The wasted potential of Matt Wieters

When I think back to the 2008 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year season of Matt Wieters, I think of the following lyrics:

“So much time to make up everywhere you turn, time we have wasted on the way.”

Those of course are the lyrics to “Wasted on the Way” by Crosby, Stills and Nash and that song title is a perfect description for what the Orioles have done to Matt Wieters’ offensive potential over the course of his career in MLB.

Matt Wieters was once the best hitting prospect in baseball and his 2008 minor league season is one of the best performances in the past 10 seasons.    Fangraphs confirmed this with their new calculated stat of mWAR.

Wieters’ 2008 season performance checked in at #4 on the list behind the 2014 season of Kris Bryant, 2010 season of Brandon Belt and 2011 season of Jed Gyorko.  However, if you just look at the offensive component, Wieters “Bat” category is 3rd best behind Belt and Bryant.

Kris Bryant is the best prospect in baseball much like Wieters was heading into 2009 and Brandon Belt had a .841 OPS in 2013, but Matt Wieters has yet to crack a .800 OPS for any full season he has played.

Here’s what Wieters did in 2008 compared to his career splits with the Orioles:

AVG OBP SLG OPS BB% ISO
2008 Minors 0.355 0.454 0.600 1.053 15.4 0.250
Orioles 0.257 0.320 0.423 0.743 8.5 0.166

As you can see, Wieters hasn’t come close to meeting the numbers that he put up in the minors.  Now a dropoff was to be expected, but the dropoff that occured is quite shocking.  How did the Orioles let this happen?

The answer is they focused too much on what he did behind the plate instead of at it.

Baseball America ranked Wieters as the best college hitter in the 2007 draft yet the Orioles were obsessed with his throwing arm and skills behind the plate from Day 1.

Here’s what then co-GM Mike Flanagan and scouting director Joe Jordan had to say about him after he was drafted in an article for the Baltimore Sun:

“He has very soft hands and sets a good, low target,” Flanagan said. “And I like the way he calls a game.”

Said Jordan: “Pitchers love to throw to this guy. He’s not a vocal, throw-a-bat type of guy, but every pitcher that I’ve spoken with, the coaches at Georgia Tech, this guy is a leader.”

It was quite evident he would be a catcher first and a hitter second.

Then Wieters had his monster 2008 season and had a follow up 2009 Spring Training performance with a slash line of .333/.395/.513/.908 .  What did Andy MacPhail think after optioning him to AAA Norfolk?  Here’s what he said in an article for the Baltimore Sun:

“I think he had a good camp,” MacPhail said. “He certainly had a good spring offensively. He’s certainly one of the best disciplined young hitters that I’ve ever seen in my career. I think there is probably more work to do on the defensive side of the equation. Hopefully, he’ll continue the type of year he had last year and it won’t be long before we see him in Baltimore. Those things become self-evident over time.

So he was one of the best discplined hitters that MacPhail saw, yet the Orioles were focused on him improving defensively.

Wieters made his debut in late May of 2009 and he didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his bat with a .288/.340/.412/.753 line in 96 games that year.  In 2010 Wieters struggled mightly at the plate with a .249/.319/.377/.695 line, the worst of his career.

What was the problem?

Alex Eisenberg of Baseball-Intellect.com had this to say in July of 2010 when he looked at Wieters’ swing:

The first thing I noticed was Wieters’ hands were lower in 2008 than they are in 2010…What Wieters is doing in 2010 is really wrapping the bat behind his head. He’s creating a longer swing for himself…The high hands, the barring of the right arm, and the wrapping of his bat all combine to make his swing longer. Wrapping the bat can also keep the bat head from staying in the hitting zone for as long a time as it should.

So mechanical flaws were evident in 2010, especially his hand placement.

What did Wieters think?  He was interviewed by MLB.com before the 2011 season:

“My No. 1 job is to call a good game and get the most I can out of the pitchers,” Wieters said in a phone interview, “but I definitely want to help out the team a lot more [at the plate] than I did last year. I feel like I can have a better offensive year than I did last year, [and I’ve] been working hard to make that happen.”

Wieters did have a better season in 2011, with a slash line of .262/.328/.450/.778 and improved his ISO from .128 to .188.

He basically maintained his offensive output in 2012 with a .764 OPS but had a 10.1% BB rate, the highest of his Orioles career. However Wieters also started 132 games behind the plate for the Orioles, then a career high.

In 2013, he appeared in 140 games, starting 134 of them and led MLB in innings logged behind the plate with 1201.0 innings.  It should come as no surprise that his offensive production dropped off a cliff as he had his worst year since 2010.  Wieters managed only a .704 OPS and his OBP dipped to a career worst .287.  His power was still there though as he maintained a .182 ISO.

After logging that many games and innings it also took a toll on Wieters’ throwing arm and he began to feel discomfort in his forearm and elbow in April according to an article in the Baltimore Sun:

Wieters had been dealing with some right arm pain that initially started in his right bicep and flexor tendon. He missed a game April 22 in Toronto with what he called right forearm soreness that developed after he made a throw to second base a few days earlier in Boston.

“It was kind of forearm, and even a little bicep, just when I first did it on that throw [in Boston],” Wieters said. “And I think those symptoms we got a hold of and got control of, and then it kind of set into the elbow a little bit, and that’s when the real concern happens that you want to make sure you get it checked out and looked at.”

In spite of the soreness in his throwing arm however, he was hitting .341 with a .570 SLG, his best start in his MLB career.  In that same article manager Buck Showalter said that hitting didn’t  bother him at all:

“It doesn’t hurt him to hit at all,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s not a factor either way.

His career OPS vs. RHP (.709) was always worse than when he faced LHP (.830), but in 2014, Wieters was hitting RHP (.849) better than he was LHP (.799).

Why the sudden change?  Wieters finally made the adjustment that Alex Eisenberg noticed that he needed to make back in 2010.  Hitting coach Jim Presley talked about it with Roch Kubatko from MASNSports.com:

Wieters concentrated over the winter on finding a solution to his uneven splits and studied video with hitting coach Jim Presley before they came up with a few simple adjustments.

“He lowered his hands,” Presley said. “He was standing more erect. He’s lowered his hands where he can load up and keep his hands there and he doesn’t drift. That’s the main thing. So now he’s loading up and staying there. He’s not drifting as bad as he was the past couple of years.”

So it took five seasons for Wieters to fix what had been holding back his offense?  Why didn’t the Orioles see this sooner and why didn’t Wieters try to fix it sooner?

As I mentioned in an entry in 2014, the Orioles and Jim Presley were fine with what they were getting from Wieters even though they knew he had flaws in his swing vs. RHP.

With those flaws corrected though,  it seemed the Orioles were finally seeing the sustained offensive potential that Wieters showed in that huge minor league season in 2008.   When he threw however, the soreness persisted, so in spite of his hot start at the plate, he elected to have Tommy John surgery in June to deal with his sore elbow, ruining what would have likely been a breakout season for the switch-hitter.

He was a catcher first, and hitter second so he wanted to make sure he was ready to catch for the Orioles in 2015 before entering free agency instead of DHing.

But was it really worth it?

Matt Wieters did win two Gold Gloves and has had three All-Star appearances, but it was all mainly based on the reputation of his throwing arm which now may never be the same.

His pitch framing skills, however were average to start out at best and have become worse each season as pointed out by John Shepherd at Camden Depot.

The 2014 season also proved the Orioles could win without Wieters behind the plate as the two catchers that replaced him – Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley were much better framers of pitches.

The Orioles could have found multiple catchers via trade or free agency with Wieters’ receiving skills behind the plate or better, yet they focused on Wieters’ throwing arm instead of his best attribute – his bat.

Matt Wieters played some first base and DH at Georgia Tech as well as closing so he didn’t have to be a catcher full time.   The fact that he did do some closing at Georgia Tech as well as caught in the same game should have also raised some red flags to the Orioles that they needed to protect his throwing arm instead of exploiting it as the injury he had may have indeed originated in college and just became more aggravated the more he used his throwing arm as a catcher.

Instead, the Orioles used him and abused him behind the plate game after game, and in turn likely robbed themselves and the fans of seeing one of the most potent bats in MLB history.

Imagine if Wieters didn’t have to focus on his defense behind the plate and could concentrate more on his hitting.  Perhaps he would have lowered his hands earlier and got back to his minor league stance and with it, the tremendous production.  His sore arm may have also not been as much of an issue if it cropped up at all.

In 2015 the Orioles will get one last chance to see what kind of hitter Matt Wieters was supposed to be before he likely leaves the team in free agency.

With his recovery from elbow surgery, the Orioles have the advantage of being able to have Wieters focus more on his offense as a DH and if he keeps his lowered hands and upright stance, the results should be similar to what he started in 2014.

If I were the Orioles, I’d make Wieters the primary DH vs. RHP for awhile and not let him catch more than 80-100 games total.  If they do that, fans should hopefully see what they saw for a brief point last year and should have seen all along from 6 seasons ago.

There’s so much time to make up, and the Orioles have wasted Wieters’ offensive potential on the way.

Let Wieters’ offense finally blossom, free of the burden of catching every day, and he could carry the Orioles to a World Series title.

 

 

 

What I learned from Scott Coolbaugh about the Orioles’ offense in 2015

Last season at this time of year, hitting coach Jim Presley was a guest on the “Hot Stove Baseball” show on WBAL, and just about everything he said made me and likely many Orioles fans cringe.   I wrote an entry about it, because I knew he was setting the tone for another year of an unbalanced offense of free-swingers, stranded runners and wasted opportunities.

Although they won the AL East, that offense was largely to blame for the Orioles missing their best shot at a World Series in years when their power was neutralized against the Royals in the ALCS.

Fast-forward one year later, Presley is gone, and new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh was a guest on “Hot Stove Baseball”, now on 105.7 The Fan, to talk about his philosophy and what he thought about the Orioles’ offense in 2015.

Here’s what he had to say:

Coolbaugh started off the interview by saying that he was “aggressive”  and wanted the Orioles to have their bats “moving” during an at bat.

Uh-oh, here we go again?  Not so fast.

He said he could mention all the cliches about hitting, but his relationship with the hitters was what was the most important.

When asked about changing styles and getting free-swingers  like Adam Jones to walk more is when the change in philosophy was evident.

This leads me to the first point.

1.  Orioles hitters will have a plan at the plate this season

Coolbaugh mentioned that he wants to find out what the hitters are thinking when they were at the plate.  He said that he would work with each hitter to maximize their strengths.

When asked about Jones, he wanted to sit down with Adam and have a conversation.  Perhaps he wouldn’t swing at a certain pitch  in an at-bat (slider low and away would be one)?   Overall he didn’t want to take away what made Jones successful, but felt he could add some things in the way Jones approached his at-bats that might get him to be able to take a few more walks and get on base more as a result.

This was quite refreshing to hear about Jones.  He’s an aggressive hitter, but if he could refine parts of his game – he could be a monster.  Presley wanted to leave him alone, while Coolbaugh is going to try to make him better.

The biggest takeaway for me was that Orioles hitters weren’t just going to go up to the plate, guess and swing away as they did under Presley. They would have a plan for each pitcher and a different approach depending on how they were being pitched.

2.  Hitters will know their role and be asked to stick to it.

Coolbaugh mentioned that the bottom of the order is where he thought he could refine some hitters like Schoop who should be striking out less, putting the ball in play and getting on base instead of trying to hit for power all the time.  He wanted to make sure top through bottom that guys were able to score runs.

Schoop was mentioned in particular as a guy that Coolbaugh would work with to cut down his aggressive swinging and strikeouts to get him to get on base more.

Again, this is quite refreshing because Orioles hitters 1-9 always seemed to swing for the fences, Machado and Schoop in particular, when a base hit could have been enough.

3. OBP will be a priority this season.

Coolbaugh mentioned that while he wanted hitters to be aggressive, OBP and scoring runs in general were a priority of his.  He mentioned Earl Weaver’s three-run HR as a staple.

That’s the first time I’ve ever heard an Orioles hitting coach mention OBP as a priority.  I think we all know too that you don’t hit three- run HRs without guys on base.

Finally it seems that Dan Duquette and the coaching staff are on the same page when it comes to wanting a more balanced offense that can take advantage of the power it has in the lineup.

Overall I feel so much better about the direction of the Orioles’ offense this season than I’ve felt in years.  It will remain to be seen how Coolbaugh interacts with the veteran players like Jones to see his philosophy take fruit, but already, it’s miles beyond where Presley wanted to steer the offense.

A  new hitting coach, and new philosophy will hopefully maximize the potential of the Orioles’ talented hitters in 2015.

The Orioles would be A-OK with Nori Aoki

The Winter Meetings have come and gone and the Orioles still have at least one corner outfield spot open.  Sure they state they can play a combination of Pearce, Lough and De Aza there, but the reality is that none of those players are really suited to be a full time option. The Orioles also think that Dariel Alvarez  and/or Mike Yazstremski might be ready to take over a spot soon as well, so the Orioles aren’t looking for a long term option in either corner.

Outfielders are scarce in quality and quantity this offseason, but there is still one free agent left that fits the Orioles and that is Nori Aoki.  The Orioles are said to have “limited interest”, but Aoki has been the best fit to replace Nick Markakis at the top the Orioles’ order and in right field all offseason.

I’ve been a champion of Aoki since he was first introduced to MLB three offseasons ago because he does all the little things – working the count, getting on base and has good speed once on the basepaths.  He’s not exactly a gazelle in the outfield by any means, but he makes the plays and rates well overall (+10 DRS, +8.4 UZR/150) in spite of his down year in Kansas City (-8 DRS).

The quality I like most about Aoki is that he battles pitchers and doesn’t give away at-bats.  With a 3.80 P/A mark last year and having a 3.76 P/A statistic for his three year career, Aoki certainly does not fit into the free-swinger category.   His 26.4% O-Swing (percentage of swings outside the strike zone) would have ranked him first on last year’s Orioles above their two most disciplined bats, Steve Pearce (28.9%) and Nick Markakis (27.1%).

It’s true that he has very little power (career .387 SLG), but the Orioles have plenty of power even after losing Nelson Cruz with Chris Davis, Adam Jones,  J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters still in the lineup, and they could still get more from Machado and Schoop.  What the Orioles don’t have is a patient bat to put at the top of the lineup with speed to set the table and take advantage of that power and that’s why they need a bat like Aoki.

Contract wise, he should fit right into their plans as he’s seeking a three year deal, which means the Orioles might be able to get him for a 2 year deal with an option.  An $8-9 million figure per year also seems pretty reasonable for a 2.0+ fWAR performance.

The Orioles lost the ALCS because they didn’t have the on-base capability to account for their neutralized power, so they couldn’t manufacture runs like the Royals were able to do.  The Orioles have too many guys trying to be the hero and not enough players just willing to set the table.

Aoki is that guy, a journeyman now, but a solid addition to any lineup and the perfect fit, both as a  player and contract wise, for an Orioles team looking to fix their weaknesses and get back to the World Series.

Looking back at 2014

So it’s been awhile since I’ve written here, and as we approach the Winter Meetings, it’s the time to look back at the Orioles’ 2014 season.   Let’s look back specifically at some predictions I made earlier to see how clairvoyant or completely out in left field I was:

1.  Manny Machado won’t return to the Orioles until May. 

Dead on with this one.  Machado returned to the lineup on May 2nd after we’d heard he’d make the Opening Day roster in the offseason. And now once again he’s on the DL with another knee issue that ended his season.  Let’s hope the Orioles actually go get some insurance this time because I wouldn’t bet any money on Machado being healthy for Opening Day in 2015.

2. We will see the 3B and SS combo of Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado for the first of many seasons beginning in 2014.

Dead wrong here.  Hardy stayed healthy enough to play 141 games in 2014 and Schoop got all of his playing time at 2nd or 3rd.  With the extension now signed by Hardy, it seems Schoop will not be playing SS or 3B for that matter unless there is an injury.

3.  Tommy Hunter will lose the closer role by May. 

Hunter was removed from the closer’s role in mid-May and Zach Britton took over and never looked back.  I said that Britton as closer would be an interesting storyline and it was, as he was able to save 37 games for the Orioles.  This seems to be his new role going forward, while Hunter is very much likely to be trade bait with his cost going up.

4.  Johan Santana will be in the Orioles’ rotation by June.

This one looked like it was going to come true until Santana blew out his Achillies tendon and was lost for the season.  He’s still working out in Sarasota, so he might give it one more shot with the Orioles on a minor league deal.

5.  David Lough will play his way onto the bench by July.

Lough struggled early and sure enough was removed to have Pearce, Cruz, Young and then De Aza take away his playing time in LF while he was reduced to pinch hitting and running.  Lough likely will be non-tendered this December.

6.  Ubaldo Jimenez will emerge as the ace of the Orioles over Chris Tillman by the All-Star Break. 

Yikes, this was bold, and wrong.  Jimenez had a few flashes, but pretty much was a disappointment for the Orioles, culminating in his being left off the postseason roster.  Now the O’s are looking to move his contract elsewhere.  Odds are though he’ll wind up breaking camp with the Orioles in their rotation next season.

7.  Delmon Young will be DFA’d by September

Another wrong prediction, however, wrong in a good way.  Delmon Young was a fantastic PHer and even played a crucial role in the playoffs.   Young is a free agent, so I’m not sure if the Orioles will bring him back, but he certainly earned the role he had on the Orioles last season – something I did not expect.

8.  One of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez will not be an Oriole by the end of August. 

This came true when the Orioles dealt ERod to the rival Red Sox for crucial bullpen piece, Andrew Miller.  It’s a trade I would have made any day of the week, but the Orioles should have done more at the deadline and may have been able to package ERod in a bigger deal.

9.  The Orioles will make a major trade or two by August. 

I guess you could count Andrew Miller as a major trade, but in reality the Orioles did not trade for a top starter or impact bat.    They were able to win the AL East and progress to the ALCS without those additions, but the Royals exposed how badly they needed to improve their rotation and OBP.

10.  Steve Clevenger will play his way into a platoon with Matt Wieters.

Well Wieters did get hurt, but it was Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley that was the platoon.   Showalter just doesn’t like Clevenger for some reason.  I don’t really get it as his bat is solid and so is his pitch framing.  He may not have the best throwing arm, but neither did Jason Varitek.   We’ll see if Clevenger will just be minor league fodder or if the Orioles will actually let him have a bigger role.

Bonus prediction – The Orioles will play Game 163 against the Rays for a Wild Card berth and the winner will win the World Series.

Well this one was wrong too – as we all know the Orioles won 96 games and the AL East.  The Rays faltered and traded off David Price and finished in 4th.   The Oriole did advance to the ALCS but fell short of their World Series goal.

So I’ll say I got 4.5 out of 10 right.  We’ll see how the offseason will shake out, and that will be my next entry on what I think the Orioles should do versus what I think they’ll do.

 

 

Give Pearce a Chance!

When Chris Davis was hurt and was placed on the DL, many thought the team would struggle and that Davis’ offense couldn’t be replaced. However, Steve Pearce, who was foolishly DFA’d by the team a week earlier, took over at first base full time and put up a .271/.327/.521/.848 line while having a +17.0 UZR/150 defensively.

His reward?

6 PAs since Davis came back from the DL with his last appearances on the 13th.

Meanwhile Delmon Young has also had 6 PAs and David Lough has had 16. They’ve combined to go 3-19 with Lough having the 3 hits.

Even though he put up the numbers he did with Davis out and with the team struggling to score runs, they are once again leaving him to rot on the bench.

Pearce has better career numbers than David Lough and had a good year defensively in LF when he played there in 2013. He has also proven he can more than hold his own vs. RHP as well as hit LHP.

Why then does Buck Showalter continue to not put his potent bat in the lineup?

Steve Pearce has proven he can help the Orioles win multiple times but he can’t do it on the bench.

Buck Showalter and the Orioles must give Pearce a chance.

The Orioles must fire Jim Presley

I was holding off on writing this for a bit, but the ninth inning of the Orioles-Royals game convinced me that now had to the be the time.  So here it is.

Jim Presley must be replaced as hitting coach for the Baltimore Orioles.

This isn’t some knee-jerk reaction, as the Orioles’ offense under Presley has been going backwards for a few seasons now.  Many also know I’ve talked about this before but I’ll compile everything here to make my case why it has to happen now.

One thing we know about Presley is that he does not value on-base percentage as much as he values batting average and power from various interviews and quotes he’s had.  This is also pretty evident when you look at the on-base percentage ranking for teams that he’s been the hitting coach for since 2005:

2005 Marlins: 4th
2006 Marlins: 23rd
2007 Marlins: 15th
2008 Marlins: 20th
2009 Marlins: 9th
2010 Marlins: 20th
2011 Orioles: 19th
2012 Orioles: 23rd
2013 Orioles: 20th
2014 Orioles: 22nd ( as of May 17th)

Presley’s teams have finished in the top 15 in OBP only 3 times in 9 years and the highest the Orioles have been ranked during his tenure as hitting coach was his first year in 2011 when they finshed 19th.

Looking back at his tenure with the Marlins, the one player that stands out for evidence of why he is a detriment for a team is Cameron Maybin.

Maybin was acquired in the trade that sent Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers, and at that time he was a 20 year old dynamic five tool centerfielder who was coming off a season of a .409 OBP in three levels in Detroit’s system with a 13.2 base on ball percentage (BB%)

So what happened when he got to the majors under Jim Presley? Well take a look:

Season wOBA BB% K% OSwing%
2009 .318 8.5 25.6 23.6
2010 .296 7.5 28.6 28.2

 

So from 2009 to 2010 he decreased in weighted on-base average (wOBA), BB% and increased his frequency of striking out (K%) and swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (OSwing%).

Only when he got away from Presley and the Marlins by being traded to the Padres, did his wOBA, BB% and K% start to change for the better, and he’s finally showing some promise offensively now at age 27, though not anywhere close to what was projected for him when he was a top prospect.

This should seem alarmingly familiar to Orioles fans as we are watching one of our favorite young players, Manny Machado have similar issues.

Here’s how he’s done since the beginning of 2013:

Season wOBA BB% K% OSwing%
1st half 2013 .351 3.7 16.3 30.8%
2nd half 2013 .284 4.7 15.3
2014 .241 7.8 14.1 33.1%

 

So you can see even though he’s walking more and striking out less, he’s still getting on base at a lesser rate, because like Maybin, he’s becoming more aggressive and increasing his percentage of swings outside of the strike zone.

In fact, the Orioles currently lead the American League at percentage of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone and haven’t relinquished that position since I last wrote about it here back in April.

Since we looked at OBP, let’s take a look at where Presley’s teams ranked in MLB in terms of greatest percentage of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone courtesy of Fangraphs:

2005 Marlins: 15th
2006 Marlins: 13th
2007 Marlins: 7th
2008 Marlins: 14th
2009 Marlins: 17th
2010 Marlins: 11th
2011 Orioles: 7th
2012 Orioles: 9th
2013 Orioles: 8th
2014 Orioles: 2nd (as of May 17th)

As you can see, his teams have had 8 out of 9 seasons in the top 15 and 4 seasons in the top 10 including all three with the Orioles and they are on pace for the fourth straight year in the top 10 and their highest position in Presley’s tenure.

This team is far too aggressive at the plate and it is hurting their ability to get on base and score runs.

You can say it’s the players, but when you look at players like Maybin and Machado, you see that the patience and ability to get on base was there in the minor leagues and it’s the hitting coach’s job to get as close to that same performance in MLB as possible.  Judging from the numbers, I’d say Presley has failed on both accounts thus far.

Dan Duquette has said he wants to mold the Orioles into a team that values on-base percentage as that was a backbone of his success in Montreal and Boston.   You can’t do that with a hitting coach that either does not have the ability or flat out refuses to teach having an approach and a plan at the plate that doesn’t involve swinging for the fences no matter where the ball is pitched.

Getting back to tonight’s game – it’s the perfect example of why the Orioles can’t have success with the philosophy they have.  Adam Jones didn’t have to deliver a hit with one out.  He could have taken the pitches in the dirt and worked the count and maybe he would have got something better to hit, or he would have least had a better shot to get on base which would have had Royals closer Greg Holland facing Chris Davis with a bases-loaded situation.

But no, that’s not Adam Jones, who wants to be the hero and deliver a game winning hit.  Jim Presley wants him to be that guy as that is what he was in his career, and encourages Jones and other players to be just like he was – to be aggressive and be that guy.  However,  that’s not what the Orioles really need.

Instead, the Orioles need players to not to try to be a hero, but to try to win as a team and you win more often as a team when you work counts, get on base and let other guys drive you in if you can’t get anything to hit which unless you are Vlad Guerrero, includes pitches in the dirt.

To make matters worse the Orioles wasted another good effort by Bud Norris with their offensive ineptitude. Pitching is also no longer as much of a problem as it once was on this team because the Orioles acted in the offseason and replaced their pitching coaches and brought in some new talent. It’s now the offense, and their inability to score runs that looks to hold this team back and that’s because they kept the Jim Presley and the Jim Presley-type hitters they had and added more in the offseason.

The only way to change the offensive fortunes of a team with a bunch of Jim Presleys is to start removing and replacing them one by one.

The Orioles must start with their hitting coach.

Thoughts on the Orioles’ Opening Day win over the Red Sox

The Orioles beat the Red Sox 2-1 in their home opener at Oriole Park at Camden Yards today thanks to some stellar relief pitching by Zach Britton and a clutch solo HR by the newest Oriole, Nelson Cruz.

Here are some of my thoughts about the game in no particular order:

  • Chris Tillman may have had 4 strikeouts and only gave up 1 run, but he failed to complete 6 IP and get a QS which forced the Orioles to use the bullpen for 4 innings.   That may seem insignificant as he kept the Orioles in the game, but over a series if he’s going to be the ace, he has to try to get into the 7th inning.  He didn’t look like a #1 starter today and the Orioles bullpen will not last the season if their starters can’t pitch deeper.  We’ll see how Jimenez does on Wednesday.
  • Jon Lester on the other hand got to the 7th inning.   The Orioles were working him over pretty good in the opening innings, but then stopped taking pitches and started swinging at just about everything that he was throwing.  Plate discipline is still an issue for this team.   The Orioles piled up strikeouts and let Lester reach the 7th because they were way too aggressive as usual.  I hope this doesn’t become a theme.
  • The wind was a big factor as Tillman was hit pretty hard today but a lot of the balls that would  have been souvenirs in July, were blown down before they got to the fence.
  • Zach Britton did the opposite of Tillman, instead pitching more to contact and got 6 GB outs in 2 IP giving up a double.    He looked much better than Tillman because he let the Orioles’ defense behind him make the plays as they did last season, instead of trying to strike each hitter out.
  • Besides Britton, I was most impressed with Nelson Cruz and his plate approach.  He drew the only walk of the day from Lester and Red Sox pitching.  And the HR was a shot.   The guy is as advertised vs. LHP.  Now the question is can he do it vs. RHP?
  • Delmon Young had some of the worst ABs on the team, including killing a potential rally against Lester with a GIDP that only netted one run.   He should not start any more games if that’s the way he’s going to hit and I would have rather had Weeks on the team as he can PR and work some counts.   Steve Pearce is a much better choice vs. LHP but I think Buck likes Young more unfortunately.
  • The crowd was into the game from the start and there were only a few smatterings of “Let’s Go Red Sox” which were quickly silenced.  There were even a couple of O-R-I-O-L-E-S, Orioles! cheers.  And all the Sox got booed in their introductions and first plate appearances of the day with Ortiz getting booed in every appearance.  Nice job today by the hometown fans.
  • Hunter plunking Middlebrooks sure seemed intentional.  I’m not complaining as he didn’t waste pitches to walk Middlebrooks and kept him from tying the game with his bat.
  • Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo continue to be insufferable on NESN.  Orsillo referred to Showalter being named AL Manager of the Year in 2012 when it was Bob Melvin that actually took that honor.   It was just one of the many made up facts and inaccuracies about the Orioles during the game.  These guys are lazy and don’t do their homework about the opposing teams, but all they care about are the Sox anyway because they are a bunch of homers.
  • John Farrell’s worst decision was to PR for Napoli in the 8th with the rookie Jackie Bradley Jr..  Napoli had two walks in the game and a double and would have been a much more worthy opponent to face Hunter with runners on in the 9th.   The Red Sox had Sizemore up with Napoli at 2B, and a base hit could have scored Napoli easily.  They wound up stranding Bradley Jr., and he was overmatched vs. Hunter who left hittable pitches in the zone, but Bradley Jr. failed to see that and struck out looking to end the game.

The Orioles will be back in action on Wednesday night with Ubaldo Jimenez making his Orioles debut against John Lackey.

Ten Bold Predictions for the Orioles in 2014

Opening Day is only a day away now, and that means it’s time to look at the upcoming season for the Orioles and offer some bold predictions – in bold:

1.  Manny Machado won’t return to the Orioles until May. 

This was pretty much my thoughts all along after his injury.    The Orioles aren’t going to mess around with a franchise player so expect him to get some ABs in extending spring training and then work his way through a rehab tour of the minors.   I also figured the Orioles needed somebody to play 3B on a regular basis for the month Machado is out.  They got Alex Gonzalez, but flipped him to Detroit for utility player Steve Lombardozzi.  Also Jonathan Schoop made the roster and figures to get some time in at 3B and 2B.   Which leads me to my next prediction…

2. We will see the 3B and SS combo of Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado for the first of many seasons beginning in 2014.

J.J. Hardy has been healthy for 2 straight seasons and is entering his age 31 season.  Something is going to give here, and I suspect that Hardy will find his way on the DL as some point which will force Machado over to SS.  Also if Schoop’s future was at 2B,  Showalter would never play him at 3B IMO.    Schoop at 3B and Machado at SS is very likely the plan moving forward.

3.  Tommy Hunter will lose the closer role by May. 

This one could get ugly, as in Chris Ray ugly.  Hunter serves up a lot of HRs and that hasn’t changed this spring.   I doubt Showalter has as much loyalty to Hunter as he does with Johnson, and I think O’Day, Webb or even Britton could get the next chance.  Britton as a closer would certainly be an interesting storyline…

4.  Johan Santana will be in the Orioles’ rotation by June.

Santana’s recovery is coming along sooner than expected, and he’s planning on starting, not relieving.  I suspect the Orioles will move one of Norris or Gonzalez to the bullpen when the time comes, but a healthy Santana could be the X-factor in the AL East race.

5.  David Lough will play his way onto the bench by July.

Look we know that Showalter loves defense, but Lough’s offensive  numbers simply aren’t there.  He’s exciting when he hits the ball, but he doesn’t get on base enough, nor has the power to carry a low OBP.  I suspect that Lough will wind up with a sub .700 OPS playing everyday vs. RHP and the change will be made one way or another as the Orioles could acquire an OFer at the deadline or just move Cruz out there full time.  Lough will be valuable as a defensive replacement and pinch runner down the stretch, but not as a full time guy vs. RHP.

6.  Ubaldo Jimenez will emerge as the ace of the Orioles over Chris Tillman by the All-Star Break. 

I know Tillman is the Opening Day starter, but I suspect that is because he’s the known pitcher on the team.  His numbers put him in more of a #2 status and I suspect Jimenez will emerge as the dominant ace, especially working with Dave Wallace.   He showed what he could do to carry a team in the second half of 2013, leading Cleveland to the playoffs.  I think he has the chance of having the best season for a Orioles starter since Erik Bedard’s 2007 season.

7.  Delmon Young will be DFA’d by September

When Lough moves to the bench, the Orioles won’t carry three OFers in Pearce, Young and Lough, and Young doesn’t get on base enough, isn’t versatile and has had a poor track record the past few seasons.  I expect the trend to continue and the Orioles won’t carry him all season in spite of what he has done in the playoffs.  Maybe the Rays will pick him up again?

8.  One of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez will not be an Oriole by the end of August. 

The Orioles don’t have room for all these guys in the rotation, and I suspect Bundy is the one that will be dealt as he’s got the highest ceiling if healthy.  Gausman could also be dealt if teams aren’t sold on Bundy.  After a poor spring and a second season in AA, Eduardo Rodriguez is sure to be on the trade block while he still has some value as a starter instead of being moved to the bullpen which is likely his future.

9.  The Orioles will make a major trade or two by August. 

I think we know by now that Dan Duquette isn’t afraid of trading younger prospects, and there could be some big names available at the July deadline and in August with some big contracts that teams would love to unload.    Giancarlo Stanton, Andre Ethier, Cliff Lee and Justin Masterson are just a few of the names that could be moved with one of those pitchers previously mentioned being traded in a return package.

10.  Steve Clevenger will play his way into a platoon with Matt Wieters.

Yeah that seems pretty bold, but I think by the end of this season Wieters and Clevenger could find themselves in a platoon, as Wieters’ bat has disappeared and Clevenger is coming on strong with a better plate approach than Wieters and improving defense behind the dish.  Buck loves Wieters, but I think Clevenger will force the issue.   Don’t be surprised to see the Orioles actively shopping Wieters after the season with the thought of making Clevenger the full-time catcher or at least part of a platoon in 2015.

Bonus prediction – The Orioles will play Game 163 against the Rays for a Wild Card berth and the winner will win the World Series.

Finally, I predict the Orioles and Rays will wind up with identical records – 91-71.   The two teams will play a Game 163 with major storylines, and you can bet that the Grant Balfour storyline will come up.   These two teams seem pretty intertwined and there’s some bad blood between them.  I think either has a great shot at advancing to, and winning the World Series.

Game 163 will be epic, and if the Orioles can win it, they will end their World Series drought of 31 years.  You heard it here first.

How’s that for bold?

Projecting the Opening Day roster for the Orioles

Dan Connolly from The Sun recently broke down what he thought would be the 25 man roster with only a few battles left to be decided and I pretty much agree with his observations.

I’ve made my selections of who I think will win those battles, so here’s what I think the Orioles look like on Opening Day:

Starting Pitching:

RHP Chris Tillman
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
RHP Miguel Gonzalez
RHP Bud Norris

No surprises here.  This was pretty much the rotation at the start of camp despite any thought of “competition” that was thrown out there.  Zach Britton and Brian Matusz were always bullpen bound and Kevin Gausman needs more seasoning in the minors.

Bullpen:

LHP Zach Britton
RHP Josh Stinson
RHP Evan Meek
RHP Ryan Webb
LHP Brian Matusz
RHP Darren O’Day
RHP Tommy Hunter

There’s no real long reliever among the bunch except for Britton so that could be problematic if the Orioles can’t get their starters into the 6th or 7th inning on a regular basis, but that’s how I see the bullpen shaking out. Guys that have options such as Brad Brach and Steve Johnson will be sent down but will likely see some time this year. Alfredo Aceves likely will pitch in Norfolk and be the first pitcher up if he doesn’t opt out of his deal. Also Johan Santana could be added to the bullpen sometime in late May or early June if all goes well with his rehab.

Lineup vs. RHP:

RF Nick Markakis
LF David Lough
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
DH Nelson Cruz
C Matt Wieters
SS JJ. Hardy
3B Ryan Flaherty
2B Jonathan Schoop

Bench:
C Steve Clevenger
OF/1B Steve Pearce
OF Nolan Reimold
INF Alex Gonzalez

Lineup vs. LHP:

RF Nick Markakis
2B Jonathan Schoop
CF Adam Jones
1B Chris Davis
LF Nelson Cruz
C Matt Wieters
SS J.J. Hardy
DH Steve Pearce
3B Alex Gonzalez

Bench:
C Steve Clevenger
OF David Lough
OF Nolan Reimold
INF Ryan Flaherty

For the starting lineup, due to the injury with Machado, both Schoop and Gonzalez make the team, with Schoop as the full-time 2B man and Gonzalez playing 3B vs. LHP. Gonzalez likely gets DFA’d when Machado comes back with Flaherty moving to a super-sub role. Lough will start out batting #2 vs. RHP but will shift down to the #8 hole when Machado comes back as his poor OBP and lack of walks makes him a better candidate for hitting lower in the order. Schoop will hit #2 vs. LHP while Machado is out and will return to the #9 spot as well.

On the bench, Steve Pearce beats out Delmon Young for the RH OF/DH spot because Buck has had a lot of praise for him this spring and he can play first base. Young’s bat might be needed in the playoffs, but during the regular season, Pearce has shown recently he’s the best contributor.

In the end the Orioles also keep Nolan Reimold on the team because of his contract and the fact he’s one of only a few on the team willing to take a walk. Michael Almanzar either goes back to the Sox or the Orioles stash him on the DL to give them some more time.

Machado, OF Francisco Peguero and RHP Egdmer Escalona all start the season on the DL.

Other moves:

I’m about 90% sure this will be the roster that the Orioles will have Opening Day, however there’s always the 10% potential for a trade. There have been a bunch of scouts at Ed Smith Stadium for every game and the Orioles still have their eyes on players such as the Mets’ Ike Davis. If acquired, Davis could serve as the DH vs. RHP in a platoon with Steve Pearce, shifting Lough to the bench in a role likely more suited for him as a 4th OFer/defensive replacement, and Cruz into the OF full time.

The Orioles could still add another backup catcher as Buck Showalter is obsessed with defense at the position and doesn’t seem to think highly of Clevenger’s. An additional bullpen arm also isn’t out of the question.

Any way you look at it, this is one of the most talented teams on Opening Day that the Orioles will have put out there in some time. I’m not saying this is a World Series contending roster, but with a few internal and external reinforcements during the season, they have a pretty good shot at ending up that way.

That will be a nice feeling to have on Opening Day.

Extending J.J. Hardy is the wrong move for the Orioles

Recently J.J Hardy revealed there had been no progress in extension talks with the Orioles , saying “the ball was in their court.”

If that’s the case, the Orioles should take that ball and go home.

It seems blasphemous to say, but it is in the best interest of the Orioles to let Hardy walk at the end of 2014 or trade him instead of offering an extension.

It’s true Hardy is one of the top shortstops in the game both defensively and offensively, winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award last season, but he also isn’t going to extend his stay in Baltimore without getting paid what he thinks he deserves.  Based on the inflated prices we’ve seen in free agency lately, that amount could be a lot more than fans would expect and want him to get.

Jhonny Peralta, who was only 0.2 fWAR in value higher than Hardy in 2013, just signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this past offseason.   Hardy is regarded as the superior defender of the two and doesn’t have the PED tag attached.  In addition, if he does hit free agency after 2014, besides Hanley Ramirez he’s the only other top shortstop out there so he’ll get a substantial payday, likely larger than Peralta. That’s probably going to bump his extension figure up there quite a bit – somewhere in the $50-60 million range – and likely more than the Orioles should pay because of the question marks and risks that come with that dollar figure.

Looking at the health risk, Hardy has stayed healthy for two straight seasons, a small miracle in itself. Before the 2012-2013 seasons where he played in 317 games, he’d only played in 345 games over 3 seasons. So it’s pretty fair to say that he’s been an injury risk in the past, and you’d be signing up for his age 32-35 years most likely – or the downside of his prime and when he’s also going to be even more prone to injury.

Hardy has also been one of the culprits of the low team OBP for the past few years with the following numbers:

2011: .310
2012: .282
2013: .306

Even though shortstop isn’t known as an offensive position, Hardy only ranked 23rd in OBP for shortstops with at least 300 PAs in 2013.  That’s not exactly going to help the Orioles improve their 19th ranked major league OBP.

An extension to Hardy would also tie up a good chunk of payroll and that needs to be considered when you are possibly trying to extend or give raises in arbitration to other players. The Orioles can’t extend everybody, and players like Chris Davis and Manny Machado are far more important to the Orioles’ future than Hardy.

The best move for the Orioles if they are in contention is to ride the season out with Hardy and then offer him a qualifying offer at the end of the year and likely get the draft pick compensation if he turns it down.  The worst case scenario is that he accepts, but then you’ve got him at shortstop for another year with no long-term commitment and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If the Orioles are somehow not in contention at the deadline, they should try to sell Hardy to the highest bidder as long as they are offering more value than a first round pick.  Given the teams that would love to have him on their roster, one would think there would be a significant return.

So then the question is this:  how do you replace him?

Luckily, for the Orioles, they already have a shortstop in their system ready to replace Hardy, and that’s Manny Machado.   Right now Machado’s numbers offensively play much better at shortstop than they do for third base, as almost all his value is in his glove.  Now hopefully that’s soon to change as he’s still developing offensively, but the Orioles drafted Machado to play SS and to take over that position and 2015 is the perfect time for him to do that.

There are other shortstops to trade for as well if the Orioles want to leave Machado at third base.   Nick Franklin from the Mariners has been a name that has been discussed this spring and could play second base and transition to shortstop for the Orioles after Hardy is gone.  Franklin would be under team control until after 2019 and obviously be much cheaper than Hardy.

The Orioles could also possibly play Ryan Flaherty there as well.  Flaherty had a 26.3 UZR/150 rating in the 33 innings he had at the position in 2013.  It’s a small sample size, but he should be more than adequate at the position based on what he’s shown so far.

J.J. Hardy has been a core player for the Orioles and has been a big part of the resurgence of the team in the past two years.  However, at some point a player’s value just isn’t worth the expense, especially when you have other options that may be just as good if not better.  The Orioles have other parts of their core roster as well that must be a priority for future payroll allocation.  Hardy’s age, injury risk and low OBP also aren’t in his favor.

The key with any extension also is to realize that you aren’t paying the player for present performance, but you are paying them for their future performance.  If you want to see the risk of paying a 32-35 year old a lot of money, all you have to do is just look at Brian Roberts.  Many thought the Roberts extension was a good move at the time, but it turned out to be a disaster.

Hardy might seem like a good investment now, but he could very well turn into the second coming of Brian Roberts, and that’s a scenario the Orioles simply can’t afford to repeat.