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Means offering unexpected intrigue for rebuilding Orioles

Posted on 07 May 2019 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — There was no “aha” moment for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde watching John Means pitch during spring training.

Hyde liked the 26-year-old lefty’s changeup and how his four-seam fastball played up in the strike zone, but an underwhelming 5.40 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League wasn’t a harbinger of Means leading Baltimore in both ERA (2.48) and wins above replacement (1.1) through the first six weeks of the 2019 season. In fact, he was the next-to-last relief pitcher on the Opening Day roster to appear in a game with the only one waiting longer being former Rule 5 pick Pedro Araujo, who would be designated for assignment a few days later.

Entering 2019, there was little reason to view Means as more than left-handed organizational depth with an ordinary fastball-slider combination and a respectable but ordinary 3.83 ERA over five minor-league seasons. His season debut against the New York Yankees in the Bronx changed that perception, however, as Means allowed only one run and struck out five over 3 1/3 innings to earn his first major league win.

The outing included an eye-opening 17 swinging strikes, 14 coming on the changeup Orioles infielder and teammate Jonathan Villar has since labeled “unbelievable” to watch. You don’t get that many swings and misses with pure luck as Means entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the majors in FanGraphs’ pitch value metric for changeups, further reinforcing it being no fluke.

Means began elevating his fastball more effectively last season — a trend seen around baseball in recent years — and sought help inside and outside the organization to both improve his velocity and develop his changeup this offseason, but he still offered no profound explanation for his early success after pitching a career-high seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball against defending champion Boston Monday night.

“I don’t know. I just feel comfortable up here,” said Means, who abruptly made his major league debut at Fenway Park last September in the midst of the Orioles’ embarrassing pitching shortage. “I feel like these games really matter. I was never a prospect, so I feel like my back’s against the wall every time I go out there and I feel like I pitch better that way.”

An 11th-round pick out of West Virginia in the 2014 draft, Means is hardly the first relative unknown to find success in a small sample of innings as critics wait for a return to reality when opponents face him multiple times, but Monday’s career-best outing brought evidence of adjustments in his second start against the Red Sox. After relying almost exclusively on his fastball-changeup combination and throwing only two sliders out of 82 total pitches at Fenway on April 14, Means threw his slider 21 times to keep Red Sox hitters off balance this time around.

The breaking pitch resulted in two swinging strikes, four called strikes, and a sixth-inning strikeout of Boston center fielder Jackie Bradley. Means said the increase in slider usage was out of necessity, perhaps in response to his lower strikeout rate since becoming a starter. The next possible step could be mixing in a few more curveballs after he threw only four out of his 96 total pitches in the 4-1 victory.

“I’m going to need that as I go forward,” Means said. “The first month, the changeup kind of surprised everybody. As I move forward [and] as I establish myself, I’m going to need the breaker and the slider more.”

Of course, time will tell whether this version of Means is for real as opponents and scouts become more familiar with his repertoire and tendencies. After striking out an impressive 13 batters in 7 2/3 innings in relief, the southpaw has struck out only 5.8 batters per nine innings in five starts covering 25 frames, a rate suggesting his ultimate place may still be in the bullpen. His opponents’ .244 batting average on balls in play also indicates Means has benefited from some good fortune with the league average right around .295.

But good fastball and changeup command, only 1.93 walks per nine innings, and a willingness to evolve make Means more intriguing to watch as the sample size grows with each start. It’s a pleasant surprise for an organization lacking enticing prospects at the major-league level.

“He’s still developing, which is cool and impressive,” Hyde said. “What we’re looking for from our younger players is to not only have results, but to improve over the course of the year. Those two breaking balls are just getting better and better, and he’s getting some confidence with it.”

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Nine notable Orioles numbers at end of April

Posted on 01 May 2019 by Luke Jones

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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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 8-4 loss to Yankees in home opener

Posted on 04 April 2019 by Luke Jones

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.

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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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 entering 2019 spring training

Posted on 11 February 2019 by Luke Jones

With Orioles pitchers and catchers officially reporting to Sarasota for the start of spring training on Tuesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. What would mark an acceptable — relatively and realistically speaking — major league season? I think Mike Elias would gladly take Cedric Mullins and a couple others looking like legitimate pieces for the future and a few veterans performing well enough to be traded. Avoiding 100 losses wouldn’t hurt.

2. Describing an $800,000 contract as even a “low-risk” signing sounds silly, but I liked the addition of Nate Karns to see if his arm injuries are finally behind him. His 9.3 career strikeouts per nine innings and above-average curveball fit nicely with what Elias and Sig Mejdal valued in Houston.

3. I’ll be curious to see which Baltimore pitchers start throwing their breaking pitches more frequently. The talent level is different, but veterans like Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole featured their breaking stuff more prominently upon joining the Astros. Spin rate is huge in Houston.

4. We’ve now heard Chris Davis talk about making adjustments to bounce back in three consecutive winters. Perhaps the new brain trust will find some magic fix to salvage some value from the remaining four years of his contract, but it’s all eyewash until April.

5. It could be now or never for Chance Sisco to show whether he’s a starting-caliber catcher or just a fringe backup type. The starting job is sitting there for the former second-round pick who will turn 24 later this month. Austin Wynns, 28, substantially outplaying him last year wasn’t encouraging.

6. After hitting well in limited duty last September, DJ Stewart will have his best chance this spring to prove he’s deserving of a starting corner outfield job, especially as Austin Hays needs to reestablish himself after an injury-plagued 2018 season.

7. If I had to predict the starting shortstop and third baseman, I’d pick Rule 5 pick Richie Martin and Renato Nunez. The latter played well late last year, but that’s easily the most depressing left side of the infield on paper since Cesar Izturis and a washed-up Miguel Tejada.

8. Martin and fellow Rule 5 pick Drew Jackson may not be up to the task at shortstop, but I’d prefer keeping Jonathan Villar at second base where he’s at his best defensively. Villar was worth seven defensive runs saved at second and minus-three in 18 starts at shortstop last season.

9. Coming off a 5.55 ERA last season, Mike Wright is now 29 and unlikely to stick on the roster simply because he’s out of options again, especially with the new regime. The same likely goes for the 28-year-old Donnie Hart, who posted a 5.59 ERA while struggling with control.

10. Dean Kremer is the non-roster invitee I’m most looking forward to monitoring. The 23-year-old led the minors in strikeouts last year and possesses a good curve that will appeal to the new front office. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitching for the Orioles at some point this season.

11. This can be said about a number of unsigned veterans, but it’s difficult to believe Adam Jones hasn’t found a job as camps open this week. He may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he can still fill a meaningful role for a contender.

12. As much as I loved the Elias hire and have liked what I’ve seen from Brandon Hyde so far, where are the marketing efforts and ticket promotions for a team that has very little to sell from a competitive standpoint? There needs to be much greater urgency in this area.

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Waiting the hardest part in earliest stages of Orioles’ rebuild

Posted on 17 January 2019 by Luke Jones

FanFest is a week away and pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota in less than a month with the Orioles’ biggest offseason player acquisitions to date being Rule 5 infielders Richie Martin and Drew Jackson.

That’s not all that unusual if you recall the snail’s pace at which former head baseball man Dan Duquette proceeded over the last several offseasons, frequently waiting until February — even March — to sign a veteran free agent or two at a market-friendly rate.

But we know this winter is different. Very different. It needs to be when you’re coming off a franchise-record 115-loss season and your major league roster — and in many ways, the entire organization — was reduced to rubble last year. The possibility remains for a veteran signing or two before Opening Day, but mostly with the thought of flipping that player this summer for more prospects to continue building for the future.

Realistically, the Orioles couldn’t have done any better than hiring Mike Elias as general manager and Sig Mejdal to lead their analytics department after the two were integral parts in building the Houston Astros into World Series champions. New field manager Brandon Hyde — the former bench coach of Joe Maddon in Chicago — made a good first impression at his introductory press conference last month and possesses the kind of versatile baseball background most front offices prefer these days.

Their arrival creates reason for hope and a legitimate belief that better days are ahead — just not in 2019. As the 36-year-old Elias has already said more than once, this process has no shortcuts or a fast-forward button to when the Orioles will be competitive again. Probability and history may tell us the Orioles are unlikely to match their .290 winning percentage from a year ago, but avoiding 100 losses would likely qualify as a minor miracle when you examine the current 40-man roster.

No, the coming season in the American League East isn’t going to be fun. The new regime is essentially still surveying the wreckage, and waiting will be the hardest part as the Orioles work from the ground up.

The present is about building infrastructure for amateur and international scouting, analytics, and player development with gains unlikely to be noticeable for some time. Elias is still more than four months away from making his first amateur pick for the Orioles. As it relates to players already in the organization, the new regime is seeking those individuals possessing the proper talent as well as a growth mindset, a trait discussed at length in Ben Reiter’s “Astroball.”

In the same way future All-Stars Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer — all part of the Houston organization before the arrival of current general manager Jeff Luhnow — accepted recommendations from Mejdal’s “Nerd Cave” to make improvements early in their careers, the likes of Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, and Trey Mancini as well as countless minor leaguers already in the system will be exposed to new data and methods that weren’t previously available. What players do with that information can help distinguish viable assets from the many placeholders we’ll be watching over these next few seasons.

But short-term gains with major league players not far from free agency such as Bundy, Givens, and Jonathan Villar are likely to result in more trades for more prospects, an exhausting proposition for fans already enduring the 2018 fire sale. It remains to be seen whether even Mancini or projected starting center fielder Cedric Mullins — players much further away from free agency — will still be in Baltimore by the time the Orioles are contending again.

For the most part, we’ll be watching too many players who don’t belong in the majors in 2019 and the year or two after that. Even the arrival of talented prospects will be calculated as the organization cannot rush the development of Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, D.L. Hall, and others — and won’t want to start their service clocks anyway — just because there’s no one better at the major league level.

If that leads to more losses, well, that’s not the worst thing for the future. It will be Hyde’s job to make sure the major league club plays hard on a nightly basis, of course, but we know the organization’s end game here. The Orioles aren’t wasting resources trying to assemble a team that still wouldn’t be close to being competitive this coming season. Manny Machado spending 3 1/2 months on last year’s club should remind us that Baltimore is years away from being “one player away.”

Picking first in three consecutive drafts brought the Astros All-Star infielders Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, though the latter came by way of the Brady Aiken pick. A similar scenario playing out for the Orioles wouldn’t be easy, but it’s all about keeping faith in the process — and waiting. If you need a deeper perspective on the new regime, reading a copy of “Astroball” wouldn’t hurt.

To say next week’s FanFest will be a tough sell is an understatement. There are only so many Billy Joel concerts and bobblehead giveaways and ticket promotions to try to mask what will be a ton of losing in the foreseeable future, but those kinds of things will be needed more than ever. Marketing a club with an over-under win total of 59 to a fan base that wasn’t exactly showing up in droves when the Orioles were still competitive a couple years ago will be the most difficult job in the entire organization.

The Orioles will try to sell a promising future, but the wait to get there won’t be easy.

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Orioles non-tender Joseph, Beckham at deadline

Posted on 30 November 2018 by Luke Jones

New Orioles general manager Mike Elias made his first significant major league roster decisions Friday by not offering contracts to catcher Caleb Joseph and infielder Tim Beckham.

All other players on the 40-man roster were tendered contracts for next season, a list that included the arbitration-eligible trio of starting pitcher Dylan Bundy, reliever Mychal Givens, and infielder Jonathan Villar.

Joseph and Beckham now become free agents allowed to sign with any of the 30 major league clubs.

A fan favorite and a member of the organization since being selected in the seventh round of the 2008 amateur draft, Joseph was one of the final holdovers from Baltimore’s last two playoff clubs in 2014 and 2016. The 32-year-old’s strength was his defense, routinely ranking in the top six or seven in the American League in pitch-framing metrics and accumulating 38 defensive runs saved from 2014-17. However, his defense slipped substantially last season, making him expendable as he batted only .219 with three home runs, 17 runs batted in, and a .575 on-base plus slugging percentage in 280 plate appearances.

Joseph was projected to make roughly $1.7 million in arbitration. The expected free-agent departures of Joseph and five-time All-Star center fielder Adam Jones leave first baseman Chris Davis as the only remaining member of the 2014 AL East champion Orioles.

Beckham, 28, was acquired from Tampa Bay at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline and provided an immediate spark, batting .394 with 18 extra-base hits in his first month with the club. However, injuries and struggles at the plate and in the field plagued Beckham in 2018 as he batted only .230 with 12 homers and a .661 OPS in 402 plate appearances while making 19 errors split between third base and shortstop. He missed two months of action after undergoing core muscle surgery in late April.

The first overall pick of the 2008 amateur draft, Beckham was projected to make $4.3 million in arbitration, which made him an expensive option as a utility player on a rebuilding team.

Bundy is projected to make $3 million, Givens $2 million, and Villar $4.4 million in arbitration.

On Friday, the Orioles also parted ways with farm director Brian Graham, who had been serving as interim general manager after the departure of former executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette in early October and before Elias’ arrival. Director of scouting Gary Rajsich was also relieved of his duties earlier this week.

Those departures add to an extensive list of positions Elias needs to fill as he continues to search for Baltimore’s next manager to replace Buck Showalter, whose contract wasn’t renewed after the Orioles’ historically-poor 47-115 season.

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Checking in on recent trade acquisitions and former Orioles

Posted on 08 August 2018 by Luke Jones

It’s been exactly three weeks since the Orioles traded four-time All-Star infielder Manny Machado to jump-start the organization’s biggest sell-off in nearly two decades.

With the major league club continuing to flounder in last place and not exactly providing a compelling product, below is an early look at how the former Orioles have performed for their new clubs as well as how the 15 acquired players are faring at various levels of the organization:

SS/3B Manny Machado
Numbers with Los Angeles Dodgers: 84 PA, .274/.369/.425, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 11 BB, 21 K
Skinny: Machado’s production has been fine to this point and he’s played some third base due to a Justin Turner injury, but he’ll have the chance to come up big for a National League favorite down the stretch.

LHP Zach Britton
Numbers with New York Yankees: 4 2/3 IP, 5.79 ERA, 4 H, 3 BB, 3 K
Skinny: It’s been a rough start for the former All-Star closer in the Bronx as he continues to deal with shaky command and blew a 10th-inning save on Tuesday night.

RHP Brad Brach
Numbers with Atlanta: 3 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2 H, 1 BB, 4 K
Skinny: The 32-year-old has looked more like his old self since joining the Braves and has been trusted to pitch in the late innings of close games.

RHP Kevin Gausman
Numbers with Atlanta: 5 IP, 5.40 ERA, 6 H, 2 BB, 2 K
Skinny: Gausman was mediocre in his Braves debut, but he surprisingly was asked to pinch-hit in Tuesday’s game and even drew a walk.

2B Jonathan Schoop
Numbers with Milwaukee: 25 PA, .120/.120/.120, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 BB, 11 K
Skinny: The 26-year-old is clearly much better than he’s shown in his first week with a new club, but the Brewers have to be wondering what happened to one of baseball’s hottest hitters in the month of July.

2B Jonathan Villar
Numbers with Baltimore: 22 PA, .429/.455/.667, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K
Skinny: The only established major leaguer of the 15 players acquired, the 27-year-old had a big series in Texas and is two years removed from posting an .826 OPS and 3.9 WAR season for the Brewers.

OF Yusniel Diaz
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 60 PA, .192/.300/.288, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 8 BB, 14 K
Skinny: The centerpiece of the Machado deal is off to a slow start and not making a great case for a September call-up, but the 21-year-old is hardly the first standout prospect to struggle after being traded.

RHP Dillon Tate
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 11 1/3 IP, 7.15 ERA, 17 H, 2 BB, 6 K
Skinny: The fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft and focal point of the Britton trade was efffective in his last start until a five-run sixth inning and is searching for consistency after two starts with the Baysox.

RHP Luis Ortiz
Numbers with Triple-A Norfolk: 5 IP, 5.40 ERA, 8 H, 4 BB, 1 K
Skinny: A top 100 prospect entering 2017, the 22-year-old has the stuff to be an effective major league starter despite concerns about his injury history and conditioning as he’s listed at 230 pounds.

RHP Dean Kremer
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 16 IP, 2.25 ERA, 14 H, 8 BB, 17 K
Skinny: The 22-year-old has pitched well in three starts since being traded and continues to rack up strikeouts, a good sign after he averaged 13.0 per nine innings at the high Single-A level this year.

2B/3B Rylan Bannon
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 44 PA, .154/.250/.333, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 5 BB, 10 K
Skinny: Bannon homered in his second game with the Baysox, but he’s struggled at the plate and has mostly played second base after seeing more action at third base in the Dodgers organization.

RHP Zach Pop
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 7 IP, 3.86 ERA, 4 H, 2 BB, 8 K
Skinny: Since a disastrous debut outing for the Baysox, the 21-year-old has tossed seven scoreless frames with eight strikeouts and no walks and is consistently inducing ground balls with his sinker.

INF/OF Breyvic Valera
Numbers with Triple-A Norfolk: 61 PA, .226/.311/.415, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 7 BB, 5 K
Skinny: The 26-year-old is back with the Tides after a brief stay with the Orioles and has already started games at four different positions as he attempts to carve out a major league role as a utility player.

RHP Cody Carroll
Numbers with Baltimore: 2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 H, 0 BB, 0 K
Skinny: The 25-year-old’s fastball has averaged 96.6 miles per hour since being called up to the majors as the Orioles hope he will morph into an effective late-inning reliever at some point.

LHP Josh Rogers
Numbers with Triple-A Norfolk: 13 IP, 2.08 ERA, 10 H, 4 BB, 6 K
Skinny: The final results have been there, but the question is whether Rogers has the stuff to miss enough bats to consistently get major league hitters out, which makes him project as a long reliever.

RHP Evan Phillips
Numbers with Baltimore: 2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 H, 3 BB, 3 K
Skinny: After a sharp debut in Texas, Phillips walked three and threw a wild pitch without recording an out against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, but he wasn’t helped by Chris Davis’ critical throwing error.

C Brett Cumberland
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: 4 PA, .000/.250/.000, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Skinny: Opinions are mixed on Cumberland’s ceiling, but his bat is considered his strength as he hit 11 home runs and posted a .774 OPS at Single-A Florida this season.

LHP Bruce Zimmermann
Numbers with Double-A Bowie: n/a
Skinny: The Loyola Blakefield graduate and former Towson Tiger has yet to make his first start for the Baysox, but his stuff is described as average with some pitchability, according to FanGraphs.

3B Jean Carlos Encarnacion
Numbers with Single-A Delmarva: 18 PA, .444/.444/.667, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 BB, 5 K
Skinny: The 20-year-old Dominican is a contrast to most of the higher-floor prospects acquired, but he’s already collected three extra-base hits and should be fun to track over the next few years.

SS Jean Carmona
Numbers with short-season Single-A Aberdeen: 14 PA, .154/.214/.154, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 BB, 4 K
Skinny: The 18-year-old Dominican is listed at 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds, a frame into which he can grow in the next couple years and potentially develop into a major league regular one day.

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