DENVER — On 50 occasions this month, a major league team has designated a player for assignment, signaling to the rest of the league that he's available in a trade or will be placed on waivers for other teams to claim.
And for a while, the Orioles were quiet in using their perch high in MLB's waiver claim order — based on reverse standings — to supplement their roster with such players.
That changed last week when they traded for recently DFA’d center fielder Keon Broxton from the New York Mets and claimed right-hander Chandler Shepherd off waivers from the Chicago Cubs.
Those spots, center field at the major league level and high-minors starting pitching depth, represent the Orioles' two most significant areas of immediate need.
But that's not to say they can't use plenty of help at other spots, too. Relievers of some pedigree become available all the time. The Orioles have plenty of areas they can upgrade. But on Wednesday, the Orioles' new brass explained the process of determining which players are worth targeting.
"I think it just depends on the situation and the needs and what position, and if it's a pitcher," executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said. "It just depends on the situation, but there are times when we feel somebody is a clear talent upgrade and there are other times when we're looking for something in particular, and somebody becomes available. So, it just depends on the case."
Elias said Mike Snyder, who retained his title as director of Pacific Rim operations and baseball development but saw his role expand in the new front office, is the point person who will "alert us to anyone that looks like it might be a fit or might be interesting, and we hash it out."
"You've got to move pretty quickly because guys only can spend a couple of days on the waiver wire, and you have to assess your internal situation, and also, sometimes, the timing is awkward, so it's not an easy decision anytime," Elias said.
Said manager Brandon Hyde: "They involve me in when players are out there, just because I have familiarity with some of these guys. A guy like Broxton I've seen play quite a bit. If I have an opinion on somebody, I'll offer it. Mike's awesome about getting a wide range of opinions from people he trusts, and so we talked a lot about players that are out there, and Broxton was one of those."
After an offseason and spring training in which the Orioles added seven players who had either been placed on waivers or designated for assignment — including regulars Rio Ruiz, Hanser Alberto (twice), Dwight Smith Jr. and Pedro Severino — the Orioles' relative quiet on that front early in the season was surprising.
They had the first claim on waiver players until 30 days after the season began, and were never lower on the claiming list than third or fourth once it started updating after each day's games. The Orioles claimed right-hander Shawn Armstrong off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in late April, but that was at a time when the bullpen was in severe flux and several familiar faces were being sent down to Triple-A Norfolk.
Otherwise, several tempting players have come and gone without the Orioles getting their man. Former first-round draft pick Blake Swihart, who is primarily a catcher but plays all over the field, was designated for assignment by the Red Sox in mid-April before they dealt him to the Arizona Diamondbacks. With a player and international bonus slot money involved in that trade, perhaps there wasn't a fit if the Orioles were interested.
But Stevie Wilkerson, an infielder by trade and a player the Orioles designated off their roster in spring training, had been playing center field and learning on the fly at the major league level for the better part of a month after Cedric Mullins was optioned back to Norfolk.
In that span, the Orioles had the chance to claim outfielder Aaron Altherr, who, like Broxton, had his best year in 2017 but has played sparingly since. When Mullins was still in the majors in early April but the Orioles had little depth behind him, the Detroit Tigers designated and ultimately outrighted Mikie Mahtook.
Both Alther and Mahtook have center field experience and relatively recent major league success, not unlike Broxton. It’s a few select examples, but shows just how much timing and collective feedback affect waiver decisions.
Broxton was inserted as the everyday center fielder from the moment he arrived Friday and has five hits, including the team’s longest home run of the season, in 12 at-bats. Perhaps this is the type of significant upgrade in tools the Orioles were referring to, but even if it’s not, his presence at least gives Hyde another player he’s happy to use when Broxton pushes Wilkerson to the bench.
But that the addition of Broxton was paired with a claim of Shepherd, who was a reliever when the Red Sox drafted him in 2014 until the beginning of last season, when he stretched out as a starter, shows what actual need looks like.
Shepherd was designated for assignment May 17 and made it all the way to the Cubs on waivers before he was claimed May 18. The Orioles weren't exactly flush with pitching then — Yefry Ramirez was about to make a spot start, and the ERA of every starting pitcher on their 40-man roster at Triple-A Norfolk began with a six.
Something changed in the next three days, once the Cubs decided to sneak him through waivers and get him into their farm system but off the 40-man roster. Ramirez pitched badly in his first big league start of the season, yes, but many of the same circumstances existed May 22 when the Orioles claimed Shepherd.
That could be a scenario where need came in. Between those struggling Triple-A starters, including Josh Rogers and Luis Ortiz, injured Double-A right-hander Dillon Tate and a finally healthy Hunter Harvey, the Orioles have four pitching spots on the 40-man roster that can't really help them in the near-term. With the likes of Mullins, Chance Sisco, DJ Stewart, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander all some combination of blocked or kept in the minors for developmental purposes, that’s five more spots that can't be used to manage the major league roster day-to-day.
Perhaps Shepherd can add some length to the group of up-and-down arms that have been cycling through the Orioles clubhouse of late, a trend that illustrates the need at that spot the moment he was claimed.
What's to come?
What a week to be the Orioles, who face a quick turnaround Monday after a Sunday night flight home from Denver. With a pair of three-game series on tap with the 19-31 Tigers and the 21-31 Giants, the Orioles have a chance to burnish what's been far-and-away the league's worst home record.
At 6-19 in 25 home games, the Orioles are two games worse than the Tigers and Miami Marlins at their own ballparks. That .240 home winning percentage would be worst since the 162-game schedule came in, with the 1962 New York Mets going 22-58 at home for a .275 winning percentage. Decades before they moved to Baltimore, the 1932 St. Louis Browns won 18 of 78 games at home for a .234 winning percentage.
Considering the way the ball has been flying out of Camden Yards this year, and the teams that have been hitting said balls, any kind of struggles this week against two teams who are a lot closer to the Orioles in the standings than they are playoff spots could put the hosts on track to be threatening the home futility mark.
What was good?
Mike Yastrzemski, the longtime Orioles farmhand who came up with so many of the current major leaguers and was among the most popular players in their farm system since he was drafted in 2013, tried to call his former roommate and good friend Trey Mancini early Saturday morning with the news that he'd be joining the San Francisco Giants that day.
He didn't reach Mancini that day, but the Orioles he left behind when the team traded him in late-March spent all day Saturday relishing in their friends' success. The likes of Mancini, Jimmy Yacabonis and Austin Wynns all came up together from that 2013 draft class, and everyone Yastrzemski played with over the course of his five years in the Orioles system was affected by a third-generation pro who acted in a way fitting of that billing.
That's why Mancini kept doubling back to the clubhouse television to try and catch Yastrzemski's at-bats Saturday, and why so many players posted on social media congratulating him on that achievement. There's a tinge of sadness that it's not with the Orioles, who traded him at the end of spring training with more high-minors outfielders trying to break through than they had spots for at Triple-A.
He would have certainly been called up this season if he was still with the Orioles, what with Wilkerson and Hanser Alberto playing the outfield for parts of the last month. Everyone will settle for the hope that he'll still be with the Giants when they come to Camden Yards on Friday for a warm reunion with his friends and a warm ovation from Orioles fans.
With respect to Mychal Givens and the Orioles bullpen, who allowed 27 runs as a group this week, enough words have been written about their foibles.
What's more remarkable is the recent back-slide by Chris Davis, who was placed on the injured list with hip soreness Sunday. His absences from the lineup last week were previously explained by him being in a rut and needing some time to get his approach back and stop pressing.
Davis was one hit away from getting his average above .200 on several occasions, which, while not a milestone for most, would have represented the longest sustained run of success for Davis in years. Then the Orioles had a pair of rainouts and he returned having completely lost his feel at the plate. He's struck out in 22 of 34 at-bats since, and he didn't start any of the games in Colorado.
Hyde said he didn't know when Davis would be back in the lineup, and since Davis hadn't had any public injury issues since the same left hip kept him out a week in spring training, there was no way to know he meant health-wise when Hyde said he was day-to-day with Davis.
It just seems as if Davis went from a player who was celebrated for how he broke out of his hitless streak to back to the bench after a tough week rather quickly, and the Orioles would much rather be dealing with the former.
On the farm
With six shutout innings Sunday at Erie, Double-A Bowie left-hander Zac Lowther hasn't allowed a run in 21 2/3 innings over his past four starts. The funky lefty out of Xavier has torn through the Orioles' farm system since they selected him on the first day of the 2017 MLB draft, and with Sunday's effort, Lowther lowered his career minor-league ERA to 1.95 in 226 1/3 innings over four levels. His career WHIP is 0.98.
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