Orioles manager Buck Showalter was rattling off the issues surrounding his team this past week in Port Charlotte, Fla., prior to a game against the Rays, and at one point he made a statement about the American League East that pretty much summed it up. “It’s going to come down to pitching,” he said. “We can talk about the offenses, but really pitching will be what decides who goes into October.”
Not exactly a revelation, but Showalter has every reason to think that way, particularly since pitching will be the foremost issue for his Orioles in a division that has four other teams with relatively good starting rotations.
Baltimore’s Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez were tattooed in their first starts of the spring. Not that you worry about such things, but the Orioles don’t want it to continue.
Those who go by WAR to project how teams will do the following year are usually wrong, and based on 2015 numbers the Orioles and Blue Jays would lag behind the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees. According to FanGraphs, the Rays had the best starters’ WAR in the division a year ago (10th overall at 14.1). The Yankees were 11th at 12.9, the Red Sox 12th at 12.1, the Blue Jays 15th at 11.0, and the Orioles 18th at 9.3.
None of the AL East staffs pitched the desired 1,000 innings. The Blue Jays had the most, followed by the Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, and Rays.
But, of course, every year is different.
Showalter called Jimenez “one of our most consistent starters” last season. There may be more concern with Gonzalez, especially with Wei-Yin Chen gone. The Orioles have added veteran Yovani Gallardo, which should help fill the Chen void. But Chen was lefthanded and a former 16-game winner.
Showalter feels Kevin Gausman will emerge as a top starter, and that Chris Tillman has a chance to rebound from a disastrous 2015. But those things need to happen if the Orioles are to compete with the other AL East teams in the pitching department.
The Orioles will also have to carry once-prized prospect Dylan Bundy and use him out of the bullpen because he’s out of options.
Showalter believes a fully recovered Matt Wieters is teed up to have a great year offensively and behind the plate, where his Tommy John repair should make him a force in throwing out runners and giving opposing teams pause to steal off the veteran catcher.
There was no way the Orioles could compete with what the Red Sox did, adding arguably the best pitcher in the AL (David Price) to their rotation. The Sox just have to figure out the rest. As important as Price is, Clay Buchholz is likely the Orioles’ Gonzalez; he needs to be significant.
Toronto’s staff, minus Price, needs a major pick-me-up from Marcus Stroman, who becomes the ace after missing most of last season following knee surgery. Also important is veteran R.A. Dickey, who had a strong 2015, but knuckleballers are unpredictable from year to year. The Blue Jays need another consistent year from 13-game winner Marco Estrada, and J.A. Happ has to realize his potential finally. Aaron Sanchez, a fixture in the Jays’ bullpen last season, needs to take that next step as a starting pitcher. And he’s certainly capable.
It’s all about health for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka was dominant in his introduction to the big leagues. But like some other Japanese pitchers, the wear and tear of a more strenuous routine caught up to him, and elbow and shoulder issues developed. How close he is to the guy who started his career 12-1 will determine how dominant the Yankees can be, especially if Luis Severino becomes one of the elite pitchers in the league, and he too was hit hard in his first spring outing.
It’s far-fetched to think CC Sabathia, once the league’s ultimate workhorse, can be what he once was, with physical issues relating to his knees and being treated for alcoholism, which forced him to miss the playoffs. The rest of the Yankees’ rotation is solid, with Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova able to produce quality starts. With an uber bullpen — minus the first 30 games for Aroldis Chapman, who will serve a suspension for violating the domestic abuse policy — the Yankees’ starters may not be taxed.
The Rays will wait for Alex Cobb’s July return to solidify a rotation that may be the best 1 through 5 in the division. Chris Archer wants to be great, and he’s well on his way. Jake Odorizzi keeps getting better. Matt Moore is healthy after Tommy John surgery and is throwing the ball really well. Rookie lefthander Blake Snell is going to be the next Rays phenom, and while Cobb recovers, Erasmo Ramirez, a more-than-serviceable righthander, will fill the void. Lefthander Drew Smyly will likely pitch after Archer in this deep rotation.
Showalter knows you have to have a lot of pitching. The Blue Jays have Drew Hutchison, Jesse Chavez, and Roberto Hernandez in reserve. The Red Sox have Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Steven Wright. The Yankees have Nova and Bryan Mitchell. You have to be able to go seven or eight deep because injuries happen. To that end, the Orioles have to hope righthander Mike Wright, a returning Hunter Harvey, and rising lefthander Chris Lee can add depth.
Park and Kim may need time
All eyes are on the two major Korean free agent hitters — the Twins’ Byung-ho Park and Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim — but it may be a while before each team can properly evaluate its player.
“I figure we’ll know about mid-May, if he goes north with us, and he’s playing like we hope he will,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter of Kim. “There’s so many things you just don’t know . . . it’s like a guy you call from Triple A. I’m not saying the KBO [Korea Baseball Organization] is Triple A, I’m just saying it’s a different environment. When guys come up from Triple A, the biggest challenge is the level of consistency you see [in opposing pitchers].”
Kim, who signed a two-year, $7 million deal, weighed in at 247 pounds when he reported to camp, and told Showalter he normally loses 15-20 pounds during training camp, which in Korea starts in January and lasts for three months.
Showalter thought the toughest obstacle for Kim and other Korean players is the elevated velocity of major league pitchers. The 6-foot-2-inch left fielder has started the spring 0 for 9 but has done extensive work with Brady Anderson, Baltimore’s vice president of baseball operations, on adapting to major league life.
Kim hit .326 with 28 home runs and 121 RBIs for Doosan last season.
It took Pirates import Jung Ho Kang a while to get used to the increased velocity, but he did, and he nearly squeaked out the National League Rookie of the Year Award a year ago.
Park, a righthanded hitter who will DH for the Twins, contributed a big hit in Boston’s 6-5 win over Minnesota Thursday night. He struck out three times in his first major league exposure against the Red Sox on Wednesday. Park, 29, was signed to a four-year, $12 million deal after the Twins paid a $12.8 million posting fee. Last season, he hit .343 with 53 homers and 146 RBIs in 140 games for Nexen.
Twins manager Paul Molitor understands the nervousness Park felt in his first game but hopes Park can settle down and become the hitter he was in Korea.
“There’s been a lot of anticipation since everything fell into place with him coming over here,” said Molitor. “You just pat him on the back and encourage patience. He’s just trying to get a feel for how things are going to flow here.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Lou Schwechheimer on Thursday was doing what he did as a minority owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox for 30 years — shaking hands with fans who walked into Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla., for the Orioles-Rays spring training game. Schwechheimer’s group — the Caribbean Baseball Initiative — now owns the Charlotte Stone Crabs (Rays, Single A) and New Orleans Zephyrs (Marlins, Triple A). For many years, he’s tried to get professional baseball to return to Havana. He has secured exclusive rights for a minor league team to play there. Schwechheimer will be in Cuba for a couple of weeks through the Rays’ exhibition game against the Cuban national team and for President Obama’s visit. Schwechheimer’s group is also in charge of the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Havana on March 25.
2. Schwechheimer took note of David Murphy signing with the Red Sox and remembered a five-page letter Murphy sent to him after he’d been traded to Texas, thanking the PawSox for keeping his wife safe and comfortable as she gave birth to their first daughter. “Something I’ll never forget,” Schwechheimer said. “It was the most beautiful, heart-felt letter. I’ve never forgotten it and I’m so happy David is back with the Red Sox.”
3. Every year we hear that spring training is too long. But it really isn’t. Pitchers especially need the time to build up their arms and get ready for the regular season. If there are players trying to change positions (for example, Hanley Ramirez), the time is needed to help that process.
4. It may not happen before this September, but as the players’ union and owners negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, it’s almost certain that September rosters will no longer be able to expand to 40. Both sides have long wanted September to be the same as any other month. The only compromise that could be reached is if rosters were slightly expanded (to maybe 28).
5. Super agent Casey Close once played for Buck Showalter as a minor leaguer in the Yankees’ system. It was interesting that Close had client Dexter Fowler walk away from a reported three-year, $33 million deal with the Orioles to sign a one-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs.
6. One NL scout combing the back fields at JetBlue Park said he saw some good things. He was impressed with outfielder Luis Basabe, second baseman Yoan Moncada, third baseman Rafael Devers, righthander Michael Kopech, and loved reliever Pat Light, whom he believes is close to the big leagues.
7. You wonder if David Ortiz is retiring too soon when you realize he’s the only player in baseball who has knocked in 100 runs each of the last three seasons.
Updates on nine
1. Kenta Maeda, RHP, Dodgers — With Brett Anderson out until at least the All-Star break after back surgery, the Dodgers will need to lean on their new Japanese acquisition. One scout who watched Maeda several times in Japan questioned how effective he will be in his first season. “His stuff isn’t as good as [Masahiro] Tanaka and he’s more a middle to end of the rotation type of guy,” said the scout. “I don’t know how his fastball plays in the big leagues. I think he’s got the secondary pitches, but the quality of hitters he’ll face may be a challenge at first.”
2. James Loney, 1B, Rays — Loney is a man without a starting job, currently behind the platoon of Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce. With Corey Dickerson penciled in as the DH and Desmond Jennings in left field, it’s hard to see where Loney, who is earning $9.67 million, fits. The Rays haven’t been able to move him because of his salary.
3. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds — There’s still a possibility Bruce winds up in Baltimore as the Orioles try to plug last-minute holes. They are considering Austin Jackson, but Bruce because of his power might be a much better fit. The Orioles don’t believe Mark Trumbo can play right field every day and really needs to be a full-time DH, so it behooves the Orioles to get a good all-around player to play right.
4. John Ryan Murphy, C, Twins — One baseball official not associated with the Murphy deal with the Yankees for outfielder Aaron Hicks called it “the best pure baseball deal of the offseason.” The Twins got a very good catcher and the Yankees a very good defensive fourth outfielder. Murphy is winning friends rapidly with the Twins. He’s a strong voice for pitchers and a potential power threat.
5. Kyle Lohse, RHP, free agent — Lohse, a Scott Boras client, remains one of the experienced starting pitchers on the market. Lohse had a horrible 2015 campaign for the Brewers, so you can understand why teams have stayed away. But as injuries crop up with the Dodgers (especially Anderson) and other teams, you wonder if Lohse has become a fallback plan.
6. Grady Sizemore, OF, free agent — Sizemore hasn’t received much interest. He seems to be low on the priority list for teams, along with Marlon Byrd, who hit 23 homers last season and yet doesn’t have a job. Sizemore’s comeback after a two-year absence never took hold enough to be someone’s starting center or right fielder. At this point, Sizemore can only wait to see if there’s an injury somewhere that would net him a minor league deal.
7. Ryan Hanigan, C, Red Sox — Good catching is the hardest thing to find, so a few teams have recognized Hanigan as a possible trade target later in the season, according to an NL executive. The reason some teams feel Hanigan might be available is Christian Vazquez, who will likely start the season at Pawtucket. Red Sox officials have deemed it highly unlikely they would part with Hanigan because that would create a catching combination of youngsters Blake Swihart and Vazquez, with no experienced backup. Hanigan, who grew up in Andover, loves being close to home and would hate to go anywhere. And he has become a Mr. Fix-It for pitchers.
8. Justin Masterson, RHP, free agent — Masterson, according to agent Randy Rowley, is “five weeks into an eight-week throwing program and all is great.” Masterson, 30, will throw a bullpen session for several teams toward the end of the month in Arizona. Masterson had arthroscopic shoulder surgery this offseason. He was released by the Red Sox in the second week of August after posting a 4-2 record with a 5.61 ERA in 18 appearances, nine of them starts.
9. Pedro Alvarez, 1B-DH, free agent — Alvarez doesn’t seem to fit the Orioles because of Trumbo, who needs to DH, therefore Alvarez wouldn’t have a position unless the Orioles moved Chris Davis to the outfield, which they don’t want to do.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In his career, Koji Uehara has pitched 175⅔ ninth innings with a .185 batting average against, and 84 eighth innings with a .170 batting average against.” . . . Happy birthday, Terry Adams (43).
Prospecting for gold
Two playoff teams from last season, the Dodgers and Astros, each have seven players in Baseball America’s ranking of the top 100 prospects for 2016, the most of any club. The Red Sox, expected to be a contender this season after their third last-place finish in four years, have five, but four are in the top 20. A starting nine by position, with projected future grades.
|Baseball America||Baseball Prospectus||MLBpipline.com|
|1. Corey Seager (SS, Dodgers)||1. Corey Seager (SS, Dodgers)||1. Corey Seager (SS, Dodgers)|
|2. Byron Buxton (OF, Twins)||2. Byron Buxton (OF, Twins)||2. Byron Buxton (OF, Twins)|
|3. Yoan Moncada (2B, Red Sox)||3. Lucas Giolito (P, Nationals)||3. Lucas Giolito (P, Nationals)|
|4. Julio Urias (P, Dodgers)||4. J.P. Crawford (SS, Phillies)||4. Julio Urias (P, Dodgers)|
|5. Lucas Giolito (P, Nationals)||5. Nomar Mazara (OF, Rangers)||5. J.P. Crawford (SS, Phillies)|
|6. J.P. Crawford (SS, Phillies)||6. Julio Urias (P, Dodgers)||6. Orlando Arcia (SS, Brewers)|
|7. Alex Reyes (P, Cardinals)||7. Yoan Moncada (2B, Red Sox)||7. Yoan Moncada (2B, Red Sox)|
|8. Orlando Arcia (SS, Brewers)||8. Joey Gallo (3B, Rangers)||8. Dansby Swanson (SS, Braves)|
|9. Trea Turner (SS, Nationals)||9. Steven Matz (P, Mets)||9. Joey Gallo (3B, Rangers)|
|10. Joey Gallo (3B, Rangers)||10. Alex Reyes (P, Cardinals)||10. Tyler Glasnow (P, Pirates)|
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.