How can a club compete when it has the misfortune of playing in a division that also includes the two highest-revenue clubs in Major League Baseball? The answer for the Baltimore Orioles, for the past dozen seasons anyway, has been: It can't. Since 1997, when the Orioles won the American League East before losing a six game ALCS to the Cleveland Indians, they have endured 12 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, and have just once finished better than fourth in the division -- never once winning more games in a year than did the Yankees or the Red Sox.
Never in those 12 years did the Orioles lose more games than the 98 they dropped in 2009. There is, however, a gleaming lining to last season's finish, and that is that the Orioles, for the first time in recent memory, are now nothing less than a franchise on the rise, and one with a legitimate plan that should allow it not just to compete, but to contend. That plan has been in place ever since
The plan looks something like the one that the Tampa Bay Rays used two years ago rapidly progress from a team that had never before lost fewer than 21 games more than it had won to one that is now among the league's elite. It might, however, even more closely resemble that of the Colorado Rockies, who have made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons despite a payroll that remains deep within baseball's lower half, and it consists of perhaps five central elements:
In November 2008, the Rockies traded
Two winters ago, the Orioles' best starting pitcher,
Trading Bedard at the height of his value, therefore, netted them a player who last season became an All-Star at the age of 23 (Jones); a future No. 2 starter who had a 2.70 ERA in 18 starts with Triple-A Bowie last year before wetting his beak in the majors at the end of the season (Tillman); a 23-year-old power hitter who is considered to be among the game's top several dozen prospects (Bell); and a trio of other prospects, any of whom could become an effective reliever on a playoff-caliber club. Best of all, each of those players will be under Orioles control for years to come.
Most trades don't work out nearly as well as the Bedard deal did, but that single transaction provided a springboard for the Orioles' burgeoning renaissance. Sources say that the Orioles might re-sign Bedard (who struggled through two injury-plagued seasons in Seattle, and won't get anywhere near the free agent dollars he and the club could have expected he might two years ago) this offseason, which would make the trade all the more impressive.
Easier said, of course, than done, but the Orioles' scouts appear to have hit on more than their share of draft picks in recent years, as have those of the Rockies, whose opening day lineup in '09 consisted solely of players that they had developed.
In January 2008, the Rockies signed shortstop
Similarly, in January 2009, the Orioles signed outfielder
The Orioles have spent
The Rockies, similarly, have recently signed a number of veteran free agents this winter -- reliever
This is a step that the Rockies, who play in the NL West, have yet to have to take in order to contend. The Orioles, as a member of the AL East, will at some point likely have to sign one or two of those expensive, long-term free agents -- who, if his performance regresses could potentially derail years of progress -- in order to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox (and now the Rays, whose plan is a few years farther along than theirs). Sources say the club has the wherewithal to make such signings, particularly if they continue to receive performances from their younger players that far exceed those players' contracts.
Timing, however, will be everything. A .500 season in 2010 -- a potentially reachable goal for the club, even in their stacked division, and one that would represent a 17-win improvement from '09 -- could lead MacPhail and his front office to gamble next winter on a member of the virtual All-Star team of players who could then be free agents (
If, however, the Orioles disappoint this season, then MacPhail will continue on with his Rockies-inspired plan -- trading expiring assets for future stars, drafting intelligently, locking up his young stars, selectively adding veterans -- until it is time to strike. Even though the Orioles play in the AL East, that day, it now seems clear, will be sooner -- as soon as 2011 -- than later.