Five biggest Orioles disappointments of first half

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Standing at 44-44 and in third place in the American League East, the Orioles have faced their share of disappointments as they look toward the second half of the 2015 season.

Though just four games behind the first-place New York Yankees and sporting the fifth-best run differential (plus-39) in the league, the Orioles and their fans could certainly point to the uncertain future of executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and a disappointing offseason as the biggest factors contributing to an underwhelming first half. It’s easy to point to the decisions not to re-sign any of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller, but the problems have run deeper than that.

On Wednesday, left-handed reliever Wesley Wright was designated for assignment, becoming the fifth veteran — joining Ryan Webb, Alejandro De Aza, Everth Cabrera, and Delmon Young — scheduled to make at least $1.6 million this year to be designated since the start of the season. Not only did the Orioles fail to keep their top free agents, but they spent a lot of money poorly elsewhere.

Below are my five biggest individual disappointments of the first half of the season:

Dishonorable mention: Everth Cabrera, Wesley Wright, Travis Snider

5. Alejandro De Aza/Delmon Young

It’s appropriate to lump these two together after they were both designated for assignment in the first half of the season. At the beginning of the year, manager Buck Showalter envisioned De Aza as his leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching while Young was expected to handle a larger role after the free-agent departures of Cruz and Markakis in the outfield.

Instead, De Aza hit just .214 with a .636 on-base plus slugging percentage and further saw his playing time diminish due to lapses on the bases and in the field. After being traded to Boston in early June, De Aza has provided a spark for the last-place Red Sox with a .323 average, making Orioles fans wonder where that production was earlier in the season.

Young’s .270 average may not have looked bad on the surface, but he offered little else as he homered only twice and posted an anemic .628 OPS in 180 plate appearances. Because of a crowded outfield situation and his limited versatility, Young was designated and eventually released last week.

While neither De Aza nor Young were necessarily projected to be everyday players, both were obvious disappointments after the Orioles committed to paying them a combined $7.25 million to contribute in 2015.

4. J.J. Hardy

It’s often forgotten that Hardy was the one big-name free agent the Orioles were able to keep last fall with a three-year, $40 million extension, making the first half of his 2015 season that much more frustrating after other veterans departed.

A left shoulder injury cost Hardy more than a month, but he hasn’t been able to gain his bearings at the plate beyond a few clutch hits here and there. His defensive ability remains a clear strength, but Hardy’s .226 average and .584 OPS must improve in the second half as the Orioles try to advance to the postseason for the third time in four years.

The fact that Hardy hit only nine homers last year while dealing with a lingering back issue was concerning enough, but a second straight season of diminished power (five homers in 225 plate appearances) creates doubt whether the 32-year-old will ever again approach the power numbers he posted in his first three years in Baltimore. Even if that’s the case, the Orioles need more offensive production in terms of average and at least a few more doubles from the veteran infielder.

You never want to discredit Hardy’s value in the field, but he’d be the first to tell you much more is needed with the bat.

3. Steve Pearce

Even his biggest supporters wouldn’t have predicted Pearce to duplicate his magical 2014 campaign in which he hit 21 homers, posted a team-leading .930 OPS, and was worth 5.9 wins above replacement, but the numbers were so strong that you could reasonably hope the journeyman had finally established himself as a solid everyday player.

That hasn’t been the case as Pearce hit .176 in his first 74 at-bats of 2015 and has largely been relegated to part-time duties against left-handed pitching. An .812 OPS since May 16 shows that Pearce has done a better job over the last two months, but most of that has come against left-handed pitching as he’s hitting just .207 against right-handers and .228 overall this year.

In addition to not matching the same power he found a year ago, Pearce’s walk rate has dropped considerably, a part of his game that was solid even before the 2014 season. What has likely saved the 32-year-old’s roster spot has been his versatility as he’s able to play four or five different positions, including second base for the first time earlier this season.

It will be interesting to see if Showalter will give Pearce more opportunities against right-handed pitching with Chris Parmelee struggling immensely of late, but it’s difficult foreseeing a return to the success from a year ago as Pearce is scheduled to hit free agency at the end of the season.

2. Chris Tillman

Predicting a down season for Tillman after he posted no worse than a 3.71 ERA in three straight seasons might not have been out of the question, but a 5.40 ERA and 3.8 walks per nine innings are numbers that would have landed him in the minors if not for the fact that he’s out of options.

The 27-year-old has been better since a nightmarish start in Toronto last month that elevated his ERA to 6.22, but his struggles are a major reason why the Orioles currently rank 10th in the AL with a 4.20 starter ERA. If you eliminate his 15.00 ERA in four starts against the Blue Jays, Tillman owns a very solid 3.48 mark against the rest of the league, but you can’t dismiss that part of the picture when Toronto is one of the clubs the Orioles are competing with in a tight division race.

His strikeout numbers are fairly similar to the last few seasons, but his walk rate is his highest since 2010 and the lack of fastball command has gotten him in trouble too often in 2015. Opponents have sported a .331 batting average on balls in play against Tillman, indicating he’s run into bad luck that’s made him pay even more for the control issues.

You hope the worst is behind Tillman as he pitched too well from 2012-2014 to continue languishing in the second half, but the Orioles wouldn’t figure to have much of a chance to be playing in October if the tall right-hander doesn’t start resembling the guy who had back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2013 and 2014.

1. Bud Norris

A look at his track record told you Norris was unlikely to win 15 games or match the 3.65 ERA he posted a year ago, but few have had a more dreadful season entering free agency in recent memory than Norris, who was demoted to the bullpen before the All-Star break.

Sporting a 6.86 ERA and being paid $8.8 million this season, Norris has been helpless against left-handed hitters who have posted a 1.005 OPS and hit nine homers against him, prompting opposing managers to stack their lineups with lefties in his starts. The changeup that worked so well against lefty hitters last year hasn’t been much of a factor in 2015, leaving Norris much too reliant on his fastball and slider.

With Kevin Gausman stepping into the rotation, Norris has the stuff to profile as a decent reliever, but the move now leaves Showalter without the “swinging-door” bullpen spot he likes to have to summon a fresh arm from the minors when necessary.

At this point, it doesn’t look like Norris will get another chance in the rotation unless someone else falters or is injured, but he’ll need to be able to pitch effectively out of the bullpen to keep his roster spot as he is out of options. Duquette will undoubtedly try to find a trade partner, but Norris would be difficult to give away at this point with a high salary attached to him.

Very few would have expected Norris to be Baltimore’s best starter in 2015, but the most disastrous season of his career couldn’t have come at a worse time for him or the Orioles.