2016 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 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.

Astros owner Jim Crane says MLB ‘explicitly exonerated’ him

Jim Crane
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Even during a pandemic, the Astros can’t seem to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Per The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Astros owner Jim Crane claimed in a legal filing on Monday that Major League Baseball “explicitly exonerated” him in the club’s 2017 sign-stealing scandal that resulted in a now-tainted championship.

Crane is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose last appearance in the majors was on August 4, 2017 against the Astros. He faced eight batters, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in one-third of an inning. Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking damages for himself as well as for the Astros to forfeit the nearly $31 million in bonuses earned from winning the championship in 2017, asking for the money to be reallocated to children’s charities and retired players in need of financial assistance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred did not use the word “exonerated” in his report on the league’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scheme. Manfred did, however, write, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Saying that the league found “no evidence” that Crane was involved and patting Crane on the back for not obstructing the investigation is not the same was “explicitly exonerating” him. The Athletic asked MLB if it agreed with Crane’s characterization of the report. Rather than agreeing with Crane, the league simply said, “All of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

This isn’t the first legal filing in which the Astros made a questionable claim. Recently, Astros lawyers claimed the organization expressed “sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

In Monday’s filing, Astros lawyers swung at Bolsinger, citing his poor pitching performance overall in 2017. They wrote, “Plaintiff wants to have a California judge and jury literally call ball and strikes, and award him money damages based on rank conjecture about what might have happened to him in Houston on August 4, 2017 due to alleged rules violations he speculates may have occurred that day.”

Astros lawyers also questioned the frequency of the club’s cheating and its impact, writing, “Major League Baseball (‘MLB’) investigated alleged rule violations by the Astros related to sign-stealing, resulting in a January 13, 2020 report in which the Commissioner of Baseball expressly found that ‘it is impossible to determine whether the (Astros’) conduct actually impacted the results on the field. The MLB did not conclude that sign-stealing violations occurred in every game or even most at-bats in the 2017 season.”

Astros fan Tony Adams, who analyzed every home game during the 2017 regular season and posted the results on SignStealingScandal.com, found that there were 54 “bangs” on August 4 when Bolsinger pitched against the Astros. That was the highest total among all Astros home games that season. Bolsinger entered in the middle of the fourth inning, first facing Yuli Gurriel. Adams found three bangs — all on curve balls — in a plate appearance that ended in a walk. Adams found four more bangs — all on breaking balls — in a Brian McCann at-bat later that inning that also ended in a walk. Bolsinger then gave up a single to Tyler White, with trash can banging on a cut fastball and a curve. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, singled as well, hearing bangs on a cutter and a curve. Bolsinger finally got out of the inning when Bregman swung at a first-pitch curve (yes, there was a trash can bang for that) and flied out.

Importantly, Bolsinger’s lawyer notes that Crane’s motion makes MLB eligible for discovery. It is already eligible for discovery in New York federal court where the league is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by daily fantasy sports contestants. Bolsinger’s lawsuit is brought out of California state court. The Astros want Bolsinger’s lawsuit dismissed or at least moved to Texas.

Because the Astros can’t seem to stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this whole situation figures to get even more wild as time goes on. Due to discovery, we may end up learning even more about the Astros’ cheating ways than the league may have let on in their report on their investigation.