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.
Since the Orioles are off to such a fine start, today's blogger is Stacey Long of Camden Chat, an online Orioles community hosted by SB Nation. She is also a guest blogger for MASN's Orioles Buzz. I'd like to thank Stacey for answering my questions.
MV: With the Orioles off to such a strong start, what’s the vibe like in your blog community and in the Orioles blogosphere in general? I’m pretty sure the Internet didn’t exist the last time the Orioles started off 4-0.
SL: The attitude around Camden Chat has been one of excitement combined with continued attempts to temper enthusiasm. Plenty of teams get off to good starts and end up going nowhere, and I think after the debacle that was the first four months of the 2010 season, everyone is trying very hard not to count chickens.
MV: The rotation has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball so far. Do you see something different with the pitchers’ approach out there?
SL: Not especially different, I think it’s just a matter of the young pitchers continuing on their career arc. Jeremy Guthrie did look a lot more impressive in Tampa Bay than I remember him being (and he's always been good). His location was outstanding and his curve ball was better than I've seen it. I’m hopeful that he’ll be able to replicate that after he returns. As for the rest of the rotation, it’s a bunch of very talented, very young guys who are going to have plenty of brilliant moments to go with plenty of growing pains.
MV: One of those impressive early-season starts came from Zach Britton. The Orioles are going to lose a year of contractual control with Britton in the big leagues, but is there something to be said for the organization showing that they think they can win now with a move like that?
SL: Well, first off, it’s not a guarantee that they’ll still lose a year of Britton because they called him up. Service time can be manipulated, just ask J.J. Hardy. He would have been a FA after last season if the Brewers hadn’t sent him down to AAA for three weeks in 2009. But I believe that if the Orioles actually CAN win now and that move is a part of it, it’s worth the risk. Pitchers especially are so volatile and susceptible to injury that it’s hard to think about seven years down the road with them. That being said, I don’t think the Orioles are going to contend with or without Britton, so to me that point is moot.
MV: Do you think the Orioles relievers will have more defined roles in Buck Showalter’s bullpen, or do you think he’ll continue to play the matchups and go with the hot hands in the eighth and ninth innings?
SL: One thing that has continually impressed me about Buck Showalter has been his bullpen management. One of the easiest things to criticize about a manager is his use of the bullpen, but that’s rarely been the case with Showalter. One of my writers put together a fantastic piece on Showalter’s bullpen use last season. In it he examined when relievers were used in relation to how [important the situation was], and he was able to determine that Showalter was very good in identifying when to use his best relievers and when to rely on everyone else.
That being said, there is a lot of pressure on having an identified closer, set-up man, etc., and that’s a hard trend to buck. But if anyone can do it, Showalter can. There’s been a lot of hand wringing about the fact that Kevin Gregg has been identified as the closer when he’s not the best pitcher in the bullpen, but the truth is that pitching in ninth inning with a three-run lead is a lot less important than coming into the game in the seventh with two runners on and one out. I’m certain Showalter recognizes that and knows that having Gregg the named closer is a good way to follow the bullpen hierarchy while still having other, more reliable pitchers available when it matters even more.
MV: You recently advocated in a recent blog post that the Orioles should shortstop J.J. Hardy an extension. A week into the season, what have you seen from Hardy that has you so smitten (besides his boyish looks and child-like wonder)?
SL: I’ve been a fan of J.J. Hardy for years and when he was traded from the Brewers to the Twins, I was disheartened because I’d hoped the Orioles could swing a deal to bring him to Baltimore. I believe that if he stays healthy, he could be one of the top offensive shortstops in baseball. People love to praise Cesar Izturis for his defense (because really, what else is there), but Hardy has been on par with him over the last several years. I talked to a writer who blogs the Twins after the trade, and he said, “Defensively, he's one of the best shortstops in all of baseball. Because he doesn't have good speed, he plays deep, allowing him time to cover more ground laterally, and his strong arm means he can make throws from deep in the hole. He's sure-handed, and he does an excellent job of understanding the hitters and game situation to put himself in the right spot.” Does that remind you of any other Baltimore shortstops?
MV: Speaking of Hardy, what’s the value in having him and other capable hitters at the bottom of the lineup, which certainly wasn’t the case last season?
SL: I think that it can’t be understated. Cesar Izturis was the worst hitter in baseball last year. I’m not exaggerating, either. The black hole at the bottom of the lineup, combined with the missing time from Brian Roberts, just killed the offense. If Roberts stays healthy, he’ll not only be getting on base a lot, but with the improved bottom of the lineup, there might actually be people on base for him to knock in.
MV: Everything has been pretty much perfect so far for the Orioles, hasn’t it? Does anything worry you?
SL: No, everything hasn’t been perfect, and yes, there is plenty that worries me. Brian Matusz is out for three to six weeks, Jeremy Guthrie had pneumonia, Brad Bergesen looked awful on Wednesday, Luke Scott is already injured, and Adam Jones looks completely lost at the plate. I’d add more but I don’t want your readers to think I’m a pessimist.
MV: So what are we to make of this start? Will the carryover from the final two months of 2010 continue through 2011, or will the Orioles ultimately be overmatched over a 162-game season?
The Orioles are a better team than they were last year and they have the magical Buck Showalter leading them, so I do believe they’ll continue to be an improved team. Will they play over .600 ball the way they have since Showalter got here? No. They have too many question marks and play in too tough of a division. I think the O’s could quite easily finish the season above .500 and maybe even climb out of fifth place. But for now, that’s all I believe.