Friday, May 29, 2009

A Good Time to be an O's Fan

Oh boy, the air is electric in Baltimore today. I would like to echo the sentiments of Baltimore Sun writer Peter Schmuck in wishing all a Happy Wieters Day, as all of us can look forward to his arrival tonight against the Detroit Tigers. Not only this but the Orioles have won four in a row (six of their last seven), recent call-up Nolan Reimold has taken a hold of the left field job, and young pitchers like Jason Berken and David Hernandez have held their own in their first major league starts.

The recurring theme in all of these pieces of good news is youth. The exemplary play of the Orioles rookies this season -- all of whom came up through this system -- has been the biggest reason to hope and the biggest reason the Orioles have gone on their recent tear. Not too long ago, Nolan Reimold was a forgotten prospect; he had been hampered by injuries and seemed to be losing the window to make it to the bigs as a full-time player. Fast forward to this season, and Reimold was not only able to reaffirm prospect status but has solidified the every day left field position with the O's. Reimold's swing looks far better than it looked in Bowie last year, as he still has the raw power but has improved his plate coverage considerably. The last key for him was in making adjustments, and he seems to be doing just that.

The young pitchers have to give O's fans a ton of hope, as Bergesen, Berken, and Hernandez have all won their major league debuts and all have shown the flashes of ability that they could stick for awhile here. And the best news with these three is that they aren't close to the best that the organization has to offer when it comes to pitching talent. The big guns are still on the way in Tillman, Arrieta, Matusz, Patton, et al. David Hernandez is the most intriguing of the pitchers in the majors right now, because there is significant conversation over whether or not he'll be a starter in the long term. Based on his debut, I believe there is some more credence to the idea that he could be a starter, because his changeup was used very effectively and he flashed the curveball. If he can regularly throw all four pitches (fastball, slider, change, curve) for strikes and go 100+ pitches as he did yesterday, I don't see why he can't make it as a starter with the adjustments he's made. Brad Bergesen was the earliest of these to come up, but he's fallen on a rough patch and looks to reassert himself tonight.

Bergesen will be throwing to his Bowie battery-mate Matt Wieters tonight, which is easily the biggest point of excitement for O's fans today. It's hard to argue with all of this excitement, because there have been so few reasons for Orioles fans to be happy recently, and Matt has been touted universally by baseball people to be the real deal. I'll be fascinated to see just how he handles the pressure; it's alot to ask a kid to be the savior of a franchise, and one has to hope that it doesn't cause him to press too much at the plate or behind it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reimold Rocks Blue Jays World

Normally leading eight to three against the Orioles is a sure thing win. After all, the Birds had never won a game this season when trailing into the eighth inning........until today.

The O's rallied back to tie the game at eight, and despite a home run by Aaron Hill in the 11th to give the Jays a 10-8 lead, Nolan Reimold capped off a second rally with a three run blast to win it for the O's 12-10, giving them their first three-game sweep of the season, coming against Cito Gaston's Blue Jays. Dave Trembley said this is a win he will remember for a long time.

Before this season started, Reimold was not expected to be a big part of the Orioles this season. The left field options were between returning Luke Scott, new acquisition Felix Pie, and Lou Montanez, who was the big contact hitter in Norfolk. But with injuries and/or lack of production from the above three, up comes Reimold after tearing up the Tides. He has not been a dominant player, but in just 13 games played he has hitting .265 with four home runs, including one dinger off Mariano Rivera.

It just goes to show that no matter what the situation, there is a place for those people that play well. Reimold in no way was expected to be an important part of the Orioles this season, but has likely earned a roster spot for a good while.

Another Baby Bird, David Hernandez, will take to the mound on Thursday. He'll be the second player from Norfolk to have their premiere this week, and third will be Matt Wieters on Friday. Should be a fun couple of days for Orioles fans.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rolling out the Orange Carpet for Matt Wieters

Windsor is off on yet another vacation, and while I am still technically on sabbatical from ATH for the rest of this week I couldn’t in good conscience leave it with only one writer for the week.

Well folks, it is time. There has been a great deal of debate over whether to bring up Chris Tillman or David Hernandez, whether it is time to release Felix Pie or any of the underperforming pitchers, this move was never in debate and predicted long before the season started. That’s right, Matt Wieters is coming to Baltimore starting. The team was waiting for Wieters to sit out the first month of the season so that he would have an extra year under team control before he would reach free agency (a very sound decision in my opinion), and for him to go on a hot streak to ride into his time in the majors. After a seemingly torturous wait, he is taking over on Friday against the Detroit Tigers.

It couldn’t come at a better time, either. I have enjoyed watching Gregg Zaun, believe it or not, and have really rooted for him to succeed. He truly enjoys the game, and his struggles remind me a lot of Kevin Millar, another lighthearted veteran who was long past his prime by the time he got to the Orioles. However, Zaun’s smile won’t make up for a pathetic appearance on both sides of the plate. His .216 average is his worst since 1998 and second worst in his career. His throws to second to gun down runners have been wild, and there is a chance that part of the struggles of the O’s pitching staff has been a product of his calling of games. Zaun will still be able to serve as an excellent mentor for Wieters, but he is not and has not been a true starting catcher in a long time. Baltimore fans should be grateful for his time, enthusiasm, and energy, but not for his play.

However, I am not going to join the chorus of sportswriters and fans who think that Wieters will dive right into the 3 spot in the order and start giving Joe Mauer a run for his money as best catcher in the American League. Matt Wieters will have his struggles, if only at first. The Georgia Tech standout took a while to get going in AAA, only recently going .391 in his last 46 at bats to pull his batting average to .305. This rookie has never seen major league pitching, and his adjustment time to Norfolk will only be exacerbated at the major league level, particularly against the pitching staffs of the AL East. Additionally, it is a lot tougher to call a game in the majors than in the minors. The hitters know all the tricks, and Wieters needs to gain the knowledge and skills that only experience can teach. He will be great, but it could take time.

Nor can this move be used as an excuse to bring up the other youngsters, particularly in the pitching staff. Wieters was a known commodity, and he has nothing more he can learn at the minor league level- I will leave the arguments for not spoiling pitching prospects to Falco and Windsor, but Wieters is a unique case. He is not being brought up in desperation or for lack of any other option (though the organization doesn’t really have any other good options at catcher). This move won’t turn the O’s around, but it will definitely give fans another reason to watch and could add a few wins here and there by September.

I will be in town to see the game on Saturday, and perhaps get a glimpse of some historic event in the young catcher’s career. It certainly won’t be the last one.

Here He Comes: Matt Wieters Coming Up, as is David Hernandez

Andy MacPhail has made the move; Matt Wieters will be brought up from Norfolk for his major league debut on Friday against the Tigers. Also coming up for Thursday will be David Hernandez according to the Baltimore Sun, as Koji Uehara will be heading to the DL.

For Orioles fans, Wieters coming up is big. The best prospect in the entire minor leagues has been hyped up the last two years, and will play in Camden Yards Friday. He has done well with the Tides, batting above .300.

What is important to know is that Wieters is not going to be a savior this season or next season. For all of his talent, it is very unlikely that he will have a great season. He could have a decent one, this will not make the Orioles a winning team this season. But it is exciting to finally see him in the orange and black. The Orioles had been waiting to bring him up because of arbitration issues, but now he is ready to go.

But also, David Hernandez is coming up. There had been rumors that he might be the next person, and for the Orioles the hand is forced due to Uehara's injury. Check out Windsor's Prospect Report on him here. So far numerous pitchers from Norfolk have been needed. To name them, Brad Bergeson, Jason Berken, Radhames Liz, Matt Albers, and now David Hernandez. Let's just hope that Chris Tillman is not added to that list anytime soon.

(Photo credit: MASN)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To Orioles Fans: Be Patient

It has been a while since we've posted here, but don't worry, we are back. We all are just busy, but hopefully once things get a little more steady we will be back in full force.

With this, it has been nice for the Orioles lately. They won two out of three in the Battle of the Beltway with the Nats and they won the Memorial Day matinee with Toronto. But, with people are getting hurt and with the release of Adam Eaton, more rosters moves are being made. Jason Berken has been called up and will start today for the Birds. For info on him, check out Windsor's Prospect Report on him. Berken has done very well in his five starts with Norfolk this season, going 2-0 with a 1.05 ERA and 16 strikeouts to six walks.

But one thing that has been occurring is the fans are getting more impatient. Attendance for the Orioles is down, and many people want to see Matt Wieters and the big three pitchers in the majors. 11 losing seasons about to be 12 is upsetting fans. Many were wondering and hoping if Chris Tillman was coming up in the roster, one of the big three pitchers. Especially with the initial successes of Brad Bergeson and Nolan Reimold, who were not the highly touted people, we should bring up the bigger names, right?

But to all Orioles fans, we need to be patient, and wait this out.

In this day and age, we have all come to a "football mentality" of we want things happening sooner rather than later. It is especially frustrating when the Orioles have had losing seasons numerous years and the AL East is routinely beating Baltimore. But Andy MacPhail is right not to rush anyone that is very important, mainly Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta. Bringing them up now will not make the Orioles a competitive team when they are not ready will only hurt their chances to reach their potential.

In the past, the Orioles have had issues bringing up farm system players too quickly. Daniel Cabrera and Jeff Fiorentino come to mind. Cabrera had all the potential in the world to be a dominating fastball-changeup pitcher, even many opposing general managers felt so, but was brought up from Bowie in 2004 after less than a full season there. He had some bright spots, but he never established control and is now off the roster. Jeff Fiorentino was another player with great potential as an outfielder. In 2005 when the team needed outfielders, he was brought up from single-A Frederick, and although he played all right, he never got to his potential. After bouncing to a couple teams in 2008 he landed back on the Orioles, but he is not expected to be a major part of the Orioles future. He is currently in Norfolk batting .254.

The Orioles will not be competitive if they bring up any of the four above players, and they can't waste their potential. Bring them up when they are ready. Likely Wieters will be up this year and at least Tillman will join be the start of next season. But MacPhail is doing the right thing and being patient with these players.

We need to be as well. It is hard, but being patient with the young Birds is the way to go. But for now, let's celebrate the successes of the ones that have come into the majors, and good luck to Berken today.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Congratulations to Windsor and Falco!

In a shameless and cliche move, I have to congratulate my two compadres on this blog on graduating from the University of Maryland. They have worked so hard on their studies, the radio, this blog, and way more than any of our readers know to make this possible. These guys have been close friends of mine for years, and I have never met people with stronger characters than these guys.

As they continue off in their professional careers in different parts of the country (though Windsor will certainly be staying in-state), we will continue to post and continue to share our opinions on this blog (though possibly with a few more interruptions from time to time). These guys are consummate professionals, and I look forward to keeping this little world of ours alive for years to come.

Congrats again guys!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Prospect Report: Jake Arrieta

Welcome to a special Tuesday edition of the Prospect Report, and today we’ll take a look at one of the finest young pitchers in the Orioles’ system. Jake Arrieta was much acclaimed out of college and has lived up to the hype in his first two professional seasons. This year he has certainly not disappointed, particularly in his most recent start for the Bowie Baysox on May 16th. In that start, Baysox fans were treated to an exceptional performance in which he pitched seven innings of one-hit ball in which he struck out ten batters while walking three. In this he tied a career high in strikeouts and went the deeper into a ballgame than in any other start this year.

So, who is Jake Arrieta? Jake Arrieta is entering his second professional season at the age of 23. The right-handed starter has a solid frame at 6’4” and 225 pounds. Jake was drafted in the 5th round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft out of Texas Christian University. At TCU he was the staff ace, going 9-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 17 starts and struck out 93 batters in 98.1 innings. After his junior year there were significant signability concerns which caused him to drop as far as he did in the draft, but Joe Jordan and the Orioles took the risk and were willing to pay him far out of slot to join the organization. Thus far this has paid off greatly, as he burst onto the scene last year as he went straight into Advanced-A ball where he was named the Carolina League pitcher of the year with his league leading 2.87 ERA and striking out batters at a rate of over 1 for each inning pitched. He also pitched six shutout innings for Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Arrieta had a brief stint with the major league club in spring training, and most likely is headed up to Triple-A Norfolk at some point this season.

Strengths: Without a doubt, Jake’s greatest strength is his dominating fastball. His fastball has been clocked as high as 97 mph, and uses it to set up his breaking pitches exceptionally well. At his most recent start (according to the Baysox stadium radar gun), Jake regularly hit between 89-94 mph, occasionally touching 95 mph. When Arrieta varies speeds and locates effectively, there are very few minor leaguers who can touch his stuff. His off-speed pitches are improving, particularly his hard slider which has an excellent late break. Jake Arrieta’s delivery is smooth, and he conceals the ball well as he doesn’t expose it to the hitter until the last moment. He has also fielded his consistently well, which will certainly serve him well in the majors.

Weaknesses: While his fastball can be dominant, Jake Arrieta has issues with consistency in his location. Even in his dominant Saturday start, Arrieta inexplicably lost his command during the second inning in which he threw around 30 pitches. This not only leads to high pitch counts, but it bodes poorly for the future in that upper-level hitters will not chase so many pitches out of the zone. While his slider is getting to be a plus pitch for him, his curveball and changeup need significant work. If Arrieta is to become an accomplished major league starter he will need to find a third pitch that can keep hitters honest.

Projection: There have been some rumblings amidst O’s fans that Arrieta might end up in the bullpen because of his fastball-slider combination (including myself to some extent late last season), but I see no reason that Arrieta should be pegged as a bullpen pitcher. First and foremost, Jake has shown the endurance required to make it as a starter despite his recent issues getting deep into games. For proof look no further than Saturday’s start in which he was still throwing 94 mph after he had cleared the 100 pitch mark. Jake Arrieta has a sound delivery and an ideal frame for a starting pitcher, and with some refinement in his control he should transition very well to the majors. The Orioles have long said that Arrieta’s on the fast track and his progression has given them no reason to alter that philosophy. Many scouts think Arrieta has the potential to be a staff ace, but I see his ceiling as more of a number two starter for this team. Jake will be in Norfolk later this season and should make the starting rotation by mid-season next year at the very latest.

(Photo Credit: Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Johns Hopkins, Maryland Done in the NCAAs

For the first time in quite a while, the men's lacrosse NCAA Tournament Final Four will not have a representative from the state of Maryland. The two remaining teams from the state, Hopkins and Maryland, were taken down over the weekend in the quarterfinals.

For Hopkins, the defensive issues finally gave in, as Virginia lit them up in the rematch 19-8. The Wahoos were up 12-4 at halftime and always had control. Hopkins had a great season, earning the 8-seed thanks to some closely fought games. Brian Christopher had a couple game winning goals against Loyola and Brown to push them farther into the season, and they had a good run.

Maryland fell at the hands of defending national champion Syracuse 11-6. The Terps were close at halftime 5-3, but could not beat the ride or the defense. Not only that, goalie Brian Phipps tore his ACL protesting a no-call, and became the laughing stock of the sports world for a day. But the year had huge expectations, and even though it was disappointing, they got through the first round and reached the quarterfinals again.

Navy and UMBC fell to Duke and North Carolina respectively in the first round. So every team is out from the state of Maryland. The Final Four will make up Virginia, Syracuse, Duke, and Cornell.

This was a great year for these four teams; all had their strengths. Navy had a shutdown defense, Hopkins always won the close ones, Maryland had a solid attack core, and UMBC had one of the best first midfields. Even though it is over, all four squads should be proud of their season. We won't forget the great Hopkins-Maryland matchup in the Day of Rivals, the defensive battle between UMBC and Princeton, or the thrilling overtime game between Hopkins and Loyola. This year was a great one.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Free Kicks

Well while Windsor and Falco get ready for their last finals, yours truly has to prepare for work on Monday- which will require me to take a couple weeks off of the blog to get acclimated to the new job. However, I am looking into a possible guest writer once a week, and I am certain that Falco and Windsor can put some things together to cover the rest of the days that I am off. So, for the last time until June, let’s line up for the kick…

The Hill Overlooking Baltimore
The way has been cleared for a rejuvenated and (hopefully) repaired Rich Hill to start tomorrow for the Orioles as they take on Kansas City on the road. Hill, the high risk high reward acquisition from the Cubs (one of several so far in 2009) has had his mechanics completely rebuilt by pitching coach Rick Kranitz and other members of the Orioles coaching staff, some of whom helped him establish himself in the minors- and so far it has paid off. After going on the DL in late March with shoulder problems. Hill has made 3 minor league starts on his way back to the starting rotation. After giving up a run in three innings at Frederick, he has only allowed two earned runs in 13.1 innings at AAA Norfolk, including not allowing a run in his last 2 starts.

More importantly however, is that is walks are way down from last year, when he handed out about a free pass every inning as his pitching motion broke down and injuries took their toll. At Norfolk, he gave up only 9 bases on balls and started to recover some of the command that made him one of the best strikeout pitchers in the majors in 2007 with 14 Ks in Norfolk (including 7 in 6 innings in his last start). Hill knows that his best opportunity to succeed is here in Baltimore where he has a supportive coaching staff, patience from the front office, and a decent offense to work behind. He will be expected to go 6 or 7 innings and give the bullpen some semblence of rest, which should be bolstered by Hendrickson’s move to a long relief role.

Here’s hoping that a Michigan Man can get it done in Baltimore.

Amazing is Happening
The Rockets didn’t dominate the game after the first 10 minutes of the 1st quarter. But they didn’t have to. Houston simply hung with LA and made shots when they had to once the Lakers cut the lead to 2 in the second half. However, as much as I would love to give all the credit to Houston, Kobe’s team simply did not show up last night. There is no way that the Lakers go down 21-3 to start the game if they actually took this one seriously going in. Their dominating victory in Game 5 shows what happens when they play tough to the hole and use their size with Gasol, Odom, and Bynum underneath to match up with Scola, Houston’s lone rebounding threat with Mutumbo and Ming out. The fact that the Rockets were only outrebounded by 6 is incredible given the small lineup that they have to play, and is indicative of a lack of heart by the Lakers. I will be rooting hard for Houston to pull this one out in Game 7, but I don’t expect the Lakers to allow a repeat of last night on their home court.

Orlando should have won this series in 5 games. Now they will have to do it in Boston, where they choked away the opportunity to take a commanding lead in the series. As I said before, Orlando is the better team but Boston will win the series. Whenever you give a talented, veteran squad like the Celtics chances to get back in a series, they will eventually win enough legitimate games to take it away from you. Given the dissention in the lockerroom and inconsistent playing styles that the Magic are coming out with every game, expect Ray Allen to do better than 0-7 from three point range and take the Celts to Cleveland.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Finals Week > Prospect Reports

... apparently. Basically I just wanted to put up this note because I have been unable to put up Prospect Reports this week or last week. For some reason this whole "final exam" thing decided to scuttle my plans... But! It will be made up. Next week I'll be profiling two of the Orioles' up and coming prospects, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. I appreciate everyone's patience and Go O's (... and Tides, Baysox, Keys, and Shorebirds)!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

'09 Bargain Free Agents- How are they Doing Now?

Well I am back on the road getting ready to settle into a new job. For those of you keeping score at home, this is my third move since this blog started less than a year ago, and it has taken an unanticipated turn- I have gone back to the midwest for a job I had no idea would be there and (hopefully) will be able to settle down in this economy for a little while. While there are some signs of a rebound, no one knows how long it could last or what will happen when the government runs out of our money to spend. It has been hard on all of us in one way or another, and even the world of sports has been affected. There are very few players being handed pink slips, of course, but there have been a host of so-called bargain players that were forced into slow-end contracts at the end of the MLB offseason. I worried at the time that the bitterness engendered from these players over signing low-end deals in bad situations could overwhelm their desire to make the next paycheck bigger. I decided to take a look at some of these players who had to sign deals below their true value and see how they are doing so far this season. Enjoy.

Orlando Cabrera signed on with the Oakland A’s for just $4 million for the season, and I loved the deal at the time. Cabrera, at 34, still hit in the high 200’s range and played excellent defense at a tough position at shortstop. The result so far? The A’s have dragged him down with their offense, as Cabrera has hit a paltry .238 this season, and has been caught stealing 3 times to only 1 successful steal. This is not like him- and it seems like all of the Oakland offensive acquisitions are struggling. It isn’t like Cabrera can get away unnoticed, however- the shortstop is hitting in the leadoff spot.

The other Orlando in baseball had a similar dilemma after Arizona couldn’t keep their hot-hitting second baseman.* Orlando Hudson, in any other offseason would commanda big veteran contract- in fact, this likely was supposed to be his big payday. The bad news is it will have to wait a year, after the $3.8 million deal he signed with the Dodgers. The good news is he is with the Dodgers, who even without Manny have a great number of offensive threats. Hitting in the 3rd spot he has garnered a .424 on base percentage with 20 RBI, along with hitting for the cycle earlier this season! While it has yet to be seen how the loss of Ramirez will affect his production (he is 6-20 at the plate since Manny was in the lineup while the team has lost 4 of 5 games), it is clear that the rising tide lifted everyone’s game on the Dodgers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one Oriole on this list. Ty Wiggington was a deal that garnered a lot of praise among O’s fans, if for no other reason than it gave another big bat to a lineup that (still) sorely needs more of a power presence. Able to play both corner outfield and corner infield spots, his 2 year $6 million contract was a boon for such a talented utility man who, at age 31, is still in the prime of his career. However, so far Wiggington has not been able to catch on in his part-time role the way he did coming off the bench with his first 4 teams. The career .270 hitter prior to this season, who only had one season hitting lower than .255 in his career, has barely cleared the Mendoza line while hitting in the 6th spot. The O’s don’t have a lot of other options, but they are fortunate that “Wiggy” isn’t a full-time starter at this point in the season.

*As an aside, the economy has given us some very odd contracts. The Diamonbacks (and Hudson) went their separate ways because Arizona simply couldn’t afford to pay him what he wanted. His replacement Felipe Lopez, however, is making just $.5 million less than Hudson wound up with with the Dodgers. Lopez is a quality player so far this eason, but he is no Orlando Hudson.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Luke Scott Bound for DL: What's the next move?

It hasn't been announced officially yet, but there is little doubt that Luke Scott will be headed to the 15-day disabled list very shortly after badly injuring his shoulder in Sunday's loss to the Yankees. The injury occured in a dive back to first base in which, as heard after the game, most likely hurt his rotator cuff. If that is the case, Scott will most likely be out for a long period of time, which begs the question as to what the Orioles next move is. The way I see it there are three possibilities, and I'm ranking them in order of likelihood (least likely to most likely).

3. Nolan Reimold gets called up to replace Scott -- At first glance this seems like the most logical move. After all, both play left field, Reimold has been on a tear and is still a legitimate prospect, and he's shown he has little left to gain from staying in AAA. However, I seriously doubt that this will (or should) take place for a few reasons. The most important reason is that it has been stated very plainly that Trembley does not want to bring Reimold up to be a bench player, but rather he wants Reimold to play almost every day whenever he comes to the big league club. With Felix Pie and Lou Montanez playing left field, the insertion of Reimold would re-introduce a Freel-like conundrum in which there is a logjam where noone can be happy. When Reimold is brought up will be a direct result of how Pie plays over the next few weeks. Pie showed signs of life during Sunday's game when he started for an injured Montanez, going 2-3 with a walk. Right now the team needs to evaluate Pie in left field-- Reimold's opening won't be in replacing Scott, it's in the possible replacement of Pie down the line.

2. Rich Hill takes Scott's roster spot -- Again, doubtful, but not out of the question. This move would entail the Orioles moving to 13 pitchers which, given the consistently short outings of the starters, is not unreasonable. Still, the lack of a bench earlier in the season severely limited Trembley's options late in games, and makes it much harder to get good matchups at the plate. The most sense for Rich Hill's callup is to replace Bob McCrory; McCrory still needs more work at Norfolk, and his demotion can move Hendrickson to the bullpen and allow Hill to take a rotation spot.

1. Oscar Salazar gets called up -- This is by far the most sensible option. Oscar Salazar has been just as hot (if not moreso) at the plate than Nolan Reimold, and unlike Reimold there is no issue with him being a bench player in the majors. Salazar is not considered a prospect due to his age, but does provide a significant bat off the bench (.378 avg, 6 hr in Norfolk) for a pinch hitting role. He is also capable of playing multiple infield positions to give players a day off or provide late-game flexibility. I know I'm making Oscar Salazar sound like Chuck Norris (and he isn't), but he certainly would be an ideal candidate for this situation.

We'll see later today if I'm right; Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun and Roch Kubatko of MASN have previously expressed the same opinion, but I'm more than inclined to agree with them. The real excitement though will be seeing how the Pie experiment is handled over the next couple weeks and how Rich Hill looks against the Royals on Saturday. Losing record? Who cares, it's still great theater.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Free Kicks: Manny, O's, and NBA Playoffs Edition

Why am I Not Surprised?
I was not one of those baseball fans who cheered with glee when A-Rod finally admitted to his steroid use, and didn’t yell a quick “A ha!” when Selena Roberts’ upcoming book asserted that he has used for years even after his move from Texas. As such, when it was discovered that Manny Ramirez had been suspended for 50 games for use of a banned substance I simply shook my head. I, like many baseball fans, simply want all of this to be gone. Honestly, I don’t want to know anymore which players were juicing or whatever other chemicals were in their system. I am tired of every great hitter being attached to substance violations in one way or another. Bonds, Sosa, McGuire, A-Rod, Palmeiro (who was my favorite player growing up), and now Manny? I want to believe Albert Pujols when he defiantly goes out and says he has never and will never use performance enhancing drugs, but unfortunately for him I just can’t believe it anymore.

Is the Commissioner’s office partly culpable? Absolutely- Selig could have put a stop to this early but chose to ignore it, riding the waves of popularity in the sport before reality hit. Are doctors responsible? Partly. They sometimes gave their patients these supplements and assured them they were legal under the drug policy, only later finding out they were badly mistaken. But in the end it comes down to the players. Three years ago this would have been huge news. How sad it is that it is now just something to shrug about and move on.

An Uncomfortable “Sweep”
A two game “sweep” is a bit of a misnomer considering the Orioles won their first two games of their first two series and failed to take the third. But if I get to say that the Orioles swept the Twins I will take it, and I do think we learned a lot over this game and two-thirds (considering the first was called after 6 innings). The good news is that the top of the order doesn’t necessarily have to run the show, as Jones, Markakis and Roberts all went hitless in last night’s ballgame. Additionally, Lou Montanez and Gregg Zaun have started to come around, with Zaun getting a hit in 8 of his last 19 at-bats and Montanez driving in a game winning run in the 8th. We should also be pleased that Brad Bergesen is settling into about where we expected- he could have easily been blown up on his call up to the majors. Sure, his 4.98 ERA is not ideal and his WHIP is higher than it should be, but he has shown consistency in his last two starts, going 6 innings and giving up 3 runs in each. That is more than one can say about Mark Hendrickson, who has yet to pitch 6 innings this season. The bad news is that the bullpen is still not solid, with Dennis Sarfate going on the DL with a circulatory problem that could threaten his career. All things considered this could be the right way to open up a homestand against the struggling Yankees, even with the return of Alex Rodriguez to the lineup.

NBA Predictions
Okay, I have long lamented the lack of an NBA presence on this blog, for the simple and irreconcilable reason that Baltimore does not have a rooting interest anywhere. I would never root for a DC team, and most Baltimore fans couldn’t care less about my team (the 76ers). However, there is nothing quite like the NBA playoffs, and so I had to share some thoughts on the conference semifinal action:

Cavs lead Hawks in the series, 2-0: Honestly, I figured at some point they would tack on an extra win with the way the Cavaliers have beat down on the Hawks. At first I had this series going to 6 games… now I can’t see anything but a sweep. This team is on a mission.

Lakers tied with Rockets in the series, 1-1: I really like the way the Rockets are performing in the playoffs. Yao Ming has been so physical inside (which had been a problem in the playoffs in the last few years) and Ron Artest, when able to produce offensively is one of the best overall players in the game. The loss of Derek Fisher will hurt the Lakers more than they think, and Aaron Brook’s sharpshooting will give the Rockets a win in game 3. This one will go to seven, with the Lakers taking one in Houston and game seven at home.

Celtics tied with Magic in the series, 1-1: I am very worried if I am a Magic fan about game 3. Without Rafer Alston, the Magic lack the floor general required to distribute the ball to Orlando’s sharpshooters and create opportunities for Dwight Howard. This could get ugly if the Magic simply force the ball inside and aren’t able to move the basketball around the perimeter. I think Orlando is the better team, but Boston has the playoff experience to take game three tonight.

Nuggets lead Mavericks in the series, 2-0: I like the Rockets, but I love the way the Nuggets are playing right now. Having lived in Michigan (and about to move back there), I have had my share of experience watching Chauncey Billups and I loved the trade for Chauncey from the Nuggets side of things. He has provided a solid leadership figure, a confident clutch performer, and a desire to play great defense to this Denver squad, something they never had before he arrived. He has given this team a little bit of Detroit grit and they are showing it in the playoffs. Expect this series to end in 5, with the Mavs pulling it all together for just one game.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What do you do With O's Bullpen?

Last year, George Sherrill was the hidden gem of the Erik Bedard trade. O’s fans were excited over the prospect of center fielder Adam Jones solidifying the position for the next decade, and pitcher Chris Tillman one day taking on a #2 or even #1 role in the rotation. Sherrill, at the time, was an extra bonus for a team that needed all the pitching it could get. With Chris Ray injured for the season, Sherrill would be thrown into the closer’s role to simply see what would happen.

In the season that ensued, Sherrill went on to start the season 22 of 24 in save opportunities, but as the season dragged on his workload caught up to him, causing him to struggle down the stretch along with the rest of the ballclub. At least, that is what we thought was the reason. This year he has started the season wild and inconsistent, blowing 2 of his 6 save opportunities and making the rest way too interesting and anxious for O’s fans. And it isn’t just bad luck for a pitcher who has always played things a little loose. Opposing batters are hitting almost 100 points better than last season, clocking in at .326 this season. His home runs given up are also way up on last season. Most recently, Manager Dave Trembley conceded that he is now taking the closer role “day-to-day,” giving Chris Ray and Jim Johnson save opportunities, depending on the situation.

Like many O’s fans, I assumed the bullpen would be a strength this year, buoyed by Sherrill, Ray, and Johnson and a rejuvenated Danys Baez. Johnson, while still pitching well, has an ERA, WHIP, and batting average against that is higher than last season. Ray is still tentative and trying to rediscover the pitches that once made him a no-brainer at the closer spot. His 7.56 ERA is a good indication that he has a long way to go. However, Ray also has yet to step into an actual save situation. As I saw when he took the mound against the Rays several weeks ago in the 9th, sometimes a true closer can shine when he feels as though the game is actually on the line. That is clearly wishful thinking on my part, but Baltimore has got to be pulling for Ray to get it together. Oddly enough, the most effective pitcher in the bullpen so far has been Baez, who is on paper having one of the best years of his career. His fastball is clicking and while he doesn’t make great use of his other pitches he has been great in a relief role.

So what should the Orioles do? I am having trouble seeing why Baez shouldn’t be given a shot to save some games. Johnson struggled in the closer’s role when forced in last season, and Baez does have significant closer experience. From 2002-2005, Baez saved 102 of 126 opportunities with the Indians and Rays as their closer, including saving 41 of 48 chances in 2005. Chris Ray needs more time to find his groove in my opinion before I would be willing to push him out there with the game on the line. Put Baez out there and see what happens, he has the ability and a track record for success.

As for Sherrill, his style is one that keeps fans and players in suspense. He puts guys on, he gives up a hit here and there, but generally is able to complete the save. However, that style lends itself to coming apart if the pitcher loses even a little bit of control or leaves his fastballs hanging up there a bit too long. Sherrill will likely find his way back to the closer’s role once he is able to manage his mechanics or whatever else is wrong with him this season. In the meantime, the O’s are in for a rude awakening in a disappointing bullpen this season.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hopkins, Navy, UMBC, Maryland in Men's Lacrosse NCAA Tournament

The selection committee has decided, and four teams from the state of Maryland will head to the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Tournament, Johns Hopkins, Navy, UMBC, and Maryland will compete. Loyola reportedly is the last team out of the equation.

With this tournament, the top-8 teams are seeded due to committee selections, then the other eight are filled in. Let's take a real early look at the first round matchups:

8-seed Johns Hopkins vs. Brown
Brown is a scrappy squad that recently defeated Cornell, the 5-seed of the tournament. They play nearly everyone close, and so does Hopkins, so this will be a close matchup that may go down to the wire. The Bears are 12-2 and led by Andrew Feinberg with 54 points including nine man-up goals. Homewood won't see many goals in its final game, but the offenses will both be tested.

Maryland vs. 7-seed Notre Dame
Well this is certainly the eye-opener. Not only is Notre Dame the last undefeated team in Division I, but this will be a homecoming for Will Yeatman, though I doubt he will enjoy it. The knock on the Fighting Irish is that they had a relatively easy schedule, but undefeated is undefeated. Five players have between 32 and 42 points and they only allow about six goals per game. This will be another close game, though Maryland is 9-6 they have taken many teams to the brink. Yeatman may not enjoy the homecoming, but this will be a big matchup to watch.

UMBC vs. 6-seed North Carolina
Don Zimmerman will go back to a place where he used to be an assistant. This is a great matchup for UMBC; their senior midfield against a backup goalie as UNC's Grant Zimmerman (no relation) is out with injury. The Tar Heels under new coach Joe Breschi are faster and more athletic. Sophomore Billy Bitter has 60 points and is a dangerous attack. This game may come down to time of possession, but both are strong and should be a good matchup.

Navy vs. 3-seed Duke
Navy will not enjoy this matchup; there was some talk about Duke being the one-seed of the tournament. Duke is led by Tewaaraton candidate Ned Crotty on offense, plus Max Quinzani. Navy is known for defense and Tommy Phelan and company will be tested against the strong offense. If the Mids can play their style, the game will be close, but it will be tough for them to compete.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Awaiting the Committee: Men's Lacrosse NCAA

Tonight the NCAA Tournament Committee will be releasing the men's lacrosse bracket for this year's contest. The state of Maryland will be well represented, however where will this year's teams land?
(all stats/games courtesy of Inside Lacrosse)

Johns Hopkins
The Blue Jays always have a strong schedule and do well enough to earn a seed in the tournament despite being independent, and this year should be no different. Currently at 9-4 with their biggest wins against the entire state of Maryland, this will likely mean a low seed. But that has never slowed down the Hop, as the postseason always is game time for Dave Pietramala's team.

This year has been like most years, a slow start with a rousing finish. After starting the season 3-4, they have won their last six contests including three ranked foes, Maryland, Loyola, and Navy. Kyle Wharton (pictured) has led the way with 31 goals including four game winners and Michael Gvozden has been strong in the cage as has been tested for tournament play, as five of their games have been within one goal.

UMBC Retrievers

UMBC survived two scares during the America East tournament, needing overtime to defeat Binghamton and later defeating Stony Brook, but nonetheless Don Zimmerman's squad is locked into the tournament with the automatic qualifier. The 12-3 team's biggest wins are against Maryland and Colgate, and probably will not earn a seed in the tournament.

The key to this team is the senior-filled first midfield, and the team needs them to play well. Kyle Wimer (pictured), Alex Hopmann, and Peet Poillon are the three leaders in scoring, all having above 35 points. If this unit can play well with Jeremy Blevins defending the cage, this team could surprise a few people. Add to the point that this squad has a number of starting seniors that will be playing their last tournament.

Navy Midshipmen

Any game with Navy will be a hard fight to the end. The Mids are 11-4, earning the Patriot League automatic qualifier with two one-goal wins. They have wins against Maryland, Colgate, and Bucknell to their resume. Richie Meade has a strong squad that has had eight games within one or two goals, but also probably will not earn a seed. But if Navy can win their first game, then their quarterfinal game will be a home game as the regional is at Navy.

Tommy Phelan (pictured) has stepped up his game lately in the cage, and the offense is balanced with five players scoring at least 20 points this year. Any game with Navy will be a close one, and Phelan will give the Mids a good chance.

Maryland Terrapins

It has been a rough year for the Terps, going from #3 preseason to 9-6 on the year, but at the very least they will get a chance in the tournament barring something strange from the committee. Their biggest wins are against North Carolina and Duke. Dave Cottle's team has a lot of talent and has made a number of big games close. Maryland will have to be happy with playing their first game on the road, something they haven't done since 2002.

Maryland has plenty of young talent in the attack core, led by Grant Catalino, Will Yeatman and Ryan Young (pictured), plus the two-goalie system of Brian Phipps and Jason Carter may be employed. It'll be rough for Maryland, but they have taken some strong teams to the brink, so their talent could be dangerous.

Both Towson and Loyola had chances to make the tournament, but they will likely not make the bracket. Towson lost in the CAA final to Villanova and Loyola needed a victory against Hopkins, but the Greyhounds fell in overtime. But the tournament will be a great one, and with four teams the state will have a good shot to get a team to the Final Four in Boston. The bracket will be released at 9:00 PM tonight.

(Photo credit: JHU athletics (Wharton), Inside Lacrosse (Wimer), Navy athletics (Phelan), Maryland athletics (Young))

Friday, May 1, 2009

Despite Losing, Still a Lot of Reasons to Watch Orioles

Okay, so the Orioles have lost 11 of their last 14 games, and their starting pitching ERA is approaching Texas Rangers territory, and today the Baltimore Sun is featuring an article about the grand ineptitude of the 7-9 batters, who are combining to hit a whopping .189 (only Cesar Izturis is breaking the Mendoza Line at .242). And yes, the future doesn’t look bright for a team that usually doesn’t swoon like this until August, and in a division in which suddenly the Blue Jays are challenging the top of the AL East, joining the Sox, Yankees, and even Rays (they will come around) in the most loaded division in baseball. For many fans this seems like a time to curl up and hibernate until 2010, to perhaps tune in eagerly for Matt Wieters’ call-up or whenever another of the young guns is forced into a starting role but otherwise not pay much attention to the struggles of their hometown ballclub. However, there is a lot more to this team than preparing for the next season, and it does the players a disservice who don’t have the option of packing it in and waiting for next year- the 2009 season is far from over, and Baltimore fans should be happy for it.

The phenomenon that is Koji Uehara has been a roller coaster ride that deserves attention even as he settles into the majors. The first Japanese Oriole, after winning his first two starts (despite allowing 7 runs in 5 innings in his second outing), seems to have found the middle ground in his last three starts, allowing an average of about 2 runs per start in 6 or 7 innings- which I will take any day of the week. This guy’s composure on the mound has been incredible considering the competition he is facing and the new atmosphere he is in- and it isn’t as though the lineups he has been facing are cupcakes either. He has had to face the Rangers’ bats twice, and the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels each once. The fact that he has maintained a 4.50 ERA through this stretch is extremely impressive to me, and as Jeremy Guthrie scuffles to start the season Koji is quickly developing into one of the more reliable O’s starting pitchers. I am eager to see how he continues along the rest of the season, especially after bruising his sternum on a line drive against the Angels- many pitchers get nervous on the mound after a hit like that.

Windsor and I were talking yesterday about the Felix Pie experiment and how long it ought to continue. I loved the trade for Pie, but I also loved the way Lou Montanez played last year and his work ethic to improve his defense over the offseason. As Reimold also continues to dominate the minors (he hit another home run for the Tides yesterday to bring his season total to 7 and his average to .408). It is odd that these two players should get so hot, as Pie was thought to have struggled in Chicago because he was never given time to work out his issues day-to-day and had trouble handling sitting on the bench for a few games at a time. Pie may find himself in the same situation of Montanez and Reimold continue to impress. Now Montanez is only 3-18 since his call-up, but that is unlikely to continue for a player who has recently buried minor league pitching and performed admirably last season in his call-up. Who will take left field in the long run? Montanez may be reaching his peak soon but Reimold is only 25 years old…

There are so many question marks on this team, how they will be answered is a great reason to watch. However, in the end people watch for the wins, which may be few and far between this season. But luckily to an O’s fan that doesn’t make them any less sweet. When a team charges into Camden Yards and expects to pound Baltimore into submission, they will see something unexpected. This team has not packed it in, they have not wasted at-bats late in games when the outcome was all but decided. And when they do pull off that miraculous upset, when the opposing squad stands in dumb silence aghast at how they could lose, the feeling of victory is so much greater than when the team is expected to win. Sure, in a few years the Orioles could be a strong team, and I would prefer this squad to be the dominant power in the division. In the meantime though, I will take my wins where I can get them and my losses with a shrug.