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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 2-1 defeat to New York

Posted on 19 July 2016 by Luke Jones

What went wrong in the Orioles’ 2-1 defeat to the New York Yankees on Monday night?

In trying to identify the top three losing factors with the addition of home plate for any not-so-honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 91st game of the 2016 season.

1st — Yankees starter Ivan Nova deserves credit for his six strong innings, but he entered the night with a 5.18 season ERA and the Orioles are still waiting for their bats to wake up in July. They made the right-hander work over the first four innings by driving up his pitch count to 75 through four innings, but Baltimore stranded six runners over those four frames with Jonathan Schoop providing a solo home run in the third for the lone run of the night. Of course, the Orioles’ chances then plummeted against the intimidating trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman. They went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position with Pedro Alvarez leaving the bases loaded and a runner at second in his first two at-bats. The one run was the club’s lowest output since being shut out by Seattle on May 17. Expecting the Orioles to sustain what they did offensively in their historic June would be unfair, but they’re now hitting just .253 and averaging an underwhelming 3.7 runs per game in 13 July contests.

2nd — It may have only been the fourth inning, but Nolan Reimold’s baserunning gaffe short-circuited a promising scoring opportunity for the top of the order. He slipped after rounding second base on Ryan Flaherty’s single inside the third-base bag with one out, but Reimold was way too far off the base anyway on a ball that Yankees third baseman Chase Headley recovered quickly. Instead of having runners at first and second with one out for Adam Jones and then the red-hot Schoop, the miscue left only Flaherty on second with two outs. The bailout was the precursor to Nova retiring the final seven hitters he faced before turning a 2-1 lead over to the back end of the New York bullpen.

3rd — Kevin Gausman turned in a very good outing that lacked proper run support, but the long ball continues to be a problem for the young right-hander as he allowed a solo shot to the struggling Alex Rodriguez in the second inning. It’s hard to fault Gausman too much as he retired 12 of the final 13 hitters he faced and allowed just two runs and six hits in his 6 2/3 innings, but the 25-year-old has now allowed a team-high 16 homers in his 93 1/3 innings this season. Thirteen of those have come in his last 56 2/3 innings — an ugly 2.06 per nine innings over that stretch — after he surrendered only three in his first 36 2/3 innings of 2016. The long ball is the biggest factor holding Gausman back as he’s improved both his strikeout and walk rates from a year ago, but he clearly deserved much better from his offense on Monday night.

Home — It was probably a long shot to throw out the speedy Brett Gardner at the plate, but center fielder Adam Jones’ throw on Brian McCann’s sacrifice fly in the third inning was uncharacteristically poor as it bounced multiple times to the plate and skipped past the cutoff man. … The Orioles have lost each of the last 10 series openers at Yankee Stadium, a stretch dating back to the start of 2013. Their club record of scoring at least two runs in 53 consecutive games was snapped. … Schoop’s homer was his 16th of the season, matching his career high set in 2014. … Manager Buck Showalter told reporters after the game that Matt Wieters would have an X-ray after being hit on his right foot by a Nova pitch in the first inning. The catcher played the entire game. … Chris Davis was unavailable after being hospitalized with a stomach virus on Sunday night while Hyun Soo Kim remained sidelined with a hamstring injury. … Vance Worley will make his first start since April 15 when he takes the ball against Yankees right-hander Nathan Eovaldi on Tuesday night.

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Kim goes into All-Star break with hamstring injury

Posted on 10 July 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles hit the All-Star break with a two-game lead in the American League East, but they will now keep their fingers crossed regarding the health of an important member of their lineup.

Left fielder Hyun Soo Kim exited Sunday’s game after straining his right hamstring running out a grounder in the first inning of the 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels. Having emerged as the regular No. 2 hitter against right-handed pitching, Kim is hitting .329 with a club-leading .410 on-base percentage in 173 plate appearances.

Further testing will determine the severity of the injury on Monday.

Joey Rickard took over in left field on Sunday and could potentially share duties with veteran Nolan Reimold if Kim were to miss time when the Orioles resume action at Tampa Bay on Friday night. Kim described experiencing “a stinging pain” and told manager Buck Showalter that he sustained a similar injury right before the All-Star break while playing in Korea and was ready to return after only a couple days.

Despite his well-documented struggles in spring training that resulted in the Orioles trying to send him to the minors, Kim became a regular in late May after receiving just 33 plate appearances over the first 43 games of the season. In his 140 plate appearances beginning on May 25, Kim batted .317 with three home runs, nine doubles, 15 runs, 14 walks, and a .400 OBP.

Last December, the Orioles signed the left-handed hitter to a two-year, $7 million contract that included a provision requiring his approval to be sent to the minors.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 4-3 loss to Rangers

Posted on 21 June 2016 by Luke Jones

What went wrong in the Orioles’ 4-3 defeat to the Texas Rangers on Monday night?

In trying to identify the top three losing factors with the addition of home plate for any not-so-honorable mentions and other notes, we go around the bases after the 69th game of the 2016 season.

1st — On a night when the Orioles banged out 15 hits, the game turned when they squandered a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the third inning. Leading 3-0 and threatening to break the game open against Texas starter Derek Holland, Baltimore came away with nothing despite a Mark Trumbo walk and consecutive singles by Matt Wieters and Jonathan Schoop to start the inning. J.J. Hardy struck out on a pitch in the dirt and Nolan Reimold grounded into an inning-ending double play. It was all Rangers after that despite the opportunities being abundant for the Orioles, who left 12 runners on base and went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position over the course of the night.

2nd — Kevin Gausman was carrying good stuff on Monday, but questionable choices in pitch selection and location doomed him in the deciding three-run fourth. It’s one thing to miss with location as the right-hander did on Ian Desmond’s long solo home run an inning earlier, but you have to question why Gausman continued to throw outside fastballs — and why Wieters continued calling for them — to No. 9 hitter Bobby Wilson without once challenging him inside. Despite getting ahead 0-2, Gausman couldn’t put the light-hitting catcher away and Wilson hit a sacrifice fly on the 10th pitch of the at-bat. Gausman followed that by throwing a hanging breaking ball to Shin-Soo Choo for the deciding two-run single after the lefty hitter hadn’t gotten around on his fastball all night. As was the case against Boston last week, Gausman’s stuff was too good to get such underwhelming results.

3rd — Despite Texas entering the night ranked 14th in the American League in bullpen ERA, the Orioles couldn’t get to Rangers relievers after knocking Holland out of the game in the fifth. Neither Shawn Tolleson nor Tony Barnette had pitched well of late, but the Orioles didn’t push a single runner into scoring position despite four hits against the pair in 3 2/3 innings. Ironically, Baltimore threatened against tough closer Sam Dyson by putting runners on the corners in the ninth, but Wieters struck out and Schoop grounded out to end the game with the tying run on third base.

Home — In addition to grounding into a double play with the bases loaded in the third, Reimold struck out twice with a runner on base and was thrown out at second on a failed hit-and-run. His lone hit of the night was a single to lead off the sixth. … Every Orioles starter collected at least one hit on the night. The 15 hits tied for their third-highest number of the season, but the three runs were their lowest total in a game in which they had collected at least 12 hits this season. … Dylan Bundy tossed three perfect innings with three strikeouts in relief of Gausman to save the rest of the bullpen. … Baltimore returns home to play its first interleague series of the year Tuesday with Tyler Wilson squaring off against San Diego’s Luis Perdomo.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 6-4 win over Indians

Posted on 29 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 6-4 win over the Cleveland Indians on Sunday afternoon?

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 48th game of the 2016 season.

1stDarren O’Day couldn’t have inherited a much worse spot in the eighth with runners on second and third and no outs and the Orioles clinging to a one-run lead. Instead of wilting under the pressure, the 2015 All-Star reliever proceeded to retire Mike Napoli on a grounder to third and strike out both Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes swinging to end the inning with the lead intact. Manager Buck Showalter revealed after the game that he was trying to stay away from his reliever because he was under the weather, but O’Day couldn’t have come up bigger for the Orioles on Sunday.

2ndHyun Soo Kim picked the perfect time for his first major league homer, hammering a Jeff Manship fastball into the right-field seats to give Baltimore a 5-4 lead in the seventh. In what was his fifth consecutive start, the South Korean outfielder continued to take advantage of his increased opportunities by also drawing a walk out of the second spot in the order. We still don’t know whether Kim can be an everyday player in the majors, but his .383 average and .463 on-base percentage have provided quite the argument for Showalter to continue penciling his name into the lineup.

3rdMark Trumbo provided the immediate lift that the Orioles needed after Saturday’s deflating loss by crushing a three-run double off rookie Mike Clevinger in the top of the first inning. After scuffling for much of the road trip, Trumbo hit a big two-run blast on Friday and drove in half of the Orioles’ runs on Sunday to close out the weekend series at Progressive Field.

HomeNolan Reimold hit his fourth homer of the season in the top of the ninth off former Oriole Tommy Hunter to make it a 6-4 game. Considering Zach Britton allowed back-to-back singles to begin the bottom of the ninth, Reimold’s homer provided some much-needed breathing room. … Britton quickly settled down to collect his 14th save in as many tries this season. … Despite allowing a season-high three homers on the afternoon, Tillman collected his seventh win of the year. … In his 66th plate appearance of the season, Ryan Flaherty hit a sacrifice fly in the fourth for his first RBI of 2016. … It was downright ugly at times, but the Orioles could feel better about a 4-5 road trip with Sunday’s win to give them series wins in two of the three cities in which they played. … Baltimore returns to Camden Yards on Monday afternoon to take on the first-place Boston Red Sox with Tyler Wilson scheduled to take on knuckleballer Steven Wright.

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Old concern surfaces for Orioles in extra-inning loss

Posted on 25 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Tuesday’s loss in Houston offered a glimpse at the major concern many had for the Orioles lineup in 2016.

Yes, the Orioles would hit home runs — their only scoring in the 3-2 defeat came on solo shots by Pedro Alvarez and Manny Machado — but the fear was that they’d strike out far too often, especially with the offseason additions of Mark Trumbo and Alvarez to an offense that finished third in the AL in strikeouts in 2015. On Tuesday, Baltimore did exactly that in striking out a season-high 19 times in the 13-inning defeat with 16 coming against the Astros bullpen over the final eight frames.

You wouldn’t know it watching the series opener at Minute Maid Park, but strikeouts really haven’t been the problem many anticipated so far this season. Even after the poor showing on Tuesday, the Orioles ranked a respectable eighth in the AL in strikeouts, a far cry from the predictions of them leading the league in both long balls and whiffs this season.

However, the last three games have brought concern with an unsettling total of 40 strikeouts. In fact, two of their three worst games of the season in the strikeout department took place on Tuesday (19) and Saturday (13).

Many of the strikeouts came at crucial times as Ryan Flaherty, Matt Wieters, and Joey Rickard each struck out with runners in scoring position to end innings. In the 12th, Adam Jones and Chris Davis whiffed against former teammate Scott Feldman with runners at first and second.

Unfortunately with the powerful Orioles lineup, you have to take the bad with the good. It’s easy to say no good can come from a strikeout, but plenty of bad can still take place from making contact such as hitting into a double play or having a lead runner thrown out on the bases, realities that make me less concerned than others over strikeouts — to a point.

It was unequivocally maddening for Orioles bats not be able to at least put the ball in play in a winnable game in which Chris Tillman pitched very well over seven innings and three of their top four relievers — Darren O’Day, Brad Brach, and Mychal Givens — combined to throw five shutout innings and 68 pitches.

You can only hope it’s more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.

Missing Hardy

Machado has filled in admirably at shortstop in place of the injured J.J. Hardy, but the Orioles have received nothing offensively at third base as Flaherty’s average fell to .189 after an 0-for-4 night.

Remembering Flaherty had hit a respectable .248 with a .713 on-base plus slugging percentage filling in for the injured Jonathan Schoop through July 4 of last year, I thought the utility infielder would provide some offense to help fill the void of Hardy, who isn’t exactly the same hitter he was a few years ago anyway. However, even with regular playing time, Flaherty has looked completely lost at the plate with a .491 OPS and a team-worst 31.7 percent strikeout rate entering Wednesday.

Since last year’s All-Star break, Flaherty has hit .156 with a .530 OPS in 178 plate appearances.

He has played good defense at third base, but it says a lot when fans are clamoring for the light-hitting Paul Janish to play over him.

Revisiting left field

Rickard continues to serve as the everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter despite a .683 OPS on the season and a .208 average since April 22.

Make no mistake, he’s been a nice find as a Rule 5 pick and shouldn’t be buried at the end of the bench, but why Nolan Reimold continues to receive so little playing time when he provides some on-base ability and power that could even be used in Rickard’s place at the top of the lineup is perplexing. I understand and agree that you’d rather not have Machado in the leadoff spot to better utilize his power, but a .309 on-base percentage from Rickard isn’t doing much to help the two-time All-Star selection hitting in the second spot, either.

It also speaks volumes that Hyun Soo Kim couldn’t draw a start against soft-tossing opposing starters Jered Weaver and Doug Fister over the last two games. He’s gone 2-for-14 in May with just four starts.

Even if you don’t buy the unfavorable defensive metrics for Rickard in the outfield, he isn’t so much better than Reimold in the outfield to justify him continuing to be in the lineup every day with his struggles at the plate. At the very least, manager Buck Showalter should strongly consider dropping Rickard in the order.

Bundy struggling

Plenty of fans continue to clamor for Dylan Bundy to start — especially with Ubaldo Jimenez’s intense struggles in May — but the young pitcher has allowed seven earned runs over his last 4 1/3 innings to raise his season ERA to 5.09.

The good news is that Bundy has stayed healthy, but the idea of him becoming a fixture in the rotation this season just isn’t feasible since he isn’t stretched out and isn’t really performing how a starter would need to. At the very least, you’d like to see him be able to consistently perform in some higher-leverage situations at some point this season.

The most disappointing aspect of his performance has been the inability to strike out batters as he’s fanned only nine in 17 2/3 innings. His average fastball has been 93.2 miles per hour, which isn’t bad but is hardly the kind of velocity that makes you salivate about his potential as a starter, either.

Tuesday night was a near-impossible spot for the young right-hander after he allowed a leadoff triple in the bottom of the 13th, but his performance hasn’t suggested he’s close to being ready to be a starter.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 1-0 win over Yankees

Posted on 06 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 1-0 win over the New York Yankees in 10 innings on Thursday 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 27th game of the 2016 season.

1stKevin Gausman was brilliant in the best start of his career as he tossed eight shutout innings — matching his longest start in the majors — and retired 23 of the 26 hitters he faced in a throwback duel with Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. The 25-year-old right-hander masterfully used his split-changeup against a lineup featuring seven hitters from the left side of the plate, and all four of his strikeouts came on that pitch. In a game in which Gausman’s fastball velocity wasn’t great early, he relied more on his two-seam fastball to induce 10 grounders. However, his velocity improved as the game progressed and his fastball was hitting the mid-90s in his final inning of work. Gausman said after the game that he feels more comfortable than ever this season and is no longer questioning his ability to succeed in the majors. His game score of 80 was the highest of his career and he lowered his season ERA to 1.42, more evidence that the young starter is feeling at peace in the major league rotation. The win is an overrated and antiquated stat for pitchers, but it was a shame that Gausman didn’t walk away with one after that effort.

2ndPedro Alvarez owned a career .201 average and a .596 on-base plus slugging percentage in his career against left-handed pitching, but the former Pittsburgh Pirate provided the game-winning sacrifice fly off Yankees closer Andrew Miller to plate the winning run in the 10th. You could argue that Buck Showalter should have used Nolan Reimold as a pinch hitter for Alvarez instead of as a pinch runner for Hyun Soo Kim at third base, but it worked out for the Orioles manager and his club.

3rdZach Britton pitched for the first time since injuring his left ankle on Saturday and impressively struck out the side after a rocky start in the top of the 10th in which he walked the leadoff hitter. His command was erratic as he threw six straight balls to begin the inning, but Britton was able to whiff Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Dustin Ackley to retire the side.

HomeJonathan Schoop had a multi-hit game, and it was his single that advanced Kim to third base with no outs in the bottom of the 10th. The second baseman extended his hitting streak to eight games. … Kim went 1-for-3 with a walk and has hit safely in six of his seven games this season. … The Orioles won two out of three from the Yankees despite scoring only five runs in the series and suffering through 21 straight innings without scoring a run until Reimold scored the winning run on Thursday night. They earned their third walk-off win of 2016 and are now 2-0 in extra innings this season. … Ubaldo Jimenez goes to the hill on Friday as Baltimore begins a three-game series with the Oakland Athletics, who will start ex-Orioles lefty Rich Hill.

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Like weather, Orioles waiting for rest of lineup to heat up

Posted on 05 May 2016 by Luke Jones

Perhaps the Orioles offense is waiting for the weather to feel more like Baltimore in early May and less like Seattle as it has during the current homestand and for much of the season.

The overall numbers look mostly great as they rank sixth in the AL in runs, fifth in hits, third in home runs, third in batting average, second in on-base percentage, and first in slugging percentage, but that reflects how much an MVP-like performance from Manny Machado and a white-hot start from Mark Trumbo have carried the Orioles through the first month of the season. Chris Davis and Jonathan Schoop have had their moments — as did J.J. Hardy before his unfortunate injury — but virtually all hitters not named Machado or Trumbo are failing to pull their weight.

Manager Buck Showalter can’t rely on those two to do it all year while the rest of the order struggles to get going.

“That’s kind of been the way things have been going for us lately,” said Davis, whose on-base plus slugging percentage dipped to .795 on Wednesday. “We’ve had a few games where we’ve been able to score some runs early and capitalize on those opportunities, but for the most part, we’re not getting the job done when we have runners in scoring position.

“The biggest thing to remember is to stay the course. We’re playing really good ball defensively. I think we’re throwing the ball well and keeping ourselves in the game. We all know the bats are going to heat up when the weather [stops] raining and [being] cold and it warms up a little bit.”

Joey Rickard was the feel-good story of the spring, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify his .304 on-base percentage remaining in the lineup every day, let alone in the leadoff spot. Despite much praise for his defense this spring, the 24-year-old has also struggled in the outfield at minus-seven defensive runs saved, creating more reason to see less of him and more of Nolan Reimold or even Hyun Soo Kim.

Burying Rickard on the bench would be premature, but lowering him in the lineup might be appropriate, even if Machado is the only viable alternative to lead off and you’d rather keep him in the No. 2 spot.

The catching tandem of Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph have combined to hit .217 with one home run and a .577 OPS. A $15.8 million salary for Wieters wasn’t going to suddenly transform him into the type of hitter many hoped he would be at the start of his career, but his .588 OPS is sub-replacement level and dramatically below his career .740 mark and Joseph (.485) has been even worse.

Pedro Alvarez has warmed up recently, but the former Pittsburgh Pirate still hasn’t shown enough to justify the Orioles spending $5.75 million on him this spring.

However, the biggest early-season concern is veteran center fielder Adam Jones, who is batting .205 with just one homer. He’s grounded into more double plays (seven) than he has extra-base hits (five) through his first 87 plate appearances.

Of course, Jones is a famously streaky hitter and has gone through extended dry spells before, but these struggles coming off the rib injury that cost him a week early in the season make you wonder if he’s truly healthy — or at least healthy enough to be himself. The 30-year-old would never use an injury as an excuse, but the Orioles need Jones to be his usual strong presence in the middle of the order.

His 75.4 percent contact rate is perfectly in line with his career average, but he’s hitting more ground balls (57.4 percent of balls put in play compared to 47.9 percent in his career) and fewer line drives (9.8 percent to 18.4 percent for his career), suggesting that he could be struggling to elevate the ball with authority. However, FanGraphs has tracked 33.9 percent of his balls in play being hard contact, which is in line with his 31.8 percent career average. His average exit velocity of 92.4 miles per hour is also better than last year’s 88.9 mph, creating more hope that Jones is just in an early-season funk.

“He’s not the only one, but we know there are some good things ahead,” said Showalter after Wednesday’s 7-0 loss in which Jones went 0-for-3 and the Orioles went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. “Like good hitters with good track records and things that he’s done for us, some [opponent] will pay. He’s a little frustrated by it, but I know Adam. We’ve seen it a lot where he’s gone through some periods like a lot of good hitters do and he’ll get it going.

“He’ll get it going.”

Showalter hopes that several members of his lineup heat up sooner than later — along with the weather.

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“Rounding the Bases” in Orioles’ 3-1 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 27 April 2016 by Luke Jones

Who stood out in the Orioles’ 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays 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 20th game of the 2016 season.

1stChris Tillman was terrific as he turned in his deepest outing of the year with 6 2/3 shutout innings and struck out nine to match his career high. The right-hander only allowed four baserunners as Rays hitters consistently struggled to make contact with eight of his nine strikeouts coming on swings. The biggest moment of his night came in the fourth inning when he struck out Chris Dickerson on a 95 mph fastball with runners on second and third and one out and then got Desmond Jennings to fly out to retire the side. Tillman hasn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher in his career, but his velocity is up so far this season and it was good to see him reach back for a little extra against Dickerson in such a big spot. He also effectively used his slider and curveball to miss bats as the night progressed. If not for the fact that he had a rested bullpen, manager Buck Showalter could have gone a little deeper with Tillman, who struck out four of the last six batters he faced and threw 101 pitches.

2ndJoey Rickard brought a sigh of relief to the Orioles dugout when he smacked a three-run shot into the left-field seats off Matt Moore with two outs in the top of the fifth inning. The Orioles had scored only one run in their previous 30 innings before the Rule 5 pick hit his second home run of the season. It would prove to be all the Orioles would need and the rest of the lineup took that literally as Tampa Ray retired 13 in a row after Rickard’s blast. The clutch hit snapped a 2-for-22 slump for the young outfielder.

3rdBrad Brach pitched a scoreless eighth inning despite a two-out walk and has now allowed only one run in his 13 1/3 innings to begin the 2016 season. The right-hander entered Wednesday holding left-handed hitters to a .158 average before retiring all three lefties he faced in the inning. That’s as good as any lefty specialist many clubs would typically use in such a situation.

Home — In addition to making a sliding catch in the third inning, Nolan Reimold worked a four-pitch walk with two outs and nobody on in the fifth to begin the rally that culminated with Rickard’s home run. … Pitching for the first time since April 21, Darren O’Day retired Steven Souza Jr. for the final out of the seventh and has yet to be scored upon through his first nine appearances of 2016. … Adam Jones went 0-for-4 and is now hitting .196 on the season. … Chris Davis was also hitless, but he was robbed of an extra-base hit in the fourth when Souza made a tremendous diving catch on the warning track in right-center. … Beginning a stretch of 17 of their next 20 games at home on Thursday night, the Orioles will send Tyler Wilson to the hill to open a four-game set against lefty John Danks and the Chicago White Sox.

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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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