The Tigers are in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, a franchise first. The Baltimore Orioles were no strangers to the postseason in the 1960s and '70s, but actually have fewer playoff appearances than the Tigers do in the last 30 years. But as of tomorrow evening, we hate their guts.
In order to properly work up enough vitriol for this series -- seriously, it's tough, they seem cool -- we spoke with Mark Brown of Camden Chat. Mark was kind enough to give us the lowdown on the Orioles, who would actually be pretty fun to watch if they weren't The Enemy. You can see my answers to his questions here.
1. Nelson Cruz was one of the Orioles' most valuable offensive players in 2014, posting a 140 OPS+ while hitting 40 home runs and driving in 108 RBI. Obviously he exceeded expectations, but by how much? Were you hoping for anything close to this when the Orioles signed him? And should they re-sign him for 2015 and beyond?
What Cruz did this year was beyond what I would have even figured was the best case scenario for him. There were a lot of reasons to worry about Cruz at age 33, coming off of the Biogenesis suspension. I just didn't want him to end up as another one season signing of an aging slugger that busted for the Orioles. (See: Guerrero, Vladimir) Cruz believed in himself enough that he reportedly eschewed two-year deals in favor of signing with Baltimore - lucky for O's fans, he was right to believe.
As for signing him long-term, it's hard to convince myself that's a good idea. I think that many of the reasons that teams didn't want to sign him to a four-year deal last offseason are still valid. He's proven that the suspension didn't affect him, but Father Time still is coming. Even without the aging factor, he might well have priced himself above what Baltimore is willing to pay. He might go down as the greatest one year Oriole.
2. Speaking of exceeding expectations, let's talk about Steve Pearce. Did he completely come out of nowhere, or was this just a solid part-time player stepping into a full-time role with authority? Do we dare expect something like this to continue next year?
It's possible that Steve Pearce is the main character of a 2014 remake of Damn Yankees, a man who sold his soul to the devil to transform into an out of nowhere player to help the Orioles win the division/pennant/World Series. Never mind that Pearce has been in MLB before this year - it was a long bargain, obviously. How else can you explain 21 home runs in 102 games, when he'd hit 17 in 290 games over seven seasons before this one? Not bad for a guy who was DFA'd BY THE ORIOLES back in April.
You never really know what might happen when you put someone with tools to succeed in the right place at the right time. Pearce is 31, a 2nd-year arbitration player who just had his career year. It's hard to imagine him having another year like this, but even if he just becomes a right-handed bench bat, there are still a lot of teams who probably wish they could have him.
3. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Chris Davis. He was a one-man wrecking crew in 2013, leading the majors with 53 home runs and 138 RBI. This season has been a different story, and now he will miss the entire series after being suspended. Will the Orioles miss him all that much? Or is this a bigger loss than the numbers let on?
It's tempting to say the Orioles haven't missed Davis much, especially considering his earlier oblique injury and this latest suspension have just meant more playing time for Pearce. I think that strong pitchers like the Tigers rotation would be able to take advantage of the weakness he's shown this year. There are Orioles fans who are hoping that the O's (if they make it that far) will play a man short in the ALCS until Davis' suspension runs out, just so he can play the rest of that series. I am not one of those fans.
One thing that has been significant over the final weeks of the season is the absence of a regular third baseman. Davis was the guy there after Manny Machado went down; he was no great shakes, but he felt less chaotic than the Jimmy Paredes/Kelly Johnson/Ryan Flaherty trio. If one of those jokers is at third and either Cruz or Delmon Young is in left, it's a real problem, ceding lots of ground on one side of the field.
4. At first glance, the Orioles' rotation pales in comparison to the star power that the Tigers have. However, the O's have some solid arms, and their depth is excellent. What do you expect the order of the rotation to be (if it isn't announced beforehand), and who are you worried about?
As anyone on Camden Chat will tell you, I worry about everything to do with the Orioles, all of the time.
They will probably come in with a rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez. (Not sure the order on 3/4, but definitely those guys.) I'm most worried about the homer-prone Chen against the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Norris, with a 5.57 ERA in 8 day starts, is a concern if he gets thrown into one of these afternoon games. Any one of these guys can get lit up on a bad day, but they're all also plenty capable of turning in a strong series, leaving Tigers fans scratching their heads and wondering how they did it.
5. What is it like having a real bullpen? The last time we saw the Orioles, Miguel Cabrera put the final nail in the "Tommy Hunter for closer" coffin with a go-ahead ninth inning home run. Now, it seems like the O's have things figured out. How does the back end line up, and are there any holes?
After years of ill-advised attempts to chase bullpen security with high-priced relievers, I still haven't gotten used to the Dan Duquette cheap bullpen method yet. It's terrifying at the beginning of the season, because it's like, how can these castoffs possibly succeed? Then it somehow works out, although there are bumps along the way. It's fun when it works, although it still leaves me nervous every game.
Zach Britton, a hard-throwing lefty sinkerballer, will probably only be used in traditional closer spots. The side-armer Darren O'Day, July trade acquisition Andrew Miller, and the aforementioned Hunter will be matching up through the 7th-8th innings. Britton and O'Day had sub-2.00 ERAs for the year. Hunter had a 1.77 ERA after being bounced from the closer role. Miller had a 2.02 ERA between Boston and Baltimore this year. You never know when a reliever will have nothing one night, but I like their chances. Of course, that's what I said in 2012, then Jim Johnson, Brian Matusz, and Raul Ibanez happened. *shudder*
6. The O's were the first AL team to clinch their division, and have largely been playing meaningless baseball for the past couple weeks. Tigers fans are wary of long layoffs, as they seem to have affected the team's performance in their last two World Series appearances. Are you worried about Baltimore's ability to get going in this series, or do you think that the relative time off is an advantage?
Smarter people than me have debunked the idea that a long layoff hurts a team going into the playoffs, but being a fan isn't always (or often) about following the rational thought path. It was tough to see them coasting into the playoffs because you can't help but worry about not being able to flip the switch back on when the games count again.
Where I think the benefit lies for the Orioles is that players were able to get some extra rest. Last year, it felt like the entire team was out of gas in September. Showalter was able to spare his regulars some of the daily grind the last two weeks of the season. In general, I'm happy that they're able to be more fresh, although if they lose this series, I'll probably bemoan how clinching so early hurt them. So it goes.
7. Do you guys hate Delmon Young as much as we do? (Oh, and you probably shouldn't play him during this series. He does this annoying thing during the playoffs where he turns into a demi-god and only hits home runs. You surely wouldn't want that.)
We have this saying on Camden Chat that if a guy is playing well, he can eat kitten tacos for all we care. Young seems like a pretty classic kitten taco kind of guy. He's been used judiciously and to good effect (120 OPS+) by the Orioles this year.
I'm aware of some ugly skeletons in his closet due to past immature behavior, but those almost feel like they must have happened to some other baseball player, not this guy who is on the Orioles this year. Maybe he's keeping the lid on a boiling pot of crazy or maybe he just finally grew up. If he wants to add to his nine career postseason home runs in this series, that would be fine with me.
Once again, a big thanks to Mark and the rest of the Camden Chat staff for taking their time to answer our questions. You can see what I had to say about the Tigers here. Be sure to check out Camden Chat all series long for an Orioles perspective on the ALDS!