Injuries put every team in a tough spot over the course of a baseball season, but in discussing the ones that have hurt the Orioles recently, manager Buck Showalter conceded that they haven’t been able to brush their losses off as well in 2016 as in years past.
“We’ve done a good job in the past of not just holding the fort down, but actually making leaps with the opportunities people are getting that haven’t normally gotten them,” Showalter said. “We’ve had some of that this year, but not as much as probably we need. That says a lot about some of the depth that we’ve been challenged with.”
In 2014, when the team won its first division title in 17 years, career years from the likes of Steve Pearce and Caleb Joseph boosted them when established stars went out. They’ve also summoned the likes of Miguel Gonzalez for successful boosts when needs arose.
There are myriad examples of this in 2016, but none has been more evident than the one that played itself out Tuesday.
Their most reliable and consistent starter, Chris Tillman, is on the disabled list for just the second time in his career with shoulder bursitis, so the Orioles turn to human grab-bag Ubaldo Jimenez to give them a chance in Tillman’s rotation spot Tuesday against the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.
Tuesday will be Jimenez’s second start in succession, following a good performance Thursday in a loss to the Washington Nationals when he allowed one run on five hits in six innings.
That outing lowered his ERA to 6.62, the lowest its been since before he last started against Toronto on June 12. That day, he allowed five runs on six hits while recording just one out. He lost his rotation spot the next time through, and appeared the following week in relief against those same Blue Jays. That day, he allowed five runs in 2 1/3 innings.
Jimenez’s reputation is that of a pitcher who will be good for half of every season. Twice with the Orioles in three years, his terrible first halves have made the possibility of a good second half moot, as he has been banished to the bullpen and seldom used. Last season, he was good in the first half and again in September. Perhaps this year, the opportunity to start two or three times in place of Tillman will show that the second half is his half.
If you accept the point that you aren’t going to get anything from a rhythm pitcher who can sometimes struggle to find his delivery out of the bullpen, then focus on his starts. He has two good ones since the All-Star break. It’s not a lot to go on, but even with the relief problems, he has a 3.32 second-half ERA.
His injury-replacement role might be the freshest on everyone’s mind, but Showalter will have other things he can point to when trying to back up his statement that fill-ins have just held down the fort.
The year began with Kevin Gausman out for a few weeks as he came back from shoulder tendinitis, a stretch during which Vance Worley made two starts with a 5.06 ERA, though the Orioles won both of those games. Gausman returned right around the time that Yovani Gallardo went out with shoulder weakness of his own. Worley then went to the bullpen, and Tyler Wilson joined the rotation.
Wilson went 3-5 with a 4.58 ERA in 10 starts while Gallardo was out — better than Gallardo has been in 13 starts since — and made three more starts before being sent to the minors.
The other player that has needed cover on the pitching staff has been setup man Darren O’Day, who missed more than seven weeks in June and July with a hamstring injury and is now out with a rotator cuff strain. In his absence, though young right-hander Mychal Givens has pitched well overall this season in high-leverage situations, the Orioles have been one back-end reliever short. Compounding that problem is their reliance on O’Day against left-handed hitters, a role only recently taken up by rookie Donnie Hart but overall a concern for the team.
Among position players, the Orioles have been fortunate to have had only a handful of long-term injuries to starters. In the absence of J.J. Hardy, who missed seven weeks with a foot fracture, Manny Machado moved to shortstop and Ryan Flaherty took over at third base. Flaherty hit .236 with three home runs in 40 games between Hardy’s injury and Machado’s subsequent suspension for fighting, which came right after that. Hardy was batting .244 at the time of his injury, and the defense didn’t miss a beat.
Catcher Matt Wieters needed a week to get over a bruised foot, and Caleb Joseph hit .350 (7-for-20) in six games in his stead. When Adam Jones missed some time early with a back problem, it was rookie Joey Rickard filling in well. Now that Jones is out with a groin injury and Rickard is letting a torn thumb ligament recover, it’s Nolan Reimold in center field.
All adequate replacements, all only holding down the fort though, as Showalter noted they haven’t had any surges thanks to the replacements. What it does do, however, is give the team a boost that they’re still in contention when those players return. That’s what they’re hoping for now.
“It is [a boost], as long as there’s some end game you’re trying to get to,” Showalter said. “Hey, let’s hold the fort down so now we get this back and we get back at full strength. At some point, you want to get an Adam back, an O’Day back, a Rickard back — I’ll tell you, Rickard was a kick in the pants for us — a Tillman back.
"But they’re not going to feel sorry for you when they get through playing the anthem. They really aren’t. Nobody is. The people who come to the game expect, our fans have high expectations and that’s what we want them to have. But it’s tough on a team when you’re continually doing it and you don’t see an end game. But there is one. We’re going to get Adam back at some point, we’re going to get Tillman back at some point, we’re going to get O’Day back and Rickard back.”