Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Buck Stops Here

ESPN is reporting that Buck Showalter has been hired and will begin managing the Orioles on 8/3.

Tim Kurkjian at ESPN has reported that the Orioles have officially hired Buck Showalter as the new manager, replacing interim manager Juan Samuel. His first game as manager is being reported as August 3rd.

That sound you just heard is me sighing with relief.

I was convinced the O's were gonna blow this one...that they were gonna let Buck get away after failing to officially hire him for almost a month. Thankfully, they didn't blow it.

Showalter is exactly what this team needs: an experienced manager who has had measurable success with three different organizations over his 11 year career as manager.

He was the manager of the Yankees from 1992-1995, leading the Yankees to the playoffs as a Wild Card team in 1995. Showalter was replaced by Joe Torre and the Yankees won the World Series in 1996.

In Arizona, Buck had his best success. He was hired two years before the Diamondbacks began play in 1998 and helped oversee the creation of the expansion team's roster. The Diamondbacks lost 97 games in their inaugural season, but the next year, they won 100 games. They lost in the first round of the playoffs, and won 85 games the following year, Showalter's last as the Diamondback's skipper. And just like in New York, the Diamondbacks went on to win the World Series after Showalter left.

And in Texas, Showalter had only moderate success, notching only one winning season in 4 seasons and never finishing above 3rd place.

So while both the Yankees and Diamondbacks winning the World Series a year after Showalter left town could be used as a knock against him, I look at it as a positive. Showalter, in some way or another, had a hand in helping develop these teams. And like in Arizona, where Showalter took a team that lost 97 games and helped turn them into a 100 win team overnight (acquiring Randy Johnson also helped), Showalter will be taking over an Orioles team that needs to get on the fast track to drastic improvement.

Showalter has also been named AL Manager of the Year twice in 1994 and 2004.

Most importantly, Showalter has major league experience. It was something that Andy MacPhail said he wanted in his next manager, and rightfully so. Since Mike Hargrove, the Orioles have gone with 4 managers who have had no big league managerial experience: Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo, Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel, all of which showed weaknesses as Orioles manager while learning on the job. And with the Orioles being such a young and inexperienced team filled with hopeful prospects, it's important that the manager have the experience that players will respect.

So while things probably won't change overnight with Showalter as manager, it is still a step in the right direction. Giving him these last two months of the season will allow the players to familiarize themselves with his managerial style so there will be no surprises in 2011. And like he did in Arizona, I hope Showalter will have some say over the development of the organization.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get the Orioles back to respectability. But maybe that job just got a little easier now that Showalter is on board.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

With each album, the Arcade Fire have made a singular theme the focus of their work. On their 2004 debut, Funeral, loss was the nucleus of the album, hence the album's title. The loss came in many forms, whether it was death, loss of childhood innocence or loss of memory.

On 2007's Neon Bible, the Arcade Fire made the right wing Bush-era their target, and at one point front-man Win Butler even screamed "I don't want to love in America no more". And since the band hails from Montreal, Quebec, the Houston native Butler brothers -- as well as the rest of the band -- mean what they say.

Now the year is 2010. Barack Obama is in office -- someone that the Arcade Fire relentlessly supported during Obama's run for the presidency. So without a singular enemy to focus their angst upon, the band has aimed their sights at the suburbs. Hence, their third album's title.

The Suburbs is easily the band's most focused work. The songs build upon one another, Butler even repeats lyrics from earlier songs in later ones, driving the message home: the Arcade Fire hate the never ending sprawl of the suburbs and the loss of identity that comes with it. I hate it too...even though I live smack dab in the middle of the suburbs myself. Thankfully, my neck of the suburbs aren't crammed with "dead shopping malls rising like mountains beyond mountains", as Regine Chassagne points out on the albums best track, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)".

So what does it all mean? I don't think Butler and the band have much of an idea about it either as evidenced in many of the lyrics featuring self doubt. On the opener,"The Suburbs", Win admits "sometimes I can't believe it/I'm moving past the feeling, again". I take that as Butler realizing he's getting comfortable as he gets older, and losing that rebellious fire we all had as teenagers and college students before the real world turned us all into zombies. And on "City With No Children", Butler riffs on millionaires and how they can't be trusted, but then laments that he feels himself becoming one of them himself. And in the final minute of the album, on "The Suburbs Continued" Butler admits "if I had it all back, I'd waste it again".

But most of The Surburbs is made up of the wasted hours of teenagers, late-night drives, and kids who are mad at the world for no reason. It all paints the picture of a man who is coming to see beneath the surface of his life, hates what he sees, but doesn't do anything to change it. We all sell out little by little, we all become the adults we rebelled against as kids, and The Suburbs so accurately nails this, time and time again.

Like the band's focus on their main theme, this album is the band's most sonically focused album yet. Sometimes it's a little too focused, and I miss the band's natural ability to come apart at the seams, to color outside the lines a bit and add some fuzz to their sound. Not here. Every note is measured. There is more of a electronic feel to the sound. The band sounds like it's a four or five piece at times, not the expansive seven piece it's been until now. And while it works at times, it also causes the band to lose some of things that made it so great. There are no impromptu choral singalongs like on"Wake Up" or "No Cars Go". The band has grown up a bit, moved to the musical suburbs themselves, and ditched some of the unpredictable characteristics that made their first two albums so amazingly fresh.

That isn't to say The Suburbs isn't fresh or amazing. It's so good it's heartbreaking. It's the band's most measured album to date. An instant classic that will stand on its own well into the future. And I can say that after only having listened to the album a few times through.

Sometimes it takes a while to realize greatness, and for me that was Radiohead's Kid A, which took me almost 10 years to appreciate. But with the Arcade Fire, I have always known, right from the start, that the band and their music are something special.

The Suburbs is no different.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Connect Four

The Orioles erased any momentum they gained from their 4-game sweep of the first place Texas Rangers before the All Star break with a 4-game losing streak. They were swept by the Blue Jays and a lost last night to the Rays. All of the losses came at home.

And after they'd turned into a competitive team for the last 20 or so games before the All Star break, the Orioles are back in their sleepwalking mode. They've been outscored in the last 2 games, 18-2.

And they haven't fared any better against the AL East, either.

So far in 2010, the O's are 0-9 against the Blue Jays and 1-6 against the Rays. Somehow, they've managed to go 6-6 against the Red Sox, but have no fear, I am sure the O's will change that soon.

Should we really be surprised by all of this?

The 4-game sweep of the Rangers included some fluke events -- like a Corey Patterson grand-slam to tie the game with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the 9th inning -- and a Chris Tillman no-hitter into the 7th inning. It was just the universe playing another mean trick on Orioles fans.

Just when you thought they were dead, they show signs of life. Now they are dead again.

So what now?

You got me.

Brian Matusz hasn't made it out of the 3rd inning in his last 2 starts. Chris Tillman went from dominating the slugging Rangers to getting chased out of the game against the Rays last night, 8 ER in 2.2 IP. The Orioles suddenly can't hit their way out of a wet paper bag with scissors in their hands, to borrow a gem from the RZA.

I foolishly thought that the second half of the 2010 season could contain the O's best baseball, since they pretty much treated April and May like it was August and September. But silly me.

This team is on pace to lose 111 games for a reason.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Star Game

For the first time in years, I watched the All Star Game last night, from beginning to end.

As a kid, the All Star Game was the highlight of my summer. If I had a little league game scheduled the night of the All Star Game I, along with the rest of my teammates, would eagerly race home in time for the first inning. I was allowed to stay up late to watch the entire game. It was just one of those little magical things that I remember from my childhood summers along with snowballs and lightning bugs.

Before the Internet and pay cable allowed fans to follow other teams more closely, the All Star Game was pretty much the only time I was able to see stars from other teams play, especially ones in the National League. It was a chance to see the players who's baseball cards I collected and who's stickers I coveted to fill out my baseball sticker books.

And when I was a teenager in the 90's, when the Orioles hosted an All Star Game in 1993 and regularly had good teams and star players, like Cal Ripken, the All Star Game was even more magical. I anticipated Ripken's and other O's players at bats. And I was proud to be an Orioles fan.

Most important, it was a chance to celebrate baseball, the game I grew up playing. Players played the game with smiles on their faces and it was a chance to just have fun.

But somewhere along the line, the All Star Game became less magical to me. I realized it was nothing but an exhibition game with no meaning. Interleague play killed intrigue of the AL vs the NL. And as the Orioles sank from one of the best teams in baseball to one of the worst, I became a jaded baseball fan...not just a jaded O's fan.

So when last night rolled around, I said "what the hell. I can record the game and fast forward through the prolonged introductions and commercials." And so I did.

The Orioles only representative was Ty Wigginton, who probably won't even be an Oriole next season, and he didn't even get a chance to bat in the game. But I still enjoyed a night of baseball when I could feel like a kid again and the players played the game with smiles on their faces and tipped their caps toward each other in the batter's box.

The game itself was a well-pitched affair, with the NL winning their first All Star Game since 1996. And while I think the winning team earns home field advantage in the World Series is silly, I do think making the game mean something is kinda cool.

But in the end, the game didn't matter. I just enjoyed watching baseball again without any jaded feelings from being a long-suffering Orioles fan.

For that alone, it was worth it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

First half review

Well, the first half of the 2010 season is thankfully over.

Needless to say, it was a complete and utter disaster.

The Orioles are 29-59, good for the worst record in the majors.

They fired their manager. Lead off hitter and offensive spark plug, Brian Roberts, was injured during the home opener and hasn't played since. Mike Gonzalez, the Orioles' $12 million dollar closer, was also lost after the same game. Luke Scott and Felix Pie have missed extended periods of time due to injuries. And several of their top prospects struggled for most of the first half, and the veterans offered very little support.

It was the baseball version of the BP oil spill. There was nothing you could do but just shake your head at the enormity of the disaster, and the lack of urgency to correct it.

If you were grading the Orioles' first half, I don't see how you could give them anything but a big fat F. The first half was so bad that it has ruined much of the hope for the future, and for good reason: Nolan Reimold was sent down to Norfolk after struggling through April, where he has a .639 OPS. Matt Wieters currently has a .672 OPS. Over the last month, he has warmed up with a .827 OPS, but overall, he has shown little power and there are major flaws in his swing.

On the pitching side, Brad Bergesen, the O's best pitcher in 2009, has been completely inconsistent so far in 2010. He's also been shuttled between Baltimore and Norfolk so far this season and owns a 6.40 ERA.

And it's hard to be pleased with top pitching prospect Brian Matusz thus far in 2010. His 4.77 ERA pretty much sums up the left handed pitcher's season thus far. Matusz will mix in a great start, but offset it with a few mediocre ones, and then have one like he did his last time out against the Rangers and fail to make it out of the 4th inning.

Adam Jones was perhaps at one point the most frustrating player on the team, since he was swinging at basically every pitch, no matter where it was, and playing sloppy defense. Jones, however, has been on fire since mid-May and has upped his game substantially. If Jones can save his season, then it gives me hope that the likes of Wieters, Reimold and Bergesen can do it too.

The veteran acquisitions of Garrett Atkins and Kevin Millwood have also not paid off, and have been downright painful to watch. For the most part, Millwood was a solid veteran SP to lead the rotation. And his recent struggles could be linked to an injury that currently has him on the DL. So it's tough to judge Millwood's decline since opening day. But Atkins is a completely different case. Signed after several years of declining offensive numbers in Colorado, Atkins was a disaster in waiting, and his .562 OPS was the embodiment of the Orioles 2010 season. Thankfully he was released a few weeks ago, but it was long overdue. And Miguel Tejada has been mediocre. He is an improvement over Melvin Mora, with a .691 OPS, and has been solid defensively, but he's done little to prove that he should still be a starter in the MLB.

That said, there have been some small victories so far in 2010.

Jake Arrieta is cruising along relatively fine since his debut as an Oriole on June 10th. On that night he beat the Yankees, and in 7 starts he's had 5 quality starts and a 4.38 ERA.

Nick Markakis is certifiably the Orioles best player, and should have been the team's All Star, but what is even more impressive is that the silent and reserved Markakis has become the team's leader. He openly criticized teammates in a Sun interview earlier in the season and since that article was published, on offense the Orioles are a different team. Markakis has also met with owner Peter Angelos to talk about the future of the organization. A few weeks later it was announced that Buck Showalter was the leading candidate to replace Dave Trembley, who was fired.

Ty Wigginton, who had a forgettable 2009 season as an Oriole, exploded out of the gate, and for almost 2 months was the only Oriole hitter not embarrassing themselves at the plate. He's earned his first All Star appearance with 14 HR and 45 RBI. Wigginton has cooled significantly off since May, but his first half is still a pleasant surprise.

And finally, coming out of nowhere, Corey Patterson has stepped up to become the O's lead-off hitter with a solid .758 OPS in his second go-round with the O's. He was plucked off the scrap heap when Felix Pie was injured and Reimold was sent back down to Norfolk and has earned himself a second chance in the majors after bouncing around for a couple of years.

But overall, there is no denying the catastrophe that has been the 2010 season. The Orioles went weeks between wins. They blew leads. They couldn't hit with runners in scoring position. It was basically everything the Orioles have done in the last four years multiplied by a million.

And the failure of GM Andy MacPhail to do anything drastic was perhaps the most frustrating thing as a fan. He waited too long to fire Dave Trembley. He failed to replace hitting coach Terry Crowley after the Orioles were the worst offensive team in the majors. He waited too long to release Atkins. And he failed to acquire some struggling but promising players who'd been released by their former teams. To be fair, MacPhail has been busier as of late, which is better than nothing, as he finishes the Buck Showalter deal, and acquired Jake Fox, who's been great since joining the Orioles (.847 OPS). But Fox was a former Cub, MacPhail's former employer, which again supports the notion that MacPhail is not familiar with the other 28 major league teams. Almost half of the O's roster was at one time a Cubs player or in the organization while MacPhail was there.

So where do the Orioles go from here? I'd like to say "there is no place to go but up", but being an Oriole fan has taught me that there is no such thing as rock bottom, because the O's have found ways to find a new rock bottom each time we think rock bottom has been hit.

But there is some reason to hope for sustained improvement over the second half of the season. The Orioles swept the first-place Texas Rangers on the road in a four game series to end the first half. Maybe it's a tease. The Orioles aren't strangers to stringing fans along and give them false hope. But the sweep could actually be proof that the O's could play their best baseball in the second half.

Guys like Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are in the rotation and pitching well as of late. Failed SP's like Jason Berken and David Hernandez are in the bullpen and succeeding. And the offense is finally showing signs of life after they showed absolutely no pulse for much of the first half.

I'll be surprised if the Orioles don't lose 100 games this season. But if they do buck some trends and play well over the second half, the Orioles could gain back some of the hope that surrounded this team headed into 2010. After all, this team was supposed to take its first step toward respectability this year. Instead they've taken a giant step back. But there is still time for improvement.

It's just likely to cost them the first round draft pick in the 2011 amateur draft.

And so there it is...the double edged sword.

What is more important to you now? An improved record or the #1 pick?

Those are the kinds of decisions facing O's fans in the second half. And in that regard, the Orioles will still fail to capitalize somehow. A better second half means no #1 pick next year. And the #1 pick next year means another horrendous half of baseball.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Straight A's

Surprise, surprise, the O's lost another series -- and the season series -- to the Oakland Athletics.

The O's went 3-7 against the A's this year. They haven't had a winning season against the A's since 1998. In the time since then, the O's are 31-72 (.301) against them.

And keep in mind, since 2007 the A's are not some great team. In 2010 they are currently 39-41. No one in their starting offense has an OPS over .800.

But they continue to beat the snot out of the Orioles whenever they play each other.

Maybe it's because Oakland is run by one of the best GM's in baseball, Billy Beane, while the Orioles have usually been run by some of the worst. Maybe it's because Oakland focuses on sound fundamentals and identifies isolated strengths of flawed players and puts them in a position to succeed while the Orioles seem to choose players by throwing darts blindfolded.

Whenever the O's play Oakland, I cringe. Getting soundly beaten by them just reminds me how far away the Orioles are from even mediocrity.

We're a long way off, folks.