Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Steve Tolleson and why the O's don't need Miguel Tejada

On November 6, 2011, the Orioles hired Dan Duquette, a guy who hadn't been employed by a major league team since 2002. It didn't seem like the O's had anyone else to turn to, with several other general manager candidates turning down the opportunity, or even the chance to interview for the job.

The O's didn't make many (or any) big splashes in the offseason, but one part of Duquette's game plan was to target seemingly underutilized players bouncing around other teams' farm systems. Some of them, like Pat Neshek and Óscar Villarreal, are journeymen, but he also signed younger guys like Matt Antonelli and Steve Tolleson and selected Ryan Flaherty in the Rule 5 draft. There were several other moves and signings, but you get the point.

Tolleson, 28, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round in 2005. In eight minor league seasons, he's demonstrated the valuable ability to get on base (.371 OBP), but he doesn't have a whole lot of power (.409 SLG). After making it all the way to Triple-A with the Twins but never getting a chance with the big league club, Tolleson was selected off of waivers by the Oakland A's in February of 2010. With Sacramento, the A's Triple-A affiliate, Tolleson put together his finest minor league season. Splitting time between shortstop, third base, second base, and left field, Tolleson raked in 339 plate appearances, posting a .332/.412/.503 line before being promoted.

After his promotion, Tolleson again filled a utility role. For the A's, Tolleson played at shortstop, third base, second base, left field, and right field in 25 games. It's unsurprising that Tolleson had a -1.5 combined UZR at all of those positions, which sort of weighed down (in terms of his 0.1 WAR) his .286/.340/.408 batting line in 53 plate appearances. Sure, that's only a small chunk of at-bats, but that line, even with slightly below average defense, is serviceable, particularly for a bench player or someone in a utility role like Tolleson.

Still, Oakland had seen enough and in May of 2011 Tolleson was shipped to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. He never progressed past Triple-A there, and in November he became a free agent.

In his flurry of veteran signings, Duquette brought Tolleson aboard and signed him in late November. Tolleson was eventually assigned to Norfolk, where he hit .265/.357/.361 in 26 games while playing shortstop every day.  Then, on May 9, Tolleson was promoted to Baltimore, mostly for infield depth and because of the ineffectiveness of Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is still on the disabled list (retroactive to May 11), but he's currently rehabbing and may return in a couple weeks.

Tolleson hasn't played much, but in six games and 22 plate appearances, he's hitting .300/.333/.550 and has looked decent at third base, the only position where the O's have used him. He's also easily a much better defender at third than Reynolds or Wilson Betemit.

It's also worth noting that Tolleson has had more success in his brief major league career facing lefties than righties. Here are his splits from his time in Oakland and Baltimore (yes, small sample size alert):

vs. RHP: 34 PA, .188/.235/.188
vs. LHP: 41 PA, .378/.425/.676

Interestingly enough, Tolleson consistently fared better against lefties in the minors as well. This link from Minor League Splits shows his split stats in the minors through 2010, and in nearly every level, particularly in Double-A and Triple-A, he hit lefties much better. It's at least possible that trend continues when/if he plays more at the major league level.

A day before the O's promoted Tolleson, though, they signed Miguel Tejada to a minor league deal. The move was curious, but at best it could be called some insurance for Reynolds. Unlike Tolleson, Tejada is a proven major league talent. But he hasn't been moderately good since 2009, and in his most recent major league action, with the Giants in 2011, Tejada batted an abysmal .239/.270/.326. He did play decent defense at third base that season, so that's at least the best the O's could hope for from him if he eventually gets promoted from Norfolk. But, again, he hasn't hit for a couple seasons now, and he also recently turned 38. (Vladimir Guerrero is a year younger, and O's fans know how that signing turned out last season.)

Really, signing Tejada doesn't hurt anything right now. He's not taking valuable playing time away from anyone in Norfolk, and it's at least possible he resurrects his career in some fashion if he ends up in Baltimore and miraculously plays well for a couple weeks or months. But it makes much more sense to keep someone like Tolleson, who has demonstrated a consistent ability to get on base and hit better against left-handed pitching, on the roster. Tolleson may not end up being much better than a replacement level third baseman for the O's, but that's better than Tejada.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Betemit and Andino, platoon partners?

If Brian Roberts does indeed come back fully healthy sometime in June and begins to play again nearly every day, Robert Andino will be forced into some kind of utility role. Andino's best skill is his defense, and he can at least play adequate (or better) defense at second, shortstop, and third. Since the Orioles don't necessarily have a regular third baseman at the moment, perhaps Andino could platoon there along with Wilson Betemit. Here are their career splits vs. right- and left-handed pitching:

Wilson Betemit
vs. R: 1,393 at-bats, .276/.345/.472
vs. L: 468 at-bats, .239/.297/.376

Robert Andino
vs. R: 714 at-bats, .237/.298/.325
vs. L: 305 at-bats, .272/.316/.361

Andino's numbers aren't that much better than Betemit's against lefties, but they are better. And it's pretty clear that Betemit is a much better hitter from the left side of the plate.

This is just one possible option of many that Buck Showalter will have to choose from. And it's not like Andino or Betemit (.292 OBP), despite some key hits, have been all that great at the plate anyway.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

With wounded O's healing, tough roster decisions on the horizon

Some injured Orioles players are starting to get healthy. Here are some news items on the "big three" injured players, if you will:

- Brian Roberts is beginning a rehab assignment at Bowie today, and he could be back in Baltimore in the near future. Per Roch Kubatko, Buck Showalter said that he wants Roberts to spend the full allotment (20 days) to reacclimate himself to playing the game again on an everyday (or nearly everyday) basis. If all goes well and Roberts suffers no setbacks, he'll be in Baltimore in mid-June. Considering Roberts hasn't played in a major league game (or any other game) for more than a year, that's great news.

-Nolan Reimold, still dealing with a herniated disk in his cervical spine, could also return in June, though there's currently no timetable for that return. He is scheduled to receive a second epidural injection on Friday, but there's no guarantee that helps. Reimold's recovery doesn't sound as promising as Roberts's, at the moment, but whenever the pain subsides, Reimold should be able to return relatively quickly.

- And Zach Britton is going to be making a rehab start in Bowie on Saturday, and he could return to the O's rotation soon. As long as he's healthy, Britton would make a nice upgrade over Tommy Hunter and give the O's a rotation with Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Britton, in some order. Not bad.

If there's one thing the O's could use, it's more depth. Some new faces like Xavier Avery and Steve Tolleson have played well, but a healthy Roberts and Reimold would give the lineup an extra punch that it's lacked.

Other names: Matt Lindstrom could be returning soon. Mark Reynolds and Endy Chavez are also on the mend, though it does seem like they're both superfluous at this point. Chavez, signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason, didn't hit at all in his first few weeks with the team, and the rookie Avery may actually be an upgrade over him. Avery may not continue to play as well as he has, but he's earned the chance to stay in the lineup and play every day in left field. It's not like getting rid of Chavez would be any big loss, either. Reynolds, on the other hand, is making a bit more than Chavez this season -- $7.5 million, to be exact. But like Chavez, there's little chance that he'll be back with the team beyond this season, as he has a 2013 club option for $11 million (with a $500,000 buyout). The O's and Buck Showalter have finally come to their senses and realized that Reynolds is not a competent, major league third baseman, so his only real role with this team is at first base or designated hitter. It's unlikely the O's will simply drop Reynolds because of the salary he's due, but if he's not hitting, he has no value. They'll likely seek a trade, but it's hard to believe another team would even be willing to take on his contract. You could probably say the same thing about Kevin Gregg, who had actually looked better until his outing Monday night.

Oh, and don't forget about Miguel Tejada at Norfolk, who seems destined to join this team, for some reason.

If Roberts, Reimold, and Reynolds all return at about the same time, the O's will have some decisions to make. And if it were up to me, here's what the infield/outfield depth would look like (presuming everyone is healthy, and keeping the catching situation the same):

1B Chris Davis
2B Brian Roberts
SS J.J. Hardy
3B Robert Andino
Bench: Wilson Betemit, Ryan Flaherty, Steve Tolleson

To make room for Roberts, I'd release Nick Johnson. I've been impressed with what little we've seen from Tolleson, though I guess his roster spot is expendable when Reynolds is ready to return. Still, I'm not sure I wouldn't choose Tolleson instead, considering he can actually play some defense at third. I'm also not sure if Tolleson has any options left, but since he's 28, I doubt it. Flaherty hasn't hit well at all, but he also has the ability to fill in at just about every infield position and both corner outfield positions, which is useful. That flexibility, and the fact that he's a Rule 5 pick, should keep him on the roster.

Playing Andino at third keeps his glove in the lineup, and even though he's been slumping lately, I think that's the right move. When he's not at third, he also provides some nice infield depth at second base and shortstop.

LF Xavier Avery
CF Adam Jones
RF Nick Markakis
DH/Depth: Nolan Reimold

I'm not quite sure that Avery continues to post an on-base percentage around .350, but I like that he hits line drives and works the count. He's also more than willing to take a walk. I've never really been a big fan of Reimold's outfield defense, so DHing him keeps his bat in the lineup. It also keeps Avery's glove in, and he's been pretty solid. Reimold's obviously also struggled to stay healthy, so maybe not playing in the field every day, or even every other day, keeps him fresher. Oh, and Reimold would take Bill Hall's roster spot.

I seriously doubt the O's choose to get rid of Reynolds, Johnson, and Chavez, but I think it's the right move. But until everyone is completely healthy and ready to go, there's no hurry in making any of those decisions just yet.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Old Chris Davis replaces the new Chris Davis

Chris Davis got off to a hot start, hitting .310/.359/.563 in 71 at-bats. Compared to a career .254/.303/.449 line, that seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, that solid start to the season is likely yet another case of small sample size, as he's started to look like the Chris Davis we were already familiar with.

In May, Davis is hitting .217/.250/.304 in 46 at-bats and has looked lost at the plate. He always strikes out a lot, but he's doing so at a more rapid rate than even for him, while walking just one time in May. Plate discipline has never been an elite skill for Davis, but a 35.4 K% and a 2.1 BB% (in May) is absurdly bad.

And even though FanGraphs somehow has Davis with a positive UZR (0.5 UZR, 3.3 UZR/150), his defense at first base is also becoming an issue. He committed his third error last night while the bases were loaded, allowing two runs to score. He also misplayed another ground ball earlier in the game, which could have started a double play. Instead, Davis barely recorded the out at first. He's also missed several scoop opportunities to save other infielders errors, which is what every slick-handed first baseman does. Even when Mark Teixeira isn't hitting for the Yankees, he still provides very good defense at first. It would be nice if the O's had that sort of luxury.

Really, the O's don't have many options at first right now besides Davis. That's something that was evident going into the season. Wilson Betemit can play there, but he's looked rather helpless at both corner infield positions. And, obviously, he is not an outfielder. Nick Johnson can play some first, but he's probably not much of an improvement over Davis. Mark Reynolds, who's on the disabled list with a strained oblique, may be the team's best option at first base, but that's not saying a whole lot either. None of the four is a great defensive player, and every time the ball is hit to any of them, there's a worry that a defensive miscue is about to follow.

Technically, anyone can play first base. Davis Ortiz can play first. That doesn't mean it's something that a team wants to happen.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Endy Chavez, Nick Johnson still not hitting

Out of all MLB players with at least 40 plate appearances, here's the bottom five in terms of batting average:

Endy Chavez (Orioles) .133/.175/.167
Chris Snyder (Astros) .133/.235/.200
Xavier Nady (Nationals) .129/.169/.194
Nick Johnson (Orioles) .122/.200/.195
Mark DeRosa (Nationals) .081/.227/.081

Yikes. That's two each for the O's and Nationals. Yes, it's May -- which means I'm obligated to say that it's early -- but it's not like Chavez or Johnson deserve a ridiculous amount of leeway.

Chavez, on a one-year, $1.5 million deal, probably isn't going anywhere, but at least he can provide some above-average defense at all three outfield positions when he's healthy. (And right now, he's not. He's headed for the disabled list with an oblique injury.)

But Johnson, who is mostly DHing when he's in the lineup, is earning about half that ($800,000). So if Johnson continues to not hit, it'll be hard to justify his place on the roster. No one said it's easy being the guy who doesn't play all that much but is still under pressure to collect hits, but that's basically Johnson's role right now. And he's not doing a particularly good job.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Three O's struggling mightily to begin season

While Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold (when able to be on the field), Chris Davis, and Adam Jones have begun the season particularly well at the plate, three Orioles hitters have been awful: Nick Johnson, Endy Chavez, and Mark Reynolds. Sure, it's early, and things will change in the next few months, but let's look briefly at why each of those three has been so bad.

Nick Johnson: .086/.179/.143 in 35 at-bats. Career slash line: .268/.399/.439

After going hitless in April, Johnson is on a mini-roll, collecting three hits (two doubles) in his last two games. Johnson is known for his ability to work the count and draw walks (career 15.7 BB%), but he has just one walk this season (2.6 BB%). Oddly enough, he's been hit by three pitches, so that's been helping his on-base percentage somewhat.

Johnson has played the least of this underachieving trio, but he may take some solace in that his BABIP is only .107, suggesting that he's due for a few more hits to start dropping in. Then again, if he's not walking, not hitting the ball as hard, and chasing more pitches outside of the strike zone -- and he's currently doing all three of those -- his numbers still won't be very good in the near future.

Endy Chavez: .109/.163/.130 in 46 at-bats. Career slash line: .271/.310/.369

Chavez really only plays for three reasons: He's fast, he can play defense, and Reimold can't stay in the lineup. He's never been able to hit all that well, and it's rather obvious that someone with a career .310 on-base percentage should never bat at the top of any team's order. But he's fast, which apparently means he's more than qualified to hit in that spot.

Currently, Chavez has a walk percentage of 3.9 percent, but he's never walked all that much in his career (5.5 BB%). He's also striking out more (15.7 K% vs. 10% for his career). And he's collected exactly one extra-base hit (a double).  Like Johnson, Chavez's BABIP is predictably low (.132), so some of his batted balls should start dropping in for hits a bit more. His plate discipline numbers aren't all that out of whack, though he's not swinging at as many pitches when they are inside the strike zone. Still, the O's (hopefully) didn't sign Chavez for his bat, and they should stop batting him leadoff.

Mark Reynolds: .136/.260/.197 in 66 at-bats. Career slash line: .235/.330/.476

Reynolds has never been and will never be a huge on-base guy, so the obvious thing that jumps out about his struggles is the complete lack of power. Reynolds has yet to hit a home run, though he does have four doubles. But when you're Mark Reynolds, you're expected to hit lots of home runs.

Reynolds's walks are slightly up, but he's striking out a ridiculous 40.3 percent of the time. That's seven percentage points higher than his career mark of 33.3 percent. Unlike Johnson and Chavez, his BABIP of .257 isn't obscenely low, and oddly enough, he's hitting slightly more line drives than he did the last two seasons.

So what's been his main problem? Plate discipline. He's been routinely getting behind in the count, leading to him swinging at more pitches outside the zone (28.8% vs. career 26.5%). He's also making less contact on that pitches outside the zone (26.3% vs. career 44.7%) while swinging at fewer pitches that are in the zone. It's a positive that he's still walking as much as he is, but he's going to have to adjust and start attacking pitches inside the zone when opposing pitchers try to get ahead of him.


With respective fWAR numbers of -0.7, -0.5, and -0.4, Chavez, Reynolds, and Johnson have been very bad. Then again, someone like Albert Pujols shockingly also has a fWAR of -0.7. But he's still Albert Pujols. Chavez, Reynolds, and Johnson are not. Fortunately, none of the three is signed beyond 2012 (Reynolds's $11 million club option has no chance of being exercised), meaning they all could be looking for new teams next season.