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Sing a new song

For the past two weeks, trade rumors have been bouncing from treetop to treetop in Birdland. Local news services have been busy releasing updates on proposed deals, sports talk radio shows have been flush with callers, and online discussion forums have been packed to season-high levels. Many Orioles fans, invigorated by the thrill of the chase, have appealed to club management to make a bold move (or two or three) and push the team from its doldrums to the forefront of the crowded AL playoff race.

Of course, sports fans have a tendency to be short-sighted and impatient. But no less than Baltimore Sun senior columnist John Eisenberg, typically a level-headed opiner, has been one of the leaders of the chorus. Eisenberg argued pointedly in his July 1 column that the front office needed to add talent to the existing squad this year because another promising opportunity for a playoff run might not happen in upcoming years. Further muddling the situation, he wrote, is the uncertainty surrounding the return of club management—the contracts of front-office heads Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie are up for renewal at the end of this year, and manager Lee Mazzilli's contract option for 2006 has yet to be activated. Eisenberg wrote that the Orioles needed to make “a dramatic move intended to give [them] a better chance of winning—now.”

Don't think twice, it's all right

That was four weeks ago. But Eisenberg has kept up the pressure, writing in yesterday's column, "[The Orioles] have a realistic chance, and they should do all they can to improve themselves in the five shopping days left before the deadline."

Eisenberg's verbal prods represent a shift in the atmosphere of expectations surrounding Baltimore's baseball club. After a series of fourth-place finishes followed by a third-place finish last year, now visions of the playoffs dance in the heads of the Orioles' faithful. The possibilities of a brighter tomorrow have taken a back seat to the pressing realities of today.

And to keep up with the new reality, Eisenberg argues, a corresponding shift in responsibility is in order for the team's current regime: instead of being "sellers" of veterans at the trading deadline, they should now be "buyers" peddling young prospects for established major-league talent.

Time has come today?

Being in the latter category (of "buyers") is a position fraught with risk. Most young-for-old midseason trades produce negligible gains for both teams involved—typically the short-term benefit provided by the acquired veteran amounts to just one or two games in the standings, while most prospects fail to make a significant impact in the majors—but when there are clear winners and losers in such deals, the teams receiving the prospects usually come out on top. Even when such a swap works out for both clubs, such as the Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz trade in 1987, the echoes of a former prospect making good on his promise elsewhere can haunt a team for years.

There is comparatively little risk for non-contending clubs trading established veterans—who usually will become free agents at the end of the season—for prospects at the deadline. The Orioles have found themselves in that role for the past six seasons, beginning in 1999 when they traded Juan Guzmán for B.J. Ryan and Jácobo Sequea. Most recently, two years ago they gave up Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine for a bunch of young arms, none of whom has provided much value to the ballclub yet. The downside for the "seller" in such a trade is easily forgiven: if the prospects don't work out, that's fine; had the veteran stayed, he wouldn't have given the team anything except perhaps a few meaningless wins and an early-round draft pick or two upon his departure as a free agent. And the prospects received in the transaction have more near-term value because they are ahead of the potential draft pick(s) in development.

A game of give and take

Confronted with the increased pressure to win, the Orioles' top-level officials have been on the phones attempting to improve the team via trade. First, they attempted to net the top starting pitcher on the market, Sean Burnett, from the Florida Marlins in exchange for a package of several younger players. According to published reports, that deal fell through when the Marlins tried to force third baseman Mike Lowell and the $21 million due him onto the Birds as part of the deal and after Burnett declined to negotiate a long-term contract extension with Baltimore. Latest reports call that deal all but dead now.

Next, last Saturday they agreed to swap one struggling, overpaid player for another—Oriole pitcher Ponson for San Diego first baseman Phil Nevin. Both players appear to be on the downswing of their respective careers, but each would have given his new team something it lacked; the Padres need a pitcher to give them innings with Adam Eaton on the disabled list, and the Orioles need a better right-handed hitting option at first base and DH. The difference in salary and remaining contract length was negligible. However, Nevin refused to waive his contractual no-trade condition, sending the deal off the table and onto the trading room floor.

The latest rumors say that Ponson may be headed to the Texas Rangers for right fielder Richard Hidalgo or first baseman Adrián González, but allegedly the Orioles have balked at paying most of Ponson's remaining salary. And some sources have reported that the O's have discussed trading outfielder Larry Bigbie for Matt Lawton of the Pittsburgh Pirates—but the Sun today cited a team source saying that there is no interest in Lawton.

As those would-be deals have shown, solving the club's problems by going outside the organization is a prickly task. Consummating a trade has always required general managers with creativity, guts, and clubs with complementary needs. But when veterans are involved, a transaction also may require the approval of the players—and by extension their families and agents too.

Sellers' market

Complicating the matter even further is the relatively low number of "sellers" this year, a situation caused by a combination of parity, revenue sharing, and the wild card. At last check, there were just eight teams that could be considered out of contention, defined as being more than five games back in both their division and the wild card race. That leaves twenty-two teams still in the playoff hunt. As a result, the Orioles have fewer trade avenues than would be available in a usual year, and more competitors driving up the price for desirable players. It's not an ideal situation for any team looking to add talent for the home stretch.

But it's especially difficult for the current regime, which has been demonstrably picky when it comes to acquiring high-priced talent. As the aborted trade attempts for Hudson and Burnett showed, Beattie and Flanagan do not want to cede a piece of the farm for what could amount to a brief rental of a veteran player. And with their team no longer flush in revenue the way it was in the 1990s, they are also leery of absorbing high salaries and hampering the club's financial flexibility over the next few years.

The current front office has been successful at managing risk and living within its means. But its conservative, deliberate style runs counter to the aggressive, shoot-for-the-moon mentality that so often prevails in the midsummer trading period. To make a bold, win-now move as Eisenberg proposed would be a stretch of character for them. And at this point, with just two months remaining in the season and the Orioles having fallen several games in the standings, such a move would probably come too late to produce a championship.

We now interrupt this analysis for a brief editorial injunction

It is unwise to push this front office out of its comfort zone by demanding a bold, showy, and temporary acquisition. Beattie and Flanagan should continue to do what they have been doing with some proficiency, and that is to construct a club that can contend in both the short term and the long run. Allow them to keep looking for ways to improve the team not just for now, but also for later.

This season has shown that both the Red Sox and Yankees are fallible: the Red Sox' pitching is mediocre without last year's top starter and reliever, and the Yankees are overrun with aging, expensive veterans and shoddy defense. All those deficiencies cannot be fixed overnight. Moreover, all the key players on this year's Orioles except Ryan are obligated to return next season. Whether Mazzilli comes back is less important; in today's game, the field manager has only a small impact on his team's record. The AL East title should remain within Baltimore's reach for at least the next couple of years. And if the Orioles stay the course, they may not improve their chances to win a title this year, but they may preserve and perhaps enhance their ability to contend next year and in years succeeding.

Any baseball executive that wants to keep his job for an extended period of time should continually lay the foundation for future success, not throw all his chips on the table in an attempt to win a championship in a narrow one- or two-year window. Successful organizations are not ones that win today and are gone tomorrow; they are consistently in the hunt year after year, usually with few changes in management and on-field personnel. If Beattie and Flanagan want to continue in their jobs, they should operate as if they will be back next year to continue the work they have begun. If they act otherwise they would risk doing themselves and their organization a disservice.

When the time comes, Peter Angelos may yet recognize the value of an administration with a clear long-range vision. And then he may decide to extend the contracts of Beattie and Flanagan long enough to allow them to bring those plans to fruition.

(Or, as is his wont, he might evict one or both of them and derail the team yet again. For some reason, though, I don't foresee that happening this time. This management duo has shown enough ability to merit another couple of years in command.)

Comments (2)

While I agree on the "staying the course" mentality, I believe that the organization needs to make an attempt at doing something. As I write this comment, the O's once decent lead and number of games over .500 has reversed, for lack of a better term. With the front office standing pat, it gives the impression that they are content to merely taunt and tease the O's faithful with a great start and a rather terrible decline.

I have had the unfortunate circumstance of being an Orioles fan over these last seven years, and it has been incredibly painful to watch. This year was finally making it fun to be an O's fan again. Unfortunately, the month of July has made me rethink that again. Even more, as one who tends to disagree with Mr. Eisenberg, I cannot help but agree with him on this point.

The bottom line is that the front office needs to do something in order to appear to do something to maintain the O's competitiveness this season. I have had enough of the last few years "small market mentality."


I don't disagree that a move to improve this year's Orioles would be helpful. But it should be the kind of move that fits into the big picture of the ballclub remaining competitive for the next few years -- i.e., a move that doesn't give away players who could be significant contributors to the team in the near future.

To clarify my point: "Stay the course" doesn't mean turn off the phone, sit on your hands, and do nothing to improve the current team. I still think that the Orioles should try to throw off dead weight and replace it with useful pieces. But they should avoid the knee-jerk type of deal made for the sake of appearances that would be counterproductive over the long term.

I feel your frustration about the team's trajectory of late. Over the past month the Orioles have played far below their "real" ability level. However, I also think that they outperformed their "real" ability level in April, leading to unreasonable expectations for the season.

This is still a decent team that should rebound in the next two months even without any significant additions. What the Orioles can do at this point is replace their weakest links with at least average performers and do it without selling off the farm. I've been looking into that and will discuss it in more detail in my next few articles.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 28, 2005 9:21 PM.

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