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June 2, 2011
Down Goes Doumit
Activated LHP Brian Matusz from the 15-day disabled list. [6/1]
This was supposed to be the season when all of the young Oriole arms took flight. Baltimore pitching took a big step forward after the arrival of Buck Showalter last season, although it wasn’t at all clear that the two events were connected. The 2011 struggles of some of the pitchers who seemed reborn under Buck last season suggest that they weren’t connected, which was the more likely conclusion all along, given that Showalter hadn’t exhibited a miraculous power to improve pitching before.
Part of the secret to that pitching renaissance was an improved defense: The Orioles had fourth-worst defensive efficiency in the majors under Showalter’s predecessors last season, then fielded the best defensive unit in the universe after Buck came aboard. This year they’re back to 22nd overall, so some of those outs that haven’t been recorded fall on the fielders’ shoulders. Regardless of who’s responsible, those gains haven’t been sustained, and as a result, Baltimore’s .474 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage is tied with Toronto’s for worst in the league. (The Orioles also have the second-worst AL team TAv, so in essence, they’re failing on all cylinders.)
In the happy second half of 2010, Tillman made five solid starts post-Showalter after struggling earlier in the season, Bergesen posted an ERA below 3.00 in the campaign’s final months, and Jake Arrieta got his act together in August and excelled in September. Now two of the three are in Norfolk, and Arrieta is well on his way to joining them.
Bergesen earned his demotion, but the timing of Tillman’s is strange. The righty is having a much better season than he did last year, cutting his walks and upping his strikeouts, and he’s coming off four starts in which he allowed one or no runs. That’s the kind of progress that isn’t usually rewarded with a ticket out of town, but thanks to a series of off days, the O’s will require only one outing from a fifth starter before June 18, and it appears that Alfredo Simon will get it while Bergesen and Tillman tinker in Triple-A. Tillman was justifiably mystified by the news, but he took it in stride. If there’s one complaint the O’s could level against Tillman, it’s that he didn’t take the ball deep, which put a strain on the bullpen that the promotions of Viola and Jakubauskas were designed to correct.
In other bemusing Baltimore news, Nick Markakis received his first career start at first base after begging Buck to play him there for weeks. Rarely are players so eager to limit their own value, but Markakis seems either hell-bent on overcompensating for suddenly sporting a shortstop’s bat, or intent on regressing to high school, where he played first regularly. There has been no word on whether he’ll also be attempting to recreate the embarrassing hairstyle he had in his yearbook photo or pretending to fumble with Mrs. Markakis’ bra; fortunately, Derrek Lee’s impending return should limit the fallout from his infield envy considerably.
The return of Brian Matusz, perhaps the young pitcher on the staff with the greatest expectations entering the season, should be a boon to Baltimore. Matusz’s injury cleared a spot for Zach Britton, who has already established himself as the best starter in town, as well as the one with the highest upside. Matusz has plenty to offer aside from paving the way for top prospects, as he demonstrated by holding the Mariners to one run in 5
He received some opportunities to catch, but his starts behind the plate tended to coincide with poor outings by his batterymates, and the Orioles erred on the side of correlation rather than causation, replacing him with Craig Tatum on Matt Wieters’ occasional off days. Showalter had trouble finding him at-bats at other positions, and with Lee on the verge of getting over a strained oblique, Fox became the casualty of a roster crunch. He could be back in Baltimore this season, but there’s some chance that he won’t pass through waivers, so the O’s will do their best to work out a trade.
Much was made of the fact that Liriano delivered his May 3 no-hitter with his back against the wall; the lefty lugged a 9.13 ERA and a 18:18 K:BB ratio into the evening, leading to speculation that he was a bad start or two away from losing his starting spot. The no-no bought him some rotation time, but little about Liriano’s performance that day suggested that his troubles were behind him. The southpaw walked six and struck out two, throwing only 54 percent strikes, and his Game Score was tied for the lowest of any no-hitter in history. (If we were to era-adjust Game Score, Liriano’s would be the lowest—since the metric awards points for strikeouts, which are more plentiful in the modern era, it favors more recent pitchers.)
Liriano’s accomplishment was impressive not because of any dominance on his part, but because he’d beaten such long odds by holding a lineup hitless despite not having especially good stuff. While the positive results were a stark contrast to his early-season struggles, the shaky process hardly suggested that he’d turned a corner, and subsequent outings provided further evidence that the routinely unhittable hurler of 2006 and 2010 had yet to return.
In his first start after the no-hitter, Liriano lasted three innings, giving up a home run and three walks. Two starts later, he lasted six frames but walked and struck out four. In between, he delivered his lone vintage Liriano outing of the season, striking out nine and walking one (although that start came against the Mariners at Safeco Field, making it a bit like setting a high score with cheat codes enabled). The clouds didn’t stay parted for long, though—shoulder discomfort prevented him from taking his fourth turn after the no-no, and he was placed on the DL when his condition failed to improve in time for him to take the mound for his next scheduled start.
Anthony Swarzak nearly threw a no-hitter of his own in Liriano’s stead on Saturday, and he’ll start again in his place today. Because this DL move was backdated to Liriano’s last game action, he’s eligible to return next Tuesday. Ron Gardenhire said the inflammation was nothing serious and indicated that Liriano would be activated when eligible, but given his spotty results and the fact that he was bothered by the same affliction in camp, it’s hard to dismiss his shoulder troubles entirely. Twins fans might be resigned to the idea that the Liriano of 2006 died on the operating table, but to be robbed of last season’s resurgent Liriano so soon would be another sad skirmish in the losing battle pitchers have waged against the limitations of the human body. At least it’s not his elbow, right?
When Doumit got a legful of Carlos Pena and left Monday’s game with an ankle fracture, the only Pirate who might have been in greater pain was GM Neil Huntington. Huntington traded for Chris Snyder at last year’s deadline, signaling that Doumit’s future in Pittsburgh probably wouldn’t extend beyond this year’s deadline. Since then, the question has been how much Doumit—whose stock plummeted after wrist surgery and subsequent offensive struggles in 2009—could be rehabilitated in the eyes of future trade partners before the Pirates made him walk the plank. This injury makes it less likely for the Pirates to get the answer they want.
Doumit surely doesn’t want to spend the next six weeks on the bench, but he’ll earn his guaranteed $5.1 million regardless of whether he plays. The real victims of this injury—which figures to keep Doumit out of action until the All-Star break—are his employers, who stand to reap a lower reward in prospects and/or financial relief because of the additional uncertainty surrounding his status.
Doumit is a frustrating player, since his weaknesses and positive attributes align in such a way as to rob him of any significant value. On paper, the fact that he can play catcher makes him an attractive commodity, since he hits like a player at a less demanding defensive position. His .269/.333/.441 line this season is comfortably above average for the league as a whole, let alone a position where offense is regarded as the icing on the cake. In practice, though, his ability to play catcher isn’t the asset it seems like it would be, since he plays the position like a department-store mannequin dressed in a chest protector. Move him to first base or right field—where he’s still a butcher with the glove, but gets involved in fewer plays—and his bat no longer looks like anything special.
As a result, playing Doumit is a fruitless exercise in double-entry bookkeeping—add his bat and positional adjustments and you’re rolling in runs, but subtract his defense and unpleasant personality, not to mention his hefty salary, and you’re lucky to be in the black. On top of that, Doumit can’t be counted on to stay healthy. This marks his sixth straight season with a DL stint and his eight appearance on the DL over that span—piece together his many “day-to-day” ailments in the same period, and you come up with the equivalent of two more 15-day DL stays’ worth of unavailability.
There’s no shortage of contenders with a need for a bat behind the plate—the Giants lost Buster Posey to a more catastrophic collision than the one that claimed Doumit, leaving them with the terrible twosome of Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart, and the Red Sox and Rays, among other top teams, didn’t have anything even faintly resembling a star catcher to begin with—so Doumit will likely still draw some interest if he can return in time to restore investor confidence by the break.
However, that the Pirates exiled the backstop to right field last season and would have done the same in 2011 if not for the presence of the Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz platoon, Snyder’s injury before Opening Day, and their desire to showcase Doumit as a catcher, should tell potential suitors that their visions of a competitive advantage at catcher with the aid of an ex-Pirate are mostly mirage. The ankle injury might not prevent Doumit from changing teams, but the Pirates shouldn’t expect much in return for their flawed free-agent-to-be.
Whichever team is left holding Doumit come the end of the season will waste little time in buying out his two-year, $15.5 million option for a cool $500,000. The Pirates, meanwhile, will exercise their option on Snyder and continue to supplement him with the likes of Jason Jaramillo and Dusty Brown until Tony Sanchez is ready to take over.