Orioles looking to fill holes in outfield

The Orioles have added depth in their middle infield and bullpen, but will have a pair of large holes to fill in their outfield this season.

After nine seasons, right fielder Nick Markakis left via free agency and signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves offered Markakis the contract even though he had surgery on his neck during this offseason. Left fielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz also left via free agency after leading Major League Baseball with 40 home runs last season. He signed a four-year, $57 million contract with the Seattle Mariners in December. The Orioles also lost a key arm in their bullpen after left-hander Andrew Miller signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the New York Yankees,the largest contract ever fora reliever. The Orioles acquired Miller from Boston at the trade deadline last summer, and was a valuable weapon coming out of the bullpen during Baltimore’s postseason run. Baltimore did re-sign closer Zach Britton and left-hander Brian Matusz to avoid salary arbitration.

Travis Snider has previously played for both Toronto & Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Flickr user James G. under a Creative Commons license.
Travis Snider has previously played for both Toronto & Pittsburgh.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user James G. under a Creative Commons license.

Baltimore still has a waiver-wire pickup from last season in Alejandra de Aza, and the Orioles also re- signed outfielder/DH Delmon Young to a one-year, $2.25 million contract.

Young could also earn an additional $750,000 in incentives. The Orioles traded Class A pitcher Stephen Tarpley to Pittsburgh for right fielder Travis Snider. Snider hit .264 with 14 homers and a career-high 38 RBIs.

The Orioles will have an abundance of catchers heading into Opening Day. Matt Wieters continues to recover from Tommy John surgery last season, and his status for the start of the season is still uncertain. If Wieters isn’t ready for Opening Day, Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger will be the Orioles’ catchers, and a roster move will have to be made once Wieters returns.

Baltimore continues to add depth to its middle infield. The Orioles signed infielder Everth Cabrera to a one-year contract. Cabrera hit .232 with 18 stolen bases for San Diego last year. Cabrera has played for the Padres since 2008, and has 136 steals in his career, including a Major League- high 99 over the last three seasons. However, Cabrera has struggled defensively in Spring Training has he looks to join last season’s platoon of Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop. As for the corner infield spots, Manny Machado will be back at third base after recovering from knee surgery that abruptly ended his 2014 season. Chris Davis has received a therapeutic use exemption from Major League Baseball, allowing him to use Adderall, but he’ll still have to sit out Opening Day to serve the final game of his 25-game drug suspension.

The Orioles’ depth in their starting rotation is also helping them cushion the blow from the struggles of right- hander Ubaldo Jiminez this spring. This follows his demotion to mop-up duty out of the bullpen after signing a four-year, $50 million contract at the start of Spring Training last year, and then posting a record of 6-9 with a 4.81 earned-run average. Wei-Yin Chen had 16 wins to lead four starters who had double-digit wins last season.

Baltimore will open the season with three games at Tampa Bay April 6-8. The Orioles will open their home schedule on April 10 with the first of three games against Toronto, followed by three more against the Yankees and Boston Red Socks. The Chicago White Sox will also come to Baltimore for three-game series during April.

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Orioles Clinch First A.L. East Title in 17 Years

The Baltimore Orioles won the American League East title back in 1997. That was followed by 14 straight losing seasons that often saw the time out of contention by the All-Star break or the July 31 trade deadline, and frustrated longtime fans. The team managed to break that streak by winning a wild card game, and then taking the New York Yankees to five games in the 2012 American League Division Series, only to miss the playoffs last year despite another winning record. Now, the pennant drought and all those losing seasons have faded into distant memories.

The Orioles became the second team to clinch a playoff berth by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2 to clinch the A.L. East title on Sept. 16 in the middle of a three-game series with Toronto at Camden Yards. After Toronto scored a run in the top of the first inning, Steve Pearce answered by hitting a three-run home run to put the Orioles on top for good. With the Orioles on top 4-2 in the seventh, new outfielder Alejandro De Aza hit a triple with the bases loaded to break the game open. Shortstop J.J. Hardy singled with one out in the eighth, and then scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Nick Hundley for the final run. The celebration began after Pearce fielded a grounder and stepped on first for the final out. After the celebration on the field, the champagne and beer started flying in the clubhouse, and then some of the players came back out of the dugout to salute the fans and spray some champagne and beer on them. Jones shared hugs with the grounds crew and high fives with fans as he carried the division championship flag around the warning track. Right-hander Ubaldo Jiminez, who’s struggled all season after signing a four-year, $50 million contract at the start of spring training, got a spot start, and allowed two runs on two hits, walked four and struck out six in five innings to improve to 5-9. It was the first game he’d pitched in since August 31.

Baltimore started their final homestand of the regular season by winning three out of four against the Yankees. Utility infielder Kelly Johnson, who started the season with New York before being traded to Boston at the end of July and to Baltimore at the end of August, hit a double in the bottom of the ninth to give the Orioles a 3-2 win over New York in Derek Jeter’s final game in Baltimore in front of a national audience on ESPN. That whittled the Orioles’ magic number to clinch the division down to three to eliminate Toronto. In the Sept. 15 series opener against the Blue Jays, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen gave up a run in the first inning, but Baltimore responded with an RBI single by Adam Jones, and De Aza scored on a double play grounder by Nelson Cruz. Cruz drove in Jones with a single in the third. In the fourth, second baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a no-doubt two-run homer out onto Eutaw Street through an open gate in the flag court to put the Orioles on top 5-1 on the way to a 5-2 win. That set up the clinching game the following night.

The Orioles will play in the American League Division Series starting on October 2. Their opponent will be determined based on the outcomes of the wild card and other division races.

Orioles making push for AL East pennant

Longtime fans remember the “Orioles Magic” that was the foundation for a string of competitive seasons from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. Now, a new generation of fans may be seeing a reincarnation of that magic.

By Andrew Koch

The Orioles entered their series in Chicago against both the White Sox and Cubs with a seven-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East, and a 7.5 game lead over the New York Yankees. Baltimore is poised to clinch its first division title since 1997, a fact that’s not lost on the team’s staff, as box office representatives began sending out information on purchasing postseason tickets for season ticketholders while the Orioles were on their road trip to Cleveland and Chicago. What makes this season even more magical is the run Baltimore has been on since June.

During the first two-plus months of the season, Baltimore was struggling with consistency from both the offense and the starting rotation. The struggles of the starters to pitch deep into games put a strain on the bullpen. In early June, the Orioles found themselves in second place in the East, six and a half games behind Toronto. Baltimore took over first place in the division on July 4, and has not only stayed atop the division since, but also managed to put some distance between them and Toronto and New York. The Orioles’ surge has been keyed by more consistent starting pitching, and a consistently strong bullpen, even though the offense continues to struggle with consistency.

The Orioles rotation has been led by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (12-4, 3.76 ERA), and right-hander Bud Norris (11-7, 3.69 ERA) as the most consistent starters. Ace Chris Tillman struggled with consistency in the first half of the season, including starts in Pittsburgh and Texas where he only lasted only one inning. However, in his last 11 starts, Tillman has a record of 4-1 with a 2.35 ERA. In the bullpen, Tommy Hunter was taken out of the closer’s role after blowing two straight saves in April, and has been replaced by Zach Britton, who’s flourished as the stopper. Britton has a record of 3-2 with a 2.08 earned-run average, and has converted 26 saves in 29 chances.

The Orioles have gotten a mixed bag with their offseason acquisitions. On the positive side, Nelson Cruz is leading the league with over 30 home runs after signing a one-year deal as a free agent coming off a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs last year with Texas. Outfielder Delmon Young has been solid despite limited playing time, hitting .297 with some flashes of power.

On the downside, outfielder David Lough, who was signed to provide some speed off the bench, has hit only .213, and has only stolen seven bases in 12 attempts. The biggest disappointment has been righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, who was signed to a four-year, $50 million contract at the beginning of spring training. He was 4-9 with a 4.83 ERA in 20 starts before going on the disabled list on July 13 because of a sprained right ankle. After starting in his return from the DL on August 9, manager Buck Showalter has announced that Jiminez will be moved to the bullpen as young righthander Kevin Gausman has proven to be a viable Major League starter. Showalter has also been able to manage productive platoons in left field with Cruz, Young and Lough, and at second base with Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty. Caleb Joseph has gotten regular playing time following Matt Wieters’s season-ending Tommy John surgery, and set a team record for catchers by hitting home runs in five straight games. However, the offense has been led by the steady hand of right fielder Nick Markakis, who’s in the top five in the AL in hits, and has made a habit of getting a hit to lead off games.

The Orioles will wrap up August and start September with an 11-game home stand that will feature four games against Tampa Bay, four games over Labor Day weekend against Minnesota and three against Cincinnati. After that, Baltimore’s final 22 games will be against their AL East rivals. The Orioles’ final home stand will be 10 games: four against New York, including a day- night doubleheader on September 12 to make up the Aug. 12 game that was rained out; three against Toronto; and, following a day off, Fan Appreciation Weekend on Sept. 19 through 21 against Boston. Baltimore will spend the final week of the regular season on the road for four games in New York and three  in Toronto on the final weekend of the season.

Santana Tears Achilles Tendon, Out For Season

Johan Santana will have to wait at least one more season before possibly throwing another pitch in the big leagues.

The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star tore his Achilles tendon during what was supposed to be his final extended spring training start on June 6. Santana was hit in the backside by a line drive, and reportedly suffered the injury when he stumbled while trying to pick up the ball and throw to first base. The torn tendon was revealed by an MRI, and will cause Santana to miss the rest of this season. Santana was scheduled to join the Orioles after the start to continue his rehab before joining the rotation. In his previous start, he struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter. Baltimore General Manager Dan Duquette told reporters that Santana had good velocity on his fastball, and had good command of his slider.

The Orioles had signed Santana to a minor-league contract during the off-season.

Hunter Activated Off DL, Gonzalez Placed On DL

The Orioles’ closer situation may be stabilizing a little bit, but the starting rotation is still in flux due to injury.

Tommy Hunter was activated off the 15-day disabled list prior to the Orioles’ series finale against the Oakland Athletics. He had been on the DL since May 22 with a strained left groin. Hunter pitched for the Class-A Delmarva Shorebirds on a rehab assignment on June 7. He needed just 11 pitches to get through the second inning, during which he hit a batter and struck out two.

To make room for Hunter on the 25-man roster, right-handed reliever Evan Meek was sent down to Triple-A Norfolk.

While Hunter came off the DL, Miguel Gonzalez is now on it. The Orioles placed Gonzalez on the 15-day DL with a strained right oblique prior to the start of the series with the A’s. The move was made retroactive to May 31. Gonzalez was scratched from his last scheduled start in the series finale at Texas. Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman was called up from Norfolk to take Gonzalez’s spot in the starting rotation, and started the middle game of the series against Oakland.

Orioles Go Heavy on Pitching in 2014 Draft

If Baltimore’s front-office and scouting department’s plans pan out, there will be a flood of good pitching coming to Camden Yards from the Orioles’ farm system.

The team went into the draft with a plan of building up pitching depth within its farm system. The Orioles did just that in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, selecting 27 pitchers. 20 of them were college pitchers. Baltimore selected pitchers with each of its first five picks.

However, the Orioles were in the recently unfamiliar position of not having picks in the first two rounds because of free-agent signings. Baltimore didn’t make its first pick until the third round, when it selected right-handed pitcher Brian Gonzales from Archbishop Edward McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida. He was named the Broward County Player of the Year by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Gonzales is committed to play next season at the University of Miami.

In the fourth round, the Orioles selected right-hander Pat Connaughton from the University of Notre Dame. Connaughton also played basketball for the Fighting Irish, and he found out that he was selected by Baltimore via a text message from his basketball coach, Mike Brey (a native of Bethesda, Maryland, and an Orioles fan). Connaughton has said that baseball isn’t his primary focus, and that he plans to play his final season of basketball. However, prior to the draft, he said he’d skip his last season of baseball and sign with whichever team drafted him.

Connaughton wasn’t the only two-sport athlete the Orioles drafted. In the seventh round, Baltimore picked left-hander Max Schuh from UCLA. Schuh was a quarterback for the Bruins football team during the 2010 season, but didn’t see any playing time, and was cut following his sophomore season. He then joined the baseball team as a walk-on.

Baltimore also drafted one player with major-league bloodlines. The Orioles took left-hander Brandon Bonilla, the son of slugger Bobby Bonilla and the godson of Barry Bonds, with their 25th-round pick. The younger Bonilla played his freshman season at Arizona State, and then transferred to Division 2 Grand Canyon University. He’s described as a hard-throwing pitcher.

Speaking of players with major league bloodlines being drafted, Cal Ripken, Jr’s son Ryan was taken by the Washington Nationals in the 15th round. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s brother (also named Joe) was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 32nd round.

Orioles Sign Reliever Bell, Designate Meek For Assignment

By Andrew R. Koch

After consecutive blown saves by Tommy Hunter against the Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has decided to shake things up a little in the Orioles bullpen.

The Orioles announced on May 16 that they’d agreed to a minor-league deal with veteran right-handed reliever Heath Bell. Pending a physical, Bell will report to the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. He began the season with division-rival Tampa Bay, where he was 1-1 with a 7.27 ERA in 13 games. Bell was designated for assignment by the Rays earlier this month, and was then released. Now in his 11th season, Bell has a career record of 38-32 with a 3.49 ERA and 168 career saves. The Orioles will have to pick up little, if any of Bell’s salary because he’s still being paid not just by the Rays, but also by the Miami Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, whom he played for in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

In other roster moves, the Orioles designated right-handed reliever Evan Meek, and recalled another right-hander, Brad Brach, from Norfolk to take Meek’s spot on the 25-man roster. In 12 games this season, Meek was 0-1 with a 6.94 ERA.

This is Brach’s second stint with Baltimore this season. In his first stint, he appeared in two games, and allowed three earned runs in an inning and two-thirds. He went 3-1 with a 3.26 ERA and one save for the Tides. Showalter says the addition of Brach will provide the Orioles with another reliever who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen.

Orioles Notes

Bench coach John Russell managed the Orioles during the third game of their series in Kansas City. Manager Buck Showalter was on leave so he and his wife could attend their daughter’s graduation from law school in Dallas.

Right-hander and top Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy continues to progress in his rehab from Tommy John surgery last year. Bundy is scheduled to pitch an inning in an extended spring training game in Sarasota, Florida on May 20.

Orioles Notebook: O’s Above .500 Despite Struggling Starting Pitching

By Andrew R. Koch

A full month of Major League Baseball is in the books, and the Baltimore Orioles are in the thick of a wide-open American League East race. While the Orioles are one percentage point ahead of the rival Yankees in the division, starting pitching is proving to be an Achilles’ heel, much like it has been for the last couple of seasons.

The Orioles went 12-12 in April, playing without Manny Machado and losing first baseman Chris Davis due to a strained oblique. Heading into the start of their second series with the Tampa Bay Rays, Orioles starting pitchers have gone less than five and a third innings in four of the last five games. The lone exception was Ubaldo Jimenez, who struck out 10 in 7 and a third shutout innings in the May 2 series opener at Minnesota. It was his first win of the season after signing a four-year, $50 million contract. Chris Tillman (3-1) and Wei-Yin Chen (3-2) are the only starters who are above .500. Baltimore has among the fewest starts of at least seven innings of any team in Major League Baseball. Six relievers have already appeared in 12 or more games, and the bullpen has already thrown a total of 93 innings. Following the Orioles’ 5-2 loss on May 4 in the rubber game of the series in Minnesota, in which Miguel Gonzalez fell apart and failed to get out of the fifth inning, manager Buck Showalter said in his post-game press conference of the starting rotation, “We’ve just got to be better.” Showalter went on to say that he’ll do what he can to avoid overusing the relievers, saying he wasn’t “going to put those guys in harm’s way.”

The Orioles’ regular sluggers haven’t been producing the power numbers fans are used to seeing. Davis only had six extra-base hits (four doubles, two home runs) before going on the DL. Center fielder Adam Jones has 10 extra-base hits (six doubles, one triple, three home runs, including two on May 7 at Tampa Bay), and J.J. Hardy–while he’s hitting more line drives and is bringing his batting average up–has just four doubles and is still looking for his first long ball of the season. Meanwhile, Matt Wieters and outfielder Nelson Cruz are picking up the slack in the power department. Wieters is leading the team in batting average, hitting .341 to go with five homers and 18 RBI. He’s hitting .370 left-handed as he looks to bounce back from a poor 2013 season. Cruz is leading the team in slugging with nine homers, six doubles, 29 RBI and a .568 slugging percentage.

Roster Moves

Manny Machado returned to the roster on May 1 for the second game of the Orioles’ doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was scheduled to be activated from the disabled list for the start of the series on April 29, but the games both that day and the following day were rained out. Reliever Troy Patton was also activated from the restricted list after serving a 25-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. To make room for Machado and Patton, the Orioles sent infielder Steve Lombardozzi to Triple-A Norfolk along with relievers Evan Meek and Josh Stinson, who was outrighted. Baltimore recalled reliever Brad Brach from Norfolk. Another roster move may be necessary when Davis comes off the 15-day DL, which is scheduled to be May 11.

Wieters traveled to Pensacola, Florida on May 7 to meet with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews (of Tommy John surgery fame.) Wieters has been dealing with soreness in his right elbow since the Orioles’ series in Boston in April. He says he first felt what was initially diagnosed as a sore forearm when he made a throw to second base on a cold night in Boston. He underwent an MRI exam on May 5, and surgery has been ruled out following his visit with Dr. Andrews. Caleb Joseph has been recalled from Norfolk to share the catching duties with Steve Clevenger.

UPDATED MAY 12: Davis was activated from the 15-day DL after appearing in a game with the Double-A Bowie Baysox on a rehab assignment. He played for the Orioles in the series finale at home against Houston. Wieters was placed on the DL to rest his sore elbow. The Orioles also optioned T.J. McFarland to Norfolk following the game. McFarland struck out four and allowed two runs on seven hits in three innings, including a two-run home run to the Astros’ Marc Krauss that gave Houston some insurance to salvage the series finale.