You know things are going badly for the Orioles (5-11) when you can’t pinpoint exactly which aspect of the team’s game is most concerning: the offense, the starting pitching or the defense.
At this exact moment, I think I’m leaning toward the defense.
Yes, I know the offense has scored three runs or fewer in 11 of its 16 games this season. The Orioles are 1-10 in those contests (that lone win coming on Opening Day) and 4-1 when they score five or more. (Strangely, they haven’t scored four runs in a game yet this season.)
The offense is so one-dimensional that it’s a stretch to see it being consistently good for weeks at a time. But I guess I’m less concerned about the lineup because this feast-or-famine approach has been the norm, even when the Orioles have had success recently.
The starting rotation will remain a concern until there’s a better feel for how each starting pitcher is progressing. Obviously, Alex Cobb’s first Orioles’ performance was disappointing (more on that below) and Chris Tillman’s continued regression is flat-out disturbing (more on that, too, below).
But I think the general sense is that this rotation, even with plenty of question marks, simply has to be better than the 2017 version. And Dylan Bundy is certainly doing his part to make sure the overall numbers will be better than last year’s franchise worst 5.70 rotation ERA.
That leaves the defense, which was the hallmark (along with a stout bullpen) of manager Buck Showalter’s playoff clubs.
For all the complaints about first baseman Chris Davis’ woeful offense, the argument can be made that Davis is currently the best defensive player the Orioles have in a set position. Catcher Caleb Joseph deserves to be in that conversation and so does center fielder Adam Jones, even though defensive metrics haven’t been kind to him for years.
But Manny Machado will have his growing pains at shortstop and the same goes with Tim Beckham at third base. And now, with Jonathan Schoop on the disabled list, Beckham has been moved to second base, a position he played toward the end of his time with Tampa Bay last year, and Danny Valencia is manning third base.
On Sunday, Valencia made one key error in misfielding a grounder and could have been charged with a second one on an erratic throw that was ultimately ruled a hit. Davis saved Valencia further ignominy by digging out another short-hopper.
When the Orioles signed Valencia in March, executive vice president Dan Duquette made it clear the veteran was being added because of a bat that blistered left-handed pitching. When I asked Duquette whether he thought Valencia could play third base for an extended period if necessary, Duquette hesitated and then said he thought Valencia could be adequate.
And maybe he will be, especially if Schoop returns within the minimum 10 days from a mild oblique strain.
The problem here is that the offense isn’t clicking and there’s always a fear that the rotation could timebomb at any moment. But that’s par for the Orioles’ course.
If the defense continues to crater – and there are a whole lot of defenders playing in spots that aren’t natural or in which they are re-learning – it can’t make up for deficiencies elsewhere, like the rock-solid defense did from 2012 to 2016.
Worse, the defense might end up causing more problems than it fixes, and that will drive Showalter – and the fans — bonkers.
Thoughts about Cobb, and tempering fears for now
There’s probably not much to say about right-hander Alex Cobb’s debut as an Oriole on Saturday.
The bright side: It’s in the rearview mirror.
The likely bright side: It should only get better.
The reality: It was ugly, pretty much as ugly as it gets, as far as anticipated debuts go.
Cobb didn’t get through the fourth. He allowed eight runs (seven earned), 10 hits, including two homers, and a walk.
He faced 21 batters and got behind 12 of them before throwing a strike.
That’s not a good recipe anywhere, and especially not in the unforgiving American League East. The Orioles were in a 3-0 hole by the end of the first, 4-0 by the end of the third and 8-0 by the end of the fourth.
What that’s a recipe for is the 2017 Orioles, a club that was always behind, especially in games started by Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley.
Cobb was brought in to erase those bad memories, and the Orioles did that while forking out a record four-year, $57 million deal for the former Tampa Bay Ray. That contract topped the previous franchise record for a free-agent pitcher set by, gulp, Jimenez in 2014.
I can’t tell you for certain that the contract’s length and lofty price tag will be the only similarities between Cobb and Jimenez. My crystal ball cracked years ago.
But I will tell you that Cobb, when healthy, has been a consistently good major league pitcher. And you have to assume that will be the case in Baltimore.
So, call it one bad start and move on.
I truly believe that’s what it was.
Then again, I also thought Jimenez would have a solid walk year in 2017.
The Tillman dilemma continues
I wish I could have the same confidence in Chris Tillman, who lasted just two-plus innings on Friday in Boston and is now 0-3 with a 11.91 ERA in three 2018 starts. He’s allowed 22 hits and 10 walks in 11 1/3 innings. Statistically speaking, he’s actually been worse at the start of this year than in his disaster of 2017, when he was 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA in 24 games.
I gave Tillman a mulligan for 2017 because a shoulder injury cost him his regular offseason routine and a normal spring training. Like most starters, Tillman is a creature of habit.
I also lobbied repeatedly for the Orioles to re-sign the right-hander who turned 30 on Sunday, thinking they could get him for a bargain. They secured his services in February for less than even I had imagined, an incentive-laden deal worth $3 million guaranteed.
My whole reasoning for pushing for re-signing Tillman is that I know his character and work ethic. I’ve seen him with his back against the wall before and he always returned fighting. It was worth the risk, I figured, to bet on Tillman.
Well, the fight and the will remain, but there’s been so much wrong with his arsenal these first three starts that I’m wondering about the validity of my offseason argument. I thought there might have been some bright spots to build on in Tillman’s outing against New York, but they vanished in Boston.
He’s no longer hitting in the 90s consistently with his fastball and his command, which has rarely been pinpoint in his career, is really shaky right now.
The optimist in me says that it’s still early; three outings is 10 percent of a full season for a starter, which is an awfully small sample size. Plus, Tillman has had to face three of the most brutal lineups in baseball in the Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
But two of those are division rivals he’ll see several more times this season. And all major league offenses are going to thrive if a pitcher misses his spots continually.
The realist in me says the Orioles can’t afford to keep giving starts to a guy who routinely puts them in a hole and taxes the bullpen, no matter how much they like him personally or how much he’s meant to the franchise over the past few years. Especially given that this has been an extension of last year’s futility.
It’s a result-driven business, and Tillman hasn’t had many good ones for well over a year now. Many fans and social media skippers think the plug should have been pulled in 2017. That sentiment is growing in merit.
Tillman, of course, gets it. He’s always been team-first, and he knows he’s not helping his team on the field.
So how long do they keep giving him the ball every fifth day without solid results?
I don’t know for sure.
Showalter has built a reputation for being loyal to his veterans, but I can’t imagine this will last much longer at the manner in which it has been going.
This appears to be the ultimate, back-to-the-wall situation for the Orioles and Tillman.
He needs to really come out swinging soon, assuming it’s not too late for one more bout.