Monday, May 27, 2019

Orioles Victory Card Number 17: Hey, Remember Dwight Evans as an Oriole?

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 17: 5-3 over the Detroit Tigers

1992 Topps Dwight Evans

The Orioles made it two out of three over the holiday weekend as they dispatched the Tigers at home Monday afternoon. Dan Strailey, most likely not long for an Orioles uniform, picked up the win. It just so happens that the next photo queued up was of another major league player whose stint with the Orioles wasn't long remembered by most fans.

Following the "Why Not?" season of 1989 that saw the Orioles battle for the AL East title until the final weekend in Toronto, Baltimore stumbled back to fifth place in 1990. In order to boost the play of some of the young players such as Brady Anderson, Chris Hoiles and Leo Gomez,  the front office made some moves to bring in some veterans.

Mickey "Fruit Loops" Tettleton was traded to the Tigers for pitcher Jeff Robinson, Mickey Weston was traded to Texas for lefthander Paul Kilgus and they traded Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch to Houston for slugger Glenn Davis.  They also signed 19-year veteran Dwight Evans as a free agent.

Evans, then 39 years old, was coming off of a season where he slashed .249/.349/.391 for the Red Sox and battled back injuries that limited him to just 123 games, his lowest total since 1981. The Orioles envisioned him as a bit of a fulltime utility player, splitting time in the outfield, as DH and possibly at first base, a position he had played rarely over his Red Sox career.

Manager Frank Robinson said when the signing was made:

"We just feel like we can use the experience of a player of Dwight's caliber. We feel he can give us some production and some leadership"

General Manager Roland Hemond took his praise a bit further when talking about his $1.3 million signing:

"To have someone of his stature join our club is a big plus. He's such a fine all-round player, he's a future Hall of Famer"

The leadership wasn't enough to overcome the Orioles deficiencies. Despite a bit of a rebound season for Evans (.270/.393/.378 in 101 games) Baltimore finished in sixth place in 1991 in part due to the failure of Davis to stay healthy and the pitching staff's inability to get people out. He was in the line-up for the final game in Memorial Stadium (1-2 with a walk). A calf injury limited his time, but he did return to the outfield (where his six assists showed signs of the rifle of an arm that was a hallmark earlier in his career) for the Orioles throughout the year.

It was a good enough performance for the team to re-sign him in the off-season, but he wouldn't make it through the spring. Concerns about his health and the need to find spots on the roster for young players like Chito Martinez and David Sequi led to the Orioles cutting him in March. He retired after 20 seasons in baseball with 8 gold gloves and as one of only 10 players to have played in at least 100 games in 19 plus seasons.

He was also a really, really good blend of offense and defense. Bill James and others have made the case that he should be in the Hall of Fame for his merging of the two disciplines and with the voters leaning more to a more open eye to players who didn't have the magic numbers normally associated with Hall of Famers, maybe he'll soon join the growing list of aging veterans that wandered into a Baltimore uniform at the end of their career before being inducted in Cooperstown. I'm looking at you Vlad Guerrero, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, and Jim Thome.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Orioles Victory Card Number 16: A long time a' coming

Orioles victory number 16: 9-6 over the Colorado Rockies

2007 Fleer Rookie Sensations Nick Markakis

It's been awhile since the Orioles tasted sweet victory. Baltimore went seven days and seven games between wins, but it felt a lot, lot longer. Since their 5-1 win against Cleveland last Friday they lost the last two games against the Indians, were swept by the Yankees (giving up 34 runs in the process), and were walked off by Colorado in their fist game in Coors Field in 15 years.

The pitching staff has been pummeled, Chris Davis is back on the bench for a "reset" and Joey Rickard had followed Cedric Mullins to the minors. Keon Broxton, acquired for international bonus slot money, announced his presence with authority as he turned on the first pitch he saw as a Baltimore Orioles and launched it half way to the moon in Friday's loss.

The offense, except for the two losses against Cleveland, hasn't been an issue during the most recent losing streak as they scored 5.4 runs a game against the Yankees and the Rockies.  The problem has mostly been the pitching and some boneheaded plays in the outfield that have led to early deficits.

It wasn't a very good week in Orioles land.  Still, there were some bright spots to be found. Renato Nunez rediscovered his swing as he hit .391 with five home runs over the last seven days. Over the same time Richie Martin hit .250. That may not seem impressive, but considering the young shortstop had bottomed out at .156 at the beginning of the losing streak it's nice to see him rebounding a bit. If he can get his offense to a replacement player level, his defense will make him invaluable to the Orioles.

Pedro Severino is wresting the starting role from Austin Wynns by hitting a career-best .275 with five home runs. The animated catcher has also gunned down 4 of 9 would be base stealers from behind the plate. The Hall of Fame isn't adding him to their speed dial list yet, but he is showing that he can be a full time player on a major league team.

While overall the pitching hasn't been great, there have been some encouraging signs. Josh Lucas pitched a scoreless three innings on Saturday night to lock down the win. Dylan Bundy looks like he is starting to adjust his pitching style a little bit. Over his last four starts he's only given up 4 home runs in 23.2 innings. Again, not great numbers, but way better than the 9 home runs over his first 28.1 innings. Andrew Cashner keeps grinding out innings and may be making himself attractive to a team looking for a fourth or fifth starter down the stretch.

The Orioles aren't in a great place right now. They have sold off most of their assets and are filling a lot of positions with stop gap players. The future isn't ready yet (they're still mostly dominating in Delmarva) so fans have to struggle through a bunch of losses with players who most likely aren't going to be around for long. 

It's going to be the small victories that sustain fans through this rough summer. And they are going to be few and far between. This probably won't be the only seven game losing streak that will be endured over the next four months. Hopefully, some of the small moves that Mr. Elias and company have made end up working out. It hasn't cost the Orioles much to see if Rio Ruiz (waivers), Dwight Smith, Jr. (international money) , Keon Broxton (international money) or Hanser Alberto (waivers) are major league players. If even one of them pan out over a whole season then it's a win for the Orioles.

At least the organization isn't deluding itself into thinking they are contenders. That kept them from beginning a rebuild following their success in the late 1990s. Instead of tearing things down they kept trying to add veterans to an already aging core of players (hey Will Clark!) and all it did was drag out the process. This time they ripped things to the ground level fairly quickly and began the overhaul. So instead of a 15-year gap between winning seasons (1997-2012) it's only a four or five year gap. 

In fact, the last time the Orioles won in Colorado prior to Saturday night's win was in June of 2004. They won on a ninth-inning grand slam by Brian Roberts. Jorge Julio picked up the save while B.J. Ryan had the win.  The Orioles finished 3rd in the AL East that year with a record of 78-84. There was hope that it was a turning point season following three straight seasons with 90+ losses. It wasn't. The core of talent was all 30 years old or order and the prospects (Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, Val Majewski and the rest) never really panned out.

It would be another 8 seasons until the Orioles had a winning season and none of those players were on the roster. Rebuilds don't always going smoothly. So, stay fast Os fans. It will get better. In the meantime find those small victories to celebrate.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Orioles Victory Card Number 15: The 1977 Topps Reggie Jackson Card Worth More Than My Car

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 15: 5-1 over the Cleveland Indians.

1977 Topps Baltimore Orioles Team Card

The Orioles beat the Cleveland Indians by mashing a couple of home runs. Speaking of home runs, one of the game's premier sluggers once mashed long fly balls in Baltimore before he became a Yankees superstar. No, not Babe Ruth or Brian Roberts. I'm talking about Mr. October himself - Reggie Jackson.

Three things happened in 1976: the United States of America celebrated their bicentennial, I was born, and Reggie Jackson played for the Baltimore Orioles. It seems that Os fans are a bit divided about his brief tenure at Memorial Stadium (he only played in 134 games after holding out for the first month of the season). It was so short that Topps decided not to recognize it the next season and he was featured in an airbrushed Yankees uniform.

Jackson built his career in Oakland, mashing home runs and striking out with the Athletics starting as a 21-year-old in 1967 and continuing for nine years. In 1976, the reserve clause was finally dying it's much needed death and following the season players would be able to file for free agency. Jackson had hit a league leading 36 home runs in 1975 and driven in 104 runs. With just one more season to go he was licking his chops at the thought of all of the money he could make on the somewhat open market.

A's owner Charlie Finley was not going to pay him anything close to what he was worth. So he traded him to the Orioles on April 2nd, 1976 to the Orioles along with Ken Holtzman and Bill VanBommell in exchange for Don Baylor, Paul Mitchell and Mike Torrez.

Holtzman went to Baltimore, VanBommell went to Charlotte (the Orioles Southern League affiliate) and Jackson went to .... Hawaii? While he sat in the shadow of Diamond Head and pondered sitting out the season, his agent worked with the Orioles to secure his services for a pretty good Baltimore team. This was team during the height of the Orioles American League dynasty having finished first in the AL East 1973 and 1974 and second in 1975.

Their defense was impeccable, especially with Paul Blair in center, Mark Belanger at short and Bobby Grich at second. Jim Palmer was the ace of pitching staff that included fellow 20 game winner Wayne Garland and future aces Scott McGregor, Mike Flanigan and Denny Martinez. Jackson was seen as the final piece to the puzzle that would put them over the top and back into the World Series.

Which, if he had played an entire season, might have happened. Instead, he didn't join the team until May and they were already chasing the Yankees at that point. After a slow start he eventually caught fire (as did his house) and helped the Orioles stay in the pennant race. Unfortunately it wasn't enough and they finished 10.5 games behind the Yankees.

While he never ruled out re-signing with the Orioles, they didn't exactly fit the description of what he was looking for in his future club when he talked to Sports Illustrated in August of that year:

"When I talk about life-style, I mean I want to go to a place with a liberal attitude. I don't like sectarian living—I think that's the word. I don't necessarily mean segregated living, I mean certain people living among themselves: Jews here, Poles there, blacks over there. I'm not interested in playing in any town that has that. I know I'm not crazy about playing in the South, and the Midwest would be impractical for me because all of my business interests are either on the West Coast or in the East...But there are other considerations. I'm not sure I'd fit in with teams like the Mets or the Dodgers that emphasize organization over individual personality."

That wasn't Baltimore in the 1970s (at least that's what I'm told). So the season ended and in November he signed with the Yankees and went on to be the "straw that stirs the drink" in New York. Despite not having suited up in a Bronx Bombers uniform, Topps had time to whip up an airbrushed masterpiece in time for the release of their flagship product.  That is why card number 10 in the 1977 Topps set looks like this:

Now, I told you all of this to get to my point. While the "official" 1977 Topps card featured him in a a "Yankees" hat, Topps did produce a card of him in his Orioles uniform. In fact, it is one of the rarest and most expensive Orioles cards ever to see the light of day.  Here it is:

Look at the big ol' Reggie smile! Yes, that is an actual card made by Topps, not some custom card made with a laptop and a laser printer. What it is, is a proof card that Topps made before printing the set. A proof card lets them check the design and see how it looks in real life. If they like the design features they fire up the printers and start churning out the real cards. 

According to Keith Obermann, Topps had three proof cards generated following the 1976 season: Jackson, Jerry Grote and Danny Thompson. These cards are never meant to see the light of day (or the collecting public) yet, according to Obermann, there are eight copies of the Reggie Jackson card floating around . The pictured above sold in auction for $60,000 in 2016. That's not a bad chunk of change for a card that is only 42 years old.

It's understandable that Topps would want to capitalize on Jackson's move to the Yankees, and New York fans were probably excited to see the new superstar in the hometown colors when they ripped their packs open, but it didn't help the Orioles fans who were looking for a little piece of proof that he had played for their favorite team. 

Orioles fans did have one small token of proof that he was with the team. The card that is featured at the top is the 1977 Orioles team card. On the far right of the second row is Mr. Jackson wearing the number 9 jersey he made famous during his short stint in Baltimore. See he was part of the team even if he isn't featured on the checklist on the back of the card.

It would be a long time until a mainstream manufacturer released another card with Jackson in an Orioles uniform. I remember seeing this 1988 Score Reggie Jackson card back when I was a young collector and thinking "Huh, I didn't know he played for the Os". 

About a decade ago, The Fleer Sticker Project had a pretty nice rundown of cards and photos that featured Mr. Jackson in an Orioles uniform. There honestly are more than I thought from that time frame, but are all kind of oddball or limited releases. Since then, a handful more have been produced  and there will probably be more as the card manufacturers capitalize on the nostalgia of us middle aged collectors. Still, if you're digging  through your collections and find one of these (the back will be blank) feel free to send it my way.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Orioles Victory Card Number 14: The prospects, they are a coming

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 14: 5-1 over the Los Angeles Angels

2019 Bowman Chrome Prospects DL Hall

Even with the win on Sunday it wasn't a great weekend in Baltimore. Cold, rainy weather caused delays throughout the 3-game set, extending Orioles fans misery by hours. The first two games were carbon copies as Baltimore stayed competitive until the later innings only to see their bullpen falter. The pitching staff on a whole gave up four more home runs which, at the pace they're giving them up this year, isn't really that bad. Instead it was more of an inability to throw strikes and make quality pitches that led to their downfall.

A series like this will be repeated time and time again during this season. When they happen, it's reassuring to know that the prospects are down on the farm, and for the most part, doing a pretty good job. Even more encouraging is the fact that some of the pitching prospects are off to strong starts. Figuring out which prospects are going to excel is a little like trying to understand goaltending in hockey. At best, it's voodoo.

In regards to pitching prospects, it's doubly so. A kid drafted at 18 or even at 21 years-old is at best an unknown quantity. They may be lights out in college or throw 96 as a high-school senior, but that raw talent may not translate to the professional league. So it's always best to pile up as many prospects as possible and hope that a couple of them make it through the weeding out process.

Six of the Orioles top twn prospects according to are pitchers. How many of them are going to stick in the big leagues? Maybe one or two? If you go back ten years to 2009, FanGraphs also had six pitchers in the Orioles top ten prospects.  Of those six, two are still pitching  and have had pretty good careers (Jake Arrieta and Zack Britton). Brian Matusz had a decent year or two, but the others Brandon Erbe, Kam Mickoliio and Troy Patton came and went like yesterday's newspaper.

The good news for Orioles fans is that the six pitchers currently ranked are showing various signs of success. Grayson Rodriguez (ranked 5th overall) is almost unhittable in Delmarva as he has struck out 41 batters in 26 innings while only walking 8 and giving up just 15 hits. 

After an impressive first year in 2018, Zac Lowther (#8) has moved up to Bowie and continues to find ways to get people out. The lefthander is walking a few more people this season (4.9 BB/9 versus 2.6 BB/9 last year) but is keeping the ball in the park.

Fellow lefthander Keegan Akin (#6) is striking out more than a hitter per inning as he navigates AAA ball for the first time. With the way the Orioles are blowing through pitchers this year, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could see some time with the big club at some point this summer.

The same goes for the man pictured above, DL Hall. The Orioles first round pick from 2017 is currently the highest ranked pitcher and third ranked prospect overall in the organization. His record last year at Delmarva (2-7) didn't reflect how well he pitched at the end of the season. A bump up in competition this year has him struggling a bit, but that's not to say he won't figure it out. He struggled a bit to start last season and then finished strongly. A lefty who can reach 95-96 on the radar gun is always going to get a chance to succeed. 

Hall is only 20 years old. There is a chance he could rocket through the minors and end up in an Orioles uniform by 2020. He could also flame out and spend the next 10 years bouncing around the minors. That's the beauty and frustration of prospects - you just don't know what's going to happen.

For now,  it's fun just to think about what could be. Especially in a season where the Orioles are going to struggle to win 60 games the prospects are hope for the future. Even if the national media doesn't rank the Baltimore prospects that high (only two made the top 100) they are still something different and intriguing for the local fans. Tracking their progress through the minors is a great distraction from what is happening on the field at Camden Yards this summer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Orioles Victory Card 13: Just a photo of a card today

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 13: 4-1 over the Boston Red Sox

1997 Topps Todd Zeile

Sorry for the lack of an actual post. Dealing with insurance companies is always fun. Bet y'all forgot Zeile played for the Birds, didn't ya?

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Orioles Victory Card Number 12: A Good Sports Day

Baltimore Orioles Victory Number 12: 3-0 over the Tampa Bay Rays

2018 Topps Dylan Bundy

That's right, we're going back to back Bundy's.  That's what happens when you shut down the best team in the league over 7 innings. The O's walked away with a 3-0 win thanks to Bundy's 7.1 innings of 3-hit baseball. He struck out 4, walked 1 and only threw 96 pitches to pick up his first win of the year. That's good stuff.

The first Saturday in May is always a fun day. Baseball is in full swing, the NHL and NBA playoffs are well under way, the Kentucky Derby runs and there is usually a big boxing match. Let's run down my sports day:

Liverpool wins. They kept their Premier League title hopes alive with a dramatic 3-2 victory over Newcastle. Late substitute Divock Origi, who replaced all-world star Mohamed Salah, headed in a free kick that glanced off of his marker and past the keeper. Salah was removed from the game after colliding with the Newcastle goalkeeper, setting up the dramatic late goal.

A long shot wins the Kentucky Derby after the favorite is disqualified. On a muddy track in Louisville Maximum Security appeared to win the race with ease, but an objection was raised. After 20 minutes of review it was determined that the betting favorite interfered with two horses and was disqualified. That meant 65-1 shot Country House was the winner. Chaos is always fun.

Boston and San Jose won their playoff games. They looked good from across the lobby of the hotel I was working in.

The Orioles won thanks to Bundy and Dwight Smith, Jr.'s long home run. It's always fun to beat the best team in the league. The win puts them on pace for 57 victories. It's a little behind what I need, but still within range.

Canelo Alvarez capped the night by outpointing Daniel Jacobs in Las Vegas. It was a close fight with the challenger Jacobs landing some big shots.Alvarez wasn't hurt and methodically picked apart his bigger opponent. With the win, Alvarez now holds the IBF and WBC Middleweight titles as well as the WBA Super Middleweight belt.

It was a great sports day for everyone!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Orioles Victory Card 11 : A tale of two prospects

Orioles Victory Number 11: 5-4 over the Chicago White Sox

2019 Topps Dylan Bundy

Baseball is a funny game and projecting success or failure of prospects is more or less a shot in the dark. Of all of the professional sports picking which player will succeed and which will be selling cars three years after they're drafted baseball has to be the toughest. It's also the longest journey for prospects. Kids drafted this summer may not make an impact for three or four years.  And that's for the ones drafted in the top two or three rounds.

Even if those prospects make it to the majors, year-in and year-out success can be tough to maintain. Just because someone was a first round pick doesn't mean he is going to win 20 games. Vice versa, just because a player is drafted in the 46th round doesn't mean he is going to be a career journeyman. Sometimes that 46th round pick can be leading a team in victories while the first round pick is just searching for a start where he doesn't give up a home run.

In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles made Dylan Bundy their first round pick and the fourth person chosen in the major league draft. He was the fourth pitcher taken following Gerrit Cole (Pirates), Danny Hultzen (Mariners), and Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks). It took them all summer to sign the strapping righthanded high-school pitcher from Oklahoma, but with his skill set (two breaking balls and a bat-breaking 98 MPH fastball) the consensus was that he wouldn't be long in the minors.

That same year, way down in the 46th round - a round where favors are cashed in and family friends are drafted, the Atlanta Braves selected John Means, another high school hurler from fly-over country. According to Means, he was surprised at being drafted and was injured at the time the scout came out to visit him in Kansas City.  The scout actually advised against him signing at the time and so Means went to college. After a year at a nearby community college, Means ended up at West Virginia and then, after his junior season, was drafted in the 11th round by the Orioles in 2014.

By 2014, Bundy had already made his major league debut, a 2-appearance, 2-inning cup of coffee in 2012, been subject to a pitch count controversy, and was recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was also in the middle of a 5-year $6+ million contact. He was also a leading figure in the next wave of great Orioles pitchers that would return the organization to their former glory.

After sailing through the minors in his first year in professional baseball (from Delmarva to the majors in just one summer) the pain in his elbow kept him on the shelf for over a year. Recovery and rehab consumed all of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. He lasted just nine semi-productive appearances in Fredrick and Aberdeen before shoulder pain shut him down for the rest of the summer.

Means shared roster time with Bundy on that 2014 Aberdeen IronBirds. Following a brief stay in rookie ball, the left-hander made nine starts in Aberdeen and pitched fairly well, striking out 33 and walking only 2. He would spend the next four years working his way up through the system, never once making a top-prospects list for the Orioles, but also never getting to the point where he was in danger of being released. He gave up hits, but walked few and kept the ball in the park.

In 119 minor league starts from 2014-2018 Means had a pedestrian Win/Loss record (35 and 41) and an uninspiring 1.323 WHIP. There were some positives, he only walked 2 per game and gave up .8 home runs per game - a dreadfully important stat for pitching in the bandbox that is Camden Yards. With the Orioles in complete burn down mode, he earned a late-season call-up to the majors. He appeared in the first game of a double header against the Red Sox and gave up five runs on six hits in a 19-3 blowout. He didn't walk anyone but did give up a 3-run homer to J.D. Martinez.

Bundy had pitched in the game prior to Means' debut and lasted about as long (3 innings) and also surrendered a home run, a 2-run shot by Mookie Betts. He was saddled with the loss, his 16th of the season. The home run was the 39th out of 41 that he would give up during a trying season.

He was no longer the upper-90s power pitcher that had debuted with such promise six years earlier. That electric fastball, when left in the middle of the plate, was knocked around by hitters in ballparks all across the American League.  Bundy is still the de facto ace on the Orioles, now more by attrition than by sheer talent.

There are moments when he can look untouchable. He spots the fastball and then mixes in a sharp breaking slider that has hitters looking foolish. It's still there, that spark of a dominating pitcher, but all too often he labors around the strike zone. He fails to hit the corners and falls behind in counts. Then he is forced to come over the heart of the plate, and there it is extremely vulnerable. Despite several years in the majors he is still learning to pitch within his current talents. He now has to be more Greg Maddux than Roger Clemens.

Meanwhile, John Means has succeeded by being John Means. Mix speeds and pitches (according to FanGraphs he uses his change-up about 33% of the time and his fastball about 54% of the time with an 11 MPH difference between the two). He works fast and doesn't give up home runs. Well, at least until his last start when the White Sox tagged him for two bombs and jumped his hard hit percentage from 16% to 20%.

All of Means stats come with the usual small sample size warning. As he pitches more, the hitters will develop a "book" on him. His tendencies will become known and it's on him to figure out the next step, how to get major league hitters out when they know what you're throwing.

The summer is long, especially if you have any investment in the Orioles, and John Means may never win another game in the majors. Bundy could figure it out and become a dominant, soft-tossing ace.

For the record, John Means currently has zero officially licensed baseball cards. There are some minor league cards floating around, but he has yet to have one issued by Topps or even by Panini. On the other hand, according to the Trading Card Database, Bundy has 1,064. That will most likely change over the summer as Means will pop up Topps Update series and a handful of other releases.