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Q&A with Orioles beat writer Jeff Zrebiec

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department we bring you a Q&A with the reporters and writers who are in the field, chasing the news. This week The Baltimore Sun's Orioles beat writer Jeff Zrebiec took time to answer some of our questions. Zrebiec has been covering the Orioles since 2005.

Question: First road trip of the season: You're wearing something that says "Baltimore" across your chest, right? I mean, what if you got lost walking the mean streets of Arlington, Texas?

Zrebiec: Yep, I’m psyched. There is a ton of Japanese reporters in my hotel near the ballpark, and I’m sure they're here to see "Baltimore" on the road jerseys, not Koji. I wasn’t able to relate to this whole argument, probably because I didn’t grow up in Maryland. But fans are obviously so passionate about it, so I’m glad the organization decided to make the change. You get shrugged shoulders when you ask the players about it, but the fans appreciate it.


Question: Be honest, is the Texas road trip the worst? If not, which is?

Zrebiec: It’s certainly on a short list of the road trips that I enjoy the least, but I wouldn’t say it’s the worst. That distinction probably would have to go to Detroit.

Question: Did you see anything last week that makes you think this Orioles team will be better than some of us expected?

Zrebiec: Not really. Although I wouldn’t have predicted that they’d hammer Sabathia and Wang like they did, I had no concerns about their lineup. The way Baez has pitched is intriguing, and I liked what I saw from Guthrie. I’ve learned not to get too caught up in a fast start. I’ve covered the team since 2005 and the Orioles have gotten off to good starts most of those years. Remember, the Orioles started 6-1 last year, too.
Question: How worried are the Orioles about the group of pitchers they've assembled? Why would they think they could last through September with a patchwork starting rotation?
Zrebiec: That’s been the Orioles’ chief worry since spring training. They brought 37 pitchers to camp and though Andy MacPhail or Dave Trembley probably wouldn’t say this publicly, they had to be disappointed with how poorly most of the guys pitched. The injuries didn’t help, especially in Rich Hill’s case. But I think the idea was to just bridge the gap for a couple of months before guys like Tillman, Bergesen and maybe Arrieta are ready. They thought that they had enough inventory to do that, but I don’t know that they do.
Question: Do you think they'll stick with 12 pitchers on the roster indefinitely?
Zrebiec: That’s what they’re saying, but I doubt it. I bet all it would take is three sub five-inning starts in a five-day span and you’ll see 13 pitchers real quick. The Orioles have so many guys in the bullpen coming off major injuries and they can’t afford to overuse them. I hate the idea of 13 pitchers, but it’s far more appealing than seeing Chris Ray, Jim Johnson and Jamie Walker get worn down.
Question: In most locker rooms or clubhouses, we have a couple of go-to guys for quotes. Who will fill that role on this team?
Zrebiec: Gregg Zaun is a really good, thorough interview, and he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind. Aubrey Huff is quite a character and has no problem filling up a notebook. And Adam Jones, who is a charismatic guy, is attracting more and more of a media presence around his locker. Brian Roberts is also pretty reliable when you need a good quote.
Question: Has anyone really replaced Kevin Millar as a clubhouse presence? Does that matter to a team?
Zrebiec: No, the Orioles have pretty much conceded that Millar is irreplaceable. Huff and Zaun have some traits of Millar, but not the whole package. As for whether that matters, it depends on who you ask. I think it does and a couple of the veterans – Roberts and Melvin Mora perhaps – need to become more vocal in the clubhouse. However, I’ve been told by plenty of people that have been around the game much longer than me that a vocal clubhouse presence is overrated.  I know several players have remarked that Millar is missed, even if it’s just for keeping the rest of the guys laughing and loose.

Question: Manager Dave Trembley seems to think that if the Orioles can score a lot of runs every night, they'll have a chance. Is it a fair expectation to think they can continue at this offensive pace (Sunday's loss excluded)?

Zrebiec: They’ll go through slumps like every offense does, but this team will hit. However, it’s too much to ask for them to win slugfests every night. Look at the pitching in the A.L. East – CC, Wang, Burnett, Chamberlain, Pettitte; Beckett, Lester, Dice-K, Penny and eventually Smoltz; Shields, Kazmir, Garza and eventually David Price. That’s ridiculous. They’ll put up some runs against those guys on some nights, but there will be plenty of nights where they’ll be shut down by a great pitcher.

Question: One more on Trembley. On one hand, he's among those telling fans to be patient. On the other, he seemed to indicate that he expected to win at least four games in the team's first homestand. Which is it? What do you think he really expects from this team, and how realistic is he?
Zrebiec: I think Trembley is very realistic and knows that this season will be a struggle. However, he has to say that he expected to win those games. He still has a team of several veterans and most of these guys don’t want to hear about 2010 or 2011. Trembley has to show confidence in his current club and preach that the team is still in the business of winning games now. But everyone in the organization knows the Orioles aren’t in good position to compete for the playoffs this year.

Question: We've read about Terry Crowley working with Felix Pie. How much credit does Crow deserve for the way this team has improved offensively in recent years?

Zrebiec: Overall, I think pitching and hitting coaches get either too much credit or too much blame. But I do think Crow has done a nice job and I say that, not because of any statistic, but just what I hear from the players. These guys swear by him. They love how he keeps it simple, works hard and lives and dies with every one of their at-bats. When the Nationals came to Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring, Corey Patterson couldn’t spend enough time around Crowley. David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada, who he has worked with in the past, never miss an opportunity to come up and greet him. And you certainly have to look at the development of young hitters like Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and throw in the recent turnaround by Aubrey Huff and think Crowley deserves some credit. 
Question: The season's first roster move was announced after Saturday's game. Are these decisions made solely by Andy MacPhail, and how much input does Trembley have in them?
Zrebiec: I think Andy gathers input from Dave and all the coaches, but make no mistake, Andy has the final say. And if he feels that strongly about something, expect him to go in that direction. To be honest and this is just an educated guess, I would think if Dave or even Rick Kranitz had the final say on the composition of the pitching staff, it would look significantly different than it does right now.

Question: OK, we're putting you on the spot -- do you think Alfredo Simon will be the worst No. 3 starter in the league?

Zrebiec: Worst? I’m not touching that, but he’s definitely the most anonymous No. 3 starter in baseball. I really haven’t seen enough to judge him, but I figure there is probably a reason that he is considered a journeyman. However with that said, Orioles – both pitchers and position players – have raved about his stuff. When you talk about the worst No. 3’s in baseball, old friend Daniel Cabrera would have to be part of the discussion, wouldn’t he?

Question: Sure, parting ways with D-Cab might've been an addition by subtraction. But look what they've replaced him with. How does this rotation rank against some of the others you've seen?

Zrebiec: I’ve only been covering the team since 2005, but on paper, it’s the worst Opening Day Orioles rotation I’ve covered. You look at it, and you really have no idea what you’re going to get pretty much four out of five days. Now, I have been impressed with Koji, but you still have to see how his stuff will translate to the big leagues over the long haul.

Question: You can be honest with us: Are you already dreading the second half of this season? Or do you think it'll actually be more fun with the arrivals of Wieters, et al?

Zrebiec: I definitely think the last couple of months of the season should be more bearable than it’s been in the past and not just because of Wieters. Instead of seeing retreads like Victor Santos and Victor Zambrano pitch, we could be watching guys like Bergesen, Tillman, David Hernandez and maybe even Arrieta. And instead of rolling out Jeff Fiorentino and Bernie Castro, we could get a glimpse of Nolan Reimold. That’s why I think the Orioles should be able to avoid a total late-season collapse. These guys will take their lumps, but they also are young and talented and hungry for an opportunity.

Question: I'm sure having Peter Schmuck around is a great deal of help, but is it difficult covering the Orioles as a beat writer while also playing second base for the Tigers every night? Has anyone ever spotted you and Placido Polanco in the same room at the same time?
Zrebiec: I actually interviewed Polanco a couple of years ago at the All-Star Game, when I was doing a story about Brian Roberts. When I approached him, he kind of did a double take, but I couldn’t figure out if it was because he saw such an uncanny resemblance between us, or I asked an awful question. Several Orioles have been begging me to get with Placido to take a picture, but I’ve declined to keep things professional. I still contend that my head size, while rather large, isn’t even in the same league as his.

Comments

One cannot logically compare the Orioles 6-1 start in 2008 to their 5-2 start here in 2009.

In 2008 4 of the O's 6 victories at the start of the year was against the Mariners - yes, the same Mariners who went on to lose MORE games than the O's last year.

The O's split 2 games with the Rays in 2008, and won the first at Texas before slumping.

Regardless what the Orioles do the rest of this road trip and beyond, opening with series victories this year over the spend-crazy Yankees and American East champion & world series participant Rays and a first game victory in Texas has to count as a major improvement.

Wow...how cool is this? Honest answers to tough questions about the Orioles-are you sure you're going to be allowed around the team any more?

I never understood the flap about the unis either. Maybe because I am old enough to remember some really horrible Astros, Padres and White Sox unis back in the disco days. They could play in Power Rangers footie PJs for all I care if they start winning.

Every day is one day closer to the kids arriving and us finding out if the "plan" is a winning one or not.

Jeff, I'm a lifelong O's fan who lives in Arlington, TX, about 10 minutes from the Rangers' ballpark. I haven't attended a Rangers game in years -- or an O's game in at Camden, although I'll be there 5/7 -- but generally like the area. For good food or entertainment nearby, you'll need a cab. I suggest Uncle Julio's in Fort Worth for tex-mex; Olenjack's Grille in Lincoln Square is less than a mile west of the Rangers' park, and the food's very good. You'd love downtown Fort Worth, and its museum district is worth a daytime visit. Amon Carter and Kimball art museums are free, the modern art museum's also good.

Good piece ... but tell us how you think the pitching staff would be "significantly" different if it was not up to McPhail? Is there some major difference of opinion on this question between the manager and front office?

Jeff captured my thoughts and sentiments on the Orioles this year. I appreciate the candor.

I also like how in that pic of Amber and Jeff, Amber seems to have noticed Jeff's melon for the first time. The mix of wonder, awe and some revulsion are clearly evident.

Nice piece.

I think that the uniform issue is so popular is because the complaining fans have nothing better to do.

I sincerely hope that the O's do not bring up their young pitchers this year because these guys need to log innings in the minors. How many young pitchers were brilliant in their first start or two and then collapse?
How many times have pitchers been brought up after one good year and then failed?

So what if they lose over 100 games this year.

I realize this has been asked a thousand time but at what point is the future right now? The Orioles are off to a good start and have a tough lineup and defense and a decent bullpen. At exactly what point do you scratch 2010 as the future and bring up Matt Weiters, Tillman, and perhaps Brian M?

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