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.

Rob Manfred offers little insight, shows contempt for reporters in press conference

Rob Manfred
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
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Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at a press conference, addressing the Astros cheating scandal and other topics on Sunday evening. It did not go well.

To start, the press conference was not broadcast officially on MLB’s own TV channel (it aired the 1988 movie Bull Durham instead), nor could any mention to it or link to the live stream be found anywhere on MLB.com. When the actual questions began, Manfred’s answers were circuitous or simply illogical given other comments he has made in the past. On more than one occasion, he showed contempt for reporters for doing their jobs — and, some might argue, doing his job — holding players and front office personnel accountable.

Last month, Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the Astros’ “dark arts” and “Codebreaker” operation, based on a letter Manfred sent to then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Diamond was among the reporters present for Manfred’s press conference on Sunday. Per The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, Manfred addressed Diamond, saying, “You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.” MLB’s response to the depth of the Astros’ cheating ways was lacking and, without Diamond’s reporting, we would have known how deeply lacking that response was. It is understandable that Manfred would be salty about it, since it exposed him as doing his job poorly, but it was an immature, unrestrained response from someone in charge of the entire league.

Onto the actual topic at hand, Manfred said he felt like the punishment doled out to the Astros was enough. Per Chris Cotillo, Manfred said Astros players “have been hurt by this” and will forever be questioned about their achievements in 2017 and ’18. Some players disagree. Former pitcher Phil Hughes even suggested the players have a work stoppage over this issue.

Manfred defended his decision not to vacate the Astros’ championship, saying, “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” The commissioner devaluing the meaning of a championship seems… not great? Counterintuitive, even? The “piece of metal” is literally called the Commissioner’s Trophy. Manfred went on to brag about the league having “the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty.” Be careful, don’t hurt yourself patting yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum.

Manfred said there was no evidence found that the Astros used buzzers and added that, since the players were given immunity, he doesn’t think they would continue to hide that when asked about it. He said, “I think in my own mind. It was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us, given that they were immune, why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing and 17, admit they did the wrong thing and 18, and then lie about what was going on in 19.”

The commissioner expects the league to implement “really serious restrictions” on access to in-game video feeds for the 2020 season.

There has been some recent back-and-forth between the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Astros’ Carlos Correa. Manfred isn’t a fan of the sniping through the media. He said, “I’m sort of a civil discourse person. It must be because I’m old. But, yeah, I think that the back and forth that’s gone on is not healthy.” The reason Bellinger and others are speaking publicly about the issue, attempting to hold the Astros accountable, is because the league did not do a sufficient job doing that itself. Bellinger wouldn’t feel the need to speak up in defense of himself, his teammates, and other players affected by the cheating scheme if he felt like the league had his and his peers’ backs.

Because the players involved in the Astros’ cheating scheme weren’t punished, some — like Larry Bowa — have suggested intentionally throwing baseballs at Astros players to exact justice. Manfred met with managers who were in attendance today to inform them that retaliatory beanballs “will not be tolerated.” He added, “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.” Manfred has done nothing about beanball wars in the past, but it will now give the Astros somewhat of an advantage since pitchers will now be judged closely on any pitch that runs too far inside on Astro hitters.

Manfred also spoke about the ongoing feud with Minor League Baseball and basically reiterated what he and the rest of the league have disingenuously been saying since it was revealed MLB proposed cutting 42 minor league teams. Manfred’s talking point is that MLB is concerned about substandard facilities being used by minor league players, but not all of the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block have anything close to what could reasonably be considered substandard.

Lastly, Manfred was asked about the Orioles and tanking, and more or less danced around the issue by expressing confidence in the club’s ownership. The Orioles have won 47 and 54 games in the past two seasons. Payroll dropped by more than $50 million. The Orioles saw over 250,000 fewer fans in attendance in 2019 than in ’18. The O’s also saw a decline of over 460,000 fans in attendance from 2017 to ’18. But, yeah, it’s going well.

All in all, this press conference could not have gone worse for Manfred. The press found it condescending and the comments he made rang hollow to the players. Manfred seemed on edge and unprepared addressing arguably the biggest controversy baseball has faced since the steroid era. This is a dark time for the sport.