During the month of September, Camden Depot will expand our rosters beyond Nick Faleris and Jon Shepherd. This will enable our audience to speak directly outside of the comment box as well as shine a light on other Orioles writers. The second up in this series is Kevin Williams. Previously, Ben Feldman wrote a piece on Matt Wieters.
When I meet fellow Orioles fans through work or on the golf course, the conversation usually goes about like this - I ask if they follow baseball, and they say something like, “Yeah, I’m an Orioles fan, but I usually stop following them by the all-star break.” Pretty understandable, given the team’s results over the past decade. And this year is no exception – even ignoring the record, all you have to do is glance at the pitching stats. They’re eerily similar to the numbers from just about every season since 2000. Every year you can pull out about 3-4 guys who might have a shot to pitch for a contender, and then you have about 20 players who between them didn’t even perform at replacement level. My new golf buddy, of course, wouldn’t be surprised. “Business as usual,” he might say. Unfortunately, I think this year’s results are quite a bit worse than business as usual.
Why? First of all, the 2011 season started with a lot of promise. Multiple national writers ranked the Orioles’ offseason as one of the best in baseball. Every win projection system I saw gave the team a pretty fair chance at finishing .500 for the first time since 1997. And the success of the young pitching staff at the end of 2010 gave fans reason to believe that even better days might lie in the future. I personally hoped that a .500 season plus another offseason splash might push that projected win total into the upper 80s, territory that could realistically yield a playoff team.
Unfortunately, here we are in August on pace to lose close to 100 games once again. How, exactly, did that happen? Much has been made about the lack of progress of the Orioles’ young pitchers, particularly Matusz and Tillman – that’s part of the problem, and it certainly explains some of the ugly pitching numbers. But the problem doesn’t end there. Without getting into the nitty gritty of who met their WAR projection and who didn’t, and without even mentioning any names, I’m pretty sure the Orioles got far less production than expected out of four other positions: LF, 2B, 1B, and DH. Add that to some lousy relief pitching and I think you can explain the difference between .500 ball and the 64-66 wins we sit at now.
So, the question is, where do we go from here? And why is this season a bigger disaster than usual? Sadly, I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough talent on the current roster to project for 2012 the 80 wins I thought realistic for 2011. Just covering the positions I listed above – you’d need Luke Scott and Brian Roberts healthy and productive, Brian Matusz rediscovering himself, Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold turning into productive every-day players, a replacement for Koji Uehara… and some substantially better middle relief. Pretty unlikely to happen all at once. Even if you sign Prince Fielder and a middle of the rotation starter (my April dream), I still think you’re looking at a .500 club, not a playoff contender in the AL East.
So… we probably can’t compete in 2012 or even 2013. Again, not a shock to my new golf friend. But here’s where it gets really bad. The current roster is basically the result of the rebuilding effort Andy McPhail started in late 2007 with the Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard trades. And by 2014, the core of that roster will be gone. Markakis, Jones, Roberts, Guthrie, Scott, Johnson - all above average players at one time or another - all gone. So, that effort, though it looked promising at the time, has likely failed to produce a winner. If I were an outside observer (or a candidate for new GM), I’d probably conclude that it’s time to start another rebuilding effort. We had some hope in 2011 – it didn’t work out, so let’s cut our losses and shoot for 2014. Listen to trade offers for everyone not named Britton or Wieters. Markakis, Jones, Roberts, Guthrie, Scott, Johnson – the players I just mentioned – all should have some value. In under a year the Orioles could have a top ten or even top five farm system. The 2014-2016 teams would feature a core including Machado, Bundy, Wieters, Britton, and hopefully some young talent infused into the system over the next year. Even next year’s team wouldn’t be a complete waste. The pitching staff would feature Britton, Arrieta, Hunter, and Simon, quite a bit better than Burres, Olson, Liz, and Trachsel. And you’d have the opportunity to give an extended look to players like Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold, Chris Tillman, and even Felix Pie.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid the organization as it stands now has about as much chance of blowing up the roster as Rick Perry does of devoting his presidential campaign to warning voters about the perils of global warming. The team just has too much invested, both financially and from a marketing perspective, in Jones, Markakis, Roberts, Guthrie, and now J.J. Hardy. And, speaking as a fan, I understand why the organization would want to continue to build around those players. It’s hard to part with young, charismatic, and likeable talent. But from a business perspective, I can’t help but think that an overhaul starting this off season would prove over time to be the right move. I just can’t see the current organization, still led by Peter Angelos, making that kind of a decision.
So what will the team do this offseason? There’s a saying that goes, when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. So I suspect next year’s roster will look a lot like this year’s – the organization will hold out hope that the young pitching will develop while Markakis, Jones, Roberts, and Hardy are still on the team. If we do sign free agents, I’d recommend players that either don’t cost too much (perhaps Mike Gonzalez in an incentive laden deal), or players that might help both over the next two years and in 2015 when the next wave of talent is ready. Does signing Prince Fielder to a 100 million plus contract make sense? If we sat at .500 now, I’d say definitely yes. Find a window to compete and go for it hard, even if you have to overpay. But looking at the next five years… I’d say no. For comparison’s sake, Prince’s father Cecil only had 500 at-bats once after age 29. And Ryan Howard, another easy comparison, has seen his production decline this year at age 31. Signing Mark Buehrle, age 32, to a long term deal? I’ll pass.
So why is this season such a disaster? For me, it points the organization squarely towards another five years of mediocrity. We probably won’t win in 2012 or 2013, and by the time Machado, Bundy, and Schoop are hopefully ready, we’ll have a whole new set of major holes to fill. Sadly, that might set up the worst outlook for the future we’ve had in some time. Even over the past decade, we’ve had a few bright spots. 2005 saw Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora lead the team to contention in July. In 2008 a new general manager made widely applauded personnel moves. Early in 2011 we filled several long standing holes through free agency – just not enough to make us a contender. If it went my way, 2014 would usher in a new wave of talent with the potential to make a playoff run. But without a serious overhaul, and without 2012 or 2013 turning into one of those magical seasons that happens only once a generation, we might be headed for another decade of losing. Maybe the players will prove me wrong – maybe Matusz and Tillman will hold down spots in the rotation, maybe Bergesen and Patton turn out to be solutions in the bullpen. But if I had to make a prediction today, I’d say we’re headed for more years of frustration, and an entire generation of fans might not see .500 baseball at Camden Yards.