With the Orioles dropping their home opener in a 9-3 loss to the New York Yankees, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. There was no orange carpet, decorative bunting, or buzz at an empty Camden Yards against an opponent Baltimore wasn’t even supposed to play before the Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak prompted changes. Yes, baseball is back in a world it hardly recognizes.
2. One thing that hadn’t changed was the result against the Yankees as the Orioles suffered an astonishing 17th straight loss overall and 16th consecutive home defeat to New York. Long-term rebuild or not, that’s as embarrassing as it gets.
3. Incredibly, the three home runs allowed was a slight mathematical improvement from the 61 given up in 19 contests (3.21 per contest) and 43 surrendered in 10 Camden Yards games (4.3) against the Yankees in 2019. Baby steps?
4. After giving up an RBI double in the first inning, new Yankees ace Gerrit Cole retired 14 straight and 19 of 20 hitters before the Orioles finally chased him from the game in the seventh inning. Too little, too late.
5. Sloppy play gives you no chance against someone like Cole as Pedro Severino was called for catcher’s interference twice in the first inning. Rarely do you see that twice in the same game, let alone in the same inning. It was a forgettable night behind the plate for Severino.
6. Asher Wojciechowski couldn’t overcome giving up three homers on elevated fastballs, but his seven strikeouts and 18 swinging strikes — the latter matching his second-highest total from 2019 — reflected the good breaking stuff he had. The margin for error against a lineup like that is razor thin.
7. Brandon Hyde revealing Chris Davis was unavailable and not at the ballpark naturally led to speculation that his absence was coronavirus-related. Speaking to media on Wednesday, Davis expressed a heightened level of concern watching the Marlins’ situation play out. We’ll see what happens.
8. Jose Iglesias left the game in the seventh inning due to some soreness in his quad. You hate to see that with the way the veteran shortstop has been swinging the bat to begin the season.
9. Walk, walk, single, walk, strikeout, single, hit by pitch, wild pitch, walk, single. An ERA of 162.00. That’s how 27-year-old reliever Cody Carroll has fared in two outings thus far.
10. On the bright side, New York shortstop Gleyber Torres went 0-for-4, which qualifies as a minor miracle after the way he annihilated Orioles pitching last season to the tune of 13 home runs and a 1.512 OPS in 18 games. More baby steps?
11. Wednesday marked five years and three months to the day since Camden Yards hosted the first crowdless game in major league history. I never thought I’d cover another one, but here we are. Weird baseball is better than none at all, but fans are sorely missed.
12. Heartfelt compliments to the Orioles, Ravens, and local media for all they did for Mo Gaba, the Baltimore sports superfan who passed away on Tuesday. I didn’t know Mo personally, but his courageous spirit lives on in the countless individuals he inspired. What a special young man.
One of my cathartic moments in the early months of this dystopian world in which we currently reside was dusting off my glove to play catch in the backyard for the first time in who knows how long. Such an experience was therapy at a time when the only live baseball being played was half a world away
Like so many, my feelings are mixed and my fingers crossed about navigating an unprecedented season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I respect those individuals who’ve elected not to participate and the many players, coaches, and team personnel trying to push through the bizarre circumstances and risks to complete a 2020 season and provide an outlet of temporary escape. I’m hoping for the best while recognizing the undesirable outcomes that could again bring baseball to an abrupt halt.
That paramount acknowledgement aside, finding value in this abbreviated season for the Orioles is challenging
A 60-game sprint of a schedule dares even the worst clubs to dream about a small-sample-size run to the postseason — especially with the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams — but we’re talking about an outfit that hasn’t had as much as a winning month of baseball since August of 2017. Last year’s world champion Washington Nationals and their 19-31 start are the popular citation for the unpredictability of a short season, but 60 games is much more often than not an accurate barometer to distinguish legitimate contenders and teams with a fighting chance from the ones having no shot.
The Orioles lost 108 games last year and won’t have the services of team MVP Trey Mancini (recovering from colorectal cancer), positional player WAR leader Jonathan Villar (traded to Miami), and innings pitched leader Dylan Bundy (traded to the Los Angeles Angels). Making short-term feelings worse, the club placed starting ace John Means (left shoulder) and promising reliever Hunter Harvey (right forearm strain) on the 10-day injured list to begin the season even though manager Brandon Hyde says both should be back sooner than later. Frankly, none of these developments are encouraging beyond the Orioles’ chances of securing the top overall pick in the 2021 draft.
With Means temporarily sidelined, the Baltimore rotation currently consists of 30-somethings with little upside or trade value. Perhaps a healthy Alex Cobb will look more like the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay, but the four-year, $57 million deal a playoff-hopeful Orioles club invested in him 2 1/2 years ago simply isn’t going to bring real value for the future.
Of course, there’s Chris Davis, entering the fifth season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that’s been nothing short of disastrous. Even if his surprising Grapefruit League performance was the harbinger for a modest renaissance, it just won’t mean much beyond the short-term surprise.
Worst of all, the minor league season isn’t taking place with top organizational prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitcher DL Hall restricted to working out at the secondary camp in Bowie. So many of the young players critical to Baltimore’s long-term success simply aren’t getting the desired seasoning to expedite a multiyear rebuilding effort, a cold reality from a baseball perspective.
But all isn’t lost.
Austin Hays will man center field and hit at the top of the order on Opening Day in Boston. It’s easy to forget after two injury-plagued years that the 25-year-old was the first player selected in the 2016 draft to make the majors, but Hays should have every opportunity to prove he belongs if he can stay healthy.
Outfielders still in their mid-20s such as Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart, and Cedric Mullins present varying degrees of intrigue and can improve their standing for the future over these next two months.
Veteran reliever Mychal Givens could become general manager Mike Elias’ most appealing chip for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but the 30-year-old will have just over five weeks to regain his pre-2019 form.
The most anticipated development of the summer will be the debut of Ryan Mountcastle, who is expected to arrive in Baltimore sooner than later. His latest defensive endeavor is learning left field and a problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio should temper expectations, but the 2019 International League MVP’s 61 extra-base hits last year provide more than enough reason for excitement.
There’s also the potential promotions of young starting pitchers such as Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer, who seem like decent bets to pitch for the Orioles by season’s end. Outfield prospect and Manny Machado trade centerpiece Yusniel Diaz appears less likely to be promoted after failing to progress to Triple-A Norfolk last year, but his progress in the Bowie camp will be monitored closely.
Yes, you’ll need to look closely for those signs of promise while hiding your eyes from what’s likely to be plenty of losing, but we’re all looking for signs of hope — in the Orioles, baseball, and beyond. A 60-game baseball “season” — perhaps it’s better described as an event — with empty ballparks, COVID-19 testing, fake crowd noise, and social distancing is so far from ideal, but so is the rest of life these days.
Weird baseball — even bad baseball — is better than none at all. It’s a difficult reminder of where we are as a country right now and the normalcy for which we long. If the game can safely — a colossal caveat — bring a few hours of smiles, laughs, or even some groans over something trivial, yet important every night, it’s worth it to try, even if that hot dog and cold beer at Camden Yards will have to wait.
In that regard, finding value in this season — even one likely to be forgettable for the Orioles — is easy.
With fingers crossed, let’s play ball.
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With players and coaches returning to Camden Yards this week to resume training for the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve offered a dozen Orioles thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Mike Elias said the organization had been “remarkably lucky” not to have any positive COVID-19 tests (as of Monday) while acknowledging the Orioles are “going to have cases.” It’s a realistic assessment and a reminder of just how uncertain this all is from even the most optimistic viewpoints.
2. To this point, the Orioles aren’t expecting any players to opt out of the 2020 season, but you wonder if the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond choosing not to play coupled with additional positive tests this week could change minds. It’s a personal decision that should be respected.
3. The inevitable became official Tuesday with the minor leagues canceling their season. The minors are critical to the game’s long-term health in not only developing prospects but also cultivating young fans around the country. I’m concerned with MLB’s inability — or cold refusal — to recognize that.
4. The Heston Kjerstad signing is official with the second overall pick from Arkansas receiving a $5.2 million bonus, which was $2.59 million below slot. Of course, no one will remember that if Kjerstad becomes a mainstay in right field and shows the potent left-handed bat the Orioles like so much.
5. The organization is telling Kjerstad and other 2020 draft picks to stay ready in hopes of being able to gather for instructional work at some point. Everyone’s in the same boat, but Baltimore losing so much development time in a season so inconsequential at the major league level is tough.
6. The first 44 players announced for the Orioles’ 60-man pool list made clear we’ll wait at least a little longer to see Ryan Mountcastle as well as Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer. Especially with Trey Mancini out, there’s no excuse not to give Mountcastle extensive at-bats.
7. With the potential statistical noise of a 60-game sprint of a season, Elias was asked how he’d handle the Orioles being a surprise contender at the trade deadline and replied that he’d “look at that very seriously.” Yeah, I’m not buying it either.
8. If a roster without its two best position players from 2019 — Mancini and Jonathan Villar — weren’t enough, a daunting schedule now including the entire NL East in addition to the usual AL East nightmares should halt any talk of the Orioles being Cinderella. There are much better sleeper picks.
9. In addition to the aforementioned prospects we could see at some point, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, John Means, and Anthony Santander provide incentives to watch a club still too short on talent expected to be in Baltimore for the long run. Another Means-like story or two would help.
10. Asked about his biggest prospect-related concerns, Elias noted the obvious long-term health of pitchers not accumulating innings and mentioned young hitters missing “key at-bats in their life cycle” as players. How many fringe talents who could have made it will never get a real chance now?
11. The labor war is exhausting and the pandemic concerns omnipresent, but I’m otherwise embracing the weirdness of a 60-game season as well as rule changes and quirks. Some of the best innovation comes through unusual circumstances. There’s been nothing traditional about 2020, so why start now?
12. Current frustrations with MLB aside, I appreciated the following video and wish the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues could have been celebrated in ballparks around the country. From Rube Foster’s vision to baseball royalty like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, these men need to be remembered.
It was the rarest of occasions in Baltimore sports history: the two kingpins and decision-makers of the prime downtown, big-league franchises coming together for a P.R. event to promote tourism in our city via the good folks at Visit Baltimore, who power the area of the Inner Harbor in zip code 21202 where I currently reside and pay (exorbitant) taxes.
The Orioles and the Ravens have co-existed in Baltimore since 1996. I live three blocks from both stadia, which my generation along with our parents and grandparents built with state tax dollars and Baltimore civic pride to bring our community together and stimulate business and industry throughout the region – but primarily downtown, which relies on tourism and local people and businesses participating.
The “leaders” of the two financially spoiled rotten sports franchises in Baltimore have never, ever shared a stage of any kind.
Just think about how awful that relationship must really be for that to not happen over a quarter of a century until last week?
Art Modell and Peter Angelos never shared the same oxygen after an early insult. Steve Bisciotti has attended many Orioles games over the years but has never shared a dais in any public setting with any Angelos to even discuss crab cakes or the parking lot between them.
I have covered sports for 35 years in Baltimore. I spent almost a decade trying to bring together the Orioles and the Ravens for an event called the “Nice Guy Awards” back in the 1990s. Every year, Art Modell or David Modell or Brian Billick or Ray Lewis or Jon Ogden would come from the Ravens. And every year, the Orioles would send Elrod Hendricks, who would be the last person standing at Michael’s 8th Avenue.
When Elrod died, the event died.
So the fact that John Angelos walked into a room full of non-payroll people from Baltimore representing the Orioles after 108 losses is a massive step up from his father. But I have no illusions about that media pass “olive branch” coming because he answered a legitimate question he was forced to answer under duress and would’ve never wanted to be asked publicly.
John Angelos only answered my very reasonable question because he had to in front of 500 people. He has no history with accountability.
And let’s be honest, there hasn’t been an Angelos found in a public role of accountability since the old man was booed off the field at the Cal Ripken 2131 game in September 1995.
These visitor center public backrubs take place all over the country, as do “forum” setting panel discussions with civic and sports business leaders attempting to share expertise, wisdom and provide some public accountability for the money that the citizens fork over as an investment in the city.
Despite the unique nature of this event with the Orioles and Ravens and their respective poohbahs seated 10-feet apart, the real backdrop for this luncheon was to promote the CIAA Tournament coming to Baltimore in February 2021 for three years of (hopefully) filling some hotel rooms and bringing some sports energy to downtown as well as tourist hoops dollars.
But the real local sports journalism story is that we are now at the part of this quarter-of-a-century old Orioles family movie where John Angelos feels the need to front his “out of the picture” father’s franchise to local hoteliers and tourism businesses while seated next to Dick Cass (who really does work 15 hours a day, virtually every day running the Ravens as legitimate team president), who was showing off his shiny privately-renovated purple stadium and having a panel discussion with CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, moderated by legendary USA Today columnist and venerable journalist Christine Brennan.
He didn’t show up at the event thinking anyone with a microphone would be asking about the future of the Orioles.
Let’s start with this: if anyone less professional than Brennan was moderating the panel, I wouldn’t have been allowed a question to John Angelos, let alone the one I did, to which his hollow answer has made him a local hero among the few people left who somehow still truly believe he’s going to be a competent part of resurrecting the franchise from the depths of hell brought on by his father’s mismanagement of emotional intelligence and public trust for 25 years.
I found it rich with irony that as a citizen who lives downtown, I believe the Orioles are truly the No. 1 villain in the story of how the city of Baltimore has emptied TWO MILLION people out of downtown every summer since Angelos took over the franchise and began using Camden Yards as a personal ATM in 1993.
Now, somehow, with no real actions or deeds and rumors floating about the future of the franchise because there are two years left on the lease plus 108 more losses and many more empty Camden Yards nights ahead, the son of the owner is suddenly John Angelos Key – dropper of word bombs bursting in the air o’er the land of the free!
And without my banned media status and my bird (watching) dog efforts to ask him a simple question, John Angelos would not have won his empty sales off season with his empty
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When the most optimistic of forecasts suggest a club might find a way to avoid 100 losses, you know you’re nowhere close to being in a good place. But general manager Mike Elias and the new Orioles regime made no false promises after a 115-loss season, easily the worst campaign in club history.
There were never going to be shortsighted moves made in the name of a quick fix, nor should there have been. The goal is to build a championship-caliber organization in the years to come — not to exhaust enough resources to lose 92 games instead of the number with which the Orioles will ultimately finish. Signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper wouldn’t have transformed this year’s team into anything close to being a contender, let alone spending money on lesser players to try to grab a few extra wins that no one would have cared about in the big picture.
In other words, no one should be surprised Baltimore owns the worst record in baseball as the season nears its midpoint. But that hasn’t made it any easier to watch on a nightly basis — if you still have the stomach for it in late June. Those suggesting it couldn’t get worse or citing historical examples as a reason to anticipate some slight improvement in the win-loss department were clearly wrong.
After a 1-6 road trip that included three losses to a Seattle team that had gone 19-44 since a 13-2 start to begin the season, the Orioles are now on pace to lose more games than they did last year. Brandon Hyde’s club has gone 9-34 since last winning back-to-back games to improve to 13-22 on May 6. Over that seven-week stretch without consecutive victories, the Orioles went a combined 4-9 against the Mariners, Detroit, San Francisco, and Toronto, four of the seven worst teams in the majors right now.
Baltimore hasn’t won a series since April 24, the day before the start of the NFL draft. A month from Tuesday, the Ravens will hold their first full-squad training camp practice, and there’s little confidence the Orioles will have won a series by then either.
The other phases of the game have been bad, of course, but the pitching has been the biggest culprit as the Orioles entered Monday with the worst ERA (5.85) in the majors, a half-run worse than the 29th-place Mariners. They’re on pace to obliterate the 2016 Reds’ major league record for home runs allowed by 66, but it’s at least fair to note three other clubs are on pace to break Cincinnati’s mark in this homer-crazy 2019. The Orioles rank last in starter ERA (5.59) and next to last in bullpen ERA (6.16) with only Washington to thank for being slightly worse in relief.
The hope was the Orioles would find another pitcher or two in a mold somewhat similar to John Means, who’s been the most pleasant surprise of the season with his 2.67 ERA. You’d like to see more young hurlers take advantage of these generous opportunities to at least perform at a semi-respectable level, but that hasn’t happened beyond a fleeting week or two for any given name, a frustrating reality becoming more audible in Hyde’s post-game comments. He knew what he was getting into taking this job last December, but it can’t be easy managing this on a nightly basis.
Evident by the “Norfolk Shuttle” working overtime in recent weeks, this club just doesn’t have the pitching to even approach being competitive on too many nights. In games in which Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, or Means have started, the Orioles are 17-25, which is still bad but far from historically poor. But they’re an unthinkable 5-31 when anyone else starts, which is 1899 Cleveland Spiders kind of terrible. Alex Cobb making only three starts before undergoing season-ending hip surgery doomed a rotation that was already far too thin.
What happens if Cashner, Bundy, or both are traded by next month’s deadline? What if Means’ shoulder issue becomes a bigger problem than anticipated? Other than prospect Keegan Akin, we’ve already seen most of what Triple-A Norfolk has to offer in the pitching department, and the answer isn’t pretty.
Nearly halfway through a season from which many fans have already tuned out, it’s time to ask if the 2019 Orioles could be the worst team we’ve seen in the major leagues since at least World War II. Yes, that includes the 1962 New York Mets, who went 40-120 in their inaugural season and are viewed as the Unholy Grail of modern baseball ineptitude.
Currently on pace to finish 45-117, the Orioles own a minus-181 run differential through 78 games. Only six teams over the last decade have finished an entire season with a run differential of minus-200 or worse. The last major league team to finish with a minus-300 run differential was the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119 and scored 337 fewer runs than they allowed.
The Orioles’ current run differential translates to just short of minus-376 for an entire season, which is dramatically worse than last year’s club (minus-270) and the 1988 team (minus-239). The 1962 Mets finished at minus-331, so that tells you what kind of pace the Orioles are keeping as they sport just four June wins entering the final week of the month.
If you buy into the value of run differential to predict future wins and losses, you might want to take a trip or two to Camden Yards to witness history before the season’s over. The Orioles have played like a 128-loss team over their last 43 games, more than a quarter of the season. And the numbers say they haven’t been particularly unlucky either.
This could be the worst major league team of the modern era. All bets are off trying to argue otherwise at this point.
It’s worse than most of us even thought it would be.
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With the 2019 Orioles now entering May, below is a look at nine notable numbers from the opening month of the season:
1.023 — Trey Mancini’s on-base plus slugging percentage
Let’s start with the big positive as Mancini entered Wednesday ranked eighth among qualified major league hitters in OPS and batted .355 with 17 extra-base hits in March and April. His .413 batting average on balls in play isn’t sustainable, but Mancini is striking out less (20.7 percent compared to 24.1 percent of plate appearances in 2018) and hitting fewer grounders (37.2 percent of balls in play compared to 54.6 percent last year). Those numbers lead you to believe marked improvement is real even if some regression toward the mean is inevitable. In a rebuilding year in which you wondered which player might represent the Orioles at the All-Star Game and if anyone would be remotely deserving of the honor, Mancini would be a legitimate choice from any team so far.
.333 — winning percentage
The 4-2 road trip to begin the season was a pleasant surprise, but a 10-20 start — two games better than last year — couldn’t have surprised anyone with realistic expectations at the start of a lengthy rebuild for general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. To the latter’s credit, a team clearly lacking the major league talent to compete on a nightly basis has played hard with few moments in which you’d question the effort, something you couldn’t say about last year’s 115-loss outfit. Dwight Smith Jr., Renato Nunez, and John Means have been early surprises in addition to Mancini’s blistering start, but the struggles and subsequent demotions of prospects Cedric Mullins and Tanner Scott are reminders that not everything will go to plan on the road back to respectability.
73 — home runs allowed
You may have heard by now the Orioles have a slight propensity for giving up the long ball as the pitching staff has allowed 20 more than any other team in baseball and more than twice as many as 14 others clubs. Baltimore is on pace to surrender 394 homers this season, which would obliterate the 2016 Cincinnati Reds’ major league record by 136 trips around the bases. The Orioles won’t like hearing it, but this probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, especially considering the weather hasn’t even warmed up. Yes, homers are up around baseball with many convinced the ball is juiced, but what the Orioles have allowed goes so far beyond that or the cozy confines of Camden Yards. Those many gopher balls have left the Orioles with the worst ERA in the majors (6.05) by more than a half-run.
7.56 — strikeouts per nine innings
We’ve seen bits and pieces of Elias’ Houston effect with pitchers throwing more sliders and elevated fastballs, but the Orioles rank last in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings, which is quite a contrast from the Astros ranking in the top five in that department over the last three years. It’s hardly a novel concept around the game, of course, but Elias values pitchers who will miss bats with the major league average hovering around 9.0 strikeouts per nine frames so far this season. Baltimore has only three pitchers on the current 25-man roster (minimum five innings) hitting that threshold. Prospects such as Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and Blaine Knight are piling up strikeouts in the low minors, but such gifted arms are still at least a couple years away and many more are needed in this system.
6.67 — Dylan Bundy’s ERA
Bundy isn’t the only Baltimore pitcher struggling, but the 26-year-old is supposed to be one of the most valuable commodities on the current club, either as a trade chip or someone around which to build in the next few years. Bundy’s strikeout rate (10.8 per nine) is up, but his average fastball velocity has dipped once again to 91.0 miles per hour and he’s allowing homers even more frequently than last year when he led the majors with 41. Given his strikeout rate and how opponents have batted just .167 against Bundy his first time through the order, you wonder if a move to a relief role would be best and might improve his velocity. That doesn’t figure to happen anytime soon with Alex Cobb on the injured list and few apparent alternatives, but the current version of Bundy is neither fetching anything in a trade nor providing the Orioles with a building block.
.343 — Chris Davis’ average since his record-breaking hitless streak
Yes, Davis is batting only .176 for the season, but that sounds more palatable after his record-breaking hitless streak to begin the season. Since going 0-for-33 — and 0-for-54 dating back to last September — Davis has a 1.064 OPS with three home runs, three doubles, and 11 runs batted in over 37 plate appearances. Of course, that’s a small sample mostly avoiding left-handed starters and should not be interpreted as him being “back” after his historically poor 2018, but his average exit velocity of 90.7 miles per hour is his best since 2016 and is second on the club behind Nunez. According to Statcast, Davis is in the 92nd percentile in hard-hit percentage this season. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t improved from last season, but the 33-year-old has calmed some of the discussion about his immediate future — for now.
Minus-15 — defensive runs saved
It would be way too kind to suggest the Orioles have played good defense so far in 2019, but they have improved from 29th to 25th in DRS and own only one more error than the league average. The outfield defense has had some issues that have been more pronounced since Mullins’ demotion, but the Orioles have typically made the plays they’re supposed to make and the “Bad News Bears” moments have been less frequent than we saw last year. Third baseman Rio Ruiz and catcher Pedro Severino have stood out defensively, but even Mancini has looked more comfortable in right field than he did in left. The defense definitely hurt the pitching last year, but this year’s group would probably help more if the pitching staff could keep the opposition from hitting the ball over the fence.
14 — stolen bases
There was much discussion this spring about Baltimore stealing more bases and putting pressure on the opposition — something we saw last year from deadline acquisition Jonathan Villar — but their 14 swipes are tied for ninth in the American League. In other words, the improved speed hasn’t exactly moved the meter. Then again, the 2016 Orioles stole just 19 bases for the entire season, so we’re talking about a very low bar set during the plodder years under Buck Showalter.
1 — intentional walks issued
A hat tip to Jayson Stark of The Athletic for pointing this out, but the Orioles are one of several teams — including the Astros — to all but abandon the intentional walk, which analytics have exposed as an overrated strategy. Baltimore issued 29 free passes last season, so just one over 30 games is a striking contrast. In addition to that, the Orioles have only three sacrifice bunts and have usually stacked their best hitters at the top of the order rather than too often trying to shoehorn a Craig Gentry type at the top or putting Davis in the heart of the order because of the hitter he used to be. The strategy has been sound, even if the execution and talent are lacking.
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With the Orioles falling 8-4 to the New York Yankees for their first loss in a home opener since 2015, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. A rebuilding club deserves credit for a winning week, but the Orioles bullpen entered Thursday ranked 13th in the AL in ERA before allowing six runs in 3 1/3 innings to squander a sixth-inning lead. The bullpen ERA currently sits at 6.32. It hasn’t been pretty even in the wins.
2. I’ll have more on Chris Davis this weekend, but a smattering of boos during introductions steadily grew with three strikeouts before he was replaced by Hanser Alberto, who was put on waivers four times this offseason and received a loud ovation before singling. This situation is uncomfortable on multiple levels.
3. Watching Mike Wright give up the go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth, I couldn’t help but think of Earl Weaver famously saying he gave Mike Cuellar more chances than he gave his first wife. Wright flashes occasionally, but the 29-year-old now has 95 career appearances in the majors.
Mike Wright: “It seems like the same song and dance even though it’s a different year, a different vibe. Obviously, I feel way better. Just one pitch makes it seem like it’s the same old Mike Wright, but I still feel confident. I still feel good.” #Orioles
4. Coming off the injured list, Alex Cobb certainly had a more successful season debut than he did last year after signing with the Orioles so late in the spring. He deserved a better outcome despite giving up a Gary Sanchez solo homer on his final pitch of the day.
5. The effectiveness of his split-changeup was evident as Cobb induced 10 swinging strikes out of the 32 times he threw it. His 12 swinging strikes tied his third-highest total in a start all last year. He needs that pitch to be able to miss enough bats to be successful.
6. With the Yankees currently missing Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, and Troy Tulowitzki, it must be nice to be able to lean more heavily on a young talent like middle infielder Gleyber Torres to collect four hits and two home runs, including the go-ahead shot.
7. Dwight Smith Jr. has collected at least one hit in each of the first seven games as he continues to take advantage of playing time. You expect offense from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Villar — who led off the first with a home run — but Smith has contributed nicely.
8. Renato Nunez entered Thursday just 2-for-15 before collecting two hits and a run batted in. He sports an average exit velocity of 95.5 miles per hour so far this season, so it’s not as though he hasn’t been making good contact.
9. Yankees starter James Paxton regrouped enough to receive the win, but I don’t recall too many times seeing a pitcher give up two runs on a balk and a wild pitch in a matter of seconds.
10. Much was made about the empty seats, but the lower deck was mostly full except for the right-center bleachers and the overall crowd looked more respectable by the fourth inning. The many complaints about entry lines and ballpark amenities on Twitter were a different story, however.
11. Brandon Hyde managed to run down the orange carpet without incident and received a loud ovation from the home crowd during introductions. Despite the tough loss, a post-game question about that response brought a warm smile to the manager’s face.
12. With the Orioles remembering the late Frank Robinson with a video tribute and a moment of silence, seeing Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, and Boog Powell at the ballpark was comforting. Those men and the memories attached mean even more when you lose one.
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With a new season upon us, here are nine questions on the rebuilding Orioles entering the 2019 campaign:
Will the Orioles be even worse than last year?
Their 115 losses last season set a club record and were the fourth most in the majors since 1900, but the Orioles now begin 2019 without Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Brad Brach, who all began 2018 with the organization and made meaningful contributions to previous playoff runs. Of the four other clubs to lose 115 games in a season since 1900, all won at least 11 more games the following year and only the 1962 Mets suffered triple-digit losses again. In other words, the probability of the Orioles plummeting to the same level of ineptitude remains low with many projection models forecasting somewhere between 98 and 105 losses. Still, looking at that Opening Day roster reminds you of those early scenes in Major League, doesn’t it?
How will manager Brandon Hyde handle his first season?
The former Chicago Cubs bench coach received positive reviews in his first spring camp for creating an upbeat and efficient working environment, but now the games count and the dark shadow of losing lingers. No one expects Hyde to be a miracle worker with a club that wasn’t constructed with any intention to contend, but how he handles a young clubhouse and how hard players compete on a nightly basis will reflect on his managing acumen more so than the AL East standings. The 45-year-old knew what he was getting into when he accepted this job in December and understands the organization’s focus on the big picture, but the reality of a long season is upon him. No matter how ugly it might get, the Orioles still have to show up and play the games.
Who will begin — or continue to — establish himself as a piece for the long run?
The late-spring demotions of catcher Chance Sisco, outfielder Austin Hays, and lefty reliever Tanner Scott took much of the air out of this balloon for fans desperate to at least watch interesting prospects in what’s expected to be a losing season, but Trey Mancini and Cedric Mullins certainly stand out on a 25-man roster consisting mostly of fringe placeholders and veterans likely to be long gone before Baltimore’s next competitive window opens. With so many changes over the last year, we forget Mancini has just two full seasons under his belt as he tries to find more consistency after a rough first half in 2018. Meanwhile, Mullins opens 2019 as the starting center fielder, but Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have shared the potential they see in Hays as an eventual center fielder, which should serve as motivation for the incumbent. There are fair questions about his throwing arm and ability to hit from the right side, but the switch-hitting Mullins will have his opportunities to establish himself as an everyday player this season. Though not exactly prospects, Miguel Castro, David Hess, and Jimmy Yacabonis are under-the-radar pitchers who could benefit from the analytical advances introduced by the new regime.
Which veterans will play well enough to become trade chips?
The reward for guys like Jonathan Villar, Andrew Cashner, Nate Karns, and Mark Trumbo having good seasons is a likely ticket out of Baltimore as Elias aims to add more talent in the farm system. That’s just reality in the early stages of a rebuild, regardless of how much an organization might say it values veteran leadership. The cases of Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens will be more interesting to monitor as they’re both under club control through 2021 and would carry more trade value than the aforementioned names if they can rebound from their underwhelming 2018 performance levels. Some might add Alex Cobb to the list of potential trade chips, but the 31-year-old would have to pitch exceptionally well for another club to be willing to commit to the additional $29 million he’s owed beyond 2019.
What will happen with Chris Davis?
We’re all aware of the historic nightmare that was last season for the 33-year-old first baseman, but where does the new Orioles regime go from here with a player who is still owed $92 million over the next four seasons and will be collecting deferred money long after that? Davis fared a little better late in the spring, but he still batted .189 with 19 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League. It will be interesting to see where Hyde uses him in the batting order – Davis batted third or fourth for much of the spring before dropping to sixth in Monday’s finale – or how long he sticks with him as a starter if he looks like the same guy from last year. Everyone hopes a new front office and coaching staff can salvage some semblance of value, but the Angelos brothers will be the ones to make the ultimate call on Davis’ status if he’s no better this year. It’s one thing to talk about Davis as a sunk cost on a losing club, but Mancini has already been pushed to left field and a strong 2019 from Mountcastle — who worked extensively at first base this spring — will have him knocking on the major-league door. You don’t want Davis blocking other young players ready for the majors.
How will the Rule 5 picks fare?
The Orioles will enter a season with three Rule 5 picks on the roster for a second straight year as reliever Pedro Araujo has a couple more weeks to go to fulfill his requirement in the majors and new Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson both made the team. It appears Martin will begin the year as the starting shortstop despite a difficult finish to spring training while Jackson was used in a super utility role this spring. A rebuilding club desperate for more talent is smart to carry promising Rule 5 picks, but let’s hope the practice brings more value than it did for Dan Duquette. For all the roster headaches and shorthanded situations the Orioles endured carrying Rule 5 players while trying to contend from 2012-18, those players netted a total of 1.1 wins above replacement in their time with the organization.
When will more interesting prospects be arriving in Baltimore?
Aside from Sisco and Scott, Hays appeared to be the next prospect on the cusp of the majors before spraining his thumb over the weekend. Beyond that trio, many fans will follow how Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle fare at Triple-A Norfolk with hopes of them making their major league debut later this season. Of course, how Elias handled Sisco, Scott, and Hays – three prospects already having major league experience – should make everyone take pause about the development timeline for any prospects at this point. The Orioles are prioritizing player development over attempts to squeeze out a couple more wins at the major league level or to appease fans hoping to watch more exciting young players. That said, other names acquired in last year’s deadline deals – many of whom already made cameos in Baltimore — appear likely to show up at some point this season. Lefty Keegan Akin, a 2016 second-round pick, and 23-year-old right-hander Dean Kremer, acquired in the Manny Machado trade, are two starting pitchers to monitor in the high minor leagues.
How much innovation and experimentation will we see from a club with nothing to lose?
Entering a season with expectations lower than they’ve been at any point in the history of the franchise, the rebuilding Orioles should embrace the opportunity to innovate and experiment, making it refreshing to hear Hyde reveal plans to use an opener in the second game of the season against the New York Yankees. Why not dive even deeper into infield and outfield positioning and explore new ideas for pitch sequencing, bullpen usage, and batting orders? Why lose with conventional practices when you can at least explore some new ideas and theories contenders might be afraid to try? Perhaps the Orioles even discover an edge or two that might help in the future when they’re ready to contend again. Much of this work with technology and analytics will remain behind the scenes, of course, but any new ideas making their way to the field will be interesting.
What will attendance look like at Camden Yards?
Asked to give his pitch for why fans should still come to the ballpark this season, Elias offered the following on Tuesday:
“We’re doing things the right way, the way that they need to be done. The end goal here is not to try to cobble together a one-year-wonder .500 club that could be a disaster if it doesn’t work out right and then we spend a few years digging out of that hole. We want to put together a perennial contending organization. And we’re initiating that process. We know how to do it. We’re going about it the way that we need to go about it. In the meantime, there’s going to be young talent on the field. These guys are going to be hustling, playing hard. There are going to be ‘tools’ as we say in the scouting world — big talent out there — that we can watch. And we’re in a wonderful baseball environment here in Camden Yards and here in the Inner Harbor. You come appreciate the sport and see some good baseball and watch this team grow.”
While I agree with those sentiments, expecting fans to pay major-league prices to watch a rebuilding team is a lot to ask, especially with attendance having already fallen annually since 2014 when the club was coming off a 96-win season and still in the midst of its competitive window. The Orioles ranked 26th in the majors in average attendance (20,053 per game) last year despite there being some hope of contending entering 2018. To be clear, no one should be crying the blues for an organization that’s cut its payroll in half over the last 18 months, but an empty Camden Yards hurts nearby businesses and seasonal stadium workers. The “Kids Cheer Free” initiative is a positive step that will be continued this year, but more ticket deals, promotions, and imagination are required if the Orioles hope to draw people to watch an inferior on-field product.
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(Originally published as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout in 2006, this is Part 13 of a 19 Chapter Series on How Bseball and the Orioles berthed WNST.net. Please save Thursday, April 5th for some civic action regarding the demise of the Orioles in Baltimore.)
There is very little question that Camden Yards only holds a handful of good memories for most of the “old school” Orioles fans who lived through the glorious Memorial Stadium days.
Maybe you consider the Bill Hasselman vs. Mike Mussina brawl in 1993 memorable. Or perhaps that Brad Pennington head-jerking launch toward The Warehouse by Ken Griffey Jr. on that Sunday afternoon in that pretty teal jersey jogs your memory a bit.
Opening Day and Sutcliffe in 1992 was also pretty outstanding.
The night Mussina almost threw that perfect game was memorable. And how about the night he took a liner off of his face?
And the ALCS games at Camden Yards in 1996 and 1997, while not victorious, were at least memorable.
The Marquis Grissom home run. The Todd Zeile incident. The Cecil Fielder home run. The Tony Fernandez home run. Darryl Strawberry, of all people, coming back to haunt the Orioles with home run after home run in October 1996.
Our community stole the Browns from Cleveland so we might have had karma working against us for that 1997 ALCS disappointment coming to us as fans — especially after that Robbie Alomar blast at The Jake the previous fall — but the Yankees thing in 1996 was just insufferable.
On second thought, maybe we CHOOSE to not remember some of the stuff during those two WINNING seasons because we got stuck watching the World Series on TV. And there’s very little doubt that the BALTIMORE Orioles were the best overall team in baseball throughout that ’97 season.
My feelings about those years are probably the same way my Pop would’ve felt about 1973 and 1974. He never talked about those years as particularly good (although he loved Rich Coggins) because 1966 and 1970 and, even 1969 and 1971, were so much better and more memorable for him.
Yeah, we were good in ’96 and ’97, and we had some big wins, but when it really mattered the most, in October — the big at-bats, the big pitches, the big plays, and in the case of Jeffrey Maier in 1996, the big calls — all were tilted mightily in the other direction when all was said and done and World Championship trophies were handed out.
Honestly, as close as we were, we CLEARLY weren’t very close at all when you saw how those games played out in October. And other than Mussina, Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken, none of those players made a dent in the heart of Orioles’ fans.
In his most recent public appearance/infomercial this past spring, Peter Angelos informed WJZ’s Denise Koch that “we were one pitch away from the World Series — you must remember that!”
The seats in the owner’s box must’ve shown a different set of games or “time” must’ve illuminated “the glory of their deeds.”
Because from where I sat, it looked like the better team won both years — with or without Jeffrey Maier —
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I’ve written a lot of #DearOrioles notes this summer – with many more coming to everyone in management and some of your poor teammates who shall remain on the S.S. Angelos for at least three more hours of the tour – and I needed to move yours a little earlier in the batting order than I wanted.
Let’s face it, you might not be here by the time I hit “publish” on this old-fashioned love letter.
So, if I stray off into the future tense or refer to your Orioles sweater in the past tense, well, that’s just me keeping it real.
You indicated earlier this week that your bags are packed but your head has been in the future here for a long time, Manny.
I’m not really sure how much time you ever spent thinking about remaining with the Baltimore Orioles after 2018 – my guess is you didn’t lose a lot of sleep over it because it never was a reality in the moment or a “decision to make” because my other guess is that the Angelos family never really approached you with anything you’d take seriously.
That’s the Oriole Way. As you can tell from my #DearOrioles letters, I’ve been at this a long time.
I honestly had to look up your birthday to put it in perspective.
I didn’t realize the week you were born was the worst week of my life.
I was sitting in the Oriole Park at Camden Yards press box on July 1, 1992 when I took an urgent call that my father had a stroke in Dundalk. You were born on July 6. My Pop died on July 11, 1992. I was sitting in a hospital watching my father leave the planet as you were in one in Hialeah, Florida entering this crazy sphere.
It’s really weird that you were born AFTER Camden Yards opened. You’re a baby, bro!
There’s no way you can understand what my eyes have seen professionally here in Baltimore as a sports journalist.
I’ve seen, talked about, written about and heard about everything except the story where the future Hall of Fame franchise every day player – the modern day Cal Ripken or Brooks Robinson – walks off at 26 to a rival franchise leaving behind whatever remnants that a desperate July fire sale will bring a MLB team with a lame duck leadership group.
I thought I had seen the worst of Orioles tragic in those 14 years of losing that made up your life from age 5 until you walked on the field in Texas that night in 2012 as a 20-year old. And when you lost in Game 5 in New York in the ALDS, you probably thought the playoffs would be a pretty regular occurrence around here just like Ripken did in 1983.
But here we are six summers later, your timer is about to go off and the franchise is 40 games under .500 in the summer of 2018 and holding an open auction for eight weeks of your services.
And we all sorta know that by Opening Day 2019, you’ll probably wind up with the New York Yankees, which as you witnessed with Mark Teixeira will make you a “special” kind of visitor here in Camden Yards in the future.
But as you’ve learned, there’s no one “special” in the Baltimore Orioles organization except the owner himself. (Well, and maybe Chris Davis and Brady Anderson, but I’ll save their #DearOrioles love letters for long after you’re gone. They ain’t going anywhere.)
Manny, you’re unique – but you’re not “special.”
If I had my press credential and really knew you, we could talk all about the history of free agency and the decisions of Peter Angelos. I’ve only met you once – in the clubhouse at CitiField in New York before the 2013 All Star Game. You seemed like a decent, unassuming fellow then when I introduced myself. Like I said, a baby – you turned 21 that week!
Ten minutes later, Adam Jones asked me on the field why Peter Angelos hated me so much. It took me a book to explain it. It’s called The Peter Principles. You should check it out.
There’s certainly a lot of history in there that pertains to you as to why you’ve done what you’ve done and never been offered a couple of hundred million of Angelos money to stick around and be a part of something “special.”
And, honestly, if these Orioles folks weren’t so crazy petty and vain and paranoid, you’d be wearing a Dodgers or Yankees or Brewers or Diamondbacks hat when you come out to tip it in D.C. next week. I’m betting the “over” on July 18th being your trade date.
The Orioles are gonna milk you for one more sideshow on the way out the door.
I don’t get it.
You are one rolled ankle or hamstring pull away from being a
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