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More comfortable Gausman primed for breakout season

Posted on 03 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Two years ago, the thought of starting the exhibition home opener might have created butterflies for Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman.

But after starting Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium last September and pitching to a 1.13 ERA out of the bullpen in the 2014 postseason, you’ll forgive the 24-year-old if he’s unmoved by what’s expected to be a one-inning stint at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota on Wednesday. Now, familiarity is on Gausman’s side as he’s in the midst of his third spring training with the Orioles.

“I don’t know if I feel like I have less to prove, but I just feel more comfortable being around the guys,” Gausman said. “It’s just kind of knowing everybody. When you have that type of relationship where you can just go up and talk to anybody, obviously you feel more comfortable.”

Of course, Gausman hasn’t surprised anyone to this point as he was immediately labeled one of baseball’s best prospects upon being selected fourth overall out of Louisiana State in the 2012 amateur draft. After spending most of his major league time in the bullpen in his rookie season two years ago, Gausman blossomed into a dependable member of a rotation in 2014 that finished fifth in the American League with a 3.61 starter ERA.

In 20 starts, Gausman went 7-7 with a 3.57 ERA, but his 3.41 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark that measures only the factors a pitcher fully controls — strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit batsmen — was the best among the Orioles’ six regular starters. His success last season at the age of 23 as well as a high-90s fastball and devastating split-changeup are reasons why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was repeatedly predicting a breakout 2015 campaign for Gausman this winter.

Counting the postseason and his minor-league work, Gausman pitched 166 2/3 innings last year and is aiming to approach the 200-inning mark this season. The overwhelming sentiment shared by teammates and coaches alike is that it’s only a matter of Gausman gaining experience and being himself to realize his full potential that many believe is becoming a top-of-the-rotation starter one day.

“He’s got a great head on his shoulders and he’s got the arm,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “It’s just a matter of trusting the process and letting it all play out. I think we get in trouble when we try and force things and then some anxiety sets in. As long as you keep letting the process play out and trust what you’re doing, he’s going to have a good chance to succeed.”

Gausman acknowledges not yet being a finished product as he’d like to improve a slider that’s been little more than a “show-me” pitch in his first two major league seasons. Often picking the brains of teammates about how they throw their own versions of the pitch, Gausman is sticking with the same grip he used last season and feels he’s had some success with it when working in relief the last two years.

Primarily relying on throwing his power fastball down in the zone while mixing in a wicked split-change, Gausman threw his slider just 7.2 percent of the time last season. Some also believe the right-hander needs to mix in more high fastballs to induce more swinging strikes — his 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings rate in 2014 was rather ordinary for a pitcher with his impressive stuff — but Gausman allowed only seven home runs in 113 1/3 innings, an improvement from the eight he allowed in 47 2/3 innings in 2013.

The continued development of a third pitch — either the slider or a circle changeup he mixed in 3.7 percent of the time last season — would go a long way in not only cementing Gausman’s place in the Baltimore rotation but establishing him as one of the better pitchers in the AL.

“One thing that nobody realizes is I don’t throw [the slider] very much, so I don’t get those reps as much as I should,” Gausman said. “That’s one thing I wanted to focus on this [spring] is throwing it a little bit more and kind of get that feedback from hitters. This is when you get your work in and your bullpens. You get to work on stuff that normally during the season you’re not going to work on. Just refining those things and making sure that I’m as ready as can be for Opening Day and beyond that.”

Gausman hopes he’s landed in the major leagues for good — his performance in 2014 supports that argument — but a crowded starting rotation that includes Ubaldo Jimenez and the three years that remain of his $50 million contract could complicate matters. No stranger to the Baltimore-to-Norfolk express over the last two years, Gausman and fellow starter Miguel Gonzalez both have a minor-league option remaining, which means either could land in Triple A depending on how manager Buck Showalter elects to handle his pitching staff.

Either pitcher could also land in the bullpen to begin the season while the Orioles try to maximize their return on Jimenez, who lost his rotation spot in the second half of 2014 despite making $11.25 million in his first season in Baltimore.

Even if Gausman heads north as a member of the staff in April, he knows there’s a good chance he’ll find himself optioned to Norfolk at some point during the season. It’s just the way Showalter and the Orioles operate in trying to keep their bullpen healthy for a 162-game marathon even though the young pitcher credits being able to get into a regular routine of pitching every fifth day as a major reason for his success in the second half last season.

“It’s just a part of it. Talking with other guys – [Chris] Tillman, [Brian] Matusz, guys like that – they’ve all gone through it,” Gausman said. “I don’t take it personally at all. At first, I kind of used to, but then I realized it’s a business and it’s all about winning and protecting those guys out of the bullpen. If we have everybody throw in one game and go into extras and we need to option somebody to bring up a healthy arm, it’s probably going to be me. That’s just something I’ve come to realize. The more you kind of just deal with it yourself, you don’t have to deal with it when it comes up.”

As many pundits have pointed to the offseason departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and top reliever Andrew Miller as reasons why the Orioles won’t succeed in defending their AL East title, Gausman and others have taken exception to the way the pitching staff has been overlooked after finishing third in the AL in team ERA last season.

The Orioles remind doubters that they already had one of the best bullpens in the league and were in first place before they acquired Miller at the end of July.

But Gausman blossoming into a top starting pitcher this season would go a long way in improving Baltimore’s chances of advancing to the playoffs for the third time in four years.

“People forget how good we were before Miller got here,” Gausman said. “Our bullpen was one of the best in baseball before we even had him. We’re very confident in that. Us starting pitchers, we had a great season last year.

“I think we kind of finally put ourselves on the map — maybe put a little bit of a target on our back now. But that’s just something you deal with when you have success.”

Based on the success he’s already had in his young career, Gausman will be perfectly fine with that target.

You can listen to my entire chat with Gausman from Sarasota HERE.

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Recovering Wieters focused on 2015 season despite looming free agency

Posted on 28 February 2015 by Luke Jones

SARASOTA, Fla. — Watching Orioles catcher Matt Wieters during the first few days of full-squad workouts, you could almost forget he’s less than nine months removed from having Tommy John surgery.

He may not yet be cleared to fire bullets down to second or third base to gun down a runner trying to steal, but there have been no signs of apprehension to this point as he’s participated in other fielding drills and caught bullpen sessions. The Orioles hope it stays that way as Wieters will catch in the club’s first intrasquad game on Sunday, which won’t include any throwing for him beyond tosses back to the pitcher.

“He’s doing everything [else],” manager Buck Showalter said. “I saw him throw a ball [the other day] and I had to catch myself because it looked like normal and I thought to myself, ‘Jeez.’ There wasn’t that recoil or decel at the end that you see with a lot of guys that are [recovering from arm injuries].”

It’s so far, so good for Wieters, who is part of a small group of major league catchers to have undergone the elbow ligament reconstruction surgery more commonly associated with pitchers. The track record of catchers coming back from the surgical procedure isn’t encouraging, but most in the group were fringe major league catchers to begin with and lacked Wieters’ ability behind the dish and in the batter’s box.

Defense has been Wieters’ biggest strength throughout his major league career as he’s thrown out 33 percent of runners trying to steal. Until the 28-year-old is fully cleared to throw behind the plate, however, uncertainty remains about what kind of catcher he’ll be in his seventh season and beyond.

The three-time All-Star selection and two-time Gold Glove winner may not have to worry about throwing breaking balls or preparing for 100-pitch outings like a hurler coming back from Tommy John surgery, but making a high volume of throws from different angles behind the plate does make projecting an exact timetable for recovery tricky compared to the expected 10 to 14 months for most pitchers or the six to eight months for other position players not throwing as often as catchers.

“The rehab is going as well as we could have expected, which is a blessing in itself,” Wieters said. “To be able to get out there and just do partial throwing and be able to just be with the guys is great. I’m going through the throwing program, and it feels good throwing. I haven’t gotten into actual positional throwing yet, so that will be the next step of getting into a squat and making throws as a catcher. I’ll do that for a little bit before actually getting behind the plate in a game.”

The Orioles are currently targeting March 17 for Wieters’ first game behind the plate in Grapefruit League action. In the meantime, he’ll receive at-bats as a designated hitter and catch in minor-league spring games — once again with no runners trying to steal — at the organization’s Twin Lakes facility. Showalter plans to have Wieters’ legs fully in shape to allow him to catch five to seven innings when he makes his Grapefruit League debut behind the plate.

The organization and Wieters remain hopeful that he’ll be ready for Opening Day on April 6, but returning to the lineup for good is the 2007 first-round pick’s ultimate goal in not wanting to experience a setback or to need to baby the surgically-repaired elbow over the course of a 162-game season.

“I think about what’s going to be best for the team and what’s going to be best health-wise going forward,” Wieters said. “It’s something where missing all that time last year was tough. I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to make the decision, ‘What’s the best way for you to be on the field as much as possible?’ This game is what I love playing, and we’re going to do whatever is going to give me the best chance to be on the field the most this year.”

There’s also the reality of looming free agency to consider as Wieters is scheduled to hit the open market next winter. The catcher insists his singular focus is on getting ready for the season, but he and agent Scott Boras have to be thinking about his health and showing the Orioles and potential suitors that his elbow problem will be completely behind him.

It isn’t an easy position for a soon-to-be 29-year-old catcher to be in after he’s already logged 5,533 innings behind the plate in his major league career. In that way, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of his body in 2014 as he was only able to contribute from a mental standpoint, which even included some advanced scouting of the Detroit Tigers ahead of the American League Division Series.

Showalter has frequently pointed to Wieters as a potential manager one day and credited his work with catchers Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley as a major reason why the pitching staff thrived in his absence.

“It just verified what we thought. That doesn’t surprise anybody,” Showalter said. “He was in the film room with those guys every day. His words carry a lot of weight. He projects a real self-confidence when you’re willing to help other people like that.”

Wieters is confident that his familiarity with the club’s pitching staff — which lost only lefty reliever Andrew Miller in the offseason — will allow for a smooth return behind the plate.

Having not played in a game since May 10 of last year, Wieters is itching to return to action, whether it’s as soon as Opening Day or a more conservative track. He gained perspective from watching Showalter in the dugout and believes the mental side of his game has improved over the last year, but watching his teammates play in the 2014 postseason wasn’t easy.

“It was tough and great at the same time to be able to watch those guys have the success they had last year,” Wieters said. “I felt a part of it but not as much a part of it as I would have liked to be. When the season ended last year, I was probably the only guy in that clubhouse that was already thinking about spring training. Those guys deserved their time off, but I was ready to come down here and get going as soon as possible.”

Wieters can see the light at the end of the tunnel in the rehabilitation process, but the last few hurdles remain. Meanwhile, the Orioles know the clock is ticking before the catcher hits free agency, with few expecting him to sign an extension to stay with the organization that drafted him.

Those realities present an interesting juxtaposition as Wieters must understandably focus on the big picture while the Orioles would like to maximize their return in their final season of control before free agency. Unclear of his future beyond 2015, Wieters is hoping to take advantage of a healthy season while trying to help the Orioles defend their 2014 AL East title.

“I love Baltimore and Baltimore’s a great town,” Wieters said. “Right now, I’m really thinking about getting back on the field, which could be a blessing. [Free agency is] something that always looms for players, but for me, it’s really just about getting back out there and enjoying it.”

Listen to my exclusive interview with Wieters from Sarasota HERE.

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Machado, Wieters aiming to be in Opening Day lineup

Posted on 01 February 2015 by Luke Jones

An offseason filled with front-office uncertainty, key departures, and few additions hasn’t been easy for the Orioles.

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette spent much of Saturday’s FanFest reiterating that his “singular focus” has always been on improving the defending American League East champions, but that doesn’t change the reality of losing outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and key reliever Andrew Miller. Coincidence or not, the acquisition of outfielder Travis Snider — the club’s biggest addition of the winter — came two days after Toronto ended its pursuit of Duquette to become the Blue Jays’ new chief executive officer and team president.

But the executive reminded everyone Saturday of the best “additions” to help the Orioles in 2015. The returns of All-Star third baseman Manny Machado and All-Star catcher Matt Wieters would go a long way in helping Baltimore advance to the postseason for the third time in four years.

“The biggest and most powerful improvement we have for our ball club this year is Machado’s coming back and Wieters is coming back,” Duquette said. “Those are two Gold Glove, power-hitting core players that can return to our lineup. That’s the most important component and addition that we can make to the team is to get those guys back healthy and doing what they do.”

The pair missed a combined 216 games last season, but both eye a return to the lineup for Opening Day. Many have pointed to the uncertainty in the outfield as a primary reason why the Orioles will slip from their 96-win mark reached a year ago, but the club continued to thrive last season with the combination of veteran Nick Hundley and rookie Caleb Joseph behind the plate for five months and utility man Ryan Flaherty spending much of the time at the hot corner in the final two months.

After suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second straight year last August, Machado has already been fully cleared for baseball activity and appears on track to not only be ready for the start of the regular season but to benefit from a full slate of Grapefruit League action, something he didn’t have last season when he missed all of spring training and the first month of action while working his way back from his first knee injury. With two healthy and surgically-repaired knees, the 22-year-old is hoping to build on what’s already been an impressive major league résumé.

“I’m ready to roll, ready to play some baseball. Running, hitting, whatever I’ve got to do to get ready,” Machado said. “I’ve had a lot of time. That’s been the key. I’ve had a lot of time to get ready and have an offseason. I was doing my rehab in Sarasota and then went down to Miami to do my usual weightlifting and get ready for baseball. It’s been exciting. It’s been four or five months that I haven’t been on a baseball field, so I’m really looking forward to spring training and being back on the field. People take spring training for granted, and it’s a very big key for success in the year.”

Wieters’ status for the beginning of the season is less certain as he continues to rehab his right elbow after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June. His throwing progression has increased to 150 feet and he has been swinging the bat for roughly a month, but the three-time All-Star selection doesn’t anticipate being able to play games early in spring training.

Even if Wieters isn’t ready to get behind the plate at the beginning of the season, the Orioles could use him as a designated hitter as he continues to strengthen his elbow.

“We’re still in a phase where a lot could happen in the next couple months,” Wieters said. “It could get a lot better [and] it could slow down, but we won’t know until we go through the throwing program. But I’m preparing every part of my body to be ready for Opening Day, and that’s all I can do right now.”

Because of Wieters’ ability to hit free agency next winter, it will be interesting to see how much he tries to push his surgically-repaired elbow in returning to live-game action. Wieters and agent Scott Boras will undoubtedly want to grow his value and prove to potential suitors that he’s entirely healthy, but it can’t come at the expense of experiencing a setback.

Acknowledging how difficult it was watching his teammates compete in the 2014 postseason, Wieters has been itching for the start of spring training since last year ended, but he will be smart in continuing to follow his throwing program. A two-time Gold Glove winner, the 28-year-old catcher threw out at least 35 percent of runners attempting to steal in three straight seasons before his elbow problems came to the forefront last year when he threw out just one of 12 trying to steal.

“The main thing is we have to get the arm healthy enough to play the rest of my career,” Wieters said. “That’s the main goal — whenever that is. As soon as we feel like it is there, it’s time to strap it on and go. We don’t want to be feeling like we are babying it through the season. We want to get it healthy and ready to go.”

The Orioles hope Machado and Wieters can pick up where they left off prior to their 2014 surgeries, but it’s clear that the front office, coaching staff, and players aren’t sweating the offseason losses they’ve experienced nearly as much as the outside world. Replacing Cruz’s power, Markakis’ leadership, and Miller’s late-inning contributions won’t be easy, but there are too many remaining ingredients for the Orioles not to remain a favorite in a division they won by 12 games last year.

A pitching staff that has only lost one key bullpen member and returns every starter as well as one of the game’s best defenses should ease the concerns about a frustrating winter.

“While it’s important to improve your club in the offseason, we’re not really trying to win the offseason,” Duquette said. “We’re trying to put together a team that can compete and get to the postseason and prevail. That’s different than making headlines in the wintertime.”

The headlines have primarily been for the wrong reasons this offseason, but healthy returns from Machado and Wieters would be crucial cogs for the Orioles’ vision of returning to the playoffs.

 

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Wieters, Davis, Tillman agree to one-year deals with Orioles

Posted on 16 January 2015 by Luke Jones

With arbitration-eligible players and major league teams scheduled to exchange salary figures for the 2015 season on Friday, the Orioles came to agreements with several key names including catcher Matt Wieters, first baseman Chris Davis, and starting pitcher Chris Tillman.

According to an ESPN report, Wieters will make $8.3 million in 2015 after making $7.7 million last season. After being limited to just 26 games before undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer, the All-Star catcher will be entering his final year before becoming a free agent next offseason.

Davis agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal after making $10.3 million last year, according to The Sun. Entering his final season before free agency, the 2013 home run king will try to bounce back from a nightmarish campaign that included a .196 average and a 25-game suspension for Adderall use that forced him to miss the Orioles’ run to the American League Championship Series.

Per CBS Sports, Tillman will receive a substantial raise in his first arbitration-eligible year by receiving $4.315 million after making only $546,000 last season. The 26-year-old has blossomed into the Orioles ace over the last two years and went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 207 1/3 innings last season.

Lefty reliever Brian Matusz settled on a $3.2 million contract with the Orioles after making $2.4 million last season, per MASN Sports.

Outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Steve Pearce, infielder Ryan Flaherty, starting pitchers Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez, and closer Zach Britton round out the list of arbitration-eligible players who exchanged salary figures with the Orioles on Friday. Hearings will be heard next month if the sides do not come to an agreement, but teams and players typically split the difference to avoid arbitration.

Right-handed reliever Tommy Hunter avoided arbitration earlier this week by signing a $4.65 million agreement.

In other news, free-agent outfielder Nori Aoki agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with the San Francisco Giants on Friday. He had been linked to the Orioles as a possible short-term replacement for Nick Markakis in the outfield and at the top of the lineup with his career .353 on-base percentage, but the club never showed more than limited interest.

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Orioles tender contracts to Davis, Matusz, nine other arbitration-eligible players

Posted on 02 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There were no surprises prior to Tuesday night’s deadline for arbitration-eligible players as the Orioles tendered contracts to all 11 eligible in that department.

The group includes position players Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Pearce, and Alejandro De Aza and pitchers Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz. There had been some debate about the futures of Davis, De Aza, Hunter, and Matusz, but the Orioles tendered each a contract with the former three set to become free agents after the 2015 season.

As is always the case with arbitration situations, the sides will exchange salary figures in hopes of meeting somewhere in the middle and avoiding a hearing. For now, each player simply remains under club control as the Orioles can include them in any potential trade.

Though it was previously undetermined whether the Orioles would retain De Aza, his presence becomes even more important after the free-agent departure of Nelson Cruz and the undetermined status of free-agent outfielder Nick Markakis. De Aza batted .293 with the Orioles after being acquired from the Chicago White Sox in late August and is projected to make $5.9 million in 2015, according to MLBTradeRumors.com.

Davis is coming off an abysmal season in which he hit only .196 and was suspended 25 games for amphetamine use, but the memory of his 53-homer campaign in 2013 was too much to ignore as he enters his final season before free agency. After making $10.3 million in 2014, Davis is projected to receive a raise to $11.8 million next season.

Perhaps the most questionable decision was tendering Matusz a contract as the lefty specialist is projected to make $2.7 million in 2015. The 27-year-old remained effective against left-handed hitting in 2014, but he once again struggled against right-handed hitters, who posted an .876 on-base plus slugging percentage against him.

Of the Orioles’ other arbitration-eligible players, Pearce figures to receive a significant bump after a career year while arbitration first-timers Tillman, Gonzalez, and Britton are in line for significant raises after impressive accomplishments in 2014.

Davis, Wieters, De Aza, Norris, Pearce, and Hunter are all scheduled to become free agents next offseason.

Below is a list of of Baltimore’s 11 arbitration players with their MLBTradeRumors.com projected salaries for 2015 in parentheses:

LHP Zach Britton ($3.2 million after making $521,500 in 2014)
INF Chris Davis: ($11.8 million after making $10.3 million in 2014)
OF Alejandro De Aza ($5.9 million after making $4.25 million in 2014)
INF Ryan Flaherty ($1 million after making $513,000 in 2014)
RHP Miguel Gonzalez ($3.7 million after making $529,000 in 2014)
RHP Tommy Hunter ($4.4 million after making $3 million in 2014)
LHP Brian Matusz ($2.7 million after making $2.4 million in 2014)
RHP Bud Norris ($8.7 million after making $5.3 million in 2014)
1B/OF Steve Pearce ($2.2 million after making $700,000 in 2014)
RHP Chris Tillman ($5.4 million after making $546,000 in 2014)
C Matt Wieters ($7.9 million after making $7.7 million in 2014)

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Other offseason moves not doing Orioles any favors

Posted on 18 November 2014 by Luke Jones

While it’s been a quiet start to the offseason for the Orioles, this week has brought moves elsewhere that wouldn’t figure to do them any favors.

The Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to sign 31-year-old catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract will undoubtedly influence the asking price of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters when he hits free agency next offseason. Martin is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in which he hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 runs batted in to go with a career-best .402 on-base percentage, but it’s a steep investment to make for a catcher who will be 32 at the start of spring training and hit below .240 in each of his previous three seasons.

Martin’s career on-base plus slugging percentage is .754 compared to Wieters’ .743.

This signing on the heels of the New York Yankees inking veteran catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract last winter must have agent Scott Boras licking his chops while waiting for Wieters to complete his rehab from last season’s Tommy John surgery.

Assuming he makes a full recovery and displays a throwing arm comparable to what he had prior to 2014, Wieters figures to get a deal that will trump what Martin or McCann received in free agency. The 2007 first-round pick doesn’t turn 29 until May and will have a full season to prove to all suitors he’s 100 percent after the procedure that cost him all but 26 games last season.

Of course, the Orioles have known all along that it would be difficult to sign their All-Star catcher to an extension as players typically don’t employ Boras with thoughts of a hometown discount when it comes to free agency. He isn’t getting nine years or the $164 million San Francisco gave Buster Posey a couple years ago, but it appears quite feasible that Wieters will approach or even reach nine figures with a strong and healthy 2015 campaign.

The Blue Jays giving $82 million to a catcher on the wrong side of age 30 only reaffirms that Wieters is going to get paid lucratively.

Another smaller signing Tuesday confirms the growing emphasis on relief pitching with the Chicago White Sox agreeing to a three-year, $15 million contract with left-hander Zach Duke. Free-agent lefty Andrew Miller and his representation must be salivating to see the 31-year-old Duke cash in on a good 2014 season amidst mediocre career numbers.

In 74 appearances with Milwaukee, Duke pitched to a 2.45 ERA and averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but he sports a 4.46 career ERA — much of that coming as a starter earlier in his career — and has averaged just 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 seasons pitching only in the National League. Lefties batted .198 against Duke while right-handed hitters posted a .242 mark in 2014.

The veteran southpaw had a good season, but if a club was willing to hand out a three-year, $15 million contract to a lefty reliever after only one good season, how much is Miller — who’s posted three impressive seasons in a row — ultimately going to fetch as arguably the most sought after bullpen arm on the market?

Another move to keep in the back of your mind was the Atlanta Braves’ decision to trade outfielder Jason Heyward to St. Louis in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller, the first blockbuster trade of the winter. As right fielder Nick Markakis remains unsigned and available, it’s interesting to note that the 31-year-old spent much of his life growing up in Georgia and the Braves now appear to have an opening in the outfield depending on what they do with some other position players.

To be clear, there haven’t been any tangible indications that Atlanta would pursue the 2014 Gold Glove winner as it’s still expected that the Orioles and Markakis will get a deal done.

The news of Miami inking young slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract doesn’t appear to have any direct impact on the Orioles, but it does compel some to again bring up the possibility of signing 22-year-old third baseman Manny Machado to a long-term contract.

Machado is certainly the kind of talent that you’d like to keep as long as possible, but the Orioles need to make sure he is fully healthy in 2015 after having both knees surgically repaired in less than a year’s time. Until he makes it through a full season — which his rehab schedule indicates he’ll have a good chance to do — the organization should be holding off on any talk of a lucrative deal.

The 2010 first-round pick isn’t scheduled to become a free agent until after the 2018 season.

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Orioles must slow speedy Royals in quest for AL pennant

Posted on 09 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Orioles manager Buck Showalter almost sounded coy when asked about the speed of the Kansas City Royals as his club made final preparations for the American League Championship Series scheduled to get underway Friday night.

With five Royals players recording double-digit steals in the regular season and another rookie — Terrance Gore — stealing three bases in his first four postseason games, the Orioles face a tall order in slowing Kansas City’s speed demons, a factor many view as a potential tipping point between two clubs that are very similar beyond their contrasting offensive styles.

“They’re not automatically going to all of a sudden run slower tomorrow,” Showalter said. “If anything, they’re going to run faster. You don’t control that. It’s impossible. It’s one of those givens. Try to keep them off base as much as you can.”

Sure, there’s no better remedy for neutralizing speed than preventing runners from reaching first, but the Orioles don’t sound nearly as concerned about the Kansas City running game Thursday as the many outsiders trying to break down this matchup. As some ponder whether the season-ending elbow injury to Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters will finally catch up to Baltimore in this best-of-seven series, the Orioles spent Thursday pointing out that their regular style of play always involves containing an opponent’s running game.

Most of the attention falls on the shoulders of the catching tandem of Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph, but the ability to stop potential thievery runs deeper.

Even with the two-time Gold Glove selection Wieters limited to just 22 games behind the plate this season before an elbow injury eventually led to Tommy John surgery, opponents still attempted the fourth-fewest number of steals in the AL against Baltimore this season. The Orioles ranked sixth in the AL by throwing out 28 percent of runners trying to steal with Joseph — a 28-year-old rookie not known for his defensive work in the minors — and the veteran Hundley handling the catching duties for much of the season.

And that’s when you begin to see where the real responsibility lies in controlling an opponent’s running game.

“The easiest way [to neutralize it] is quick times to the plate, no question,” said former Orioles outfielder and current vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, who swiped 315 bases in his 15-year career. “As a base stealer, you steal bases off the pitcher. It doesn’t matter to me if [13-time Gold Glove winner] Ivan Rodriguez was behind the plate; if the pitcher was slow, I’m going.”

Look no further than Game 1 starter Chris Tillman to see how much emphasis the Orioles have placed on pitchers being fast to the plate and holding runners since Showalter’s arrival during the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was admittedly poor when it came to holding runners during his early years with the Orioles before Showalter and Wieters preached the need for him to shorten his delivery to prevent runners from going wild on the bases.

It was a mindset that several pitchers have needed to learn the hard way during Showalter’s tenure, with some even earning demotions to the minors as a result.

Tillman has not only posted back-to-back 200-inning seasons to emerge as the ace of the Baltimore rotation, but the 26-year-old has allowed only two stolen bases since the start of the 2013 season.

“When Buck got here, it was a big pet peeve of his,” Tillman said. “You’ve got to be quick and give your catchers a chance. Anytime the opposing guys get an extra 90 feet for free, you’re not doing yourself a favor. It’s an organizational thing now. Early on, I don’t think it was. I was young and immature and didn’t know any better, to tell you the truth.”

Of course, the Royals aren’t just any other club in stealing 153 bases to lead the majors in the regular season, and they appear to have only gotten better in that department with the addition of the speedy Gore to go along with Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, and Nori Aoki. They have gone a remarkable 12-for-13 attempting to steal in four postseason games.

But the Orioles feel confident in their scouting and preparation and their biggest weapon in helping to neutralize an opponent’s running game, which is none other than bench coach John Russell.

“A lot of it comes from the bench,” Hundley said. “John Russell does an unbelievable job knowing tendencies, knowing when to throw over, knowing when to pitch out. He doesn’t get enough credit. He controls all the pick-offs and all that stuff. How good he is at it helps us out — me and Caleb — a bunch. And it takes a lot of pressure off the pitchers, because they know he’ll put them in a very successful position.”

It remains to be seen how Showalter will distribute the catching duties over the course of the series, but Hundley is expected to start Game 1. The 31-year-old veteran acquired from the San Diego Padres in late May handled a larger portion of the playing time down the stretch despite throwing out only 19 percent of runners trying to steal this season. In contrast, Joseph gunned down 40 percent during his rookie season even though his defense was often viewed as a hindrance in his minor-league development for years.

Regardless of who might be behind the plate, the mindset isn’t expected to change for Orioles pitchers as they will do what they always do — even against the speedy Royals.

“All the pitchers feel comfortable with it, because it’s something we’ve always put the onus on,” Wieters said. “It shouldn’t be anything different in their minds as far as what they need to do. They stick with their same times to the plate, and it gives us a chance. As a catcher, that’s all you want. There are certain guys that you won’t throw out, but we feel like every pitcher out there is giving the catcher a chance to make a good throw and hopefully get an out.”

Ultimately, the Orioles know they can’t reinvent the wheel when trying to slow a club that ran wild against the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card Game and continued their aggressiveness against the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep in the AL Division Series. They’ll simply stick with their regular habits of being quick to the plate and holding runners effectively while likely being savvy in attempting to interrupt runners’ timing with pick-off attempts or by simply holding the ball a little longer in some instances.

Showalter isn’t going to change who the Orioles are at this late stage, nor should he try to with a club that won 96 games this season with plenty of its own strengths. And he saw firsthand in September how a pitcher can fall apart on the hill if he’s dwelling on a fast runner and not focusing on the hitter at the plate.

“We’ve talked about it, but we’re not going to rob from Peter to pay Paul,” Showalter said. “I think one time we had Quintin [Berry] pinch‑running for us late in the year, and without naming the [opposing] pitcher, you could tell his whole delivery changed trying to keep him from stealing second. He gave up three hits, back to back to back. We didn’t steal a base, but we didn’t have to.

“But we’ve got some things that they might have to adjust to, too.”

The biggest key will be maintaining their mental toughness by not allowing Kansas City’s preference for a track meet to take away from what they do best.

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Nothing typical about these AL East champion Orioles

Posted on 17 September 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — For years, the discrepancy was clear as the Orioles wallowed at the bottom of the American League East.

Lagging behind in payroll and player development, they looked up at the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays while being stuck in neutral with no apparent direction or plan of how to get better. The Orioles didn’t spend like New York or Boston and couldn’t cultivate their own talent like Tampa Bay while suffering through a seemingly endless run of fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the toughest division in baseball year in and year out.

When the Orioles finally broke through Tuesday night with an 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays to win their first AL East title since 1997, it was an atypical sum of the parts that put them on top. Yes, their payroll is higher now than it was for years, but it still remains in the middle of the pack and far below those of the Yankees and Red Sox. Their farm system has produced a number of key players, but it isn’t the well-oiled machine like those of other top organizations in baseball.

It started with Andy MacPhail using some savvy trades and top draft picks to put together a core group of All-Star talent and continued with the arrival of manager Buck Showalter and current executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who began filling in the gaps with below-the-radar additions and, finally, a couple high-profile free agents this past winter. What’s resulted is a club that’s won more than 90 games for the second time in three years and appears poised to make a deep run in October.

The journey certainly hasn’t been easy as the season-ending injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado and the recent 25-game suspension of first baseman Chris Davis have provided easy excuses for the Orioles to wilt down the stretch. Not all has gone to plan as the $50 million free-agent addition of starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez has been an utter failure in the first season of a four-year commitment.

But Tuesday’s win provided the perfect microcosm of what’s made the Orioles continue to thrive in 2014.

You can expect the unexpected.

Making his first start in a month after being dumped from the starting rotation, Jimenez overcame a shaky beginning to pitch five solid innings to earn just his fifth win of the season. Ironically, it was the kind of important game in which the Orioles envisioned Jimenez pitching when they signed him in February.

A three-run home run in the first inning came off the bat of Steve Pearce, the journeyman who was designated for assignment in April before being re-signed a few days later when Davis went on the disabled list. The 31-year-old has gone on to hit a career-high 18 homers, which is more than he’d hit in his first seven major league seasons combined. More than any other player, Pearce might be the ultimate symbol of the 2014 Orioles when the final chapter is written sometime next month.

A solo shot came an inning later from third baseman Jimmy Paredes, who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles during spring training and then lost to the Kansas City Royals a couple days later. Duquette eventually reacquired the 25-year-old in time for him to provide a handful of big hits in his few weeks with the club.

T.J. McFarland pitched a scoreless sixth inning. He was the Rule 5 selection the Orioles stubbornly retained on the 25-man roster all last season.

Darren O’Day provided 1 1/3 innings of excellent relief as he has for the last three seasons. The sidearm pitcher was claimed off waivers from Texas before Duquette was even hired three years ago.

Left field Alejandro De Aza hit the three-run triple in the seventh to bust the game open after he was acquired for two nondescript minor-league pitchers at the waiver trade deadline late last month.

Dominant lefty Andrew Miller struck out the only two hitters he faced and has been exactly what the Orioles envisioned when they acquired the best relief pitcher on the market while the rest of baseball lauded Oakland and Detroit for acquiring Jon Lester and David Price, respectively. The Orioles now own a better record than the Athletics and the Tigers.

When Pearce fielded the final out for the club’s 91st win of the season, it was just the latest example of the sum being much greater than the parts appear on paper.

There hasn’t been a set formula apparent to the rest of the baseball world that explains the Orioles’ ascent over the last few years, but they play great defense, hit home runs, and have pitched as well as anyone since early June. Those strengths have allowed them to overcome the loss of All-Star position players and failed free-agent acquisitions.

For Duquette and Showalter, the question isn’t who is the best player as much as it’s who is the best fit. It hasn’t been about spending money as much as it’s been about making the smartest decision.

And it’s been perfectly imperfect as Baltimore wrapped up the division title with 11 games to spare.

Whether they have 11 wins in them next month remains to be seen, but the journey to this point has been both difficult and overwhelmingly rewarding.

And it paid off with a celebration at Camden Yards Tuesday night while the rest of the American League East was looking up at the Orioles for a change.

 

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Orioles’ ability to overcome adversity begins with starters

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Luke Jones

With Friday’s surprising news of Chris Davis being suspended 25 games for amphetamine use, the same question that’s been tossed the Orioles’ way all season was uttered once again.

How can they overcome this?

Despite an 88-60 record entering Sunday that had them days away from the American League East championship, the Orioles have faced anything but a problem-free campaign in 2014.

All-Star players Matt Wieters and Manny Machado have suffered season-ending injuries. Top free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez has not only failed to meet expectations, but has been banished to the last spot in the bullpen and is very likely to be left off the postseason roster. And even before Davis’ suspension that now bans him until at least the AL Championship Series — if the Orioles advance that far — the slugger was hitting only .196 a year after hitting a franchise-record and league-leading 53 home runs.

“The game usually gives you back kind of what you put into it,” said manager Buck Showalter after the Orioles’ doubleheader sweep of the New York Yankees on Friday. “Everybody’s putting something into it.”

The narratives of resiliency and a different hero every night have frequently rung true, but they don’t paint the entire picture of how the Orioles have managed to all but run away with their first division title since 1997. We knew the Orioles would hit home runs and play exceptional defense entering the season, and those skills have certainly been there all year.

But the biggest question would be the pitching, particularly in the rotation. Even with the struggles of their $50 million addition in Jimenez, the starting pitching has not only silenced the doubts, but has been a strength since the first two months of the season. Through the end of May, the starting rotation had posted an underwhelming 4.49 ERA as the Orioles were 27-27. Since June 1, starters have pitched to an impeccable 3.20 mark, which would be tops in the AL if extrapolated over the entire season. The Orioles have gone 61-33 over that period of time, a .649 winning percentage.

Even with the unevenness of April and May included, Baltimore ranks sixth in the AL in starter ERA, which nearly any fan would have gladly taken at the start of the season. The current team ERA of 3.50 would be the Orioles’ lowest in a full season since 1979 when the AL champions posted a 3.26 ERA.

When being compared to the other top clubs around baseball, the Orioles are often sold short for lacking a true ace, but that hasn’t stopped the starting rotation from becoming the strong heartbeat of a club nearly 30 games above .500 in mid-September. All five members of the current rotation sport an ERA of 3.74 or better, making Showalter’s job a difficult one when deciding which four will make the postseason rotation.

Not only has the quintet of Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Kevin Gausman pitched effectively, but the group has been durable with only Gonzalez and Norris spending brief time on the disabled list this season. After using a total of 12 or more starters in each of the previous three seasons under Showalter, the Orioles have sent just seven starters to the hill in 2014 with long reliever T.J. McFarland only receiving one spot start.

Four Oriole starters — Tillman, Chen, Norris, and Gonzalez — have made 24 or more starts. For perspective, only three made 24 or more starts in 2013 and just one did it in 2012 when the Orioles earned their first postseason trip in 15 years.

Upon learning of Davis’ suspension on Friday, the Orioles responded by promptly sweeping a twin bill over the Yankees in which they allowed one run in 20 total innings. The nightcap was particularly indicative of what the Orioles have become as they fielded what looked like a spring training lineup that included only four players from the Opening Day order and three who weren’t even on the 40-man roster at the start of the year. It was no problem for Bud Norris, who pitched seven shutout innings against the fading Yankees in a 5-0 victory.

“Good pitching solves a lot of problems, issues, whatever you might want to call it,” said Showalter as he reflected on the work his club did following the Davis announcement on Friday. “That’s usually where it starts.”

And it’s why the Orioles shouldn’t be counted out, even after this latest blow to the lineup.

 

 

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Orioles can prove to be beasts of East by surviving West Coast

Posted on 18 July 2014 by Luke Jones

Sitting in first place at the All-Star break for the first time since 1997 didn’t exactly earn the Orioles any favors as they started the second half of the season in Oakland on Friday night.

A 10-game West Coast trip against the two teams with the best records in the majors and the second wild card leader in the American League probably gave manager Buck Showalter a restless night or two over this week’s respite. Knowing the Orioles play their next 23 games against clubs with winning records — not to mention the six following that against teams with .500 marks at the break — likely made him lose even more sleep.

Of course, Showalter and the Orioles have every right to feel good about themselves after winning 25 of their last 40 to move to 10 games above .500 and turn a 4 1/2-game deficit into a four-game lead over that stretch. They’ve built themselves a small cushion in a division in which no one is without sizable warts and imperfections with Toronto and New York seemingly moving in the wrong direction and Boston and Tampa Bay being mostly bad all season.

No, the trip to the West Coast will neither break nor make the Orioles’ chances of winning their first American League East title since 1997, but those 10 games allow them an opportunity to flex their muscles as a man amongst boys in an underwhelming division. Holding their own in Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle — even going 5-5 — would not only keep the Orioles in first place but allow them to return home in late July in prime position to continue their quest to a second postseason appearance in the last three years.

A strong showing against the imposing AL West over the next couple weeks could be the difference between a relatively comfortable journey to October and needing to scratch and claw over the final two months of the regular season. In the same way that the Orioles took advantage of the recent struggles of the Blue Jays, the rest of the AL East will be rooting for Baltimore to wilt before finally returning to Camden Yards on July 29.

A starting rotation that’s pitched to a 3.18 ERA over its last 33 games will now face the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball over the next six contests. It was a 1-6 run against the Athletics and the Angels earlier this month that saw the Blue Jays’ one-game lead in the division turn into a 2 1/2-game deficit by the time they left the West Coast.

Even with the daunting stretch staring them in the face, the Orioles couldn’t ask for better timing as they’ll feel more rested now than they will at any point over the rest of the season. Aside from the current ankle injury to starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez — which many critics would deem a blessing anyway — the Orioles are as healthy as they’ve been at any point during the first half of the season.

Showalter has set up his rotation to include the 23-year-old Kevin Gausman — who could finally be with the Orioles for good — and will be looking for his starting pitchers to pick up where they left off to close the first half. And he’ll hope the inconsistent offense — currently ranked seventh in the AL in runs scored — will finally hit its stride and struggling first baseman Chris Davis starts looking more like the force he was a year ago and less like the .199 hitter who was lost at the plate for the first 3 1/2 months of the season.

By no means was it a perfect first half for the first-place Orioles as they lost catcher Matt Wieters for the season and saw their $50 million investment in Jimenez lead the majors in walks, but Baltimore was the least flawed of anyone in the division and still appears that way beginning the most difficult road trip of the season.

The Orioles can use these next 10 games to flex their muscles as the clear favorite in the division and solidify their first-place standing or could see themselves fall back with the rest of the imperfect pack in the AL East.

They’ve grown accustomed to being the hunter over the last three seasons; it will be interesting to see how they start the second half as the hunted after four days off to think about it.

By no means is it do or die, but the West Coast trip will be an opportunity for the Orioles to stake their claim as the overwhelming favorite in the division while sampling what they could see again in October.

 

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