Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Can't The Orioles Stop Sucking?

I have been trying to write this for a couple of weeks now. Every time I have started it, I have gotten bogged down in trying to make more intrigue than there is. So I'm going to put it right out there for everyone.

Everyone calling for change needs to stop.

Andy MacPhail needs to stay. The scouting department needs to be retained. The major league staff needs to be left alone.

More than anything else, teams that are successful have stability at the top. Since the last winning season, the Orioles have had 5 General Managers (Frank Wren, Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie / Mike Flanagan, and now Andy MacPhail). They have had 7 managers (Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo, Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel, and now Buck Showalter). There has been no continuity, and that has been a major contributor in their lack of success.

Andy MacPhail was hired in June of 2007. In the grand scheme of things he has had 3 seasons to change this club (I don't count the 2007 season since the major personnel decisions were made before he came in. MacPhail came in with a whole different philosophy than any of his predecessors. You may have heard the phrase "Grow the arms, buy the bats". It is a sound philosophy for building a team.

Sidebar for a moment of hard truth for Orioles' fans:

Anyone who expected all of the "Young Guns" (Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, and until his shoulder surgery Troy Patton) to pay off was fooling themselves. Teams are lucky if 1 out of every 3 "can't miss" arms actually doesn't miss. The hope is that one of the other two will become a quality bullpen arm, and that often is not the case. Britton is still very young, so his growing pains are not a surprise. Tillman is more of a head scratcher but he is only 23, so it is not like he is all but destined for the scrap heap. Matusz's disappearing velocity is a much larger concern, but he was injured to start the season and he is only 24 so there is time to let him get back to what he was doing during the last half of 2010. The Orioles brought in all of these guys right around the same time, so them struggling at the same time is not unprecedented or completely unexpected. What it is is bad timing for a team trying to make the turn back to respectability.

We as fans need to give this plan time to really grow and see if it can flourish. It makes sense. I don't know if it will work, but I know that it can work.

The other thing I am hearing is a call for the heads of the scouting department. Fans want Joe Jordan gone. Well I don't. And here's why...

Jordan was hired in November of 2004. So he has been running the scouting department since then. In that time he has helped the Orioles draft Matusz, Tillman, Britton, Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, David Hernandez, and hopefully Dylan Bundy. And do not forget that it was the scouting department that told MacPhail who to ask for in the Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada trades, so he gets credit for Arrieta, Adam Jones, Luke Scott and George Sherrill being a part of the team as well. All in all, it looks to me like he has done a good job.

For those calling for his head, here are two other things to consider:
  1. He does not have final say on who the team drafts
  2. He has no say in how they are developed
I said in a previous post that I think the team needs to commit a LOT more money to scouting, especially overseas. Until this team commits real resources to scouting Joe Jordan is going into a gunfight with half as much ammunition. So add that to the fact that his staff makes the recommendations, but the front office pulls the trigger. A front office that has had 3 different cooks stirring the soup since his hire (starting off w/2 at the same time in Beattie and Flanagan), which means 3 different philosophies on what the team is looking for in the draft and what players give the team the best chances of getting that. Did Jordan push MacPhail to draft Matt Hobgood? We will never know because both Jordan and MacPhail are "company men", they don't talk out of turn and they NEVER reveal what happens behind the scenes. And looking back, take a good look at the 2009 draft's first round. How many players after Hobgood REALLY jump out at you? Right now I count maybe three that if offered up an even swap for Hobgood that I would take the deal. This is only his second full professional season, and he was injured for part of last year. Let the kid develop.

But most importantly to me (and the only thing I would be willing to listen to as far as needing immediate change) is the minor leagues. The real question is "Is the team picking bad players or are they not developing good players to their full potential?". And that is the question that I cannot answer right now (but if I had to guess, I would go more with the latter than the former). But until we give Andy MacPhail's people time to develop the players they are drafting that fit the mold they see for the future of this ballclub we cannot really know if he will be a success or not. And to blow it all up and start ALL over again would be a much bigger step backwards than the team has taken this year.

Let them be.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Unwritten Rules Of Baseball

Tonight the Boston Red Sox come to town in what will be the first meeting of the teams since what was a very ugly series to end the first half. On the off chance you have blocked the memories (and with the Orioles' performance over the last month no one would blame you), Baltimore went into Boston and lost 4 straight games by a total of 32-13. But it wasn't the scores as much as it was the drama that unfurled during the games.

Instead of rehashing all of the high (and low) lights of the game, let's take a look at what caused it to get so ugly so quickly (these charges are from the Baltimore Orioles point of view. Others may disagree):

  • David Ortiz stands at home plate for an extended period after hitting a home run off of Zach Britton, showing the rookie up
  • Former Oriole Matt Albers goes almost into histrionics after striking out some former teammates
  • Ortiz overreacts to pitches Kevin Gregg throws inside (while they were inside and called balls, Ortiz is known for crowding the plate in order to cover for his diminished bat speed on outside pitches) and yells at him from home plate
  • Ortiz swings at a 3-0 pitch in the 8th inning of a 10-3 game
All of this led to the brawl and the 4 ejections. Tempers flared, something sparked the tinderbox, and it was on. The next day John Lackey hit Nick Markakis in the 6th inning. Intentional or not, that should have ended it. But it didn't because

  • Lackey hit Derrek Lee in the 7th inning in what was unquestionably an intentional pitch, which led to home plate umpire Jeff Nelson warning both benches (meaning if a pitcher hit another batter in that game no matter the possible intent it would be an automatic ejection of both that pitcher and his manager)
  • And in Sunday's finale Red Sox rookie Kyle Weiland hit Mark Reynolds and Vladimir Guerrero, knocking both out of the game and putting Guerrero on the disabled list.
While both pitches were fairly obviously not intentional (just as Jeremy Guthrie's plunking of Kevin Youklis was clearly not a purpose pitch), the fact that Orioles' players were getting beat up led to Michael Gonzalez throwing behind Ortiz (clearly a purpose pitch) and getting himself and manager Buck Showalter ejected.

Now on to "The Rules", or "The Code"...whatever you want to call it, it must be capitalized and in quotations (or at the very least in italics). To the best of my knowledge there is no other sport in the world with a set of unwritten rules quite like baseball. Even long tenured veterans aren't always sure what the rules are, but there are some that are pretty much obvious and agreed upon, and the man who wrote the book on baseball's "Code" (literally) talked about what happened in the Friday game HERE. My contention is that John Lackey hitting Nick Markakis was okay after all that had happened, even though Kevin Gregg has a right to pitch to both sides of the plate and David Ortiz overreacted to the situation Lackey needs to show that he will protect his teammates, and once the Red Sox had taken a 3-0 lead it was a safe place to do it. Now from the looks of it his hitting Markakis was unintentional, but as my grandfather would say "them's the breaks". No matter the intent, the deed was done. Once Lackey hit Derrek Lee in the next inning it was starting all over again. And this is where the biggest mistake was made, something that Jeremy Guthrie alluded to after Sunday's game. Jeff Nelson warned both benches after Lackey hit Derrek Lee with a purpose pitch, leaving 2 straight Orioles' players being hit without giving the Orioles' pitchers a chance to deal with it in the way it has been dealt with for over 100 years. So now anger is festering again, which is only exacerbated when Kyle Weiland hits Mark Reynolds (no matter his intent or lack thereof) and knocks him out of the game. After Guthrie hit Kevin Youklis (another incident that is in no way affected by any possible intent), things should be settled. But Weiland hits ANOTHER Oriole, knocking HIM out of the game. So even though Weiland was ejected because of the warning issued on Sunday after Guthrie's incident, the issue still has to be dealt with and that is exactly what Gonzalez did.

Now after all of that came the pundits and local talking heads. Some backing the Orioles' actions, some bemoaning and railing against "The Code". So what is my take on it?

First and foremost, I think Kevin Gregg should have shut the hell up after the game. "The Code" is a lot like Fight Club, and I think we all know what the First Rule of Fight Club is. But other than that I don't see how things could have played out much differently. I put a lot of this on the umpires, especially Nelson because his actions caused bad blood to fester longer than needed and all but required retaliation from the Orioles even if Sunday's affronts weren't intentional. And also I DO think that there is a need for "The Code". There is a reason that it has existed this long, and while baseball might have the most famous set of unwritten rules they are far from the only ones to have them. If you don't believe me, think about what happens when you use the public bathroom at the stadium. No one told you where you are supposed to look or how you're supposed to wait. You just did it. And if you did something against the accepted protocols someone probably let you know it. Without these unwritten rules things would be a lot more difficult, and the same scenario applies to baseball.

Now let's see if the players have decided that it is done with, or if there is going to be more drama tonight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Moment Of Levity

I have an article I want to post, hopefully later today but possibly not until Friday or Saturday due to scheduling conflicts. But until then I figured all Orioles fans could use a little laugh right about now, so I present to you:

Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Legend Passes

I wasn't lucky enough to see John Mackey play on the field with my own eyes. He retired the year before I was born. But even though I have only seen him on film, interspersed on highlight reels and "Best Of" clips, I can close my eyes and see him breaking tackles and outrunning linebackers and safeties like it is happening right in front of me because he is the reason that the tight end is more than a glorified offensive lineman that is occasionally allowed to catch a pass.

It is a rare feat to be considered someone who "changed the game", and John Mackey is one of the few men who can have that said about them without anyone really being able to argue the point. And the amazing thing about Mackey is that he did it twice.

Tight ends were an afterthought in NFL offensive game plans in 1963. The position was defined by players like Mike Ditka, hard nosed, hard hitting players who made some catches but were mainly there to block and to hit. John Mackey was different. He was fast. He could run as well as hit (during his rookie season, the Baltimore Colts used him as a kick returner), but when he hit you it was like being hit by a Mack truck. Former teammate Bob Vogel said it best when he said "Sometimes you had a sense that, given the option, John would rather run over you than outrun you". There was a play against the Detroit Lions in 1966 that is, even after 45 years, still awe inspiring (this is a nice little mini retrospective of Mackey's career including multiple clips showing his ability to break tackles, but the play in question starts at about 2:50 into the video). If you look, you'll see that he even ran over Lenny Moore (his teammate). Nothing was going to get in the way of John Mackey scoring a touchdown.

All of that, the respect that he earned on the field (like being named the best tight end to ever play the game on the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team in 1969) would have been enough to call him one of the game's all time greats. Not only was he a star in the NFL, he was a star in college, to the point that the best tight end in college is given the John Mackey Award every year. But he was more than a star on the field. He was arguably the first leader of the players.

It might be a little harder now, while NFL fans are stuck in the crosshairs of a stand off between the NFL players and owners over billions of our dollars, for people to understand how different it was for players in the late 60s and early 70s and how much John Mackey meant to the game and what it has become. But without Mackey, things would be VERY different.

John Mackey was not the first head of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), but it is hard to argue that he wasn't the most influential. He became the president of the union after the NFL / AFL merger in 1970, and almost immediately he engineered a strike (that lasted 3 days) in order secure pension and other benefits for the players. Two years later he filed an antitrust suit against the league and won free agency for the players, a right that the players bargained away in 1977, then had to fight for all over again 1987 before finally getting it again in 1993. One has to wonder just how different the NFL would be today if the players had not given up the golden goose before the NFL owners understood the ramifications of it. Professional football in America could look a lot more like professional baseball, both for good and for ill. But we will never know what could have been.

It has been argued by many that Mackey was held out of the Hall of Fame because of the acrimony he caused between the players and ownership. While no one will ever know for sure if that is true (when I asked my Magic 8 Ball the question the reply was "All Signs Point To Yes", however I do not believe that is admissible in court), in 1992 - his 15th and final year of eligibility - he was finally granted membership in that very exclusive club. And in a move that warmed the hearts of most all NFL fans in Baltimore (who were still four years away from the league returning to the city when he was finally inducted), he refused to receive his ring in Indianapolis (after the Colts had moved there in 1984) and instead waited to get his ring during halftime of an exhibition game being played in Memorial Stadium between the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins. That game was being held as a test from the NFL as Baltimore was a finalist for one of two expansion teams that were going to be awarded (the teams went to Carolina and Jacksonville). I had the privilege of attending that game and watching Mackey get his ring in front of many of the fans that had watched him on that very same field. I can remember getting chills as the crowd kept cheering and cheering for John Mackey. The only thing I can equate it to is when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak and the game had to be halted for over 20 minutes because the fans refused to let the moment go. The only difference is that I was in attendance for the Mackey moment, and I still have the ticket stub to prove it.

Even in tragedy, John Mackey continued to affect the game. In retirement he suffered from dementia (an unfortunately more and more common ailment among retired NFL players) and his treatment cost a lot more than the pension that he had fought so hard for all those years ago. It was because of his plight that the NFL and the NFLPA joined forces to arrange to provide for nursing home and adult day care for retired players suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. This plan is still out there and still helping the players. The name of this agreement?

The 88 Plan.

John Mackey (September 24, 1941 - July 6, 2011)
Selected by the Baltimore Colts, 2nd Round, 19th overall, 1963 from Syracuse University
Career: 1963-1971 Baltimore Colts; 1972 San Diego Chargers
5 Time Pro Bowl Selection (1963, 1965-1968)
3 Time All Pro Selection (1966-1968)
Selected NFL's 50th Anniversary All-Time Greatest Tight End 1969
NFL Hall of Fame 1992

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Orioles Make A Long Overdue Move

The Baltimore Orioles need a pitcher for their game tonight. There was a chance that they could have used Alfredo Simon, but he was forced into the game last night against the Texas Rangers and is unavailable. The other solution was / is to bring a pitcher up from the minor leagues (and since Mitch Atkins has been with the team for a few days it was pretty obvious that he was going to be the choice), and that is what they did.

There is an open spot on the 40 man roster, so that is not going to be a problem. However, the Orioles need to make room on their 25 man roster in order to have him pitch tonight. There was talk about sending Pedro Viola back to the minor leagues or designating Chris Jakubauskas for assignment, but instead Andy MacPhail has done something that should have been done a while ago (allowing me to get into a topic that people have been mentioning to me for quite a while now). They put Luke Scott on the DL.

Scott revealed that he had a torn labrum in his right shoulder in early May (he said he injured it in spring training). According to him it affected his throwing but not his hitting, but even for a hitter as notoriously streaky as Luke Scott (who has had cold stretches that rivaled a Yukon Territory winter) it has been a dismal showing.

Buck Showalter is not perfect (a cursory glance at his MASN commercials will show that), but he is very good. His biggest flaw might just be an over-commitment to his veteran players. He does have a track record of protecting his veterans, and to be honest I cannot think of any alternative as to why he kept choosing to put Luke Scott's name in the lineup every game.

This leaves the team with Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold as the 2011 version of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein (the roles most assumed they were going to fill until the Orioles signed Vladimir Guerrero to be the team's Designated Hitter). It is going to be interesting to see what Reimold does over the next two weeks (the Orioles can back date Scott's DL sting to July 4th, so with the All-Star break in the mix he could be back by the time the Boston Red Sox come to town July 18-20). In 2009 Nolan Reimold was a very pleasant surprise. He was only called up after Lou Montanez was injured, and he responded by winning Rookie Of The Month for June and ended up hitting .279 with 15 home runs in 104 games. Unfortunately he had to be shut down early due to a fraying left Achilles tendon, and he never seemed to find himself in 2010 due to not being able to train in the off-season and his not being fully recovered from the injury. Reimold was almost traded in the off-season this past year, but he had been training with Brady Anderson and Anderson told the Orioles' F.O. that it would be a good idea to keep him around.

To be honest, that was one of the things that made the Guerrero signing such a head scratcher. The only way it can be justified is if the Orioles knew about Luke Scott's shoulder, since he was slated to be the primary DH. But if they knew that why wouldn't they have put Scott on the DL from the beginning instead of letting him play for 3 plus months? If it was an injury that rest and rehab could have solved than sit him. If it is going to require surgery get him under the knife now so that he is ready to train in the off-season and can be 100% when spring training starts NEXT year.

But it seems obvious (at least to me) that the Guerrero signing was a panic move. The Orioles have a fan base that is dying for a winner, and it was pretty obvious that this year was not going to be the call from the Warden that the fans need. Signing Vladimir Guerrero was not going to change that, but he was sitting out there as a free agent and the fans were talking about him and what his bat would mean for the rest of the team. what they didn't take into account was that Guerrero is now at a point in his career where he needs protection in the lineup as much as he provides protection in the lineup. A big reason why he was so good last year is that he was hitting next to Josh Hamilton. The two of them fed off of each other and helped lead the Texas Rangers to the World Series. Derrick Lee, Luke Scott, and Mark Reynolds have not offered the same kind of protection as Josh Hamilton and Michael Young did last year. Add to that the ongoing injury issues with Brian Roberts tossing the daily lineup into upheaval from the top down (and taking away the table setter that makes all of the hitters behind him that much more dangerous) and you have a guy playing Designated Hitter and hitting cleanup that is hitting singles.

Now Vlad is still going to be the DH for a while, but at least the fans (and the management) will get to see what a Reimold / Pie platoon can do. And as much as I like what he can do when he is healthy, I harbor some hope that Luke Scott will not be back in the lineup in 15 days. It is time to really see what these two guys can do.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Baltimore Orioles Fans Are Mad As Hell And They're Not Going To Take It Anymore: 2011 Not Quite All-Star Break Edition

I started out preparing a list of fan reactions from articles and blog posts in the area after the Orioles were swept by the St. Louis Cardinals while on their way to a season worst 8 games under .500 record. I figured with the last 10 games of the season until the All-Star break on the road and against the Atlanta Braves, the Texas Rangers, and the Boston Red Sox, this might just be the beginning of the Big Boil Over (hell, my post yesterday wasn't exactly all beer and Skittles).

But about 10 or 12 copy / pastes into the article, I realized that it is futile. It is tough to see it through all of the doom and gloom of the last 13 years, but this is a team that has made progress and still can. The thing about all of that losing is, as soon as things go a little south it is too easy for fans to go "there they go again" and start beating down on the team and not look at the fact that there HAVE been strides taken.

This is not to say that the team, the front office, and the ownership are not deserving of some browbeating. But to focus solely on that while ignoring all of the steps forward is doing a disservice to the team AND to the fans.

Two things that I read jumped out at me to the point that I had to change my entire post on here. The first was seeing that someone was calling for Buck Showalter to be fired. I cannot even begin to understand the reasoning behind anyone calling for this. The facts of the matter are this, as of July 1st, the Orioles are 69-66. That is a total of 135 games, or 27 short of a full season. The Baltimore Orioles need an influx of talent in a number of positions, including (but not limited to) first and third base, starting and relief pitching, and if the mounting injuries are any indication, second base (and that is just for the big league team). Buck Showalter has done more with less than can reasonably be expected. He is not the problem.

The second thing that made me shake my head was someone who posted an angry diatribe about how the Orioles had no picks in the 2011 Draft in between their 1st pick (when they drafted Dylan Bundy, RHP, 4th overall) and their 2nd pick (Jason Esposito, 3B, 64th pick), while the Boston Red Sox had 4 picks (19, 25, 36, 40) and the Tampa Bay Rays had 8 (24, 31, 32, 38, 41, 42, 56, 59). The poster went so far as to blame Andy MacPhail for this. For all of MacPhail's faults and mistakes during his tenure as the President of Baseball Operations for the Orioles, deciding which teams get to draft when is not one of them. The reason those teams had all of those draft picks is because they had free agents that they lost that netted them compensatory picks. The Orioles have not had that luxury, mainly because MacPhail has traded away players before they became free agents if they had any value (free agent compensatory picks are decided by how they are ranked by the Elias Sports Bureau over the previous two years of playing, and those stats are weighted against others playing the same positions as them in the field). This is done to reward teams that do a good job of scouting and developing players in order to give them a better chance to compete against the teams that are signing these developed and now free to sign anywhere players.

The Orioles have been hit hard by injuries but they are not using that as an excuse, and they should not try to do so. All teams are hit by injuries, it is the nature of the game. The problem is that the Baltimore Orioles do not have the replacement players in the minors ready to step in for injured players, and they cannot get those players overnight, and most of the players they received in the Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada trades are either in the majors or have been dealt for other players. The Orioles ARE trying to build through the draft, but more so than any other sport the draft for baseball is a complete crap shoot. There is a reason that the MLB draft is 50 rounds and no other league's draft is more than 7 rounds long.

As far as signing a free agent (and yes, people are STILL bringing up Mark Teixeira as well as Victor Martinez and a dozen other players that the Orioles have not signed), it is a simple concept that too many people are not wrapping their heads around, namely that a marquee free agent is not going to choose to sign in Baltimore if other teams that have a better chance of at least making the playoffs if not winning the World Series outright are also in the picture. We can't even offer the no state income tax that Texas and Florida can offer the players. I actually applaud Andy MacPhail for not letting agents use the Orioles to raise the bids for their star players from other teams (which is what really happened in the Teixeira negotiations).

So what can we blame them for? First and foremost, for not being a lot more aggressive in the Latin American and Far East regions. Teams like the Orioles (namely teams that don't have the unlimited cash or cache that the megawatt teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, or Los Angeles Angels have) need to be bigger in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and they need to be the ones wining and dining and schmoozing the teams and players and agents in Japan and Korea. They need to be bold like the Tampa Bay Rays and look for places that could be the next hotbed of talent like Brazil (this article is over 2 years old, but it gives you an idea of what the Rays are doing. There was an article in ESPN Magazine recently that expanded on this and gave some new information). This is a huge failing on the part of MacPhail, Angelos, and the entire organization.

The only other thing that they could do that they have not done enough of is to take more of their later round draft picks and go after some of those really high ceiling kids that probably won't sign, and then offer them big bucks to sign anyway. If you can get one or two of those players to sign every couple of years, in a few years time you might have a top flight minor league system, and then you have the ammunition needed to trade for that big bat corner infielder and that starting pitcher that will fill in when one of the young stud arms is injured in the middle of the season.

If you look at it critically, but without the emotion that comes from not having a winning season since 1997, you can see that there are positive steps being taken. But if you need to vent, go ahead. I can't blame you for being frustrated.