Saturday, April 30, 2011

What they're saying about the Skins' draft strategy

Yes, I know I just did this yesterday with the Redskins' first trade and the decision to pick Ryan Kerrigan, but I have to admit, I'm intrigued to see what people are saying about the Redskins' approach this year in the NFL Draft. The Skins currently have 10 picks on day three of the draft, meaning they'll have plenty of chances to invigorate one of the NFL's oldest rosters with a plethora of young, (hopefully) talented players at several positions of need. There's no guarantee that any of the selected players will be any good, but it does give the Skins plenty of chances -- something few fans can complain about.

Here are the three players the Skins have taken so far:

- OLB Ryan Kerrigan (16th overall)
- DT/DE Jarvis Jenkins (41st overall)
- WR Leonard Hankerson (79th overall)

And here's what people are saying about the team's course of action thus far:

- "So they picked up five additional picks by moving down six spots in the first round. Brilliant. They also grabbed Clemson DE Jarvis Jenkins at No. 41 overall and have 13 total picks in this draft. That’s one more than they had in the past two drafts combined.

That’s how you go about fixing a brokedown team with holes all over the roster, even if there will be holes still. Even if it may not be a quick fix. Especially if it’s not a quick fix.
We don’t say this often, so be sure to say it now: The Redskins got it right." [Jamie Mottram, Mr. Irrelevant]

- "By trading down from No. 10 to No. 16 in the first round, the Redskins picked up extra picks and then leveraged those picks to pick up more in a series of trades down.

All in all, the Redskins have picked up five extra draft picks thus far. While they all won’t work out, this is exactly what the Redskins need. The team has one of the thinnest rosters in the league, bereft of young quality talent at nearly every position.

This approach may not make sense for every team every year, but it’s the perfect way to go for the 2011 Redskins. And it’s something they simply haven’t done in the past." [Gregg Rosenthal, Pro Football Talk]

- "The Redskins also had entered the draft’s second round with the 49th overall pick, but traded back three times to stockpile mid- to late-round picks. First they swapped that 49th pick with Indianapolis for the 53rd and 152nd (fifth round) selections, and then sent the 53rd pick to Chicago in exchange for the 62nd and 127th (fourth round) selections.

The Redskins then sent the 62nd pick to Miami and received the Dolphins’ 79th overall pick (a third-rounder), the 146th (a fifth-rounder) and the 217th (a seventh-rounder).

After entering the draft Thursday with a first- and second-round pick but none in the third and fourth rounds, Washington by virtue of four trades over two nights wound up with picks in every round." [Mike Jones, The Washington Post]

- "Redskins have 11 picks left, including 4 in 5th and 4 in 7th. Could be first time since 1995 that the Redskins have picked in each round." [Adam Schefter, ESPN]

- "The Redskins will have double-digit picks for the third time this decade. The other two times? The disaster draft of 2008, and 2002.

The Redskins have had fewer than six picks in nine of the last 11 years. Now, they have 13 picks. I guess they are overcompensating." [Mike Prada, SB Nation DC]

- "Washington’s newfound strategy runs counter to its philosophy since owner Daniel Snyder took over the team, which was trading future picks to move up for players or in trades to acquire veterans. But after coach Mike Shanahan admitted the roster had insufficient depth at every position other than tight end and safety, it all makes sense.

The Redskins still face a desperate situation along the offensive line, which needs to be addressed, not to mention they still need a quarterback. But the days of trying for a quick fix might be over as Washington goes about a more traditional means of team building." [Jason La Canfora, NFL Network]

- "Today Mike Shanahan, who will be orchestrating the process and who will have final say in who is selected, will hope that he continues the success he had finding productive players in the late rounds when he was with the Denver Broncos.

From 1995 through 2008, Shanahan was either in charge of the Broncos’ 14 drafts or he had heavy influence. In that time Dener had 70 picks in rounds 4-7 and 39 of them have played 16 NFL games or more during their careers. Of those players, 23 were their team’s primary starter for at least one season, four made at least on Pro Bowl. Among the better players Shanahan drafted in the last four rounds are running back Terrell Davis (round 6) and Elvis Dumervil (4)." [Rich Tandler, Real Redskins]

There's probably more analysis out there, but that's all I can find this morning.


My quick take: Is this plan absolutely guaranteed to work? Of course not. It's possible that none of the players the Redskins take in these later rounds ends up panning out. However, one word sticks out in my mind about how I'd describe the team's draft strategy this year: refreshing. The coaching staff/front office is trying something different -- which also happens to be something fans have been pleading for for over a decade. Does this mean the Redskins are rebuilding, per se? No, not really. But they are doing their best to wholeheartedly turn over an aging roster by bringing in more useful, "homegrown" players.

That doesn't mean that the Redskins won't go about filling some of the team's other holes via free agency; they will. But by both using the draft efficiently AND wisely signing free agents, the Redskins could end up with a much different -- and better -- team next season, regardless of a significant change under center. Even if you think the Skins should have taken a quarterback, or a running back, or any other position earlier in the draft instead of moving back multiple times, you have to admit that this change of pace is at least a little exciting. Let's see where this goes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

What they're saying about the Skins' trade/pick

You may not be a fan of what the Redskins did in the first round of the NFL Draft yesterday, when they moved back from the 10th spot to the 16th spot, received an extra second-round pick, and selected DE/LB Ryan Kerrigan. That's OK. But let's see what some others are saying:

- "As quick as he is, I wonder if Kerrigan's pass-rush style will work right away in the NFL, especially as a lower weight. He has a decent bull-rush and impressive upper-body strength, but his game is built very much on edge speed, and a lot of tackles at the NFL level will be able to work that out. With a new transition to edge rusher/linebacker obviously in the cards (the weight loss sort of gives it away), he'll need to learn a lot about coverage unless his new defensive coordinator just wants him moving forward all the time. Loses his footing on stunts and loops at times because he's going at Tasmanian Devil speed." [Doug Farrar, Shutdown Corner]

- "Scouts Inc. pros: Natural playmaker. Tied FBS record with 14 forced fumbles in his career. Relentless pass rusher and rarely gears down early when chasing the run. Has outstanding technique and is disciplined. Will maintain outside contain. Pursues hard from the backside. Can get under offensive tackles and drive them back into the quarterback's lap. Has a knack for knocking the ball loose when gets to the quarterback.

Scouts Inc. cons: Not an elite athlete. Struggles to quickly change directions and will be limited with outside-in and inside-out moves in the NFL. Powerful tackler and will finish if he approaches point of attack in good position, but the more space he's in the less effective he becomes as a tackler." [Scouts Inc., ESPN NFC East Blog]

- "Anybody who follows the Redskins recognizes this isn’t a team that is one good draft away from being in contention. The Redskins need to find a quarterback now that the Donovan McNabb era has turned disastrous. They have to bolster their defensive interior with Haynesworth’s future in doubt and running back and offensive line are other questionable areas. In a division as competitive as the NFC East, this team won’t be competing for anything for at least another year.

One key reason for those issues is the team’s drafting history. While the Redskins have found gems like Orakpo and left tackle Trent Williams, last year’s top pick, they’ve also had a mediocre track record in this area lately. This is a team that has been far too concerned with big-name coaching hires and high-profile acquisitions. What they ultimately should have learned by now is that there are no quick fixes in the NFL.

The teams that win most consistently are the ones who get it right on draft day. By taking Kerrigan, the Redskins proved that they have a better sense of the value in this philosophy. He isn’t the only thing they need these days, but his arrival is definitely a strong step in the right direction." [Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN NFC East Blog]

- "Gabbert was hyped by the draftniks as a top-five quarterback because he looked the part despite a college career that didn’t blow anyone away. He has plenty of talent and athleticism, but it’s worth noting the following quarterback needy teams passed on him: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee, and finally Washington, who traded their No. 10 pick to Jacksonville.

(Consider it a red flag when Mike Shanahan has no legitimate quarterback and passes on a mobile one.)" [Gregg Rosenthal, Pro Football Talk]

- "Washington wisely traded down from #10 to a QB desperate team in Jacksonville, who saw a run on QBs and decided to go up and get Blaine Gabbert. Washington only moved back six spots and picked up an extra second round pick in the process. When their pick came up at #16, Ryan Kerrigan, who they likely wanted all along was still there. We may be seeing a new Redskins after all. Really nice bit of maneuvering by them.

Even better, they aren't going to have Blaine Gabbert throwing three yard curls for them for the next three years. Who knows who will play QB for them, but either way this was a great first round for the Redskins. They got their man and replaced the picks in this draft that they wasted last year." [Jason Brewer, SB Nation Philly]

- Also, ESPN's Todd McShay is a fan of the pick. Not sure if that's good or bad, though.


As for what the Redskins will do with their two second-round picks, I'd be stunned if they didn't go after a quarterback. They now have the ninth (41st overall) and 17th (49th overall) picks in the second round (but no third-round choices), so if a quarterback, possibly Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton, or Colin Kaepernick, drops to them, they may decide to pull the trigger. There's no guarantee that happens, though, since there are still a few teams ahead of them that may decide to address their own quarterback deficiencies.

Considering how many holes the Skins currently have, they could certainly choose to go in another direction and select some other players -- maybe an offensive or defensive lineman or two. But still, expect them to pick a quarterback at some point on day two of the NFL Draft.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Redskins trade back, then select Ryan Kerrigan at No. 16

If the goal for the Redskins was not to do anything stupid, then they achieved that with their first move of the night. Then they decided to take a minor gamble.

Not content to just take someone they targeted at No. 10 (which may have been DE/LB Ryan Kerrigan anyway), the Redskins traded the pick to the Jaguars. In exchange for that pick, the Skins received the 16th pick and a second-round choice (49th overall). It's likely that the Skins wanted to move out of the 10th slot the whole time, or maybe another player they wanted just didn't drop to them. Either way, they got a player they really liked in Kerrigan.

Kerrigan seems like a guy who will fit well in the Redskins' 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker. Here's a brief summary of his skills via ESPN DraftTracker:
What he brings: Kerrigan lacks elite size and athleticism, but when you put on the film he shows the instincts to find the ball and make plays. He'll play outside linebacker for the Redskins and will be at his best moving forward rather than playing in reverse. He has above-average first-step quickness and a wide array of pass-rush moves to provide an immediate upgrade to the pass rush opposite Redskins OLB Brian Orakpo.

How he fits: He should fit nicely in Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense. The Redskins have really needed a bookend for their best pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo, who will now see less double teams. Right now, the other starter, Lorenzo Alexander, is probably a better run stopper than pass rusher and even though Kerrigan is not an elite edge rusher, he is a try-hard guy who will greatly improve the pressure this unit tries to create.
So he's not a perfect choice, but he has a lot of talent and is a hard-nosed player who won't be out of place in this defense. That already seems like a change of pace from a team that usually doesn't have any kind of organized plan and frequently tries to fit square pegs into round holes. An enormous defensive lineman or two will go a long way to making this pick look better, but it's a step in the right direction that the Redskins are seeking out the ability to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Instead of reaching for a quarterback too early, the Redskins ended up with a useful player and an extra draft choice. There's a lot of work still to be done, but is there really that much to complain about right now?

The Skins' goal tonight: Don't do anything stupid

I haven't written about the NFL Draft for a few months, but honestly, not a whole lot has changed since then. Sure, some players have moved up and down the draft board, but for the most part, there's still plenty of question marks surrounding who teams are actually targeting and when certain players will fly off the draft board. This year's draft seems different than most: No one is sure who will be drafted No. 1 by the Panthers, and that first pick could completely alter many teams' strategies on picking a player or trading up/moving down.

In the first of those draft posts, I argued that if the Redskins decide that taking a quarterback (either Cam Newton or someone else) is absolutely necessary, then I'm hesitantly on board. (My second post on the draft also dealt with the possibility of taking a quarterback.) I don't like to provide quotes from old posts, but I still feel the same way:
Of course, it's all about being able to build a franchise. The Redskins are not ready to compete for a championship; they need to add more pieces before that can happen. So all I'm trying to say is that the Redskins shouldn't reach for a quarterback so early in the draft if they're not sure he's the guy. Again, there's no guarantee the quarterback they select is going to be great, but there seems to be a little less pressure and difficulty in picking another position of need -- and the Redskins obviously have plenty of those.

I'm a fan of taking the best available player, and I think the Redskins should do that -- even if it's a quarterback. But they should also be exploring the possibility of taking any other position -- offense or defense -- or even trading back to replenish some of the picks they gave away when trading for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown.

In the end, if the Redskins do decide that Newton is the guy, that's fine. But he's not going to be the team's savior with so many other gaping holes on the roster, and it would be wrong of them to believe that. Shanahan and Allen have a ton of work to do, and hopefully they are not solely focused on finding a quarterback. This team needs much more help than that.
The Redskins have a lot of positions to fill, but if they do somehow identify their quarterback of the future and select one who develops into a solid starter, that will be a tremendous help to a franchise that hasn't had a good, let alone great, quarterback for a very long time.

But lots of players have been linked to the Redskins at No. 10 -- many mock drafts have predicted one of a few quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, maybe Newton if he falls) or several of the consensus top 15 players -- but no one really knows what's going to happen. Here are the possibilities (remember, players cannot be traded until the current CBA/financial situation is resolved):

1) The Redskins stand pat at No. 10 and select the best available player on their draft board. That may be a quarterback, and it may not. If it is a quarterback, then both Shanahans must be convinced that he is the guy.

2) The Redskins could choose to trade up -- which would probably be for a quarterback. (Definitely against this decision at all costs. Stop trading draft picks!)

3) Trade down, targeting a quarterback or another position later in the draft. Many analysts don't believe this draft is very deep, but if the Redskins can replenish some of their picks and also get a few players they were targeting anyway, that would be a win-win. (Apparently this is a possibility, according to Mike Shanahan, but really everything else is too.)

There isn't a lot of leeway here for the Redskins; they don't have the luxury of messing around with some of their picks to go after some project player who won't produce in three years. They need to get younger, and they need to get better. And -- this needs to be repeated as much as necessary -- they need to stop trading away draft picks. To me, that would be way worse than simply drafting a quarterback at No. 10.

Only the first round takes place tonight. Here's the draft schedule:

Rd. 1: Thurs., April 28, 8 p.m. ET
Rds. 2-3: Fri., April 29, 6 p.m. ET
Rds. 4-7: Sat., April 30, 12 ET

And here are the current selections the Redskins have:

Round 1, pick 10 (10 overall)
Round 2, pick 9 (41 overall)
Round 5, pick 13 (144 overall)
Round 5, pick 24 (155 overall, from New Orleans)
Round 6, pick 12 (177 overall)
Round 7, pick 11 (213 overall)
Round 7, pick 22 (224 overall, from Indianapolis)
Round 7, pick 52 (253 overall, compensatory selection)

Also, here is the complete draft order. So enjoy the draft and hope the Redskins don't do anything crazy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

O's offensive struggles continue

Through 20 games, the Orioles (8-12) have gotten progressively worse. When the offense wasn't scoring many runs to start the season, the starters picked up the slack. On a team with young, inconsistent pitching, that will only work for so long.

It's not shocking to point out that the offense has been awful. Still, looking at the actual numbers is disappointing:

wOBA: .293 (t-4th worst)
OBP: .287 (2nd worst)
SLG: .369 (t-8th worst)
BABIP: .255 (worst)
BB%: 6.8% (t-3rd worst)
K%: 19.6% (t-9th best)

That's right, the O's new-and-improved offense is currently sporting a .656 OPS. You know who has a career .656 OPS? Willie Bloomquist. And at least he has some speed.

The O's collective .255 BABIP indicates that they've been somewhat unlucky, but they also rarely walk and are content to attack pitches early in the count. It almost goes without saying, but a lot can change after only 20 games. Some more hits will almost surely start dropping in, creating more scoring opportunities. With that being said, it's concerning that more runners aren't getting on base more often. Only three Orioles (Matt Wieters, Brian Roberts, and Robert Andino) have OBPs over .300; that's not exactly a recipe for success.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

O's keep losing; offseason acquisitions not producing

Remember when the Orioles were wheeling and dealing in the offseason, bringing in several new players? Seems like such a long time ago, doesn't it? Well, the O's (6-9) are only 15 games into the season, but they've lost eight straight and simply have not been playing good baseball for the last week-plus.

Although the pitching has been far from stellar, the main culprit for the team's abysmal stretch is the lack of offense. Right now, the O's are hitting .226/.283/.368 as a team -- good enough for the third-worst batting average, tied for the worst on-base percentage, and the eighth-lowest slugging percentage in the majors. That's just not getting the job done, especially since the O's were supposed to have a much easier time scoring runs. Instead of a strength, the offense has been a huge weakness.

The players that Andy MacPhail brought in during the offseason also have not, for the most part, brought much to the table yet. Let's take a look (separated by hitters and pitchers):

Vladimir Guerrero: .242/.242/.306 (0 BB/9 K, 2 extra-base hits)
Derrek Lee: .204/.317/.278 (9 BB/13 K, 2 extra-base hits)
Mark Reynolds: .224/.304/.388 (5 BB/15 K, 6 extra-base hits)

That's right: The O's third- and fourth-place hitters have a combined four extra-base hits. Guerrero has yet to walk, which would be less of a concern if he was hitting more than a bunch of singles. But he's not.

J.J. Hardy is currently on the disabled list and has only played in six games. The O's also re-signed Cesar Izturis, who has already played in a handful of games, and as usual, provides pretty good defense and very little offense.

Koji Uehara: 4.2 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 4 K, 2 BB
Jeremy Accardo: 6.1 IP, 2 R, 5 H, 4 K, 5 BB
Kevin Gregg: 5.0 IP, 3 R, 8 H, 5 K, 4 BB

Uehara is probably the best reliever in the O's bullpen, and even though it's early, his numbers reflect that. Accardo has been OK, but Gregg has been terrible. The O's are also proving that it's usually unwise to spend big money on relievers -- particularly mediocre closers. Michael Gonzalez (making $6 million this season) has been rather bad in his time in Baltimore, and Gregg ($4.2 million this season, $5.8 million next season) is already off to a terrible start.

There's still plenty of time for all of these guys to start playing better. And these new faces aren't the only players not producing; many of the guys who were already with the O's aren't doing much better. Still, the level to which the O's have been staying off the scoreboard is surprising. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any other solutions other than to hope that the offense starts to click.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gregg over Uehara? Huh?

Leading 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth last night, Buck Showalter opted to bring in Kevin Gregg to close the game out. Jorge Posada homered on Gregg's very first pitch, tying the game. He then gave up a double to Curtis Granderson. To Gregg's credit, he still got out of the jam, but the Orioles eventually went on to lose in 10 innings.

Showalter has refused to name a closer, and he insists that his decisions aren't being driven by saves. Well, if that's the case, then why did he choose Gregg? Let's compare the career numbers of Gregg and Koji Uehara:

Gregg: 4.02 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 8.33 K/9, 3.75 BB/9
Uehara: 3.49 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 8.34 K/9, 1.35 BB/9

Gregg has thrown many more innings because he's been in the majors longer, so maybe Uehara has gotten a little lucky and is somewhat worse than his numbers indicate. If you wanted to play that card, I guess that's at least debatable. But on what planet is Gregg the better option?

Here's what I think was going through Showalter's mind on who to choose:

1) Gregg has 123 career saves; Uehara has 13. This had to play a part, in some way.

2) Uehara has two blown saves in his short career, and both of them came against the Yankees last season.

And, yeah, I guess that's it. Individual matchups could have played a factor, but that seems rather silly as well. Honestly, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense no matter how you slice it. If Showalter had opted for Uehara instead, Koji could certainly have given up a run and the O's still could have lost. Blown saves happen.

The point is this: The O's would have had a better chance to win with Uehara on the mound instead of Gregg. Isn't that what matters most?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chris Tillman struggles mightily against Yankees

The Orioles lost to the Yankees 7-4 last night, and Chris Tillman did not pitch well. He failed to make it out of the second inning, giving up six runs in the process.

Tillman has taken a few steps back after his first start of the season against Tampa Bay, in which he threw six no-hit, shutout innings while striking out five and walking three. He probably got a little lucky in that start, not to mention that it was just the second game of the season, but Tillman simply has not looked good in his last two appearances.

Here are the results of his three starts this season:

4/2 vs. TAM: 6.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 5 K, 3 BB
4/7 vs. DET: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 K, 2 BB
4/13 vs. NYY: 1.2 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 2 K, 1 BB

That's certainly not trending in the right direction. Hopefully he makes it out of the first inning in his next start. (I'm only joking. Sort of.) Also, PitchFx has Tillman's average fastball velocity at 88.4 mph so far in the early season. Again, he's only made three starts, but the loss in velocity is a concern. Maybe Tillman's hurt, maybe his mechanics are off, or maybe it's something else. MASN's Steve Melewski asked Tillman on Tuesday about his reduced velocity:
In fact, when I asked him recently if his velocity is down now from what it was in the high minors, he cited seeking better command as a reason the velocity is down and said, "if I need it, it's there."
Tillman's command does seem to be better, but I'm not quite sure I buy that excuse. Anyway, maybe his velocity will pick back up after he throws more innings -- or maybe as the weather starts to heat up. Hopefully it happens soon.

Friday, April 8, 2011

O's rally in seventh, win 9-5

The Orioles (5-1) have only played six games. It's still early. (And I'm going to keep saying it's early until it's not early anymore.) But in their first five games, the O's didn't do a particularly good job of getting runners on base. That changed yesterday in their 9-5 win over the Tigers: The O's had 10 hits and drew seven walks. Every starter reached based at least once, and six different batters drew walks.

Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh, the O's batted around and broke the game open with a five-run inning. In the rally, Vladimir Guerrero singled in a run, Adam Jones hit a sacrifice fly, Mark Reynolds doubled in a pair of runs, and Cesar Izturis collected an RBI single. The O's also scored two runs in the second (solo shot by Guerrero and an RBI single by Reynolds) and two in the sixth (two-run shot by Jones). The nine runs are an early season high for the O's, who just had Luke Scott return to the lineup but were without J.J. Hardy for the night (sat out with some tightness in his left side).

Besides the offense, the bullpen was the other hero in the win. Starter Chris Tillman struggled mightily and couldn't make it out of the fifth inning (4.2 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 K, 2 BB). O's radio broadcasters Joe Angel and Fred Manfra also noted that Tillman was sitting around 87-89 with his fastball, which isn't a very good sign. (PitchFx data has his fastball on a downward trend since 2009, but that doesn't include a whole lot of major league pitches. Hopefully his velocity picks up in his next few starts.) After Tillman left, the O's bullpen only allowed one run the rest of the game. Jeremy Accardo was the reliever who gave up that run (in 1.2 innings), but Jim Johnson (1.2 innings) and Koji Uehara (one inning) kept the Tigers off the scoreboard.

(Note: I can't be the only one who's a little worried about Jones. He did reach base twice yesterday, including that home run, but he's seeing pitches at a Guerrero-like rate. I don't think he has the hitting ability to be a mini-Vlad; Guerrero has/had the talent to hit like that his whole career and put up fantastic numbers. In four plate appearances yesterday, Jones only saw eight pitches. Eight! If he goes 2-3 with a home run every game, well then that doesn't matter. But he doesn't always do that, obviously. I'd like for Jones to turn the corner just as most O's fans do, but I'm just not sure it's possible if he's routinely down in the count and swinging at everything in sight.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

O's are 4-0: Early season thoughts

Saying that it's "early" doesn't quite cut it; it's extremely early and way too soon to draw anything conclusive from the Orioles' 4-0 start. But, hey, the O's are winning games, and anytime that happens it's a good thing.

Here are some (very) early season stats/results/thoughts that may not mean a whole lot in a week or two:


- The starting pitching has been phenomenal to start the season. In four starts, Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrieta have allowed only two earned runs in 26 innings pitched. They've allowed nine walks combined but have also struck out 20.

- Brian Roberts has hit both of the team's home runs, and he's made them count: They're both three-run shots.

- Nick Markakis has six hits (one double) in 14 at-bats. He's spraying the ball all over the field and looks very comfortable hitting second.

- Matt Wieters, who has five hits (one double) in 13 at-bats, is also off to a solid start.

- J.J. Hardy is doing a nice job batting in the ninth spot, with three hits (all doubles) in 11 at-bats. His presence has made the lineup more complete and more difficult to get through.

- Jason Berken and Koji Uehara have looked like the two best relievers. In three innings, Berken has allowed only one hit while striking out six, while Uehara has pounded the strike zone in 1.2 innings and allowed only one hit (that hit scored an inherited runner, but whatever).

- Overall, the defense has been pretty good. Mark Reynolds has committed the team's lone error (not that errors are the best way to determine strong defense), but he's also made a few other good plays at third. Hardy looks solid at shortstop and Derrek Lee has already saved a few errors with impressive plays at first. Also solid: Markakis's game-saving catch on Saturday.


- Vladimir Guerrero and Adam Jones are both hitting .125 (2-16) with no extra-base hits. They've also struck out four times each and have failed to draw a walk yet. They've looked overmatched at the plate and have been swinging at everything in sight.

- As a team, the O's have only drawn six walks while striking out 28 times. This team has several hitters who are going to strike out a lot, but the lack of walks is somewhat surprising.

- As far as the bullpen goes, Mike Gonzalez probably looked the worst in his first appearance of the season (0.1 IP, 1 R, 2 BB). Hopefully he finds the strike zone in his next chance. Kevin Gregg also looked average in his first appearance and needed that Markakis catch to end Saturday's nail-biter.

- I'm not quite sure that injuries belong here since it's difficult to prevent them from happening, but they're definitely not positives. Brian Matusz is out three-to-six weeks with a strained left intercostal muscle and Guthrie will miss Wednesday's start because he's battling pneumonia, which is kind of scary. (According to Dan Connolly, Brad Bergesen will start in Guthrie's place, and the O's are hoping Guthrie can return by Sunday.) Luke Scott is also day-to-day right now with a groin strain. The lineup could certainly use his presence.


Yes, it's early. And yes, the O's will lose some games soon. But there's nothing wrong with being happy with a 4-0 start.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Zach Britton set to make his O's debut

Things rarely go according to plan. The Orioles planned on sending Zach Britton down to Triple-A for a few weeks before bringing him back up. (Most of the decision most likely had to do with his service time and the possibility of losing a year of team control if he isn't sent back down to the minors for a while, but there's a long season ahead and things can change quickly.) Then, news of Brian Matusz's injury surfaced on Friday, and the O's announced after the game that the 23-year-old Britton would fill Matusz's rotation spot and start Sunday (today).

If service time issues had nothing to do with the decision, I don't think there's any question that Britton would have made the team out of spring training. That's usually the case for impressive top prospects, and many decisions are made because of their future financial impact. Again, for Britton, all of that will depend on several factors: how well he pitches, which other starters get hurt or stay healthy, whether or not the O's are winning games, among others. And there will be plenty of time to worry about the service time/team control issue later in the season if it's still a concern (which will mean that he's still on the roster).

But today Britton, probably the O's top prospect at this very moment ahead of shortstop Manny Machado, will make his first start in an O's uniform. Britton joins a stable of young O's starters: Matusz (24), Jake Arrieta (25), Chris Tillman (almost 23), and Brad Bergesen (25).

Don't know much about Britton? He was selected with the 85th overall pick (third round) in the 2006 MLB Draft. Starting rookie ball that same year, he rapidly ascended through the O's system. In 2010 he started the season at Double-A and impressed quickly: He ended up only making 14 starts there because he dominated the competition (2.48 ERA, 7.03 K/9, 2.90 BB/9, 0.41 HR/9). After those starts, which only amounted to 87 innings pitched, Britton moved to Triple-A, where he was nearly as solid in 12 starts (66.1 innings): 2.98 ERA, 7.60 K/9, 3.12 BB/9, 0.41 HR/9. Some of the concern surrounding Britton has to do with how little he's pitched above Single-A. However, the O's believe that he deserves an opportunity to pitch in the majors right now, and he could always return to Triple-A at some point during the season to get more seasoning at the minor league level.

This Roch Kubatko article for Baseball America (written on March 25) does a good job explaining what makes Britton so effective:
"His fastball's unbelievable," catcher Craig Tatum said. "He throws hard and the ball moves. He's got really good sink on the ball, keeps the ball down, goes right after hitters. He says his changeup's his third-best pitch, but with his fastball, he doesn't really need to throw too many off-speed pitches because his ball moves so much. When he figures it out with the slider, he's going to be good."

"The ceiling is sky high," Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin said. "I still think there's more in there from him that we can still see from Zach. I don't think he's reached his ability yet. He's still got a ways to go to improve and get better and be even better than he was when he was with me last year. The fastball has great life. Not good life, great life. And it's late and it's hard. He's learned to spot it up, have better command of it. The slider has come a long way from when I first saw it. It's a little bit quicker now, little bit sharper, little bit more depth to it. We've made a lot of progress trying to get him to backleg it to righthanded hitters.

"The changeup, he's still working on it. He's still trying to get consistent command on it. But what impressed me last year was, he was still working on it, but in his last two starts he threw changeups on 3-2 counts and got hitters to swing and miss at it. That tells me the kid has gained a lot of confidence in that pitch."

Britton induced lot of ground balls last summer while going a combined 10-7, 2.70, with 51 walks and 124 strikeouts in 153 innings at Norfolk and Double-A Bowie. The pattern has continued this spring. Only one out against the Astros came on a fly ball, to the last batter he faced in the fourth inning.

"He keeps the ball down," Tatum said. "He'll be like, 'I didn't hit my location that time,' and I'm like, 'I don't care where the ball is if they keep beating it into the ground.' I just like the way he attacks hitters. And once he gets the feel of his slider better, he's going to be good. I'm glad we have him in our organization, because I don't want to face him."
A young lefty who throws a ton of two-seamers with great movement that induce ground ball after ground ball? No wonder there's so much excitement surrounding his promotion.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

O's hold on for 3-1 win over Rays

After a relatively stress-free opening day win over the Rays yesterday (thanks to Jeremy Guthrie's outstanding pitching performance), the Orioles survived a potential game-winning (or at least tying) hit because of a spectacular game-saving catch by Nick Markakis.

With the O's leading 3-1, the Rays had runners on first and second with two outs in the ninth. Ben Zobrist hit a deep fly ball to right field, but Markakis -- and his glove -- seemingly appeared out of nowhere to snatch the ball before it hit the wall. Markakis then smashed into the wall and took a moment or two before revealing to the umpires that yes, he did in fact make the catch. Thanks to Markakis, Brian Roberts's three-run homer in the eighth inning, and a solid start by Chris Tillman, the O's move to 2-0.

Tillman threw six no-hit, shutout innings in place of the now-injured Brian Matusz. Tillman was, in a sense, wildly effective (three walks), but he also struck out five and kept hitters off balance with a powerful fastball and filthy change-up.

After Tillman left the scoreless game, Jeremy Accardo took over and retired the first two batters he faced. Then, though, things got a little dicey. B.J. Upton singled and stole second, and Matt Joyce was walked intentionally. Kelly Shoppach followed with a single to left field. But Felix Pie, who had just entered the game as a pinch-runner for Luke Scott that same inning, threw a bullet to Matt Wieters to nail Upton at home. Wieters blocked the plate brilliantly and applied the tag on Upton in time, keeping the game tied.

The next inning, despite leading 3-0 after the Roberts home run, the bullpen continued to live dangerously. Mike Gonzalez relieved Accardo and walked consecutive batters before retiring Johnny Damon. Koji Uehara then came in and got the final two outs of the inning, but not before allowing an RBI single to Manny Ramirez. Still, at least Uehara pounded the strike zone -- seven of his eight pitches were strikes.

Holding that 3-1 lead in the ninth, Kevin Gregg was sent in to get the save. Upton led off with a single, and then Joyce grounded into a fielder's choice (which sure looked like a double play on replay). Gregg then walked Shoppach before getting a strike out and the huge defensive play by Markakis to end the game.

I'm going to preface what I'm about to say with this: Yes, it was just one game, and there's no sense in overreacting, especially since the O's did win. Fans know what they're going to get out of Gregg. He's never been a shut-down closer/reliever, and he's going to have some roller-coaster saves, along with some blown saves as well. That's who he is. As for Gonzalez, though, he started last season out on a rocky note, blowing two saves in his first three appearances with the O's. The O's are desperately going to need him to be effective, particularly if he's going to be the only left-handed reliever in the bullpen (which I don't think will last very long, for what it's worth). Gonzalez deserves the opportunity to overcome a bad outing or two, as do most of the players since the season just started. But if he keeps having difficulty throwing strikes and handing out free passes to opposing hitters, the bullpen as a collective unit is in trouble.

Sorry for the negative spiel after such an exciting win. The starting pitching and defense to start the season have been great, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching Zach Britton make his major league debut tomorrow.