Thankfully, the 2011 winter version of the Baltimore Orioles is not a regurgitation of the typical offseason under President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail. The 2010 season, although a major disappointment in both prospect progress and team wins, finally provided clarity to the team's front office. In a previous blog I outlined the three steps the Orioles needed to take to become competitive.
The first realization seemed obvious to everyone but Andy. It was time to to throw out the "nice guys" like Dave Trembley who proved over and over again that he couldn't manage a pitching staff or put together a lineup that would produce. The clubhouse had become chaotic and the losing atmosphere was embedded in the soul's of the players. And it showed daily. The remedy was to bring in a manager who was well versed in all phases of baseball (on and off the field), who commands respect throughout the sport and demands accountability from his players and front office. And voila! Success to the tune of a .600 winning percentage playing baseball mostly against foes in the east. A team playing well enough to have won the AL East in the second half of the season if it was actually divided into two half seasons.
Part One Result: Finding and hiring the proper manager (Buck Showalter) and coaching staff (led by Willie Randolph and John Russell)...ACCOMPLISHED!
The second part of the equation was a little trickier. The evaluation of the team's young prospects became nearly a grueling task under Buck. The Josh Bell experiment at 3B was like pulling teeth because Bell never really progressed and it became both disappointing and daunting. As a result of his failures, Bell's value as a prospect took a big hit. It became obvious to the Orioles front office that a power hitting 3B was a club's top priority.
Ditto for Chris Tillman's performance, although there was some progression later in the season. Fortunately for the O's, there is a good number of young arms within the organization that the team can look at to fill the last rotation spot. Names that include the top pitching prospect Zach Britton among others. And although the team would love to find another Kevin Millwood type veteran innings eater, its not an absolute necessity. Especially if the veteran isn't providing an upgrade at the position but increasing the payroll.
But not every young player took a step back or under performed. Felix Pie seemed to flourish under Showalter. And with Nolan Reimold still projected to be a major leaguer as well, the LF position appears to be their's to lose. The team could sign another big bat like Vladimir Guerrero and send Luke Scott to LF regularly which would send Pie to the bench and Reimold to Norfolk to begin the season. But it appears unlikely unless the O's can get a contract from a pure DH that is very team friendly.
Others like Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta also played very well under Showalter. That bodes extremely well for a young pitching staff that needs its starters to progress and take that next step. And even though Jeremy Guthrie isn't a true ace, his numbers were very good last season especially when you consider he pitched for a team that lost nearly 100 games. So, if the top 4 of Guthrie, Matusz, Bergesen and Arrieta continue to develop, the O's should be fine.
The bullpen was a disaster from week one when Michael Gonzalez was totally ineffective and injured. Koji Uehara spent much of his season out as well, as did Jim Johnson and Jason Berken who had a great first half. Matt Albers, Alfredo Simon, Mark Hendrickson and the rest had an occassional bright moment, but were below average mostly. The bullpen was in desperate need of good health and in dire need of a veteran or two.
First base was also an issue after the failed Garrett Atkins experiment. Ty Wigginton did a nice job filling in, but Wiggy is a super utility type guy that shouldn't be a team's starting 1B and cleanup hitter. A power hitting 1B became a priority after about 50 Atkins at bats. Add SS to that equation too where Cesar Izturis played gold glove caliber defense but finished last in the AL offensively.
Part Two Result: Evaluating the young talent and identifying team needs (1B, 3B, SS, RP, SP)...ACCOMPLISHED
Once the evaluation process was concluded and the team needs identified, it was the job of the front office to fill the holes. Something they have done in the past with the likes of Garrett Atkins, Miguel Tejada, Julio Lugo, Cesar Izturis, Kevin Millwood and other stopgap starters like Rich Hill that I'm too embarrassed to include. But 2011 with Buck Showalter, Willie Randolph and John Russell (all with managing and personnel experience) on board, it would be different. Very different.
Although the top 5 free agents (Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, Victor Martinez and Jayson Werth) all signed elsewhere, the team still made very fruitful and affordable moves that included two trades and a number of free agent acquisitions. By trading for Mark Reynolds, the Orioles got a truly good, young slugger who rarely hits into double plays, has a very good OBP and provides serious power and lineup protection. He strikes out a ton, but his run production is well documented. Ditto for the free agent signing of 1B Derrek Lee who brings a veteran presence, a power bat and a very good glove to OPACY. Add the addition of SS J.J. Hardy via trade who brings a solid bat and glove with him, and the O's revamped 60% of the starting infield. The re-signing of Izturis provides a gold glove infielder off the bench. Something Baltimore has not had the luxury of in the past. And Brendan Harris, also acquired from the Twins along with Hardy, offers versatility in that he can play the corner outfield positions and all of the infield positions (except catcher).
The additions of Jeremy Accardo and Kevin Gregg, and the re-signing of Uehara solidifies the bullpen. With Gonzo, Johnson, Accardo, Uehara and Gregg, the O's have 5 of the 7 bullpen pitchers with closing experience. With Berken taking on the long man role, the team is one LOOGY away from being one of the best bullpens in all of baseball if healthy. A far cry from last season when the BP continuously let down a starting staff which struggled to find a win to begin with.
Part Three Result: Filling team needs (Reynolds, Lee, Hardy, Uehara, Gregg, Accardo, Izturis and Harris)...ACCOMPLISHED
Now that the Orioles front office and field management teams have succeeded in taking those three important steps, its up to Buck, Willie, John and the rest of the coaching staff to put it all together on the playing field. But its not their task alone. The players themselves must take the next step in their progression as well. They need to learn how to win and get the most out of their potential on a daily basis. And lastly, the front office can't sit on its laurels. They must continue to add or subtract players in an effort to further build this organiztion into a perennial contender.
After more than a dozen years its about time the O's fans can smile and feel truly better about their team. Past disapointments have nearly all of us cautiously optimistic. But 2011 doesn't reak of losing like seasons past. That cloud over our heads is gone. This year may be the first real step forward to becoming relevant again. i think so. I hope so.