For most people the year begins in January, but for me there's nothing like the sense of renewal that baseball's Opening Day brings. The combination of the early signs of spring—flowers blooming, birds chirping—and the return of baseball fills me with optimism and the expectation of better days to come. For me, as for Thomas Boswell and baseball devotees everywhere, time begins on Opening Day.
However, in the last few years my optimism began to fade as I realized that the Orioles were not getting better. Names and faces changed, but the team had become the epitome of baseball mediocrity, and I saw no signs of marked improvement on the horizon. My interest in the O's began to erode, and baseball fell behind in the competition for my attention. Damaging matters further were the revelations about steroid and human growth hormone use that disproportionately implicated current and former Orioles.
This year, however, is different. True, on the field will be another losing team. Most rational observers think that the Orioles are going to be worse than last year, or even the last seven, with the betting market placing the over/under on the Orioles' 2008 win count at 65.5, the lowest of any MLB team.
What's changed is that there's actually some reason for optimism with the new regime led by Andy MacPhail. Having hit rock bottom after a decade of losing, the Orioles have given up trying to field even a mediocre squad this year at the big-league level. With MacPhail in charge, they have aggressively begun to prune the roster to a core of talented youngsters from which to build an eventual contender.
MacPhail has finally committed the club to all-out rebuilding, something his predecessor, Mike Flanagan, could not do in the last two years because doing so would have essentially confirmed that his work (with and without Jim Beattie) since 2003 had fallen short of the mark.
MacPhail's first offseason was telling. Instead of signing mediocre free agents to plug gaps, MacPhail traded two of the team's best players, Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada, receiving bundles of legitimate prospects and youngish spare parts in return. He also took steps toward improving the club's international scouting efforts, long an organizational weakness. Brian Roberts, arguably the team's best and most popular remaining player, reportedly is next in line to be shipped from the Warehouse if a suitable package of prospects comes along.
Gibbons: the decline and fall
The latest evidence that the organization has turned the page on its mediocrity-coddling ways is Sunday's release of Jay Gibbons and the $11.9 million remaining on his contract. Gibbons, a decent power hitter when healthy, was a popular player who wanted to stay in Baltimore at a time when top-tier free agents were shunning the O's. That, combined with the gaping lack of power hitters in the farm system, convinced the Orioles' brass that he was worth the risk of a contract extension in January 2006, the offseason before he was to become a free agent. But they were overly generous with the years (four) and the money ($21.1 million), and Gibbons smartly accepted the offer, which the Orioles now regret in light of his last two years, which were punctuated by injuries, poor performance, and his admitting to the use of human growth hormone.
Unfortunately, the Gibbons contract was not an isolated case. Melvin Mora's extension (3 years, $24 million with a no-trade clause), signed in May 2006, had much in common with Gibbons's. Mora was a soon-to-be free agent, a local favorite with some good years behind him who wanted to stay in Baltimore, and there were no viable replacements for him ready to be promoted from the minors. But given his age (34 then), the Orioles should have anticipated a decline in his productivity and been a bit less generous or just allowed him to leave as a free agent.
Also in the term of Flanagan and Jim Duquette were the free-agent signings of past-their-prime Kevin Millar, Aubrey Huff, and Jay Payton, along with a passel of iffy relievers, to contracts of length and dollars that were suspect at the time and look foolish now. The club, it seemed, was reverting to the Syd Thrift habit of overpaying for middling, aging talent.
Aspirations of mediocrity
Basically, the Orioles got stuck in a rut because of their inability to take the rational, long view of things. Despite their lip service to trying to build a contender through the farm system, they lost patience with the farm and instead wasted time and dollars trying to field a .500 major-league team, falling short of even that lowly goal.
A reputable outsider was needed to make the necessary excisions and course corrections, and that's just what MacPhail has done so far. It remains to be seen whether he has the patience to see the work through to completion, but the early indicators, at least, are encouraging.