2016 Preview: Baltimore Orioles

8 Comments

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 2016 season. Next up: The Baltimore Orioles.

If you thought the Orioles were a “three true outcomes” team last year, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. “Three true outcomes”, for those not familiar, refers to a player who rarely puts the ball in play, so his plate appearances end in a strikeout, walk, or home run. Adam Dunn was the “three true outcomes” king for a while. Last season, the Orioles hit the third-most homers (217) and recorded the fifth-most strikeouts (1,331) but ranked 24th in walks (418). As a percentage of total plate appearances, those three outcomes made up 32.7 percent for the O’s in 2015. Only the Cubs, Astros, Nationals, Dodgers, and Mariners ranked higher.

Perhaps in an effort to move up the TTO standings, the Orioles acquired Mark Trumbo in a trade with the Mariners, and signed Pedro Alvarez. They also re-signed Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract. Trumbo’s TTO percentage over his six-year career is 36.1 percent. For Alvarez, it’s 43.1%. And for Davis, 46 percent.

Let’s hop off the TTO theme for a minute and go over the other acquisitions. Catcher Matt Wieters accepted the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer, making the safe play as he had accrued just 101 games played over the previous two seasons due to elbow problems, which eventually required Tommy John surgery. The Orioles have played it safe with him this spring and while he’s expected to break camp with the club, he could be used as a DH rather than behind the dish to begin the season.

The O’s signed reliever Darren O’Day to a four-year, $31 million deal. It’s kind of passe to overpay for relievers these days, but O’Day has been elite basically his entire career, his rookie season and 2011 notwithstanding. In four years with the Orioles, the right-hander has a 1.92 ERA with 283 strikeouts and 62 walks over 263 innings. While Zach Britton isn’t relinquishing the closer’s role anytime soon, barring injury, the Orioles have a capable backup plan who will otherwise handle the eighth inning with aplomb. Britton has quietly been money in the ninth inning, saving a total of 73 games with an aggregate 1.77 ERA and a 141/37 K/BB ratio in 142 innings over the last two years.

Hyun-soo Kim joined the Orioles out of Korea on a two-year, $7 million pact. The 28-year-old is coming off of a 28-homer, 121-RBI season with the Doosan Bears. However, he hit a paltry .182 with zero extra-base hits during spring training, so the Orioles aren’t planning on adding him to the 25-man roster. He could accept an assignment to Triple-A Norfolk, or the Orioles could return him to Korea.

Yovani Gallardo was the Orioles’ last big addition, agreeing to a two-year, $22 million deal in late February. Gallardo, because he had draft pick compensation attached to him for rejecting the Rangers’ qualifying offer, was passed over the entire winter and had to eventually settle shortly after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. The stats don’t portend future success for Gallardo, as his strikeout rate has been in free fall. It was at nearly 24 percent as recently as 2012, but went down to 18.6 percent, 17.9 percent, and 15.3 percent in the next three seasons. It seems to be related to fastball velocity, as Gallardo averaged 90.4 MPH, a career-low among any of his full seasons. The Orioles don’t appear to be relying on Gallardo to be an ace, valuing him more for his ability to pitch 175-plus innings.

Are these additions good enough for the Orioles, who finished 81-81 last season? Perhaps in another division, but the Orioles will have their work cut out for them with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees at minimum. Furthermore, the Orioles’ starting rotation is not one to lend any confidence. Chris Tillman will serve as the de facto ace, starting on Opening Day against the Twins. The right-hander was solid in the previous two seasons, but stunk up the joint last year, finishing with a 4.99 ERA over 31 starts. Nothing in Tillman’s peripherals speak to someone who just experienced a bout of bad luck. His K-rate shot down five percent compared to 2013 and his walk rate nearly reached a career high.

Miguel Gonzalez fits into the middle of the rotation and, like Tillman, he had a monumentally poor 2015 showing after appearing rock solid in prior years. From 2012-14, he had a 3.45 ERA. Last year? 4.91. Gonzalez’s peripherals don’t offer any explanations aside from a slightly lower soft contact rate and a slightly higher medium contact rate, according to FanGraphs. But his retrodictors, like FIP and xFIP, always had him as a pitcher in the mid-4.00s, so perhaps it finally caught up to him.

Ubaldo Jimenez, who showed his best control last season, slots in behind Gonzalez, but he’s having a putrid spring. In four appearances spanning only 7 1/3 innings, he has allowed 10 runs on 12 hits and six walks with five strikeouts. The veteran right-hander has finished with a sub-4.00 ERA in only one of his last five seasons. Neither his recent performances nor his spring numbers make one confident that he’ll finally turn things around in 2016. And behind Jimenez is Kevin Gausman, if he’s healthy enough to pitch, or Mike Wright. Gausman has been battling shoulder tendinitis. Wright appears to be cut from the same mold as pitchers like Kyle Kendrick, which is to say you’d rather have somebody else starting that day if possible.

The Orioles are going to hit a bunch of homers, which means they’ll win a few lopsided games. That’s always exciting. And once they bring a lead to O’Day and Britton in the eighth and ninth innings, they should wind up with a win. That being said, the starting pitching will be the downfall of this team and likely means they’ll fall behind in the AL East if all five members are unable to defy expectations. A big splash ahead of the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, in which a big time pitcher is added, could give them a second-half second wind, but as presently constructed it looks like the O’s have a tough road ahead of them.

Prediction: 79-83, fourth place in the AL East.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

tony la russa
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
1 Comment

CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.