It's About Time Orioles Talk Turkey With Buck
By Jim Henneman
Here it is, the middle of August, and nobody's making a big issue of the fact that Orioles manager Buck Showalter has only one more year on his contract. The matter of an extension hasn't even been discussed, at least publicly … until now, that is, so consider it done.
If we were still talking about Adam Jones being in the same situation, those in this town that care about such things would be in a bigger tizzy than they are about the Orioles' unexpected lofty standing in the American League East Division. That's the bracket formerly known as the toughest in baseball, if not all professional sports.
You're not going to drag Showalter or Dan Duquette into any discussion at this stage of the game. Admittedly, I didn't even try to get the obligatory "No comment" responses on the subject, but you have to think it's a subject that has at least been broached inside the Warehouse. If not, it certainly should be.
Not that Showalter needs it to the same degree, but for a few years before he showed up, security -- or lack thereof -- was an issue for the person keeping the Orioles' manager's seat warm, whether it was Sam Perlozzo, Dave Trembley or Juan Samuel. Showalter is finishing up the second full season of what amounted to a 3.5-year contract -- and perhaps it shouldn't be completely discounted that he was hired during former general manager Andy MacPhail's regime.
Though there have been some obvious changes made since Duquette's arrival, one of the most notable being the hiring of Rick Peterson as director of pitching development, there aren't any indications that Duquette and Showalter have anything other than a good working relationship. Still, the fact that Duquette inherited Showalter will not be lost going forward unless an extension is in the works, preferably before the season ends.
Showalter is in a good bargaining position now. When he agreed to take on this task, it was his fourth major league managing job and widely assumed to be his last. That's not necessarily true anymore. It might be a fluke that the O's were 22-6 in one-run games and had won 12 straight (12-2 overall) extra-inning games though the first 110 games of the year. Showalter is smart enough to know that if those numbers were reversed, the manager would take a big hit, so it stands to reason that those on the perimeter have noticed -- and no doubt are giving him a lot of the credit.
There were times when the managerial search process was going on in 2010 that I wasn't convinced the O's would be a good fit for Showalter, who didn't stay more than four years at any of his three previous stops. Now, I'm convinced that the next major step for this club is to convince Showalter Baltimore is the place where he can take it to the next level.
I won't say it's as important as it was to get Jones to make a commitment -- but it's close.
Now, about that little throwaway line back in the second paragraph. Not sure how to break this news -- but the AL East is kind of like "The Old Gray Mare" … not what it used to be. The days of the automatic wild-card spot are finished, at least for the foreseeable future.
When baseball decided to add a second wild-card team, there was a general consensus that both might come from the AL East. That no longer appears to be the case. Now, it is more likely that neither could be from the division that had the reputation as the best in the game.
The AL West will almost certainly provide one of the wild-card teams, and the way Oakland is hanging tough, two is not out of the question. In the Central Division, either the White Sox or Tigers could squeeze out a second team from the AL East.
One could make a case that either the White Sox or Tigers would benefit from the mediocrity of the rest of that division, which also includes Cleveland, Minnesota and Kansas City, and that would be a valid claim. The fact remains that the AL East has not lived up to its billing this year. The Yankees have more depth than the other four teams, but even they appear vulnerable. Even if they win the division, they might be no more than the second- or third-best bet to make it to the World Series, because of a shaky starting rotation.
It has taken a while, but I think I have found a reason to partly explain the Orioles' success thus far, despite their ranking near the bottom of the AL in virtually every offensive and defensive category. It's the latter that has astounded me all year, trying to figure out how a team with the most errors, worst fielding percentage and a negative run differential could be hanging around in the divisional and wild-card races.
Believe it or not, I've come to the conclusion that defense has actually played a significant role. One thing the Orioles have done well all year is relay throws from the outfield that have resulted in outs after base hits. They have rarely made mistakes in this area -- and two plays on successive nights during the series against Seattle in early August were perfect examples.
During the first game, Adam Jones made a great throw toward home, which first baseman Mark Reynolds cut off, resulting in the first out of the inning being made at second base. The next night, in almost an identical situation, Reynolds let Jones' throw go through as the runner held at first and catcher Matt Wieters made a great tag at the plate. Those two outs were possibly the difference between two wins and two losses, and there have been many such situations this year.
There are a couple of even more compelling statistics to digest. The first probably won't surprise, but adds emphasis to the defensive contributions: J.J. Hardy has been one of the most effective shortstops in baseball. He leads all major league shortstops in virtually every category you can find -- total chances, fielding percentage, range factor and fewest errors (among the qualifiers). If he were playing in the NFL, he would be the runaway winner for Defensive Player of the Year.
The second statistic is another vital one: double plays. With 108 through their first 110 games, the Orioles ranked only eighth, but here's the key: Tampa Bay (109) was the only team ahead of them with a winning record, which means the Orioles had turned more double plays than any other contender in the American League.
Say what you want -- and Lord knows we've all said a lot during the course of the year -- as bad as the defense has been on paper, it is a key reason why the Orioles are where they today. I know a few will not-so-politely disagree, but I rest my case.
Count me among those that don't understand why the Yankees felt it necessary to trade for Ichiro Suzuki. He will make the outfield better defensively, but take away from the Raul Ibanez-Andruw Jones platoon that has served the Yankees well offensively.
Suzuki still has his speed and a great arm, but is no longer the threat he was for 10 years with the Mariners. He was a great player, and should become the first Asian player to make the Hall of Fame, but he's not likely to bring much to the table for the Yankees.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 176: August 2012