Chris Tillman AP

2014 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

The Big Question: Is there enough pitching here to get the O’s back to the playoffs?

The Orioles make their bones with the bat. They ranked fourth in the AL in runs last season, and they did it with power. Lots of  homers — first in the league — lots of doubles and the AL’s third highest slugging percentage. Adding Nelson Cruz to that lineup well only help things. While we’re many years removed from people making Chuck Norris jokes about Matt Weiters, there is still the potential there for him to have a breakout offensive season that turns him into an MVP candidate. Chris Davis is unlikely to match his otherworldly 2013, but he is still a force in the middle.

So, as almost always seems to be the case, Orioles fans are asking if there is enough pitching here. My gut feeling: it’s better, but it’s not quite enough.

Adding Ubaldo Jimenez is a gamble, but not a dumb one. He has been decent at limiting homers and that’s key in the AL East. Chris Tillman is solid. Bud Norris doesn’t knock anyone’s socks off, but Kevin Gausman and/or Dylan Bundy could contribute in Baltimore this year if the back end of the rotation falters. It’s not the best rotation in the AL East — it’s in a dogfight to even make it to third best in the division — but there are enough moving parts here where things could turn out better than expected.

But when you are in the toughest division in baseball, moving parts with upside aren’t all that comforting. if the O’s make the playoffs this year it will be because multiple guys in the rotation exceed expectations. That could easily happen. I just don’t think people get rich betting on things like that, and I won’t bet on it here.

What else is going on?

  • The bullpen is worth watching too, of course. A huge strength for the team’s 2012 playoff run, it took a step back last year and this year is in real flux. The departure of Jim Johnson and the aborted signing of Grant Balfour means that Tommy Hunter is likely to get most closing opportunities. That could work — I fail to believe that closing is some genetically-determined ability possessed by True Closers only — but it’s possible we see a lot of guys getting save chances this year.
  • Outfield defense might be interesting. Delmon Young made this team and Buck Showalter has made it clear that he and Nelson Cruz will play outfield, not just DH. Indeed, the presence of both pretty much means one will have to a lot of the time if they don’t wish to waste a roster slot. Balls to the gap should be fun. Hope Adam Jones has put in his time on the treadmill this spring.
  • With Brian Roberts gone, second base is going to be a fun position to watch in Baltimore. Last week’s trade to obtain Steve Lombardozzi could mean that he gets a lot of time there. The Nats learned last year that making Lombardozzi an everyday player is not the key to happiness, however. Ryan Flaherty will probably cover third base until Manny Machado comes back from injury, but once he does, he could see a lot of time there which, yuck. I’d love to see Showalter hand the job over to prospect Jonathan Schoop. The club will likely say he needs more seasoning in the minors, however. Which you should read as “needs less service time in the majors.”
  • This is, overall, a young team. Cruz may be an old man, but many key players on which the Orioles rely are on the rise, not the decline. Machado is 21, Schoop is 22, Kevin Gausman is 23, Chris Tillman will turn 26 next month, Dylan Bundy  in April), Britton (26), Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Matt Weiters are still only 28. Upside is there for many, and it makes 2014 just one of many chances to break through.

Prediction: I like what the Orioles have going here. And I think that they could surprise and challenge for the wild card. I just think that their pitching is too uncertain and their division too tough to predict that with confidence. They may make me look like a fool — and I know other HBT writers think they’ll be way better than I have them — but I have them neck-and-neck with the Yankees for third place, and quite possibly Fourth Place, AL East.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: