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Springtime Storylines: How soon can Buck Showalter turn the Orioles into AL East contenders?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Buck Showalter and the optimistic Orioles.

The Big Question: How soon can Buck Showalter turn the Orioles into AL East contenders?

I tend to think the Orioles’ shockingly excellent 34-23 record after Showalter took over as manager on July 29 isn’t representative of the team we’re going to see in 2011. Don’t get me wrong, Showalter is good, but the best manager in the world can’t turn a .300 winning percentage team into a true .600 winning percentage team in his first two months on the job. Those first two months were incredibly impressive, but not necessarily a sign of things to come. At least not immediately.

On the other hand, I really like what Andy MacPhail and the front office did this winter and it seems as though as many people are overlooking the team’s offseason improvements as are overrating their August/September run. Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds each come with big question marks, but there’s also the upside there for a deep, fairly potent lineup and for $26 million and a few relief prospects they represent sound investments for a team looking to bridge the gap between rebuilding and contending.

I’m not as high on the Kevin Gregg signing, but at worst he’s a setup-caliber reliever being paid closer money, and along with whomever of Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez, and Jim Johnson is healthy should give Showalter decent late-inning options. However, the Orioles will only go as far as the rotation will take them. They need Brian Matusz to build on a promising rookie season and they need the young trio of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton to live up to their prospect hype, because Jeremy Guthrie and Brad Bergesen simply aren’t the frontline starters on a team that’s going to contend for much of anything.

So what else is going on?

  • I hesitate to say any season can truly be make-or-break for a 25-year-old, but this is probably the year we find out whether the sky high expectations for Matt Wieters were totally off base. It’s pretty safe to say that Wieters isn’t going to live up to the ridiculous “Joe Mauer with power” billing, but after hitting just .266 with a .721 OPS through two seasons the real question is whether he’ll develop into an All-Star. He hasn’t shown much power, displayed much plate discipline, or controlled the strike zone especially well, but I’m still holding out some hope.
  • This may also be the year we find out whether Adam Jones is capable of taking the next step from solid regular to top-notch center fielder. He failed to show any real improvement from 2009 to 2010, and last year’s ugly 119/23 K/BB ratio could be enough to keep him from developing into a star despite an abundance of tools and some pretty nice production through age 24.
  • I sort of touched on this already in talking about the offeason moves, but health is going to be a huge key for the Orioles. Guerrero, Lee, and Hardy are all brittle veterans and Brian Roberts can’t seem to shake the back problems that plagued him for much of last year. Toss in a bullpen full of guys with past arm problems and injuries could really wreck things for a team whose depth isn’t particularly strong.
  • What happened to Nick Markakis’ power? His homer total has dropped from 23 to 20 to 18 to 12 and his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) has fallen from .185 to .160 to .138, which is much less pop than he showed as a still-developing rookie. Markakis’ all-around game is good enough that he has significant value even while hitting fewer than 20 homers, but that’s not the guy the Orioles signed to a six-year, $66 million extension.
  • Worth noting with Showalter is that he’s failed to last more than four seasons at any of his previous three jobs despite a .517 career winning percentage and two Manager of the Year awards. It’ll be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts in Baltimore.

So how are they gonna do?

If the veterans stay mostly healthy and two of Tillman, Arrieta, or Britton join Matusz as impact starters the Orioles can hang around the margins of contention all season, but more likely they’ll be headed toward a fourth straight last-place finish in baseball’s toughest division and looking ahead to 2012 by the time this July 29 rolls around.

Julio Urias is on his way back to the majors

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27:  Julio Urias #78 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the New York Mets during their game at Citi Field on May 27, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images
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Dodgers 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias is coming back to the majors and Alex Wood is headed to the 15-day disabled list with left elbow soreness, Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports. Urias will likely start Saturday against the Braves, which will mark his debut in front of the home crowd.

Urias made his major league debut on Friday against the Mets at Citi Field, but lasted only 2 2/3 innings. He yielded three runs on five hits and four walks with three strikeouts.

Urias came into the season rated as the Dodgers’ #1 prospect and the #2 overall prospect in baseball. Prior to his promotion, he had compiled a 1.10 ERA with 44 strikeouts and eight walks over 41 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Mookie Betts enjoys a three-homer game against the Orioles

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 31: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox follows his three run homer against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 31, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The Red Sox seem to have hit the jackpot on all of their young players so far this year. Jackie Bradley, Jr. just had a 29-game hitting streak snapped. Xander Bogaerts extended his hitting streak to 24 games on Tuesday night. And Mookie Betts has been quite productive batting leadoff for the Red Sox this year, entering Tuesday with an even .800 OPS.

Betts, 23, hit 18 home runs in his first full season last year. With a three-homer night against the Orioles on Tuesday, he’s already up to 12 in 2016 with four months of season left. The first was of the solo variety, a line drive to center field off of Kevin Gausman in the first inning. Betts followed up in the third with a liner to left field for a three-run dinger off of Gausman. He made it three in the seventh, drilling a Dylan Bundy offering to right field.

Here’s video of homer number two:

Betts finished 3-for-5 as the Red Sox won 6-2 at Camden Yards.

The stats show the Pirates as an outlier in throwing “headhunter” pitches

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Reliever Arquimedes Caminero #37 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Last week at ESPN Sweetspot’s Inside the Zona, Ryan Morrison looked into the data and found that the Pirates stand out among the rest when it comes to throwing “headhunter” pitches. Those are defined as fastballs 3.2 feet or higher and 1.2 feet towards the batter from the center of the plate.

The research was prompted because Diamondbacks second baseman Jean Segura was hit in the helmet by Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero last Tuesday in the seventh inning. The next inning, Caminero hit shortstop Nick Ahmed in the jaw with a pitch and was instantly ejected.

Morrison illustrated the data in a nice chart, which you should check out. The Pirates have thrown 93 of those pitches, which is way more than any other team. The next closest team is the Reds at 68 pitches. The major league average is approximately 48 pitches.

The Pirates have had an organizational philosophy of pitching inside since at least 2013, as MLB.com’s Tom Singer quoted manager Clint Hurdle as saying, “We’re not trying to hurt people, just staying in with conviction.”

Morrison goes on to suggest that the Diamondbacks should have forfeited last Wednesday and Thursday’s games against the Pirates in protest, out of concern for their players’ safety. As it happened, the D-Backs lost both games anyway, suffering a series sweep. The two clubs don’t meet again this season.

D-Backs manager Chip Hale said after last Tuesday’s game that Caminero “shouldn’t be at this level”. Caminero responded to those comments today, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I’m actually glad you asked me about that,” Caminero said. “The only thing I’ve got to say about (Hale) is that he is a perfect manager. And he was a perfect player, too. That’s it. I know what I did wasn’t good, but it happens in baseball. I wasn’t trying to hit anyone.”

I realize I’m late on pointing out Morrison’s terrific article and the whole debacle between the two teams, but I felt it was worth highlighting.

Jose Bautista: “I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 29: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jayshits a two-run home run in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on May 29, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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Also included in a recent report on Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated — along with his belief that Rougned Odor was the only bad guy in the May 15 debacle — was the slugger’s desire to remain a Blue Jay. Per Verducci, Bautista said, “I love the city. I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto.

Bautista, 35, is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in February 2011. Back in November, the Jays exercised their 2016 club option for $14 million. Bautista isn’t willing to discuss contract details during the season, so the two sides will have to wait until at least October to come to an agreement.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Yankees, Bautista is hitting .237/.371/.489 with 11 home runs, 37 RBI, and 40 walks, the latter of which leads the American League.