The Twins have been floundering for a while now, but this four game series with the Baltimore Orioles is crucial in the fight for the Wild Card. Sitting 3.5 games behind the Orioles, a sweep would shake up the standings immensely, but even winning three out of four would be great. I corresponded with Mark Brown from Camden Chat to get some details about the O's that FSN has only dreamt of reporting.
Also, if you are interested, I answered a few questions for Mark which you can find at Camden Chat.
1) The Orioles are currently in 3rd place in the AL East, 5.5 games behind the division-leading Yankees. However, they are only half a game behind for the second Wild Card spot. Although the Twins are only another 3 games behind the Orioles (before the completion of the O's game on Wednesday), us fans can feel our playoff hopes disappearing. How is it for the Orioles? Is there enough left in the tank to claim one of those playoff spots?
You'll probably get a different answer from every Orioles fan about their playoff hopes right now. There are those who think they should make it without question and might even still win the division. Everyone on my blog makes fun of me for being such a pessimist, so I am not in that category. I do think they're capable of securing a wild card spot if they play at their best for the last six weeks or so... although I don't know how much it's really worth to squeak in to the wild card just to go face David Price in Toronto or whatever. The 2012 version of myself would slap my present self silly for pooh-poohing the wild card like that.
The problem with the Orioles surging into the playoffs is that their starting rotation consists of five question marks of varying sizes, and also their offense is very cold when you can keep them from hitting home runs. It might happen, but right now I don't think it will.
2) Manny Machado was always well-regarded with the glove, but this year he's transformed from simply a defensive wizard into the Orioles best player. A good chunk of that is from hitting for more power than he has in the past. What do you think has been the source of his offensive improvement, and will it last beyond this year?
I think there's plenty of reason to believe that Machado's improvement will last beyond this year. This is the kind of potential that made him the #3 overall pick when the O's drafted him. What you're getting is a guy who had lots of talent who is translating that talent into big league success at the plate. Sometimes people say about young players that "the doubles will turn into homers" - and this year, for Machado, they have. He's stronger, and he's more selective at the plate, walking way more than ever before. He could be this player or even better for the next 6-7 years.
A lot of O's fans, myself included, are basically hoping the Orioles extend Machado for life this offseason.
3) Kevin Gausman has been shuttled between the minors, the bullpen, and the starting rotation for the past couple seasons. If my memory is correct, I thought he was supposed to be one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Considering the Orioles haven't had any real standout rotation members over this time frame, why hasn't Gausman been a fixture as a starter?
I have been asking this question since spring training. There isn't really a satisfying answer. Probably they jerked him around because he was the one guy who wasn't a veteran and out of options; maybe they did it as part of a concerted plan to limit Gausman's innings to a certain amount, although even if that's true I don't know that it was a good idea. In practice what it meant is that they continued to give starts to Bud Norris, who was a total disaster area to the point that they finally, belatedly, kicked him to the bullpen and then DFA'd him. Unfortunately, Gausman hasn't wowed us when he has pitched this year - the fact that he keeps getting bounced around can't have helped him. I hope they're done messing around with him and that he can become what he was supposed to be.
4) The Twins had a Rule 5 pick this year in J.R. Graham, who is a very similar pitcher to the Orioles' own Rule 5 pick of Jason Garcia. Graham has been about what you'd expect from a Rule 5 guy (pitching in low-leverage situations and not having especially good results) but has managed to stick on the 25-man roster the entire season. How has Garcia worked out for the Orioles?
Oh, boy. Garcia... man. The Orioles are SUPER dedicated to making him stick all season despite the fact that he had never pitched above A-ball before they snagged him in the Rule 5. They like that he throws really hard but the command just wasn't there early on. Garcia hit the DL for quite some time, with what they called shoulder tendinitis and I thought it might have been made up, especially since they kept him on the DL for conveniently long enough that when they activated him, they'd meet the required number of days to have a Rule 5 pick on the active roster.
At the trade deadline, they effectively traded well-regarded Tommy Hunter in order to clear a space to activate Garcia and stash him again. They seemed to want to avoid him at all costs and it possibly cost them two games in a recent West Coast trip. ...but, he's looked better since coming back from the DL, hitting better velocity and looking to have better command. Maybe he really was hurt and they've managed to pilfer an asset out of the Red Sox system?
5) What or who has been the biggest surprise for the Orioles this year?
For me the biggest surprise is catcher Caleb Joseph. At age 29, he is old for a player to be in his second big league season; he only ever got his shot because of Matt Wieters' Tommy John surgery last year. Joseph finished the season with a 72 OPS+, so, you know, it's cool he made it, but I figured he was who he was. This year he's still gotten a nice amount of playing time while Wieters has been recovering - even once he was active again - and he's taken a big step forward, posting a nice, if not overwhelming, 111 OPS+ while scoring well in pitch framing metrics and throwing out runners at about league average pace.
Joseph became a father back in spring training. As he says after every big hit, "Baby's gotta eat." But it's still a cool surprise to see him doing well.
6) Name one Orioles player that the rest of baseball fans haven't heard of but should know.
Non-O's fans may not have heard of or thought much about Jonathan Schoop (Bryz note: It's pronounced "scope"), our second baseman. He's fairly young, still just 23, and while he was on last year's division-winning team, he didn't bring much more than raw power at the plate and a very strong arm for turning double plays. This year, he missed a couple of months due to a knee injury, but now he's back and batting .302/.338/.517 in 45 games. He is a big and strong young guy who plays some good defense up the middle. He flashed a better walk rate in the minors, too, so there's reason to hope he could improve the plate discipline in time - even if he's just a strong guy who punishes mistakes, well, there's worse things to be.