Orioles Close to Taking Control of A.L. East
The Baltimore Orioles 10-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Saturday typified the one issue that is preventing the Birds from running away (yes—running away) with the big bad American League East. The 4-2 win on Sunday showed what could be if they get it the one thing that is preventing them from taking over a division they constantly contended for from the late 60’s through the mid 1980’s and again in the mid 90’s.
Thanks to great starting pitching, a lineup that possessed a mix of power and finesse and an ability to be one of the best fielding teams in baseball, the Orioles were once the winningest team in baseball for almost two and half decades.
The 2013 version of the Orioles have a lineup that can hit for power and play small ball when needed. They can also field the ball pretty good too but they lack the pitching necessary to dominate the division and possibly even the American League. Tell me something I don’t know Alan-- we all know the Birds need pitching you say--- but there is a catch.
This Orioles team does not have to pitch great. They don't need four 20-game winners like that they had in Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally back in 1971. Nope-- they do not even need four different pitchers to win six CY Young awards during a span of just 11 seasons, as Cuellar (1), Palmer (3), Steve Stone and Mike Flannigan did from 1969 through 1980.
They just need their rotation to deliver consistent—not great—just consistent pitching. They don’t even need quality starts (6 innings and 3 runs or less), just 4.00 ERA type pitching. The Orioles have the defense and the hitting, which we will get to in a bit--but they need better pitching if they are going to do what they should be doing to the rest of the American League East.
Currently, the Orioles pitching staff currently ranks 13 out of 15 teams in the A.L. with a paltry 4.50 ERA. If somehow the staff could drop just a half run per contest (4.00) they would fall somewhere in the middle of the middle of league and likely-- at the very least-- lead the division by five games.
The Orioles have lost 11 games this season when they have scored four or more runs and nine times when posting their average number of runs scored on the season, which is five. To be exact, the number is 5.03 following today’s victory. Through 57 games last season, the Orioles lost none games in which they plated four runs and just six times when scoring five.
The A.L. East is just waiting for the Orioles to seize control of it. This is the moment in time we have all been pointing to for the last the six or so years. The time when all O’s fans said, “The future is coming as soon as the Birds young talent develops”. That talent, minus the pitching is as good as there is in all of Major League Baseball.
Two of three key components necessary to win a World Series are firmly in place in Baltimore thanks in large part to former general Manager Andy MacPhail, who cleaned house during numerous trade deadlines to build this team.
Oriole’s fans knew they liked the deals at the time but in a world when instant gratification is a necessity, it was hard to be overwhelmed with any trade considering the fact the Birds were working on 13-14 and 15 seasons of losing futility.
The time has come to get overwhelmed with what MacPhail did and his successor, Dan Duquette, continues to do to build the Orioles into a perennial A.L. powerhouse. And you are only doubting the “perennial powerhouse” part of the sentence because you’re not used to it-------yet.
After an off day today, the Birds begin a six-game trip to Houston and Tampa Bay.The O’s are 9-4 in their last 13 games. Since July 29, 2012, the Orioles have the best winning percentage in baseball (.615) and are tied with the Reds and Athletics for the most wins in baseball (73).
HOW THEY WERE BUILT:
It is starting to happen O’s fans---it’s starting to happen. The Orioles have three---yes three viable MVP candidates in Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Manny Machado. All three were acquired during MacPhail’s watch in Baltimore. He acquired Adam Jones and — count 'em — four other players for oft-injured pitcher Erik Bedard. Reliever George Sherrill would make an All-Star team in the Orioles bullpen and Chris Tillman is 4-2 this season, but the trade would still be one-sided if it had just been one for Jones.
Jones appeared to be MacPhail’s masterpiece heading into this season but then Chris Davis got his shot to prove he could be trusted every day in the Orioles lineup. As it turns out, Davis is what MacPhail was really after in the deal that sent reliever Koji Uehara to the Rangers for Davis and Tommy Hunter.
The Rangers only wanted to part with Hunter for Uehara but MacPhail wanted Davis and more or less bought the slugging first baseman from the Rangers for $2 million. According to a recent article written by Fox Sports and former Orioles beat writer Ken Rosenthal, who chatted with former Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, MacPhail said he had a plan.
The plan was to trade first baseman Derrek Lee to the Pittsburgh Pirates to save about $2 million, then include that money in the deal for Davis, who would replace Lee. “The deal, then, would be cash-neutral -- the Orioles also would send a small amount of cash to the Pirates, but save a small amount in the exchange of Uehara for Davis and Hunter.”
It turns out that was enough to get the deal done and in hindsight, clearly favored the Orioles. Uehara made 22 appearances down the stretch for the Rangers and then pitched poorly in the playoffs that fall. But in 2012, Uehara pitched well for the Rangers, posting a 1.75 ERA in 37 games. He signed with the Boston Red Sox this past offseason.
Hunter, who is now 26, failed as a starter last season, but like Brian Matusz did, is starting to find a meaningful role in the bullpen. With a fastball that gets clocked in the upper 90s, he could become a nice asset there and considering how the Birds bullpen has slightly regressed this season, he needs to become an asset.
Then there is Davis-----But before we get to Davis, MacPhail also stole another Oriole that figures prominently into what the O’s are accomplishing as a team. Shortstop JJ Hardy was also stolen away from the Minnesota Twins for minor league right-handers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. The then AL Central champion Twins also gave the Birds infielder Brendan Harris and $500,000 to complete the deal.
DAVIS IS HAVING A SPECIAL SEASON:
Now we get to Davis, who hit his major league leading 20th home run on Sunday. He is no fluke at the plate this season. Not with numbers like this----In his last 22 games (since May 9), Davis is batting .415 (37-89) with 10 doubles, nine walks, 11 homers, 23 runs scored and 22 RBI.
He is 23-for-45 (.511) over his last 11 games and has homered in six of his last 12 and eight of his last 16 contests. He has three or more RBI in seven games this season, which is tied with Edwin Encarnacion for second most in the majors behind Miguel Cabrera (9). Davis is on pace to hit 55, which would break Brady Anderson’s club record of 50 in 1996. He is also the biggest threat to derail Miguel Cabrera’s run at a second straight Triple Crown and MVP----at least at the moment.
The two went head-to-head this past weekend with Davis earning the slight series nod. He was 5-12 with one home run and three RBI’s and Cabrera was 4-12 with one home run and four RBI’s.
While the pitching is the issue holding the Orioles from exploding onto the scene, the offense is stacked with talented hitters. As a team, the Orioles lead the American League and MLB in home runs (81), as well as slugging (.464), extra-base hits (207), OPS (.793).
The O’s are also second in runs (287), hits (540), doubles (125) and average (.275). They are third RBI’s with 278, which is five behind the Red Sox but 11 more than the fourth place Tampa Bay Rays. The Birds are on pace to hit 231 homers, which would be second-most in franchise history behind the 1996 club that blasted 257 homers. The Orioles have six players (Davis, Jones, Hardy, Markakis, Wieters and Machado) with 30 or more RBI entering June. That makes them only the sixth team since 1921 to have six different players with 30-plus runs batted in going into June.
Much is made of what the other Birds in town do come draft time but MacPhail was equal to Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, at least with round one selections, when at the helm for the Orioles June Amateur drafts. MacPhail signed All-Star catcher Matt Wieters after the Orioles selected him in the first round of the 2007 amateur draft and also drafted and signed Brian Matusz, Manny Machado, and Dylan Bundy.
Since making his debut last August, Manny Machado has quietly become not just one of the best young players in the game but simply one of the best players. While there is a ton of talk surrounding Mike Trout in LA and Bryce Harper down the road in D.C., Machado is having a better all-around season at the plate than either of the two young phenoms.
Machado is second in the majors in hits (80) behind Miguel Cabrera (82) and is tied with Cabrera and Marco Scutaro for the most multi-hit games in the majors (24). He leads the majors with 25 Doubles and according to STATS, his 80 hits are the most by any player under the age of 21 before the start of June since 1921 (Ken Griffey Jr. had 66 in 1990. Over his last 38 games, Machado has 19 multi-hit games and is batting .361 (60-166) with 19 doubles, two triples, three homers, 26 runs scored and 19 RBI. The Orioles are 4-1 when Machado homers, 29-15 when he records at least one hit and are 4-9 when he is held hitless.
Both Machado and Davis are in MVP consideration but they are not alone. Adam Jones is also in the mix. Jones is in the top in the A.L. top ten in runs, hits, doubles and RBI’s. He has reached base safely in 50 of 57 games this season. The 2012 Most Valuable Oriole could quite possibly extend that to league’s Most Valuable Player if his consistent play continues.
Of course, Nick Markakis and his consistent bat cannot be forgotten. Markakis has hits in 21 of the last 23 games and is batting .364 (35-96) with eight doubles, four homers, 16 runs scored and 18 RBI…He has 12 multi-hit games during that span (10 two-hit games and two three-hit games).
The Orioles have homered 28 times in the last 132 games and have scored more runs on home runs than any club in baseball (125). Hitting the cover off the ball doesn’t always assure any team an automatic ticket to the playoffs. O’s Skipper Buck Showlater has his team playing small ball as well. Led by one of the new GM’s top finds, Nate McClouth’s 19 stolen bases, leads the A.L and has the Orioles tied for first with the Royals in the junior circuit with 45 base thefts this season.
The Orioles have 15 consecutive stolen bases since Nick Markakis was caught on May 18 and were 25-of-29 in May, ranking second in the AL in total steals and SB percentage (86.2). Since the start of 2012, McClouth has the highest stolen base percentage (93.9, 31-33) among players with 30 or more steals.
YES---BUT CAN THEY FIELD THE BALL TOO?
So let’s see, we have established that the O’s lineup can hit with power while playing small at times---what about fielding the baseball you ask? Well----the Orioles are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals (.991 fielding percentage) as the best fielding team in baseball, committing just 19 errors all season.
All-Star catcher Matt Weiders is a defensive phenom behind the plate. Weiders gets the respect his arm deserves. Only 26 base stealers have attempted to steal on the Birds this season, which is the fewest in MLB---Of the 26, 13 have been caught.
With all of that, the Orioles are still just seven games over .500 and remain two games behind the Red Sox for the top spot in the East. Without better pitching, this could become the realization for O’s fans. It would be similar to the frustration Ravens fans felt for years as the purple and black trotted out top ranked defense year in and year out only to miss potential championships because they had no offense.
The Orioles need a veteran-innings eating starter near the top of the rotation and they need help in the middle of their bullpen. The Orioles bullpen was the mainstay for a team that managed to win 29 of their 38 one-run games last season. Closer Jim Johnson was the best in baseball with 51 saves last season but is struggling this season. His blown save vs. the Padres on May 13 was his first since July 27, 2012, against Oakland. His streak of 35 broke the previous team record of 34, set in 1997 by Randy Myers.
However, Johnson would blow four in his next six appearances. Before the game even gets to Johnson on many nights, Orioles starter have labored though their starts.
The Orioles have had trouble staying consistent throughout the batting order. As a staff, they have allowed 118 of their 269 runs (44%) in the fourth (43 runs), fifth (29 runs) and sixth (46) innings. In the first trip through the order, Orioles starters are holding opponents to a .253 average (507 plate appearances). That number goes up to .261 in 503 PA in the second time around and .308 (330PA) the third time through the batting order.
O’s pitchers have had a tough time keeping the ball in the park. The Orioles have allowed 78 homers in 509.2 innings. The Birds 1.38 homers allowed per nine innings is second only to Houston’s 1.39 homers per 9.0 IP. The Orioles allowed four homers in one inning on Saturday. That was the first time that occurred in club history.
There is hope on the horizon but it lags behind the developed talent at the plate. The Orioles possess a future one-two combination in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman that scouts say could potentially provide the Orioles the same stuff that Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine delivered for the Braves in the 90’s.
Bundy, who gave the Orioles a scare recently with some arm trouble, was cleared today by renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews to begin throwing activities. Bundy (2011) and Gausman (2012) are the Birds last two first round draft choices. Both were taken with the fourth overall pick.
Bundy was thought to be the one that would arrive on the scene first and he actually did last post season but his arm trouble has paved the way for Gausman, who made his third and most successful start of his young career on Sunday at Camden Yards.
After two rough outings to begin his major league career, Gausman showed he might in fact be in Baltimore to stay. In his home debut on Sunday, the 22-year-old stifled one of the top offenses in the Majors. Of the 18 outs Gausman recorded, 12 were on the ground and four were strikeouts, including catching reigning American League MVP and 2012 Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera looking to end the sixth.
After nine innings in which Gausman gave up 11 earned runs and four home runs to start his career, the rookie right-hander engaged in a pitchers' duel with the Tigers Rick Porcello and wound up with a no-decision, as his team rallied in the seventh to get him off the hook for the loss in his best start to date.
Orioles starters not only have to get better but they need to get a little stronger as well. Showlater has used 11 different starters this season, who have pitched a combined 321.2 innings. That is 5.2 innings per start, leaving your bullpen on the hook, every night for at least 3 1/3 innings of work.
O’s starters have surrendered 248 runs this season good for a 4.76 ERA. The bullpen just hasn’t been as sharp. Last season, the Orioles were an astounding 75-1 when leading after 8 innings and 74-0 when ahead after seven. This season, the Orioles have lost five games when leading after eight and are 23-3 after seven innings in 2013.
Dan Duquette may have to convince owner Peter Angelos that now is the time to break his rule of not breaking the bank to pay a quality pitcher. Angelos has never given a free agent contract to a pitcher of more than three years but the Orioles may have a chance to land a quality arm at the deadline that they may not just be willing to rent. Hell, there are whispers that players have removed Baltimore off the list of teams on their contracts that they would not approve a trade to.
I’m kidding but you get the point. Everything is changing in Bird Land and now is the time to capitalize on the momentum you have as an organization. Carpe Diem-----Carpe Diem!
If all continues to go well, Duquette may be able to pluck a quality starter from one of the underperforming Southern California teams; maybe even the Phillies would be willing to help with one of their former aces.
Despite the fact the Phillies are hovering at .500 (27-30) this season, Cliff Lee’s name could resurface and Roy Halladay may not yet be finished.
SO WHO IS AVAILABLE?
According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, top notch pitching may be at a premium by the time the trade deadline arrives. Since Major League Baseball and the players' association agreed to a new labor deal and MLB followed that up with record-setting television contracts, the clubs -- with money burning a hole in their front-office pockets -- have been aggressive in signing the best talent to long-term deals. Just ask Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, as well as others who have taken less.
One of the ripple effects, however, is that the ranks of the best of the summer trade market have been thinned out. Yes, more starting pitchers will become available as the summer goes along, and some teams will find gems -- remember the Tigers’ aggressive trade for Doug Fister -- but generally, the market for starting pitchers is shaping up to be limited. Here is how Olney ranks them right now.
1. Scott Feldman, Chicago Cubs Feldman has had many peaks and valleys during his career, but right now he is getting excellent results. He is 5-4 with a sub three ERA (2.82) and opponents are batting .229 against him this season, and he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of his last nine starts.
2. Matt Garza, Cubs What Chicago might get in return for him in trade would depend entirely on how he pitches after returning on May 19. If he goes back to being Matt Garza of the Rays days, well, he could ascend to become the most-sought-after pitcher of the summer. He’s eligible for free agency this fall. So far, he is 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in three starts.
3. Ricky Nolasco, Miami Marlins Nolasco is a quiet candidate for the O’s rotation. He is improving this season on as bad-bad tea. He has a 3.69 ERA. Nolasco is making $11.5 million this year, or about $2 million per month for any team acquiring him, and he'll be eligible for free agency in the fall.
4. Bud Norris, Houston Astros The Orioles will get a first hand look at Norris on Thursday as he scheduled to pitch the final game of the O’s-Astros series starting tomorrow at Camden Yards. Norris is 5-4 with a 3.39 ERA while making $3 million this year, and as an arbitration-eligible player, he is in line for a healthy raise this winter. He also pitches for the worst team in Major League baseball. Will Norris be around when the Astros begin to climb out of the competitive trench they are in now? Probably not.
5. Edinson Volquez, Padres San Diego does have some starting pitching depth in the pipeline as others work their way back from injury, and Volquez is eligible for free agency this fall. He is off to a rough start, at 4-5 and a 5.35 ERA, with 31 walks in 67 1/3 innings. 6. Bartolo Colon, Oakland Athletics The Athletics have other options, and Colon is obviously not part of their long-term plan -- and he is affordable, making $3 million for this season. So far in 2013, Colon is 6-2 with 3.33 ERA, with just four walks in 70 innings 7. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies A total wild card. The Phillies had the opportunity to consider dealing him (and maybe others) before and after the trade deadline last summer. But even after the Dodgers claimed him on waivers, the Phillies backed away from the idea of dealing him -- and in any event, Lee turns 35 in August, at a time when he’s among the most expensive pitchers in the game. He’s making $25 million this year, will make $25 million for 2014 and in 2015, then has a staggering $12.5 million buyout on a $27.5 million vesting option in 2016, when he turns 38. At 7-2, he’s pitching effectively now, with a 2.45 ERA in 12 starts. Depending on how teams fare in the weeks and months and assess the whole buyer/seller question, other pitchers could become available, like the Jays’ Josh Johnson. But for contenders looking for rotation help, the pickings could be incredibly slim -- which might make it a good time for teams that have increasingly expensive pitching talent with two to four years of service time to move their guys. (Like Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays).
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT:
While Joe Saunders did a nice job after joining the O’s staff last season, Duquette is going to have to do better this year and he may not be able to wait until the deadline.
The Orioles offense is not going anywhere and the fielding should remain in the top five in baseball. Having two of the best quality components makes it almost a no-brainer that they have to go get pitching----AND SOON!
This team, as it is assembled, will be around for a while. O’s fans have a lot to look forward to in the future. However, it would be a shame to waste a perfectly capable World Series team in 2013, especially since it has been exactly 30 years since you won your last one.