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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 9-5 win over Boston

Posted on 12 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 9-5 win over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the seventh game of the 2016 season.

1stJ.J. Hardy sliced a pair of opposite-field home runs inside the cozy “Pesky Pole” at Fenway Park and also hit a sacrifice fly to right that put the Orioles ahead for good in the top of the sixth inning. His first homer tied it at 2-2 in the third while his seventh-inning long ball busted the game wide open by giving Baltimore a 9-4 lead. It was the 12th multi-homer game of Hardy’s career and his first since doing it against St. Louis on Aug. 8, 2014. The three-time Gold Glove shortstop also provided a terrific defensive play with a diving catch of a liner off the bat of Blake Swihart that led to an inning-ending double play in the second and helped settle down starter Mike Wright for the time being.

2ndMark Trumbo continued to swing the bat exceptionally well and clobbered a 3-2 pitch for a long two-run shot over the Green Monster to tie the game in the sixth. The blast came at the end of a nine-pitch battle with Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz that included the Boston infield’s failure to catch a foul pop that would have sent Trumbo back to the Orioles dugout a few pitches before the big home run. The right fielder also singled, doubled, and scored three runs on a night that ended with him holding a .464 average with a 1.214 on-base plus slugging percentage.

3rdMatt Wieters was not off to a good start in the series after striking out four times on Monday and going down swinging in his first at-bat Tuesday, but the catcher contributed a critical two-run single to right-center in the seventh to open up a 7-4 lead. Those runs helped give an overworked Baltimore bullpen some breathing room in the late innings, which allowed manager Buck Showalter to rest the likes of Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Zach Britton.

HomeDylan Bundy took over for Wright holding a one-run lead to begin the bottom of the sixth inning and gave the Orioles 2 1/3 innings of quality work, allowing only one run in the process. The talented 23-year-old effectively mixed his changeup and slow curve with his fastball sitting between 92 and 94 miles per hour. … Joey Rickard struck out twice and grounded out twice before singling to left in the eighth, extending his hitting streak to seven games to begin his major league career. … The Orioles matched their high-water mark of 2015 by improving to seven games above .500 and have won seven in a row in a season for the first time since 2005. Dating back to the end of last year, Baltimore has won 12 straight regular-seaosn games. … The Orioles will send Ubaldo Jimenez to the hill in search of a three-game sweep on Wednesday night, and he’ll face Red Sox right-hander Joe Kelly.

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Hardy hopes to play Sunday, Jones still absent

Posted on 09 April 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — As the Orioles tried to endure unseasonably cold weather in the second contest of a three-game set with Tampa Bay, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones were once again out of the starting lineup before Saturday’s game was eventually postponed.

Hardy said his left calf was feeling much better after he sat out Friday’s series opener, but the low temperature and high winds in the forecast for Saturday night were factors in giving him one more day off. Manny Machado was making his second straight start at shortstop with utility infielder Ryan Flaherty starting at third base.

“I’m walking around with no pain,” said Hardy, who added that he plans to play in Sunday’s series finale. “I think I probably could get it going tonight and play, but I think with the cold I think everyone’s kind of scratching that idea. I’ll be good to go tomorrow.”

Jones was out of the lineup for the third straight game due to soreness in his rib area. Manager Buck Showalter was noncommittal about the status of both Hardy and Jones for Sunday, citing a forecast with temperatures that were only supposed to climb to just over 50 degrees.

Rookie Joey Rickard was making his third consecutive start in center field in place of Jones.

“They’re close. They’ll be available if I need them tonight. But if not, I wouldn’t tell you,” said Showalter on Saturday afternoon. “I’ll never say never [about Jones and Hardy returning on Sunday]. It’s a quick turnaround.”

With lefty Drew Smyly starting for the Rays on Saturday, Pedro Alvarez began the game on the bench with Matt Wieters serving as the designated hitter. Alvarez is the only Orioles regular still looking for his first hit of the season after going 0-for-12 in the first four games.

Showalter confirmed that Sunday starter Vance Worley will be on a pitch limit since he hasn’t thrown in a competitive game since the final spring game in Philadelphia on April 1.

Relief pitcher Brian Matusz (left intercostal strain) said he felt good after one-inning outings at Double-A Bowie on Thursday and Friday, but the lefty specialist may have one more extended outing with the Baysox on Monday before joining the Orioles on the upcoming road trip. There was previous talk of Matusz being activated from the 15-day disabled list as early as Sunday.

Starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (right shoulder strain) was scheduled to make a rehab start for Bowie on Saturday, but the Baysox postponed their game, pushing his outing to Sunday. Gausman will then make a rehab start at Single-A Frederick on Friday, but the previous target date of April 19 for his activation from the DL will be pushed back at least a day because of the schedule change.

In addition to the Baysox, the Washington Nationals postponed their Saturday afternoon game due to the bitter conditions, but the Orioles attempted to play their game with wind chills expected to fall below 30 degrees on Saturday evening.

“It’s going to be cold, but we play games,” Showalter said. “That’s what we do.”

Below were Saturday’s starting lineups:

TAMPA BAY
2B Logan Forsythe
DH Logan Morrison
3B Evan Longoria
LF Corey Dickerson
1B Steve Pearce
SS Brad Miller
RF Steven Souza Jr.
CF Kevin Kiermaier
C Curt Casali

SP Drew Smyly (0-1, 6.75 ERA)

BALTIMORE
CF Joey Rickard
LF Nolan Reimold
SS Manny Machado
1B Chris Davis
RF Mark Trumbo
DH Matt Wieters
2B Jonathan Schoop
C Caleb Joseph
3B Ryan Flaherty

SP Mike Wright (2015 stats: 3-5, 6.04 ERA)

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 6-1 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 09 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the fourth game of the 2016 season.

1stMatt Wieters didn’t homer like four of his teammates, but the veteran catcher drove in two runs with a pair of singles, the first concluding a 10-pitch battle with Rays ace Chris Archer to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth. That lengthy at-bat was a precursor to the Orioles hammering Archer in a four-run fifth that included three solo home runs and was capped off with Wieters hitting a liner off the pitcher for an infield hit and another RBI. He now has an 11-game hitting streak dating back to last season, which is a career high. Wieters also did commendable work behind the plate as three Orioles pitchers combined to retire 21 of the last 23 Tampa Bay hitters they faced.

2nd — Chris Tillman wasn’t carrying the electric stuff he displayed in two flawless innings on Opening Day before a rain delay cut his outing short, but the right-hander overcame shaky command in the early going to toss five strong innings on 83 pitches. The 27-year-old retired the final nine hitters he faced, striking out four over that stretch. In all, Tillman gave up a solo homer to Evan Longoria in the first inning and gave up just three other hits and two walks while striking out five.

3rdChris Davis hit a 406-foot homer to center in the bottom of the second inning and walked twice, eventually scoring on each of Wieters’ RBI singles. It’s that combination of power and patience that the Orioles hope to continue to see after giving their first baseman a $161 million contract this winter.

HomeT.J. McFarland gave manager Buck Showalter exactly what he was looking for after he decided not to push Tillman too hard after coming back to pitch a day early. The lefty sinkerballer retired nine of the 10 hitters he faced, which included a stretch of six straight grounders. … Jonathan Schoop, Nolan Reimold, and Manny Machado all hit solo homers off Archer in the bottom of the fifth. The Orioles are a remarkable 27-4 in games in which Schoop hits a long ball. … Rookie Joey Rickard continued a memorable opening week with two more hits and is now hitting .467 in his first four games in the majors. … Baltimore has seven home runs in four games, all of them solo shots. … The Orioles have gone 4-0 to begin a season for the eighth time in club history. Their best start came in 1970 when they began 5-0 and would win their second World Series that season. … Mike Wright is scheduled to make his 2016 debut against Drew Smyly on Saturday night, but a not-so-promising weather forecast may force a postponement.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 4-2 win over Minnesota

Posted on 07 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the second game of the 2016 season.

1stChris Davis homered at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the first time since Oct. 4, 2015, the game many assumed would be the slugger’s last in an Orioles uniform before he signed a seven-year, $161 million contract in January to remain in Baltimore. The 421-foot shot to center off Minnesota starter Kyle Gibson gave Baltimore the lead for good in the bottom of the third and was the Orioles’ first home run of the season. The first baseman made a good defensive play in the eighth, picking J.J. Hardy’s in-between hop on a throw and keeping his foot on the bag to record the out before tumbling over.

2ndYovani Gallardo allowed just one run and struck out four in five solid innings to win his Orioles debut. The only hits he allowed were a pair of doubles by talented Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, but Gallardo did walk three batters and induced only three grounders, which is fairly unusual for him. His velocity remains a concern as his fastball sat mostly between 87 and 88 miles per hour, but he mixed his pitches well, using his slider to strike out Byung Ho Park and Eduardo Escobar in the fourth. The 30-year-old retired seven of the final eight hitters he faced and threw 89 pitches, 52 for strikes.

3rdJoey Rickard continued to impress in his second major league game, going 2-for-3 and picking up the first RBI of his career with a sacrifice fly to left in the fourth inning. The Rule 5 pick is 4-for-7 with a double and a run scored in two games and is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Rickard also had two six-pitch at-bats on Wednesday, something manager Buck Showalter wants to see if the left fielder is to eventually become the club’s leadoff hitter.

HomeJonathan Schoop and Matt Wieters each collected RBI doubles to give the Orioles their other two runs on the night. … Zach Britton allowed a double and a walk, but the 2015 All-Star closer struck out the side to earn his first save, tying Eddie Watt for seventh on the club’s all-time saves list with 74. … Not known for his patience at the plate, Hardy drew a walk for the second straight game and saw a total of 23 pitches in four trips to the plate. The Orioles have drawn 11 walks in their first two games of the season. … Pedro Alvarez is the only regular in the lineup yet to record a hit this season, but the former Pittsburgh slugger walked twice in Wednesday’s win. … Adam Jones appeared to show some discomfort after striking out swinging in the bottom of the eighth, but Showalter said he was unaware of any issue when asked following the game. … Thursday’s announced attendance was 12,622, the Orioles’ lowest mark since April 22, 2013 if you don’t count the empty-ballpark game from last year. … Ubaldo Jimenez goes to the hill Thursday night with the Orioles in search of a three-game sweep after going 0-7 against Minnesota in 2015. He’ll be opposed by Twins right-hander Phil Hughes.

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“Rounding the bases” in Orioles’ 3-2 win over Minnesota

Posted on 05 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day?

In the spirit of hockey’s “three stars” system with the addition of home plate for honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the first game of the 2016 season.

1stMatt Wieters wasn’t having a stellar game after leaving five runners on base in his first four trips to the plate, but his first-pitch single off Kevin Jepsen in the bottom of the ninth plated the winning run, giving the Orioles their first victory over Minnesota since Aug. 31, 2014. It was the three-time All-Star catcher’s 700th career hit and the eighth walk-off hit of his career. After an unsettling spring due to a scare with his surgically-repaired elbow in mid-March, Wieters has plenty to play for on a one-year contract and the Orioles want to get as much value as they can from his $15.8 million salary for 2016.

2ndAdam Jones went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts, but his major contribution came in the bottom of the fifth when he doubled home the first two runs of the ballgame and gave a rain-weary crowd something to cheer about after two lengthy delays. The center fielder also provided the icing on the cake — or pie? — for Wieters’ heroics by bringing back the Orioles’ famous pie-in-the-face celebration that was supposedly outlawed in the spring.

3rdTyler Wilson couldn’t have figured he would factor heavily into the season-opening win, but his three scoreless frames after a 70-minute rain delay at the end of the second put the Orioles in position to take the lead in the fifth. The right-hander helped preserve a bullpen that faced the prospects of pitching seven innings in the opening game because of the rain. Buck Showalter was impressed with Wilson’s poise after giving up a double to Eduardo Escobar on the first pitch he threw, and the 26-year-old paved the way for a strong performance from the bullpen except for Mychal Givens’ struggles in the seventh.

Home — Mark Trumbo became the fourth player to collect at least four hits in his Orioles debut, joining Chris Parmelee (2015), Ronny Paulino (2012), and Sam Horn (1990). Not known for his speed, the right fielder also stole a base in the first inning after not stealing one in all of 2015. … Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard collected hits in his first two major league at-bats and scored the first run of the season for the Orioles. He was the first Oriole to collect a hit in his first major league at-bat since Jonathan Schoop on Sept. 25, 2013. … Before rain cut his start short, Chris Tillman struck out five of the six hitters he faced in two perfect innings. The right-hander struck out five or more hitters in just 11 of his 31 starts last season. … The Orioles have now won six straight Opening Day games and are 13-3 in season openers since 2001. The club is now 18-7 in home openers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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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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