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Q&A with Stacey from Camden Chat

(With the Orioles coming to Minneapolis for a long weekend series, I exchanged a few questions with Stacey from Camden Chat.  Be sure to drop by CC for all your Orioles needs, and of course my Q&A will be posted there sometime today.  Thanks to Stacey for approaching me!)

1.  I think it's fair to say that Orioles fans probably expected a bit more out of the gate from certain guys offensively, particularly Luke Scott and Adam Jones.  Are these just slow starts, or can you nail down some specific reasons these guys are struggling?

To say that Luke Scott is struggling is actually quite kind. Luke has actually been ice cold since the start of the second half in 2009, which makes his slump much more alarming. Fan Graphs actually just wrote an article about Scott saying that he's been the victim of bad luck and simply needs to wait it out, but I don't know about that. He looks late on a lot of pitches and when he does make contact he seems to pull a lot of sad ground balls. I'm holding out hope that he'll find his stroke and go on one of his home run rampages, but the longer we wait, the less confident I am. 

Adam Jones, for him I think it's a slow start based on troubles that he's always had. He's always been a free swinger and he's taken that to the extreme so far this year. He swings at way too many pitches outside the strike zone and pitchers know it. It's become a common sight to see Adam chasing a pitch that's breaking into the dirt. He has shown signs of snapping out of it over the past few weeks and we're all hopeful that he'll continue to do so. Sometimes it's easy to forget that Adam Jones is just 24 years old. He'll reach the 1500 plate appearance mark this season and I fully expect him to rebound from his slump and develop into the player he's been projected to be. 

2.  From an outsider's perspective, I feel like the Orioles overpaid for Garrett Atkins.  How do Orioles fans feel about bringing him in?  Was this a signing that was appreciated?

Ha ha ha. No, this signing was not appreciated, and yes, the Orioles did overpay. It was actually a really confusing signing. Atkins had declining numbers 2007-2009 for the Rockies, so much so that he lost his starting job and the Rockies had no interest in bringing him back. And yet, for some reason, Andy MacPhail went out pretty much on the first day he could and signed Atkins to a $4.5M contract. It was then and still remains a mystery why MacPhail thought Atkins, who'd been declining in the National League while playing at Coors Field, would suddenly improve in the AL East. 

To this point the Atkins signing looks like a total bust. He hasn't been able to hit, he's no great shakes at first base, and he just lost his starting job to rookie Rhyne Hughes, who was called up from AAA Norfolk on April 24th. He did play all three games in the Yankees series that just ended, twice at first against CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte (Hughes is a lefty), and once at DH in place of the slumping Nolan Reimold. He responded with six hits which undoubtedly means he'll get playing time against the Twins. But that doesn't mean he's any good. 

3.  The last I read about Brian Roberts was something along the lines of:  Nobody knows when he'll be back.  What's going on here?  Because even at 32, I have to believe he was still one of the overall better second basemen in the league.

Nobody knows is pretty much the case. His injured back has kept him from doing any baseball related activities since April 9th and he recently had a setback where the medicine he was taking made him pretty ill. It's now looking like Roberts will be out for the entire first half of the season, maybe more. The Orioles miss him a lot. Ty Wigginton has done a fine job filling in for him offensively at second base, but his defense isn't quite what Orioles fans are used to, and that's even with Brian losing a step over the last couple years. 

4.  Brian Matusz is off to a decent start.  I know he's been towards (if not at) the top of the Baltimore prospect lists coming into this season.  What does he do well?

Brian Matusz came into this season as the Orioles top rated prospect, and Baseball America him the rated 5th best prospect in baseball. He has now made 14 starts at the major league level and he just keeps getting better. Matusz has four above averages pitches: fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider. He has very good command and good movement on all of four. His money pitch, however, is the change up. It sits at about 82 mph, which is 8-9 mph slower than his fastball. He's thrown it for a strike 77% of the time this season with major leaguers swinging and missing well above the major league average. Plus, it's just beautiful. You'll see. 

5.  Matt Wieters has a lot of tools and looks like he could be an exciting player.  What can you tell us about his strengths and weaknesses?

Part of what makes Matt Wieters so valuable (and so hyped when he was a prospect) is the fact that he is good at pretty much every aspect of the game. He is a switch hitter who is capable of getting on base and hitting for power from both sides of the plate. He has a very strong arm and has thrown out 7 of 17 trying to steal this year. Only Miguel Olivo, Jose Molina, and Jason Kendall have thrown out more (although you can hardly count Kendall since 21 have been successful against him. Ouch). That 41% success rate is third among everyday catchers to just Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer. Not bad company. 

As far as his weaknesses, I think for him it's less about what he can't do and more about giving him time to adjust to the pitchers. He's just 23 years old (he'll turn 24 later this month) and he's already shown himself to be one of the more valuable catchers this year. Though it's only been about a month since the season started, if you look at his game logs you'll can see a pattern where he hits well for a week, then goes three games without a hit, then picks it back up again. Right now it seems that pitchers are doing a pretty good job of getting him out with pitches low and away, so I imagine once he figures out how to deal with that he'll be back on track. But if you are looking for something he's not good at, watch him run. You might think you accidentally put your TV on slow motion, but you didn't. He is that slow. 

6.  I have to ask because I know I'd be frustrated--what's it like being in a division where you're constantly under the thumb of financial heavyweights Boston and New York?  Clearly baseball has a long way to go towards leveling the playing field, and it goes a lot further than simply a salary cap.

It's definitely frustrating and one of the things that makes it hard to be optimistic about the team. When you look at the Orioles in a vacuum, they have more talent in their system than they did even a few years ago and look poised to improve (although they haven't shown it this season), but when you compare them to the Red Sox and Yankees they still have so far to go that it seems unattainable, especially when you take into account the fact that those teams have the resources to fix any mistakes and go out and buy the best talent on the market without much competition. 

The Orioles haven't actually had to directly deal with any of that over the last decade or so, though, as they've been wholly dysfunctional and would have been no matter what division they played in (more on that below), but the Blue Jays are a good example of the consequences of playing in the same division as those two teams. In the past 12 years the Jays have had 7 winning seasons, four where they've won 85 games or more, and they've never finished less than 10 games out of first place. The Rays have of course found a way to succeed, but even they are reliant on everything going right in a season to stay in contention as they can't afford to make up for any big injuries or unforeseen ineffectiveness the way those other teams can. 

I don't know how to fix the problem, but I don't think a salary cap does it. I don't like the idea of realignment; the AL East belongs to the Orioles just as much as the Red Sox and Yankees, and I feel that any success they'd achieve if they were shifted somewhere else would always have the afterthought of, "yeah, but they had to change divisions to do it." Maybe it's a pride thing, but one thing I know is that when the Orioles are good again, there will be no question of their legitimacy. 

7.  Another touchy subject, but one I have to ask about as a genuine baseball fan:  the Orioles have finished better than 4th in the AL East once since 1997--apart from the aforementioned resources issue, what's kept them in such a prolonged funk?

Wow. How long do you have? I'll do my best to keep it concise. You've no doubt heard of the shenanigans of Peter Angelos. It's hard to imagine, but when Peter Angelos first bought the Orioles, the fans didn't hate him. He spent a lot of money on free agents, hired good baseball people (Pat Gillick as GM, Davey Johnson as manager), and the O's started winning. But around the time they were actually contending, something happened. The specifics are unclear but a lot of Orioles fans believe that in 1996, with the O's about 10 games out of first place near the trade deadline, Pat Gillick began looking for trade partners for Bobby Bonilla. Peter Angelos put the kibosh on trading him and the Orioles surged in the last third of the season to capture the wild card. The belief is that this event firmly put Angelos into the position of micro-manager. He and Gillick were never the same, and Gillick left after the 1997 season. Likewise, Angelos didn't like that Davey Johnson wasn't accommodating to his whims. Johnson resigned after the 1997 season on the same day he was named Manager of the Year. 

After that series of events, Angelos surrounded himself with a yes men and incompetents who would allow him to avoid conflicts like he had with Gillick and Johnson. They continued to sign free agents and ignore building a proper farm system. When Albert Belle's hip went bad, Angelos got gunshy on signing FAs, but they had no farm system to fall back on. For most of the 2000s the Orioles had no clear plan and made dumb move after dumb move, giving money to bad players, losing draft picks, and telling the fan base that the moves would create a contender. 

In 2007, Peter Angelos finally realized it wasn't working, and that's when he hired Andy MacPhail. Under MacPhail, the Orioles finally seem to have a cohesive plan, building around young talent and using the draft and trades to stock the farm system. MacPhail's plan is to build the core of the team this way and supplement it through free agency when the Orioles are finally close to contention. Unfortunately Baltimore has become a Siberia of sorts for quality free agents. The team has been so bad for so long that good free agents will undoubtedly have better options. It remains to be seen how MacPhail will handle this issue when the time comes.