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Veteran starter Miguel Gonzalez released by Orioles

Posted on 30 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Just days before Opening Day, the Orioles have parted ways with an important member of their starting rotation over the last four years.

According to The Sun and multiple outlets, right-hander Miguel Gonzalez was placed on release waivers on Wednesday and becomes a free agent if he goes unclaimed in the next 48 hours. The move comes after he posted a 9.78 ERA in 19 1/3 innings this spring, continuing his struggles from the second half of last season.

The 31-year-old had a minor-league option remaining, but he was set to make $5.1 million in base salary and his release now saves the Orioles all but 45 days of pay from that total if he goes unclaimed. Any club claiming Gonzalez would inherit the entire amount.

Signed from the Mexican League in the spring of 2012, Gonzalez emerged as one of the Orioles’ best starting pitchers in 2012 and posted a 3.45 ERA in 435 2/3 innings in his first three years with Baltimore. His successes included an exceptional seven-inning start in Game 3 of the 2012 AL Division Series, a game in which the Orioles lost to the New York Yankees in extra innings.

Regularly labeled as a weak link in the Baltimore rotation because of underwhelming peripheral numbers — his fielding independent pitching mark was just 4.59 from 2012-2014 — Gonzalez continued to perform well and helped epitomize two playoff-qualifying clubs that were often sold short by critics. After a slow start to his 2014 campaign, Gonzalez posted a minuscule 2.09 ERA over the final three months of the regular season to help the Orioles run away with their first AL East title in 17 years.

His 2015 season was off to a promising start in early June as Gonzalez had posted a 3.33 ERA in his first 12 starts, but he was never the same after going to the disabled list with a groin injury and pitched to a 6.53 mark over his final 14 starts. He also spent most of the final month of the season on the DL with shoulder and elbow concerns.

Gonzalez went 9-12 with a 4.91 ERA over 26 starts (144 2/3 innings) in his last season with the Orioles.

His final spring outing came against Atlanta on Tuesday as he gave up one earned run in five innings, lowering his Grapefruit League ERA from 12.56 to 9.78. However, his fastball was sitting at just 87 or 88 miles per hour after averaging 91 miles per hour last season, and manager Buck Showalter commented after the game that his command still wasn’t where it needed to be. Opponents had batted .412 against him in his six spring starts.

Gonzalez’s departure as well as the absence of Kevin Gausman to begin the season will open the door for some combination of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Vance Worley to join veterans Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Yovani Gallardo in the starting rotation.

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2016 Orioles preview: Miguel Gonzalez

Posted on 29 March 2016 by Luke Jones

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

March 1 – Adam Jones
March 2 – Chris Tillman
March 3 – Jonathan Schoop
March 4 – Brad Brach
March 5 – Nolan Reimold
March 6 – Yovani Gallardo
March 7 – Matt Wieters
March 8 – T.J. McFarland
March 9 – Dariel Alvarez
March 10 – Brian Matusz
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Mychal Givens
March 13 – Ryan Flaherty
March 14 – Ubaldo Jimenez
March 15 – Mark Trumbo
March 16 – Darren O’Day
March 18 – Pedro Alvarez
March 19 – Oliver Drake
March 20 – Mike Wright
March 21 – Zach Britton
March 22 – Caleb Joseph
March 23 – Dylan Bundy
March 24 – Christian Walker
March 25 – Chaz Roe
March 27 – Manny Machado
March 28 – Chris Davis

SP Miguel Gonzalez

Age: 31

Contract status: Under club control through the 2017 season

2015 stats: 9-12, 4.91 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 6.8 K/IP, 3.2 BB/IP, 24 HR, 144 2/3 innings

Why to be impressed: The right-hander posted a 3.45 ERA in his first three years with the Orioles and pitched to a 3.33 mark in his first 12 starts last season before landing on the disabled list with a groin issue. Despite his struggles, Gonzalez posted a career-high strikeout rate of 6.8 per nine innings in 2015.

Why to be concerned: Gonzalez was never the same after returning from his first DL stint, posting a 6.53 ERA in his last 71 2/3 innings of 2015 and making you wonder if he was healthy the rest of the way. However, after an offseason to get healthy, his fastball was only sitting at 87 to 88 miles per hour in his final two spring starts after it averaged roughly 91 mph in each of the previous four seasons.

2016 outlook: The Orioles would love to give Gonzalez the benefit of the doubt based on his impressive track record, but a 9.76 spring ERA and diminished velocity aren’t what they were looking for after his poor second half. Gonzalez has a minor-league option, but a decline in stuff will make it difficult for a pitcher who didn’t have overwhelming stuff to begin with to compete as a major league starter.

2016 not-so-scientific projections: 4-8, 4.97 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 5.9 K/IP, 3.5 BB/IP, 16 HR, 95 innings

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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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Spring bringing little optimism from Orioles starting rotation

Posted on 23 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Hope springs eternal for the Orioles starting rotation.

Three former All-Star selections are projected members of this year’s rotation.

Three starters remain from the group that thrived in the second half of 2014 and contributed to the Orioles running away with the American League East title.

Baltimore may have lost its most consistent starting pitcher from the last four years — Wei-Yin Chen — but his replacement, Yovani Gallardo, sports a 3.66 career ERA.

Then you actually take a look at what’s transpired this spring and wonder how a club that increased its payroll to roughly $150 million can be living under such a black cloud with its starting pitching entering the 2016 season.

Miguel Gonzalez, one of the great stories of the Orioles’ resurgence beginning in 2012, has been nothing short of disastrous in the Grapefruit League after posting a 6.14 ERA in the second half last season. In 14 1/3 innings this spring, the 31-year-old has allowed 20 earned runs, 28 hits, six walks, and five home runs while striking out just four. Against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gonzalez continually missed up in the strike zone and threw fastballs sitting in the upper 80s as he allowed four earned runs, six hits, and two homers in 4 1/3 innings.

Strong track record or not, Gonzalez has struggled dramatically dating back to June of 2015 and should not be assured a spot in the rotation, but the alternatives are few and far between. Gonzalez will have a couple more starts to turn it around before the season begins, but it’s worth noting that he has a minor-league option remaining if his poor performance continues.

The talented Kevin Gausman is dealing with shoulder tendinitis for the second straight year and received a cortisone shot to alleviate the discomfort. Even if the ailment proves to be minor, this isn’t the start that the 25-year-old was looking for with the Orioles needing him to take a major step forward in his first full season as a starter.

Manager Buck Showalter has remained optimistic about Gausman’s availability at the start of the season, but the Orioles won’t know how practical that is until he begins throwing again later this week. Gausman avoiding the disabled list appears unlikely at this point.

Signed to a two-year, $22 million deal that was restructured after apparent concerns about his shoulder, Gallardo has allowed four homers in 4 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League and surrendered two runs, six hits, and three walks while striking out one in four innings of a Single-A game on Monday. A late start to the spring gives the 30-year-old the benefit of the doubt, but there was much discussion about his declining velocity and strikeout rate before the Orioles signed him in late February.

The next couple outings are important for him.

Slowed by a hip issue earlier this spring, Chris Tillman threw the ball well on Sunday despite mediocre results — three earned runs and two homers in four innings — but he also acknowledged during that MASN telecast that his hip still isn’t 100 percent. The Orioles need Tillman to pitch more like the guy he was from 2012-2014 and not the pitcher who posted a 4.99 ERA in 2015.

And then there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up six runs and retired just one batter in his spring debut on March 2. Fortunately, the enigmatic right-hander has allowed just two earned runs in 17 innings split between Grapefruit League and minor-league outings since then.

It speaks volumes about the current state of the rotation when Jimenez looks like the surest bet.

So, who else might the Orioles turn to, especially if Gausman isn’t ready to return when a fifth starter is needed on April 10?

Of a group that also includes Mike Wright (5.74 ERA), Vance Worley (5.56 ERA), and Odrisamer Despaigne (7.15 ERA), Tyler Wilson has stood out this spring as he’s posted a 2.89 ERA in 9 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old doesn’t blow you away with his stuff, but a strong 3.50 ERA in 36 major league innings last year showed that the stage wasn’t too big for him and he has yet to walk a batter this spring.

Wright’s spring ERA isn’t stellar, but his 15 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings at least keep him in the conversation.

Beyond those names, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette continues to look for reinforcements, whether it’s that elusive left-handed starter or another right-handed one who can simply get hitters out.

You never want to read too much into spring training performance — good or bad — but it’s getting late early for the starting rotation and there hasn’t been much evidence from Florida to discount the biggest concern about the 2016 Orioles. We know spring numbers don’t count in the long run, but you’d like to see a little more to be optimistic about at this late stage.

Who knows?

Maybe the pre-2015 light bulb goes back on for Gonzalez, Gausman’s shoulder isn’t an issue and he takes that big step forward, Tillman puts last year behind him, Gallardo proves to be one of the best signings of the offseason, and the good Jimenez surfaces for an entire season. Such a series of events would make us forget all about an ugly spring training and might even make the Orioles the favorites in the AL East.

Hope springs eternal this time of year, right?

As long as you don’t pay attention to anything that’s happened so far.

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

Posted on 18 February 2016 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven questions for Sarasota: 2016 Orioles spring training

Posted on 16 February 2016 by Luke Jones

It’s about that time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Just how good is Hyun Soo Kim?

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

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

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

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

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

6. How will Showalter handle the catcher situation?

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

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

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

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Improving starting pitching complicated matter for Orioles

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Luke Jones

We know the Orioles need another starting pitcher.

In an ideal world, they’d add two to help fill the void of free-agent departure Wei-Yin Chen — their most consistent starter over the last four seasons — and provide more assistance to a staff that finished 14th in the American League in starter ERA last year.

But even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette does add a starter between now and the start of the season, refining from within will be paramount if the Orioles are to improve from the 81-81 record that left them on the outside looking in last October.

The starting pitching details from the end of 2015 are all too familiar by now.

Bud Norris was downright awful before finally being jettisoned in late July.

A declining strikeout rate (7.8 per nine innings in 2013 down to 6.2 last year) and a nightmarish 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto — his ERA against the rest of baseball was a respectable 3.84 — led to Chris Tillman’s worst ERA (4.99) since the 2011 season when he was still trying to establish himself as a major league pitcher.

Miguel Gonzalez had a shiny 3.33 ERA in his first dozen starts before a groin injury sent him to the disabled list in mid-June. He was never the same after that, posting a 6.53 ERA in his remaining 14 starts and going on the DL again in September.

For the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez, improved command and a greater reliance on his two-seam fastball led to a 2.81 ERA in the first half of 2015 before he relapsed with a 5.63 mark following the All-Star break.

And the Orioles are hoping that a full season in the starting rotation for the 25-year-old Kevin Gausman will allow him to take the giant step forward many believe he’s capable of.

It’s easy to say that manager Buck Showalter needs more from these four starters, but what about other factors impact their pitching results?

As discussed extensively at the end of last season, the defense performing more like it did in 2014 would go a long way in helping a starting rotation that largely pitches to contact. However, the man receiving the pitches is also an important factor in their results.

That’s where the discussion becomes complicated with Matt Wieters accepting the $15.8 million qualifying offer for the 2016 season. The three-time All-Star catcher is better than Caleb Joseph offensively, but is Wieters — who won Gold Glove awards in 2011 and 2012 — the best catching option for Orioles pitching at this point?

Not according to the 2015 numbers with the departed Chen included below:

     2015 ERA pitching to Joseph      2015 ERA pitching to Wieters
Tillman 3.51 in 77 IP 4.88 in 83 IP
Gonzalez 4.18 in 71 IP 5.98 in 46 2/3 IP
Jimenez 2.87 in 144 1/3 IP 8.62 in 39 2/3 IP
Gausman 4.07 in 59 2/3 IP 4.38 in 51 1/3 IP
Chen 3.67 in 108 IP 3.18 in 65 IP

 

To be clear, these numbers alone don’t prove anything conclusive as Chen was the Orioles’ top starter and the only one to find more success with Wieters than Joseph last year. There are plenty of other factors impacting pitcher performance in this breakdown such as the opponents and the ballpark. Wieters also received most of his work behind the plate in the second half of 2015 when Gonzalzez and Jimenez were out of whack, and it would be wrong to significantly attribute their struggles to the veteran catcher’s return.

With Wieters being another year removed from Tommy John surgery, it would be fair to assume he’ll be more comfortable with pitch-calling after not catching in the majors for over a year and still spending time rehabbing even after his return in early June. It’s not as though Tillman and Gonzalez weren’t successful working with Wieters in 2012 and 2013 when both had consecutive seasons pitching to ERAs well below 4.00.

But more and more data is quantifying pitch-framing and how important it can be to a staff’s success, and this is where Joseph has proven to be valuable over the last two seasons. According to Baseball Prospectus, Joseph ranked ninth in the majors in called strikes above average and 10th in framing runs among qualified catchers last season after ranking seventh in CSAA and ninth in framing runs in 2014 when the starting rotation was among the best in the league in the second half.

Simply put, Joseph positions himself and receives the ball so effectively that he receives more called strikes on borderline pitches than the average catcher.

In contrast, Wieters — who is listed to be two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Joseph — has been a below-average framer over the last few years after being a top 10 performer in that area early in his career. Before posting below-average framing numbers in parts of the last two seasons, Wieters ranked 25th in CSAA and 26th in framing runs in his last full season in 2013 and finished 13th in both categories in 2012.

When you have starters who mostly lack the electric stuff required to miss bats consistently, pitching along the edges of the strike zone becomes even more important than it already is. Stealing as many borderline strikes as possible may not turn a terrible pitching staff into a great one, but it can still go a long way over the course of a full season. This is how Orioles pitching would benefit having Joseph behind the plate more often than Wieters.

We’ll see how Showalter ultimately distributes the playing time, but all signs point to Wieters being the primary catcher and that wouldn’t be surprising given the steep financial commitment being made to him for the 2016 season. This will likely provide a boost from an offensive standpoint, but you hope the hidden cost won’t be too harmful to a starting rotation needing all the help it can get if the Orioles are to jump back into serious contention after their first non-winning season since 2011.

Ultimately, the Orioles need better performance from their incumbent starting pitchers and that responsibility mostly falls on their shoulders, but effective framing and stronger defense would further augment the strides they hope to make in 2016.

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Orioles agree to deals with Machado, three others

Posted on 15 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles agreed to terms with four of their six remaining arbitration-eligible players on Friday when major league clubs and players exchanged arbitration figures.

Headlining the list was All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who reportedly agreed to a $5 million contract with additional performance incentives in his first year of arbitration. The 23-year-old received the biggest raise of any Orioles player after making just $548,000 last season.

Baltimore also agreed to terms with starting pitchers Chris Tillman (a reported $6.225 million plus incentives) and Miguel Gonzalez (a reported $5.1 million) and infielder Ryan Flaherty (a reported $1.5 million). First baseman and outfielder Mark Trumbo and relief pitcher Brad Brach agreed to terms on Thursday.

Left-handed relievers Zach Britton and Brian Matusz did not come to agreements with the club and exchanged salary figures on Friday. According to multiple reports, Britton is asking for $7.9 million while the Orioles offered $5.6 million, and Matusz filed for $4.4 million with the organization countering at $3.5 million.

Hearings for both players will now be scheduled for February, but the sides are allowed to continue negotiating in the meantime. Outfielder Alejandro De Aza was the only Orioles player to go to arbitration last offseason, but he lost his case and was signed to the organization’s $5 million figure.

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Despite focus on offensive woes, rotation has sealed Orioles’ 2015 fate

Posted on 08 September 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles’ offseason departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis need to be rehashed about as much as Chris Tillman desires another start against the Toronto Blue Jays at this point.

We get it.

Even if you might have agreed with the decision not to sign either outfielder to a four-year contract, there’s no excusing an offseason plan that essentially consisted of writing checks to a long list of arbitration-eligible players and trading for a failed former first-round pick (outfielder Travis Snider) after one good half in 2014.

But even with the corner outfield woes that have lingered all year, the reeling Orioles entered Tuesday averaging 4.36 runs per contest, a mark nearly identical to last season’s 4.35 scored per game. It may not feel that way with the offense’s extreme peaks and valleys during a difficult 2015 season, but the numbers don’t lie.

Would the Orioles still be in contention for a playoff spot with Cruz and Markakis? Certainly.

But would Buck Showalter’s club be even with Toronto and the New York Yankees in the American League East race? Based on the way the starting rotation has performed, probably not.

That failure has ultimately sealed the Orioles’ fate as they entered Tuesday a season-worst seven games below .500 and 7 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.

After ranking fifth in the AL with a 3.61 starter ERA in 2014 — the rotation was even better after the All-Star break with a 2.98 ERA — Orioles starters had a 4.59 ERA through their first 137 games, ranking 13th in the AL. Baltimore posted no worse than a 3.55 ERA in each of the final four months of 2014 while this year’s rotation has pitched to no better than a 3.84 mark in any single month.

You simply can’t expect to sustain success when your starters have been nearly an entire run worse per nine innings than they were a year ago. When you strip away the names and perceptions, the offensive numbers and bullpen ERA are very similar to 2014 while the starting rotation has woefully fallen short of last year’s pace.

Entering Tuesday, the Orioles had scored three or fewer runs in 46 percent of their games this season and held a 9-54 record under such circumstances. A year ago, Baltimore scored three or fewer 44.4 percent of the time and was 21-51 in those games.

Say what you will about the offensive struggles putting pressure on the pitcher, but it’s a two-way street when only one member of the starting rotation holds an ERA below 4.00. The offense has prompted much hair-pulling over significant stretches of 2015, but the times when Orioles starters have picked up the lineup have been few and far between.

Even if Dan Duquette anticipated the Orioles offense matching last year’s overall run production, he failed in leaving no margin for error for a rotation that exceeded expectations in 2014. That said, even the executive’s biggest detractors couldn’t have expected the starting pitching to be quite this poor.

Short of the Orioles making a marquee signing for an ace such as 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, few called for Duquette to make significant changes to the rotation this offseason after such a strong 2014. Less than a year later, the Orioles are left wondering who will even fit into the 2016 equation.

Tillman sports an ERA above 5.00 after three straight years of pitching to a 3.71 mark or better to establish himself as the club’s de facto ace.

After three straight years as a reliable starter, Miguel Gonzalez has been a disaster since late June and is currently on the disabled list.

Kevin Gausman was not only mishandled at the beginning of the season, but the 24-year-old hasn’t been able to build on a 2014 season in which he posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts.

A 15-game winner a year ago, Bud Norris didn’t even make it to August with a 7.06 ERA.

Ubaldo Jimenez has followed the narrative of most of his career with a strong first half (2.81 ERA) followed by a 6.88 ERA since the All-Star break, but there has been no attractive option to replace him like there was with Gausman last year.

Wei-Yin Chen is the only starter you can feel good about this season, but even he has allowed a club-leading 28 home runs. On top of that, the Taiwanese lefty is set to become a free agent at the end of the year and appears unlikely to return.

It’s easy to say the Orioles would be fine if they still had Cruz and Markakis — they’ve clearly been missed — but the story of last year’s 96-win club was more about a starting rotation that took off over the final four months of the season than offensive firepower. At a time when the Orioles needed to bear down this season, the starting rotation has instead saved its worst performance for August (5.23 ERA) and September (8.76 in the first six starts).

Most of the attention has naturally remained on an inconsistent offense after such a failure of an offseason, but the starting rotation that picked up the Orioles a year ago has instead helped hammer the final nails into the coffin for 2015.

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