Author: Matthew Pouliot

Nelson Cruz

Orioles have calls to make on hitters this winter


The Orioles took care of one key piece of business last week, signing shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year extension through 2017. They’ll have some decisions to make on the rest of their lineup this winter, though.

– Nelson Cruz, signed to a one-year, $8 million deal last winter, is a free agent.

– Nick Markakis can be brought back on a $17.5 million option (which includes a $2 million buyout) or the team could negotiate a new deal with him.

– Chris Davis is arbitration eligible after earning $10.35 million this year.

One imagines the Orioles will work something out with Markakis, who has been in the organization since the team picked him seventh overall in the 2003 draft. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Markakis is no longer a star, but he did have a better season offensively and defensively this year than in 2013. Ideally, the two sides could do a two- or three-year deal at a lesser salary than the option is worth.

Related: Royals complete sweep of Orioles in ALCS

Unless owner Peter Angelos really loosens the purse strings, retaining both Cruz and Davis seems unlikely. Cruz established new career highs with 40 homers and 108 RBI this year, but he’s 34 and a liability defensively in the outfield. He’ll probably ask for a four-year deal worth at least $15 million per season. Davis, nearly the AL MVP in 2013, probably won’t get much of a raise in arbitration after struggling and getting suspended for Adderall. Since it’d just be a one-year deal, the Orioles should keep him and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the Orioles’ pitching staff, Andrew Miller excepted, will return intact. Five of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez will comprise the rotation, and Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter will all be back in the pen. Top prospect Dylan Bundy, who spent this year rehabbing after Tommy John surgery, could also help next summer.

With Matt Wieters and Manny Machado due back healthy, the Orioles have the potential to be better next year than they were in winning the AL East this season. They’ll almost surely enter the spring as the favorites in the AL East no matter what the Red Sox and Yankees do.

The recipe for an unlikely Orioles’ comeback

Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz

As if overcoming a 3-0 deficit to win four consecutive postseason games wasn’t hard enough, the Orioles are going to have to try to do it in four straight days, since Monday’s rainout took away the schedule Thursday travel day.

That’s problematic, since the Orioles have a rotation of six-inning guys and will need to rely heavily on the bullpen to mount a comeback against the Royals. Maybe they’ll survive Game 4, but expecting Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day and Zach Britton to carry the day four times in a row, without any sort of break… well, eventually someone is going to break.

Most likely, it won’t come to that anyway. The Royals are at home these next two days. They had to use their most important relievers in Tuesday’s win, but none threw more than 14 pitches. All will be ready to go again on Wednesday.

But, what if…

The ALCS has been an even matched series thus far, with the Royals just finding a way to win in the end. If there’s a recipe for an Orioles miracle, it would probably involve a late-inning come-from-behind victory against Greg Holland on Wednesday. If they can pull that off — with Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis also having worked — they’ll have the benefit of the Royals’ bullpen being tired in Thursday’s Game 5.

A stellar outing from Chris Tillman then could send the Orioles back home with new life, ready for Games 6 and 7. Scheduled Royals Game 6 starter Yordano Ventura left Game 2 with shoulder tightness and his velocity was down before his departure. He could be tired and beatable. Toppling him would set the stage for a Game 7 on Saturday in which neither team would have any planned starters available on normal rest (the result of the rainout). Anything could happen that one. Ideally, it’d mean a whole lot of Kevin Gausman for Baltimore, if he hasn’t already been burnt out in the previous victories.

First, there’s Game 4. They’ll be sending seven or eight right-handed hitters up against Jason Vargas, with Delmon Young making his first start of the series. The Orioles have been beaten, but they don’t appear beaten. Let’s see what happens with their backs up against the wall.

Cardinals win and lose in NLCS Game 2

Yadier Molina

A fascinating and hard-fought Game 2 fell the Cardinals’ way Sunday, with Kolten Wong delivering a walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth. It was what happened three innings earlier, when Yadier Molina suffered a strained left oblique, that might decide the fate of the series.

To put it mildly, Tony Cruz had a rough time after replacing Molina behind the plate. He gave up a passed ball on his second batter of the game. In the ninth, he did a terrible job of helping out Trevor Rosenthal when it came to framing the strike zone, turning borderline calls into easy balls. And while Rosenthal deserves more blame than Cruz for the wild pitch that tied the game, Cruz’s attempt to block the ball, turning his head away and seemingly even closing his eyes, was embarrassing, and it led to him not being able to find it afterwards, allowing Matt Duffy to score from second on the play.

The one bit of good news for the Cardinals is that they added A.J. Pierzynski to the roster for the NLCS after going with two catchers in the NLDS. For one thing, he’s a better player than Cruz, whose defensive reputation seems to be inflated by his complete ineptitude at the plate (as predicted by the Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense). There’s a good chance Mike Matheny will keep using Cruz anyway, since he’s terribly stubborn like that, but at least now the Cardinals have the option.

The Pierzynski add also saves the Cardinals in case there’s any chance of Molina getting healthy to play in the next week or two. If the Cardinals were carrying just two catchers, they might have had to take Molina off the roster and thus lose him for the World Series as well (a player removed from the roster due to injury is ineligible to return during the next series). Or maybe they could have gotten away with saying a pitcher (Michael Wacha?) was hurt and replaced him with a catcher. At least this way, the Cardinals can play with 24 men, which seems like the best option unless they’re sure Molina is done.

Even with a healthy Molina, the NLCS was shaping up as an uphill climb for the Cardinals, what with Adam Wainwright looking little like himself, Rosenthal struggling in the ninth and the Giants now possessing home-field. To overcome it all with their best player sidelined will take a pretty heroic effort. Sunday’s win gives them life, which they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, but the deck is stacked against them.

Cardinals can do better than Randal Grichuk in right field

Randal Grichuk

That Randal Grichuk started and hit second against Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner in Saturday’s shutout loss wasn’t actually a problem. It will be a problem if he finds himself anywhere near the two hole in the next three games of the NLCS for the Cardinals.

Grichuk, who unofficially became the Cardinals’ primary right fielder with about a week remaining in the regular season, was responsible for the first highlight of NLDS play last week when he took Clayton Kershaw deep in the first inning of Game 1 against the Dodgers. However, he’s 2-for-19 with no extra-base hits, no RBI and an 8/1 K/BB ratio since that homer, having started every game as the Cardinals’ No. 2 hitter.

The problem is that Grichuk really only hits left-handed pitchers. In Triple-A this year, he came in at .325/.376/.505 in 123 at-bats against southpaws and .233/.286/.403 versus righties. His splits weren’t quite as pronounced in previous years, but they were still significant. In the majors, he wasn’t particularly good against either lefties (.242/.254/.435 in 62 AB) or righties (.250/.308/.354 in 48 AB), but all of his homers did come off lefties.

Besides, there’s another benefit to sitting Grichuk versus right-handers the next three games; he’d be the one potentially scary option off the bench against lefties the Cardinals possess. Right now, they’re reduced to using Tony Cruz or Peter Bourjos as a late-game bat against Jeremy Affeldt or Javier Lopez. Grichuk would be much more of a threat.

So, ideally in Game 2 on Sunday, it’ll be Oscar Taveras in right field, perhaps with Kolten Wong batting second. Using Bourjos in center field and Jay in right, as they did a few times last month, is also an option, but a less likely one.

Oddities abound in Royals’ Game 1 victory

Alcides Escobar

The Orioles led the American League in homers this year with 211. The Royals finished last with 95.

The Royals led the American League in steals this year 153. The Orioles finished last 44.

On Friday, all roles were reversed. The Royals hit three homers. The Orioles hit one. Baltimore was 2-for-2 stealing bases. Kansas City was 0-for-1.

Let’s run down some of the madness from Kansas City’s 10-inning victory:

– Two innings after calling his shot*, Alcides Escobar hit Kansas City’s first homer. He had three in 598 at-bats combined between the regular and postseason before taking Chris Tillman deep.

– Tillman gave up five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. It was the first time he had allowed five runs since June 5.

– James Shields gave up four runs and 10 hits in five innings. He has a 5.63 ERA in three postseason starts, yet the Royals have won all of them anyway.

– The Orioles’ game-tying run in the sixth came on a 70-foot bloop/pop-up hybrid from Alejandro De Aza that dropped in the perfect spot behind the pitcher and in front of the middle infielders. Before that, the Royals’ big “blast” came was Alex Gordon’s broken-bat double dumped down the right-field line with the bases loaded in the third.

– The Royals, also dead last in the AL in walks this year, worked seven tonight. Three of those came in a row to start the top of the ninth, yet the Royals failed to score in the inning.

– Orioles closer Zach Britton issued all of three of the ninth-inning walks. He had never walked more than one batter in a 74 appearances this season. The three guys he walked were Alcides Escobar (23 BB in 620 PA), Jarrod Dyson (22 BB in 290 PA) and Lorenzo Cain (24 BB in 502 PA). Dyson and Cain both walked on four pitches while attempting to give themselves up by sac bunting.

– After those three walks and a total of 12 straight balls from Britton, Eric Hosmer took one of the worst swings in baseball history on a 1-0 count, hackng wildly at a slider a foot off the plate. He went on to hit a grounder on a full count that led to the go-ahead run being cut down at home. He also barely deigned to run the grounder out, which could have led to a double play had the Orioles handled it cleanly.

– The Royals hit two homers in the 10th inning, with Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas going deep. They hit one extra-inning homer in 162 games during the regular season. They have four now in the postseason.

– Even untouchable Royals closer Greg Holland made things interesting in the end. He had gone 12 straight innings without allowing a hit before giving up two tonight, and he surrendered his first earned run since Aug. 15 before closing out the 8-6 game.

*Escobar didn’t actually call his shot. He was pointing to an annoying stand of lights from TBS’s pregame set that he wanted shut off before leading off the game in the top of the first.