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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking slumps, bad weather, and worse pitching staffs with Camden Chat

“We had a Camden Chat with Mark Brown” was just too obvious a headline.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The idea that we might get to see baseball this week is hype enough, but why don’t we add a rematch series of the 2014 ALDS while we’re at it (I still haven’t quite forgiven you, Nelson Cruz).

With the Baltimore Orioles in town, we asked Mark Brown, managing editor of the SB Nation Orioles blog Camden Chat, to talk to us about the games. We asked him about a future Machado trade, the surprising turn of Dylan Bundy, and whether or not Richard Bleier has made a literal pact with the devil.

BYB: Who would you say has been the most pleasant surprise of the early season for you? Don’t say Machado, that’s just bragging.

MB: There aren’t very many pleasant surprises so far for the Orioles. For me, the best of the bunch is Dylan Bundy, who through four starts at least has been looking something like a guy the Orioles hoped he would be when they drafted him #4 overall back in 2011. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but he’s rocking and rolling so far, posting a 1.40 ERA on a 1.091 WHIP through his first four starts - and he’s faced some real teams with some real lineups in that time. He’s averaging more than six innings per start, working on a 10.9 K/9, and better yet, has 4.43 strikeouts per walk. Often, when Orioles pitchers find success, there’s a “But his FIP means it’s unsustainable!” element at play. Bundy is sitting on a 1.97 FIP.

The question is what happens in the subsequent months. Bundy also had a 1.65 ERA at the end of April last year and struggled in the summer months, when it appeared he was tiring during his first full season in a big league starting rotation. The Orioles may not have the luxury of stealing extra rest for him when they can.

The O’s and Tigers are off to similarly rocky starts. Would you say this is how you saw the season shaping up, or are you surprised by the team’s place in the standings? What do you think has contributed to where the team is right now?

I didn’t have very high hopes for this team going into the season. Their plan appeared to boil down to, “Hope that everything bad about last year’s team becomes good, and everything good stays good.” You don’t need me to tell you that’s not how this works. My idea of a bad year, though, was that they would limp along to something like 78 wins, not quite out of it enough in July to convince themselves that they should trade the key free agents-to-be to get whatever they can for them. So, yeah, I’m surprised to see them looking more like a 100-loss team through the first 10% of the season.

What’s surprising is just how atrocious the offense has been so far. The Orioles were counting on some kind of bounce-back from Chris Davis, not so much because they had a rational reason for believing in this as that they desperately needed it to be true and so they convinced themselves it was. Davis has blown way past even pessimistic expectations so far, with a .132/.233/.208 batting line. He looks horrible. It is not bad luck. Also in the toilet, offensively, are Caleb Joseph, Tim Beckham, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop (hurt, won’t be seen in this series) and Anthony Santander. None of those players have a wRC+ above 70 and three of them are below 30. Yikes.

Do you think the O’s will move Machado mid-season to be a short-term rental elsewhere, in the hopes of getting back some minor trade pieces? Any remote possibility they lure him back with an extension?

The answer to the question of what the Orioles will do about Machado is going to define the franchise for the next 3-5 years. They were said to contemplate trading him back in December - why they only then realized, “Wow, we might be bad and Machado might be gone no matter what” is a mystery to me - but never pulled the trigger, possibly because they had unrealistic expectations for a trade return. The idea that he’s going to stay seems unlikely. Just yesterday, I read a prediction from ESPN’s Dan Szymborski that Machado would get an eight year, $300 million contract. I don’t believe in the Orioles interest in that bidding war, nor their guts to try to win it if they got in it. Another baseball writer, Jon Heyman, recently suggested the O’s were 100-1 to retain Machado and I thought, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

They have to trade him if they keep playing badly, don’t they? They can’t just let him walk and get only a meager compensation pick. Yet the Orioles brain trust - GM Dan Duquette, manager Buck Showalter - are also in the last year of their contracts. If Machado is getting traded in July, Duquette almost “has” to be gone by June to get a new guy with a new plan in charge, so he can trade Machado according to that plan. Or maybe they will just keep having unrealistic expectations, thinking about the 2016 trades that stocked up the Yankees. Good grief, what a mess.

Which Tigers player do you think is going to be the most trouble for the O’s in this upcoming series?

It’s always trouble to have to face Justin Verlander, even if it is a big shame that he’s wasted on such a... oh, right, sorry. Habits are hard to break. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t get very far past Miguel Cabrera if you asked me to name some current Tigers, and I know he’s struggled so far.

With how the Orioles are hitting so far, I think I might be most afraid of facing Jordan Zimmermann. I understand he has been bad, especially to start this season, but I also know that I watched the Orioles almost get no-hit by Kyle Gibson earlier this year, and they almost seem to take it as a personal challenge to get no-hit for at least like, five innings every game. When they go up against Zimmermann, we’re going to find out the true depths of how pathetic this offense can be, and I’m more than a little afraid about what is going to happen. Guys who take a line drive off the face and make their next start are not to be taken lightly.

What do the Orioles have to do right this year to push themselves towards a winning franchise in the future?

If we accept the conclusion that the Orioles are bad, will keep being bad, and there’s nothing their current roster or high minors prospects can do about it this season, then what they have to do right is trade everyone they can who is a soon-to-be free agent, and make the best trades they can for every one of those players. They have to actually manage to develop and keep healthy a crop of pitching prospects that’s in Double-A and lower, with a particularly intriguing Low-A starting rotation.

I am not confident about when the Orioles themselves will reach that conclusion, or if they will reach it at all. As long as they are laboring under the delusion of contention, then the only thing that can go right for the future is for their original plan to come to fruition over the remaining 90% of the season: “Get a cheap rotation that’s non-horrible enough for a great offense and good bullpen to win all of the games.” Meatloaf once said that two out of three ain’t bad, but I have no guidance from him on what to do about zero out of three.

How cool is the free kids ticket thing? Do you think other teams should embrace this method of reaching future fans and creating a family-friendly environment at parks?

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder whether the Orioles have the purest motives in this whole thing. You may have read that, early on, the Orioles attendance is down by about 40% compared to last year, including a brand new record-low attendance game (post-riot no-fan game excepted) that suggests the O’s probably shed at least 3,000 full season tickets. If you know you’re going to get shellacked, you might as well try something to make people happy with you. And so: Two kids nine and under can go free per adult upper deck ticket all year.

Whatever their motives, though, the result is good. Get families to the ballpark. Get kids building the fond memories that will make them grow up to be fans and stick with that fandom even if another dark time is coming. Every team should want to get kids to the stadium. I hope that the program is a success no matter what happens on the field this season.

Uh, Richard Bleier. Was he conjured by a sorcerer, or is he himself a wizard?

A thing that you may not know about Richard Bleier is that, after a recent 12-inning game against the Yankees where he pitched three scoreless innings, he told reporters, “I was in the minor leagues for nine years, so that was nine years off. I told Buck that as long as I’m in MLB, I can pitch every day.” Bleier has pitched in half of the Orioles games so far. Nobody does that! And though he’s a lefty, he’s not a LOOGY in that role. He’s pitched 12 innings. He’s now thrown 98.1 big league innings and he has a 4.0 K/9 and a 1.83 ERA. Nobody does that either, not in the modern “Every bullpen is full of guys who strike out seventy men per nine innings” era.

To answer your question, I don’t know whether Bleier is the result of some kind of magic. But if we ended up with some kind of “Damn Yankees”-like scenario where, in an extra innings game as the clock strikes midnight, the devil’s bargain suddenly comes due and Bleier abruptly transforms into an unathletic 45-year-old man with no baseball talent, then disappears into the dugout, never to be seen again, I wouldn’t be THAT surprised. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Bleier, crafty lefty that he is, swindled the devil himself.

We’d like to thank Mark for being a good sport, and also for busting out a Damn Yankees reference like it was no big deal. To read more of Mark’s work, head over to Camden Chat.