This weekend's three-game set between the Orioles and American League-leading Houston Astros brings a national spotlight to Camden Yards, with the visitors bringing their star-studded lineup to Baltimore.
There's no question where Houston will be come October, but the Orioles' disappointing first half, combined with their four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers that followed three straight losses to open the second half against the Chicago Cubs, has left questions about what direction they're heading.
Darling gave The Baltimore Sun his thoughts on executive vice president Dan Duquette's upcoming trade deadline conundrum, the work his former Mets teammate Roger McDowell is doing in his first year as Orioles pitching coach, and what it will take for the rotation to pitch the way that's required in the season's final two months.
So you have a team that’s a front-runner in the Astros coming in here, and the Orioles seem like they're in that playoff no-man's land. They're not out of it, but they're not really in it. Given how the roster is constructed with so many people a year away from free agency, if you had the keys to the castle here, what do you do? Do you keep the group together and make another run at it? Or do you start selling off pieces and think about the future?
I honestly think, and you know this better than I do, this is the most difficult with the second wild card. I think the second wild card is one of the greatest things that's ever happened to baseball, and probably the worst thing to happen to general managers. Because trying to decide if you are a pretender or contender is one of the most difficult things to do. I have a theory that if you play .500 ball into September, then you'll be in some kind of race. That's kind of how it has worked now.
So, as far as selling or buying, all that kind of stuff — I think it's a roster issue more than pretender/contender issue. Do you have people under contract who make sense, who are good players who if you don't get it done this year, do you have a really good chance next year? That's one scenario. The other scenario is you have a lot of free agents who are going to leave at some point. You're not going to get any compensation for them, so you have to use some of those parts and get something back that will replenish your farm system or whatever.
I don't know. I think I'd probably fall victim to this if I was a general manager — your fan base and those folks that are coming to the games, when you have a shot, they want you to take the shot. I think I'd be more inclined to be that person as opposed to the rebuild. The rebuild is the unknown. You have tons of prospects with no idea of the future, and I'm not saying that's not the right place to go, but if you look at how Chicago and Houston built their teams, it wasn't through the trades, it was through being really bad, getting the first pick and the first pick was really good. The Nationals did the same. For the Nationals to have Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg as first picks was happenstance and was very lucky. There's years when you're drafting No. 1 and the person is not that game-changer. Others are.
That makes a lot of sense. One thing you can provide is an outside perspective, and I know you're someone who's looked at the Orioles and asked, 'How are they doing this?'... But the flip side is what's the outside perception of what's going on here?
The outside perception for someone like myself who follows baseball closely and is going to watch the Orioles in a second on MLB Network is you have one of the strongest minds in baseball running their team. I think they have a lot of innate talent on the ballclub, from [Mark] Trumbo to [Jonathan] Schoop and [Adam] Jones, and of course [Manny] Machado No. 1. …
When I think of the Orioles, I never count them out of it because of Buck [Showalter]. I'm such a big fan of what he does and how smart he is and how he kind of figures it out over 162 games. But the same time, you can't be down 5-0 every day. If you are, it makes for a tough season. As their starting pitching gets better over the course of time, the Orioles will get better also.
With a lot of that pitching, the person who gets a lot of attention for it, fair or unfair, is Roger McDowell. I know you played with Roger and I'm sure broadcasting in the division for as long [for the Mets] as you have while he was in Atlanta, I'm sure there was a relationship maintained. What can you say about the position he's been put in as the pitching coach of a staff whose issues were known before he came?
I think judging anyone, any coach, any manager on one year is probably premature. I've known Roger since he was a kid. He always has had incredible acumen for the sport, not only pitching but everything about the sport. So, all I will say is he had a tremendous amount of success with the pitchers in Atlanta. I believe he will have a tremendous amount of success with the pitchers in Baltimore, but you inherit some guys and I think at some point, you watch them and you try to make a decision on 'Should I change him this year or should I wait?' All those kind of things. It's kind of a limbo role for him right now with guys that he's just met. Watching a guy pitch in spring training and watching a guy pitch with two on and two outs in the bottom of the eighth are two different things. All I know is if there's an elite five or six pitching coaches in all of baseball, Roger is in that list.
And just to wrap up, the Orioles rotation had a 6.02 ERA after Sunday as a group, and then they roll off three starts of six innings, one run. Is a turnaround like you've been alluding to this year, is there a precedent for that where a team just is able to flip that switch and all of a sudden turns into a playoff-caliber rotation?
That's a great question. I think that the thing about Baltimore is they have the pieces. I'm talking about they have the physical ability to do what's necessary, to be a competitive team. But you're asking people to make the next step, and you just don't know if people like [Kevin] Gausman or [Dylan] Bundy ... Are they ready to make the next step where they are six innings, five hits, three earned runs, a walk and five strikeouts every day? Because if they do that, that allows your offense and your team to be in every single game and make something happen.
That really is what you're expecting of your young pitchers. The problem is that when you have a few blow-ups and a good game, how do you evaluate those guys? I'm just hoping that down the stretch ... Boy, I'd burn my baseball card if I had Gausman's stuff. I'd burn my baseball card if I had Bundy's stuff. But within a game, it's hard to judge. You have to be uber-competitive, you have to not take no for an answer, and somehow keep your team in it. Because the Baltimore team has offense, and they haven't been at their best. They probably will be at some point, and if you're a starting pitcher and you do your job that way, you're going to end up with a lot of wins at the end of the year.