Nationally-known baseball blogger and numbers geek Rob Neyer joined SB Nation as its national baseball editor on Feb. 1 after 15 years at ESPN. He took time out of his busy schedule at his new gig to chat with me Wednesday about the 2011 Orioles, and I thank him for that.
(Be sure to check Neyer's work at SB Nation, though you probably have been already.)
Neyer and I chatted about a lot of things, from Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and the talented young pitching staff to the Buck Showalter effect and the blueprint for winning in the AL East. Neyer also gave his outlook for the Orioles in 2011, though my headline kind of spoils the big finish. Anyway, here's the interview:
MV: Everyone talks about the effect that manager Buck Showalter has on the development of young players. But what is it about Buck that has historically gotten him results on up-and-coming teams?
RN: I can't say for sure what it is … but it's almost magical to me what he seems to do. It's essentially worked with one exception, his first year in Texas where things didn't get better at all. The next year, Alex Rodriguez went to the Yankees and the Rangers took a big step just as the Yankees did when he went there and the Diamondbacks did when he went there. I don't know how he does it. I just know that he seems to be able to do something that has that immediate impact.
MV: By design, the Orioles' success hinges on the development of the young pitchers. How do you evaluate guys like Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman, and do you think this group has the potential to carry the Orioles to a World Series one day like the Giants staff did?
RN: I think they do. I also think that it's a very tall order. It's incredibly rare. … My standard rule of thumb is that if you have four pitchers, two of them are probably going to get hurt and their development is going to be delayed. [The Orioles staff] pitched well after Showalter took over [last season], and I think he deserves some credit for that. How much? I have no idea. What could Buck Showalter have possible done to make all those guys start pitching better? I don't know.
But the fact that they did pitch better from August forward does give me some reason to think they will continue to pitch well. I don't think they're all going to be aces. I think Matusz is going to be a star at some point. I like Arrieta. And Tillman, you have to think he's going to develop at some point, too. The problem is that pitchers develop according to their own schedule, not ours.
MV: Speaking of the Giants, Buster Posey raised the bar for Matt Wieters with his eye-opening rookie campaign. Do you think Wieters will live up to the immense hype here or be crushed by it?
RN: I'm not sure people should be [high on Wieters] after the past two seasons he's had. The case with Posey is, and I think it's interesting, is that when a catcher comes up and doesn't play as well as expected, it's easy for people to say, "Well, it's harder for catchers because they have to do so many more things." Then Posey comes up and becomes a star immediately, so we know it certainly can be done. I think a little too much weight was put on Wieters' last season in the minors, which was obviously outstanding. ...
I will say that he isn't as good as I thought he would be, and after two seasons like this, you have to start wondering. I thought he would bounce back with a better 2010, but he was actually a little bit worse. The trend line is not heading in the right direction. … Do I think he's going to have a good season? I do. Do I think he's going to be a superstar? At this point, I don't.
MV: How do you see the Orioles' closer situation playing out with Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara and Michael Gonzalez all in the mix?
RN: I'd probably go with Gonzalez based on his track record, but it's a fluid situation with no one obvious candidate. … I don't really think it's all that important who gets the job from the start because it's going to change and it's not really going to make or break the Orioles' season.
MV: Has Nick Markakis reached his ceiling, or will his production increase now that the Orioles have upgraded the lineup around him?
RN: I think he'll drive in more runs with better hitters around him, but I don't think they're going to make him a better hitter. It doesn't work that way. As far as his ceiling, I think we have seen what type of player he is going to be. He's now into his peak years and I don't think he's going to be a better player than what we've seen. Now he'll have some great seasons -- hopefully a little better than what he's had -- but I think this is who he is.
MV: What about Adam Jones? Do you see star potential there?
RN: He's a little younger than Markakis and I would expect to see better seasons from him. Again, three years ago, I thought he was going to be a big star. I'm not convinced of that anymore. … He hasn't been the player that I expected. He's not headed for the Hall of Fame which I thought was a possibility four, five years ago.
MV: It's going to be an interesting spring battle in the outfield with Luke Scott moving back to the field and Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold competing for the fourth outfielder spot. Do you prefer Pie or Reimold, and do you think it would be wise to move Scott to make room for one or both of them?
RN: I do, but if you lose Scott, you're probably going to lose a few extra games this year. Well, if you factor in Scott's defense, maybe not. It's interesting because the Orioles seem to have put in a lot of chips to win this season so they're probably not going to trade one of their better hitters in Luke Scott. But thinking about 2012 and beyond, if I'm doing that, maybe I try to get Pie or Reimold more at-bats. The problem is that neither one of those guys is a kid anymore. They still have potential but it's not like they're young players you're going to build your team around.
MV: How much do Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee have left to give? Vlad showed up in Sarasota with a Superman T-shirt, which is fitting considering the fans' expectations for the 36-year-old slugger.
RN: Guerrero was OK last year. I don't think he's a better hitter than Luke Scott. Fans are excited mainly because they have heard of Vladimir Guerrero, who used to be a great player. I think he's going to the Hall of Fame someday and it's kind of fun to have those guys, but he's no savior. Derrek Lee, he's coming off a rough year, so I wouldn't expect those guys to be great. But they will be upgrades over what the Orioles had last year. I'm not saying Guerrero will be better than Luke Scott, but he'll be better than whoever they had playing left field last year with Scott taking over in left.
I think they're going to be upgrades, but I have questioned the kind of money the Orioles had to spend to get those upgrades. I wouldn't have done it, but I do understand the organization wants to show the fans that it's time to turn things around, and if it shows up in attendance and TV ratings, then that's fantastic.
MV: When it comes to competing in the big, bad AL East, are the Orioles taking the right plan of action by piling up prospects -- especially pitchers -- and rounding out the roster with castaways and stopgap veterans? And do you see it working?
RN: Well, it can work. We saw it work with the Rays. It's just such a tall mountain to climb, trying to get 90-plus wins in that division. And the Rays have done it, amazingly. Can another team do it? Boy, I don't know. … The way to do it is to stockpile young players, especially pitchers, because it's impossible to buy good starting pitching on the open market unless you're the Yankees or the Red Sox. I really can't quibble with the overall plan that we've seen other than spending $15 million or whatever it was on Lee and Guerrero.
MV: Is there another way for them to do it in the AL East?
RN: Not really. You could be hyper-aggressive and try to trade Brian Roberts -- not that you can get anything [for] him at the moment -- but they could have a year or two ago and probably have gotten a pile of prospects for him. You always have to ask yourself about a veteran player, "When we're ready to win, will this guy still be there for us? Will this guy be a key component?" Because if the answer is "no," you usually might as well trade him.
That's really the only other option, to trade all your valuable players who won't be there when you're ready to win for prospects, and the Orioles really haven't done that and who could blame them? If I were a fan or if I worked there, I probably wouldn't want to see Brian Roberts going away, either.
MV: What's your season outlook for the Orioles? Will we actually see a winning season here in Baltimore?
RN: I am somewhat bullish on the Orioles. I think I said that they're going to win 82 games and some of that is due to the Showalter factor, which can't be quantified. If not for him, they would be around a 75- or 78-win team on paper even with the additions. And I'll give you a little bit of extra credit for Showalter. I was blown away by what that team did when he took over last season and I think there might be a little bit of a carryover there.