Friday, September 30, 2011

Requiem For a Lost Season

I needed to take a few moments to digest the last week of baseball before I switch my gears and get into football coverage.  The Orioles played the role of spoiler during September, finishing the season with series wins against playoff contenders like the Detroit Tigers, the LA Angels, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Boston Red Sox (you might have heard something about that last one recently).  The strong finish kept the team from finishing w/100 losses for the 3rd time in their history (after 1954 and 1988), but it did nothing to assuage the anger of fans who watched a season that started with the hope of a team moving forward to respectability instead decay into a 14th straight season with a losing record and once again a pick in the top 5 of next year's MLB draft (the Orioles have the 4th pick, after the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, and the Seattle Mariners).  The result of all this is that there will once again be big changes (or at least the attempts of big changes) in both the front office and on the field.

The consensus is that Andy MacPhail will be leaving the team.  I have mixed feelings about this.  While I do think his ignoring the foreign market (in particular the Latin American talent pool) is a huge mistake, the fact of the matter is that his overall plan was and is a sound one.  Every O's fan has heard "Grow the arms, buy the bats".  And that is what MacPhail tried to do.  He inherited a team that suffered from a severe lack of direction and gave it one.  He took the Mariners and the Astros to the cleaners by trading them Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada, respectively.  He took a farm system that was as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboards and did whatever he could do to put some bodies that had a chance of success in a place to succeed.

The biggest mistake he made was the mistake that fans (and many of us talking about the team) made too.  We decided that this was the year that we were moving from "development" to "accountable".  MacPhail said that this year was about the wins and losses, not about getting this team to where it needs to get to in order to take the next step, which is contending for the postseason.  The reason this was a fatal mistake is that the job of development was (and still is) nowhere near being done.  Everyone looked at that strong finish under manager Buck Showalter last year and decided that it was time.  They saw the food on the plate but did not look in the cupboards to see that they had nothing left after the meal.  So they dug in, but when injuries ate away at the Orioles there was nothing in the cupboard to refill the plates.

The Orioles used 12 different starting pitchers in 2011, tied for second most in the majors.  The pitching staff that the fans had been counting on is still young.  They faltered.  Maybe they thought the end of the 2010 season allowed them to slack on training during the offseason (Brian Matusz), or maybe committing the unnatural act of throwing a baseball for all of those years led to the kind of maintenance issues that seem to require surgery for all young pitchers these days (Jake Arrieta).  Perhaps they just struggled and might not pan out as starters (while not certain, Brad Bergesen and to a lesser degree Chris Tillman fit right here).  The Orioles were forced to go to the scrap heap (no other way to explain the signing of JoJo Reyes from the waiver wire and his immediate and long term insertion into the starting rotation).  The loss of Brian Roberts hurt the team as much this year as it did in 2010.  Luke Scott trying to play through a torn labrum hurt the team, but the lack of results from his replacements in Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold show that he might have had the best interests of the team at the heart of the decision.  The other problem was in deciding to once again go not only with stopgap players in order to not impede development of the players in the minors (like Derrek Lee), but to go after players with no flexibility if something went wrong somewhere else (Vladimir Guerrero started a logjam chain reaction that wound up affecting Scott, Reimold, Pie, and to a lesser degree Lee, Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis).

This was a team that needed everything to go right, and when it didn't a lot of things fell like dominoes.  And one of those things will most likely be Andy MacPhail's job.

I am not a fan of the rumor that Buck Showalter will move from the dugout to the front office.  If this was an expansion team like he had when he went to the Diamondbacks and he could put his imprint on the minors before the major league team even started that would be good.  But as it stands, putting someone with no actual experience in that part of the game in that position will only move the team further away from where it is trying to go.  I am fine with him getting to express an opinion on who is hired because he is going to have to work with them and they need to be on the same page.  But Showalter should stay where he is best suited, which is in the dugout.  I have heard all kinds of names mentioned as possible replacements, from the possible (John Hart) to the highly improbable (Brian Cashman or Theo Epstein) and everything in between (Matt Klentak, a very intriguing idea that I would like to see pursued), but at this point any speculation is just that because MacPhail is still on the job.

The area that I feel needs the biggest overhaul is player development.  Fans question why we keep having such horrible drafts compared to other teams, and while it is true that in baseball more than in any other professional sport the draft is more of a crap shoot than a science, it is very hard for me to believe that this is all a result of picking the wrong players.  At some point and on some level, those in charge of teaching those young players how to be a major league player are failing.  Brian Matusz should have never had the season he had in 2011.  His admitting that he wasn't "mentally prepared" for the season is as big of a condemnation on this team as anything the team has done in the last decade), and it leads me to wonder how much of the blame for the other pitchers regressing so substantially can also be attributed to that problem.  While it is speculation, the fact that I can justify that speculation says that it is time for a change.

For now, all we can do is wait to see what will happen in the future while we mourn what we thought could have been, no matter how improbable those could have beens really were had we looked objectively.

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