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Orioles X-Factors

As we sit here about a week away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training (can you believe that?), it’s time to start looking forward to the upcoming season for the Baltimore Orioles.

At this point, the odds of any major moves being made are slim. I suppose it’s possible the O’s could make a trade or sign one of the free agents still available on the market. But since the top players remaining would seem a bit repetitive for this roster (Mike Napoli? Matt Wieters?) let’s move ahead under the assumption that what you see now, for the most part, is what you’re going to see when the season begins.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few things that need to happen if the O’s are to remain a playoff contender in the ever-improving AL East, or perhaps to even improve their standing as such.

Call them X-Factors, if you will.

(Discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

Improved outfield defense

This was a huge issue for the Orioles last year. As good as their infield defense was, their outfield D was just as bad. According to MLB.com columnist Mike Petriello, the O’s outfield defense ranked last in MLB in both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. As questionable as defensive metrics might be, it’s hard to deny that this was a problem.

That’s what happens when you load your team with potted-plant sluggers like Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis and Pedro Alvarez, as well as mediocre defensive options like Hyun Soo Kim. While you love the bats, there are only so many at-bats available from the 1B-DH positions and you have to fill your corner outfield spots with somebody.

The Orioles haven’t done a whole lot to improve this situation so far in the offseason. Bringing in Seth Smith in the Yovani Gallardo trade helps marginally, and the departure of Alvarez is a positive in that it frees up the DH role for Trumbo, but you’re basically looking at the same defensive skillset that you saw last season.

“These guys aren’t necessarily known for their defense,” center fielder Adam Jones accurately pointed out recently. “We don’t have a strikeout pitching staff, so our defense is used quite a bit. … We’re still competitive in the outfield, but we just need to get a little bit more athletic out there, in my point of view.”

The comment about not having a strikeout pitching staff is a keen and accurate observation by Jones – the O’s ranked 19th in MLB at 7.84 strikeouts/9 innings last season. But it seems unlikely that the O’s can improve on that, or on their outfield athleticism, by using primarily the same personnel as a year ago.

Part of the problem, too, is Jones himself, who is at best an average defensive center fielder whose UZR/150 in 2016 was -9.9. Surround a merely decent center fielder with poor corner outfielders and you’ve got a problem.

If Jones can rebound to his 2014-15 form, that would help. Perhaps improved defensive positioning would help, too.

But it also would be nice if Dan Duquette added another low-cost outfielder with a good glove (Franklin Gutierrez? Angel Pagan?). And if that guy can hit lefties, too, so much the better.

Kevin Gausman growing into the role of ace

At this point, we’ve got to come to the realization that Chris Tillman is what he is – a good, but not great starter who would be at best a No. 2 starter on a top-level starting rotation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But that does leave the Orioles lacking in the front-end horses conventional wisdom says you have to have in order to contend for a championship. And with apologies to Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee and Cody Sedlock, there is no Kershaw-esque savior waiting in the minors.

Enter Kevin Gausman.

As a 25-year-old in 2016, Gausman showed signs that he might be ready to take the mantle of staff ace, logging career-highs in starts (30), innings (179.2), strikeouts (174) and ERA+ (123). He did it all with a solid 3.61 ERA.

If Gausman can take the next step in progression and increase his starts (33-35) and innings (200-210) while cutting down on his home runs (28 in 2016), you’ve got the makings of an All-Star here. That wouldn’t be enough to give the Orioles one of the AL East’s top rotations, but it would at least be a step in the right direction.

Dylan Bundy shows he can be a reliable starter

We all know that the Orioles didn’t make Bundy the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft in order to make him a long reliever. Now, after a long run of injuries and ineffectiveness, it looks like Bundy is going to get his first real chance to make an impact as a starter.

Bundy’s innings figure to be limited in 2017, but if he can show quality in the innings he is given, he can make the Orioles face a tough decision if they are in a playoff race.

One reason for optimism, at least according to Bundy, is that he is looking to re-introduce the cutter to his repertoire. The cutter was a key pitch in his arsenal as a prospect, but he opted not to use it when he hit the majors in 2012 because he thought it was the source of his arm soreness.

“I’ve been throwing it for about two weeks now, and so far, it feels great,” Bundy said in late January. “I’m not throwing at the full speed or anything right now, but it’s feeling good. I’ll bring it into spring, but I’m going to try to limit it in games, and not throw it every single 0-2 pitch.”

A new look with a new (old) pitch could be key for Bundy, who allowed a .637 OPS to opposing batters the first time through the order, but .787 and .960 marks the second and third times through.

If Bundy can prove a reliable starter with a promising upside, all of a sudden the O’s rotation is looking pretty solid, at least with the top three.

Find a top-of-the-order combination that gets on base

As we talked about here, there is nothing wrong with bringing back Trumbo for a reasonable three-year contract. He’s not going to solve all of their issues, but he’ll hit plenty of home runs and – ideally, at least – drive in a lot of runs.

That will depend on batters getting on base ahead of Manny Machado/Trumbo/Davis, etc. This was an issue in 2016 as the O’s tied for 20th in MLB in on-base percentage (.317), which was probably the biggest reason they were 12th in runs scored despite easily leading the majors in home runs (253, 28 more than No. 2 St. Louis).

One thing that should help is giving Kim (.382 OBP) a shot at the full-time leadoff role. If Kim proves unable to handle that spot against left-handed pitching, then the O’s will have to find a right-handed hitting platoon mate either in-house (Joey Rickard?) or on the free agent market (Gutierrez? Ryan Raburn?).

Ideally, though, the platoon will instead be shared with Smith, who had a .351 OBP vs. righties last year, but just .242 vs. lefties.

If Buck Showalter can find a combination in the top couple of spots in the order that can get on base at a reliable rate, then the offense should see a decent surge in production and get much more bang for their buck in the home run department.

These are just a few of the X-Factors to consider if the O’s are to maintain or improve their status as contenders in 2017. What do you think?

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Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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