Sunday, June 29, 2008

Better than Expected

There's lots in the Baltimore Sun today about the 2008 Orioles being better than expected. Childs Walker notes that the fans enjoy this year's team, and Peter Schmuck says Andy MacPhail is in quandry about how to approach this year's trading deadline. The two articles both touch on a common theme: in the context of MacPhail's long-term rebuilding plans, how should the Orioles approach the rest of season?

First of all, Walker is right; this year's team is fun to watch. The players seem to genuinely enjoy playing together, and what's not to like about a team with 24 comeback wins and five walk-off victories? In a season where many (including me) predicted the Orioles would lose 100 games for just the third time in the franchise's Baltimore history, a 41-38 record is to be celebrated. Nick Markakis, somehow still just 24, is establishing himself as an All-Star rightfielder, Brian Roberts has a chance to break the record for most doubles by a second baseman, George Sherrill has been excellent as closer and wears a funny hat, Luke Scott is making the most of his opportunity to play everyday, Adam Jones, 22, has shown flashes of his incredible talent, Aubrey Huff is hitting like it's 2004, and Jeremy Guthrie is proving that last year's first half was no fluke.

Still, this team has very real shortcomings. The shortstop woes have been well chronicled, but third base has been every bit a bad offensively. Melvin Mora is ranked 30th out of 33 third basemen with at least 100 plate appearances in VORP. He has 311 plate appearances, 10.2% of the Orioles' total, and has a .298 OBP and .397 SLG. And he frequently bats third in the Orioles lineup (which is a subject that deserves its own post). Kevin Millar, whose unquantifiable "clubhouse presence" may account for much of the apparent never-say-die attitude, is a nice complementary player, but first base should be the easiest place for the Orioles to find more offense going forward. Adam Jones is showing the potential to be a very good centerfielder, but he's very much learning on the job. Ramon Hernandez has been a major disappointment at catcher, performing below the 25th percentile of his PECOTA projection; at last at catcher, help is on the way.

Suppose that those flaws aren't fatal and the Orioles really can continue to win with three positions filled by players below replacement level (catcher, third base and shortstop) and two more significantly below league average (first base and center field). At this point, the schedule gets significantly more difficult. After feasting on the NL for two weeks, the O's play host this week to the suddenly surging Royals (12-4 over their last 16 games) and Rangers (41-41). After that, it's off to Toronto and Boston before the All-Star break. Then, the Orioles play 14 games in 14 days against Detroit, Toronto, the Angels, and the Yankees. As Kevin Millar said in Peter Schmuck's column, "We're a 12-2 streak away from being in the thick of everything." No offense, Mr. Millar, but I don't see a 12-2 streak on the horizon with that July schedule. Complicating matters is that, at best, the Orioles are the fourth best team in their own division, behind Boston, Tampa Bay and New York. If the Blue Jays can find some offense to go with their deep pitching and defense, they might be better than the O's, too.

Add it all up, and the correct path for Andy MacPhail this trade deadline is to stay the course in the long-term rebuilding plan. For the last decade, management has consistently overrated how close the Orioles are to legitimate contention, and in doing so continuously pushed contending further into the future. MacPhail has correctly deduced that there is no quick fix and acted accordingly. The Bedard and Tejada trades have paid immediate dividends while setting up significant future earnings potential, and the past few drafts have brought high-ceiling prospects to a once-barren farm system.

Schmuck contends that "the fans have waited a long time for a team they could embrace like this one, and there's no guarantee they'll get another such opportunity anytime soon, even if MacPhail makes a couple more big scores." I disagree. We the fans have been waiting a long time for a team that can win 95 games and bring October baseball back to Baltimore, not for a team that makes a feel good run at .500 baseball. Without upgrades at shortstop, third base, first base and catcher, we'll keep waiting, and the best way to upgrade those positions is likely to be dealing valuable short-term commodities like Brian Roberts, George Sherrill, Aubrey Huff or Kevin Millar for high impact prospects that can help the club when it's nucleus of Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones is ready to lead the team to the playoffs. Would I like to see Brian Roberts as a part of any Orioles contender? Absolutely. It's just not likely that he'll be a part of such a team.

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