Monday, August 31, 2009

Get Ready for a Long Month O's Fans

We have to hand it to the Orioles. Even though the rotation is starting four rookies and the team is trading away many a number of its veterans, the team at least appears as though they will avoid the dreaded 100+ loss season.

But this could be a terrible September for the team, and everything that has happened supports this theory.

A lot of veterans have been traded away. Aubrey Huff, George Sherrill, Gregg Zaun and Joey Gathright have been sent to other teams for minor leaguers. The rotation has now gone to four rookies, with the best rookie pitcher, Brad Bergeson, likely out for the rest of the year, which leaves the Orioles relying on kids that will not pitch more than six innings a game most likely. To give an idea on how important Bergeson was, he has seven wins, second on the team; no bad considering he has not been playing for one-third of the season. The current lineup doesn't have a bad average, but nearly no power. Sure Felix Pie and a few others are coming on, but problems with Adam Jones have lowered his production as of late. History has shown that the Orioles often have a late collapse in the final month of the season. And to boot, the Orioles upcoming schedule is full of playoff-contending teams, including two series against the Yankees, two versus the Red Sox, one faceoff against the Rangers, and two against the Rays.

So with all of that, the Orioles will need to hold on and bear through September. Obviously they will want to fight for fourth place and avoid being last place behind the Blue Jays a second straight year, and they will need to make up four games in the standings to have a chance at them. If nothing else, try to finish above the Washington Nationals. That would require a collapse of large magnitude, but the Orioles still don't want that to happen. Also, with football season coming up, the fan support for the O's will look grim. The Ravens are easily king in Baltimore, and with them trying to build on an AFC Championship appearance last season, the Orioles will lose a lot of support.

A couple of questions are still in need of answering. Dave Trembley will be the manager through the end of the season, but he is no doubt on the hot seat. He has taken the approach that the front office expects him. The Orioles primary concern for the rest of the season is not winning games; not that they will broadcast that, but it is the case. They need to work with developing the young rotation and the young hitters. The rotation, especially Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz due to their potential, need to keep developing, as they will be on the starting rotation on Opening Day next year. Matt Wieters, Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold all have shown good stuff in certain parts of the year, and will need to continue learning for the season. With very few veterans of the future on the squad, this gives the young team a great chance to learn from each other.

But make no mistake. This month is going to be very rough. A number of powerful teams are getting ready to take the Baby Birds on, and this could be a long September for Dave Trembley and the O's.

(Photo credit: AP)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Free Kicks: The Return (Edition)

Okay, so this ends the 3 week hiatus of free kicks, when I have been unable to post on Fridays due to work, vacation, etc. Today in fact I am off work as Windsor has come up to visit me in Michigan. Last weekend I was actually out in Las Vegas, losing my money and making me look forward to making it again at work. However, it was tons of fun.

Quick question: is the fact that the Orioles keep losing by such small margins a good sign or a bad sign? Is it a sign of progress or of an inability to close out games? Ask Jim Johnson, who may not be closer material but he will get his chances to prove himself before next season. Remember when he was going to be a starter? I still think he could/should be one, but if he is needed as a solid reliever, the Orioles should keep him there. Either way, with football season nearly upon us, let’s line up for the kick…

Brandon Marshall Suspended by Broncos
Can we stop talking about bringing him in now? I know Anita Marks is having chills over the idea of trading for the disgruntled wide receiver, but let’s reassess- so he has legal problems, anger problems, problems with his management, problems with his coaching staff, only 2 great seasons to judge him on (with a great quarterback throwing him the ball), and he is going to want a fat new contract. There aren’t many receivers in the league I would want on my team less. This guy is currently acting like a Terrell Owens without the reputation for production- and T.O. never in my memory flipped out over contract issues like Marshall has- though he hasn’t been anywhere long enough for that to happen.

Vick and Favre Make their Debuts
With a second NFL story in this week’s kicks, it is clear that football is starting to take over. Michael Vick did what he was supposed to, get comfortable under center and get in a few odd formations. I am almost glad he is suspended for the first six weeks, he is a long way from being in football shape and he will need his dynamic speed in order to become an impact player for the Eagles. He has shown a new work ethic and seems determined to make the most of his opportunity to remake his life. He grew up not even knowing that people actually cared about their dogs, and now he has the right support system to make a difference in the world. I cannot fathom what he did, but I don’t believe in destroying someone for life who seems poised to transform himself.

As for Favre, he made a fool out of himself and destroyed his reputation by coming back- who exactly is going to like him when he is finally done his career? He is joining the rival of his old team, so scratch any Packers fans who still liked him. He failed to get the Jets to the playoffs after a thrilling start, so arm injury or not New York fans will not be forgiving. Vikings fans will love him now but he still played them too many times for them to like him once he is gone- unless he brings them a ring. He won’t though, he is good but not that good anymore to get this team over the hump. The Vikings organization has destroyed their former 2nd round pick, Tavaris Jackson, by constantly pulling him in and out of the starting job from the very start of his career. They have shown no patience in handling him and may be devastating his psyche in the process. Good job trying to salvage him when Favre leaves- and trying to salvage the locker room.

Added bonus: From now on, every Free Kicks will include a prediction for the weekend, it can be about anything really, though preferably sports related. Here goes!

Prediction for the Weekend: The Orioles will take 2 out of the 3 remaining games with the Cleveland Indians, earning the split.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Samuel Unprofessional in Attacking his Players

So Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel know exactly who is to blame for the baserunning errors that have cost the Orioles countless runs and wins this season. The players. That’s fine, and it has seemingly been known throughout the fan base that Trembley, who does put an emphasis on the fundamentals, cannot be culpable for the boneheaded decisions that have troubled both veterans and rookies alike. We talked about this a bit in Exhibit B of Trembley on Trial last week, and I couldn’t really find Trembley all that responsible. The coaches are doing the best they can, and it can’t really be their fault that his players don’t know to run on a 3-2 count with 2 outs when they should have been doing that since little league. However, Juan Samuel’s recent comments about their players were beyond the pale and irresponsible on a team struggling to stay unified as it endures another painful late-season collapse. This team need to stay together, and ripping your team to the media is just childish and is an unusual move for a coaching staff so accustomed to speaking responsibly about their players.

A few comments of Samuel’s in particular rubbed me the wrong way. When discussing the baserunning errors, the Orioles 3rd base coach stated, “They are major league players, or at least we think some of them are. To me, some of them are not. Some of them to me have to be thankful that expansion came because some of them wouldn't be here.” Is that really the message you want to send your players? That they don’t deserve to be here and are only up in the majors because the team needs bodies? On a young losing team they need something positive from their coaches, an expression of confidence of some kind- barring that, they need their coaches to just shut up and deal with things behind closed doors. I think that those players like Felix Pie who are struggling with their confidence and their instincts would be much better served talking with the coaches than being sliced and diced in front of the media. How can Samuel expect this team to be taken seriously- to even be watched- when he admits they may not even deserve to be at this level? NFL coaches deal with it with the line “we are very happy with who we have.” Apparently Samuel didn’t want to look across the parking lot to see how Harbaugh handled it when he didn’t have Derrick Mason. Yes you want better players, but you don’t tell your players they don’t deserve to be at this level. He should know better than that.

But Samuel just kept burying his team. “That's why you see teams that are up here [in the standings] and teams that are down here, because they don't want to be accountable. It's always somebody else's [fault], and that's a problem.” He must not have been referring to Felix Pie, who took complete responsibility for two losses on this recent road trip. Pie, if nothing else, seems racked with guilt over his mistakes, which only hinders his ability to play loose later. Since the beginning of the season he has played like a man with a gun to his head, nervous, awkward and unable to relax enough to make smart decisions. He has no problem with accountability. Nor have I heard any player come out to the media and blame the coached for anything, at least not publicly. And even if they blame the coaches behind the scenes (which I strongly doubt), at least they aren’t trashing anyone publicly and dragging their character through the mud.

Trembley had a better rationale, discussing player development and the de-emphasis on baserunning in the minors in favor of flashy hitting. He still put the blame ultimately on the players, and who wouldn’t? They are on the field. But he and Samuel still drew a line in the sand between the coaches and the players, and targeted the same men they rely on to keep their job. If a player smears his coach to the media he is disrespectful and deserving of a fine or suspension. Coaches should be given more leeway, but this staff shouldn’t be going to the press to express their dislike for their players’ mistakes. These players have shown Trembley, Samuel, and the entire staff too much respect, patience, and understanding in the face of so much losing that perhaps they deserve a bit of the same from their coaches. They are on the same team… right?

[Quotes from Baltimore Sun]

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ravens Ready To Face Rex

Normally preseason games do not drum up huge storylines, but this one sure does. The Ravens are taking on the New York Jets in their second preseason game tonight, which means for the first time, they will take on Rex Ryan on the opposite sideline.

Not only Ryan, but also two key players on last year's defense, Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard.

At least it is only preseason. Had this been the regular season, a whole slew of stories may have come out. But chances are nothing special will happen. Some New York writers have been trying to drum up that Ryan wants revenge on his old team for not taking him as head coach, but come on, Ryan has better things to do.

But at least for the first series, you have to think it is strange. Seeing Bart Scott going after Joe Flacco? And Jim Leonhard, a guy that got noticed in Rex Ryan's system, now going against the team that made him special? And Rex Ryan, the Ravens defensive coordinator for six years, leading the Jets. Scott has said he will have "no friends" when the game begins, but that is to be expected when players leave.

But we are happy for all of them, and for the Jets, this is a much more important game than the Ravens. For all the Ravens wide receiver issues, they do not have nearly as many questions as the Jets. New York does not know who their starting quarterback will be, and will be starting #5 overall pick Mark Sanchez in the game. Nothing like going against the Ravens defense for your first contest. The Ravens were in this spot last season, trying to find their starting quarterback among Flacco, Troy Smith, and Kyle Boller under a new head coach, and the Jets are going through the same.

For the Ravens, they are still trying to find their solid WR corps. Other than Mason and Clayton, no one's job is safe. Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper, Jayson Foster, and the rest of the corps will need to step up, especially with the injury to Marcus Smith, who is now on the injured reserve. Also, the Ravens will want to see Cleo Lemon to see if he can be a third string quarterback in the wake of the injury to John Beck, plus the possible rumors of trading Troy Smith.

But for the most part, it will just be weird seeing Rex Ryan on the opposing sideline tonight. Let's just be happy it is not the regular season.

Also news: Ravens rookie LB Tony Lein has been arrested for assault on a police officer, the AP reports. The officer claimed Fein was passing a weapon, which actually was a cell phone, and then Fein pushed the officer when confronted.

(Photo credit: The Star-Ledger)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Blogpoll: Week 1

This year, we have joined up with MGoBlog's football blog poll, which we will be voting in each week. We are one of a few Maryland-representative blogs that will be submitting a top-25 each week. So, without further ado, here is the Around the Harbor Preseason Top-25 of college football:

5Southern Cal
6Ohio State
8Virginia Tech
9Penn State
12Oklahoma State
14Georgia Tech
18Boise State
19North Carolina
20Florida State
22Brigham Young
24Oregon State
25Miami (Florida)

Friday, August 21, 2009

2009 Terps Football: A Whole Lot of Questions

Last season the Maryland Terrapin football team as well known-- even nationally-- as the most inconsistent and confusing team in the nation. Fittingly, it is very hard now to know which direction the Terps are going in. They have lost a bevy of senior talent, are competing in a now much-improved conference, are welcoming in a new defensive coordinator, and have a second year with offensive coordinator James Franklin. So how should Terps fans feel: encouraged or discouraged?

I say encouraged, because most of the losses the Terps have sustained since the end of last season could have positive end results. For one, this team seems to be (based on reports from practice) far more consistent in their effort and their intensity now that so many players from last year are gone. While senior leadership has its benefits, last season it was those older players who failed to bring their best when playing against older competition. This team might be more raw and susceptible to other kinds of mistakes, but I think that with their youth and observation of last year's failings, Maryland has a chance to break that inconsistent reputation. It also doesn't hurt that the Terps have a couple of good recruiting classes in their freshman and sophomore classes to lean on.

Another departure that I believe will cause an immediate improvement is that of defensive coordinator Chris Cosh. I know he's a figure that inspires strong opinions from both sides, but I can't tell you how tired it got watching Maryland play the same vanilla defense throughout every game (rush four drop seven, repeat. and I don't care that the blitzer was always coming from a different spot) and continuing to watch players failing to tackle low. I know he was a good players coach, and I honestly don't care. The fundamentals were not there and neither was the scheme. This year it looks like Maryland will start to mix up and make some attempt to keep opponents off balance, and that's improvement in my book.

The Terps are stacked with youth at receiver, top talent at running back, have an experienced quarterback, but the offensive line does give cause for worry. This will be the biggest factor in Maryland being a contender this year, because the loss of Edwin Williams more than anyone else could be disastrous. The Terps need to find a reliable starting five at the very least; everything is predicated on protection, anyone who knows football knows that. So the Terps are going to need a couple of very green players to get acclimated awful fast in order to compete in the ACC.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trembley On Trial

At the end of the season, Andy MacPhail will be the judge presiding over the fate of Dave Trembley, who is hoping to continue as manager of the Baltimore Orioles for at least another season. There have been a series of charges levied at Trembley this season, building steam for the upcoming verdict in the Fall. Here at ATH we have compiled the following list of accusations made against the Orioles skipper, and evaluated the evidence to see whether the ubiquitous “Fire Trembley” comments on neighboring blogs have any merit. The charge: Negligence and incompetence detrimental to the team. Here’s the evidence:

Exhibit A: He pulls his starters too early.

Not lately, since the bullpen is exhausted, but he has done this for much of the season, sometimes with disastrous results. Well, so does Jim Leyland. In fact, living in Michigan I have been able to see a lot of Leyland and his management style isn’t far off from Trembley- and I believe that Leyland is a fine manager overall. When to pull your starters is an issue, but a lot of it comes down to chance- some guys tend to keep their pitchers in there and they get shelled, others pull their starters and the relievers give it up. It depends on the composition of your team, and in the end I think it mostly balances out. At least Trembley’s way gives the starters a bit more rest, which will be important with a young staff. So yes, he might let the Red Sox come back in the 9th inning after building up a 5 run lead and your starter on cruise control before being yanked after 103 pitches, but I am not sure he can foresee the bullpen breaking down. I would say he is guilty of occasional poor judgment, but it’s hard to know for sure.

Exhibit B: His players show a tendency to turn singles into outs by trying in vain to get that extra base.
This has been really ugly. The Orioles get runners on and they run into outs, or hesitate at third when they need to go home, or just flat out don’t know how many outs there are to begin with. I cannot put a number on how many runs they have lost, and I shudder to think of how much closer to respectability this team might be without those mental lapses. Wasn’t Dave hired to bring strong fundamentals to this team? When he was brought on they talked about how only the Twins did the kind of fundamental drills that the Orioles were going to do under their new manager. We were told that he was going to win with smart baseball and a strong foundation. On that count, the opposite has been true. And it isn’t just the young players, either. Before he was traded, Aubrey Huff had gotten a penchant for thinking he was Carl Crawford, and Ty Wiggington was charging full steam into that double that just wasn’t going to happen. I wondered if they needed contacts to figure out that the ball was a lot closer to the bag than they thought it was. But what is Dave supposed to do? Emphasize it more? How do you practice that except in games? You aren’t supposed to see veteran players regress mentally- what does that say about the young players when they mature under Trembley’s leadership?

I honestly don’t know what to equate this to, and I am not sure it directly is connected to Trembley. But if not him, who else? The buck stops with Dave.

Exhibit C: This team is getting worse as the season has gone on, not better.
In fact, this might be the worst Orioles team in a long time right now, and that is saying something considering the teams we have seen over the last 12 years. Andy MacPhail said that he wanted to see improvement towards the end of the season- 8-24 since the All-Star break isn’t much of an improvement. But many of these games are close, ended by those boneheaded baserunning mistakes or a lack of clutch hitting (Melvin Mora is an inning-ending machine all by himself). The young pitching has been tough to watch to be sure, but shouldn’t these players be getting better? I mean, wasn’t Adam Eaton dropped for a reason, and Mark Hendrickson moved to the bullpen because there were better options? These are apparently it. While getting rid of George Sherrill was a huge blow, this team isn’t losing right now because of blown saves. While Aubrey Huff’s departure will hurt, he wasn’t exactly lighting it up and getting Luke Scott in the lineup more often might make this team better, not worse. However, this late-season swoon has happened like clockwork, so it may not matter who is managing this team, it just happens. But the right leadership keeps that from happening, the right leadership breaks losing patterns and creates a winner. This fanbase can’t just accept the swoon every year if they ever hope this team to be successful.

Closing Argument:
Dave Trembley is not a great manager. He looks like a manager, he talks like a manager, he acts like what people think a manager should act like. He has a presence that inspires confidence in a lot of fans and in his players as well, who have openly voiced their approval. There is other evidence against Trembley- his lack of playing experience, his lack of major league managerial experience, his losing record in the minors, and any number of other criticisms during his 2 ½ year stint here and before. But before we throw the man out, let’s ask ourselves, who will take over? There is no big-name manager who is willing to bank the next 3 years of his career on the potential of possibly winning while going up against the toughest division in baseball. No one the Orioles would want would be willing to do that. For all his faults, Trembley has shown a commitment to the franchise, and no one else is exactly waiting in the wings to take his spot.

Let’s also remember something about managers. They are not like head coaches in football, who can create new systems of play and wildly change a team, determining in many cases whether they fail or succeed (except Norv Turner, whose Chargers are a solid team despite him). Managers sort lineups, provide advice, decide who starts and sits, but at the end of the day baseball is baseball, and there is no wildcat or shotgun or spread offense to try out. You hit the ball and hope it drops, and cross the plate more times than the other guys. You could have any number of guys in as manager and maybe wins and losses will fluctuate by 5 or 10 but it won’t make a whole lot of difference. Managers are successful when they have good players and a good relationship with the team. Dave Trembley, for all of Melvin Mora’s grumbling, has a very good relationship with his players.

He’s not Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, or even Lou Piniella, but he is worth another year. You’d be amazed the difference good players could make. Let’s see what he does when he has a decent team to work with.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Commitment to the Draft Can't be Overlooked

So it’s official, whether the front office is willing to admit it or not- the Orioles are in complete and utter free fall, earlier this year than most but seemingly inevitable. All we can hope for at this point is that the team doesn’t ruin its young pitchers by giving them such adversity and forcing them up a year before they should reasonably be in the starting rotation. We have seen it so many times before, but this time the stakes are higher. If Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and David Hernandez leave this season shell-shocked, bruised, and beaten down mentally or physically, the entire rebuilding project will be derailed and it may take years to pick up the pieces. For a fan base that has seen a dozen losing seasons (can we put this one in the books yet?), Baltimore fans can be pretty impatient. Asking them to wait another 3 years might not be so kind.

However, even as this team has a meltdown rivaling Greg Norman on Sunday, it has shown a commitment to the future- and I am not talking about 2010 or even 2011. Signing draft picks isn’t easy, but when the front office found a player they wanted they didn’t cave until they had him. Sure, some prospects got through unsigned, but bringing in 25 of your top 30 picks is extremely impressive. Moreover, the Orioles paid above the recommended salary slot for most of them, particularly in bringing in Mychal Givens, the hot-hitting shortstop from Florida who didn’t endear himself to the fan base with statements that amounted to “If they want me, they will do what it takes to get me.” Regardless, he is an Oriole now and for as long as he is under club control, he will have to enjoy it. The fact of the matter is that this team didn’t let pride get in the way of negotiations, and didn’t let a few hundred thousand dollars here or there get in the way of signing who they wanted to make this team better in the long run. The Orioles spent almost $8.8 million on the 29 draft picks they signed, and signed 9 of their top 10 draft picks (though correct me if I am wrong on the latter point). They paid generously for later rounder players like Michael Ohlman and Cameron Coffey, proof that this team is determined to build this team through the draft.

Much attention has been paid to Andy MacPhail and his trades, but not enough credit can go to Joe Jordan, the Orioles scouting director who was in charge of most of these negotiations. Jordan came to Baltimore not with MacPhail, but as a holdover from the Beattie administration after stints with the Marlins and Expos in various roles of player evaluation. I guess the old administration got something else right besides Nick Markakis.

Windsor insists to me that the O’s will be in contention next year (or at least over .500, though to me that would count). That may be true, though I am still thinking it might take another year for all the pieces to come together. However, whether this team will be in contention in 2013 or 2014 is decided on days like today, when this front office makes sure they hold onto the players they want for the future. Ignore the nightly shelling for a moment; today it is good to be an Orioles fan.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Aubrey Huff Traded to the Tigers

Looks like Andy MacPhail was not done after all. The Orioles dealt their first baseman, Aubrey Huff, to the Detroit Tigers for Brett Jacobson, a reliever in single-A.

Obviously this is another move for MacPhail's vision of the future. Huff had his struggles this year, hitting just .253 and hitting 13 home runs. Last year was one of his best seasons, as a MASN defining moment often reminds us, going .304 with 32 home runs and 108 RBI. At one in the season, it was expected that Huff could be a big mover at the trade deadline, but with his sudden dropoff, his value dropped with it.

I understand this move, though I did wish Huff could have finished out the season. With his departure, more and more the Orioles rest of the season looks like it will be real rough. Luke Scott looks like he'll be taking up first base for now. I'm not sure what the Orioles plan to do for the short term at the corner infield positions, and I hope MacPhail has an answer to that. If Mora is not returning next season, it would be very unlikely that Wigginton and Scott will reside at third and first respectively.

Brett Jacobson, a former Vanderbilt player, has done well in high-A ball for Detroit, pitching in 35 games with a 3.74 ERA and six saves. In 55.1 innings, he has 44 strikeouts to just 17 walks, though allowing six home runs is alarming. But, another prospect to add to the minors for the Orioles, which is important.

Good luck to you Aubrey Huff, and thank you for your performance here in Baltimore.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Midnight Draft Deadline Approaches

As the MLB world approaches for the midnight draft deadline, the Orioles will be trying to get some of their last couple picks signed and into the minors.

Not much is that hectic really for the Birds. Eight of the first 10 picks have already signed, including 1st rounder Matt Hobgood and 3rd rounder Tyler Townsend. The only two that have not signed are 2nd rounder Mychal Givens (offer withdrawn to him) and 8th rounder Devin Harris (is returning to ECU).

Among others the Orioles signed included Steven Bumbry from the 12th Round and Mike Flacco from the 31st Round.

But obviously what is happening down south may be more interesting. Whether or not 1st overall pick Stephen Strasburg will sign with the Nationals. The Nats offered him a record contract, and whatever it was (the offer is not public knowledge), Scott Boras rejected it.

The deadline doesn't bring much to the O's, but it is interesting what it might do to the Nats.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hitting the Cycle? Easy as Pie

What a game by the Orioles. A 16-6 win over the LA Angels, beating down a formerly 12-3 Jared Weaver plus a lineup filled with batters hitting around .300.

The highlight of the night: Felix Pie hitting the 4th cycle in Orioles history, then getting a long-awaited but well-deserved shaving cream pie in the face. (Though it took two attempts; Adam Jones missed the first time. But Robert Andino got him the second time, and props to MASN's Amber Theoharis for keeping Pie focused on the camera the whole time.)

It has been a very rough road for Felix Pie in his career. Once a #1 prospect in the Cubs system, he struggled in Chicago, then had his issues here in Baltimore despite getting his chance as the primary left fielder. But even as Nolan Reimold was playing well, Pie did not complain or whine to the media about playing time, instead he kept working and trying to get better. And in time, Pie not only has improved his average from around the Mendoza line to .254 now, but he has also become a very useful bench player, often substituting in for defense and pinch running on occasion. And the obvious cap off came today, hitting the cycle, becoming the fourth player to do that in Orioles history (the others were Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, and Aubrey Huff). It has not been the year we expected from Pie, but it certainly has been a productive one.

Chances are he will not be on the 25-man active roster to start next season, but I'm hoping that he can return and be in the minors so he can really get his talent maximized the correct way. He is only 24 and will get better. But for today, it is Felix Pie's day, congratulations to him for his performance tonight.

(Photo credit: AP)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just Preseason? Still Plenty to See as Ravens Face Redskins

Tonight the Ravens will face off in their annual preseason matchup against the neighboring Washington Redskins, and with a team with plenty of question marks to go with a lot of stellar players, there will actually be something to watch for this time around. And with the Orioles in free-fall (even Roch Kobatko has taken on a decidedly negative tone in his blog as of late), this couldn’t have come at a better time. You see, the Ravens aren’t guaranteed to be that 11-5 team of last year- they aren’t even guaranteed to be 10-6. This team has a lot it needs to work on, with departures of coaches and star players and the reliance on young untested played to fill key voids at wide receiver and injury prone players at tight end. I know one can’t usually get much out of preseason viewing (after all, the Lions were 4-0 last preseason and in Detroit people were drinking the Kool-Aid on a great season), but there are certain things to watch for that may come out rather quickly about this team.

The first position I am going to be watching is cornerback. Much was made of the signing of Dominique Foxworth and retention of Fabian Washington, to play at the top corner spots for this team. To me this seems like it was a bit of a gamble. Foxworth has never had an exemplary season, and for all his physical gifts, the Falcons and Broncos didn’t think he amounted to a #1 or #2 cornerback- and aside from Champ Bailey with the Broncos, these teams aren’t exactly loaded at the position. The Ravens took Foxworth hoping they could add legitimate coverage skills to his physical gifts and mold themselves a starter. In Washington they have a corner who has made strides since his acquisition from Oakland, but they are still dealing with a reclamation project on a player who struggled in tackling last season and was beat far too may times- and dropped a number of interceptions. So essentially Baltimore is starting 2 project players who they are hoping both pan out in the long run. Ed Reed can’t be much of a ball hawk if he is trying to make up for a blown coverage. This preseason game might give a glimpse into whether they show discipline in not simply relying on their physical gifts to make plays.

One has to keep an eye on the maturation of the offensive line. Being the preseason, you can’t expect complex blitz packages or an all-out rush, but you can see how well the line is communicating as far as whether a defensive end gets free or a linebacker tries to split the gap. All of these linemen are physical specimens, but it will be interesting to see how they work with new center Matt Birk, who, while he may have lost a step physically still has an incredible mind for the game. He is the lone veteran in charge of managing a very young line, and it will be up to him to ensure that Joe Flacco spends less time on his back than last season. Jared Gaither has gotten rave reviews as the next great tackle in this league, and it will be time this season for him to take advantage of those physical skills that made the Ravens pick him up in the supplemental draft. He has already been a steal for Baltimore, but now is the time for him to take on even more responsibility to play with his mind as much as his strength.

Joe Flacco. He may not make the “question marks section” on our ATH game previews as often this season as he did last season, but for a team hoping he is “the one” at quarterback, he will always be someone to watch. Preseason play means little for a quarterback, when timing is disrupted by playing a quarter or a half and the 1st and 2nd teams are being mixed, but I am more interested to see how he manages the team in a “pressure” situation, however that is created. Flacco spent much of last season looking at the sideline for direction; this season he will have more of the adjustments at the line added to his responsibility. He is a leader on this team, and he will be expected to perform in that capacity as much as in his play on the field. The players on this offense will be looking at him this year; he can’t be looking at the sideline.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

If Guthrie Fails, The Orioles Fail

Jeremy Guthrie's struggles continued last night, giving up five runs on 11 hits in 4.2 innings in the Orioles 9-1 loss to the Athletics. On the season he is 7-12 with a 5.43 ERA on the season. He has now given up 81 earned runs in his 23 starts; to compare last year he had 76 earned runs allowed in a total of 30 starts.

This start was disastrous for Guthrie. His fastball did not move at all plus his curveball did not break much and was an easy target for the hitters looking for singles. As Jim Palmer said on the MASN broadcast, Guthrie does not have a knockout pitch like last year, which allows hitter to constantly foul off pitches to raise the pitch count and work Guthrie for hits.

What's worse, Guthrie just cannot seem to be good with Matt Wieters right now. He was solid with Gregg Zaun, but Zaun is no longer here, so Guthrie has to adapt to Wieters. The fact that Guthrie does better with a veteran is a pattern; he did very well with Ramon Hernandez last season and kept it with Zaun, but the Orioles have business to do with the future of Wieters, so these two need to start playing well together.

For the Orioles sake if they want to end this terrible stretch and at least play well in the rest of the season, they need Guthrie to do better. Even though Brad Bergeson returning should help, the fact is right now the Orioles are relying on four rookie pitchers in the starting rotation at any time with a rookie catcher. Not to mention this team is extremely young. It is almost a given that with the rookie rotation might of Hernandez, Berken, Matusz and Tillman, the Orioles will be fortunate to get 22 innings combined from their four starts, which tires out the bullpen very quickly. When Bergeson returns from the DL and replaces Berken, this can help matters, but that will still leave four reliable pitchers in the rotation.

The only reason I point out Guthrie is that he has been solid the previous two years and was supposed to be the Orioles ace. If he cannot, then the bullpen will never see enough rest. Maybe it is not terribly important the Orioles are not winning, but this has to be bothering the Orioles and the fans. The worst thing is, there probably is not an answer for this problem.

Except possibly next year. Or the Ravens on Thursday.

(Photo credit: AP)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Anyone Want an Overpaid Veteran?

Andy MacPhail and the Orioles may not be done dealing players. According to the Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, Aubrey Huff, Melvin Mora, and Danys Baez have all cleared waivers, but no one has claimed them.

Times are tough for the Orioles. They have not won a series since before the All-Star Break, and now are relying on four or five rookie starters to carry them through the rest of the season. Not to mention that the team is looking like it is going through the inevitable late season collapse that seems to happen each year. And that the Nationals have won seven in a row, which can't be good for Orioles fans to think about.

For the Orioles, they should better hope they will get something for these three. The only person of the trio that has any chance of being an Oriole next year is Huff, and that would require re-signing. Mora and Baez have next to no chance of being on the team next year, but the reality is probably all three will be gone after the 2009 season.

But do the Orioles realistically think they can get anyone for these three? Obviously there is no harm putting them through waivers, but it would be amazing if the Orioles got prospects for them. The trades that were offered to them before the deadline were not good enough for the Orioles to take. Huff had a terrible July, and even though he is doing better in August, he still has not regained his power, with just 12 home runs this year. Mora's only value to an opposing team is his great defense at third base, which teams do not go after in a playoff race. And despite that Baez has decent numbers, he has three losses in the past five appearances and is not worth his price tag.

But, MacPhail is trying to make moves with players that will not be on the roster. Hopefully for the Orioles, one of the above can get dealt for a prospect. Even if it is for a rookie level player that is hitting .190. But, likely the O's will not get anything for these guys.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Gregg Zaun Should Not Have Been Traded

The Orioles have a lot of rebuilding to do before they reach the playoffs. And obviously, players that are not part of the future of the club can be traded for prospects for the future. But some players bring a lot more value that what the stat sheet shows. And Gregg Zaun was one of those players.

This is not going to be a "Fire MacPhail" post or something accusing him of not knowing what he is going. I am a big believer in his quest to make the Orioles better. However, I do not agree with this move at all, as it is a demoralizer to the team and its fans.

Today, the Orioles traded Gregg Zaun, the backup catcher, to the Rays for a player to be named later or cash, according to the Baltimore Sun. To replace him, Chad Moeller is being brought back to the club from Norfolk and will backup Matt Wieters.

Zaun's stats are not overly impressive. In 56 games he is hitting .244 with four home runs and 13 RBI. At 38, he obviously is not part of the future. His contract had an option for 2010, and was making $1.5 million this season.

But his value went far beyond the box scores. Zaun was a veteran presence in the locker room. A catcher who had seen many years in this league and is hoping to be a coach one day. He calls a great game behind the plate. He has never complained about Matt Wieters taking his spot, and he has done many things to help the team get better and improve morale, from winning the Orioles Cook-Off to helping tutor Matt Wieters to learning some Japanese to help Koji Uehara on the mound. Not to mention it seems like Jeremy Guthrie is a much better pitcher with Zaun behind the plate. You can't put a price on someone like that.

He is a backup catcher, are the Orioles in such bad shape that they can't spend a little money to keep Zaun? Instead they have to trade him to a division rival for either a couple bucks or a minor leaguer with little potential? Then promote Chad Moeller, who is hitting barely over the Mendoza line in triple-A ball? Moeller was is not good at the plate, and when he was in Baltimore he was not a good signal caller, so he will not bring the mentoring that Zaun could.

The focus of the Orioles under MacPhail is to repair the minor league system and get the Orioles ready for the future. But, they still need to put a major league team on the field right now, and the one thing the front office is not doing well is trying to keep the morale of the team and its fans up. Players that are not a part of the future no matter how useful right now are being shipped away. Players like Kevin Millar and Gregg Zaun, who fully embrace their positions as backups and cheap players while still being great people in the clubhouse, are sent away for nothing. Sure Zaun is not part of the future, but isn't spending a little money for him worth it to the current squad?

Yes, the Orioles need to focus on the future. But not focusing on the present has its consequences too. We will miss you Gregg Zaun, and we wish you well in the rest of your playing days and future coaching career.

(Photo credit: ESPN)

Free Kicks: The Fan's Late-Season Swoon Survival Guide (Edition)

This team is an astonishingly bad 6-15 since the All-Star Break, and they are losing all types of games. Pitching duels, blowouts, late-inning collapses, etc. Peter Schmuck had a wonderful piece on his blog (and you know how critical I am of him lately) that was quite passionate about fans criticizing this team for its record and the free-fall that is happening all too early this season. I know most of these games have been against the Red Sox, Yankees, and AL Central-leading Tigers, but 6-15 speaks for itself. I won’t argue whether this team is in complete late-season disintegration mode; it would be a wasteful exercise that will be borne out by the record anyway. What I will do is provide some tips I have learned to avoid the malaise that occurs when the team is 25 games under .500 and 4 months of losing starts to get to you. Let’s line up for the kick…

Follow the Young Guns
Take a bit of joy in zoning out for Melvin Mora’s at-bat and pay close attention to Nolan Reimold’s and Matt Wieters’ at-bats. Break it down, from how they handle that slider to how hard they run to first. Since one-at-bat rarely matters in the grand scheme of a player’s development, it will be easy to shrug it off if they pop out or strike out, but you can take a great deal of joy in the small victory when they get on base. Same with the pitchers, and there will be an abundance of opportunities for this in the last month and a half- chalk up a 3 inning, 6 earned runs performance to jitters or playing in a new ballpark or adjusting to major league hitters while proclaiming a quality start to be the turning point for next year’s Cy Young candidacy. It may be disingenuous, but rose-colored glasses and selective attention can really make watching a losing team a lot easier.

Blame the Veterans
They won’t be around for the O’s turnaround, so who cares about them? Blame the loss on Wiggington’s boneheaded attempt at a double, or complain about how overpaid Danys Baez is when he gives up the go-ahead run in the 8th. To O’s fans, the team we care about is the team in 2010 or 2011- if the player isn’t going to be on that team, it makes it a lot easier to not be emotionally invested in their success. Does that loss really count if you can blame it on the gus who won’t be here? That’s up to you.

Minor League Successes
The Delmarva Shorebirds, Norfolk Tides, and Bowie Baysox are all in a playoff hunt in their respective leagues. Sure most of the talented players who started with Bowie or Norfolk are gone now, but there is never a bad time to root for a winning team. Head over to one of their stadiums to get the feel for what a pennant hunt feels like- the atmosphere can truly be incredibly exciting as you watch the O’s of tomorrow try to win one at the minor league level. Plus, it’ll prepare you as a fan for when the major league club is making a run in a year or two.

There is Always Football Season
Yes, it was bound to come up eventually. The presence of football season in August (and seemingly year round) can come as a respite to the beleaguered fan who has just had enough of watching Jeremy Guthrie give up a 3 run shot or watching Aubrey Huff ground slowly into an inning-ending double play. That isn’t to say it’s a cop-out, there are plenty of great stories going on at training camp- the development of Joe Flacco, the dearth of wide receivers (what need is bigger: the O’s for a quality starter or the Ravens for a quality receiver?), the reinvention of the defense, etc. Walking away from the O’s in September may not be classy, but for personal sanity it may be a fan’s last option.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Early Returns: Matusz Decision a Good One

Earlier today, Falco proposed that I put together a commentary on whether I thought that the Matusz decision was a good one based on what I saw from the start this evening. To that I responded, "Well, one start is hardly a reasonable sampling size to make a judgement. To brand the decision a good or bad one after one start would be unreasonable and to be honest very shortsighted." But we are a sports blog, so isn't that what we're here for?

In that spirit, I really do believe that tonight's start validates the front office's decision to promote the young left hander to the big leagues. Not only because he allowed only one run in his five innings and was rewarded the win; it was about how he got through the Detroit lineup to get to that point. The Tigers hitters were doing Matusz very few favors, fouling off some excellent pitches and turning sharply on most of the mistakes. Matusz got the game going with a 1-2-3 first inning, but after that was walking a tightrope, culminating in his back-to-back strikeouts to end the fifth inning with runners on second and third with a 2-run lead. Those two batters were his last of the evening, as he had ratcheted his pitch count up to 99.

So why am I so convinced after Matusz was only barely able to get through five innings? Because he got out of jams by pitching, not just throwing. Other O's prospects who were rushed too soon start to overthrow when in a jam, relying on pure 'stuff' rather than pitching with poise. Instead, Matusz incorporated all of his pitches and continued going after hitters even after getting hit around. His fastball-changeup combination was fantastic, and while his breaking pitches weren't excellent he still mixed them in enough to keep the hitters off balance in key situations. This year we're hearing more and more about how a major league player is supposed to 'look', and Brian Matusz really seems to have it. Yes, he was a bit amped up to be sure, but he was not shaky in the slightest on the mound. He kept an even demeanor despite being locked in a tight ballgame with a small strike zone. That poise is not common for a player his age, and that's why it's looking like a good decision to bring him up.

Brian Matusz seems ready to face major league hitting. Yes, it's only one start, but he has the makings to just keep getting better with more experience under his belt. Brian Matusz has four plus pitches, and when he and Wieters have more time to get a rapport those will be utilized more effectively than they were at times tonight. I expect Matusz to remain in the rotation even when Bergesen comes back from the disabled list.

The three of us here at Around the Harbor were all against this move-- sometimes we don't mind being wrong.

Training Camp Storylines: Meet the Ravens

Last night it took until all of the 5th inning for me to say to myself “this is going to be a walkoff.” The O’s bats did what they do so often- score big and then let it sit. Perhaps if they’d just allowed the Tigers to score first they would have come roaring back. But then again, I have no idea if the numbers back that up. In the offseason I’ll take a look at how often the Orioles really scored a number of runs and then just stopped scoring for the last 6 innings of the game. Either way, games like these break my heart, because they were so clearly in grasp. And now you see it coming, the rising specter of August… the National Football League. With the O’s starting what seems to be their annual free fall (though it is too soon to say for sure), I wanted to take a look at a couple of training camp storylines for the Baltimore Ravens that aren’t about Derrick Mason.

No Longer Playing it Safe with the Rookie
Let’s remember for a moment that Joe Flacco was not light-out last season. He was very good, but very good for a rookie. The playbook was highly limited for him, giving him one or two reads and letting him ease into the game. This team was playing cautious with him, doing everything they could to avoid him getting rattled or seeing him fail. Within this environment he played exceptionally well, but this year will be entirely different. Flacco will be given the entire playbook, and be given more responsibility at the line and in the passing game. Ravens fans will have to hope that he has not only developed mentally (which is to be expected from a second year in the league), but that he has also increased his accuracy on throws 5-15 yards from the line of scrimmage, which tended to sail on him last season, often to disastrous results.

Mike Preston is much more concerned than I am at Flacco’s apparent lack of precision at the start of this year’s training camp, but it will be something to keep an eye on. Even Kyle Boller was impressive at times in his rookie year. Baltimoreans have had 8 months to build up this young quarterback in their minds, let’s hope that even-keeled Joe Flacco can meet the heightened expectations.

Jim Leonhard Out, Dawan Landry Back In
In one season as a starter with the Ravens, Jim Leonhard became the best free safety this team has had lining up across from Ed Reed. He didn’t sit and wait for Reed to make big plays while he stayed back in his zone, he played all over the field, from fielding punts, blitzing, to making electrifying interceptions (particularly in the playoffs); playing hard and playing hurt on his way to becoming a fan favorite. Not much has been made of his departure to the Jets, as the Ravens have safety Dawan Landry back from his season-ending neck injury as well as promising young backups in Haruki Nakamora and Tom Zbikowski. However, it should be noted that Landry is a very different kind of safety than Leonhard. I have been a big fan of Landry’s due to his exceptional coverage skills, but Leonhard brought a unique kind of fire you can only find in a football player who’s 5’8”. Landry’s performance dropped off somewhat in his sophomore season; and with his third year gone he will have to return to his rookie form to secure his place in this defense. I believe that Landry will have a good year, but if not the loss of Leonhard could be much more harmful than Ravens fans- or the front office- expected.

Who Will Win the Running Back Duel?
I was the first one in line to cheer the Ravens when they brought in Willis McGahee. To me he was a running back with exceptional talent who had languished behind a substandard offensive line, and would explode with Baltimore to become one of the best backs in the league. Yea, I was that guy. So far in two seasons, he has been worth far less than the 2nd and 3rd round picks Ozzie Newsome surrendered to get him. After rushing for an impressive 1200 yards in his first season with the team, his production declined last season as injuries and his general performance put Le’Ron McClain in the spotlight instead. Those 1200 yards were nice, but for a team that is meticulous about running the football it wasn’t exactly eye popping. This offseason, Ray Rice has been given the green light for the starting job, though the coaching staff has yet to make any official word. McClain is moving back to fullback on a full-time basis (though I hope for their sake they keep giving him the ball now and then). The second year back out of Rutgers is much shiftier than McGahee and may even have more top-end speed, though it was difficult to tell with how rarely either back got into the open field. Much of this will depend on McGahee’s questionable health throughout camp, but it is likely that the Ravens 3rd running back in the three headed monster could accede to #1 by opening day.

Monday, August 3, 2009

"4M" News of the Weekend: Mora, Mason, Matusz, and More

What a weekend for Baltimore, wouldn't you say? Lots of Orioles news plus Derrick Mason returning all in the long weekend. Let's get to the news and my opinions on it:

Derrick Mason Unretires, Returns to the Ravens

Derrick Mason has returned to the Ravens after retiring after a few weeks ago. After he left the team, the front office tried out a number of wide receivers in hope of finding a temporary replacement, but after Drew Bennett's retirement the Ravens were short of options. But their #1 wide receiver has returned to training camp and will be playing for the Ravens again this season.

I'm not sure what happened to change Mason's mind or if he was serious about retiring in the first place. Maybe he wanted a new contract, maybe he was still upset about the recent murder of Steve McNair, or maybe he felt that it was his time to leave. But whatever the reason, he has returned and he is ready to play again. So I don't consider this to be a big deal, and with his great career and recent injuries, it would have been reasonable if he had retired. But he is back and that will ease some concerns at receiver.

But only some. Keep in mind that the talk around the draft and free agency was that the current pair was not enough for the Ravens offense. The wide receiver corps is still a problem, but at least now the Ravens have two reliable targets at receiver plus two good tight ends. And I still say trading for Brandon Marshall would be a huge mistake for the Ravens; some issues are not worth dealing with like that.

Melvin Mora Feels "Disrespected" by Dave Trembley

This was getting hot around the weekend, with Mora, the most senior Oriole who was benched for the third time in four games, saying that he feels "disrespected" by Trembley. Trembley says he is disappointed to hear that. Rumor is even going around that the Orioles may release him due to this.

Mora has been here nine years and has been a solid third baseman for most of the time. This season has been rough, hitting just .256 with just three home runs and 27 RBI in 79 games, his worst year since 2002 (.233, 19 HR, 64 RBI). He has only seven errors at third, which is about normal pace for him at third.

On the one hand, I understand that Mora is frustrated. It has been a tough year and he wants to play, and at 37, he may not have many years left. And he has done a lot for this organization in his time here, including nearly getting a batting title. On the other hand, Trembley is trying to win games plus prepare for the future. All signs point to Mora not returning next year, plus the fact that Ty Wigginton is doing pretty well right now. It is perfectly reasonable that Mora loses his spot at third, and although Trembley does not want to upset Mora, he needs to do his best to win right now.

I personally hope the Orioles do not release Mora. It would seem like a quick judgement based on recent events, plus it is unclear who in the short run would replace him.

Brian Matusz Called Up to Start Tuesday?

This comes as quite the surprise to many. In wake of Brad Bergeson's injury and another bad start by Jason Berken, the Orioles may send up their 2008 1st Round Pick Brian Matusz to the mound from the Bowie Baysox for Tuesday's start. Matsuz would be the second of the big three to come up; Chris Tillman is already with the Orioles and will have his second start today, while Jake Arrieta remains with the Norfolk Tides.

First off, Matsuz is tearing up his double-A competition. In eight starts he has a 7-0 record with a 1.55 ERA and 46 Ks to just 11 BB. No doubt he is ready to go up to the next level. Plus, chances are this is only a temporary move until the return of Bergeson, and because he is already on the 40-man roster his clock has already begun. The Orioles will not be worrying about options with Matsuz, as he will be in the orange and black permanently by next year.

But this still worries me to a degree. Normally it is not a good thing to rush a player up, and the Orioles especially have a bad history of rushing people too quickly. Jeff Fiorentino, Jim Hoey and Daniel Cabrera are prime examples. Brian Matsuz is a prospect the Orioles can not screw up with, as he is the most highly touted pitcher in the farm system. Why risk Matsuz when there are a few other players in triple-A that can go with no penalty? Players like Chris Waters and David Pauley would not be that solid in the majors based on their triple-A faring, but wouldn't they be safer options right now? The Orioles will not have Pauley or Waters as part of the future, but let's see if they can go with causing issues with the premier prospects.

I wish Matsuz well against Detroit, I just hope that this is not a mistake the Orioles will regret.

Other news:
--Darrius Heyward-Bey, former Maryland receiver and 7th overall pick by the Oakland Raiders, has signed five-year deal with $23.5 million guaranteed and a base salary of $38.5 million. (Facts courtesy of the Baltimore Sun)
--The trade deadline passed on Friday with no dealing from the Orioles after the Sherrill trade. George Sherrill has appeared in two games for the Dodgers, going 1.1 scoreless innings combined with three strikeouts and a walk with no hits.
--Michael Phelps earned five golds and a silver in Rome, continuing his dominance in swimming.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun (Matsuz), The Examiner (Mason)