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The cautionary tale with Orioles prospects

Posted on 25 July 2012 by Mark Brown

The Orioles seem to get at least a token mention as being on the periphery of talks for nearly every player that’s been known to be available on the midseason trade market. What’s really going on? No one can answer for the bizarrely-successful (thus far) plans of Dan Duquette except for Duquette himself.

One thing that everyone who covers the team and baseball generally seems to agree on is that top prospects Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado are virtually untouchable on the trade market. Teams are asking and the Orioles are not giving signs that there is any player for whom they’d move those guys. That’s a good thing. Nobody should want to see the promise of either Bundy or Machado traded away for a rental in a desperate all-in gamble for one of the wild card spots.

There’s reason to be excited for Bundy and Machado. Their status as top prospects is echoed not only by the team-friendly media but by independent evaluators such as ESPN’s Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. All agree they are studs.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that there are no sure things in the prospect world. There are a variety of reasons why prospects never reach their projections. Maybe injuries get involved. Maybe there are players who just don’t have the mental makeup for professional baseball. There could be attitude problems or even just someone with a “projectable frame” that never quite fills out.

One axiom occasionally uttered in some corners of the prospect world underscores the nihilism: TINSTAAPP. That is: there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Of course, this is not true, strictly speaking. The truth contained in it, however, is that all that stands between a young pitcher and a blown-out elbow or a torn labrum in his shoulder is… what? There are ideas about healthy mechanics, conditioning and the like, but nobody really knows. Sometimes a guy is rolling along just fine, and then there’s a pop, and a team’s multi-million dollar investment goes up in smoke.

Another thing is that some people aren’t as good as you thought – or you can’t develop them in the way that you thought you could. This will, we certainly hope, not be a problem with players like Bundy and Machado, but we don’t have to look very far back in the past to see a cautionary tale about relying entirely on the farm system to build up the major league team.

It wasn’t so long ago that Baseball America, the organization that publishes prospect handbooks every year, was projecting that the Orioles’ 2012 infield would consist of Billy Rowell (3B), Luis Hernandez (SS), Brian Roberts (2B) and Brandon Snyder (1B).

Another whopper is the projected 2012 rotation in the article: Chris Tillman (no. 1!), Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Jeremy Guthrie, and Radhames Liz. If you’re lucky, you’ve already forgotten Liz. The rest of us can remember the one great game of his career, against the Twins in September 2008, and a whole heck of a lot of painful outings. 

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Duquette’s Tinkering Around the Margins

Posted on 23 July 2012 by Mark Brown

Up until this year, there had been a trend with the Orioles in the offseason and preseason to have the front office and whatever media was willing to echo their comments talking about how a few key moves would bring winning baseball back to Baltimore.

“We just need to solidify the bullpen,” they might say, and then Mike Gonzalez was signed, or Kevin Gregg. “This team needs proven veteran performers,” they might also say, and then Derrek Lee was signed, or Vladimir Guerrero. Gonzalez had the two key blown saves that led to the 2010 season’s opening up with that 2-16 disaster – though there was much else wrong, to be sure. Gregg… must think positive thoughts.

As for Lee and Guerrero, they largely performed at the plate like any minor league call-up. Guerrero’s continued occupation of the DH and cleanup spot made the team actively worse by forcing Luke Scott into the field and Nolan Reimold to the bench.

The Orioles signed those two veterans to a combined near-$15 million in salary. That was money flushed down the toilet in some futile quest to get to 82 wins, and, as it turned out, seasons that started out with the goal of buying parts to get to 82 wins ended up instead oriented around the goal of avoiding 100 losses.

Whether it was intentional or not, this year’s team did not have that, “Maybe THIS is the year to break the consecutive losing season streak” buzz around them. In fact, not long before the season got underway, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was asked point blank by Eddie Encina of The Baltimore Sun whether he thought this was a .500 or better team, and he said no.

Coming into the organization from so long out of baseball, one thing you might say for Duquette is that he had fresh eyes. He took a look at the roster, and it’s clear that he decided that there is no way the Orioles were one or two pieces away from contention. He swept away some of the dead weight – Matt Angle, Kyle Hudson, we hardly knew ye – and set about tinkering around the margins for small but cost-effective upgrades over recent-vintage Orioles teams.

Some of the offseason moves that really characterize this for Duquette include the trade of a couple of minor leaguers for Dana Eveland, a separate trade for a couple of minor leaguers for Taylor Teagarden, and signings of players like Matt Antonelli, Endy Chavez, Luis Ayala and Wilson Betemit. None of these are moves you look at and think, “That’s it! This is the piece the Orioles need to win.”

Looking at moves only through the lens of whether or not it is the last move to get the Orioles into contention is a mistake. It’s true that in baseball in the present, you need stars and superstars to win, and the Orioles only have Adam Jones and maybe Matt Wieters at that level.

But, you also need guys to play well enough to hold their own for the major league minimum or near it – or at least, that’s what you need if you’re the Orioles. There is probably room to add to the payroll, if it makes sense to do it, but the team can’t buy the best player at every position. They probably can’t buy the Albert Pujols- or Prince Fielder-caliber players at all. Sometimes they are going to have to settle for the best player in a certain cost range and hope they fit into the plan. They need to eventually get their scouting and farm system turned into a well-oiled machine that continually churns out solid players with years of team control.

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Brad Bergesen and the Curse of Billy Butler

Posted on 19 July 2012 by Mark Brown

If you blinked earlier this week, you missed the brief return of Brad Bergesen to the Baltimore Orioles. He was called up for Tuesday’s game as long relief insurance in case Zach Britton had a short outing, but did not find his way into the game even though Britton only made it four innings. Wednesday, he was designated for assignment to make room for Tommy Hunter – ouch.

In fact, it was the second time the Orioles have DFA’d Bergesen this year; for the first, he was cast aside to make room for the short tenure of Bill Hall. The players who get yo-yo’d back and forth like this, tossed from the roster, called up for a day and tossed again, are the ones the teams don’t care about. That’s fair, in Bergesen’s case. When we saw him last year at the big league level he threw over 100 innings and had a 5.70 ERA.

He probably has no part of the team’s future any more, but whenever I think of Bergesen, I can’t help but remember the unexpected delight from his debut season. Maybe it’s not rational. In fact, it’s probably not rational. Part of the fun of being a fan is going wild sometimes. You have to be careful not to get too crazy about it – otherwise you end up like Yankees fans trying to say that Derek Jeter is a great defensive shortstop. You get your moments, though, and mine is what Bergesen might have been if it wasn’t for the scourge of a Billy Butler line drive.

It’s a little hard to remember those heady days now. The spring of 2009 was yet another year in recent memory where the future looked brighter than the present. This was the time when then-manager Dave Trembley was uttering quotes like “The cavalry is coming” – referring to promising pitching prospects like Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz. We were excited about those guys once, and early in 2009 we had no reason not to be.

Bergesen was like the cherry on top. Here were all these prospects coming along, but they weren’t quite ready yet, so when a hole in the rotation opened up in April, up came Brad Bergesen. Who? He was not on any prospect lists. I had never heard of him. You had probably never heard of him. But he was a groundball pitcher who’d had some decent results in AA the year previous – 24 games, a 3.22 ERA – so when a space opened, it was his turn. Heck, why not? Everyone else the O’s were throwing out in ’09 was not doing so great.

Over his first seven starts, you might say he looked like he fit in perfectly with the 2009 rotation, which isn’t a compliment. A month into his big league career, he had a 5.49 ERA. Then… well, I still don’t know what happened. His next eleven starts saw his ERA drop to 3.43. He went at least six innings in every one of those starts and he went seven or more innings in six starts, with eight innings in four starts and one complete game. That’ll play, and it did play. 

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A suggestion for modification to the Joe Paterno Statue

Posted on 17 July 2012 by Mark Brown

In the wake of the publishing of the Freeh report on what various people in positions of power at Penn State either knew or should have known, passions are as inflamed as you would expect. There are those who believe the statue of Joe Paterno should be torn down, or that the football program at Penn State should be suspended or disbanded. Some would like to see both.

Paterno is not without his defenders. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski had been famously working on a Paterno biography at the time the news broke about what Jerry Sandusky was accused – and has now been convicted – of doing. Now, in the wake of the Freeh report, he appears to be pressing on. Another legendary sports figure, baseball statistical guru Bill James, ventured to defend Paterno, prompting his current employer, the Boston Red Sox, to tell him to knock it off.

I hope that those two men will realize in time the error of their thinking. I do not join the line of those condemning them. Imagine any venerated figure in your own life, sports or otherwise, being revealed to be, through inaction, an accessory who allowed a great evil to continue to be carried out. You or I would probably have that knee-jerk defense as a reaction as well.

The situation in Penn State, we now know, was an ongoing tragedy. It was not a tragedy of inevitability, but a tragedy of possibility. Things did not have to end up that way, but they did, and this is the shame of those who played into the larger-than-life myth of Paterno.

To all those whose answer to the Freeh report is to tear down the Paterno statue on the Penn State campus, I would like to suggest an alternate way of making note of the tarnishing of a legacy.

I understand the impulse to get rid of the statue. After all, when it was built, it was meant as a tribute to the man who had done so much for that institution, whose greatness was something that could never be forgotten. That those honors should no longer continue to be heaped upon Paterno is now clear. True, you could argue that removing the statue represents a revocation of all that it stood for.

However, in light of what we now know, I believe that keeping the Paterno statue is important. Now, it does not represent a man who cannot be forgotten, but rather a man who must not be forgotten. This is what can happen when someone becomes so great, when something like a football program is held so dear, that there is no oversight and no one to catch when the ends (preserving that program) start justifying the means (downplaying and hiding the truth of Sandusky’s behavior). 

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Can the Ravens finally reach the summit in 2012?

Posted on 13 July 2012 by Mark Brown

Nearly six months ago, I was watching along with everyone else as the catch-able pass nonetheless was dropped by Lee Evans. Not very long after that, I watched the kick from Billy Cundiff sail wide. I’m a little less heartbroken than I was in January, but not by much. I’ve barely been able to think about the Ravens without remembering the pain of that loss.

With training camp not too far in the future, it’s time to get over it and take a look at the upcoming season. I do it with a little bit of dread. Perhaps being an Orioles fan for so long has traumatized me. In 1997, nobody knew when Armando Benitez decided to start hanging sliders instead of throwing fastballs that was as close as the team would get for a decade and a half. I haven’t been able to shake that feeling since Evans dropped the pass – what if that’s as close as we’re going to get?

Well, no sense worrying about it right now. In any case, whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, the same question remains: can the Ravens get over that last hump and once again make it to the summit?

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

Out: Chuck Pagano, Jarret Johnson, Ben Grubbs, Cory Redding

It was a tough free agency period for the Ravens, with several key players, and one key coach, heading elsewhere. All will be missed by the team. Pagano brought excitement back to the defense that had felt like it was missing in the days of Greg Mattison. Grubbs was a bright spot on an offensive line that occasionally struggled, a rare first-round pick that the Ravens were unable to keep in the roost. Evans is also gone after being released, and Cundiff could lose his job in training camp, but I won’t miss those guys and you probably won’t either.

In:

No, that’s mean. The Ravens added recent Pro Bowler Corey Graham from the Bears in free agency. Another signing was Jacoby Jones, whom Ravens fans will remember for muffing a punt against the Ravens in the playoffs. That’s not exactly awe-inspiring stuff. Other signings seemed to be more in the margins, with hopes they will find a niche in the Ravens system. This would not be an unprecedented outcome, though Ravens fans will hope those unexpected finds turn out more like Jim Leonhard than Frank Walker.

As well, the Ravens had a draft that fit their usual pattern of finding value later down in the rounds. The Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec gave them a B grade at the time, noting that “getting Courtney Upshaw in the second round while also acquiring a pick was a huge coup.” Ozzie Newsome has a history of finding the right player for the Ravens even later in the draft than this. Last year’s big find was fifth-rounder Pernell McPhee. A few years ago, it was third-round cornerback Lardarius Webb. Is another such diamond in the rough lurking in the 2012 draft class?

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The Edge of the Abyss: the Orioles in the Second Half

Posted on 12 July 2012 by Mark Brown

With a 45-40 record heading into the All-Star Break that exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations, the Orioles are one of the feel-good stories of the season so far. While it’s nice to enjoy the thought that if the season somehow ended right now and still had playoffs, the O’s would qualify as the second wild card, let’s not kid ourselves, either: the Orioles are perched right on the edge of the abyss that’s all too familiar to fans since 1998.

Heading into the second half, the Orioles have three big problems. Their starting rotation is, at best, 3/5 question marks. Their offense, despite hitting a lot of home runs, is among the worst in all of baseball. Finally, their defense, barring any unexpected acquisitions, is mostly a mess.

STARTING ROTATION

The O’s are 11-6 in games started by Jason Hammel. They are 10-7 in games started by Wei-Yin Chen. These two were among the best pitchers in baseball over the first two months of the season, and still have above-average results in terms of ERA. In the 2011 season, the Orioles did not have a single pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA and now they have two. Neither Hammel nor Chen will win the Cy Young Award, but they have been and look to continue to be pleasant finds for the team.

The problem with the rotation is the rest of it. The detritus of the rotation, now ensconced in Norfolk, consisted of three of the worst starters in baseball: Jake Arrieta (worst starter ERA in the AL), Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. Blessedly, they have been replaced. Their failure was recognized as unacceptable and they were banished from the major league roster. However, their replacements bring in uncertainty with no guarantee they will be any better than the players they’ve replaced.

Two names we know will fill out the rotation are Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez. Tillman had a great start in Seattle. The Mariners offense is one of the few that’s worse than the Orioles’. He was sent to Bowie to clear a roster spot for a few days and make a start on regular rest. You might have thought he would continue to dominate an AA lineup, but he actually gave up three earned runs in 3.1 IP. He did look like a different pitcher, one with more zip on his fastball and better off-speed pitches. We can’t count on him as the answer yet.

Gonzalez had a great start against a much-better hitting team in the Angels. Still, we run into the same problem of not being able to extrapolate from that one good start that he will keep being a good starter. This is the same pitcher who washed around the minor leagues and had to be signed by the Orioles out of the Mexican League. That doesn’t happen by accident. There is the chance the O’s found him and taught him the right secret at the right time, but again, it’s not a sure thing.

The fifth starter could be either Dana Eveland or Zach Britton. No one seems to know which. We should expect Eveland to continue to look like a guy we don’t want to see starting games for our favorite team. Britton is another unknown with potential to be decent and also potential to be awful. He has made seven starts in AAA to the tune of a 4.87 ERA, not exactly numbers that scream for a call-up. 

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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The All-Star Game

Posted on 11 July 2012 by Mark Brown

Like many serious baseball fans, I have been despairing for the All-Star Game in recent years. Ever since the farcical 2002 tie game and the subsequent “this time it counts” overreaction, the game has felt like it’s drifted more and more away from the platonic ideal.

Bloated rosters, an increasingly-absurd voting process, not to mention that if you want to watch one of the games you have to put up with the somnolent Joe Buck and the game-left-him-behind-in-the-80s Tim McCarver along with whatever ridiculous in-game promotional tie-ins some FOX show or sponsor can work into the broadcast. This year, if you watched closely, you heard Buck give a shout out to a character from a DirecTV commercial: the guy who shows up to his own funeral as a guy named Phil Shifley. The actor was in the crowd, wearing the costume from the commercial. He had the dyed eyebrows and everything. He had a nice seat. That happened.

For some time, these sorts of things caused me to gnash my teeth. One day, I came to a realization about the All-Star Game, and having reached that epiphany I found the whole ordeal a lot less stressful. That revelation is this: it’s not for me. I am not in the target demographic of the All-Star Game.

If baseball is a part of nearly every day of your life from April on through into October, then you probably aren’t in the target demographic either. Accept this, the knowledge that the broadcast is not and will never be geared towards you, and you too can sit back and enjoy what’s there to enjoy while hopefully being able to tune out the annoying and the stupid stuff. There’s a lot of that stuff, but you can do it. I have faith in you.

The thing about the All-Star Game is it’s there for the casual fan, or even the non-fan. This might not have been the case once, back before interleague play when the game really was about seeing matchups you’ll never see in the regular season. Or, if you go even farther back, before free agency, when players changed teams less often than now. There were no team networks, there was no Internet, no MLB.tv; you were watching the closest team and that was it. You really didn’t know the guys on the other teams. This was your chance to see them.

Now, you can see them any time you want. Even if you don’t watch other teams’ games obsessively, you can get the highlights the same night. People will drop you a line on Twitter and ask, dude, did you see that play? Probably you already did see the play and you are insulted they even had to ask. You know the stars. You know the storylines. You know the snubs. You are in rarefied air, because you know your stuff. 

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The Unfortunate Isolation of the Ravens

Posted on 09 July 2012 by Mark Brown

Since moving into their new headquarters in Owings Mills, the Baltimore Ravens’ home base has been known semi-officially as The Castle. It’s a fitting name now that the team has decided to stop holding public training camp practices out in Westminster, because it’s as if the team is withdrawing inside to prepare for a siege.

The tradition of a Baltimore NFL team holding its training camp at Western Maryland College – now known as McDaniel – goes back to the days of the Colts, who made their home there from 1949 to 1972. When the new team with a new name and colors moved into town in 1996, it made perfect sense for them to connect that link to the old days. For fans my age, it didn’t mean anything, but for those the age of my parents who probably went to some old Colts practices it was just perfect.

Up until last year, that tradition continued without breaking. Last year, of course, the uncertainty surrounding the lockout meant that the necessary logistical arrangements to use the practice space simply could not be made in time. You might have hoped that they would pick back up in Westminster when it was possible, but this will not prove to be the case.

This is not exactly breaking news. The Ravens announced they would be holding their training camp at their private facility, which was not constructed to accommodate large numbers of the public, during the course of the last season. As training camp approaches, and as the reality of a summer where Ravens fans can’t just go most any day to Westminster and see favorites new and old out on the practice field, it’s worth remembering again, because the decision is unfortunate.

No doubt that there are benefits for the Ravens to do it this way. Using their own facility means a more controlled environment, and probably means more access to more sophisticated equipment for both players and coaches as well. Whether it’s a preference to use the team’s own medical facility or audio/video equipment for breaking down film, you can see why they would rather keep to themselves.

That doesn’t make it any less of a shame for fans who will miss out on opportunities to see their favorite football team up close and personal, though. To be fair, the Ravens have announced that they will have three free, open to the public practices: August 4th at M&T Bank Stadium, August 12th at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, and August 19th at Stevenson University’s Mustang Stadium in Owings Mills.

The last is interesting because Mustang Stadium was built on the same ground that once housed the Ravens’ headquarters until they moved into The Castle – and, when they were still here, the Colts. It’s the same space where Mayflower vans once left in the middle of the night in a snowstorm.

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Throw us a strike, Chris Tillman

Posted on 04 July 2012 by Mark Brown

On one of Chris Tillman’s return starts to the big leagues last year, I channeled my inner Weird Al Yankovic and wrote a little song parody for him. I’ve updated it a bit for this season. It goes a little something like this, with all apologies to Billy Joel.

**

It’s four o’clock on Independence Day
The holiday crowd shuffles in
There’s an Orioles fan sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his Tankeray gin

He says, “Son, can you change the channel?
I’m not really sure what’s its name
But it’s there and I care and I don’t quite know why
When I watch the Orioles game.”

Throw us a strike, you’re Chris Tillman
Throw us a strike today
Well, we’re all in the mood for a victory
And you’ve got us feelin’ okay

Ronny at the plate is a backup guy
He’s not got a good OBP
And he’s sure got to know he’s lucky to be in the show
So there’s no place that he’d rather be.
But me, I believe this team’s killing me
As I watch all their games every night
Well I’m sure that they’d win the World Series
If only they signed David Wright

Now Hunter’s not a great starting pitcher
He’s marked for the minors, I deem
And he’s talkin’ with Gregg, whom I’ve got to beg,
Will soon be released from this team

And the young man remembers in ’96
And the old man recalls ’83
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call losing
But it sure beats sobriety

Throw us a strike, you’re Chris Tillman
Throw us a strike today
Well, we’re all in the mood for a victory
And you’ve got us feelin’ okay

It’s a pretty good crowd for a holiday
And the manager gives me a smile
’cause he knows that it’s he we’ve been comin’ to see
To forget about life for a while
And the Yankee fans smell like a sewer
The microphone smells like Thorne’s booze
And we sit by our TVs and post on WNST
And say, “Man, we better not lose!”

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Throw us a strike, you’re Chris Tillman
Throw us a strike today
Well, we’re all in the mood for a victory
And you’ve got us feelin’ okay

**

It didn’t work out very well for him last year. I wrote it for the start he made in the first half of a July 30 doubleheader in New York. He gave up seven runs, five earned, in only 4.1 innings pitched against the Yankees. Koji Uehara was traded between games of the doubleheader. Hopefully the 2012 incarnation of the song is a better luck charm for Tillman. Unfortunately, I have a feeling he will need it.

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Camdencast 27: Jim Jam

Posted on 02 July 2012 by Mark Brown

If you’ve been reading my postings since my introduction, you might remember that I mentioned hosting a podcast on Camden Chat called Camdencast. I’m proud of my work on it, and I think it is a big part of why I am already prepared to be the next Baltimore sports media superstar.

My friend and podcasting partner in crime Andrew Gibson and I recorded our latest episode last night and it was posted today. You can listen, if you like, to our Orioles chatter through the embedded player on CC:

Camdencast Episode 27: Jim Jam

Topics include: Jim Thome, Orioles All-Stars, the Orioles recent struggles and whether anything can be done about it. Turns out we’re not all that optimistic. What else is new?

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