After back-to-back losses to open the season in Houston, which made me question if I even like baseball, the Yankees have won three of their last four games to get to .500. It took the 2014 Yankees 48 1/3 innings to hit their first home run of the season, but Brett Gardner ended the drought and I no longer have to worry that this season is just a continuation of last season with the Stadium opener against the Orioles on Monday.
With the Yankees and Orioles playing the first baseball in the Bronx of the year, I did an email exchange with Mark Brown of Camden Chat to talk about how Buck Showalter has changed the culture and the direction of the Orioles, what it will be like to watch Brian Roberts play against the Orioles and how Yankees fans will miss Jim Johnson as an Oriole with Tommy Hunter now their closer.
Keefe: I said during the 2012 ALDS that Buck Showalter wanted to win that series more than anyone wanted anything in their life. After he was fired by the Yankees following the 1995 season before they went on their dynastic run and then fired by the Diamondbacks following the 2000 season before they won the World Series, Showalter has had a couple devastating breaks in his career.
When Major League Baseball decided that in 2012 (and only for 2012) there would be a 2-3 format for the division series, I thought Showalter and the Orioles had a real chance at beating the Yankees in the ALDS. And when they won Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, I was petrified going into Game 5, knowing that the Yankees could lose the ALDS in Game 5 at the Stadium for the second year in a row. The Yankees won the series, but after not having won more than 79 games since 1997, the Orioles had gone 93-69, won a one-game playoff in Texas against the Rangers, who were coming off back-to-back AL championships and had change the perception of the franchise for outsiders.
Last year, the Orioles weren’t as good (85-77) as they had been in 2012, but they still proved they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and are going to be in the mix for playoff contention for the foreseeable future. It seems like the culture chance with the Orioles started when Showalter took over the Orioles during the 2010 season, as they went 34-23 under him and then 69-93 in 2011 before reversing their record in 2012.
How has Showalter changed the Orioles and how do Orioles fans feel about him?
Brown: I’m not sure we’ll ever know just how much Showalter was really a factor in the Orioles turnaround, but as far as O’s fans are concerned, things got better when he got here. It was almost an immediate change in that 2010 season, going from lackluster play under two other managers to a great finish with basically the same roster. The players talk about the advantage of having someone who’s going to hold them accountable. Guys like Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, who’ve been around a while, would know better than me.
Even with 2011 representing an interruption of progress, a not-great full season under Showalter, there was still that wonderful final series against the Red Sox, where the O’s, with nothing to play for, sent them packing from the playoffs. I believe that it was Showalter who had them believing in that happening. In retrospect, that Game 162 magic feels like it was the prologue for the great 2012 season that was to come.
When Showalter was hired, there were all these stories about how he wore out his welcome everywhere else he’d been. That was concerning at the time. Now that he’s been here for some winning, I’m not too worried about that either. Showalter likes to say that he’s tired of watching someone else walk his daughter down the aisle. Maybe that means he learned something about what didn’t work out in his other stints as a manager.
He’s signed through 2018, and while he has occasional moments where his tactical decisions frustrate fans – as any manager will – I don’t have any reason to dread him being around that long. The franchise seems to have finally found some stability in the dugout and the front office and it’s meant good things so far.
Keefe: For years, Brian Roberts killed the Yankees. He played just about a full season against them during his time with the Orioles and hit .288/.344/.429 14 home runs and 66 RBIs in 152 games. I have always been a fan of Roberts since he played the game the right way, even if he was a pesky switch hitter, who always seemed to be involved in every Orioles rally against the Yankees. Now Roberts is a Yankee, and I’m happy about it and believe he is a perfect fit at second base for this team for at least this year, and possibly more if he can stay healthy for the first time since 2009.
How frustrating was it with Roberts suffering so many injuries over the last four years and what’s it like to see him as a Yankee now?
Brown: You mentioned feeling bad for Markakis that he didn’t get to participate in the playoff push, but for me, it’s Roberts who makes me sad that he missed out on all of that. Here was a guy who’d literally given his physical health for some awful Orioles teams of the 2000s. He was probably the best player on a number of those teams. That was his era of the Orioles. It was a losing era, but it wasn’t his fault. He came and he played except for when he suffered significant injuries. He never got to be a good player on a good Orioles team. At least Markakis contributed, even if he didn’t play in the postseason.
It was frustrating to watch him battle so many nagging injuries as he got older, particularly his concussion problems, because he was making $10 million a year. Turns out it’s not a great idea to have an aging second baseman signed for four years at that price. I don’t blame Roberts for that. You knew he wanted to be playing.
What will be really frustrating is if he finds the fountain of youth while playing second base for the Yankees this season as the Orioles continue to have poor performance at the position. It’ll be strange watching him in pinstripes, but I don’t hold it against him for going there. It was clear that the O’s weren’t very interested in bringing him back, for better or worse. The Yankees had a need in the infield and a chance for him to keep playing. I wish him well, except for when he’s playing the Orioles.
Keefe: I felt bad for Nick Markakis when he missed out on the end of the 2012 season and the postseason after being hit by CC Sabathia and breaking his hand. Markakis had played through miserable years with the Orioles starting in 2006 and then went on the disabled list for the first and second times in his career the one year they win 93 games and reach the playoffs.
After his .300/.362/.485 season with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs in 2007 at the age of 23, I thought Markakis would continue to progress into a star in the league. While he has been a very good all-around player in the league for his entire career, he never turned into the top-tier player I thought he would. How do you view Markakis and what has held him back from taking the next step?
Brown: I don’t understand Markakis. As you mentioned, he had that great season at a young age and instead of building on that, he’s only declined as he’s gone through what are the typical prime years – this as his salary escalated thanks to the extension he signed on the strength of his early seasons. At one time he looked like the next good career-long Oriole. Now it’s not even a certainty he’ll be with them beyond this season, as there’s very little chance the Orioles will be picking up a $17.5 million option for 2015.
His power has vanished. Even if you consider 2013 an aberration, when he says he was battling nagging injuries and having to make adjustments he never had to make before, he’d still had declining power in 2010 and 2011. It’s a mystery. What happened? I have no idea.
There was a whole spring full of stories about how this is going to be a new-look Markakis. In photographs, he looked to be more muscular than he’s seemed in several seasons. There’s still some hope about him rebounding for this season, although it hasn’t been a great start for that cause over the first couple of series of the season.
Keefe: No Yankees fans were upset that Phil Hughes wasn’t part of the future plans of the Yankees after last season, however I’m sure Chris Davis was saddened to know that Hughes was moving to the AL Central. It hasn’t been fun watching Davis finally put it together in the majors with 86 home runs over the last two years. Last year, when he hit 53 home runs with 138 RBIs, it reminded me of A-Rod’s 2007 season with the Yankees when he hit 54 home runs with 156 home runs. I remember how fun it was watching every A-Rod at-bat thinking that he would hit a home run every time at the plate or at least once a game. What was it like watching Davis’ incredible 2013 season and how has it been watching him figure it out and develop into a true, consistent power hitter in the majors?
Brown: You are exactly right about how fun it was to watch Davis. The best part is when he hits a home run and you can’t even believe it went out. He’s so strong, he can just flick his wrists and sometimes it goes out even if he doesn’t get great contact. He had a broken bat home run. He goes opposite field. He pulls the ball over the right field scoreboard. He crushes them to deep center. He was homering anywhere and everywhere.
No one in Orioles history had ever had a season like that, so it was cool to know we were seeing something that no Orioles fan had ever seen before. Not bad for a guy who came over in a late July trade for a closer.
Keefe: When I think of Tommy Hunter, I think of Game 4 of the 2010 ALCS when he went 3 1/3 innings against the Yankees, allowing three runs on five hits, while striking out five and walking none as the Rangers went on to win that game 10-3 and take a 3-1 series lead. I remember that game because A.J. Burnett started it for the Yankees and it was basically the end for the 2010 Yankees. Hunter never really put it together as a starter with the Rangers or the Orioles, but then the Orioles put him in the bullpen and he has been a completely different pitcher and probably belonged there all along. He has gone from a back-end-of-the-rotation guy barely hanging on to a spot in the majors to the closer for the Orioles. What do you think of Hunter as the closer following the Jim Johnson era? I’m going to miss Jim Johnson. I’m going to miss him a lot.
Brown: When the Orioles were running Hunter out there as a starter, my nickname for him was “Five Runs, All Earned”, because that was in his box score seemingly every time. He couldn’t get lefties out. Transforming into a bullpen arm was the best thing for his career. He pumped up his velocity since he only has to air it out for one inning.
That’s helped him, but he still struggles against lefties – he gave up 11 home runs last season and all of them were hit by lefties. That makes me nervous about him as the closer, especially if it’s a one-run game. But, he doesn’t really walk batters either. At least that should be enough to avoid some patented Johnson disaster innings.
The traumatic moment of my childhood was the Jeffrey Maier play. The traumatic moment of my adulthood is Johnson against Raul Ibanez. You might miss him, but I won’t!
Keefe: I love the nickname for Tommy Hunter. I used to call Hiroki Kuroda “Coin Flip” when he first arrived with the Yankees in 2012 and have had many other nicknames for pitchers like Phil Hughes and Boone Logan, but I will refrain from writing those here since I’m hoping to keep it at least PG-13.
Joe Girardi’s decision to pinch hit Raul Ibanez for Alex Rodriguez was the most important decision of Girardi’s tenure as Yankees manager. If Ibanez does anything there other than hit a home run, Girardi is second-guessed about pinch hitting for his $29 million player. It took a lot of balls for Girardi to make that decision, but I’m glad he did. It was a memorable night at the Stadium.
The American League East is as good as it’s ever been. The Yankees revamped their roster by handing out eight- and nine-figure contracts left and right after their down year, the Red Sox are coming off their third World Series in 10 seasons, the Rays are coming off their third postseason appearance in five years, the Blue Jays have built a strong offense and lineup and the Orioles are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996-97. With the division so competitive and tight this year, there’s a chance the East could send three teams to the playoffs. What are your expectations for the Orioles this year and how do you think they will finish?
Brown: Before the season started, I predicted that the Orioles would win 86 games. I felt like the offense would be good and the rotation would be OK and that’s about where a team like that would end up. Not great, but good. A whole lot like last year, in fact, just with a slightly different cast of characters.