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Pearce trying to snap out of early-season slump

Posted on 25 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — While the Orioles were trying to snap their longest losing streak since 2013 on Saturday night, Steve Pearce continues to fight his own struggles to begin the 2015 campaign.

Starting only once in the club’s last seven games, the 32-year-old is trying to recapture the magic that made him one of the best stories of the 2014 season. After hitting a career-high 21 home runs and posting a club-best .930 on-base plus slugging percentage in 383 plate appearances last year, Pearce appeared ready to pick up where he left off with two homers in the first two games of the 2015 season, which followed a strong spring performance. Since starting the year with three hits in his first five at-bats, however, Pearce has gone 5-for-41 with 12 strikeouts, dropping his average to .167 and his OPS to .551.

The activation of the hot-hitting Jimmy Paredes and Pearce’s struggles have largely left the latter on the bench. But Pearce can’t fault manager Buck Showalter for going with hotter hitters in recent days.

“I’ve been like a one-man rally-killer these past weeks,” Pearce said. “It’s just been frustrating, and I think Buck sees that I’m very frustrated. I’m not swinging the bat like I’m capable of doing. But baseball comes around; it always does. I just want to get back to where I know I can play.”

Pearce offered signs of snapping out of his slump Friday night with two strong at-bats off the bench against the Boston bullpen. Hitting for left field Alejandro De Aza in the bottom of the seventh, the right-handed hitter quickly fell behind 0-2 against Alexi Ogando before coaxing a walk in an eight-pitch at-bat to load the bases. Then, facing Red Sox closer Koji Uehara in the ninth, Pearce ripped an 0-2 pitch into the left-field corner for a long single.

The Orioles dropped their fifth consecutive game in a 7-5 final, but the flashes from Pearce are an encouraging development, especially when he was identified by executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter as a big reason why the Orioles could endure the offseason departures of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. Despite starting Saturday’s game on the bench once again, Pearce was happy to get a return for the behind-the-scenes work he’s completed in recent days.

“It definitely builds some confidence, but I’m working every day and working hard,” Pearce said. “Just mechanically, I want to get right and help the team get back on the right track.”

Seeing Pearce relegated to reserve duties for such an extended time is surprising considering his struggles have come in a small sample size.

His success from last year has allowed him to remain confident, but the journeyman outfielder and first baseman even recalls similar struggles in 2014 that weren’t magnified like they are now at the start of a new season. From July 6 through Aug. 16 of last year, Pearce batted just .167 with one homer and a .504 OPS in 82 plate appearances.

He bounced back to post an 1.144 OPS with 10 home runs over his final 118 plate appearances of the regular season.

“It helps a lot. I know I can play at this level,” said Pearce about drawing inspiration from 2014. “I went through the same period last year. I think it was after the All-Star break that I struggled exactly like this. I know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

 

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Jones, Orioles don No. 42 jerseys for Jackie Robinson Day

Posted on 15 April 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Taking part in his eighth Jackie Robinson Day at the major league level, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones still cherishes the opportunity to wear the iconic No. 42 jersey.

On Wednesday, Major League Baseball celebrated the 68th anniversary of the former Brooklyn Dodgers infielder breaking the color barrier. Just like the Orioles and the opposing New York Yankees, all uniformed personnel around the majors wore Robinson’s jersey number.

“It’s awesome. It’s bringing unity to the game,” Jones said. “This game has extreme reach due to some bravery by Jackie back in those heydays of the [1940s]. As you see in our society, racism is still there, obviously, in bigger scales than the sport of baseball. Baseball is something that unites anyone. It doesn’t matter what you are: black, white, or indifferent. It unites us as you can see how our game is very international and our clubhouse is international. This is one thing that brings us together, and that’s sports.”

Jones spent the morning as part of the panel evaluating a “self-expression” contest with the Westport Homes Boys & Girls Club. Members were challenged to express their thoughts creatively through a speech, poem, art, or skit about Robinson’s values for success, which included “citizenship, commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence, and teamwork.”

The anniversary of Robinson’s first game in the majors always sparks discussion about the waning popularity of baseball among African-American youth, but Jones doesn’t view himself as an ambassador to simply grow the sport’s popularity. He credited the ongoing efforts of groups such as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, but he’s more concerned with young people just finding positive ways to spend their time.

Jones has spent time and resources over the last several years to assist the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore with him and the Orioles donating more than $100,000 toward the improvement of the Brooklyn O’Malley Boys & Girls Club Technology and Learning Center and the remodeling of the teen center at the Boys & Girls Club, Westport/Winans Homes Center.

“I’ve even told my nephews, ‘You don’t necessarily have to play baseball,'” said Jones, citing how so many different sports are available for youth to play today. “I’m not trying to get all African Americans to play baseball. I’m trying to get them to do something productive with themselves. Playing a sport is something that bonds you and creates so many lifetime bonds with people that you never would have had if you don’t play sports.”

The day brings special meaning for manager Buck Showalter as he remembers stories from his former minor league pitching coach Russ Meyer, who played with Robinson from 1953-1955. The late Meyer recalled to Showalter the great courage and dignity Robinson possessed both on and off the field.

The celebration is also a reminder of baseball’s ugly history in which African Americans waited for decades to prove they belonged in the majors.

“It makes me proud that we are having this special day,” Showalter said. “It doesn’t make me particularly proud when you think about how long it took.”

Hardy takes batting practice for first time

Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy reached the final hurdle before going on a minor-league rehab assignment after taking batting practice for the first time since injuring his left shoulder on April 27.

Hardy took 18 swings in live batting practice on Wednesday and is expected to hit again at Camden Yards on Thursday before potentially going on a rehab assignment to Double-A Bowie. But that all depends on how the left shoulder responds as he has still experienced a “little catch” at the very end of his follow-through.

The 32-year-old infielder says it’s been tricky differentiating soreness related to the shoulder strain from normal soreness that comes from not swinging a bat for an extended period of time.

Hoping to be playing with Bowie as early as Friday, Hardy doesn’t anticipating needing many at-bats in order to get ready to rejoin the Orioles since he was healthy for most of spring training.

Pearce, Davis scuffling

After a red-hot start to the season that included two home runs in his first two games, Steve Pearce was out of Wednesday’s lineup while mired in a 2-for-26 slump that includes eight strikeouts over that time.

Pearce has already played both corner outfield spots and first base as well as serve as the designated hitter in the Orioles lineup this season, but he started a game on the bench for the first time since last year.

The right-handed hitter isn’t the only one struggling at the plate as first baseman Chris Davis has only one hit in his last 14 at-bats and has struck out nine times over that stretch. He was dropped to sixth in the order against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia on Tuesday, but he batted fifth on Wednesday night.

Injury updates

Catcher Matt Wieters (right elbow) threw from 120 feet, caught three bullpen sessions as well as the starting pitcher, and had five at-bats in a simulated game in Sarasota on Wednesday.

Utility player Jimmy Paredes (lower back) played right field in an extended spring game in Sarasota and will now travel back to Baltimore. He is expected to meet with Showalter and take batting practice at Camden Yards on Thursday and could report to Bowie later that evening or by Friday to begin a rehab assignment.

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Numbers behind Orioles’ 6-5 win over Tampa Bay

Posted on 08 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A 6-0 lead through two innings typically leads to a relaxing night of baseball, but it was anything but that for the Orioles Tuesday as they held on for dear life in an eventual 6-5 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite being staked to the early lead, starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled his way through 4 1/3 innings as his fastball velocity was down and he lacked his normal crispness with his off-speed pitches. Kevin Gausman worked 2 1/3 innings in relief to earn the victory, but the right-hander allowed a two-run shot off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier in the sixth to make it a one-run game.

Instead of a night in cruise control for the Orioles, the pitching staff consistently found deep counts and needed a whopping 176 pitches to secure the victory, including a combined 42 from Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. With O’Day (24 combined pitches) and Britton (42 total pitches) having pitched in each of the first two games and potentially unavailable for the series finale, the Orioles will need a strong outing from No. 3 starter Miguel Gonzalez.

Fortunately, Baltimore will receive a day off to rest up before the home opener at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday afternoon.

* One of the biggest questions facing Steve Pearce in his quest to prove his 2014 campaign wasn’t a fluke will be whether he can sustain the success against right-handed pitching that he found a year ago.

The soon-to-be 32-year-old owns an underwhelming career .700 on-base slugging percentage against right-handers, but that’s including his .856 mark in 272 plate appearances last year. Pearce has always hit southpaw pitching well (a career .878 OPS), which is the main reason why major league clubs continued to give him opportunities despite a reputation as a “Quad-A” player over his first eight major league seasons.

The all-too-early verdict in 2015 has been encouraging to say the least as Pearce has clubbed two homers against right-handed pitching in two games.

It’s remarkable to think how important Pearce has become to this club after he was designated for assignment less than 12 months ago.

* When he acquired outfielder Travis Snider from Pittsburgh in late January, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette cited his strong second half in 2014 as a sign that the former first-round pick had finally begun realizing his potential.

After the All-Star break last year, the former Pirate posted an .880 OPS with nine homers and 24 RBIs. Small sample size alert aside, Snider has reached base in seven of eight trips to the plate and already has three RBIs in two games.

The Orioles hope Snider is just hitting his stride at age 27 and can give them good production this season for a fraction of what Nick Markakis commanded in free agency.

So far, so good.

* You think Chris Davis was eager to make his 2015 debut and play in his first real game since Sept. 10, 2014?

Serving as the designated hitter on Tuesday, Davis swung at six of the first seven pitches he saw in his first two at-bats and appeared too anxious early in the game. However, his best at-bat came in the eighth when he flied to deep right after a nine-pitch encounter with Rays right-hander Kevin Jepsen.

Davis finished 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning.

It goes without saying how critical a bounce-back season from Davis would be in replacing the power production left behind by Nelson Cruz. And it’s even more critical for the 29-year-old’s future as he’s set to become a free agent this coming offseason.

* The Orioles collected six runs and five hits over the first two innings against Tampa Bay starter Nathan Karns, but Everth Cabrera had their only hit the rest of the way as he collected a single in the top of the seventh.

Yes, the pitching staff should have been better in minimizing stress after an early six-run lead, but the offense essentially checked out after Pearce’s two-run homer in the second.

 

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Offseason script works perfectly for Orioles in opener

Posted on 06 April 2015 by Luke Jones

The Orioles couldn’t have followed a much better script for their season-opening 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.

After hearing concerns all winter about how the club would replace the production of outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, a trio of Orioles did everything they could to quell concerns for at least the first day of the season.

Becoming the first Opening Day right fielder for the Orioles not named Markakis since Jay Gibbons in 2006, Travis Snider collected three hits and two RBIs while also gunning down a runner at the plate and making a diving catch in the outfield. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette hopes Snider can finally realize his potential as a former first-round pick and give the Orioles similar production to the former right fielder for a fraction of the price Atlanta paid.

It was a pretty good impression of the longtime right fielder in his club debut.

The man who replaced Markakis in the leadoff spot, Alejandro De Aza, delivered a two-run homer off Rays starter Chris Archer to conclude a 10-pitch at-bat in the fifth to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. De Aza only went 1-for-5 and struck out three times, but he saw an impressive 31 pitches in five plate appearances, which is the patience Baltimore is seeking in a leadoff hitter.

Filling in for Chris Davis at first base, Steve Pearce took an encouraging first step in trying to prove his surprising 2014 season wasn’t a fluke by hitting a solo shot in the sixth. Baltimore is banking on his production to go a long way in helping ease the loss of Cruz’s power production while expecting other established stars — Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, and Davis — to bounce back from injuries or down 2014 campaigns.

The winning formula on Monday was reminiscent of last year as the Orioles clubbed three home runs and received a strong outing from ace Chris Tillman, who allowed one earned run in 6 2/3 innings. The right-hander has now allowed three or fewer earned runs in 21 of his last 22 regular-season starts going back to early June of 2014.

The Orioles won their fifth consecutive season opener on Monday, but what does a Day 1 win really mean for the remainder of 2015? Baltimore’s longest run in franchise history was winning seven straight openers from 1970-1976, which came in the midst of the glory days. The second-longest streak was six consecutive season-opening wins from 2001-2006, days that could be described as anything but glorious.

Yes, it’s only one of 162, but a win always feels good on Opening Day.

Especially when it reflects the plan of success laid out in the offseason.

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Five things that can’t happen for 2015 Orioles

Posted on 03 April 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s funny how we annually try to pinpoint absolutes in assessing what must go right or what can’t go wrong for the Orioles to have a successful season.

There are very few absolutes on which you can count over the course of a 162-game schedule. Look no further than last year to realize just how true that can be.

You might have predicted last spring that nearly everything needed to go right for the Orioles to win their first American League East title in 17 years. Instead, they endured the absence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for most of the year, another season-ending knee injury to Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado, and an abysmal campaign from 2013 home run king Chris Davis that ended with a 25-man suspension for Adderall use.

If given a preview of only those subplots last spring, you would have been more inclined to predict a 96-loss campaign as opposed to 96 victories and winning the division by a dozen games.

You just never know and that’s what makes it fun, as manager Buck Showalter would say.

With that reality in mind, below is a stab at five things that can’t happen for the Orioles in 2015 after we looked at what factors must go right on Thursday. In an effort to avoid being redundant in the wake of the first piece, I avoided the polar opposites of the factors already discussed.

1. The worm turns on the health of the pitching

In addition to recapturing the success from last season, Orioles pitching would desperately like to extend its run of good fortune in the health department as only four pitchers — Tommy Hunter, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez –visited the 15-day disabled list in 2014. Of those four, only Jimenez spent more than 18 days on the DL and there was plenty of external debate over the severity of his ankle injury as he was in the midst of a disappointing season.

Injuries are a part of the game and it’d be difficult for the Orioles to expect that same level of health, but you can only hope the baseball gods don’t decide to exact revenge in 2015. Baltimore was one of only 10 teams in the majors last year to have four pitchers make 25 or more starts while only two clubs — Kansas City and Washington — had five pitchers make 25 or more.

The odds are not in the Orioles’ favor to repeat last year’s injury-light run as any given club has a 65 percent likelihood of having two starters ailing at the same time at some point in a season, according to FanGraphs. That reality makes it clear why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was so hesitant to part with any of the club’s top six starters this winter.

While many focused on the misfortune of the injuries suffered by Wieters and Machado last season, the rotation and the bullpen were as healthy as you could have hoped for on the way to 96 wins.

2. Corner outfield spots become a wasteland

It’s been impossible to escape the lamenting over the departure of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis this offseason as the Orioles weren’t willing to invest the combined $101 million that the pair received elsewhere in free agency. The veterans accounted for a total of 207 starts at the corner outfield spots that others will need to assume in 2015.

No two individuals will be expected to fill their roles exclusively as some combination of Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, Delmon Young, Travis Snider, David Lough, and possibly Nolan Reimold will receive early opportunities. Even if you thought Cruz and Markakis were overpaid, the Orioles still need to account for the 116 extra-base hits the two produced last year.

Of course, the club can reasonably expect better offensive returns from the likes of Davis, Machado, Wieters, and J.J. Hardy at their respective positions, but there’s a lot of unknown that Showalter will be facing in trying to pull the right strings with a cast of unproven or flawed characters flanking center fielder Adam Jones.

The Orioles don’t necessarily need the overwhelming success of platoons resembling the best days of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke, but poor production from the corner outfield spots is a recipe for a lineup likely struggling to score runs.

3. Matt Wieters is a shell of his old self defensively

There was a reason why I didn’t include Wieters having a bounce-back year as one of the things that must happen for the Orioles. The truth is they proved they could win without him last season.

Make no mistake, the Orioles would benefit from a better offensive catcher than Caleb Joseph, but a more uncomfortable proposition might be a Wieters behind the plate who is a shell of what he used to be defensively. If Wieters is fully cleared, Showalter will immediately reinstall him as the starter, but that doesn’t guarantee his defense will warrant him being the overwhelming regular, potentially creating an awkward situation.

Last season, Joseph produced 1.5 defensive wins above replacement — a better mark than Wieters in either of his last two full seasons — and the Orioles allowed the eighth-lowest total of stolen bases in the majors. For a club that prides itself in controlling the opponent’s running game, Wieters’ defense is more important than his offense.

Yes, it’s important to have Wieters back, but him returning as a defensive liability while also remembering that his on-base plus slugging percentage steadily declined from 2011 through 2013 would be worrisome. With a small number of catchers having undergone Tommy John surgery at the major league level over the years, it’s impossible to truly know what to expect.

4. Injuries continue to zap J.J. Hardy of his power

A back injury that lingered for much of the 2014 season limited the three-time Gold Glove shortstop to just nine home runs and a .372 slugging percentage, which is what made the news of a shoulder injury last week disheartening for the 32-year-old.

Hardy isn’t expected to miss much time, but the Orioles are counting on him to be part of the equation to fill the power void left behind by Cruz. Before Hardy signed a three-year, $40 million contract last fall, the organization had to be expecting a return to power numbers similar to what he posted in his first three years in Baltimore.

Back and shoulder issues for a shortstop on the wrong side of 30 are worrisome, especially when you’re counting on Hardy to hit a few more out of the ballpark this season. His defense is his best asset, but the Orioles need more than that while paying him an average of just over $13 million per season over the next three years.

5. The underwhelming offseason and the reality of 11 pending free agents create a tight clubhouse

Several players made no secret about their disappointment in this past offseason in watching the departures of Markakis, Cruz, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller while seeing minimal additions for the 2015 season. Duquette has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, but it’s human nature for veterans to be disappointed to see a longtime Oriole like Markakis depart.

On top of this, the club has 11 players currently slated to become free agents next offseason including position players such as Davis, Wieters, Pearce, De Aza, and Young and starting pitchers Norris and Wei-Yin Chen. That’s why many are viewing 2015 as the Orioles’ last chance to seriously contend for at least a couple years.

Showalter is as good as any manager in baseball in cultivating a loose clubhouse and strong player leadership remains despite Markakis’ departure, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to wonder if players might be too tight this season, especially if the club were to get off to a slow start.

And the memory of a disappointing four-game sweep in last year’s American League Championship Series could creep back into players’ psyche in the process.

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Five things that must go right for 2015 Orioles

Posted on 02 April 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s funny how we annually try to pinpoint absolutes in assessing what must go right or what cannot go wrong for the Orioles to have a successful season.

There are very few absolutes on which you can count over the course of a 162-game schedule. Look no further than last year to realize just how true that can be.

You might have predicted last spring that nearly everything needed to go right for the Orioles to win their first American League East title in 17 years. Instead, they endured the absence of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for most of the year, another season-ending knee injury to Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado, and an abysmal campaign from 2013 home run king Chris Davis that ended with a 25-man suspension for Adderall use.

If given a preview of only those subplots last spring, you would have been more inclined to predict a 96-loss campaign as opposed to 96 victories and winning the division by a dozen games.

You just never know and that’s what makes it fun, as manager Buck Showalter would say.

With that reality in mind, below is a stab at five things that must go right for the Orioles in 2015:

1. Starting pitchers continue to outperform their metrics

It’s no secret that many statheads and projections haven’t liked the Orioles over the last three years and for good reason. They haven’t looked the part of other winners in the 21st century as they hit home runs but don’t get on base at a high rate and their pitching doesn’t rely on the strikeout, which is one of the most expensive commodities in the game.

But where the Orioles excelled in 2014 was a starting rotation that took advantage of an exceptional defense behind it. Starters didn’t strike many out (11th in the AL) and walked too many (fourth-most in the AL) — the intense struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez certainly skewed the latter ranking — but pitching coach Dave Wallace preaches to his pitchers to trust their defense, which they did with great success as the season progressed.

After the All-Star break, the Orioles posted a starter ERA of 2.98 after a 4.09 mark in the season’s first half. Their starter strikeout numbers even improved from 6.5 to 7.4 per nine innings pitched.

Many are predicting a market correction for the Orioles pitching after they ranked third in the AL in ERA but only 11th in fielding independent pitching (FIP), which eliminates factors a pitcher can’t control such as his defense. The good news is Baltimore starters figure to once again have Gold Glove-caliber fielders behind them.

The starting pitching continuing to find success is the single-most important factor needed for the Orioles to not only preserve the bullpen for the later months but to contend for another playoff berth.

2. Manny Machado takes a (healthy) step forward

The questions about Wieters’ health will likely linger for much of the season, but the Orioles proved they could win without their All-Star catcher last season and Caleb Joseph has shown an ability to handle himself well from a defensive standpoint. Machado possesses the highest upside of any player in a lineup needing to replace Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.

He’s already proven himself to be a Gold Glove defensive player, but his 68 extra-base hits in his first full season in the majors as a 20-year-old suggest the sky is the limit in terms of offensive potential. You have to chalk up 2014 as a lost year considering he was still working his way back from the first knee injury and went down again when he was finally hitting his stride at the plate in the second half.

Unlike Wieters, Machado’s health hasn’t been an issue all spring as he’s running better than ever with two healthy knees and has benefited from his first full spring since 2013. Yes, you have to hold your breath that health won’t again become a concern, but there have been no reservations so far.

Beyond staying in the lineup, Machado taking a step forward with the bat would go a long way in quelling any concerns about Baltimore’s offensive potential. He doesn’t need to put up MVP-caliber numbers, but many facets of his game hint that it’s possible in the future if he can stay healthy.

3. Steve Pearce proves he isn’t a one-year wonder

In watching Cruz and Markakis depart via free agency, the Orioles are clearly counting on the best story of the 2014 season to provide a productive sequel in his first full year as a regular. Many spent the winter trying to explain Pearce’s breakthrough at age 31, with explanations ranging from better health and finally receiving an extended opportunity to improved swing mechanics and an uncanny ability to hammer pitches up in the zone.

Expecting a repeat of his .930 on-base plus slugging percentage from a year ago would be asking too much, but his patience alone makes him a good candidate to once again be productive and help fill in the gaps left behind by Cruz and Markakis. His versatility in being able to play good defense at first base as well as at the corner outfield spots is extremely valuable for Showalter over the course of a season.

You should never look into spring training stats too much, but five homers and a .951 OPS in the Grapefruit League indicate the former journeyman isn’t resting on the laurels of 2014.

4. Chris Davis looks more like the hitter he was in 2012 and 2013 than last year

No one expects Davis to hit 53 homers like he did two seasons ago, but the Orioles need much more than the .196 average and .704 OPS he provided last season.

The question has been asked over and over about how Baltimore will replace Cruz’s 40 homers from a year ago, and the truth is that Cruz himself was highly unlikely to do that again in 2015. Still, the Orioles need to make up that production with Davis having the opportunity to contribute a great deal to that puzzle.

The increased use of the shift isn’t going away, which won’t do any favors for his batting average moving forward, but Davis insists that the oblique injury he suffered last April hindered his power all season. The 29-year-old has talked about bunting on occasion to offset the shift, but his power returning to at least his 2012 level (33 homers and a .501 slugging percentage) is more valuable than obsessing too much over his batting average.

With free agency looming, will the real Davis emerge? The Orioles would benefit greatly if the guy from a couple years ago resurfaces.

5. Another diamond in the rough emerges this season

In 2012, it was Miguel Gonzalez and Nate McLouth. Last year, Pearce and Joseph provided contributions that no one would have predicted.

If the Orioles are to return to the postseason for the third time in four years, they will inevitably need an individual or two to come out of nowhere to pay dividends. It’s the reason why executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette brings in so many minor-league free agents, journeymen, and players who make you say, “Who?” on a yearly basis.

Could it be former first-round pick Travis Snider building on a hot second half with Pittsburgh last year?

Is the returning Nolan Reimold finally going to stay healthy enough to contribute at some point this season?

Will Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia make the club and use his lively arm to become a better-than-expected contributor in the bullpen?

Does a strong finish to last season and a terrific spring carry over for Jimmy Paredes?

Or are we likely speculating about someone who isn’t yet with the organization?

It’s easy to laugh now at the aforementioned possibilities, but stranger things have already happened over the last few years.

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2015 Orioles preview: Steve Pearce

Posted on 22 March 2015 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day just over two weeks away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2015 Orioles every day as they try to defend their American League East title this season.

March 9 – Adam Jones
March 10 – Chris Tillman
March 11 – J.J. Hardy
March 12 – Zach Britton
March 13 – Chris Davis
March 14 – Wei-Yin Chen
March 15 – Jonathan Schoop
March 16 – Travis Snider
March 17 – Kevin Gausman
March 18 – Alejandro De Aza
March 19 – Tommy Hunter
March 20 – Manny Machado
March 21 – Brad Brach

OF/1B Steve Pearce

Opening Day age: 31

Contract status: Will become a free agent after the 2015 season

Minor-league options remaining: None

2014 stats: .293/.373/.556, 21 HR, 49 RBI, 51 R, 5 SB, 383 PA

Why to be impressed: Easily the most surprising story of the 2014 season, Pearce emerged as one of the Orioles’ best offensive players with a club-best .930 on-base plus slugging percentage and had the second-best walk rate (10.4 percent of plate appearances) behind Chris Davis. His .322 batting average on balls in play suggests Pearce experienced good fortune in 2014, but it wasn’t enough to make you think he can’t remain a productive regular in the lineup.

Why to be concerned: Pearce will be 32 in April and is coming off his first major league season in which he received more than 200 plate appearances as clubs will now have a bigger book on how to pitch to him. Though he’s always thrived against left-handed pitching in his career, his .856 OPS against right-handers in 2014 was dramatically higher than his career .700 OPS against righties, which leads you to believe there will be a substantial market correction.

2015 outlook: It’s easy to be skeptical of Pearce’s 2014 numbers after he languished for years as a fringe bench player bouncing back and forth between the majors and Triple A, but his approach at the plate makes him a decent bet to remain productive even if his numbers against right-handers return to his career norm. Manager Buck Showalter loves his work ethic and the Orioles are counting on Pearce to continue to contribute with Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz no longer in the mix. A .930 OPS in 2015 would be asking too much, but I’ll gamble on the feel-good story of 2014 posting an OPS above .800 and reaching the 20-homer mark once again in an everyday role. At the very least, his ability to draw walks will be a nice asset for a lineup that has few patient hitters.

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New Orioles outfielder Snider not concerned with filling Markakis’ shoes

Posted on 24 February 2015 by Luke Jones

SARASOTA, Fla. — New Orioles outfielder Travis Snider may be the leading candidate to replace veteran Nick Markakis in right field, but he isn’t taking anything for granted this spring.

Playing parts of seven seasons without ever recording as many as 360 plate appearances in a single campaign, the 27-year-old can’t dwell on the opportunity presented to him in Baltimore after the free-agent departures of Markakis and slugger Nelson Cruz. Call it a force of habit for a former first-round pick who’s seen more disappointment than success in his major league career with numerous minor-league demotions and nagging injuries.

“I don’t worry about what happened last year and who you guys say I’m replacing,” Snider said in an interview with WNST.net. “I came here to play when they tell me to play and where they tell me to play. For me, the focus remains on the day to day of getting better and when they put my name in the lineup, I’ll be ready.”

Fair or not, the pressure is on Snider to perform as he represents the Orioles’ most significant addition of the offseason. The beginning of his career doesn’t remotely stack up to Markakis’ nine-year run in Baltimore, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette hopes Snider’s .776 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2014 — Markakis’ was .729 — is a sign of a once-heralded prospect finally figuring it out at the major league level.

Snider’s numbers spiked in the second half of 2014 as he hit .288 with nine home runs, 24 runs batted in, and an .880 OPS to help lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a wild-card berth. The numbers reflected the kind of prospect Snider once was in posting a .968 OPS in 835 plate appearances at the Triple-A level.

Even if his offense remains a question as a .246 lifetime hitter according to William Hill Sports, the Orioles already like what they’ve seen from Snider defensively as he will potentially replace a two-time Gold Glove winner in right field. The left-handed thrower was viewed as a good defender in Pittsburgh and was frequently used as a defensive replacement when not in the starting lineup.

“I don’t care who you are, you always have these preconceived ideas and visual and then you actually see it,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I watched Travis Snider run two balls down in right field during [batting practice]. You take something out of everything.”

After five disappointing years with Toronto in which he could never live up to his potential as the 14th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Snider was traded to Pittsburgh midway through the 2012 season. His improvement at the plate hardly came overnight — the left-handed hitter batted just .215 in 2013 — but he credits the winning culture in Pittsburgh over the last two years for changing his mindset, which led to his own improvement in 2014.

After being acquired in exchange for minor-league pitchers Stephen Tarpley and Steven Vault, Snider believes playing for a club that has advanced to the postseason in two of the last three years and is coming off its first division title in 17 years is the perfect environment to pick up where he left off in his final year with the Pirates.

“I’ve been able to take some steps forward in my career and the way I approach each day by remaining focused on each day and not worrying about stat lines or box scores and those types of things,” Snider said. “As a young player, I got caught up worrying too much about myself. Being part of a winning culture, it made it easy to buy in and knowing that you’re playing for each other and the pressure is taken off of your personal accolades and put onto the team and what you have to do each night to get the win. It makes baseball a whole lot more fun when you play that way.”

With Snider and the impending signing of infielder Everth Cabrera the only notable position players added to the mix this winter, the Orioles will likely need a breakout performance from an unheralded name similar to what they received from Steve Pearce a year ago to give themselves the best chance to make it back to the postseason. A former Pirate himself, Pearce rose from anonymity at age 31 last year to hit 21 home runs and post a .930 OPS and is now being counted on to fill a regular role this season.

It’s the perfect example to which a player like Snider can aspire after years of failing to live up to expectations as one of the best prospects in the game.

“Steve Pearce was one of the best stories in baseball last year, and that was one of the first things that I told him,” Snider said. “Understanding that this game and this business doesn’t always go the way that we plan, the guys that are able to overcome that adversity and make the most of those opportunities [succeed]. It was a lot of fun for me to watch him do what he did last year.

“We all get humbled at some point in this game. Opportunities come and opportunities go, but understanding where that focus remains and to see guys go out there and do what he did last year, that’s pretty cool.”

The opportunity will be there for Snider this season, but it will be up to him to take advantage.

 

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De Aza last man standing in Orioles’ busy arbitration season

Posted on 08 February 2015 by Luke Jones

Orioles outfielder Alejandro De Aza is the last man standing on a docket that included 11 arbitration-eligible players to address this winter.

Most attention understandably has been placed on the free-agent departures of outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and lefty reliever Andrew Miller, but the Orioles will have given more than $21 million in raises to De Aza, pitchers Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz, outfielder Steve Pearce, infielder Ryan Flaherty, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Matt Wieters this winter. It’s the reason why Baltimore’s payroll is estimated to rise from $107 million in 2014 to a projected $120 million despite minimal additions this offseason.

While the ongoing MASN dispute raises fair questions about owner Peter Angelos’ willingness to expand the payroll any further, the high volume of arbitration cases adds context to the losses of Cruz, Markakis, and Miller. Simply put, the Orioles are now paying the price for the cheap and productive labor they’ve received from the likes of Tillman, Gonzalez, Britton, and Pearce over the last couple seasons.

While the sting of this winter’s losses is apparent, the Orioles will be faced with even more difficult decisions next offseason when De Aza, Pearce, Davis, Wieters, Norris, and left-hander starter Wei-Yin Chen all become free agents.

De Aza is set to become the first Orioles player to go to a hearing since pitcher Brad Bergesen in 2012. The club has an impeccable record in arbitration cases, going 7-0 in cases handled by Russell Smouse, and hasn’t lost a hearing since pitcher Ben McDonald defeated the Orioles 20 years ago.

The left-handed hitter is projected by most to become the Orioles’ new leadoff hitter and asked for $5.65 million while the organization countered at $5 million. De Aza made $4.25 million last year in splitting time between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore.

After being acquired a day before the waiver trade deadline on August 30, De Aza hit .293 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in over 89 plate appearances with the Orioles to close the regular season. He also hit .333 with three doubles and three RBIs in 21 postseason at-bats.

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Who should lead off for Orioles in 2015?

Posted on 03 February 2015 by Luke Jones

With spring training only a couple weeks away, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a number of issues to sort out as it relates to his everyday lineup.

Most attention has centered around replacing outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz — Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, David Lough, Delmon Young, and the newly-acquired Travis Snider are among the candidates — but identifying who will lead off in the Baltimore lineup is anyone’s guess at this point. However, it’s not a question over which the skipper is panicking in early February.

“Somebody’s going to lead off Opening Day, I bet you,” quipped Showalter, adding that he’s more concerned with having a strong bottom of the order than with who’s hitting first. “Our guys don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve told you many times, [you could] just take your best hitter and hit him first to get more at-bats.”

It’s that very mindset that led to Markakis first becoming a regular leadoff hitter during the 2012 season even though he stole only six bases over his final three seasons with the Orioles. No one would confuse the Orioles with a track team after they stole a league-worst 44 bases in 2014, so speed isn’t a prerequisite for replacing Markakis at the top of the order.

Among their current candidates, who should lead off for the Orioles in 2015?

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Of the possible options currently on the roster, De Aza carries the most experience hitting in the leadoff position with 296 career starts there, but Showalter said Saturday it would be wrong to simply assume it’s his job to lose this spring. His career .334 on-base percentage in the top spot of the order is just a touch higher than his career .330 OBP overall, but De Aza told reporters he feels comfortable leading off if that’s what the Orioles want him to do.

His production in 2014 spiked when he was traded to the Orioles at the end of August, but De Aza is eager to rebound from a campaign he called the worst of his career as he hit only .252 with eight home runs, 41 runs batted in, and a .700 on-base plus slugging percentage combined with the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore. He would also represent one of the Orioles’ speedier options as he stole 17 bases last season.

“I can’t just go there and tell them that I want to be leadoff or they’re just going to give me the leadoff spot,” said De Aza, who added that Showalter hasn’t talked to him about the job to this point. “I’m just going to work hard, and they’re going to make the best [decision] for the team.”

Showalter acknowledged he’s had some “radical” thoughts about his lineup throughout the offseason, mentioning Lough, Pearce, Jonathan Schoop, Adam Jones, and even Chris Davis as potential candidates to be the leadoff hitter, but nothing is set in stone. Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates last week, Snider carried a .356 on-base percentage in the second half of 2014, and the Orioles hope that’s a sign of better things to come for the former first-round pick who’s struggled to realize his potential at the major-league level.

But if the Orioles are looking for a unconventional option who might also be the best one, Pearce led the club with a .373 OBP and worked the count as well as any hitter in the lineup a year ago. Even if the 31-year-old won’t match his lofty power figures of 21 homers and a .556 slugging percentage in 383 plate appearances in 2014, he has a career .335 OBP in parts of eight major league seasons as well as a .371 career OBP in the minor leagues.

Like Markakis, Pearce won’t offer much in terms of speed, but Showalter acknowledged the traditional leadoff hitter appears to be an endangered species in today’s game. In all likelihood, the Orioles will use a committee approach in Grapefruit League action until one or two hitters settle into the role depending on the opposing starter on a given night.

“They know things are going to change a little bit from time to time depending on who we’re facing,” Showalter said. “The conventional leadoff hitter like Brian [Roberts] was for a long time and like Rickey Henderson was for a long time, how many of them are there [today]?. How many guys can stay in the lineup against left-handed and right-handed pitching and be there every night?”

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