that his well-documented knee concerns are hopefully behind him for good.

The biggest factor working in Machado’s favor is his improved patience at the plate. The 2010 first-round pick leads the club with 11 walks and has increased his walk rate from 5.7 percent in 2014 to 13.3 percent of his plate appearances this year. Of course, that will likely level off some as the year continues, but there’s no doubt that he’s showing more willingness to draw the base on balls since walking only 29 times in 667 plate appearances in his first full year in the majors in 2013.

So far, Orioles leadoff hitters have posted a .703 OPS while drawing only six walks — two coming from Machado in the last two games — and striking out 22 times. That’s just not what you’re looking for from the top hitter in the order who will receive more opportunities than any other spot over 162 games.

Baltimore still hopes Machado will settle into a spot in the heart of the order in the long run, but he is probably their best option as the leadoff hitter for the time being. Yes, it’s unconventional, but Showalter proved he wasn’t afraid to go a different route when he slotted Markakis in the top spot a few years ago with positive results.

Cabrera not getting it done

Shortstop J.J. Hardy beginning a minor-league rehab assignment at Double-A Bowie on Monday is great news as it appears an All-Star player is on the verge of returning to the lineup.

The Orioles have survived without Hardy through the first month of the season, but there’s no doubting they’ll welcome his production at the shortstop position where they’ve received very little so far this season. Cabrera has been acceptable defensively (three errors in 76 chances), but his .481 OPS was the third worst in the majors among qualified hitters entering Monday.

With Hardy and fellow infielder Ryan Flaherty potentially returning by the weekend, the Orioles are faced with interesting decisions with the 25-man roster. Career minor-league infielder Rey Navarro figures to be optioned, but might we see Cabrera — who has an option remaining — sent to Triple-A Norfolk as well?

Perhaps Showalter has experimented with Steve Pearce at second base this past weekend to determine whether he could be reliable enough to go with the combination of Hardy, Flaherty, and Pearce at the middle infield spots with Flaherty able to play either second base or shortstop. It would help solve — at least temporarily — a roster crunch that exists with other fringe position players such as David Lough not having any minor-league options.

Snider vs. Markakis

While no one doubted the Orioles would miss Nelson Cruz’s bat — he’s already hit 13 home runs for Seattle to lead the majors — the debate over Markakis’ departure was more interesting as most acknowledged he was already on the decline before undergoing offseason neck surgery.

In Atlanta, Markakis is hitting .292 and has drawn walks in 14.4 percent of his plate appearances, the highest walk rate of his career. However, the 31-year-old right fielder has collected just three extra-base hits — all of them doubles — and is slugging just .326 with a .720 OPS.

Travis Snider, who has seen the most time in right field for the Orioles so far, has batted .281 while posting a .773 OPS and is tied for third on the club with eight walks. Of course, Snider has struggled in the outfield with several gaffes in the early going, which you wouldn’t have seen from Markakis.

Could the Orioles use Markakis in the leadoff spot right now? Sure, but his numbers so far in 2015 don’t exactly suggest the Braves are getting the bang for their buck after awarding the former Oriole a four-year, $44 million contract. Meanwhile, Snider is making just $2.1 million and doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2016 season.

Gonzalez quietly on tear

He’s always among the first names observers talk about trying to replace, but Miguel Gonzalez continues to get the job done for the Orioles after pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings to earn his third win of 2015 in Saturday’s 4-0 final.

In the last calendar year, the 30-year-old right-hander has posted a 2.71 ERA over 159 2/3 regular-season innings. Entering Sunday, his 2.31 ERA since last year’s All-Star break was third in the American League (minimum 15 starts) behind Houston’s Dallas Keuchel (2.00) and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez (2.07).

He rarely wows you with his stuff, but Gonzalez has been as reliable as anyone for the Orioles since 2012 and is off to another good start with a 2.59 ERA this season.

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joseph

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Five questions pondering Joseph, Garcia, others

Posted on 17 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions

1. Does Caleb Joseph make it easy to wait for Matt Wieters to take his time to return?
No, I don’t expect the former to continue hitting .375, but it’s difficult to argue how good his defense has been as Orioles pitching posted a 3.00 ERA with him behind the plate in 2014, he threw out 40 percent of runners trying to steal, and his pitch framing rates better than Wieters’ did in either of his his last two full seasons. The question isn’t whether Joseph is better than or as good as the pre-injury Wieters — he’s clearly not — but it remains to be seen if the post-surgery Wieters will be the same defensively and whether he’ll provide enough offense to justify being the undisputed starter if he’s a shell of his old self behind the plate.

2. Does Buck Showalter need to figure out exactly what he has with Jason Garcia sooner rather than later?
I know the Orioles love the Rule 5 pick’s arm and he has nice potential at age 22, but they can’t afford to carry him if it means they essentially have a 24-man roster. If his arm is special enough to warrant keeping him, he should be able to get some meaningful outs along the way. The early-season struggles of Tommy Hunter and and the rest of the bullpen have magnified the situation, of course, but Showalter needs to be able to use Garcia in some legitimate situations, especially if he’s not going to give the Orioles length in the same way that T.J. McFarland did as a Rule 5 pick in 2013.

3. Should third base coaches take more chances around baseball?
I thought about this at different times this winter after Kansas City elected not to send Alex Gordon home as the potential tying run in Game 7 of the World Series, and the question returns with Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson drawing the ire of fans with some questionable sends at the start of the season. Historically, a runner standing on third base with two outs will score only 27 percent of the time, but data shows only five percent of runners being sent home from second base on a single with two outs are thrown out at the plate. Yes, that success rate looks great, but how many potential runs are ultimately being stranded at third base to avoid the chance of a runner being thrown out in favor of the potentially lower-percentage chance of the next batter driving him in. Of course, there are many variables involved such as the speed of the runner, the location of the ball, and the arm strength of the fielder, but it’s still interesting to ponder how many potential runs are lost due to the fear of failure and the criticism that a third base coach can face.

4. Is the exuberant friendship between Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop a joy to watch?
I first watched these two play together when they were at Single-A Frederick in 2011, and it’s scary to think how young both still are with so much untapped potential. Of course, scenes like this don’t hurt, either:

5. Do we still not appreciate Jim Palmer enough? The Hall of Fame pitcher celebrated the 50th anniversary of his major league debut Friday and he continues to remain a fixture on Orioles telecasts five decades later. As someone who only remembers Palmer the broadcaster, I marvel at his numbers, which included a period of nine times in 10 years from 1969-1978 in which he posted an ERA below 3.00 and at least 4.1 wins above replacement. His 211 complete games, 53 shutouts, and four seasons of 300 or more innings are numbers we don’t even see in video games today.

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machado

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Orioles musings on the opening week of the season

Posted on 13 April 2015 by Luke Jones

Based on how they performed over the first week of the season, the Orioles are right where they belong sitting at the .500 mark while allowing one more run (32) than they’ve scored (31) through the season’s first six games.

The fact that a number of fans are concerned about a 3-3 record shows just how far the Orioles have come over the last three years under manager Buck Showalter in that they’re now expected to win. For anyone concerned about the first week of the season, keep in mind that the Orioles began last season with a 1-4 mark and were still sitting at .500 at the beginning of June before playing .639 baseball the rest of the way.

For context, the Orioles are roughly at the same point in their season now as the Ravens were when Joe Flacco tossed an interception in the third quarter of the 2014 season opener against Cincinnati last September.

Beyond Bud Norris being a “person of interest” with a poor start in the home opener that followed his concerning spring and Ubaldo Jimenez reinforcing his strong finish in the Grapefruit League with a brilliant performance Saturday night, I haven’t seen much of anything that changes my overall attitude or outlook on the 2015 campaign. The Orioles obviously need to pitch better than they did in the first week, and I think they will based on the track record of many of these hurlers over the last few seasons.

* The Orioles have given up 10 or more runs in a game twice already after doing it just five times all last season, which brings two thoughts to mind.

One, it shows how consistent the staff was in 2014 despite not having the kind of starting rotation that inflicts fear like Detroit’s last year or the current Washington group. In 2013, the Orioles allowed 10 or more runs nine times and surrendered at least that many in a game 10 times in 2012.

It also speaks to how impressive the Toronto lineup was in scoring 23 runs in a three-game series in which the Blue Jays were nearly shut out in the second contest. The Blue Jays weren’t exactly struggling to score runs anyway before the offseason arrivals of an MVP-caliber player like third baseman Josh Donaldson and veteran catcher Russell Martin, who posted a .402 on-base percentage with Pittsburgh last year.

I still have my doubts about how quickly their young pitching will come together in both the rotation and the bullpen, but the Blue Jays will hit the ball as well as anyone in the majors.

* Third baseman Manny Machado’s 0-for-15 streak to begin the 2015 season ended Sunday, but his .053 average isn’t anything to be concerned about just yet as he’s hit several balls hard and has shown improved patience at the plate in drawing three walks in 23 plate appearances. He’s only struck out three times over that span, which suggests making contact isn’t a concern.

What has been an encouraging sign that his surgically-repaired knees are not an issue is the number of “Machadian” plays — yes, I’ve coined a new adjective to describe his impeccable defense — he’s already made in the field.

Considering he won’t be 23 until July, it’s amazing to think how many highlight plays he’s already offered up in his major league career. You just hope the problems with his knees are finally behind him, so we can enjoy watching this kid play a full season.

* Right-hander Kevin Gausman is off to a rocky start in the bullpen, allowing three earned runs and four walks in 3 2/3 innings.

While I’ve made no secret about my disagreement with his handling, it’s worth noting that he’s begun throwing a curveball — seemingly abandoning his slider that was still a work in progress — for the first time since college. In talking to Gausman late last week, you got the sense that he’s trying to emulate Chris Tillman a little more by adopting the curve to change hitters’ eye levels and throwing more high fastballs, which will certainly get him in trouble if he doesn’t locate and pick his spots carefully.

You wonder if these fundamental adjustments along with some natural disappointment over not being in the rotation have led to his early-season struggles, but there’s too much talent there for him not to right himself sooner rather than later.

* I’m guessing not many would have predicted knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa as the first minor-league pitcher to be recalled by the Orioles this season, but it further illustrates how timing and flexibility have more to do with promotions than anything.

More heralded arms such as Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson had already pitched in the previous two days and the Orioles preferred to give T.J. McFarland his scheduled start with Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday, paving the way for the 30-year-old Gamboa to receive his first promotion to the majors. Of course, he was only going to pitch in an extreme situation such as an injury or two taking place or the score being totally out of hand, but it once again shows how manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette will utilize resources at Norfolk and even Double-A Bowie however they see fit.

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machado

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Five things that must go right for 2015 Orioles

Posted on 02 April 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s funny how we annually try to pinpoint absolutes in assessing what must go right or what cannot go wrong for the Orioles to have a successful season.

There are very few absolutes on which you can count over the course of a 162-game schedule. Look no further than last year to realize just how true that can be.

You might have predicted last spring that nearly everything needed to go right for the Orioles to win their first American League East title in 17 years. Instead, they endured the absence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for most of the year, another season-ending knee injury to Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado, and an abysmal campaign from 2013 home run king Chris Davis that ended with a 25-man suspension for Adderall use.

If given a preview of only those subplots last spring, you would have been more inclined to predict a 96-loss campaign as opposed to 96 victories and winning the division by a dozen games.

You just never know and that’s what makes it fun, as manager Buck Showalter would say.

With that reality in mind, below is a stab at five things that must go right for the Orioles in 2015:

1. Starting pitchers continue to outperform their metrics

It’s no secret that many statheads and projections haven’t liked the Orioles over the last three years and for good reason. They haven’t looked the part of other winners in the 21st century as they hit home runs but don’t get on base at a high rate and their pitching doesn’t rely on the strikeout, which is one of the most expensive commodities in the game.

But where the Orioles excelled in 2014 was a starting rotation that took advantage of an exceptional defense behind it. Starters didn’t strike many out (11th in the AL) and walked too many (fourth-most in the AL) — the intense struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez certainly skewed the latter ranking — but pitching coach Dave Wallace preaches to his pitchers to trust their defense, which they did with great success as the season progressed.

After the All-Star break, the Orioles posted a starter ERA of 2.98 after a 4.09 mark in the season’s first half. Their starter strikeout numbers even improved from 6.5 to 7.4 per nine innings pitched.

Many are predicting a market correction for the Orioles pitching after they ranked third in the AL in ERA but only 11th in fielding independent pitching (FIP), which eliminates factors a pitcher can’t control such as his defense. The good news is Baltimore starters figure to once again have Gold Glove-caliber fielders behind them.

The starting pitching continuing to find success is the single-most important factor needed for the Orioles to not only preserve the bullpen for the later months but to contend for another playoff berth.

2. Manny Machado takes a (healthy) step forward

The questions about Wieters’ health will likely linger for much of the season, but the Orioles proved they could win without their All-Star catcher last season and Caleb Joseph has shown an ability to handle himself well from a defensive standpoint. Machado possesses the highest upside of any player in a lineup needing to replace Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.

He’s already proven himself to be a Gold Glove defensive player, but his 68 extra-base hits in his first full season in the majors as a 20-year-old suggest the sky is the limit in terms of offensive potential. You have to chalk up 2014 as a lost year considering he was still working his way back from the first knee injury and went down again when he was finally hitting his stride at the plate in the second half.

Unlike Wieters, Machado’s health hasn’t been an issue all spring as he’s running better than ever with two healthy knees and has benefited from his first full spring since 2013. Yes, you have to hold your breath that health won’t again become a concern, but there have been no reservations so far.

Beyond staying in the lineup, Machado taking a step forward with the bat would go a long way in quelling any concerns about Baltimore’s offensive potential. He doesn’t need to put up MVP-caliber numbers, but many facets of his game hint that it’s possible in the future if he can stay healthy.

3. Steve Pearce proves he isn’t a one-year wonder

In watching Cruz and Markakis depart via free agency, the Orioles are clearly counting on the best story of the 2014 season to provide a productive sequel in his first full year as a regular. Many spent the winter trying to explain Pearce’s breakthrough at age 31, with explanations ranging from better health and finally receiving an extended opportunity to improved swing mechanics and an uncanny ability to hammer pitches up in the zone.

Expecting a repeat of his .930 on-base plus slugging percentage from a year ago would be asking too much, but his patience alone makes him a good candidate to once again be productive and help fill in the gaps left behind by Cruz and Markakis. His versatility in being able to play good defense at first base as well as at the corner outfield spots is extremely valuable for Showalter over the course of a season.

You should never look into spring training stats too much, but five homers and a .951 OPS in the Grapefruit League indicate the former journeyman isn’t resting on the laurels of 2014.

4. Chris Davis looks more like the hitter he was in 2012 and 2013 than last year

No one expects Davis to hit 53 homers like he did two seasons ago, but the Orioles need much more than the .196 average and .704 OPS he provided last season.

The question has been asked over and over about how Baltimore will replace Cruz’s 40 homers from a year ago, and the truth is that Cruz himself was highly unlikely to do that again in 2015. Still, the Orioles need to make up that production with Davis having the opportunity to contribute a great deal to that puzzle.

The increased use of the shift isn’t going away, which won’t do any favors for his batting average moving forward, but Davis insists that the oblique injury he suffered last April hindered his power all season. The 29-year-old has talked about bunting on occasion to offset the shift, but his power returning to at least his 2012 level (33 homers and a .501 slugging percentage) is more valuable than obsessing too much over his batting average.

With free agency looming, will the real Davis emerge? The Orioles would benefit greatly if the guy from a couple years ago resurfaces.

5. Another diamond in the rough emerges this season

In 2012, it was Miguel Gonzalez and Nate McLouth. Last year, Pearce and Joseph provided contributions that no one would have predicted.

If the Orioles are to return to the postseason for the third time in four years, they will inevitably need an individual or two to come out of nowhere to pay dividends. It’s the reason why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette brings in so many minor-league free agents, journeymen, and players who make you say, “Who?” on a yearly basis.

Could it be former first-round pick Travis Snider building on a hot second half with Pittsburgh last year?

Is the returning Nolan Reimold finally going to stay healthy enough to contribute at some point this season?

Will Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia make the club and use his lively arm to become a better-than-expected contributor in the bullpen?

Does a strong finish to last season and a terrific spring carry over for Jimmy Paredes?

Or are we likely speculating about someone who isn’t yet with the organization?

It’s easy to laugh now at the aforementioned possibilities, but stranger things have already happened over the last few years.

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2015 Orioles preview: Manny Machado

Posted on 20 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just over two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman
March 18 – Alejandro De Aza
March 19 – Tommy Hunter

3B Manny Machado

Opening Day age: 22

Contract status: Under club control through the 2018 season

Minor-league options remaining: Three

2014 stats: .278/.324/.431, 12 HR, 32 RBI, 38 R, 2 SB, 354 PA

Why to be impressed: Machado struggled for a sizable portion of the 2014 season when he was healthy, but he nearly matched his 2013 home run total (14) in half as many plate appearances. The right-handed batter also improved his walk rate from 4.1 percent in 2013 to 5.7 percent of his 2014 plate appearances and saw a career-high 3.64 pitches per plate appearance, evidence that bodes well for his continuing development at the plate.

Why to be concerned: The reports have been very favorable this spring, but the Orioles and their fans will continue to hold their collective breath until Machado makes it through an entire season without any knee problems. Having a full spring training will help, but the Orioles cannot afford to see Machado struggle for two months out of the gate like he did last season coming off the first knee surgery.

2015 outlook: Manager Buck Showalter says Machado is running better than he has at any point in his professional career — he’s already stolen a couple bases during spring training — and has even experimented with using the young infielder in the leadoff spot. If he remains healthy, Machado has a good chance to earn his second Gold Glove and is a good bet to hit .280 with a career-high 20 home runs while reestablishing himself as one of the young stars in the game. Despite the adversity he’s experienced in the last two years, Machado is still younger than most rookies will be during the 2015 season, which is quite a thought for a veteran who already has almost 300 major league games under his belt.

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Who should lead off for Orioles in 2015?

Posted on 03 February 2015 by Luke Jones

With spring training only a couple weeks away, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a number of issues to sort out as it relates to his everyday lineup.

Most attention has centered around replacing outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz — Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, David Lough, Delmon Young, and the newly-acquired Travis Snider are among the candidates — but identifying who will lead off in the Baltimore lineup is anyone’s guess at this point. However, it’s not a question over which the skipper is panicking in early February.

“Somebody’s going to lead off Opening Day, I bet you,” quipped Showalter, adding that he’s more concerned with having a strong bottom of the order than with who’s hitting first. “Our guys don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve told you many times, [you could] just take your best hitter and hit him first to get more at-bats.”

It’s that very mindset that led to Markakis first becoming a regular leadoff hitter during the 2012 season even though he stole only six bases over his final three seasons with the Orioles. No one would confuse the Orioles with a track team after they stole a league-worst 44 bases in 2014, so speed isn’t a prerequisite for replacing Markakis at the top of the order.

Among their current candidates, who should lead off for the Orioles in 2015?

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Of the possible options currently on the roster, De Aza carries the most experience hitting in the leadoff position with 296 career starts there, but Showalter said Saturday it would be wrong to simply assume it’s his job to lose this spring. His career .334 on-base percentage in the top spot of the order is just a touch higher than his career .330 OBP overall, but De Aza told reporters he feels comfortable leading off if that’s what the Orioles want him to do.

His production in 2014 spiked when he was traded to the Orioles at the end of August, but De Aza is eager to rebound from a campaign he called the worst of his career as he hit only .252 with eight home runs, 41 runs batted in, and a .700 on-base plus slugging percentage combined with the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore. He would also represent one of the Orioles’ speedier options as he stole 17 bases last season.

“I can’t just go there and tell them that I want to be leadoff or they’re just going to give me the leadoff spot,” said De Aza, who added that Showalter hasn’t talked to him about the job to this point. “I’m just going to work hard, and they’re going to make the best [decision] for the team.”

Showalter acknowledged he’s had some “radical” thoughts about his lineup throughout the offseason, mentioning Lough, Pearce, Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, and even Chris Davis as potential candidates to be the leadoff hitter, but nothing is set in stone. Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates last week, Snider carried a .356 on-base percentage in the second half of 2014, and the Orioles hope that’s a sign of better things to come for the former first-round pick who’s struggled to realize his potential at the major-league level.

But if the Orioles are looking for a unconventional option who might also be the best one, Pearce led the club with a .373 OBP and worked the count as well as any hitter in the lineup a year ago. Even if the 31-year-old won’t match his lofty power figures of 21 homers and a .556 slugging percentage in 383 plate appearances in 2014, he has a career .335 OBP in parts of eight major league seasons as well as a .371 career OBP in the minor leagues.

Like Markakis, Pearce won’t offer much in terms of speed, but Showalter acknowledged the traditional leadoff hitter appears to be an endangered species in today’s game. In all likelihood, the Orioles will use a committee approach in Grapefruit League action until one or two hitters settle into the role depending on the opposing starter on a given night.

“They know things are going to change a little bit from time to time depending on who we’re facing,” Showalter said. “The conventional leadoff hitter like Brian [Roberts] was for a long time and like Rickey Henderson was for a long time, how many of them are there [today]?. How many guys can stay in the lineup against left-handed and right-handed pitching and be there every night?”

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