Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Surviving the 2009 Orioles

Depending on how you look at the current state of the Baltimore Orioles, two vastly different conclusions come to mind.

On one hand, the Orioles’ minor league system is in better shape than it has been in over 20 years, consistently ranking in the top 10 according to various publications.

Along with catching sensation Matt Wieters, who is expected to be promoted to the big leagues in the early weeks of the 2009 season, the Orioles boast three of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.

Brian Matusz (2008 first-round pick), Jake Arrieta (2007 fifth-round pick), and Chris Tillman (acquired from the Seattle Mariners in last winter’s Erik Bedard trade) provide a rock-solid foundation upon which the Orioles hope to rebuild their woeful pitching of the past decade.

In addition to these three, other top pitching prospects include Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez, Brandon Erbe, Zach Britton, Chorye Spoone, and Troy Patton.

Unlike past pitching prospects such as Rocky Coppinger, Sidney Ponson, and Adam Loewen, no single prospect needs to be viewed as the supreme savior for the organization, but all will instead be developed methodically, mastering each level of the minors before being promoted. The Orioles hope this depth will pay dividends in the near future.

General manager Andy MacPhail has continuously preached patience with the organization’s talented, but inexperienced, pitchers.

But from the other perspective, the thought of patience seems unbearable, if not impossible, to the many Orioles fans that have suffered through 11-straight losing seasons in the American League East. To them, the rebuilding has continued far too long.

“It’s time to win now—not in 2011,” they insist.

But sadly, they see a rotation that will only contend to be the worst rotation in 56 seasons of Orioles baseball, much less compete against the Yankees and Red Sox.

Beyond ace Jeremy Guthrie, the rotation overflows with question marks. Newcomer Koji Uehara was a star in Japan, but no one knows what to expect when the right-hander begins competing against the fierce lineups of the AL East.

Lefthander Rich Hill, acquired from the Chicago Cubs, hopes to regain his 2007 form in which he won 11 games and pitched to a 3.92 ERA, but has missed much of spring training with a sore elbow.

Though there is hope for these three to somehow keep the starting rotation afloat, the laundry list of candidates to fill out the final spots of the rotation includes veterans Mark Hendrickson, Danys Baez, and Adam Eaton and unproven young pitchers Brian Bass, Hayden Penn, and Alfredo Simon.


Clearly, the Orioles will not contend in the toughest division in baseball. The starting pitching will be too ineffective, and the improved offense and bullpen will not be able to overcome this deficiency.

So, the question begs to be asked: what should Orioles fans reasonably expect in 2009?

Those hoping and praying for a pennant race will inevitably be disappointed while those choosing to focus on the deficiencies of a rebuilding team and asking why the team is not trying to win this season will undoubtedly look past any bright spots concerning developing players such as Felix Pie and Adam Jones.

For Orioles fans bracing themselves for a 12th-straight year of losing baseball, the truth may hurt. The reality is the last 11 years of losing mean very little to the present state of the club. MacPhail was president of the Chicago Cubs while manager Dave Trembley was managing in the Cubs’ minor league system when this period of losing began in 1998.

Despite how infuriated Orioles fans have become over the decline of a once-proud franchise, these men cannot and should not concern themselves with the mistakes of their ineffective predecessors.

Fans have every right to criticize owner Peter Angelos, the one constant throughout the past 11 seasons of losing baseball. His annual late-season proclamations of grandeur for the following year are just a small sample of the empty promises given by the organization during his ownership.

Orioles’ loyalists deserve to be angry and have expressed their displeasure in recent years, ranging from a fan protest in 2006 to the drastic decline in attendance from 3.7 million in 1997 (the club’s last winning season) to just under two million fans in 2008.

Despite this anger and intense yearning for a winning team, many fans’ cry for a quick fix by signing a couple veteran pitchers is the wrong wish and is the exact thinking that has plagued the organization over the past decade.

For the first time throughout this eleven-year nightmare, the Orioles finally get it. They have finally committed to rebuilding after so many half-hearted, feeble attempts.

This organization should be playing for 2011—not making shortsighted moves for the false hope of competing in 2009.

Fans need to view the organization like that friend that has been driving around that beat-up car for years. Yeah, he tried to make the quick fixes and even used a bit of duct tape, but it never ran well. After years of denial, he finally conceded that it’s time to start over completely, because there’s just no salvaging it.

But, the question remains, does your friend look for that instant gratification and buy a used car with 85,000 miles on it, or drive the junker for just a little longer and save for something brand new?

Sure, that used car may look shiny and new after going through the carwash, but there’s no telling whether it’s going to run well for a few years or be a total lemon.

Investing in veteran pitchers and overpriced free agents would make the current Orioles a team that could approach .500 and maybe contend for a wild card if everything went absolutely perfectly.

But then what happens when these players break down and you’ve already committed millions of dollars to them? The young arms could potentially be ready, but there is no payroll flexibility to add that slugging first baseman or shortstop—not to mention you’re left with the predicament of dumping these veteran starters to create room for the younger pitchers.

Instead, MacPhail is making the right decision by saving the club’s money, enduring another season or two of misery while building that muscle car that can compete with any in the AL East.

The Orioles are saving, waiting for the young pitchers to develop, and then, when the time is right, they’ll spring for the bigger pieces to fill out the roster in free agency.

The plan is the right one, but will it succeed? No one can know for sure, especially in this division. And if the Orioles fail, the criticism will again be justified.

There is no guarantee with pitching prospects, as the Orioles have painfully learned over the last 11 years, but with the vast supply of promising talent, the odds are more favorable this time than any other in the past decade.

Fans may continue to gripe—surely, they have every right to complain until the Orioles retake their place among the game’s respected franchises—but this time, the Orioles are getting it right.

For fans doubting the approach of the franchise, they need only look back in its rich history.

Until the early-1960s, the Orioles struggled to avoid the “second division” of the American League. However, through the construction of a talented farm system based around pitching and defense, the club improved to the point of winning over 90 games in 1964 and 1965.

In December 1965, the Orioles finally knew they were one player away from a championship and sent pitcher Milt Pappas and two others to the Cincinnati Reds for a veteran right fielder named Frank Robinson, the dominant hitter that could put Baltimore over the top.

The rest was history, as the Orioles then embarked on one of the most successful 20-year stretches of any franchise in baseball history.

Obviously, the game is much different today with the high stakes of free agency, but the basic philosophy remains in MacPhail’s mind.

The current Orioles are building for something special, something long-lasting. And when the youthful pieces are in place, they’ll seek out another Frank Robinson to put them over the top.

But it’s going to take a little more patience.

Eleven years is a long time, no question. But hopefully, that excruciating wait will soon be worth it for Orioles fans.

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