With the Orioles rapidly approaching the quarter mark of the season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Dan Straily failed to complete five innings for the third consecutive start, elevating his ERA to 8.23. Some patience was warranted after his spring was disrupted, but the Orioles hoped he’d at least eat innings and just maybe pitch well enough to become a small trade chip. He’s done neither.
2. The pitching staff has onlytwo 100-pitch outings and seven starts of six innings or more almost 40 games in. I do believe the Orioles are trying to be proactive with health and effectiveness the third time through the order, but starters simply haven’t pitched well enough to go deeper.
3. Baltimore entered Friday — which wasn’t pretty — still ranking last in the majors with a 5.52 ERA, but starters held a 3.65 mark and relievers a 3.14 ERA through the first seven games of May. Baby steps, especially after giving up an obscene 73 homers in the opening 30 games.
4. I was surprised to realize Trey Mancini ended a month-long home run drought Friday, but 11 doubles gave him a solid .437 slugging percentage over those 22 games. Not only has his bat been outstanding, but his right-field defense passes the eyeball test more than how he looked in left.
5. The Orioles are throwing the most changeups in the majors after ranking seventh last year, but they’re ninth in FanGraph’s changeup value after finishing 28th in 2018. It isn’t only John Means as Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy are throwing them more frequently and effectively. Other pitches are another story.
6. Since improving his batting average to .301 on April 24, Renato Nunez has only four hits in his last 48 at-bats. He’s still among the club leaders in average exit velocity, but he’s really been struggling after a good start.
7. Mychal Givens has recorded more than three outs in eight of his first 13 appearances of 2019. That should look much more appealing to potential trade partners than if he were being used as a conventional ninth-inning closer on a club with few save chances.
8. With recent first-round Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall striking out a combined 16 over 9 2/3 innings for their affiliates Thursday and 2018 third-round pick Blaine Knight being promoted to Single-A Frederick Friday, there’s some pitching light at the end of the tunnel if you peer patiently.
9. If you believe the many draft pundits, I’ve yet to hear an overly compelling argument for general manager Mike Elias taking someone other than Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman first overall next month. If he’s indeed the best prospect, don’t overthink it.
10. The extended absence of Nate Karns (forearm tightness) was the reason why the Orioles gave the talented, but oft-injured pitcher only an $800,000 contract. Alex Cobb (lower back) making just three starts while earning $14 million this season is a different story.
11. I admire Brandon Hyde’s positivity managing a club constructed with no designs of winning, but the Orioles striking out a club-record 22 times Wednesday probably warranted a little more criticism from him in his post-game press conference, no matter how good Chris Sale is.
12. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s game-saving catch on Trey Mancini’s 11th-inning drive Wednesday goes down as one of the best catches in Camden Yards history when you consider the game situation, but I’ve yet to see one better than Mike Devereaux robbing Joe Carter in the inaugural 1992 season.
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.
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 the Orioles recording back-to-back wins over the New York Yankees to register their first series victory of the season and move over .500 for the first time since Opening Day last year, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Expectations should never change one series into a new season for any club, but the young Orioles responded admirably after Opening Day when so many were piling on over a pretty run-of-the-mill 7-2 loss. The overreaction certainly shifted to the Bronx by Sunday night.
2. After throwing 182 pitches and walking six in Saturday’s 5-3 win, Baltimore walked eight and hurled a whopping 226 pitches on Sunday. The Orioles threw more in a game only once all last season, which was a 15-inning win at Atlanta (248). Win or lose, that’s just crazy.
3. The surprise of Sunday’s win was John Means, who picked up Dylan Bundy by allowing only one run over 3 1/3 innings to earn his first major league win. Twelve of an impressive 17 swinging strikes came on his changeup, which Jim Palmer labeled “exceptional” during the MASN broadcast.
4. Four of his first five hits were of the infield variety before Trey Mancini clobbered one 419 feet with an exit velocity of 110.8 miles per hour for a homer on Sunday. For someone who experienced some tough luck last year, a fast start was good to see.
5. Brandon Hyde was very liberal with his use of Mychal Givens, who threw a career-high 49 pitches in the finale after 16 on Saturday. The new manager did express some regret in his post-game remarks, which was good to hear. That was still a major stretch, especially in late March.
6. Dwight Smith Jr. took advantage of his three early starts by going 5-for-11 just three weeks after being acquired from Toronto for international bonus slots. The 26-year-old is an example of someone with a golden opportunity to stick in the majors on a rebuilding club right now.
7. Nate Karns being deployed as an opener turned out to be more of a straight bullpen game with him going through the entire order once, but I like the break from convention. No one could have predicted Mike Wright nailing down the first save of the season, right?
8. A career .572 on-base plus slugging percentage isn’t the reason why the 30-year-old Jesus Sucre has played seven major league seasons, but his three RBIs were the difference on Saturday. Go figure.
9. Richard Bleier struggled in his first action since his season-ending lat injury sustained last June, allowing two earned runs and retiring only one batter on Saturday. He didn’t allow his second run last season until May 11. Patience is in order for the crafty lefty.
10. His command definitely needs to improve, but Jimmy Yacabonis has stuff that should play well in a relief role with a mid-90s fastball and a slider with great bite. I could see him in an opener role at some point this season.
11. Cedric Mullins not playing against the first two left-handed starters certainly reflects his pronounced struggles from the right side going back multiple levels in the minors. I’d still like to see him receive more chances before declaring him a platoon outfielder, however.
12. Many will mock the Orioles’ clubhouse celebrations at Yankee Stadium, but these players heard all winter and spring how bad they’re going to be this season and beyond. Let them enjoy the highs when they come. The weekend was fun without having to read more into it.
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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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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The Orioles will begin the 2019 season without one of their few established veterans in the lineup as Mark Trumbo will be placed on the injured list.
The 33-year-old designated hitter and outfielder is working his way back to full strength after undergoing surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee last September. Manager Brandon Hyde told reporters in Sarasota that Trumbo simply isn’t ready to play regularly after receiving limited at-bats this spring. The right-handed slugger is 2-for-12 with a walk in 13 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League.
Entering the final season of a three-year, $37.5 million contract, Trumbo was limited to 90 games last year before ultimately electing for season-ending surgery. He batted .261 with 17 home runs, 44 runs batted in, and a .764 on-base plus slugging percentage in 358 plate appearances, a solid rebound from 2017 when he posted a career-worst .686 OPS.
With the organization in the midst of a massive rebuild, the best scenario with Trumbo would be a healthy return in which he produces enough to become a trade chip this summer. He is set to make $13.5 million this season.
How the designated hitter spot will be used in Trumbo’s absence remains to be seen, but Hyde could turn to the likes of Renato Nunez — who’s been nursing a sore right biceps — and Trey Mancini, which would improve Baltimore’s defensive lineup in the process. Nunez has been competing with Rio Ruiz for the starting third baseman job this spring while Mancini again appears destined to play primarily in left field with both Trumbo and Chris Davis still under contract.
The status of scheduled Opening Day starting pitcher Alex Cobb remains unclear after he left Saturday’s spring start with right groin soreness. The injury does not appear to be a long-term concern, but the ailment may prevent him from taking the hill against the New York Yankees on Thursday afternoon. Veteran Andrew Cashner could take his place if Cobb isn’t deemed ready to go in the next day or two.
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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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With the 2018 Orioles officially having suffered the most losses in 65 seasons in Baltimore, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. “Inconsistent” is a euphemism frequently used to describe a player or team that’s bad. There’s nothing inconsistent about a club that’s won three or more in a row just three times all season. The 2018 Orioles are as consistent as any team I’ve ever seen.
2. I’d like to think somewhere the 1988 Orioles cracked open skunked beers to celebrate on Tuesday night. Move over, Jay Tibbs and Pete Stanicek.
3. Some say the Orioles could be worse next year, but I doubt it. Ten teams have lost 110 or more in a season since 1900. The Orioles will become the 11th, but the probability of losing that many again is ridiculously small. That said, avoiding triple-digit losses will be difficult.
4. I’m glad common sense prevailed with Adam Jones playing the final six games of the homestand. The few still coming to games know they’re likely watching Jones’ final days as an Oriole and have responded with appropriate ovations. Non-prospect outfielders shouldn’t be starting over him, especially at home.
5. Caleb Joseph’s comments about the state of the Orioles had to be cathartic for both him and fans, but it’d sure be nice to hear something — anything — from ownership along these lines, even if worded more delicately. What about the status of Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter? Hello?
6. Dylan Bundy has alleviated some concerns with his last two starts, but a 5.37 ERA in late September says all you need to know about how his last three months have gone. It’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be much more than a league-average starter at this point.
7. Since raising his average to .180 on Sept. 5, Chris Davis has one hit in his last 30 plate appearances. He is batting .171 and owns a .548 on-base plus slugging percentage. I hope there’s a better plan than hoping for the best when he arrives in Sarasota next February.
8. With Hunter Harvey shut down again, it’s probably time for the organization to write him out of their long-term vision. That’s not to say you give up on him, but the 2013 first-round pick has only 63 2/3 professional innings to his name since his health problems began in 2014.
9. Nearly two months later, I still believe the Orioles sold too low on Jonathan Schoop and especially Kevin Gausman. Wouldn’t those two have been attractive trade chips for a new general manager to use this offseason to start remaking the roster with his own vision?
10. We’re still months away, but I can’t imagine how the organization is going to sell the 2019 team at FanFest this winter. The Orioles at least had the likes of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Nick Markakis to hype when they were bad a decade ago.
11. If nothing else is accomplished this winter, can the Orioles and MASN at least start offering in-market streaming of games next season? They’re begging fans under the age of 30 to turn their backs on them by continuing this antiquated policy. It’s not 2005 anymore.
12. Sunday marked the four-year anniversary of the Orioles clinching the AL East title. It’s a reminder of how much can change in four years, but this organization will need to make far better decisions in the next four years than it did these last four to get back on top.
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With the Orioles hitting the All-Star break an unthinkable 39 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Even with a victory in the final game before the All-Star break that featured contributions from Manny Machado and Adam Jones, the Orioles remain on pace to become the fifth major league team since 1901 to lose 115 games in a season. Infamy continues to chase them.
2. Baltimore hadn’t won on consecutive days at home since its season-best four-game winning streak from May 9-12, and it had also been three weeks since the club won consecutive games. Overshadowed by the frustration and anger of the season is how truly astonishing it’s all been.
3. Chris Tillman being bypassed in favor of a bullpen game Sunday should speak volumes about where he stands with his rehab assignment coming to an end. Not even a Jimmy Yacabonis illness could bring him back to the majors.
4. The question isn’t about whom to fire as much as determining who deserves to stick around for the pending rebuild. How do Buck Showalter and his coaching staff come back from such a historically poor season? What’s the justification for maintaining the status quo? It’s a tough sell.
5. Beyond trades involving pending free agents, a top second-half priority needs to be getting Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini on track. Both are too young and talented to have played like this. The Orioles need these two to be pillars around which to build or at least potential trade chips.
6. After being optioned to the minors for the second time in a month, Chance Sisco needs to be left alone for a while. I have doubts about what we’ve seen from him so far, but making him a regular on the Norfolk shuttle isn’t going to help matters.
7. I certainly wouldn’t give away Mychal Givens and his current 4.28 ERA, but the organization’s reluctance to trade him is too shortsighted. No one should be off the table when you’re facing a multiyear rebuild, especially factoring in the volatility of relievers.
8. In his first 23 games since returning from his benching, Chris Davis has batted .176 with five home runs, a .245 on-base percentage, and a .388 slugging percentage. That actually represents improvement, too. He sits at minus-2.5 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
9. The Orioles entered the break last in the majors at minus-87 defensive runs saved, and the cause isn’t players being out of position as Showalter suggested this past week. Players with more speed and better defensive skills are needed rather than a surplus of designated hitters with gloves.
10. An addition to begin changing that narrative would be Cedric Mullins, who entered Monday sporting an .820 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk. It’s time to start seeing what the 23-year-old center fielder can do in the majors.
11. Brooks Robinson being hired as a special assistant is a great move, but I can’t stop thinking about how long overdue it is. This is something that should have happened from the moment “Mr. Oriole” left the broadcast booth 25 years ago. Better late than never though.
12. Now, is there any chance John and Lou Angelos can do something about THIS?
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