Chris Tillman AP

2014 Preview: Baltimore Orioles


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.

What Barry Bonds being the Marlins hitting coach means. And what it doesn’t mean.

FILE - In this March 10, 2014, file photo, former San Francisco Giants Barry Bonds chats to the dugout during a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bonds' obstruction of justice conviction reversed by 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.  (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

The news that Barry Bonds plans, tentatively at least, to accept the Marlins offer to be their hitting coach has the hot stove sizzling. Which is totally understandable. Barry Bonds is a big famous — infamous, even — name and he’s been out of baseball for a long time. That he seems to be getting back in the game, then, is understandably interesting. That he seems to be heading to the Marlins — not exactly an expected destination — is likewise interesting.

But how interesting is it? And does it really matter, both for Bonds and for the Marlins? And if so, how much? Let’s do a quick Q&A about it, shall we?


Q: Bonds is one of the greatest hitters of all time. That should make him an amazing hitting coach, right? 

A: Not necessarily. The guy thought to be one of the best hitting coaches in history — Charlie Lau — had an OPS+ of 89 for his career across 11 almost totally bench-riding seasons in the bigs. Many of the other top hitting coaches in baseball history were likewise scrubeenies of one flavor or another. Same goes for pitching coaches, by the way, while many of the ex-superstars that got into the coaching biz didn’t last long and didn’t have a lot of success. Indeed, there appears to be no correlation at all and at least some anecdotal disconnection between playing prowess and coaching prowess, possibly because that which comes naturally to a superstar is hard to communicate to someone not as gifted. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Gibson coached. None of them changed the coaching game by their presence.

All of that said, Barry Bonds’ greatness came not just from his physical gifts —  naturally or artificially bestowed — but from his approach to at bats. His preparation, his strategy and his plate patience. Some of those things can likely be communicated fairly straightforwardly, even if they cannot simply be picked up by any Justin, Adeiny or Christian who comes along.


Q: Let’s assume Bonds would be a good hitting coach, though. How much of an impact could he possibly have?

A: That’s the big question, really. And you won’t find a lot of agreement on it. Many people say that hitting coaches are only as good as the lineup they coach and that, especially in this day and age, a player’s own preparation — which he may take far more seriously than the atta-boys from a coach his father’s age — matters much more than anything else.

There have been some attempts to quantify a good hitting coach’s impact, however. One such study was conducted by Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carelton a couple of years ago. Carelton found that hitting coaches can really only have a noticeable impact on whether or not hitters take a more aggressive or a more passive approach at the plate and cannot, by themselves, teach pitch selectivity. He further found that hitting coaches seem to be divided into two groups: those who teach hitters to put the ball into play and those who encourage a walk/strikeout/home run approach to things.

As far as results go, Carleton found some pretty significant impacts in small sample sizes and for hitting coaches, like Clint Hurdle, who coached in volatile run-scoring environments such as Colorado and Texas. He concluded, however, that even if we’re being super conservative, a good hitting coach could account for 20-30 runs in a year, which is a couple of wins, and that a couple of wins is a pretty big impact for a low-paid coach.

Of course, the Marlins had the second worst offense in the National League last year. They need more than just 20-30 runs.


Q: Getting away from the numbers, this is a big deal, right? For the Marlins? For Bonds? 

A: Though I’m on record being a pretty big Bonds fanboy, I think we should temper our expectations on all of this. Mark McGwire made something of a P.R. splash when he entered the coaching ranks with the Cardinals. He was the first bigtime PED guy to return to the game and he was under the microscope for a bit. But then, of course, he just faded into the same woodwork into which all of the other hitting coaches fade. We didn’t think too much of him until he changed jobs a few years later then when he changed jobs again just recently. Being back in the game certainly didn’t help his Hall of Fame case either. He’s been sliding off the ballot pretty steadily for years, actually. The most that can be said is that, when McGwire’s name comes up in news reports, the first reference to him isn’t “The controversial, steroid-associated slugger, Mark McGwire.” That usually waits until the second paragraph. If Bonds has that happen to him it’ll be a moral victory for him. But given that he’s more infamous than McGwire was, don’t count on that happening.

Ultimately I think that Bonds will, after the initial wave of stories and the initial pictures of him in Marlins garb next spring come out, fade into that woodwork like any other coach. After all no one comes to the ballpark to see a hitting coach. Not even one as famous as Barry Bonds.


Q: Quit being negative. Isn’t it something of a big deal? Even a little bit? 

A: OK, I’ll give you this much: between McGwire, the reinstatement of A-Rod and his well-received and successful 2015 season and now Bonds being hired, it’s fair to say that baseball has had no problem with the rehabilitation and mainstreaming of the PED crowd from the 1990s and 2000s. They’re not pariahs in the game and their association with it is not considered controversial by the people who play it and run it. The only people living in the past in this regard, it seems, is the media. Perhaps another so-called villain being welcomed back into the game’s ranks will help bring them around too.


Q: Why is Bonds, after years of exile from baseball and a seemingly idyllic life in California, willing to go work for Jeff Loria anyway?

A: We won’t know until he says so, though I’m sure many people will try to speak for him on that count. To the extent they do, they’ll likely talk about his “legacy” and the fact that his legal troubles were finally and definitively put behind him in 2015. All of that is just speculation, of course. The most we know is that Bonds was (a) willing to coach the Giants in spring training; and (b) spoke at various points in his career about how he’d like to maybe one day be a coach of some kind. This is a job that seems to be open and it’s in a city — Miami — that ain’t a hard place to live, even if the organization for which he’ll work is dysfunctional.

Maybe a young man’s dreams don’t really ever go away. Maybe baseball is fun and guys who spent almost their entire life in baseball miss it when it’s gone. And maybe Barry just wants back in.

Astros “shopping” slugger Chris Carter

Chris Carter

With tomorrow’s deadline to tender 2016 contracts to arbitration eligible players looming, Jerry Crasnick of reports that the Astros are “shopping” first baseman Chris Carter.

Few players in baseball have more power than Carter, who hit 24 homers in 129 games this year and has averaged 30 homers per 150 games for his career, but he’s also a career .217 hitter with little defensive value who should probably be a designated hitter.

Houston has no shortage of power options, many of whom have somewhat similar skill sets to Carter, so shopping him around makes sense. He seems unlikely to generate a big return, however. Carter could command a salary of more than $6 million via arbitration.

UPDATE: Barry Bonds tentatively plans to accept the Marlins hitting coach job

Barry Bonds

UPDATE: Bob Nightengale reports that while negotiations are not yet finalized, Barry Bonds “tentatively plans to accept the Marlins’ offer to be hitting coach with Frank Menechino.” Which is a good reminder that Menechino is still the Marlins’ hitting coach. Who would be the assistant and who would be the coach — or if they’d be co-coaches — is unclear.

12:00PM: The matter of Barry Bonds as the Marlins hitting coach has gone from “consideration” to “offer,” reports Bob Nightengale. The Marlins now await Barry Bonds’ response.

The biggest mystery in all of this is whether Bonds is actually interested. No one has reported that he was willing or even that there have been serious conversations between the Marlins and Bonds. That could be because Bonds, as has always been his practice, doesn’t talk too much to the media. Indeed, we learn more about him from his social media presence than anything reported about him. So it’s possible that Bonds and Jeff Loria have been in contact about all of this and he’s strongly considering it as well.

It’s also possible that this is all nothing and the Marlins are just trying to make a long shot happen.

MONDAY, 5:01 PM: This shouldn’t cause any controversy, lead to a lot of people saying dumb things or provide fodder for jokes at all. Nope, none whatsoever:

In what promises to be a bombshell move, if executed, all-time great slugger Barry Bonds is under consideration to become Marlins hitting coach.

Team higherups have quietly been discussing this possibility for weeks.

That’s Jon Heyman, who reminds us that Bonds has worked with the Giants in the spring in recent years. And who, no matter what else you can say about him, was one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Also worth remembering that despite his controversial past, that greatness came not just from physical gifts, naturally or artificially bestowed. It came from his approach, preparation and strategy at the plate. No one can teach a hitter to hit like Barry Bonds, but you’d think that hitters could be taught to try to approach an at bat the way Barry Bonds would. And who better to do it than Barry Bonds?

That is, if Bonds is willing to drop his seemingly ideal retired life in San Francisco, move to Miami and work for Jeff Loria for nine months a year. Which, eh, who knows? But the possibility of it is pretty fascinating to think about.

Royals avoid arbitration with Tim Collins for $1.475 million

Tim Collins Getty
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Left-hander Tim Collins, who missed the entire 2015 season following Tommy John elbow surgery, will remain with the Royals after avoiding arbitration for a one-year, $1.475 million contract.

Collins was a non-tender candidate due to his injury and projected salary via arbitration, but the Royals are convinced he can bounce back to be a valuable part of the bullpen again in 2016 and beyond. He agreed to the same salary he made in 2015.

Prior to blowing out his elbow Collins posted a 3.54 ERA with 220 strikeouts in 211 innings from 2011-2014 and he’s still just 26 years old. He figures to begin 2016 in a middle relief role.