Every week, the Orioles analysts here at Baltimore Sports and Life will collaborate with a special guest from network partner at 24×7 Networks – Eutaw Street Report. We’ll have a Q&A roundtable discussion on a variety of topics around the O’s and MLB in general. This week, Gordon Dixon joins BSL Analysts Chris Stoner, Patrick Dougherty, Jonathan Mitchell, and Jeff Long.

Discuss this post and your responses on the BSL Forums here.

Q1: Richard Justice sent out a tweet saying “Is this the definition of a No. 1? Chris Tillman 3 ER or less in 17 straight starts (2.26 ERA). 5th-longest streak in O’s history”. Tillman has certainly turned around a season that looked disastrous early on. Is he becoming a true No. 1? Or is he just the Orioles’ de facto No.1?

Chris Stoner: In my opinion there are only a few true ACE’s around baseball, and I would not count Tillman among those select few. That said, I enjoy watching Tillman take the ball every 5th day, and overall he’s been consistently positive since rejoining the O’s in July 2012 (79 starts). His overall numbers this year are still a bit inflated due to his troubles in May. A lot of people watch Tillman, and come away unimpressed by his ‘stuff’. The velocity can wander. His location can be up in the zone. It can appear that there is not a lot of movement. So why does he succeed? I wonder if there is something to Tillman, and Effective Velocity? Interestingly, Tillman’s K% is down in ’14 (16.7% vs. 21.2% in ’13), but despite hitters putting a higher % of balls in play, the slugging % of opposing hitters against him is lower this year (.365 vs. .427 last year). Maybe that is somewhat of a fluke, and maybe there are other league wide environmental things to consider (decreased slugging across the game); but it speaks to me about how Tillman is capable of adjustments. He looks for what he has working on a particular night, and just battles. Orioles Manager Buck Showalter regularly talks about the need to grind games out over the course of a 162 game season. Tillman seems to be the epitome of that mentality as a starter. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the post-season. The 26 year old is not a Free Agent until the 2018 season. Would you go year-to-year through arbitration, or would you consider an extension which bought his first year or two of Free Agency?

Patrick Dougherty: Tillman is the Orioles’ de facto #1. Take a look at this season’s top 10 lists for starting pitchers and find Tillman’s name in a meaningful list. He’s #8 in W%, which relies on the offense as much as anything else, and tied for #1 with 31 games started. That’s it. He doesn’t have the innings to this point that the best pitchers in the game have: Tillman’s thrown 187.2 to Scherzer’s 200.1 and Price’s 219.0 – not that far off, but price has affected the equivalent of 4 games more than Tillman. Tillman’s SIERA  ranks #78, his WHIP ranks #39. He’s good, and he’s definitely gotten great results, but he wouldn’t command a return like Lester or Price in a trade.

Gordon Dixon: The number of true “aces” in Major League Baseball is pretty small and while Chris Tillman’s numbers excluding the month of May have been impressive, he’s not quite in the discussion yet. That isn’t necessarily the worst thing though, because it doesn’t mean you aren’t good, just not the cream of the crop, which a select group. Each team needs a starter to lead the rotation and Tillman has filled the role for the Orioles the past two seasons. Sometimes, as fans, we get too caught up trying to fit players into classes or categories and less time appreciating them for what they are. In Chris Tillman’s case, he’s a guy who takes the ball every fifth day and gives the club a chance to win more often than not. And that’s perfectly fine.

Jonathan Mitchell: Chris Tillman is just the Orioles’ de facto No. 1. During that 17 game stretch his 3.61 FIP does not scream number one starter. Tillman does not miss enough bats for me to call him a number one starter. During that same stretch he has struck out three or less batters in eight of those 17 starts. Think about that for just a minute.

Jeff Long: There’s a lot of conversation around what the difference is between a #1, an ace, and a top of the rotation starter. If Tillman is any of those, it’s only because the O’s lack any true talent top of the rotation pitchers. I’m a big Tillman fan, but it seems that at this point he is what he is:   a decent mid-rotation starter that can go through stretches where his stuff plays up. Let’s not forget that early in the season Tillman was nearly a disaster.

Q2: The O’s seem primed to bring back JJ Hardy on Friday after he received a cortisone shot for his back. With Buck not seeming shy about resting starters as necessary, do you think the O’s are being too eager to bring Hardy back given his importance to the team? How would you handle Hardy and his ailing back through the end of the season?

CS: With no new damage, and no structural damage found – I have no issue with putting Hardy back into the lineup regularly for the remainder of the year. If you want to have him start games, and come out early; I don’t see an issue there. You want to take advantage of the standings, and having your regular players as rested and healthy as possible going into the playoffs; but you also want to continue to try and win games. The O’s had a very strong team in 1997, that put the brakes on that September. They later tried to find their previous higher gear, and were unable to do so. It will be hard to maintain quite the level the O’s have played at since the break, but you want to go into the post-season feeling confident about how you are playing. Looking to the off-season, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with Hardy. It would not surprise me if someone is willing to give Hardy a 4 year deal, and I think (understandably) that might beyond what the O’s want to offer. My guess is the O’s Front-Office would be comfortable with a 2 year deal. Will the two sides split the difference, and come together on a 3 year contract?

PD: With the magic number at 8 games, there’s no reason to risk Hardy’s health. Give him a few extra days off, DH him for a week, and let him get some work in at short before the playoffs start. With Wieters and Machado out and Davis hitting like… well, like exactly what the Rangers thought he would hit like, Buck needs to keep the other generally reliable offensive bats ready for the games that matter.

GD: An elite defender at a premium defensive position, J.J. Hardy’s absence is noticed when he isn’t in the lineup. Add in that he’s come up with timely hits recently and it’s understandable why the Orioles want him in the lineup as much as possible. However, being in the unfamiliar position of coasting towards a division title gives the team a chance to make sure one of its more important cogs is fully healthy when the playoffs begin and the quest for a championship gets underway in earnest. Routine “maintenance” days off for J.J. Hardy (and others who have logged major innings this season) down the stretch would be beneficial with October baseball on the horizon.

JM: There is no way I rush J.J. Hardy back. I wrote about this topic the other day (link?) and the only way I bring him back is if home field advantage is jeopardized. If Buck wants to bring him back for the final series just to get him ready for the playoffs then I would understand that. But the Orioles keep winning so why risk losing Hardy for the playoffs?

JL: I generally agree that Hardy should get plenty of rest between now and the rest of the season. The O’s will likely want to walk the tight rope of keeping Hardy healthy while making sure he’s prepared for playoff baseball. If Hardy were to sit out for a few games then he might need more time after coming back to re-adjust to the game. As a result I’d use Hardy 4-5 days a week with plenty of rest mixed in.

Q3: If the season ended today the O’s would be the #2 seed in the American League and face off against the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. What do you think would be the keys to a matchup against the Royals? Which player would likely be the O’s X-factor in such a series?

CS: KC and the Orioles have some similarities.The rotations are competitive, but not overwhelming. Both teams have elite bullpens. Both teams have on-base % issues. In-terms of differences, the O’are 6th overall in Defensive Efficiency, while Kansas City is 13th. Another difference is the slugging between the teams (the O’s are 3rd overall, while the Royals are 17th). I’m not sure there are real keys in a 5 game series. In my opinion, it’s more of a matter of who is playing well at the time. That answer seems like a cop out, so I’ll expand slightly. As an Orioles fan, I just don’t want to see the O’s beat themselves. Play hard, play aggressive, and don’t make errors (physical and mental) which give away games. The profile of the Baltimore offense is not going to change. The offense is reliant on the slugging, and the slugging is going to need to be their in the post-season. As far as an X-factor, I’ll go with Chris Davis. Crush’s average is still below the Mendoza line, but he has an .853 OPS in September, with 9 homers in his last 120ish ab’s. If he can catch fire for a month, that would be quite the lift.

PD: The O’s would need to jump on the Royals’ starters while having their own starters hold down the fort until the bullpen could shut it down. Which is funny, because the Royals would be saying the exact same thing. Since I shouldn’t call Adam Jones an X-factor, it would probably be someone like Brad Brach that has the ability to keep a rough start from costing us a game, or Flaherty, who can go for extra bases on a good night.

GD: It sounds cliche, but getting out to early leads would certainly benefit the Orioles in a series against the Royals. That won’t be easy against a rotation that ranks 4th in the AL in ERA (3.56), but you don’t want to be trailing heading to the late innings needing to score runs against Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and a bullpen that boasts the second best FIP (3.39) in the league. Also, you put pressure on a Royals offense that’s last in the AL in OPS+ (90) to produce against an Orioles relief corps that’s also among the best in baseball. We’ve seemingly been waiting for Chris Davis to get going all season, but a .265/.342/.471 line in September is a good sign heading towards the playoffs and a return to form could be a real boost to the team’s playoff chances.

JM: The key for the Orioles is to get out to an early lead. They cannot go up against the meat of the Royals’ bullpen. Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have nearly 125 combined innings an not a single home run allowed. Greg Holland’s 1.60 ERA is the highest out of the three I named here. The X-Factor on offense, for me, would be Nick Markakis. Get on base. Get on base. Get on base. For pitchers it would be all of the right-handed starters. The Royals have a 90 wRC+ against RHP.

JL: Everyone here is pretty much on the same page for a very good reason. With the Royals and O’s having some of the best bullpens in baseball (including two of the top late inning groups), it’ll be important for both teams to get out to early leads if they want to win. As a result I think the X-Factors in the series will be the top offensive players for both sides. Whichever group is able to execute more will see their team have more success in the series.

Q4: The debate has raged on the BSL forums for weeks now and it’s time for us to weigh in. Who is your Most Valuable Oriole? Which O’s fill out your top 5? Feel free to elaborate on why you ranked them as you did.

CS: My Top 5 in-order would be Jones, Cruz, Hardy, Tillman, Britton. Had Machado stayed healthy, I think he might have finished 2nd. Some will point to the fWAR of Pearce (3.9 entering play Tuesday night), and say he is a glaring omission. I just can’t rank him with the everyday regulars of Jones, Cruz, and Hardy – and I’ll take Tillman’s 200 innings this year, and Britton’s WPA over Pearce as well. The other omission from my list is O’Day. If you prefer him over Britton, no objection from me. Based on the start of the year Wieters was having, would have been interesting to see where he would have finished this year.

PD:  Adam Jones is the best player we have. It’s that simple.
1. Adam Jones
2. JJ Hardy: leader of the defense that’s saved so many of our pitchers, and is sort of struggling to not make errors without him as an anchor.
3. Nelson Cruz: we might not be here if not for his ability to carry the entire 25-man roster for the first couple of months.
4. Steve Pearce: when he’s hot, he’s hot. When he’s not… Pearce v. Cruz is a hot debate, and I don’t disagree with anyone throwing Pearce higher than Cruz because he plays better defense more often. Sure, defensive metrics can be shaky, but Pearce has done more with the opportunities than Cruz.
5. Chris Tillman: He can shut it down, sometimes. I considered Manny for this spot, but every day that Tillman starts makes him more valuable to this team.

GD: 

1. Nelson Cruz
2. Adam Jones
3. Zach Britton
4. Darren O’Day
5. Chris Tillman

With the injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado as well as a return to earth for Chris Davis, where would the Orioles be without Nelson Cruz? $8 million doesn’t often look like a bargain, but when you look at Cruz’s production for what the Orioles are paying him you have just that. For a signature game, look no further than the 34-year-old’s 4-hit, 2 home run, 7 RBI game against the Rays on September 7. You can count on Adam Jones to play gold glove caliber defense and be among the team’s offensive leaders when the season is over. 2014 has been no different. Since earning ninth inning duties, Zach Britton has taken the role and run with it better than perhaps anyone (except maybe Buck Showalter) expected. Outside of Britton, no one has stood out in the Orioles bullpen like Darren O’Day. Bridging the gap from starter to closer isn’t easy and doesn’t get many accolades. O’Day does it as well as anyone. For the second season in a row, Tillman will lead the team in innings and quality starts.

JM: Can I nominate Buck Showalter? I mean, the man gets more out of his guys than just about any manager. Adam Jones is the most valuable player for this team. His bat and stellar defense in center field have been nothing short of star power. My top five would be Jones, Nelson Cruz, J.J. Hardy, Chris Tillman, and Steve Pearce.

JL: I’ll agree with the refrain from everyone above that Jones is the most valuable oriole this season. He provides value in many facets of the game, something that can’t be said about many other O’s. My top 5 would be:

1. Adam Jones

2. JJ Hardy

3. Nelson Cruz

4. Steve Pearce

5. Zach Britton

It’s tempting to include O’Day on this list, but really Britton has stepped into the closer role amidst some early season turmoil, and anchored the back end of the bullpen. The top 4 though, are position players. Pearce makes the list for peak vs. longevity, as he’s been deployed intelligently by Buck and has rewarded the club for doing so. Jones, Hardy, and Cruz have provided unexpected production to push the team forward.

Jeff Long
Jeff Long

Jeff was the owner of the Orioles blog Warehouse Worthy, which focused on making advanced statistics a part of the conversation for the average fan. Outside of baseball, Jeff is a graduate of Loyola University where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Business Administration. The Maryland native currently works for an Advertising Agency in downtown Baltimore. Previously a contributor to Beyond the Boxscore, he joined Baseball Prospectus in September 2014. You can reach him at [email protected].

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