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Five things that can’t happen for 2016 Orioles

Posted on 01 April 2016 by Luke Jones

At the start of every season, we try to pinpoint what must go to plan and what cannot happen if the Orioles are to have a successful year.

In truth, there are very few absolutes you can count on over the course of a marathon 162-game schedule filled with twists and turns.

No one would have predicted a division title if they knew the Orioles would lose both Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries in 2014. Last season, the discussion centered around the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and the Orioles ended up scoring more runs than they did the year before — and still finished 81-81 and out of the playoffs.

You just never really know and that’s what makes the game great.

With that truth in mind, below is a stab at five things that can’t happen for the Orioles in 2016 after looking at the factors that must go right. In an effort to not be too redundant in the wake of the first piece, I tried to avoid discussing the previous points needing to go well.

1. The starting pitching collapses

Yes, we touched on the starting pitching in the previous piece, but what else could possibly top this list — the entire starting lineup adopting Marty Cordova’s tanning bed strategy for the season?

In the AL in 2015, the Baltimore starting pitchers finished 14th in in ERA, 10th in strikeouts, sixth worst in walks, and second worst in home runs allowed. On top of that, the club’s most dependable starter, Wei-Yin Chen, signed with the Miami Marlins in the offseason.

Veteran newcomer Yovani Gallardo was tabbed as the man to replace him and carries a 3.66 ERA for his career, but his strikeout rate and velocity have plummeted over the last few seasons and the Orioles renegotiated his original three-year contract because of concerns with his right shoulder. The hope is that an impressive ground-ball rate keeps the 30-year-old effective pitching at Camden Yards.

Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman provide the most upside, but the former dealt with a hip issue early in camp and is coming off his worst season since 2011. Meanwhile, Gausman will begin the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and the Orioles have already pushed back his projected return date from April 10 to April 19, making you wonder if the ailment is more serious than they first indicated.

You never know what you’re going to get from Ubaldo Jimenez, but he’s been more bad than good in his first two seasons with the Orioles. And now with the Orioles having severed ties with Miguel Gonzalez, they’ll be counting on the likes of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and veteran newcomer Vance Worley to fill out the last spot in the rotation with Wright getting the first shot.

If this group can bring middle-of-the-pack quality — probably the most upside you could reasonably hope for — the Orioles are strong enough elsewhere to be in contention. A repeat of 2015 or worse could lead to a long summer in Baltimore.

And then you’d fear how dramatic struggles from the rotation could wear out a strong bullpen, no matter how effectively it’s managed.

2. Corner outfield wasteland repeats

The Orioles failed in their plan to use a committee of fringe veterans to handle the spots flanking center fielder Adam Jones a year ago, but questions remain for a second straight season.

Projected to be the primary starter in right field, Mark Trumbo should be an upgrade with the bat, but his limitations in the outfield are no secret and negative defensive value would wipe away much of what he brings at the plate. Fortunately, there isn’t a ton of ground to cover in right at Camden Yards, so the test will be how quickly Trumbo can get used to playing balls off the out-of-town scoreboard.

Left field was supposed to be handled by Korean newcomer Hyun Soo Kim, but his poor spring has his future in limbo. Putting aside the scouting failure of signing a player who isn’t able to catch up to fastballs and is poor defensively to a $7 million contract, the Orioles haven’t exactly treated Kim in the most hospitable way by benching him and then speaking at length to the media about his shortcomings as they’re trying to get him to accept a minor-league assignment, something he’s under no contractual obligation to do.

Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard is the wild card here after he posted a 1.029 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, but are the Orioles putting too many eggs in this basket? What did Tampa Bay not like about Rickard that the Orioles could be missing?

Veteran Nolan Reimold will factor into the mix as well, but he is better suited to be a fourth outfielder at this stage of his career. The minor-league options include Dariel Alvarez, Xavier Avery, Henry Urrutia, and converted first baseman Christian Walker, who is intriguing if he proves himself defensively.

3. Chris Davis reverts to his 2014 form

You can’t expect Davis to be any better just because he signed the richest contract in franchise history in the offseason, and it will be difficult for the 30-year-old first baseman to match what he did last season with his 47 homers.

That said, few events would be more deflating than to see Davis have a season more closely resembling what he was in 2014 when he hit .196 with just 26 home runs. If the Orioles are to contend, they’re going to need to hit a ton of home runs and Davis needs to again lead the way in that department.

His ever-increasing pull rate is something to monitor and could cause him to age poorly, but the Orioles hope Davis will continue being a great power hitter for the next three to four years before crossing their fingers that the final few years of the contract aren’t as painful as some fear they will be.

4. Buck Showalter leans too heavily on J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters

I touched on these topics at length in the offseason, but the Orioles would be wise to better manage Hardy’s health after two injury-plagued seasons and shouldn’t overlook defense when it comes to the catching pair of Wieters and backup Caleb Joseph.

Hardy has stayed healthy and slugged .521 with three home runs this spring, drastic improvement from his .564 OPS while playing the entire 2015 season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 33-year-old shortstop would likely benefit from more routine days off and should no longer be treated as the guy who missed only seven games combined in 2012 and 2013. Keeping Hardy fresh would presumably go a long way in keeping him healthy and productive at the plate and in the field.

The spring scare with Wieters’ right elbow could be a sign that he isn’t yet ready to be the guy who regularly caught 135-plus games per season prior to Tommy John surgery. Even if he is, the tools Joseph brings behind the plate shouldn’t be ignored despite Wieters being the better offensive player. If Wieters isn’t tearing the cover off the ball, the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to use Joseph more often because of his ability to frame pitches and handle a pitching staff, especially since the former is only under contract through this season.

5. The Orioles are unable to block out the noise

It was a weird offseason a year after executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette flirted with the Toronto Blue Jays’ job promotion, and questions continue about whether members of the organization are on the same page.

The Orioles enter 2016 with a franchise-record payroll, but negotiations didn’t exactly go smoothly with Davis and the early-spring drama with both Gallardo’s physical and the twists and turns with free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler were nothing short of bizarre.

The decision to release Gonzalez this week may have been the correct one from baseball and business standpoints, but it’s no secret that the well-liked pitcher’s departure didn’t sit well with his teammates. Yes, they’re professionals and will move on, but these are human beings with emotions, as Showalter often likes to remind us.

The Kim situation threatens to linger if the Orioles choose not to eat $7 million and instead carry him on the 25-man roster after saying he wasn’t good enough to make the club. Such a scenario wouldn’t exactly send a great message to the rest of the clubhouse, either.

On top of all that, the Orioles spent a great amount of money to essentially maintain a similar roster to the group that needed a five-game winning streak just to finish .500 last season. And few experts are giving the Orioles much of a chance to make the playoffs for the third time in five years after they failed to make any significant improvements to the starting rotation.

Over the past few years, the Orioles have often thrived under such circumstances, which should give fans hope.

None of this is quantifiable, of course, but with a higher payroll come greater expectations and this is a club with a window of just three seasons before All-Star pillars Manny Machado and Adam Jones hit free agency. And the minor-league well is quite dry when it comes to reinforcements to help address deficiencies.

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Five things that must go right for 2016 Orioles

Posted on 31 March 2016 by Luke Jones

At the start of every season, we try to pinpoint what must go to plan and what cannot happen if the Orioles are to have a successful year.

In truth, there are very few absolutes you can count on over the course of a marathon 162-game schedule full of twists and turns.

No one would have predicted a division title if they knew the Orioles would lose both Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to season-ending injuries in 2014. Last season, the discussion centered around the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and the Orioles ended up scoring more runs than they did the year before — and still finished 81-81 and out of the playoffs.

You just never really know and that’s what makes the game great.

With that truth in mind, below is a stab at five things that must go right for the Orioles in 2016:

1. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman take the lead for a suspect starting rotation

It’s impossible not to be concerned with the starting five, especially with bounce-back candidate Miguel Gonzalez being released after a poor spring. That’s why Tillman and Gausman are so important to the Orioles’ chances of improving a starter ERA (4.53) that finished 14th in the AL in 2015.

Tillman will once again take the ball on Opening Day and posted a 3.42 ERA from 2012-2014 to lead the rotation, but his 4.99 mark last year was one of the big reasons why the club allowed 100 more runs than it did in 2014. A hip ailment slowed him at the start of spring, but the 27-year-old is still talented and young enough to rebound. The question will be whether it’s enough improvement to move the meter.

Gausman’s right shoulder tendinitis is cause for concern until he’s back on the mound, but the Orioles hope they were proactive in taking care of it. Finally a full-time member of the rotation, Gausman has the ability to become the best pitcher in the rotation if he can master his command of a third pitch to go with his electric fastball and tough split-changeup. At the end of last season, he expressed growing confidence in his curveball after throwing a slider earlier in his major league career.

The Orioles will hope for the best with the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, but inconsistency has followed him his entire career. Newcomer Yovani Gallardo has an impressive track record, but a declining strikeout rate and diminished velocity make him an expensive question mark. After that, the Orioles will hope the likes of Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson can handle the final rotation spot.

If Tillman and Gausman can be productive rocks for the rotation, it becomes easier to put together the rest of the group to improve from last season. If not, things could get ugly.

2. The lineup produces its highest run total since 2008

The Orioles have averaged just under 719 runs scored per season over the last four years, but it’s fair to expect more from a lineup that added sluggers Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez and hopes to have healthier versions of Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, and Jonathan Schoop.

Even if the starting rotation can improve from last year, it doesn’t appear to have the kind of ceiling that would make you think the Orioles will stay in serious contention without boosting their run total of 713 from 2015. After finishing third in the majors with 217 homers, the lineup now has two more bats with 30-homer ability in Trumbo and Alvarez, making it arguably the most powerful order in the majors.

The lineup will strike out too much and doesn’t have many hitters with good on-base ability, but it’s not impossible to think the power-hitting Orioles can eclipse the 750-run mark for the first time since 2008.

3. The defense returns to its 2014 level of excellence

Most focus on the demise of the 2015 club fell on the regression of the starting pitching from the previous year, but a rotation that depended on pitching to contact did not have the same quality of defense behind it as in 2014.

Sure, the Orioles committed the fewest errors in the AL, but that traditional measure doesn’t take into account factors such as range, arm strength, or the ability to make spectacular plays. After leading the league in defensive runs saved (plus-50) in 2014, the Orioles finished ninth at minus-11 last year.

Healthier versions of Hardy, Schoop, and Adam Jones should improve the overall defense at positions that suffered in their absence last year. And Machado being another year removed from his knee surgeries will likely eliminate the shaky defensive start he had in 2015, making the already-elite third baseman even better in the field.

Of course, Trumbo being projected as the primary right fielder probably won’t help a position that was abysmal for the Orioles at minus-13 defensive runs saved in 2015. And it will be interesting to see how a heavier workload for Wieters will impact the defense behind the plate after Caleb Joseph finished second on the 2015 club with 12 defensive runs saved.

If the starting pitching improves enough in 2016, the defense will likely have a lot to do with it.

4. The bullpen becomes even more dominant than it was the last few years

How can you expect much more from a group that finished third in the AL in bullpen ERA over the last two years and posted a 3.21 mark in 2015?

Full-season contributions from Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy give a deep bullpen even more upside than it already had with 2015 All-Star selections Zach Britton and Darren O’Day leading the way. There is some short-term concern about the lefty specialist role with Brian Matusz ailing this spring, but the Orioles have right-handed relievers such as O’Day and Brad Brach who are effective against left-handed hitting to help pick up the slack for the time being.

Long-term depth might be even more important than dominance late in games with the serious questions about the starting rotation. Fortunately, there are a couple more capable arms such as Oliver Drake waiting in the wings at Triple-A Norfolk.

Manager Buck Showalter is as good as they come handling relievers, so you trust his ability to keep them fresh for the long haul. At the same time, the starting rotation might test the bullpen like it hasn’t faced in several years.

5. Someone other than Machado emerges as the leadoff hitter

Machado did an admirable job primarily serving in the top spot in the order with a career-high .359 on-base percentage, but his run-producing ability is better utilized in the second or third spot.

Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard figures to receive some early opportunities in the leadoff role after winning the starting left field job to begin the year. He had a .390 career on-base percentage in the minors, but will that ability translate to the majors considering his limited power that will prompt pitchers to challenge him with strikes and better stuff at a higher level?

Veteran Nolan Reimold could also factor into the equation as he had a .344 OBP in 195 plate appearances last year.

It isn’t as important that the Orioles move Machado out of the leadoff spot as it is to find a replacement who is truly deserving of hitting at the top of the order. If they do, the offense can better maximize its power capabilities and score more runs to help out a starting rotation that remains the biggest concern entering 2016.

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Final week of spring anything but smooth for Orioles

Posted on 28 March 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it will be interesting.

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Wieters’ elbow “looked good structurally” after MRI

Posted on 14 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Two days after leaving a spring training game due to right elbow soreness, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters received good news from a magnetic resonance imaging exam.

No structural concerns were discovered after the 29-year-old underwent an MRI on Monday, according to manager Buck Showalter. Wieters is 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and it remains unclear when he will return to action.

“It looked good structurally,” Showalter told reporters in Sarasota. “I know Matt felt good about it today.”

The Orioles had previously said Wieters would not have an MRI if swelling and soreness subsided — he reported improvement on Monday — but they decided to go ahead with the exam to be on the safe side.

Expected to serve as the backup catcher this season, Caleb Joseph went 1-for-2 with an RBI double in the Orioles’ 8-7 win over Philadelphia on Monday.

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Gonzalez’s struggles, Wieters’ elbow more concerning than spring record

Posted on 14 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The question is being asked over and over about the Orioles’ poor start in the Grapefruit League.

Are you concerned?

My short answer is no, at least as it relates to a 1-11-2 record entering Monday’s game against Philadelphia. A simple look at each box score illustrates how many outcomes have been impacted by many players who are unlikely to be real factors for the Orioles this year. If you need historical perspective to feel better, the 2012 Washington Nationals began spring training with an 0-10-1 record before winning 98 games in the regular season.

But dismissing the Orioles’ spring training record doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons to be concerned as Miguel Gonzalez was crushed for the second time in his first three starts on Sunday. The right-hander allowed six earned runs, seven hits, three walks, and a home run in 1 2/3 innings against Minnesota, elevating his spring ERA to 22.24 in three outings covering just 5 2/3 innings.

His nightmarish start has brought memories of Bud Norris last spring, but the ex-Oriole only had an 11.74 ERA through his first three spring starts in 2015, reinforcing how dramatic Gonzalez’s struggles have been. It also doesn’t help that his poor spring performance comes after he pitched to a 6.53 ERA over his final 14 starts of 2015 upon returning from the disabled list in late June.

It’s true that spring training is the time for pitchers to work on different parts of their craft with the goal of being ready for early April, but giving up 18 hits and 14 earned runs in less than six innings of work takes that notion to an absurd level. The veteran right-hander spoke about his mechanics being off against the Twins on Sunday, but even his best outing of the spring saw him giving up three hits, a walk, and a home run in 2 2/3 innings.

To be clear, Gonzalez deserves some benefit of the doubt after serving as one of the Orioles’ best starting pitchers from 2012-2014 and posting an ERA of 3.78 or better in each of those seasons. He even had a 3.33 ERA in his first 12 starts last year before going to the DL with a groin strain, making you wonder if poor health was the biggest reason for his struggles the rest of the way. Gonzalez also spent most of September on the DL after concerns rose about his shoulder and elbow.

Gonzalez will be 32 in late May and never had dominating stuff even when he was at his best, making you wonder if he’s going to get back to being the pitcher he was prior to last year. Manager Buck Showalter will certainly give him more opportunities to figure it out based on his track record, but those chances shouldn’t continue too long if progress isn’t being made over his next three or four starts.

Ubaldo Jimenez also had a horrendous spring debut (six earned runs in 1/3 inning), but he’s bounced back over his last two starts and has allowed just one run over his last 6 1/3 frames despite a spring ERA that still sits at 9.45. Gonzalez needs to start showing a similar progression.

Unlike last year when Norris was struggling, the Orioles don’t have a slam-dunk replacement for Gonzalez waiting in the wings like the talented Kevin Gausman, who is already part of the starting rotation in 2016. Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright would all figure to be in the mix to be the fifth starter, but those options don’t provide much hope that they could be what Gonzalez was for the Orioles prior to last year.

It’s only mid-March and Gonzalez still has time to figure it out, but his three spring starts become magnified after his final three months of 2015.

Wieters worry

The Orioles and Matt Wieters are trying to downplay the right elbow soreness that forced him out of Saturday’s game in the first inning, but you can’t help but be concerned until he’s back behind the plate.

Arm soreness at this time in the spring isn’t uncommon for pitchers, catchers, or other position players, but Wieters is just 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery and only caught on consecutive days a total of five times last season. It’s also worth noting that Wieters caught consecutive games for the first time in the spring last week, making you wonder if the issue was related to that.

Even if he returns in the next few days, you wonder if this is a sign that Wieters isn’t yet ready to be the guy he was prior to surgery when he would catch 135 games or more per year. Based on the limited number of major league catchers to have the procedure over the years and the unknown that remains, it’s possible that Wieters will never be that guy again.

It wouldn’t be the worst scenario for Wieters and Caleb Joseph to more evenly share the workload despite the $15.8 million salary the former is making in 2016 after he accepted the Orioles’ qualifying offer. In fact, you can make a sound argument that Joseph is the superior defensive option at this point, which could bring more value to a questionable starting rotation.

Either way, you hope that Wieters’ elbow issue isn’t anything serious with what he’s already endured over the last two years and what the Orioles are paying him in 2016.

Kim’s rough start

An 0-for-23 start isn’t what Hyun Soo Kim or the Orioles envisioned in his first spring training, but going 3-for-6 since then has eased some concerns for now.

Showalter didn’t sugarcoat his assessment of the South Korean outfielder’s performance last week, making you wonder if Kim will be the club’s starting left fielder on Opening Day as many anticipated. Of course, the Orioles are already facing the likelihood of playing Mark Trumbo in right field, so Kim’s slow start just creates more doubt in the corner outfield spots for the second straight year.

Perhaps the 2015 spring performance of South Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang provides some encouragement as he went 3-for-27 to begin his first spring with Pittsburgh before ultimately posting an impressive .816 on-base plus slugging percentage in the regular season. The quality of competition in the Korean Baseball Organization is generally viewed as similar to the Single-A or Double-A level of the minor leagues, making for a difficult adjustment to succeed in the majors.

That doesn’t mean that Kim is destined to figure it out, either, but you hope his last few games are a sign of better things to come for the 28-year-old.

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Wieters leaves Saturday’s game due to elbow soreness

Posted on 12 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles won their first game of the spring on Saturday, but with the victory came concerning news about their starting catcher.

Just 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Matt Wieters left the 8-1 win over Minnesota with what the club described as right elbow soreness. The 29-year-old felt discomfort attempting to throw out Eduardo Nunez trying to steal in the top of the first and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning.

Manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Sarasota that X-rays did not reveal any concerns, and Wieters will be reevaluated over the next couple days.

“Doctors examined him and everything, and we’ll see,” Showalter said. “I think everybody gets alarmed because of, rightfully so, with the surgery there. Hopefully, it’ll manage and be OK.”

For now, the Orioles remain hopeful that Wieters is merely experiencing soreness that many catchers do at this point in spring training. However, it’s worth noting that Wieters caught consecutive games for the first time this spring earlier in the week, and the three-time All-Star selection caught on consecutive days just five times last season after returning to action in early June.

Though he was set to become a free agent last November, Wieters accepted the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season.

Backup catcher Caleb Joseph was already scheduled to start on Sunday after missing a few days due to illness. He would serve as the starter should Wieters miss extensive action.

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2016 Orioles preview: Matt Wieters

Posted on 07 March 2016 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day less than a month away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2016 Orioles every day as they try to return to the playoffs for the third time in five years this season.

March 1 – Adam Jones
March 2 – Chris Tillman
March 3 – Jonathan Schoop
March 4 – Brad Brach
March 5 – Nolan Reimold
March 6 – Yovani Gallardo

C Matt Wieters

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2016 season

2015 stats: .267/.319/.422, 8 HR, 25 RBI, 24 R, 0 SB, 282 PA

Why to be impressed: Wieters caught on consecutive days just five times upon returning from Tommy John surgery in June, but he caught a respectable 31 percent of runners trying to steal, creating optimism about his defense with a full offseason and spring. The switch hitter batted .305 with a .917 on-base plus slugging percentage over the final month while handling a bigger defensive workload.

Why to be concerned: The four returning members of last year’s starting rotation had superior ERAs when pitching to Caleb Joseph compared to Wieters, which does make you wonder what a heavier workload for the latter might mean for the pitching in 2016. His .742 OPS last year was in line with his career .743 mark, but a .328 batting average on balls in play indicates some better luck than normal.

2016 outlook: The Orioles didn’t plan on Wieters accepting the $15.8 million qualifying offer in early November, but they hope he will provide enough of an offensive upgrade to offset what defensive value could be lost without Joseph behind the plate. With a chance to reestablish his market as one of the best catchers in baseball, Wieters is eager to put the memory of elbow surgery long behind him.

2016 not-so-scientific projections: .263/.321/.415, 17 HR, 64 RBI, 58 R, 1 SB, 475 PA

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

Posted on 18 February 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven questions for Sarasota: 2016 Orioles spring training

Posted on 16 February 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s about that time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Just how good is Hyun Soo Kim?

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

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

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

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

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

6. How will Showalter handle the catcher situation?

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

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

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

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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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