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Baltimore Orioles' Stevie Wilkerson follows through on a solo home run against the Los Angeles Angels in the second inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Twelve Orioles thoughts moving toward Memorial Day weekend

Posted on 21 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the last-place Orioles limping into late May, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. We know the Orioles lack the talent to win, but the growing frequency of “ugly” losses is disappointing after they at least played fundamentally sound through much of the season’s first six weeks. There’s no excuses for throwing to the wrong base or botching the most routine of plays.

2. A stretch of 11 losses in 13 games is when Brandon Hyde really earns his money. Combating the mental fatigue of so much losing and knowing when to put your arm around a struggling player or give him the figurative kick in the tail are important aspects of this job.

3. Since taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his first start of 2019, David Hess has allowed a major-league-worst 17 homers and sports an 8.27 ERA over 37 innings. The problem is the shortage of alternatives at Norfolk. You’d rather not rush Keegan Akin after just eight Triple-A starts.

4. Andrew Cashner is throwing his changeup a career-high 22.2 percent of the time and ranks in the top 10 in the majors in FanGraph’s changeup value metric. His fastball is also averaging just under 95 miles per hour in recent outings. He’s making a case as a rental trade chip.

5. Is it a coincidence Chris Davis went into a 4-for-26 slump with 17 strikeouts immediately upon being placed in the cleanup spot for the first time this season? It’s best to keep him in the bottom half of the lineup and limit his starts against lefty pitching at this point.

6. Stevie Wilkerson is unlikely to be a good fit for the leadoff spot with only two walks in 85 plate appearances entering Tuesday, but a .770 on-base plus slugging percentage and respectable defense in center field — a position he’d never played before 2019 — is called taking advantage of the opportunity.

7. With DJ Stewart on fire at Norfolk and Wilkerson starting most games in center, Joey Rickard could be running out of time to improve upon his .198 average. He has over 900 career plate appearances, meaning we should really have a good idea of what he is at this point.

8. Shawn Armstrong has been impressive in his first seven appearances with Baltimore, but his immediate placement in some high-leverage spots says much more about this bullpen than his ability. Incredibly, playoff-hopeful Washington has been even worse in relief this year.

9. Mark Trumbo is moving closer to a rehab assignment after beginning to play in extended spring games, but Hyde described the return timetable for Alex Cobb as “open-ended” Tuesday. The two are making a combined $27.5 million this season, more than a third of the entire payroll.

10. After homering in back-to-back games in his rehab stint at Single-A Frederick, Austin Hays figures to be moving up sooner than later. Meanwhile, Cedric Mullins entered Tuesday batting just .233 with a .666 OPS at Norfolk since his April demotion.

11. The Orioles gave up their 100th home run in just their 48th game Tuesday to best the 2000 Kansas City Royals, who needed 57 games to allow 100. Perhaps “2131”-like Warehouse banners are in order as Baltimore moves toward shattering the major-league record of 258 surrendered by Cincinnati in 2016.

12. Rebuilding isn’t fun. Some clamored for Baltimore to sell as early as 2015 to better position themselves for the future, but the organization kept kicking the can down the road for the low probability of contending. That all but guaranteed the painful rebuild you’re watching — or not watching — now.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 7-2 loss on Opening Day

Posted on 28 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles suffering a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees to begin the 2019 season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Last year brought the joy of a walk-off win on Opening Day and hope before the soon-to-follow revelation of the Orioles being the worst team in baseball. There would be no falsehood of optimism this time with Luke Voit’s blast giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the opening inning.

2. File “an Oriole runner being struck by a batted ball to end the first half-inning of 2019” into the category of stuff you just couldn’t make up when pondering what this season was going to look like.

3. It was a disappointing day for Andrew Cashner in his second career Opening Day start — the other with San Diego — as he lasted only four innings. Brandon Hyde needs his veterans to at least eat innings if this pitching staff is going to survive on even a functional level.

4. If you’re looking for a sign of the Houston analytics influence, Cashner threw fastballs 45.3 percent of the time, a lower percentage than in any 2018 start, and used sliders 32 percent of the time, a higher mark than in any 2018 outing. You still have to execute, of course.

5. Fourteen of the first 17 pitches thrown by the Orioles in the fifth inning were balls, leading to two more runs. They issued eight walks and hit a batter in the season opener. Then again, I’d probably walk everyone too if I had to face that Yankees lineup.

6. Trey Mancini was a rare bright spot with two infield hits and a run-scoring double that chased New York starter Masahiro Tanaka with two outs in the sixth. Mancini accounted for half of Baltimore’s six hits off Tanaka.

7. Striking out three times was the last way Chris Davis wanted to start 2019, but Hyde batting him seventh and removing him for a pinch hitter couldn’t signal any louder a new brain trust being in town. He batted seventh — and never lower — only 18 times last year.

8. The off-day helps, but Hyde using David Hess — Monday’s expected starter in Toronto — behind Cashner and Mike Wright seems less than ideal with Alex Cobb already on the injured list until next Thursday. I suspect the Norfolk shuttle will be as busy as ever sooner than later.

9. Richie Martin looked smooth defensively at shortstop, but late-spring struggles resulted in him finishing with a .582 on-base plus slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League. Some patience is definitely warranted for someone who had never played above the Double-A level until now.

10. Mike Elias joining the MASN telecast for a lengthy conversation was a good decision and one the Orioles should repeat as often as possible with the current state of the major league club. Without compromising ideas, he offered insight on the big picture and what’s going on behind the scenes.

11. If Elias is able to eventually build a championship club, will we look back on the 2019 opener and see a keeper or two in such an anonymous group or merely look at these names in the way we remember the likes of Pete Stanicek, Jay Tibbs, and Rick Schu?

12. The Orioles lost their first opener since 2010, the last time they were managed by someone other than Buck Showalter. That’s no knock on Hyde, but it’s a nod to the man who was at the helm for an enjoyable run that’s not erased solely because of last year.

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Nine questions on the 2019 Orioles entering the season

Posted on 27 March 2019 by Luke Jones

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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Twelve Orioles thoughts following doubleheader split with Tampa Bay

Posted on 12 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles splitting their twin bill with the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore saw its four-game winning streak snapped in the nightcap, but this week has been a decent diversion from how poor the 2018 season has been. Even if the Orioles had won the second game, they still would have been on pace to lose 110 games. Instead, it’s 114.

2. The story of the day was David Hess, who shook off an early three-run homer to win his major league debut and register a quality start over six innings, equaling the total number from Chris Tillman and Mike Wright in their combined nine starts this season. He deserves another start.

3. Hess used all four of his pitches effectively and recorded five of his seven swinging strikes on his slider. Scouts have said he lacks a dominant pitch, but many believe the right-hander is a legitimate major league pitcher, either as a starter or a reliever.

4. Pitching on short rest wasn’t ideal, but Hess had the benefit of being promoted to work in a starting role. Hopping on the Norfolk train as a long reliever isn’t easy when youngsters are typically rewarded for pitching well by immediately being optioned right back to the minors.

5. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop hit back-to-back home runs on consecutive pitches in the third inning of the first game, the Orioles’ first back-to-back homers of the season. Machado had homered in three straight games before the nightcap while Schoop clubbed two homers on Saturday. Fun to watch.

6. Schoop’s second home run was the 92nd of his career, tying him with Brian Roberts for the most homers by a second baseman in Orioles history. This is your latest reminder that he becomes a free agent at the end of next season.

7. Watching Hess followed by Tanner Scott and Mychal Givens to close out the victory was a reminder that the cupboard isn’t entirely bare for the Orioles despite a very unsettling future. It’s easy envisioning Scott and Givens leading the back end of the bullpen in the coming years.

8. Who didn’t expect catcher Chance Sisco’s first major league stolen base to be a swipe of home? Seth Smith had Baltimore’s last steal of home prior to Saturday. A pair of speed demons right there.

9. With Buck Showalter wanting to avoid using Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro and having used Givens and Scott in Game 1, the lack of bullpen depth was painfully exposed as Jimmy Yacabonis, Pedro Araujo, and Mike Wright combined to allow six runs, seven walks, and a hit batter. Yuck.

10. Saturday was underwhelming for Alex Cobb, who allowed three earned runs, two homers, and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings. In fairness, he had retired seven straight and was settling in at just 69 pitches before a lengthy rain delay brought his night to a premature end.

11. The Rule 5 pick Araujo has been scored upon in five straight outings, walking three and plunking another while recording two outs Saturday. I’ve stated my disdain for the Rule 5 draft obsession repeatedly, but you might as well keep him when you’re already 16 games below .500 in mid-May.

12. An offense that plated 26 runs in the previous three games had one hit through five innings of the nightcap and failed to take advantage of runners on second and third with no outs in the sixth, managing only one more run and leaving the tying run on third.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 11-6 win over Kansas City

Posted on 11 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles winning just their third series of the season in an 11-6 win over Kansas City, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Orioles won two straight for the first time in over a month and the second time all season. The 11 runs scored marked a season high as they went 6-for-7 with runners in scoring position. It took six weeks, but Baltimore finally cracked double-digit wins. It hasn’t been fun.

2. The victory doesn’t mask the hard truth about Chris Tillman, who failed to get out of the second inning for the second straight start and owns a 10.46 season ERA. Whether he simply can’t do it physically anymore or the organization has no idea how to “fix” him, it’s over.

3. Tillman has now allowed four earned runs or more in 17 of his 26 starts since the start of last season. You can’t keep pointing to outliers like his seven shutout innings against Detroit last month while ignoring an 8.79 ERA in 114 2/3 innings over the last calendar year.

4. I have no idea whether the likes of David Hess or Tim Melville will succeed at the next level, but their numbers at Triple-A Norfolk warrant an opportunity. With this club already out of contention in mid-May, there’s no point continuing to go down this road with Tillman.

5. If it’s not someone from Norfolk, Miguel Castro stated his case for a starting opportunity with 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Royals, lowering his season ERA to 3.55. He threw 65 pitches and could slide into Tillman’s turn in the rotation if you want to take that route.

6. Trey Mancini hit his fourth homer of 2018 and tied career highs with three hits and three runs. He’s had a tough time at the plate since hurting his knee last month, so it was encouraging to see him break out with two extra-base hits to the opposite field.

7. Adam Jones is now 9-for-21 with two homers since moving into the No. 2 spot in the order during the West Coast trip. The veteran center fielder is still hitting just .258, but you much prefer seeing him in the second spot over Jace Peterson or Craig Gentry.

8. Both Mancini and Jones being a triple away from becoming the fifth Oriole to hit for the cycle made me wonder what Felix Pie is up to these days. He batted .286 in the Mexican Pacific Winter League this past offseason.

9. Manny Machado continues to rake as he clubbed his 10th long ball of the season and reached base three other times. He’s now batting .350 with a .439 on-base percentage. He continues to do his part in keeping his trade value as high as possible.

10. Jonathan Schoop dropped a throw at second on a potential double play for the second straight night in the second inning, but the Royals inexplicably dropped a sacrifice bunt right after that. Giving a struggling starting pitcher an out in that situation was baffling.

11. Tanner Scott was terrific over two innings, striking out four and getting eight swinging strikes on 31 pitches. He averaged 97.1 miles per hour on his fastball with a very good slider. The Orioles need a fresh bullpen arm, but he deserves to stay in Baltimore for the time being.

12. Darren O’Day said he hyperextended his elbow when someone accidentally collided with him as he stretched in the bullpen. The injury isn’t considered serious, but it reiterates how bizarre this season has been in addition to being terrible. It’s his fourth trip to the disabled list in three seasons.

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