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July 1, 2011

On the Beat

The Buck Stops...Where?

by John Perrotto

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This was supposed to be the season that all of the frustration ended for the Orioles and their fans.

Hopes were high that the Orioles could finally break their streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons following a winter shopping spree in which president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail bolstered the offense by signing first baseman Derrek Lee and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero as free agents and trading for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy. The improved hitting attack was supposed to combine with a promising young pitching staff to carry over the momentum the Orioles built during the final two months of last season when they went 34-23 after Buck Showalter took over as manager.

However, that magic hasn't materialized. The Orioles are in last place in the American League East with a 35-43 record. While they are on pace to avoid 92 losses for the first time since 2005, they also haven't emerged as darkhorse contenders in a loaded division.

The fans' frustration continues, and center fielder Adam Jones feels it when he checks his Twitter account.

"I get it all the time where people will say I've been a long-time fan and I've been waiting 15 years to cheer for a good team again," Jones said. "I understand where they're coming from. I want to win every single game. It doesn't happen that way, but it's not because we're not trying or we don't want to win."

No one has questioned the Orioles' effort. However, the effort hasn’t been matched by the execution. The Orioles are ninth in the AL and 15th in the majors in runs scored (4.10 a game), 13th in the league and 27th in the majors in runs allowed (4.81), and ninth in the league and 20th in the majors in defensive efficiency (.710).

The increasingly evident reality that they will again wind up well back in the pack in the AL East has become frustrating to the players, as the Orioles have a recent history of dismal finishes. The Orioles have been either fourth or fifth in the division in all but one season—they finished third in 2004—since the string of losing seasons started in 1998.

"How do you deal with failure?" left fielder Luke Scott said. "How do you handle your attitude? How do you go about your business? Do you still go into the game prepared? Do you still work hard? We're doing all those things, and that's all you can ask for. As players playing the game, though, there is nothing more frustrating as a man than to put your heart and soul into something and don’t see any fruits to your labor. It's a very difficult pill to swallow."

It has been particularly difficult for the Orioles to watch their young starting pitchers struggle, especially after so many of them took steps forward during the latter part of last season. Rookie left-hander Zach Britton leads the rotation with a 4.34 Fair Run Average, and Chris Tillman (4.56), Jeremy Guthrie (4.78), Jake Arrieta (5.49), and Brian Matusz (6.45) have all been mediocre or worse. An Orioles starter lasted seven innings just once in 25 games in June.

In retrospect, the Orioles should have concentrated a little more on adding a proven starter and a little less on the lineup over the winter. Instead, they gambled on Justin Duchscherer as a free agent, and the right-hander—who has pitched just 28 innings since the start of 2009—has been shelved all season by a hip problem.

Showalter attributes most of the poor pitching performance to youth, but it hasn't helped that there has been major upheaval on the coaching staff in the past month. Mark Conner resigned as pitching coach two days after bullpen coach Alan Dunn left to become the pitching coach at Louisiana State. John Russell was also reassigned from third-base coach to the bench, ostensibly to work with catcher Matt Wieters on his game calling.

The Orioles have also been hurt by having their projected lineup together for just five games this season. Lee and Hardy have spent time on the disabled list, while second baseman and leadoff hitter Brian Roberts has been out since mid-May after suffering his second concussion in as many seasons. There is no timetable for Roberts' return.

"It's not a topic of conversation in our clubhouse," Showalter said of the injuries. "I'm sure everybody has that problem at some point of time in the season. I'm just hoping at some point that we get everybody on the field. If not, that's part of the equation of playing in the big leagues. Playing seven days a week, traveling around the country, let's face it, the human body isn't designed to do the things we ask guys to do. The season takes its toll on everyone. If you'd ask any general manager or manager what they'd like set in stone when they break camp, it would be good health for all the players, though you know it's probably not going to happen."

There is little doubt that all the lineup shuffling, coupled with the poor pitching, has led to plenty of inconsistency. That is what has been especially frustrating to Jones.

"We'll have one good week where we'll play good baseball, then the next week we're trying to find ourselves all over again," Jones said. "In baseball, it's got to be a day-to-day thing. You've got to be consistent. We've got some good players who want to win, but it's a matter of getting better as a team and as a franchise. We're not where we need to be or want to be. There are times when it feels like we're so close, but we just can't get there."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

The Orioles are likely to put Hardy on the trading block if they are unable to sign him to a contract extension by the end of the month. The Reds, Brewers, and Giants all figure to be interested… The Red Sox have almost no chance of trading outfielder Mike Cameron, whom they designated for assignment on Thursday. Most scouts believe Cameron is finished, and any team that signs him as a free agent will likely want him to go the minor leagues in an effort to see if he can regain his hitting stroke… The Indians are one possibility for Cameron, as they are looking for outfield help on the cheap after right fielder Shin-Soo Choo underwent thumb surgery this week that will likely keep him out until September. The Indians have been using a combination of Austin Kearns, Travis Buck, and Shelley Duncan in right and would like to upgrade, but they have a limited budget… The Rangers are not happy that reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton has allowed his struggles in day games (.113/.230/.170 in 61 plate appearances) to take on a life of their own, going so far as to blame them on having blue eyes. The Rangers plan to use Hamilton primarily in center field for the remainder of the season in an effort to spark the offense, though they would prefer to play him in left field and as a designated hitter. They are also close to calling up Chris Davis, who has made the transition from first base to left field at Triple-A Round Rock.

The Braves plan to give left-handed reliever Jonny Venters more rest after he reached the midpoint of the season having made 45 appearances and pitched 50 innings… The Pirates' surprising first half is paying off beyond the field of play, as their attendance is up 17 percent from last season and their television ratings have risen 34 percent… The Marlins' collapse has been historic: according to research by Frank Vaccaro of SABR, they went from 10 games over .500 to 10 games under .500 faster than any team in major-league history, tanking in just 26 days (May 29-June 24). The previous fastest fall was 38 days, suffered by the 1999 Phillies from August 13-September 20.

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Scouts' views:

Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford: "They might have brought him up a little too early, but I think he's going to be a good major-league shortstop. He has really good range and instincts in the field, and I think he's going to hit enough to productive. What you're seeing now is not the finished product."

Orioles designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero: "He's starting to lose a lot of that great bat speed that used to allow him to hit anything thrown remotely close to the strike zone. He's having a hard time getting around on the fastball, and pitchers are consistently beating him inside. Father Time has caught up to him, I'm afraid."

Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee: "He was already one of the best pitchers in the game, but now he's unbelievable. He's started throwing his curveball more, and that's given him a fourth weapon to go with his fastball, cutter, and changeup. It's almost not fair to the hitter. He's got great stuff, and now they can't guess what he might throw."

Twins catcher Joe Mauer: "I know he's fought it, but I think the Twins have to make him realize that it's only going to be beneficial for him in the long run to start playing some first base. He has bad knees, and he's not even 30. He's not going to be catching in his late 30s, and he's a good enough athlete to make the transition to first base. I mean, hell, he was considered the best high school quarterback in the country at one time."

Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick: "The Red Sox aren't shy about trading their prospects, but I'd think twice before trading this kid. He has a chance to be a really good player. He's got some pop, and I think he might hit for a pretty decent average, because he doesn't give away as many at-bats as he used to. He could be an everyday player for a lot of clubs right now."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Orioles,  Designated Hitter,  The Who

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