Buster Olney: Baltimore Orioles

Nelson CruzLeon Halip/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz led the majors in HRs, but his past suspension for PED use still worries some when it comes to a deal.
More than a decade ago, general managers elaborated on the murky business of investing in players who may or may not be using performance-enhancing drugs. Within that 2002 New York Times article, a couple of GMs from that time gave voice to the importance and the challenge of speculating:
"It's a fairly routine topic when discussing a player who suddenly is a lot bigger," said Randy Smith, general manager of the Detroit Tigers. "To me, you've got guys who look to enhance their performance and get a contract, and become much different than they were in the past. It's very hard to evaluate. You see guys with slider bat speed all of a sudden become good hitters with tremendous power potential.

"I think it's all over the industry, and I think with all the money that's out there it becomes more relevant."

When a player is acquired, San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said, "you have to be very cautious if you feel the player is a user."

He added, "You are cautious about doing a long-term deal if he's had one or maybe two big years."

Penalties for drug testing began two years later, and by 2006, even the players' association bought into the idea of strengthening the penalties and working to create a level playing field for a silent union majority that didn’t want to have to think about using drugs to keep up.

But more than a decade after Smith and Towers elaborated on the guessing game that general managers faced, the newest generation of GMs continues to guess, to speculate, to wonder.

Major League Baseball teams are starved for power, and for right-handed hitting particularly
OriolesJoy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsThe Baltimore had a sudden end to their season, getting swept by Kansas City in the ALCS.
The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants are moving on, while the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals are left to wonder about what might have been. What if Manny Machado hadn’t gotten hurt, or Yadier Molina? What if Randy Choate’s throw to first base had been true in Game 4, or if the O’s had done something more with their sixth-inning rally in Game 1?

Each of these teams has its own set of questions going into an offseason that started sooner than it expected. Here are the three biggest ones for each team.

For Baltimore:

1. What will Manny Machado be going forward?

He’s had two significant knee injuries in two years. The Orioles have to begin to wonder whether this is going to be a chronic situation and whether Machado is a player who can be a franchise cornerstone. In fact, there’s a chance that

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
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Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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To-do lists for Orioles, Angels, Nationals 

September, 15, 2014
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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.

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Davis' mistake may cost him eight figures 

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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