Luke and Tucker talk O’s: All roads lead back to Joe Saunders

Luke Jackson and Tucker Blair exchanged e-mails about the Orioles in advance of the O’s series in Toronto this weekend. The e-mail exchange that you’ll read below was inspired by what you’ll see on Grantland from time to time. You can discuss this piece in the Baltimore Sports and Life forums.

LUKE JACKSON: Tucker, the Orioles had off Thursday before three in Toronto and four back home against Cleveland. They currently sit at 42-31. They didn’t pick up their 42nd win last year until June 29, so they’re a little ahead of last year’s pace. It’s clearly a better squad than last year’s team, too. Why? It’s because of the lineup, which is of course led by Chris Davis. Through Thursday’s action, the Orioles were third in the majors in runs scored, first in homers, first in slugging and ninth in on-base percentage. They hit a ton of homers last year, but it’s a much better all-around offense this year from April onward. The lineup has some broad skill-sets, too, which allows players to affect the game in outside of the batter’s box. J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado make up what I have to imagine is the game’s best left side of the infield. Nate McLouth is among the league leaders in stolen bases. This lineup is really humming along — and there are still some places that could be augmented at the deadline, such as second base. Has second base been discussed a lot this year? I can’t tell.

TUCKER BLAIR: The lineup is absolutely chugging along like a well-oiled machine. There is so much more consistency in comparison to last season. That all starts with the productivity at the top of the lineup in McLouth, Machado and Nick Markakis. McLouth is having a ridiculous season against right-handed pitching. In 224 at-bats, he has a batting line of .287/.372/.390 with a wOBA of .338 and wRC+ of 111. His BABIP against right-handers is fairly normal at .314, so McLouth is legitimately piecing together a terrific season. He has actually shortened his swing a little bit from last year, which has definitely resulted in some better at-bats overall. The terrific base-running is just icing on the cake. Of course, he has been purposely limited to only 39 plate appearances against left-handers, but the Orioles have been able to get away with that by having the always consistent Nick Markakis bat leadoff against lefties and putting Steve Pearce in left field. Pearce has actually been rather decent for a spare part, batting .245/.315/.408 with a .319 wOBA and 98 wRC+. Obviously that isn’t setting the league on fire…but I take that any day from a bench player.

And I was trying to avoid your comment on second base, but fine…

It’s clearly the one position that the Orioles could absolutely upgrade at. Every other position is essentially filled or has a key player potentially returning (Nolan Reimold, Wilson Betemit). At second base…well do we really have any confidence in Brian Roberts returning? Even if he does, I really can’t expect him to help out much. Flaherty is playing admirable defense, showing much better range, quicker feet, and stronger reaction skills. But the bat has not improved at all. He’s still being outmatched by any pitch not named fastball. In fact, Flaherty is actually making LESS contact than last year on balls in the strike zone at 73.7%, which is down from 75.5%. So it should only be natural that the Orioles look to upgrade the position. Whether they find anything worth jumping at remains to be seen. Chase Utley might be available, maybe even Howie Kendrick or Jose Altuve. I would love any of those three, but what would you be willing to give up? I’m pretty sure all conversations will start with Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman (as they usually do). I think I may be OK giving up practically anyone else for them though. I’m not even joking. (Well…maybe not Utley; we already have a big contract, oft-injured player at the position.)

LUKE JACKSON: Utley makes a lot of sense, but Ruben Amaro claims he’s not going to tear it down in Philly. Other than Utley, I don’t know who’d be available. The Angels almost certainly aren’t trading Kendrick — I doubt they trade anyone, although they’re unlikely to compete for the division title at this point and their farm system could use a serious boost. And if they did dangle Kendrick, the Orioles’ farm system likely doesn’t match up well enough to strike a deal. I have to think Altuve stays put in Houston unless Jeff Luhnow is overwhelmed by a trade package. What second basemen other than Utley are a potential target? Daniel Murphy, perhaps? He has a decent bat with two more years of team control, which is nice, but I don’t know what the Mets would want. There’s just not a whole lot out there at that position. A buddy of mine in April suggested that Alexei Ramirez would be a decent target assuming the Orioles could successfully convert him to second base, but he’s having his second consecutive really poor year with the bat and he’s under contract until 2015.

The Orioles don’t need their second baseman to be a .280/.360/.480 guy or anything — they just need a decent everyday bat to slot in towards the bottom of their order. A healthy Brian Roberts is likely just that, but his track record of health is well documented, and anyone thinking that Roberts can contribute for the rest of the season while being uninterrupted by injury is probably fooling themselves.

Let’s move to the rotation. This is another part of the roster that could be augmented via trade. Wei-Yin Chen is now in the simulated game portion of his rehab and Buck Showalter says he’ll be back in the rotation by the first week of July if all continues to go well. It’s been a struggle this year for Jason Hammel. I was looking forward to seeing if Hammel could duplicate his success from last year, but the strikeouts and groundballs are way down and the home runs are way up. His magic two-seamer appears to have vanished. Nevertheless, Hammel’s solidly in the rotation. So are Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, who both have built off their 2012 seasons better than Hammel has. The Orioles also have Kevin Gausman, Sweaty Freddy and (I guess) Zach Britton in the rotation mix. What’s your read on the rotation?

TUCKER BLAIR: Wei-Yin Chen is huge. His return will be monumental to the Orioles rotation woes. I’m making it sound like he is David Price or something, but he has been the Orioles most consistent starter for the past two years. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Hammel. He has been wildly inconsistent and is pitching more like a back-end starter than a mid-rotation guy like last year. I guess this shouldn’t be TOO surprising, since last year could really be looked at as an aberration. But like you mentioned, the two-seamer is simply not the same — less drop and movement on it and just not as crisp like last season. Pitch F/X has a neat metric called Pitch Values. Jason Hammel’s two-seam fastball registered a 0.02 last season. This season it has registered a -3.00, which is obviously pretty bad. That’s even worse than his seasons when he was with Colorado. So obviously the metrics are noticing the lack of success from his two-seamer as well. But it is not only that pitch which is the problem. His command has been very erratic from start to start, and even inning to inning. Heck, even batter to batter. I think Hammel CAN be better this year, but I might hold off on saying he’s magically reverting back to 2012 form. Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman have been good, I really cannot complain about them at all. They have their flaws, but both have been fairly productive and the Orioles can definitely continue to win with how they have pitched.

Gausman, Sweaty Freddy and Zach Britton? Well, Gausman still has to work on those three things I talked about in the past. I don’t really have much else to say on that front. He’s young, hasn’t even pitched a full year in professional baseball, and has plenty of ability. I’m not worried at all. Freddy Garcia has done an admirable job of holding the fort down, but it’s about time they moved on. I don’t know how long the Orioles can justify throwing him out there with a fringe fastball, fringe command and not much stamina left. I think Britton is a better option at this point. He may not be great, but if he can be even average then I am OK with it. His fastball has decent movement but sometimes his game does struggle to translate at the MLB level. MLB-caliber hitters are not going to swing at those low sinkers in the zone. The Felix Pie’s of the world are going to, but not the Evan Longoria types. Thus, his pitch count runs too high at times, and he’s certainly not going to want to start trying to blow fastballs by people. He isn’t Kevin Gausman with velocity.

Overall, I definitely think they could/should look into an upgrade on the rotation. I’m not saying the break the bank for a guy in a trade, but there are ALWAYS Joe Saunders types out there every year. Now they are not sexy by any means, but those guys can definitely help. Just look at last season.

LUKE JACKSON: First of all, let’s not pretend that Joe Saunders isn’t going to end up back in orange and black. Oh, you’ll hear about Ricky Nolasco and you might even hear that they sent a scout to a Matt Garza start. Have you ever heard that all roads lead to Rome? It’s kind of the same thing here, but all roads lead back to Joe Saunders.

On Hammel — tough timing for Jason, because this is a huge year for him. If he proved that last year’s success with the two-seamer was no mirage, he could’ve scored a nice payday in a really thin free agent market. I’m sure the O’s wouldn’t have minded that either because they could have considered giving him a qualifying offer to try to acquire a draft pick. Alas, it was not to be. It’ll be interesting to see which team signs him on the cheap this winter.

Sweaty Freddy is Sweaty Freddy. It never looks pretty (except against the Nationals), but his 4.80 ERA is actually a lower ERA than Hammel and Jake Arrieta. The peripherals for Freddy are legitimately frightening, but I suspect that the Orioles will keep rolling Freddy out there until at least Chen comes back, and then they’ll re-evaluate. I’m bearish on Zach Britton. We’ve talked in the past about what you just mentioned — sinkers are a lot more effective in the minors than the majors. Britton’s sinker that drops below the strike zone is beaten into the ground in the minors but major leaguers spit on that. I also worry about Britton’s inability to miss bats. He struck out just 44 hitters in 60.1 innings in Triple-A this year and has three strikeouts in 11.1 big league innings. He’ll get groundballs and the Orioles have a really good infield defense, but at some point, when so many balls are being put in play, he’s going to get burned badly. Give Britton credit, though — he had a tough spring and went to Norfolk needing to perform in order to get another shot with the big league club. He put up a 3.28 ERA in Triple-A.

Gausman will get another shot with the Orioles and probably soon. Those three things you pointed out turned out to be absolutely true. A lot of deep counts, a lot of fastballs in the middle of the plate, and didn’t seem confident enough in his breaking ball to utilize as an extra weapon. His changeup is a monster pitch, but it’s really tough to go through a big league lineup three times with just a fastball/changeup combo. We saw in his best start (against Detroit) that he was throwing a sharp slider for quality strikes and not coincidentally, he looked fantastic. He tied up Miguel Cabrera quite a bit in that game, and if you can beat him, you can beat anybody.

So in conclusion, the rotation will soon be Chen, Hammel, Gonzalez, Tillman and Joe Saunders. Let’s move onto the bullpen. There are two distinct groups in the ‘pen right now — the high-leverage and “late innings with a lead” crew in Jim Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz. Then you have the other crew in T.J. McFarland, Pedro Strop and Troy Patton. Your thoughts on the ‘pen?

TUCKER BLAIR: The bullpen has been interesting, that’s for sure. Jim Johnson has honestly been fine since that rough week he had. That subject was beaten into the ground harder than the pitches he throws. Darren O’Day is once again proving to be a ridiculously good pickup. The peripherals are essentially the same as last season, so I am fairly confident that Darren O’Day is just really good. Tommy Hunter has been amazing as well. Not only is he proving to be a terrific pitcher out of the bullpen, but he is actually tossing a TON of innings. He is currently fifth in the MLB in terms of reliever innings with 39.2. This is the luxury of having a converted starter in the pen. They can throw a ton of innings and still have the stamina. His stuff just plays up so well in the ‘pen. His fastball is plus with the uptick in velocity, and it doesn’t really matter anymore that he lacks movement. Now he can’t stick it in the middle of the plate, as he learned early in the year. But since those early home runs, he has been lights out. There hasn’t been too much BOOM off him since. Also, LOLTEXAS. They have to be frustrated seeing O’Day and Hunter doing so well out of the bullpen. I won’t even mention Davis. Well…I actually already did so.

The other half of the pen…McFarland is the mop up man. I think he should stay in that role and I also think he has done a great job. His stuff does not play up enough to be a starter, as 88-91 is not going to work many times through a lineup. I think he could be a fine spot-starter if needed, but I look more at the overall picture. Teams will have the book on him by his third and fourth starts, and he would not be able to get by with just deception. But he is absolutely fine in his current role and seems like a nice little pickup. Troy Patton is OK. His role has been subsided with Brian Matusz taking over against the really tough lefties, but he has been better as of late. Command has always been his issue. You can leave hang sliders in the middle of the plate. Lefty or not, they will crush it. Interesting enough, he is on pace to pitch more innings than last season, when he was obviously better. Patton is a good example of how volatile reliever performances can be.

Well…Pedro Strop too. He has been pretty bad this year. I love the dude, but damn, it has been tough to watch sometimes. But honestly, I am not willing to give up on him. Just too much ability, too many good things he is capable of. I know, I know… He can’t hit the broadside of a barn, but he has legitimately proven at times that he can be a dominant reliever and I know that it’s in him. I think the Orioles handled the whole “injury” thing in the wrong manner. They could have had him in the minors for 20 days and decided not to. There was an opportunity to get Strop back on track and they didn’t do it. But I just don’t really see any reason to cut him loose right now. Why bother testing out other arms when they can just pitch him in mop-up roles until he finds the groove again. And if he doesn’t, well you will have other options that arise near the trade deadline. I’m still all about the #StropSign, but I do recognize the frustration and struggles. Anyway, the ‘pen is fine, I don’t have any problem with the current setup.

LUKE JACKSON: Tommy Hunter is a good illustration of why it’s a lot easier to relieve than to start. Some of the things pitchers don’t have to worry about when they’re pitching in short bursts: pacing themselves, facing the same hitter multiple times and pitch sequencing. Hunter goes all-out for 15-30 pitches, throws mid- to upper-90s gas and mixes in a cutter and occasionally a bad breaking ball. And that’s enough for him to have a 1.82 ERA out of the ‘pen. O’Day and Matusz are a great late-inning combo — going into a series, you can pick out which hitters will face O’Day and Matusz once or twice in a high-leverage, late-inning situation. Going into this Blue Jays series, O’Day will probably see Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista once or twice. Matusz will see Adam Lind. With Hunter, O’Day, Matusz and Johnson, Buck Showalter has options to sift through the late innings when he has a lead.

This year, the Orioles’ middle relievers are pitching like middle relievers. Middle relievers aren’t supposed to be particularly good, but the bind that the Orioles find themselves in is that Strop, Patton nor McFarland can be optioned, so it’s tough to rotate some new arms into those roles on the off chance that they can catch a randomly good 30-inning sample from someone like Manny Delcarmen. One thing I’ve noticed with Strop is that in low leverage situations, his mechanics are very free and easy, he commands his fastball and he gets sharp break on his slider. In high leverage spots, the game speeds up on him and his mechanics go nuts. Do you notice the same thing?

TUCKER BLAIR: Yeah, Strop’s problems really come down to his mechanics. When he is on, he is following through on his release, keeping his body closed and not flying open, and generally not as violent. It’s always tough to repeat your delivery, and it is noticeable if you watch a week worth of games in the minors. He just needs to relax. Pitching is already hard enough as it is. Add the world’s best talent at the plate and add your own mental stress and worries, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. The Orioles obviously realize what they have in Strop. They know how good he can be, that is why he still has a spot on the club. It may be unpopular right now to the fans, but Strop is probably not going anywhere.

LUKE JACKSON: I also want to ask you about some goings-on in the minors. Aberdeen just began its season and it’s probably the most uninteresting roster on the farm right now for the O’s. However, the IronBirds should soon add O’s third rounder Stephen Tarpley, a lefty with a live arm. A much more interesting squad is the GCL team, which will have Hunter Harvey, Josh Hart and three catchers that the Orioles took in the first six rounds. Aside from the guys who were just drafted highly, how about a name or two on the GCL squad that could pop onto the prospect radar?

TUCKER BLAIR: The GCL team has a few pitchers that could be sleepers down the road. Guys like Jake Pintar, Sean McAdams, Dioni Dominguez. They all have talent, but are your typical raw prospects that have a ton to work on. Pintar is a physical anomaly at 6-foot-9 and 200 pounds. The guy looks SCARY on the mound. But his command and mechanics are all over the place from the last report I was given the past season.

Offensively, there actually isn’t much besides the newer guys. The outfield consists of guys like Raymond Hunnicutt and Andres Aguilar. They are all toolsy types, with good speed and defensive potential. They have average bat speed at best, and I would probably say Aguilar has the best chance of moving forward due to his overall average tool set. The last guy to point out is big Ron Scheurs. He is a LHP/1B. I have no clue what they are going to push him as going forward, but I had a little report on him as a pitcher way back in January.

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About the author

Luke Jackson  

Luke Jackson was born and raised in the Baltimore area and currently lives in College Park, Md. Jackson is a May 2013 graduate from the University of Maryland with a B.S. in broadcast journalism. Luke was the programming director at WMUC Sports and broadcasted Maryland football, basketball and baseball, among other sports.

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