Orioles Q&A w/ Matthew Pouliot, NBC Sports
Our thanks to him for taking the time to answer some O’s questions.
Baltimore Sports and Life: As the schedule turns to May, the Orioles are currently leading baseball in Defensive Efficiency (now 2nd as of May 3rd). For every favorable headline about Wieters behind the plate, Machado’s brilliance at 3rd, and Hardy’s general steadiness at SS; there is equal negative commentary to be found about the play of Jones and Markakis in Center and Right. For this year is the summation that the O’s defense has pluses and minuses, but is good enough to win with? Looking ahead to the off-season, do you feel the O’s will (or should) start to think about moving Jones to LF, and finding another CF? Is Machado’s performance at 3rd, making it harder to eventually move him to SS?
Pouliot: I would hope Machado’s play at third will only make it easier for the Orioles to put him back at shortstop next year. He’s clearly overqualified for the hot corner. Why would you want him handling two or three chances per game when he could be getting four or five? I have to think the higher-ups in the front office feel the same way.
As for Jones to left, that’s probably still two or three years off. While the numbers have never been very kind to Jones’ fielding, I’m not convinced he’s poor enough that it’d be worth sacrificing the offense to move him to a corner. Also, I doubt he’d be happy about making the move. Xavier Avery isn’t going to budge him. I guess the Orioles could make a run at Jacoby Ellsbury in free agency and sell Jones on the idea of how much a top-notch leadoff man would help the club. But that’s hardly been the Orioles’ style of late, and I don’t think they’d slide Jones over to make room for a Chris Young or a Franklin Gutierrez.
Baltimore Sports and Life: In Hammel’s 20 starts last year, he looked like a pseudo-ace, with his 2 seam FB showing a lot of movement, and an average velocity of 93.3. Through April this year, the average velocity has dropped a mile. The GB% is not quite as good. Teams are slugging a bit more against him. Do the O’s need Hammel to revert to his 2012 form to contend throughout ’13?
Pouliot: Hammel’s velocity has typically been lower in April than it has been the rest of the year, so I wouldn’t be overly concerned about that. One would think he’ll get a few more strikeouts and grounders if his velocity increases as it typically would. Of course, it’s not a given.
The Orioles did just fine piecing a rotation together last year, even while Hammel was out, and with Gausman increasingly likely to be a factor and wild cards like Bundy, Britton, Johnson, Wada and Jurrjens possibly providing assistance later on, their chances don’t hinge on any one of their starters.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Some of Chen’s peripheral numbers figure to change – he seems likely to get more K’s, and allow more homers – but basically I think Chen showed in April that he will remain a valuable and reliable innings eating starter. Any concerns with him? Do you see any potential for further upside?
Pouliot: Chen faced quite the difficult schedule in April and came out of it exactly as the Orioles should have hoped. I do have some concerns about the poor early strikeout rate; the swings and misses haven’t come like they did in year one and that’s probably in part due to the league becoming more familiar with him. As a fly-ball pitcher in Camden Yards, he only has so much margin for error. I think he’ll be solid, but my guess is that he’ll post an ERA over 4.00 the rest of the way.
Baltimore Sports and Life: With the high volatility rates of relievers, most expected the O’s bullpen to again be strong, but not quite as dominating as they were this past year. That is basically what we saw in April. Johnson, O’Day, and Matusz are off to excellent starts, Patton, Hunter, McFarland have helped as well. After a successful World Baseball Classic, Strop has been a mechanical mess. Some want the O’s to move Matusz back to the rotation. Out of options, is there any chance Strop could get through waivers? Thoughts on the Baltimore bullpen? Is the key to the ‘pen, getting consistent innings from the starters in-front of them?
Pouliot: That was quite the gutsy call the Orioles made in trading Luis Ayala and keeping McFarland. I’m pretty shocked at just how good McFarland has been so far.
Strop could have an 18.00 ERA, and there’s still no way he’s clearing waivers. I doubt he’d make it past Houston. If the Orioles get desperate enough, they’ll figure out an injury for him.
The Orioles just have a great mix down there right now. Hunter and McFarland can go long, then you have the four match-up guys in O’Day, Matusz, Patton and Strop. Most teams are lucky to have one pair of lefty-righty match-up guys like that; the Orioles have two pairs, and all four relievers more than hold their own even when they don’t have the platoon advantage. That’s one big thing that helps keep the pen fit; none of those guys need to be removed after facing one batter. And it doesn’t hurt that the closer doesn’t have to be reserved for just save situations; Johnson will likely pitch 10-15 innings more than a lot of closers this year and they’ll often be key innings.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Through April, Baltimore ranks 3rd in Runs, 6th in Slugging, and 9th in On-Base %. (4th in Runs, 6th Slugging, 11th in On-Base % as of May 3rd.) Davis, and McLouth will obviously come back to Earth from current levels, but figure to remain productive. Jones and Machado are also likely to step back some as well. On the other-end, more can be expected from Wieters, Markakis, Hardy, and Reimold – and Betemit will return. How do you view the O’s offense?
Pouliot: I thought Reimold would give the offense more length at the bottom of the order this year, but that hasn’t worked so far. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of time for him to turn it around.
On the whole, the offense is overachieving. It’s third in the AL in runs at 5.04 per game after finishing eighth at 4.40 per game last year. I’d probably place the group fifth or sixth in the AL. The team will eventually get something out of second base, I would hope, whether it’s through Roberts or a trade. I have faith in Wieters and Markakis, but the declines from Davis, Machado and McLouth will probably outweigh those gains.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Over the years, Wieters splits against RH and LH pitching has done a 180. In 2010 he had a .744 OPS vs. RHP, .564 vs. LHP. In 2012, he had a .908 OPS vs LHP, and a .715 OPS vs. RHP. In 2013, he is down to a .585 OPS vs. RHP. Overall, Wieters is nearing 2,000 Major League ab’s and has a .325 wOBA. If the O’s want to offer Wieters an extension into his Free Agent years, there has to be consideration that he will eventually have to be moved from Catcher. His current level of offense has value as a Catcher (especially with his defense). At 1st, his offensive production would not be sufficient. What do you make of Wieters offense? Should they let his existing contract play out, or be pursuing an extension now?
Pouliot: The Orioles would be crazy to sign Wieters to any extension that outlasts their expectations for how long he’ll remain a catcher. But I don’t think that’s an issue; I don’t see Wieters moving, even in his mid-30s. For it to happen, he’d have to become a much better hitter than he is now.
I still think Wieters is going to hit for better averages. But I’ve been punished for that belief every step of the way so far. I’d still take my chances with him as a franchise player going forward and give him a contract that tops Jones’ pact. He’s a top-notch defensive catcher, he’s durable and one never hears a bad word about him in the clubhouse (at least, one doesn’t in Florida. I might be a little out of touch there). Even if he never fulfills those early offensive expectations, he’s an $18 million-$20 million player as is. And I expect that he has a couple of big years in his future.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Tillman and Gonzalez were large parts of the equation of why the O’s took off in the 2nd half last year. Prior to Tillman’s gem last night, they have looked like serviceable back-of-the-rotation arms. Which starter are you more confident in going forward the rest of this year?
Pouliot: Probably Gonzalez. Tilliman has better stuff and more upside, but Gonzalez’s deception and varied arsenal will always serve him in good stead. Whereas Tillman is the better bet to go out and throw seven scoreless on any given night, I’ll take my chances with Gonzalez putting in a good effort no matter how strong the lineup he’s facing.
Baltimore Sports and Life: It has been reported lately that Philadelphia could potentially make both Utley, and Lee available should the Phillies fall out of the NL East race. Utley is a pending Free Agent. Lee is 34 and owed significant money (2013: $25 million, 2014: $25 million, 2015: $25 million, 2016: $27.5 million club option, with a $12.5 million buyout). If Philadelphia makes that duo available, should Baltimore pursue? If so, how much salary would Philadelphia have to eat, to make a deal realistic? If the O’s took on 2/3rds of the contract, would that be enough to limit the prospect haul to the Phillies from the back of the O’s Top 10 prospects? Are there are other potential external acquisitions you could see making sense for the O’s to pursue?
Pouliot: Considering that both Utley and Lee have no-trade protection that covers about three-quarters of the league, I don’t think we’ll see any sort of package deal there. It’d just get too complicated. The Phillies will probably have to look at moving Lee if they’re .500 or worse in July and the Philly crowds continue to dwindle. The Dodgers last year were willing to take on his entire salary and might consider it again this summer, so I’m not sure the Phillies will be very interested in eating any part of that salary. And it’s hard to see the Orioles getting involved without some of that salary being swallowed.
Utley would be a great get for Baltimore, if he’s open to it. I could see Baltimore targeting Justin Morneau as a designated hitter and occasional first baseman, depending on what happens with Reimold and Betemit.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Boston is leading the AL East, with Buchholz off to a great start. New York is playing relatively well, awaiting the return of several players. Tampa Bay looks like they need another bat or two. Toronto is dealing with the loss of Reyes, and the weight of heavy expectations. The Orioles ended April 5 games over .500, and winners of 4 straight series. How do you view the division?
Pouliot: It’s a mess. A good, talented mess, but a mess. Toronto won the offseason, yet is playing worse baseball than any team but the Astros and Marlins. The Rays need offense, but probably aren’t going to spend to get it. The Yankees still might fall apart with a couple of more injuries or they might turn into the AL’s best team when they start getting players back. And the Red Sox will almost surely have their own run of DL stints this summer given the number of injury-prone players.
I picked Toronto to win the division a month ago. Now I’d pick them to remain in last place. But as for the other four, it might as well be a tossup. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Orioles prevail; I think they’re better set up to handle injuries than the Red Sox and Rays are. But, right now, the Red Sox are probably the favorites, largely because of the way Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are throwing.