Baltimore is blessed with a bunch of talented sports bloggers who bring their unique perspective to the conversation. I often link up to these local writers in my morning Coffee Companion posts, but instead of just exchanging anti-social links with them, I have decided to be slightly less anti-social by exchanging emails with them in a somewhat regular feature called Blogger on Blogger.
With the Major League Baseball All-Star Game coming up fast and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline looming on the horizon, I decided to make the call to the bullpen for Heath Bintliff of the fine Baltimore Orioles blog Dempsey's Army for this installment of Blogger on Blogger. Thanks to Heath for his answers.
MV: Nearly halfway way through the season, what are we to make of the Orioles and their inconsistencies?
HB: The inconsistencies with the pitching staff are normal and to be expected. For the first time in years, the O's rotation is almost nearly composed of homegrown talent and most of the talent is light on major league experience. These guys will have their growing pains and some will flame out completely. But it's good that they are getting a chance to show what they can (or can't) do.
Bullpens are volatile by nature so I am not overly surprised that those guys have been up and down.
What is shocking is the offensive inconsistencies. There are a lot of established veterans in this lineup, including some brought in on pretty sizable free agent deals. Nick Markakis' slump is pretty troubling and Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero have not delivered as expected. Mark Reynolds' game is going to be inconsistent by its nature. The Orioles need better hitting performances and they need them badly.
MV: What has been the biggest surprise so far, whether it's a pleasant surprise or a not-so-pleasant one?
HB: Guerrero's performance is a mild surprise as is Adam Jones' relative breakout but I kind of predicted those things. Matt Wieters' defense? When he was coming up, there were questions [about whether] he could stick at catcher. But while his bat has been slower to come around, he might be the best defensive catcher in the American League and I don't think anyone saw that coming.
MV: What are your thoughts on how the veteran free agents -- players such as Derrick Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Kevin Gregg -- have fared? I know you weren't fond of the Guerrero signing at first.
HB: When you sign aging veteran hitters, you always run a greater risk that they will get injured or just have their performance fall off of a cliff. So I had no problem with the Orioles signing Derrek Lee or Vladimir Guerrero -- but not both. So my objection to the Vlad signing was that Baltimore had already signed Lee (and Lee could actually play a position still) so signing Guerrero compounded the risk by having two aging hitters on the roster. Vlad would limit lineup flexibility since he is exclusively a [designated hitter] and I still thought Nolan Reimold could hit and Vlad's signing sent him straight to AAA.
Lee has not been completely healthy but there's really no defense for his performance thus far. There's no power, his walk rates are down, his bat looks slow and he's been injured. He has played a very well defensively when healthy and that's the only thing keeping his signing from being a total disaster at this point. As for Guerrero, his .290 batting average masks an incredibly poor season so far. He has morphed into a singles hitter and his power is almost completely gone. Couple the power outage with his normal lack of plate discipline and you have one of the worst cleanup hitters in the league. All the expectations of Vlad providing lineup protection for Nick Markakis or transforming the lineup with his mere "presence" have not come to fruition. People thought we were getting the 2004 version of Guerrero, refusing to see that over the last three seasons, he and Luke Scott were basically the same player. But even I didn't think he would hit this poorly.
The whole Kevin Gregg thing, you would have thought that Andy MacPhail would have learned with the Mike Gonzalez signing last offseason that signing veteran relievers to multi-year deals is extremely risky. Gregg was not an elite closer and giving him $10 million over two seasons was going to be walking a tightrope given that he is kind of a fly ball pitcher coming to Camden Yards and that he has always struggled with his control. ... The good news is his walk rates should come down (he has had below average control over his career but not this bad) and perhaps he will soon turn a corner.
MV: What are we to make of this rotation, which is the key to their success now and in the future?
HB: To me, it's a small moral victory that this rotation is almost completely homegrown (Jeremy Guthrie was a waiver wire claim, so he counts as a half-homegrown pitcher in my book). The staff has been up and down but at least I'm not watching Kevin Millwood or Adam Eaton. We are watching guys that have some chance to get better.
Brian Matusz's velocity is still down and he is probably not still completely healthy. Matusz is a bit of a bummer at this point as many thought he could be the best starter in the rotation this season.
Guthrie is Guthrie. He's pitching as well as he ever has (you could make the argument that he is on his way to his best season yet) so the record does not worry me. That record is the responsibility of the inconsistent offense. Guthrie's back injury worries me far more than his record.
Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta are young guys with little MLB experience up to this point so they are going to be inconsistent. Arrieta has been quite a bit better than I expected him to be this season (he has found ways to strikeout MLB hitters with his stuff) and Britton will get better with more experience.
Chris Tillman didn't pitch too badly this season. I think he was making progress and that he was better served to work in long relief rather than start in Norfolk. Brad Bergesen is a fifth starter/swingman type and I have always said that. Either of these guys would be better options out of the bullpen than Mike Gonzalez or Jeremy Accardo right now.
The short answer is all the Oriole arms need for success right now is health, MLB innings and instruction. Hopefully, two or three of these guys get those things in 2011.
MV: How critical was the loss of Brian Roberts, and is it time for the Orioles to start looking for another leadoff hitter in case Roberts can't stay healthy or can't return to the level of play from the past?
HB: The loss of Brian Roberts (at least, a player with the abilities of Roberts) was enormous. Roberts is a prototypical leadoff guy with some extra gap power thrown in as a bonus. Fortunately, J.J. Hardy is doing a serviceable job in that role right now because nobody else they tried was any good. The odds of Roberts being able to play significant time or at his usual level over the next two and a half seasons are pretty low. But the good news is that they don't have to go outside of the organization to find a leadoff hitter.
Nick Markakis would make an outstanding candidate for that role. He has great on-base skills, has a bit of gap power and can steal a base when you need him to. Management seems reluctant to see him that way but Markakis is not going to develop into the classic No. 3 hitter we thought he would. He should lead off.
MV: Should the Orioles be buyers at the trade deadline if they are within striking distance of .500? And if they decide to be sellers, who do you think are the leading candidates to get shipped out?
HB: Sell, sell, sell. I don't care if they go on a winning streak to reach .500 by the end of June. This team needs to sell. Of course, there's not much to sell. They may be able to unload Guerrero or Lee to a team in need of a bench bat during a playoff push but neither player has much value at this point. Hardy has the most value right now and Baltimore could actually get some decent value back for him. But I am an advocate of signing Hardy as soon as possible to bridge the gap to the Manny Machado era.
MV: What are your thoughts on first-round pick Dylan Bundy?
HB: We don't really know about the injury to Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon. If he had been healthy (or if I thought he would get healthy), that's who I would have selected. But by all accounts, Bundy is an amazing talent and I am not unhappy with that selection at all. If he is the fast mover everyone thinks he will be, he could be in the rotation in 2014.
MV: The young Orioles have shown glimpses of promise this season and have bright prospects such as Bundy and Manny Machado who are at least a couple of years from debuting in the majors. How should management bridge that gap?
HB: Sign J.J. Hardy. Shortstops who can field and hit are in short supply. We need to find a first baseman and while Prince Fielder is attractive to me (I love big power hitters), I am not sure that contract will end well for Baltimore. I might try to see if Nolan Reimold could play first base as a backup plan.
The team needs to decide if they are going to extend Guthrie and sort out the rotation for the next two or three years. Then they need to start identifying minor-league hurlers who would be good candidates for the bullpen. Enough of these expensive free agent reliever signings, they need to start developing more of those arms from within.