Friday, September 30, 2011

2011: Another great finish, but an overall disaster, Part I

The Orioles celebrate their win over the Red Sox, which eliminated Boston from the postseason. But the 2011 season was nothing to celebrate.

A night removed from what many are calling the best day of MLB baseball, ever, which featured the Orioles knocking the Red Sox out of the wild card in dramatic fashion, I’m looking back at the entire 2011 season and being reminded of one of the most brilliant masterpieces in the history of cinema.

I am of course talking about the 1987 film, Predator.

In that film, a team of commandos gets picked off one by one in the Central American jungle by an alien who can turn himself invisible. In the end, Dutch, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, goes toe-to-toe with the beast and eventually forces it to commit suicide. After the dust has settled, Dutch is rescued and a somber trumpet plays on the soundtrack. Ducth is alive, but all the members of his team are dead. It was a pyrrhic victory.

And in many ways, the O’s win over the Red Sox on Wednesday night was also pyrrhic, in that they finished their sixth consecutive season with at least 90 losses and fourteenth overall losing season. Yes, they went 15-13 in September. And yes, they stopped the Red Sox from advancing to the postseason, but like Arnold in Predator, they gained nothing.

It was a great night of baseball, however, and the lone accomplishment of the night was that the Orioles played a major part in it and will likely go down as a major villain in Red Sox lore. But now that the night is over, it’s time to look ahead to the future, and the changes that will spread the magic of Wednesday night across an entire 162-game season.

The first step, of course, is finding out what’s going to happen with Andy MacPhail and Buck Showalter. Word is that MacPhail, whose contract ends this year, will not return as GM and most people think that Showalter will move into the front office and take over the GM role while someone like Willie Randolph becomes the new manager or the Orioles hire someone from outside the organization.

Last month reports stated that MacPhail and Angelos were “fed up with one another”, so unless a major bridge-building effort has taken place between the two men since then, I doubt that MacPhail will be back as GM. There is the possibility that he takes another role within the organization, an Angelos specialty, who rarely makes clean breaks with people he’s hired. Personally, I think MacPhail shouldn’t be involved with the Orioles moving forward, but if he’s kept on as a “Trade Adviser”, I wouldn’t complain, since trades were the one area that MacPhail was excellent.

Meanwhile, Showalter as GM creates some interesting possibilities, both positive and negative. Apparently, Showalter is currently Angelos’ favorite pet, which may have come at the expense of MacPhail. It was, after all, Angelos who wanted to hire Showalter, with MacPhail wanting to hire Eric Wedge. So with Showalter as GM, he will at least have total control over the organization – at least for the time being. We all know that MacPhail apparently had total control when he was first hired too, but somewhere along the way, Angelos soured on MacPhail, which lead us to where we are now.

On the other hand, Showalter has no GM experience, and while his connections through baseball are no doubt solid due to his past managerial experience and time spent on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, one has to wonder if he is familiar with many of the other GM’s in baseball, with whom he will have to deal with while making trades and other moves required of a GM.

I’d say that Showalter as GM is probably the best move for the Orioles under the circumstances of Angelos being a finicky owner who grows tired of people at the drop of a hat. Showalter currently has his respect, and any outside GM candidate wouldn’t. Then there is the whole superiority problem that would exist if another GM is hired. Who works for whom? The Orioles might as well ride the wave of Angelos’ respect for Showalter and hope that he is able to turn the franchise around before the expiration date on Showalter arrives.

Outside of the GM position, changeover should occur in the front office on down to minor league coaches and scouts. The Orioles are in desperate need of a house cleaning and even MacPhail in his honeymoon phase with Angelos was unable to make these moves, as evidenced by the blocked firing of John Stockstill by Angelos. Stockstill was reassigned to Director of International Scouting. So it’s unclear whether Buck will have the authority to make these kinds of moves on his own.

It’s also unclear what approach Showalter would take to turning the franchise around. Showalter has always been a manager who prefers veteran players to unproven prospects, so if he becomes the GM, look for the Orioles to be busy in the free agent market this offseason, and potentially trade a young player or two for a more proven commodity. Hopefully, however, the veteran approach doesn’t come at the expense of the minor league system, which is in desperate need of improvement. The Orioles have an awful track record at developing players, and there doesn’t seem to be a streamlined approach to bringing players through the system. Showalter needs to implement a single philosophy to player development as well as hiring in the best coaches and scouts that money can buy.

To his credit, Showalter has a solid track record with his previous teams. Both the Yankees and Diamondbacks won the World Series a year after Showalter left, and in Texas, he took the Rangers to a winning record in his second season. All of this came as manager of those teams, so who knows if he’d be able to do similar things as GM.

No matter what happens, decisions should be made quickly. The Baltimore Sun reported that Angelos, MacPhail and Showalter met yesterday afternoon so an announcement on the front office could come as early as today. The Orioles have a lot of work to do this offseason, so there is no time to waste. And they might as well take advantage of the buzz they created on Wednesday night and force fans to take notice of the moves they make this offseason to gain momentum going into 2012.

The age-old question still remains, however. Can the Orioles win with Angelos as the owner? We have fourteen years of proof saying they can’t. But maybe, just maybe, Showalter can be the one who changes all that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spoiler Alert!

In case you haven’t heard, the Orioles have the chance to knock the Boston Red Sox out of playoff contention tonight. Most Oriole fans, for lack of important games in September, are treating this as if it’s a playoff game. And while the game probably is more important than any other game they’ve played this late in the season in the last ten years, let’s not go overboard here. If the Orioles win, they don’t move onto the “next round”, unless that “next round” is a round of golf. No, the only thing at stake is a chance to twist the dagger into the backs of the Red Sox nation. Misery loves company, after all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see the O’s knock the Red Sox out of the wild card. This was the same Red Sox team that the Boston media was predicting could be “the best team ever” back in April after the Red Sox had signed Carl Crawford to a 7-year deal that will pay him $20 million for the next 6 years in addition to the $14 million they gave him this year to post the lowest OPS (.694) since 2003. They also traded for Padres 1B slugger, Adrian Gonzalez, who unlike Crawford, has had an excellent season. And don’t even get me started on Red Sox fans.

But while others are ready to treat this as a real playoff game, I can’t buy in completely. The Orioles are headed for their 6th consecutive losing season of 90 or more losses. The future is as muddled as a puddle, now that GM Andy MacPhail is not coming back and word on the street is that a career manager, Buck Showalter, is about to become the GM. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen. But last time I checked, Peter Angelos is still the owner, so any moves they make this offseason are moot in my eyes as long as Angelos still owns the team. Professional sports organizations, like dead fish, rot from the head on down.

Back to tonight’s game. Jon Lester, he of a 14-0 career record against the Orioles, takes the mound tonight for the Red Sox. He’s pitching on 3 days rest, and the last time he did that, he was shelled. I’d love for his first loss to the O’s also be the game that keeps them from advancing to the playoffs.

So can the O’s do it? Can they play spoiler to the Red Sox? Can the Rays cap off a sweep of the Yankees tonight to win the wild card?

I will be watching tonight. There’s no denying that. I just can’t get too excited about it. I prefer my playoff games to actually have something at stake other than spite.

Ravens ram the Rams 37-7

The Ravens took out their frustrations on the Rams after losing to the Titans a week ago, winning 37-7.

It was a game the Ravens needed to take control of early after looking so flat against Tennessee, and thankfully the opponent was the lowly Rams who are 0-3 so far in 2011. Joe Flacco, frustrated after Cam Cameron’s play-calling in Tennessee, took over more control of the offense, resulting in what was a career day for the fourth-year QB. Flacco threw 48 times, compared to just 26 rushes and the Ravens never looked back after taking a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.

Rookie WR Torrey Smith caught 3 touchdowns in his first 3 NFL receptions, totaling 158 receiving yards and QB Joe Flacco threw for 389 yards in addition to those 3 touchdowns to Smith. With Lee Evans out nursing a leg injury, rookie WR’s Smith, Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams needed to step up, and Smith answered the call in a big way.

Defensively, the Ravens punished second-year QB Sam Bradford and the Rams offense, holding them to just 244 total yards. Bradford was picked off once and fumbled, which resulted in a defensive touchdown.

So now that Flacco has more control in the offense, how will the Ravens fare moving forward? They face a test in the New York Jets this Sunday night at home, in a game that should test their new high-powered offense against a stout defense, including the complex blitz-schemes of Rex Ryan. The Jets are licking their wounds after getting beaten soundly by the Raiders, and are 2-1 on the young season.

Last year, the Ravens dominated the Jets in the opening game of the season, despite the deceiving 10-9 score. The Ravens held the Jets to just 176 yards of total offense while the Ravens racked up 282 yards. The Ravens also turned the ball over 3 times in that game, so as long as the Ravens protect the ball this Sunday, they should come out with a win and head into the bye at 3-1.

The biggest difference, this time around, is that the Jets have Raven-killer Santonio Holmes, who was serving a suspension to begin the 2010 season.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The downfall of Brian Matusz

What have I done to deserve this???

Brian Matusz was given one last chance to end his disastrous 2011 season on a high note, despite the fact that pitching in Fenway Park is not the best environment to nurture success. Matusz's performance last night was to be expected from a pitcher whose struggles are well known by now, as he was unable to get out of the second inning, ending with a line of 1.2 IP, 6 H, 6 ER, 2 BB and 0 K.

His 2011 stats look even worse: 1-8 W-L, 10.68 ERA, 44.2 IP, 2.13 WHIP, 16 HR. I don't have the record books close by but I think I recall hearing that Matusz's 2011 season will go down as the worst pitching season of all time for a pitcher with at least 44 IP.

During spring training, Buck Showalter and Mark Connor made it a point to get the O's pitchers faster to the plate to cut down on steals. This caused a large ripple effect throughout the pitching staff this year, causing many pitchers (Matusz, Bergesen, Gregg and Gonzalez) to struggle because of it. Shortly after, Matusz injured his back and missed a majority of the season. A coincidence? We may never know. Just like we may never really know what caused Connor to quit, but I think it's pretty obvious that the Orioles pitchers were not happy with what they were being instructed to do and Connor didn't want any more of it.

Meanwhile, Matusz could be ruined for good. All because they wanted to get a fraction of a second faster to the plate.

What was it that Jim Palmer has always said? The best way to cut down on steals is keep runners off the bases. Words to live by. And Matusz was doing just that. In his last 11 starts of 2010, he finished with WHIP just under 1.00 to go with a 7-1 record and a 2.17 ERA. If anyone deserved immunity from Buck and Connor's change in delivery, it was Matusz.

Brian Matusz's downfall could very well be Buck's legacy in Baltimore...messing up Matusz to the point where he has to go sell insurance to make a living. The shame of it is many scouts said that Brian Matusz was major-league ready on the day he was drafted 4th overall in 2008. The Orioles could have drafted Matusz and not said a word to him and he'd probably be better off for it. I severely doubt that Buck is going to do anything substantial with the Orioles, regardless of the position he's in next year, whether it be GM, manager or some other fancy title. He could have very well destroyed one of the best pitching prospects the Orioles have had in a very long time.

I know Matusz will go back to the minors and work hard to get back to where he was in 2010. Throughout this nightmare of the season, Brian has owned everything this year, accepting blame and saying that he wasn't mentally prepared for this season, which, in my opinion, is a diplomatic way of saying, "I wasn't ready to come into spring training after finishing the 2010 season with a 7-1 record and have my wind-up fucked with".

But Matusz may never make it back. The damage may have been done, and it could very well be irreversible.

Thanks, Buck.I hope you're happy with yourself.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Role Reversal: Ravens lose to Titans, 26-13

Just a week after they dominated the Steelers in every facet of the game, the Titans (yes, the Titans) did the same to the Ravens in a humbling 26-13 loss.

In a game where the Ravens did little right, they were also outcoached by a coaching staff making their second NFL start. Remember that adage about John Harbaugh not losing to teams with losing records? Well you can throw that out of the window. Especially during week 2, the same week the Ravens dropped a game in Cincinnati.

The Titans (1-1) weren’t on many playoff prediction lists, but they played like defending Super Bowl champions yesterday, taking away the Ravens ground game and putting ample pressure on Joe Flacco all day. All this coming from a team that lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 1 – a team that could contend for the worst record in the NFL when it’s all said and done.

Flacco turned in a stinker of a game, completing just 15 of 32 for 197 yards, 1 TD and 2 INT. His two picks were awful, especially the first one, where he threw the ball right at the numbers of waiting defender. However, receivers were rarely open and Flacco didn’t have much time for check-downs as the pocket collapsed quickly the entire game. It was the kind of game you’d hoped that Flacco had put past him on his way to becoming an elite QB in this league. But yesterday was another painful reminder that he still has a long way to go to reach that elite level.

Ray Rice managed just 43 yards rushing on 14 carries, but did haul in the only Ravens TD of the game on a screen pass he took 31 yards for a touchdown. He wasn’t used enough in the passing game where screens would have taken away the impact of the Titan’s pass rush. Ricky Williams carried the ball only 4 times for 2 yards and a fumble.

The receivers also had a poor game. Anquan Boldin had 46 yards on 3 catches. Lee Evans had 2 catches, one of them for 32 yards and hopefully a sign of things to come once he gets completely healthy. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta had 49 total yards while failing to have the impact they had against Pittsburgh a week before. Torrey Smith failed to make a catch despite being the Ravens #3 WR. He needs to step up and become a part of this offense, and fast.

On defense, the Ravens didn’t fare any better, failing to pressure Matt Hasselbeck enough. He picked apart the Ravens defense for 358 yards. They did contain Chris Johnson on the ground, which wasn’t very hard since he’s not in game shape just yet. Kenny Britt absolutely scorched a weak Ravens secondary for 135 yards and a TD. Nate Washington also hauled in 7 passes for 99 yards.

All in all, it’s a game the Ravens want to forget, and move on. The Titans clearly treated the game the same way the Ravens treated week 1, wanting to play a physical game against a team that expected to show up and win. Hopefully the Ravens learned a valuable lesson, and can come out a better team for it.

The Ravens travel to St. Louis next week to take on the Rams, who will be coming off a short week.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ravens dismantle Steelers

That hurts! Jarret Johnson goes after Ben Roethlisberger, who threw 3 interceptions on the day.

On a day where football fans tried to keep things in perspective, being the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2011, it was tough to bottle up the emotions and relief that came along with a 35-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Baltimore.

The Ravens hadn't beaten a Ben Roethlisberger-led team since 2006, and since Joe Flacco had been in the league, he'd previously been winless against Roethlisberger in head-to-head match ups. The subject had been the topic of many criticisms against Flacco. But he shed that criticism in a big way, throwing for 224 yards and 3 TD's in the win. In fact, shedding criticism became the theme for the day for the Ravens.

Flacco a slow starter?
He throws for a touchdown on the third play of the game.

Can't run on the Steelers defense?
Ray Rice rushes for 107 yards and a score, and the Ravens rush for 170 total yards.

Can't finish off the Steelers?
The Ravens forced 7 turnovers (a Steelers record) and put the game away in the 3rd quarter.

Will the Ravens be OK without Derrick Mason?
Anquan Boldin, 4 catches, 74 yards, 1 TD.

Will the Ravens miss Todd Heap?
Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for 7 catches and 104 yards receiving.

The offensive line played great, giving Flacco all kinds of time to throw and opening running lanes for Rice. Flacco was sacked only once. Vonta Leach punished Steelers defenders, paving the way for the running game.

Meanwhile, the defense was on the prowl, delivering blows left and right. It didn't matter who they hit, as long as they were wearing black and gold. Haloti Ngata flatted Rashard Mendenhall and forced a fumble, which Hgata recovered. Jarret Johnson upended Hines Ward, wiping that perma-smirk off of his face. And Ben Roethlisberger was cut down several times. It's a wonder he was able to continue playing after taking some of the hits he received. I'm sure the talk of nagging injury will begin with Roethisberger now.

The biggest noticeable thing, though, was the Ravens aggressiveness. They attacked the Steelers secondary on the first drive. They went for a two-point conversion early in the 3rd quarter to go up 29-7. They went for it on 4th and 1 on the Pittsburgh 8 yard line shortly after the two pointer coversion, but were unable to move the chains. But much of the aggressiveness came with the execution of Cam Cameron's playcalling. Gone were the horrible end-arounds, but Cameron stuck with the run and it worked. Just goes to show you how much better play-calling cam look when players execute.

In short, the experience at the stadium yesterday was amazing. To get the monkey off their backs, the Ravens have to be feeling good moving forward. They just humiliated their most hated rival to start the season. Steeler fans were fleeing the stadium en masse during the 3rd and 4th quarters, their yellow rags between their legs. The tribute to the 9/11 victims and soldiers was heartfelt. And the "Seven Nation Army" chant taught on and people were still chanting it on the way out of the stadium after the game was in the books.

It doesn't get much better than that. We're alive, the Ravens won, and they beat the Steelers.

Next week the Ravens play the Titans in Tennessee.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The O's Pitching Woes

Wanna know what I have hidden in my glove? One of the worst seasons as a pitcher with over 40 IP, ever.

Surprisingly, the Orioles offense has been mediocre in 2011. And amongst Baltimore baseball fans, mediocrity is reason enough to throw a ticker-tape parade down Pratt Street. The O's are 8th out of 14 teams in runs scored and have hit the 5th most home runs in the AL.

With just a mediocre pitching staff the Orioles could have actually had a shot at breaking .500 for the first time in 14 years. But as you know, the Orioles pitching has been downright atrocious this year...historically, epically, universally bad.

Consider this. Last year the Orioles ERA was 4.85, which was good for 13th in the AL. The league average was 4.14. So the Orioles were just a measly -0.71 below mediocre.

Well, this year, the AL average is 4.04, so you'd think that the Orioles ERA in relation to the league average would have lowered along with it, right?


The O's ERA this year sits at 4.92, good for last in the MLB. A difference of -0.88 points from mediocrity. So whereas the league average ERA has gone down, the Orioles ERA has headed in the other direction.

It's nothing earth shattering, of course, but just another snapshot of how bad the Orioles pitching has been this season.

So I'll leave you with this. Remember Brian Matusz, the pitcher we'd pinned a lion's share of our hopes on? The guy who went 7-1 down the stretch last season and we all thought he'd lead the rotation in 2011?

Well his 9.84 ERA puts him right there in the discussion for the "worst season of all time" by a pitcher who has pitched more than 40 innings. That's right. The guy we pegged as our ace going forward has just had one of the worst seasons in baseball history.

Now you know why this blog is called "the Bad Oriole".

2011 Ravens Predictions

With the season a mere five days away, we might as well lock in our projections for the 2011 season while we still can.

I was a game off last year, predicting a 13-3 record with the Ravens finishing 12-4. And this year I'll go in reverse, predicting a 12-4 record while expecting a 13-3 season.

After the brutal loss to the Steelers in the playoffs, in addition to the regular season loss at home to Pittsburgh, I think this is the year the Ravens finally get over the Pittsburgh hump. I've got nothing riding on that other than the laws of probability, since the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger starting under center are 7-2 against the Ravens. It's time the Ravens started to even out that record on statistical averages alone. And adding a deep threat in Lee Evans, shoring up the offensive line and a better pass rush should go a long way in bringing down the Steelers.

And that's really what the 2011 season comes down to: beating Pittsburgh. With the Ravens and Steelers each having an easy schedule on paper, the games between these two teams will likely be what determines the AFC North.

So what better way to start the season than with the Ravens hosting the Steelers in week 1?

Having said all that, I do wonder if the Ravens can beat the Steelers. It's gotten to the point in this rivalry where Ravens fan just have to expect something to go wrong. And how could I not feel that way after the playoff loss in Pittsburgh last January, where everything did go wrong? So while I am excited for the season, I am reserved in my excitement, because until the Ravens actually prove that they can beat Roethlisberger and the Steelers, I don't believe they can.

So instead of going through each game, I'll say this. The Ravens will split with the Steelers this year and drop three out of four games against the Texans, Jets, Colts and Chargers. They usually have trouble beating better teams -- and those five teams are easily the best teams they'll face this year. That said, I do hope they can surpass my expectations because I believe the Ravens are better than the Texans, Jets, Colts and Chargers. It's time we started beating the better teams in the NFL instead of feasting off the also-rans and losing close games to elite teams. The Ravens should be an elite tam this year, so they better play like one.

So while I am predicting another 12-4 year that could likely see us getting the wild card and going on the road....again...deep down I am hoping for more. If this team plays to its ability, two losses starts to sound pretty realistic.

Until then, I'll see you on Sunday. Go Ravens.

Big offseason looms for Orioles, but will anyone care?

In the week or so following the tragic news of Mike Flanagan's suicide, reports came out about GM Andy MacPhail stepping down after his contract expires at the end of the 2011 season. MacPhail himself has been silent on the issue, but the reports were picked up by USA Today and CBS Sports so they look to be accurate. Then came Keith Law's tweet about Director of Scouting Joe Jordan stepping down as well. Needless to say, it was a brutal week for Orioles fans. And all of it could be tied back to Angelos in many ways.

By now we've heard all the theories about Flanagan's death and the role Angelos may or may not have had in pushing Flanagan to commit suicide. But the more damning news is that MacPhail doesn't want to come back and continue what he called his "dream job" upon being hired. Until recently, it seemed like all was kosher between MacPhail and Angelos, with Big Pete dropping sound-bytes like "Andy isn't going anywhere". But it seems that a wedge has been driven between then, and not Eric Wedge, the manager that MacPhail wanted to take over for Juan Samuel last season. Angelos wanted Showalter, and as you can see, Showalter is the current manager of the team and confidant to Angelos.

Jordan on the other hand is a more curious situation. He's had some questionable drafts (Matt Hobgood) and some first round draft picks that didn't pan out (Billy Rowell) but one has to wonder the role that the Player Development John Stockstill has played in Jordan's resignation. After all, Jordan can only select players in the draft. After that, it's up to Stockstill to harvest the juice from the fruit, and the Orioles are notorious for their spotty player development.

So with these two job openings needing to be filled this offseason, it could be a busy winter in Baltimore, especially if these two major departures lead to an organization-wide overhaul of personnel.

But does anyone care?

Last time I checked, Peter Angelos still owns the team. He'll likely hire one of his good ol boy friends like John Hart or promote someone within the organization like Matt Klentak, current Director of Baseball Operations. From what I have heard of Klentak, he would be a good candidate for the job. However, as long as Angelos is the owner, one has to assume that Klentak (as well as any GM) would have to maneuver through Angelos' mine field of restrictions. Case in point: Angelos' refusal to allow MacPhail fire Dave Stockstill (John's brother) when MacPhail took over as GM in 2007. Instead, Stockstill was exiled to International Scouting. Maybe that is a less than desirable position in Baltimore, but the rest of baseball hires intelligent and forward-thinking people for that position, not people who are about to be fired.

What's even worse, is the thought of one of Angelos' confidants like Dave or John Stockstill being promoted to GM, or someone like Rick Dempsey. Angelos has a fondness for these people, so nothing would surprise me at this point.

So as this season winds down, and GM candidates are discussed for the Orioles, I don't think you'll find many Orioles fans who give a shit. We've been through this song and dance before, several times, and it always ends the same way.

Remember the feeling you have right now, O's fans. Because in a few years, you'll likely feel it again.