Sunday, August 10, 2008

Surprising Season Still Missing The Mark For Rebuilding Orioles

By: Luke Jones

While the Tampa Bay Rays are the surprise of the American League East and all of Major League Baseball, a team trailing them by 13 games is quietly putting together a surprising season.

The last place Baltimore Orioles may be out of the playoff race in the competitive AL East, but their 56-59 record is far better than anyone expected at the start of the season. The club has thrilled fans with numerous comeback victories and entertained with characters such as Kevin Millar who created a humorous Orioles Magic video with other teammates. The video plays after every home victory.

If 2008 has been such an enjoyable year, then what's the problem in Baltimore?

Before Saturday night's 9-0 victory over the Texas Rangers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, manager Dave Trembley posted a lineup with 8 players over the age of 30. With last week's injury to center fielder Adam Jones, the only regular under the age of 30 is right fielder Nick Markakis.

Despite claiming to be a rebuilding team, there is very little youth in the current starting lineup.

The Orioles called up outfielder Luis Montanez from Double-A Bowie to take Jones' place. Montanez, 26, was putting up sensational numbers in the Eastern League with a .335 average, 26 home runs, and 97 RBI.

The logical move would be to place Montanez in center field, or at least give him a regular spot in the lineup by rotating days off for several veteran players, right?

The problem is Montanez has only started once in four games.

Trembley explains Montanez needs to adjust to major league ballparks in order to play the outfield and points to his lack of experience in center field as the reason for veteran Jay Payton becoming the regular center fielder instead of Montanez.

While this may be completely reasonable and Montanez might be playing regularly soon, it also sounds like a familiar story from the Orioles. Despite their surprising season, Trembley fails to see the big picture in the organization's rebuilding effort.

Trembley is unquestionably loyal to his veteran players. While this is not a negative quality on most clubs, it is when a team needs to evaluate younger players for the future. The goal should be improving for the future, not to simply finish with a better record in 2008.

Though Montanez is not viewed as anything more than a potential fourth outfielder for next season, isn't now the time to see what he can do at the major league level? Montanez was playing for a possible Triple Crown in the Eastern League when he was brought to the big club. His numbers not only demanded a promotion but also a regular opportunity to play.

Montanez may not be able to play center field, but Trembley should stop worrying about stepping on the toes of veterans such as Melvin Mora, Payton, and Millar and shuffle the lineup to give Montanez regular starts in left field or at designated hitter.

Unfortunately, Orioles fans have seen this too many times.

Past managers such as Mike Hargrove and Sam Perlozzo were often criticized for their refusal to play younger players over veterans late in the season when the club was out of contention. It appears that Trembley is falling into the same trap.

Last season, the team refused to give regular playing time to young players such as Jon Knott and J.R. House. While these players are no longer with the organization, they were never really given an opportunity to stick with the club.

Earlier this year, infielder Oscar Salazar was called up from Triple-A Norfolk after putting up impressive numbers. He rarely played and was sent down after hitting 2 home runs in 17 at bats. Hardly a fair audition.

In a few weeks, minor leaguers such as outfield prospect Nolan Reimold and catching sensation Matt Wieters will likely be called up and should be getting at bats with the Orioles to determine where they fit for the 2009 season.

Will Trembley do the right thing and play the younger players, or will he continue to show loyalty to veterans that will no longer be with the club in the near future? The answer is uncertain.

One thing is clear. The Orioles won't know what they have with these younger players until they're given an opportunity. Many of them might fail, but some will succeed.

After all, when he did get the start this week, Montanez hit a home run in his first major league at bat.

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