Buster Olney: Baltimore Orioles

To-do lists for Orioles, Angels, Nationals 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia & Matt WilliamsUSA TODAY SportsManagers Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia and Matt Williams have the luxury of coasting to the playoffs.
BALTIMORE -- There will not much rest at all for Miguel Cabrera, it appears, no chance for him to stay off his right ankle and let the pain from his bone spur subside. If Wade Davis becomes weary in the next 14 days, he probably won't have much choice but to push through it; the same could be true for Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, and for the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez. If Sean Doolittle isn't quite 100 percent, his 98 percent or 90 percent or 85 percent will just have to do.

David Robertson threw 35 pitches Friday, 11 more on Saturday, then made another appearance Sunday … and had absolutely nothing, giving up three consecutive extra-base hits in a walk-off loss to the Orioles. The Yankees' playoff hopes are dying, and Robertson's effort was like CPR; he had to do what was required in the moment. This is the stretch drive, the last mile in the Major League Baseball marathon, and the players for the Tigers, Royals, Pirates and other teams will have to push through.

But there are a handful of contenders who likely will secure playoff bids in the next few days, leaving them time to be much more specific in their preparation for the postseason.

For instance, you have the Orioles. After their comeback win against what appeared to be a completely exhausted Robertson on Sunday, Baltimore's magic number for clinching the AL East is down to three, and while manager Buck Showalter has spent recent days running away from any hypothetical suggestion that the Orioles might make the playoffs, you'd have to imagine a to-do list like the one below might be forming in his head:

1. Keep shortstop J.J. Hardy properly rested.

Davis' mistake may cost him eight figures 

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
Chris DavisAP Photo/Gail BurtonChris Davis' OPS is down 300 points this season, and he now has a PED suspension on his record.
BALTIMORE -- This cannot be overstated: Chris Davis is a really nice person. Routinely gregarious, cheerful, helpful, self-deprecating. He is eminently likeable in the way that a wagging St. Bernard is, and that great demeanor is probably what will prevent at least some of his Baltimore Orioles teammates from absolutely blasting Davis publicly, and saying out loud what some of them really feel.

If you gave some of his teammates truth serum, some of them would tell you that his act of taking Adderall after having already tested positive once -- and getting a mulligan -- was at the very least absolutely inexplicable, and at worst, incredibly selfish. There is anger in the Orioles’ clubhouse about Davis’ 25-game suspension because he violated union rules that the players built and agreed to follow, but mostly because the Orioles have a chance to win the World Series, and now one of their few power hitters won’t be available for at least one round (and maybe two) of the postseason.

Sure, if the Orioles play deep into October and Davis becomes eligible to play and demonstrates he can help, they’d take the big lug back, because they need him and they like him. Plus, it’s not going to help anybody for his teammates to crush him with words, because the 28-year-old Davis already has done enormous damage to his career.

The timing of this suspension, occurring at the end of what has been an incredibly disappointing season, could not be worse and will cost him a lot of money beyond the $1.5 million or so lost while he is serving his penalty.

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Oakland's collapse could be worst ever 

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
Geovany SotoAP Photo/Paul BeatyThere have been many collapses over the years, but baseball now offers the parachute of expanded wild-card play.
On the morning of Aug. 10, the Oakland Athletics not only had a 4-game lead over the Angels in the American League West, they also had the majors’ best record: 72-44, on a pace to win 96 games. They were regarded as the best team in baseball, with the most prolific offense (to that moment), a dominant bullpen and a rotation that had been bolstered by the addition of World Series hero Jon Lester.

Sure, the Angels had made up some ground in the standings, but Oakland was positioned to win the division for the third straight year. Making the playoffs? A foregone conclusion, given how well Oakland had played and the enormous gap in the standings between the Athletics and the teams that might be involved in the wild-card race -- Detroit, Kansas City and Seattle, for example. At the time

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Finding value on the waiver wire 

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
Cole HamelsAP Photo/Alex BrandonStarter Cole Hamels, boasting a 2.42 ERA this season, was placed on waivers by the Phillies.
Think of baseball’s waiver claim process as you would government funding: By the time everybody has taken their piece of the pie and it reaches the end of the line, there really isn’t much left.

This is what’s happening in the first days of August, executives say, as the first wave of players passes through waivers. Many teams are aggressively making claims on players for reasons attached to their respective circumstances, and if you are at the back of the waiver-claiming line in each league -- if you are the Athletics -- you are left with a choice of Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder, should you choose to make a move. Good luck with that.

It’s not only about trying to get better for this year, and the claims are being made by non-contenders as well as contenders, executives report.

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A shift in MLB's injury equation 

July, 13, 2014
Jul 13
Masahiro Tanaka and Matt WietersAP Images, Icon SMIMasahiro Tanaka and Matt Wieters are both out with injuries that previously could have been treated differently.

BALTIMORE -- In his last start before Masahiro Tanaka landed on the disabled list, his average fastball velocity was 92.1 mph. He pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed five runs. As the Yankees learned two days later, following an MRI and three doctor consultations, Tanaka had been broken in that last start against the Indians, with a small tear in an elbow ligament. But he was also still functional, like a car with a faulty fuel pump.

Now he'll be shut down for at least six weeks, and if his condition doesn't improve, he could have elbow reconstruction surgery.

Two weeks into the season, it was apparent that Matt Wieters was having some sort of arm trouble, particularly evident in his struggle to throw the ball to second base. Wieters was still playing effectively, hitting over .300 with five homers in his first 26 games. He was functional, but broken, and after weeks of treatment while he was on the disabled list, he had Tommy John surgery.

As Major League Baseball searches for answers about why so many players have been shut down in 2014, in comparison to past seasons, one of the reasons

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GausmanJoy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsKevin Gausman allowed just one run and five hits in six innings against Toronto on Friday.
Fourteen of the 15 American League teams are no further removed from the second wild-card spot than 5.5 games, as of this morning. In other words, 14 of the 15 AL teams should be working with a full dose of hope, including the Houston Astros, who lost 111 games last season, and the Boston Red Sox, who have started slowly after dousing each other with champagne last fall.

Fourteen of 15. All are looking for difference-makers, players who can propel them in the last 3.5 months, players who have provided hints that they are capable of giving a lot more. Players like the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman.

He struggled through some early-season injury trouble and had made one appearance in the big leagues this season before being called up to start against Oakland last weekend, and Gausman overpowered the Athletics, looking completely at ease, throwing his fastball in the high 90s and mixing in changeups.

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MLB's illogical discipline system 

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11

A lot of National Football League teams use point systems to help with decisions in certain on-the-fly situations, so they can keep everything straight. After touchdowns, head coaches and assistants often rely on a chart to determine when it's appropriate to kick an extra point or attempt a two-point conversion, within the context of the score and time remaining. During the NFL draft, general managers use predetermined value metrics to assess what they should give or receive in a trade for a particular draft pick.

This way, the coach or the club executives have a menu to draw from, like a kid in math class determining the area of a rectangle or the diameter of a circle. This way, their choices make more sense.
This sort of problem-solving seems especially relevant in the aftermath of the discipline rendered in the cases of Manny Machado and Fernando Abad on Tuesday, which, like other recent choices, appear to have been pulled off a spinning wheel of fortune. You don't know exactly what decision will pop up.

On May 30, Rays starter David Price drilled Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in the first inning, on the first pitch of the at-bat, and plate umpire Dan Bellino saw sufficient intent in the pitch -- and why not, given the Hatfields and McCoys history between these two teams -- to issue a warning to both teams.

In the fourth inning, A.J. Pierzynski doubled with two outs, leaving first base open, and Price hit Mike Carp with his very next pitch. Price was not ejected.

Then, in the top of the sixth inning, Boston starter Brandon Workman threw a shoulder-high pitch that was a couple of feet behind Evan Longoria, a clear message.

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DETROIT -- Before the Detroit Tigers' bullpen blew up another strong outing from a starting pitcher Sunday night, and before David Ortiz showed again how he is drawn to a big moment, all eyes in the Detroit and Boston clubhouses were locked into the televised drama playing out miles from here, in Baltimore.

The players watched replay after replay of Manny Machado flinging his bat after a couple of inside pitches, at the end of a weekend of dust-ups between Machado and the Oakland Athletics.

"Manny's got some things to learn," said one player here in Detroit, shaking his head.

As always, the situation almost certainly has more layers than meets the eye.

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MLB must fix the transfer rule now 

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
Ryan Flaherty Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsRyan Flaherty's failed double-play turn cost the Orioles a crucial out.
BOSTON -- We can all agree that it would've been better to test the implementation of the replay system over the course of a summer, so that all of the technological and interpretative kinks could've been worked out in all 30 ballparks through the sort of extensive trial and error that is now taking place at the outset of the 2014 season.

But at this point, that's like someone in a lifeboat saying out loud to fellow survivors, "We should've packed more flares and food, and water." That's the guy you want to punch in the mouth.

It really doesn't matter anymore how Major League Baseball got here. What matters is how it reacts, how it adapts, how it deals with what seems like a daily squall of controversy stemming from some of the implemented changes.

And their No. 1 crisis at the moment -- the spot where they're taking on the most water, as we saw at Fenway Park on "Sunday Night Baseball" -- is the interpretation of that precise instant when a player is ruled to have caught the ball: the transfer rule. MLB needs to patch this over as soon as possible, and officials are working to do that, perhaps by the end of the month.

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O's defense key to contender status 

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
Adam JonesOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAdam Jones' prowess in center field is paramount to Baltimore's success.
BOSTON -- There was no batting practice for the Boston Red Sox or Baltimore Orioles here Saturday morning, despite the warm sunshine that enveloped Fenway Park. The warning track around the entire field was filled with fans waiting to take photographs of Red Sox players who slowly rotated toward them.

Meanwhile, the Orioles players lounged in the shoebox-sized visitors clubhouse. Adam Jones picked at some breakfast and chatted about Jack Murphy Stadium, while Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and others watched television.

This was a rare day when the Orioles would not go through their regular extensive defensive preparation with their infield work and with outfielders working on throwing to a particular spot. It's a practice which isn't always commonplace these days.

Like every other team in the AL East, the Orioles have their issues. Manny Machado is out, although he is making progress. Their starting rotation has been spotty. They've had a flu bug burrow into their ranks in recent days.

But day after day, this is a team that catches the ball. “That’s the key,” Jones said. “Don’t make mistakes.”

Shortstop J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glover, and so is Jones and catcher Matt Wieters. The Orioles acquired outfielder David Lough during the winter largely because they loved the defensive metrics attached to his play, and even as Ryan Flaherty struggled at the plate early this season, Buck Showalter has seen value in his work because of his steadiness in the field.

Going into Saturday’s game, the Orioles had -- remarkably -- made only three errors on the season, the fewest in the majors. They had allowed only two unearned runs. Somebody asked Showalter before Saturday’s game about the Orioles’ almost pristine error total, and Showalter jokingly gawked, in acknowledgment of a possible jinx situation, and asked the reporter where he would be during the game if Baltimore made an error, so he would know where to aim his death stare.

The Orioles made an error in the first inning: Schoop fumbled a grounder in the middle of a Boston rally, and a run scored. The rookie’s defensive skills are exceptional and he has played third base well by all accounts, but he has made three of the team’s four errors, and when Gold Glover Machado comes back, Schoop will play second base.

It was just a one-day hiccup in three weeks of the regular season. No matter the alignment, the defense will continue to be at the core of whatever the Orioles accomplish.

We’ve got the Orioles and Red Sox on "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN and WatchESPN, with a special 7 ET start time. Ubaldo Jimenez will be pitching for the Orioles, looking to be more aggressive with his mechanics. Machado played in his first extended spring game.

MLB's new investigation

Last week, a document retention memo was issued to all 30 teams by Major League Baseball, as it began its investigation of the article posted here April 9, and positioned itself to examine the history of communication of the hundreds of folks employed by the clubs: text messages, phone records, etc. Here's a look at the situation from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

The investigation was prompted by a strongly worded statement from new union chief Tony Clark on April 11:

“I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”

It’s the responsibility of Clark and MLB to protect the integrity of the collective bargaining agreement, of course. But if this is really about the CBA -- which binds club employees and agents from leaking details of negotiations to reporters, or passing on imaginary offers -- then presumably the union will also begin a corollary investigation of the communications of agents and their text messages, emails and phone records to track the interaction with specific reporters, and cross-reference those documents with subsequent reports.

When an agent informs a reporter that a player has drawn interest from a team or teams when in fact there is none, as part of an effort to artificially bolster the player’s market value, that’s a CBA violation. When a report comes out that a player has offers from X number of teams, where is that almost certainly coming from? Yes, the agent. And this has been happening for years and years, and Clark knows it.

When an agent leaks the terms of a deal before the full deal is completed, that’s a violation of the player’s rights under the CBA. But it happens all the time, and MLB and the union know it. Some of the particular reporter-agent quid pro quo relationships are so ingrained and such a consistent stream of seeming disinformation that they've become Baghdad Bob punch lines within the industry.

Similarly, if Major League Baseball is devoted to protecting the sanctity of the CBA, then it will investigate the cases of when club-operated websites have reported news of a contractual agreement -- before the completion of a physical exam, in some cases -- which is a blatant violation of the agreement.

But in all likelihood, the ongoing investigation of the April 9 piece will be an isolated exercise, because in fact this isn’t really about a CBA violation.

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Ervin SantanaJamie Squire/Getty ImagesWith three weeks to go before Opening Day, Ervin Santana remains a free agent.
It’s worth documenting, again, all that Ervin Santana did well last year:

• Only 24 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted a lower number than his 3.24.
• Only 19 pitchers had a lower WHIP.
• His strikeout-walk ratio of 3.16 ranked 35th in the majors.
• Santana held opposing hitters to a .668 OPS, ranking 27th.
• He pitched 211 innings -- only 16 pitchers threw more in 2013.

So he had a really good season, bolstered by his sturdy reputation as being a good guy -- a positive clubhouse presence, someone invested in the esprit de corps.

But with three weeks to go before the Padres and Dodgers play the first game of the season in North America, Santana is still not signed. He is reportedly talking about a one-year deal with the Blue Jays or the Orioles or another team, and if he gets something in the range of $14 million, this will be about $100 million less than what club officials say the initial asking price for him was.

A lot of factors have contributed to him being in this position, from the concerns that some clubs have about whether his elbow will hold up through a multiyear deal, the fact that he’s tied to draft-pick compensation, and the reality that 17 months ago, the regard for Santana was so compromised that he was nearly non-tendered by the Angels.

But the essential truth is that his side completely misread the market, setting a price way too high at the outset and then reacting too slowly as available jobs and money evaporated.

The relationship between a player and his representation can be complicated, and in the end, there are almost always multiple versions of conversations and expectations. Sometimes the player can drive the discussion, sometimes it's player’s parents or spouse or most trusted friend, and sometimes it’s the agents. Sometimes it can be the union, depending on how assertive the player and the agent are. And the guess here is that whoever actually generated and drove the idea of Santana as a $112 million player isn’t going to jump up and down and brag about it today.

The fact is that nobody who takes a paycheck from a team saw Santana as a $100 million-plus pitcher. Nobody. The fact is that Santana should’ve gotten more than what he's expected to receive now, at least comfortably slotting into the group of pitchers like Ricky Nolasco, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson. Those are pitchers who have been good but have never been elite, as Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee have been.

The Royals wanted him back, but after their overtures in September were rebuffed, they took their available dollars and invested $32 million in Jason Vargas, who has never posted an ERA within half a run of what Santana did last year. Other teams checked in on Santana during the offseason, heard the asking price and moved on; when some doubled back, the numbers still hadn’t come down enough to coax an offer.

Speaking generally to USA Today, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin explained how the high price tags can affect interest. From Bob Nightengale’s piece:

Several GMs and executives say maybe it's time for these players to look in the mirror. They all rejected the $14.1 million qualifying offers from their original teams, and when they hit the market, some of the rumored contract requests scared teams.

"I do see these numbers that come out early that say, 'Oh, he's going to get $100 million,'" Brewers GM Doug Melvin says. "You read that stuff, and then you say, well, there's no sense in me even making a phone call if those are the numbers."

All agents want to push the numbers as high as they can, but some say privately that it is absolutely crucial to be tethered to an understanding of how the player is perceived in the market. One high-ranking executive said Friday that he is asked by agents all the time to offer assessments of what a fair deal for their clients would be -- like Rick Harrison from the TV show "Pawn Stars," who will call in an expert for an opinion before negotiating a price.

In the case of Santana, there was a total disconnect between the asking price and how the industry viewed him from the outset of the offseason.

Because of this, somebody is going to get him for a good price.

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Jimenez signing keeps O's in contention 

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
Ubaldo JimenezBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez had a 1.85 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star break last season.
The concern within the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, as the negotiations with Ubaldo Jimenez began percolating over the last 48 hours, was that the Boston Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays would snag the right-hander.

The Red Sox, after all, had known in recent weeks that Ryan Dempster would probably walk away from the last year of his contract, surrendering his $13.25 million salary for the upcoming season. Boston seemingly had the rotation spot open for Dempster, as well as the newfound financial flexibility.

The Blue Jays have had a quiet offseason, generally, and are positioned to take a starting pitcher … at the right price. The Orioles had at least some reason to guess that the Blue Jays or the Red Sox could jump in, so in order to land Jimenez -- to separate themselves from what they believed to be the pack -- Baltimore increased its offer from three years to four for Jimenez, and this is how the Orioles reached the agreement on Monday.

But behind the curtain, there is this: Sources say that neither the Red Sox nor the Blue Jays actually made any offer for Jimenez, and that the dialogue was not a matter of either team pursing the player, but of Jimenez’s representative pursuing the team.

No matter how we got here, however, the fact is that the Orioles felt they needed to do something.

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A predictable bidding war 

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Jaime Henry-WhiteBronson Arroyo isn't among the game's better starters, but some covet his predictability.
Bronson Arroyo has been like baseball’s version of an old, dependable pickup truck. The odometer is well over 100,000 miles at this point, but year after year, he always starts, in all kinds of weather...

2004: 27 starts, 178.2 innings
2005: 32 starts, 205.1 innings
2006: 35 starts, 240.2 innings
2007: 34 starts, 210.2 innings
2008: 34 starts, 200 innings
2009: 33 starts, 220.1 innings
2010: 33 starts 215.2 innings
2011: 32 starts 199 innings
2012: 32 starts 202 innings
2013: 32 starts 202 innings

That's one whole decade of taking the ball on the day you’re supposed to pitch, start after start. An evaluator who works for a team currently bidding on Arroyo says that there will be days that the right-hander might give up a crooked number in the first inning, but when you look up in the fifth or sixth inning, Arroyo usually has been through the lineup twice -- and at the very least, he’s competed, kept your team within range and saved your relievers for the day.

“He’s not a bullpen-killer,” said the evaluator. “Some pitchers just kill your bullpen, but Bronson will get you into the middle of the game. He’s predictable.”

Among remaining starters on the free-agent market

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Top 10 defenses in the majors 

December, 29, 2013
Manny MachadoMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesBaltimore's Manny Machado earned the American League Platinum Glove Award last season.
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.

In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.

1. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.

They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season.

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Orioles facing a run of tough choices 

November, 17, 2013
WietersRob Carr/Getty ImagesChemistry alone can't keep the core of the Orioles together. It'll take a pile of money, too.
The Red Sox have won the World Series three times in the past 10 seasons. The Yankees have made the playoffs all but two seasons since 1995, capitalizing on a record payroll. The Tampa Bay Rays are generally viewed within the industry as having the best-run baseball operations department and the most symbiotic organization.

Welcome to the world that the Baltimore Orioles inhabit, where they must try to find elbow room. The Orioles won 93 games in 2012 and made the postseason for the first time in 15 years, but they drifted back to 85 wins this past summer and now face a winter of extremely difficult decisions.

The Orioles’ payroll grew from $67 million in 2009 to $92 million in 2013, and because of raises built into signed contracts for the likes of Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, and because Baltimore has more than a half-dozen arbitration-eligible players, the payroll could easily climb to $100 million without a significant upgrade.

This goes a long way to explaining why Orioles GM Dan Duquette cast a wide net at the GM meetings last week, encouraging teams to present their best offers

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