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 Andy MacPhail became the club's president in June 2007, and this -- MacPhail's third full season -- is when it should start to bear real fruit.
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 Matt Holliday to the A's for a package of players that included outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and closer Huston Street. Holliday was the Rockies' best offensive player, yes, but he was due to become a free agent this past winter, and the Rockies knew that they would never be able to afford his price tag (he ultimately re-signed with the Cardinals, to whom the A's dealt him last July, for seven years and $120 million). Street saved 35 games for the Rockies, but perhaps just as integral to their run to the wild card was Gonzalez, a five-tool 22-year-old who in half a season in the big league posted an OPS of .878, and then hit .588 in the NLDS. Gonzalez will be under the Rockies' control, at a sub-market wage, for at least four more seasons.
Two winters ago, the Orioles' best starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, was coming off a year in which he finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting, and might well have won the award had he not missed the season's final six weeks. Bedard was due to become a free agent in two seasons -- two seasons during which the Orioles couldn't reasonably expect to contend, and in which they knew that Bedard's value couldn't become much higher than it was then. So they traded him, as the Rockies might have done, to the Mariners, for a package of four prospects -- centerfielder Adam Jones and pitchers Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio and Tony Butler -- and reliever George Sherrill. Then, this past July, after Sherrill had become a top-flight relief pitcher (particularly against left-handed hitters) and had saved 51 games for them in a season and a half, they traded him to the Dodgers for a pair of prospects, third baseman Josh Bell and pitcher Steve Johnson.
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. Matt Wieters, whom Baltimore picked fifth overall in 2007, did nothing in his four months in the big leagues last season (he hit .288 with a .753 OPS) to suggest that he won't soon be one of the league's top three catchers. But behind him in the system are a number of Orioles-drafted prospects who are universally agreed to rank in the game's top 100, and who will be under Orioles control, if they so choose, for years. Included among them are a number of pitchers who should soon shore up what was in 2009 baseball's worst staff: 22-year old lefty Brian Matusz, who was picked fifth overall in '08 and showed flashes of brilliance in eight big league starts in '09; 23-year-old righty Jake Arrieta, a fifth-round pick in '07; 22-year-old lefty Zach Britton, a third-rounder in '06; and 22-year-old Brandon Erbe, a third-rounder in '05. Outfielder Nolan Reimold -- a second-rounder in '05 who led AL rookies with 15 home runs last season -- and first baseman Brandon Snyder, the club's first round pick that year, also appear as if they'll become above-average major leaguers.
In January 2008, the Rockies signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who had just finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, to a six year, $31 million extension that includes a club option for 2014. It was the largest deal ever for a player with less than two years of major league service time, but it also ensured that the Rockies would control the player that they felt sure would be their club's centerpiece well past the time that he would have become eligible for free agency. Tulowitzki hit 32 home runs in 2009 and had a .930 OPS -- the National League's tenth-best -- and his deal suddenly looks to be a bargain.
Similarly, in January 2009, the Orioles signed outfielder Nick Markakis to a six-year deal -- for $66 million -- with an additional club option that will keep him under their control well past his potential free agency eligibility. Markakis had something of an off year in '09 (his offensive statistics slightly declined in nearly every category), but his club does not regret his contract; he will, they deeply believe, be their bellwether for years, far longer than if they'd extended him on a year-to-year basis. It's a risk, but one that teams like the Rockies and Orioles must take, to keep players like Tulowitzki and Markakis out of the hands of free agent-gobblers like the Red Sox and Yankees.
The Orioles have spent some money this winter, committing $22.5 million to a trio of free agents in third baseman Miguel Tejada, first baseman Garrett Atkins and closer Mike Gonzalez. But Gonzalez's contract spans only two years, and Tejada's and Atkins's just one apiece. The idea here is to bring aboard players who will contribute immediately at the major league level, but who won't financially hamstring the club in the long term (should their production decline), and who won't block cheaper, and potentially better, alternatives who are nearly ready in the minors. The hope is that Tejada and Atkins will serve as place-warmers until Bell and Snyder are ready, and that Gonzalez will function similarly, under the assumption that one of the Orioles' many relief prospects will develop into an equivalent closer.
The Rockies, similarly, have recently signed a number of veteran free agents this winter -- reliever Rafael Betancourt, first baseman Jason Giambi and catcher Miguel Olivo -- but they haven't given a free agent anything more extensive than a two-year deal for years, after learning their lesson in 2001, when they were burned by deeply disappointing signings Mike Hampton (eight years, $121 million) and Denny Neagle (five years, $51 million).
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 (Joe Mauer, Cliff Lee, Brandon Webb, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez, and so on).
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.