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Pot-committed Orioles may need to push chips in on Gallardo

Posted on 06 February 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have pushed plenty of chips to the center of the poker table this winter.

A seven-year commitment to first baseman Chris Davis worth $161 million, the richest contract in franchise history.

Making All-Star relief pitcher Darren O’Day one of the highest-paid setup men in the majors.

Paying just under $25 million for the services of three-time All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and designated hitter Mark Trumbo for the 2016 season.

In other words, the Orioles are what the poker world labels as “pot-committed” with a projected payroll now north of $130 million. But there’s still a problem with that spending.

They’re currently no better than they were a season ago when they finished 81-81. In fact, they’re worse on paper after the free-agent departure of starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and his 3.72 ERA over the last four seasons.

It’s reasonable to expect Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to rebound — at least somewhat — from last year’s difficulties, but that doesn’t mean a return to their exceptional performances of 2014, either. Kevin Gausman could be ready to take off at age 25 and the Orioles may see more good Ubaldo Jimenez than the bad Jimenez in 2016, but that would still be too much hoping and not enough improving.

After turning their nose up to the cost of starting pitching all winter, the Orioles find few viable options remaining. The likes of David Price or Zack Greinke were never realistic, but second- and third-tier options such as Scott Kazmir (three years, $48 million) or even Doug Fister (one year, $7 million) were still available to slot into a thin rotation.

That finally brings us to Yovani Gallardo, the man linked to the Orioles throughout the offseason and probably the best option remaining on the market. Soon to be 30, the veteran right-hander is far from a sure bet despite a career-best 3.42 ERA in 2015 and a 3.66 lifetime mark in the majors.

Signing him would require the Orioles to forfeit the 14th overall selection of the 2016 draft after Texas made him a qualifying offer at the start of the offseason. That is an understandable deterrent for an organization in need of restocking its farm system, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has said several times this offseason that the Orioles would prefer not to forfeit the pick.

Despite a strong ground-ball rate hovering around 50 percent that would figure to be perfect for Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a strong infield defense, Gallardo has seen his average fastball velocity dip from 92.6 miles per hour in 2011 to 90.5 with the Rangers last season. His strikeout rate has declined in three straight seasons and fell to a career-low 5.9 per nine innings in 2015 after averaging more than a strikeout per inning in his first six major league seasons.

Those numbers make a long-term commitment to Gallardo a risky one, but he’s still a much better option than the newly-acquired Odrisamer Despaigne, Vance Worley, Mike Wright, or Tyler Wilson, who are more scratch-off lottery tickets than good starting candidates for a club already lacking dynamic talent in its first four starter spots. Even if you’re not keen on the Orioles giving Gallardo a long-term contract, he would instantly move to the top half of the rotation and slide the aforementioned names into more appropriate roles as relievers or depth at the Triple-A level.

Losing the 14th overall pick would be disappointing, but the Orioles would still hold five selections in the first 100 spots. An increased financial commitment to international talent — something the organization should be making anyway — could also offset that sacrifice.

At the start of the offseason, Gallardo would have been far from the top choice, but the Orioles are now less than two weeks away from spring training and haven’t replaced their best starter from a year ago when their rotation finished 14th in the American League in ERA. Beggars can’t be choosers when you’re in need of starting pitching at this late stage of the winter.

Gallardo’s addition wouldn’t guarantee a trip to the playoffs, but it would be foolish to spend as much as the Orioles have this winter without seriously addressing a rotation that was the biggest reason for their downfall in 2015. There’s no sense in playing a high-stakes hand of poker if you’re just going to muck your cards after committing more than $200 million earlier this offseason.

If you’re going to do it, go all the way.

The Orioles’ spending says they’re in win-now mode — especially with both Manny Machado and Adam Jones hitting free agency after the 2018 season — but their starting rotation suggests otherwise. There isn’t enough depth, and there certainly isn’t enough quality depth.

Signing Gallardo comes with risk and sacrifice, but he could help a neglected rotation compete in 2016.

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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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Davis deal creates window Orioles can’t squander

Posted on 16 January 2016 by Luke Jones

After years of clamoring for owner Peter Angelos to spend big money, Orioles fans finally got their wish on Saturday with first baseman Chris Davis agreeing to a seven-year, $161 million deal.

Even with the $42 million deferred without interest through 2037 easing the short-term burden, the contract nearly doubled the $85.5 million deal awarded to Adam Jones in 2012, which had been the richest in franchise history. No, Davis wasn’t cheap as many have criticized the length and money in the deal, especially with the apparent lack of competitors vying for his services. There’s little disputing the likelihood of the last few years of the deal not being pretty, but that’s the drawback of signing most marquee free agents in baseball.

In the end, the Orioles kept the most prolific home-run hitter in the majors over the last four seasons, and that’s something fans can rightfully celebrate, especially after watching the trio of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller depart via free agency last offseason.

But what does this mean for 2016 and beyond? After all, you better be looking at the big picture when you’ve committed to paying an individual a total of $161 million through his 51st birthday.

No one can say the Orioles haven’t spent big money this offseason after giving a four-year, $31 million contract to a non-closer reliever — even if it is 2015 All-Star selection Darren O’Day — and now making a nine-figure investment in Davis. The problem is that paying incumbents more money doesn’t magically make them better players, nor can you expect them to be.

These are the types of moves a club makes when it’s going “all in” to try to win a championship, which is why fans can hope there’s more to come. There needs to be more, quite frankly.

Already with a franchise-record payroll — which also includes one-year deals of $15.8 million and $9.15 million for Matt Wieters and Mark Trumbo, respectively — the roster isn’t terribly different from where it stood at the end of 2015 with an 81-81 record. Swapping out starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen and outfielder Gerardo Parra for Trumbo and Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim all but covers it.

The Orioles have the makings of a powerful lineup with a good infield defense and an excellent bullpen for 2016, but what about the starting pitching?

Bounce-back seasons from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez and a breakthrough campaign by the young Kevin Gausman would go a long way in making up for the departure of Chen, but you’d still likely be looking at no more than an average starting rotation with a total question mark in the No. 5 spot. You can’t lose your top starter in a rotation that ranked 14th in the American League a year ago and expect to contend without doing something beyond crossing your fingers.

And Baltimore remains too vulnerable at the corner outfield spots — offensively and defensively — the same flaw that helped sink their fortunes a year ago.

The Orioles have spent plenty, but they have too many holes to be a serious pennant contender as presently constructed. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette doesn’t need to take the payroll to ridiculous lengths, mind you, but he needs a starting pitcher and another corner outfielder of some quality.

The organization needs to be all in — not just two-thirds of the way.

Spending long-term money on Davis and O’Day makes little sense if the Orioles aren’t going to do what it takes to try to get over the hump while making improvements to the farm system over the next three years. That’s how long the window figures to stay open with the current core before Manny Machado and Adam Jones are scheduled to hit free agency at the end of 2018.

Short of having a payroll more closely resembling the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees, you wouldn’t think the Orioles will have a great chance of keeping both Machado and Jones, so they need to be willing to spend a little more in the meantime while finding and developing young talent.

It’s up to ownership and management to determine whether the Davis signing means that they’ve merely kept a big-time power hitter and popular player on an OK club or that they are going to give themselves a good chance to win a championship. What amounts to a $42 million interest-free loan from Davis should provide the flexibility to do some more this offseason and over the next couple winters.

At the end of the day, putting yourself in position to try to win the World Series is what matters.

Re-signing Davis was a big step, but only if more is done to get there.

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Next steps all that matter after Orioles pull Davis offer

Posted on 12 December 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Amid the praise being heaped upon the Orioles for offering free-agent Chris Davis a reported $150 million deal, Matt Wieters made the truest statement of all at Saturday’s FanFest.

Asked if the pursuit of the slugging first baseman was a message to future free agents that the organization will spend the necessary money to keep great players, Wieters was complimentary of Davis’ talents and of Baltimore as a place to play while stating the truth about any offseason activity.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to get it done,” Wieter said, “and you’ve got to be able to sign the final contract to say you’ve gone out there and spent that money.”

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette confirmed Saturday that the Orioles had pulled their offer to the 29-year-old who led the major leagues in home runs in both 2013 and 2015.

It’s become apparent that the Orioles aren’t willing to wait around. Whether that means talks will resume with agent Scott Boras remains to be seen, but Duquette made it clear that the organization is exploring alternatives, particularly in the outfield after Mark Trumbo was acquired earlier this month as a viable option to play first base.

The door may not be locked shut for Davis to return, but it appears that Boras may need to use the doorbell to regain the Orioles’ attention if no other club makes a higher offer in the coming days and weeks.

“I’m not exactly sure where that’s going to end up,” Duquette said. “We’ve been very aggressive on that front and that didn’t yield a deal. At some point, we’re going to have to look at some other options. I can tell you this, we’re going to have a good ball club, either way.”

Determining that they’ve reached their spending limit with the first baseman is fine, but walking away from the negotiating table without any alternative already in place feels like a risky proposition. Asked during a fan forum on Saturday whether the $150 million allocated by owner Peter Angelos for a Davis deal is available for other free-agent targets, Duquette said that it was, but the money may not all be spent this winter.

And this is where the Orioles must prove themselves to be serious about doing what it takes to improve their club for 2016 and beyond. To praise the fact that they tried to re-sign Davis is well and good, but it’s meaningless if Duquette and the Orioles do not make any other high-impact acquisitions in the aftermath of Boras and Davis passing on their offer.

If Davis is ultimately deemed too expensive, the organization can’t then say the likes of Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, and Scott Kazmir are too costly as well. Otherwise, it’s just the same old unwillingness to spend for premium talent on the open market after allowing the likes of Davis, Nelson Cruz, and Andrew Miller to depart in recent offseasons.

Did the Orioles make a fair offer to Davis? Yes, but Boras is notorious for waiting as long as he can for the best deal. Duquette had to know this was a distinct possibility and has no excuse not to be prepared.

If the Orioles want to be praised for offering $150 million to Davis, they will turn his rejection into other high-impact additions to help their cause for 2016.

Anything less will make the Davis pursuit feel like it was all for show before ultimately throwing up their hands and saying, “Hey, at least we tried.”

Talking about spending money is one thing.

Actually doing it is another, especially when there are plenty of attractive options remaining on the market not named Chris Davis.

They’ve got to get it done.

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Wieters’ decision throws monkey wrench into Orioles’ offseason

Posted on 13 November 2015 by Luke Jones

Matt Wieters acknowledged what we all saw in 2015 by accepting the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer on Friday, meaning he will remain in Baltimore next season.

Though not yet 30 and still a quality player, the three-time All-Star catcher knew there were too many doubts to net him a contract similar to the ones signed by Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) and Russell Martin (five years, $82 million) in the last two offseasons. Having caught on consecutive days just five times in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Wieters — and agent Scott Boras — concluded that potential suitors would not have been willing to make such a dramatic investment in him just yet.

And that’s why he accepted Baltimore’s one-year deal and will now use 2016 as a showcase year before potentially re-entering the free-agent market next winter. Wieters will receive a very healthy $7.5 million raise from his 2015 salary of $8.3 million in the meantime.

The decision makes perfect sense for Wieters, but the news likely throws a monkey wrench into the Orioles’ offseason plans after they expected him to reject the offer, which would have netted them a supplemental pick at the end of the first round of the 2016 amateur draft. With the Orioles still having a plethora of needs to address from first base to the corner outfield spots to upgrading the starting pitching, you wonder how much this impacts Dan Duquette’s ability to make other improvements without a sizable increase from 2015’s payroll that was just south of $120 million.

But the Orioles have no one to blame but themselves knowing it was always a possibility that Wieters would accept their offer unlike first baseman Chris Davis and starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, who both rejected theirs on Friday.

With fellow catcher Caleb Joseph playing above-average defense — his 12 defensive runs saved ranked second in the American League this past season — and showing an acceptable bat at the position for a fraction of what Wieters will now make in 2016, the Orioles would have been better served to have forgone the uncertain chance of netting a draft pick to spend that $15.8 million elsewhere. According to Baseball Reference, Joseph was worth 2.2 wins above replacement in 2015 compared to Wieters’ 0.8 WAR in 75 games after his return in June.

Though Wieters has earned a strong reputation behind the plate with Gold Gloves won in 2011 and 2012, the Orioles pitched to a 4.38 ERA with him catching in 2015 compared to a 3.65 mark when Joseph was behind the dish. Baltimore also pitched to a 3.00 ERA with Joseph catching in 2014 compared to a 3.80 mark with anyone else behind the plate.

Simply put, the gap — if there is any — between Wieters and Joseph isn’t great enough to justify spending so much more money on the former when the Orioles have so many other positions to address. It’s money better spent in the effort to try to keep Davis or to sign an impact corner outfielder or starting pitcher this winter.

Of course, we’re also assuming the money now spent on Wieters would have been wisely allocated elsewhere, which was never a given.

For those arguing that Wieters could be moved to first base to replace Chris Davis, a career .743 on-base plus slugging percentage and unknown defensive ability make for an expensive downgrade at the position. Wieters’ offensive value as a catcher all but vanishes when moving him to a offensive-minded position like first base.

In addition, such a move would not be popular with either Wieters or Boras in what will amount to a platform season to rebuild the catcher’s market value.

Considering the lack of offseason activity a year ago as the Orioles were coming off their 2014 AL East championship season, some fans will be happy to know that at least one quality player won’t be departing this winter. At least the organization has already done “something” this winter, right?

But for a club needing to not only stand its ground but to try to improve from an 81-81 campaign and a third-place finish in 2015, Wieters is much more of an expensive luxury than a critical need. And that could hurt the Orioles dearly this winter unless they’re willing to spend more money than anyone is currently anticipating.

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Orioles extend qualifying offers to Wieters, Chen, Davis

Posted on 06 November 2015 by Luke Jones

With free agency officially opening at midnight on Saturday morning, the Orioles face their most critical offseason in recent memory if they plan to remain competitive in 2016 and beyond.

As expected, the club made qualifying offers — one-year, $15.8 million contracts for the 2016 season — to first baseman Chris Davis, starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, and catcher Matt Wieters on Friday afternoon. If any — or all — of the three rejects the offer and signs with another club, the Orioles are then awarded a supplemental first-round pick in the 2016 draft.

A club signing a player who previously rejected a qualifying offer from his original club must then forfeit its first- or second-round pick based on its 2015 record.

The Orioles were always expected to make qualifying offers to Davis and Chen, but there was some doubt as to whether they’d extend one to Wieters. With the 29-year-old catching only 55 games a year removed from Tommy John surgery, some had wondered if the Orioles would refrain in fear of him accepting a hefty one-year salary and impacting the rest of their offseason budget.

However, Wieters’ agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the harshest critics of the qualifying offer system, making it unlikely that he would accept one on behalf of his client. Considering Wieters’ heavy workload early in his career and that he’s one of only a handful of major league catchers to have the serious elbow procedure over the years, it will be interesting to see what kind of market exists for the three-time All-Star selection, especially with a club now needing to forfeit a draft draft pick to sign him.

Baltimore has three other free agents — reliever Darren O’Day and outfielders Gerardo Parra and Steve Pearce — who did not receive qualifying offers, but the club has expressed interest in re-signing all three.

The Orioles also announced on Friday that they had selected the contract of left-handed pitcher Chris Jones from Triple-A Norfolk. The 27-year-old went 8-8 with a 2.94 ERA in 150 innings last season.

“Chris Jones has compiled two good years at Triple-A since becoming a starter and really improved his control in 2015,” executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said in a statement. “By continuing to pitch well in the Dominican Republic this winter, he has earned his spot on the roster.”

This move leaves the Orioles with 36 players on their current 40-man roster.

With a New York state judge throwing out an arbitration decision regarding rights fees owed to the Washington Nationals by Orioles-controlled MASN on Wednesday, many fans hope that means an increase in payroll to re-sign Davis as well and upgrade the starting pitching and outfield situations after Buck Showalter’s club failed to have a winning season for the first time since 2011. However, it remains to be seen if that will have any tangible effect after the Orioles had a payroll just under $119 million on Opening Day, according to Baseball Prospectus.

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Facing many changes, Orioles can only wonder what’s next

Posted on 05 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Chris Davis hit two home runs, Matt Wieters drove in two runs, and Darren O’Day pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the Orioles’ 9-4 win over the New York Yankees on the final day of the 2015 season.

A day earlier, Wei-Yin Chen pitched six solid innings to earn the win.

For their four biggest free agents, the weekend served as a final reminder of just how important they’ve been to the club’s turnaround as the Orioles finished their fourth consecutive non-losing season on Sunday, something they hadn’t done in three decades. Of course, 81 wins in 2015 were disappointing after 96 victories and an American League East title a year ago, but even a .500 standard felt unreachable just five years ago when Buck Showalter first arrived.

Now, it’s considered a failure.

“Every time there’s the first hint of fall in the air, I want people to think about playoff baseball and the World Series,” said Showalter, who managed Sunday’s game after his mother passed away on Saturday. “That’s why we get up in the morning, that’s why you go to spring training, that’s why you do the things we’re going to do between now and next February. We’re not giving in.

“It’s not good enough though. It’s not good enough. [A record of] 81-81 ain’t good enough. We’re trying to win. We want to be the last team standing, the last city standing. Our city deserves that.”

By now, no one should doubt Showalter leading the way in the dugout, but even the most optimistic fans are questioning the future after the Orioles posted the best record in the AL over the last four seasons with a .543 winning percentage. With so many pending free agents and the Orioles’ offseason track record, many doubt whether 81 wins will even be a reasonable goal for the 2016 club without ownership making significant financial commitments.

The general consensus is that the Orioles will survive without Wieters, who still hasn’t proven he can be an everyday catcher again after last year’s Tommy John surgery. For a fraction of the price, Caleb Joseph can provide respectable offense and better defense than Wieters at this stage of his career.

But replacing the other big-ticket free agents is a different story.

Davis just led the majors in home runs for the second time in three years and has clubbed 159 over his four full seasons in Baltimore. It’s the kind of power rarely seen in this pitching-rich era of baseball, but are the Orioles willing to offer a nine-figure contract to even sit down at the negotiating table with agent Scott Boras?

We know what history says until executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and owner Peter Angelos prove us wrong. If not, the Orioles will be allowing a major league home run champion to depart for a second consecutive winter.

Though far from an ace, Chen was the Orioles’ best starting pitcher in 2015 with a career-best 3.34 ERA. The 30-year-old lefty has never pitched 200 innings in a season and will likely command more money than he’s worth as a middle-of-the-rotation starter on the open market, but Baltimore lacks the pitching depth to replace him from within like the best organizations will often do. For a club that finished 14th in the AL in starter ERA and gave up 100 more runs than it did a year ago, replacing Chen will be much more difficult than letting him leave.

And then there’s O’Day, who was claimed off waivers after the 2011 season and has been the backbone of the Orioles’ biggest strength over the last four years. The right-hander just made 68 or more appearances for the fourth consecutive season and lowered his ERA each year. Rarely is it wise to spend significant money on relievers, but the 32-year-old has arguably been the best non-closer relief pitcher in the majors over the last four years. Baltimore has other young relievers such as Brad Brach and Mychal Givens who pitched well in 2015, but weakening the club’s biggest strength would be a dangerous proposition.

The Orioles will also need to make decisions on the likes of Gerardo Parra, Steve Pearce, and Nolan Reimold as they try to fix the corner outfield spots that were a disaster in 2015. Parra disappointed after being acquired from Milwaukee at the trade deadline while Pearce and Reimold should only be viewed as reserves at most.

Reinforcements in the minors appear few and far between at this point as outfielder Dariel Alvarez and first baseman Christian Walker barely garnered a look in September promotions. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson may eventually settle into bullpen roles, but neither are viable options to pencil into the 2016 starting rotation if the Orioles have visions of contending. Oft-injured pitching prospect Dylan Bundy is out of minor-league options next year, but to expect anything more than a bullpen role for him to begin 2016 would be foolish.

The harsh truth is that the aforementioned decisions all involve players who were already part of a .500 club. The goal is to be better than 81-81, right?

For example, even if the Orioles were to re-sign Davis, O’Day, and Parra, what do they do to improve their starting rotation and the other outfield spot flanking Adam Jones in center?

Improving from .500 in 2016 will also depend on at least a few incumbents bouncing back from underwhelming seasons. Starting pitchers Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were clear disappointments while the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman didn’t take the step forward you would have liked to see. Given the track records of the previous three seasons for Tillman and Gonzalez and the potential of Gausman, it’s probably reasonable to expect at least two of those three to be better in 2016 than they were this season.

But that still leaves an open rotation spot and doesn’t even consider the enigma that is Ubaldo Jimenez, who has two years remaining on his $50 million contract. To be serious about contending in 2016, the Orioles need to find another starter to at least slot into the top half of the rotation and should probably add another arm to compete for the No. 5 spot at the very least.

Easier said than done.

More improvement from within is always possible as the Orioles hope that shortstop J.J. Hardy can be better at the plate after playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder all season. Even a return to his 2014 production would be welcomed after Hardy was a liability at the plate with a career-worst .564 on-base plus slugging percentage this year.

Can Jonathan Schoop be even better have improving his OPS from .598 as a rookie to .788 this season?

Is there yet another level for the 23-year-old Manny Machado to climb after he already became one of the best players in baseball this year? It’d be unfair to expect that, but he’s certainly a special talent.

Many questions and few answers for the Orioles as they potentially say goodbye to a number of key contributors from the last four years while exploring ways to not only fill those voids but improve from an 81-81 record in 2015. And that’s not even taking into account the concerns surrounding the working relationship of Duquette and Showalter.

No, the Orioles reaching the .500 mark in Sunday’s finale wasn’t the end goal they had in mind.

But you wonder whether they can even reach that plateau next year with such an uncertain offseason ahead.

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Pearce, Roe inching closer toward return to Orioles

Posted on 19 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — As the Orioles continue to search for consistent production in left field, outfielder and first baseman Steve Pearce appears to be moving closer to a return from an oblique strain.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters prior to Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets that Pearce took live batting practice in Sarasota, but the 32-year-old was hit in the back by a pitch in his third at-bat, bringing an end to his session. Should Pearce respond well to hitting live pitching and feel no ill effects from the hit by pitch, the Orioles are hoping to send him on a minor-league rehab assignment in the near future.

Baltimore is currently using a platoon of Henry Urrutia and Nolan Reimold in left field after exhausting a number of unsuccessful options over the course of the 2015 season. Of course, Pearce was in the midst of a poor campaign of his own with a .227 average in 193 plate appearances, but he might represent the organization’s best internal option of receiving production in left field if he can channel his 2014 success over the final weeks of the season.

Pearce was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique strain on July 22 and is eligible to be activated at any point. After a horrendous start in which he batted just .183 through June 3, Pearce was hitting .321 with an .856 on-base plus slugging percentage over his last 59 plate appearances before the injury.

In other health-related news, right-handed relief pitcher Chaz Roe threw off flat ground on Wednesday, the first time he’s picked up a baseball since being placed on the 15-day DL with right shoulder tendinitis. Roe will repeat that task a couple more times before throwing off a mound and could then go on a brief minor-league rehab assignment.

He is eligible to return from the DL on Aug. 25, and the club remains hopeful that he will be able to return close to that date if he isn’t quite ready at the conclusion of the minimum 15 days.

Showalter said Matt Wieters’s hamstring felt good after returning to the lineup on Tuesday. The catcher also took a foul tip off his knee in the 5-3 loss to the Mets, but he stayed in the game.

The Orioles signed left-handed reliever Mike Belfiore to a minor-league contract and assigned him to Triple-A Norfolk. He made his major league debut for Baltimore in 2013, but the 26-year-old appeared in only one game.

After officially being released by the Orioles, outfielder Travis Snider has signed a minor-league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the club that traded him to Baltimore last winter.

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Joseph, Clevenger offer possible glimpse into Orioles catching future

Posted on 18 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Over the final two games of the Oakland series, Orioles catchers on the 25-man roster collected two home runs, three doubles, and nine RBIs.

That production came with Matt Wieters sidelined due to a hamstring issue as Baltimore completed a four-game sweep over the hapless Athletics. And it could offer a glimpse into the Orioles’ future at the position with Wieters set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Could the combination of Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger — or another quality backup paired with the former — make the decision not to re-sign Wieters an easier one?

The notion isn’t as far-fetched as it would have sounded a year ago when you consider the three-time All-Star selection still isn’t catching consecutive games 14 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wieters was always going to be a challenge to re-sign because of super agent Scott Boras, but would giving a lucrative long-term contract to a catcher approaching the wrong side of 30 even be the right move for a club with other holes to address this offseason?

In 272 plate appearances this season, Joseph has hit .255 with 11 homers, 43 RBIs, a .323 on-base percentage, and a .780 on-base plus slugging percentage. In contrast, Wieters has batted .278 with five homers, 17 RBIs, a .305 on-base percentage, and a .755 OPS in 167 plate appearances. Couple that similar offensive production with the fact that the 29-year-old Joseph is under club control through the 2020 season and you have a sound argument in favor of going with the cheaper option, especially if you pair Joseph with a good backup catcher that can spell him two or three times a week in a timeshare that would keep him fresh and help his offense as we’ve seen it do since Wieters has returned.

That’s where Clevenger could enter the picture as he was recently recalled from Triple-A Norfolk after hitting .305 for the Tides this season. Serving as the designated hitter over the final two games of the Oakland series, Clevenger collected four hits in Sunday’s 18-2 win and blasted a three-run shot off All-Star pitcher Sonny Gray on Monday night, making him the first Oriole actually from Baltimore to homer at Camden Yards.

He’s 10-for-24 with three extra-base hits in his brief time with the Orioles this season.

The sticking point with Clevenger receiving an opportunity to be Baltimore’s backup over the last couple years has been his defense, but manager Buck Showalter and other members of the organization have credited his work ethic and improvement behind the plate, making him a distinct possibility to factor into the catching picture for 2016 and beyond. Of course, the Pigtown native is more of a unknown than Joseph at this point — at least playing with the Orioles — but he has a track record for handling the bat well in the minors despite his defense holding him back.

Similar sentiments were shared about Joseph in the past as he was stuck at Double-A Bowie for four straight seasons, making you wonder if Clevenger could follow in those footsteps as a late bloomer to find success at the major league level.

In his second season in the majors, Joseph has shown himself to be capable of serving in a role much bigger than the traditional backup catcher who plays only once a week. And in limited opportunities this season, Clevenger is stating a case to be the complementary piece to help fill the catching void should Wieters depart.

Taking nothing away from the All-Star catcher, but the Orioles are looking more and more capable of being able to survive without him as his free agency is rapidly approaching.

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Lough becomes latest Orioles outfielder to be designated for assignment

Posted on 14 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles continued their purge of disappointing corner outfielders on Friday by designating David Lough for assignment prior to their series opener against the Oakland Athletics.

With Matt Wieters currently nursing a hamstring strain, catcher Steve Clevenger was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to take Lough’s place on the 25-man roster. Lough, 29, became the fifth Orioles outfielder to be designated for assignment since late May, joining Alejandro De Aza, Delmon Young, Chris Parmelee, and Travis Snider as players who failed as part of the offseason plan to replace free-agent departures Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.

Originally acquired to replace former Oriole Nate McLouth in left field two winters ago, Lough never established himself at the plate and was relegated to a role as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch runner for much of his two seasons with Baltimore. The July 31 acquisition of Gerardo Parra made Lough even more expendable because of his ability to back up Adam Jones in center field, a role that he held for the last two years.

After hitting .247 in 197 plate appearances last season, Lough was hitting just .202 in 2015 and was mired in a 2-for-26 slump in early July.

Manager Buck Showalter expressed hope that Lough would remain with the organization and accept an outright assignment to Norfolk if he goes unclaimed on waivers. The Orioles would then consider him for a September call-up.

Clevenger went 5-for-11 in a brief stint with the Orioles earlier this year and has had an impressive season for Norfolk, batting .305 with four home runs, 32 RBIs, and a .769 on-base plus slugging percentage. The organization has also been pleased with his improved defense behind the plate, a weakness of his when acquired from the Chicago Cubs in 2013.

The Orioles have also summoned Norfolk outfielder Henry Urrutia to Norfolk and are expected to activate him for Saturday’s game, meaning another roster move is coming. The Cuban outfielder hasn’t played for Baltimore since hitting .276 in 58 plate appearances in 2013, but the lefty is batting .292 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs for the Tides this season.

It doesn’t look like the Orioles will make room for Urrutia by placing Wieters on the disabled list as the three-time All-Star catcher said prior to Friday’s game that his hamstring is feeling much better, joking that he’s closed to being back to his normal “slow speed” on the bases. The 29-year-old said he would be available off the bench if needed, but Clevenger being recalled reflects a desire to stay away from using Wieters for at least another day or two if possible.

Right-hander Chris Tillman will complete his bullpen session on Saturday and is still in line to make Monday’s start despite being struck with a line drive on the right triceps during his last start in Seattle.

Right-handed relief pitcher Chaz Roe received a cortisone injection in his right shoulder and is responding well, leading to optimism that he’ll be ready to return after the 15-day minimum on the DL.

Steve Pearce is now taking batting practice in Sarasota as his injured oblique continues to improve. The Orioles hope he can begin a minor-league rehab assignment as early as the beginning of next week.

Right-hander Mike Wright is still feeling “tentative” when running and pushing off with his calf as Showalter did not make it sound like his return from the DL was imminent.

According to Showalter, pitching prospect Hunter Harvey’s throwing program is proceeding well as he continues to throw off flat ground. The organization is deciding whether he will pitch this fall and where that might take place.

Showalter also said that 22-year-old pitcher Dylan Bundy will have an appointment with Dr. James Andrews at the end of the month to determine how his shoulder is progressing after extensive rest.

Right-handed pitcher Tyler Wilson is currently on the minor-league seven-day DL and is improving, but his return from an oblique strain is not considered imminent.

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