What’s Wrong In Baltimore:
With the recent sweep by the Tampa Bay Rays, the Baltimore Orioles have fallen to 14-19 and the worst record in the A.L. East. While their level of competition has been one reason for their struggles, the Oriole fans expected better than this after an active offseason and a number of young players players working their way up through the pipeline. I’m going to look at 4 areas to see what is wrong in Baltimore and what fixes could be in the works.
The Orioles have only really suffered two major injuries this season, but both have had a pretty big impact on how this team is preforming right now.
SP Brian Matusz: Matusz was arguably the best pitcher on this staff going into the season. And had all the makings of developing into a bona-fide ace. Unfortunately an intercostal strain has kept him out of the season so far, and will likely sideline him for another 3 weeks. On paper the Orioles brought up Zach Britton to replace Matusz and he has been nothing short of stellar, with a 5-2 record with a 2.93 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. The problem is Britton was going to come up no matter what, if any of the pitchers have struggled. Brad Bergesen has struggled in the 5th starters role, and has a 0-4 record, with a 5.57 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP (note: While Tillman has a pretty bad ERA, the defense behind him has been atrocious). When Matusz comes back not only can he take over the starts that would normally go to Bergesen, but Bergesen can move to the bullpen where he will likely be more effective anyways. This could strengthen the pitching staff in two ways, just by Matusz coming back.
J.J. Hardy: Hardy started the season with the team, but an oblique injury has sidelined him since the first 6 games. While Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino have been good defensively, neither projects to have as much of a defensive impact as Hardy. And although Andino has hit better than expected, he has just 2 extra-base hits of his 18 overall hits, which still isn’t as many as Hardy had in his 6 games (all three of his hits were doubles). Hardy isn’t going to hit a high average, but he can hit 15-20 HR’s and a good amount of doubles to be more of a run producer. When you combine Hardy’s defense and hitting advantages you should see a nice impact on the Orioles. In addition his presence will allow Andino and Izturis to go back to being utility infielders, as well as pinch runners and late inning defensive replacements (hint, hint Mark Reynolds). The good news for the O’s is that Hardy should be back tomorrow which will be a nice boost to this team.
Alfredo Simon is also coming back, after he has been on the restricted list since being held for manslaughter (though apparently never charged) stemming from a New Year’s Day shooting. While a case is still pending in his native Dominican Republic, I’m thinking that he will end up being cleared of this and might have been a target of just being famous. It’s hard to know for sure, but I’m thinking if the Orioles had any belief that he was really involved they would have just released him. Simon is working as a starter, but he is probably more likely to join the bullpen when he is ready later this month.
By in large the starting pitching hasn’t been the problem for the Orioles. Jeremy Guthrie, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton have all been good overall. Chris Tillman has struggled more, but he has had some good starts and has a much better pedigree as well. Bergesen has been the biggest issue in the rotation but he is likely moved to the pen when Matusz returns.
It sounds like the Orioles are somewhat interested in bringing back Kevin Millwood who opted out of his minor league deal with Yankees, and honestly that might not be a bad idea if Tillman doesn’t look better with his next start. Having a veteran like Millwood could help all the young pitchers and would give the Orioles depth for later in the year when they look to limit innings for their young guys.
The bullpen is more of a mess, but if you convert Bergesen to the pen and bring in Simon then maybe the Orioles can live with the results. As it stands now though Jeremy Accardo, Josh Rupe and Clay Rapada all need to be on the way out.
The Orioles hitting has been a joke so far which is a bit of a surprise considering they added 4 starting caliber bats this offseason. While J.J. Hardy has been injured and has an excuse for not producing the same can’t be said for Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee, and Vlad Guerrero. Reynolds, Lee and Vlad were supposed to be the power of this order, but they have a combined 11 HR’s and 14 doubles in over 400 plate appearances. None of the 3 players has an OBP above .310 (and two are below .300), or a Slug % above .389. That simply isn’t acceptable. In addition to the disappointing additions, two of the Orioles top veterans have also been unable to hit the ball. Both Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have a batting average under .230, and neither has displayed much power as well.
While J.J. Hardy’s return is part of the answer for this offense, their biggest problem might just end up being luck. Sure this team needs to walk a little more and strikeout less, but what is holding them back is their batting average on balls in play or BABIP. BABIP eliminates strikeouts and homeruns from the equation and looks at roughly how lucky a pitcher or a hitter is. Traditionally a normal BABIP is around .300 give or take a few points. Now elite hitters, especially speed guys will consistently be over that mark, but the fact that the Orioles as a team are last in the league at .260, points to them simply being unlucky. Nearly ever Oriole regular is between 30-60 points below their normal BABIP (not the league average, but roughly where they had been the past 3 years when applicable), with some guys even worse off than that. Markakis and Roberts are each over 90 points off where they typically are. If the Orioles hits starting finding grass instead of the opposition’s gloves then this team could be alright with the return of Hardy.
Defensively this team is improved from last season, when they were down right awful, but they still aren’t where they want to be. Part of the issue has been the absence of Hardy, but that isn’t the sole reason this team is still in the bottom third of the league defensively. Surprisingly part of the problem has been veterans Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, who haven’t been nearly as good in the field as they have in the past. Whether they just aren’t focusing because they are pressing at the plate, or something greater is wrong its hard to say. As it stands now there really isn’t much that can be done for them, other than to assume their defense will return to their normal levels.
The biggest issue defensively has been 3B Mark Reynolds. While no one thought that Reynolds would make a Gold Glove run in Baltimore, it wasn’t expected he’d be this bad either. While it is possible that J.J. Hardy’s superior range will help take away some of the balls that currently Reynolds is missing the Orioles can’t rely on that completely. I would like to see Baltimore replace Reynolds more in close late game situations with either Andino or Izturis. And I’d do so even if there is a chance that Reynolds might have to bat still (though in that case I’d probably use Andino since he is the better hitter). While this won’t fix the entire issue, subbing out a lot of Reynolds 8th and 9th inning work could help protect a few leads, or keep games within reach.