Can Flanagan learn anything from the turnaround in Detroit?
By Christopher Heun
This may sound familiar to anyone who follows the O’s: a team with an eight-year losing streak gets off to a surprising fast start, sits comfortably in first place on Memorial Day and gives its fans big hopes for the playoffs.
This year, the Detroit Tigers are impersonating the 2005 Orioles so closely that they began the season with a hot-hitting infielder swatting home runs at a Ruthian pace – Chris Shelton in the role of Brian Roberts – and have just now endured an injury to a lefty starter – Mike Maroth as Erik Bedard.
Chances are, the Tigers will throw out the rest of the script rather than mimic the implosion that befell the Birds a year ago – the steroids, the finger-pointing among teammates, the drunken driving arrests, the piles of losses – but they probably won’t make the playoffs, either. More on that later. (Actually, see the next post).
The strongest similarity between the two clubs is how bad they’ve been for so long. Oriole fans like to think they have it tough, but anyone who roots for the Tigers has suffered even worse: Detroit hasn’t produced a winning season since 1993, four years longer than Baltimore, and they haven’t made the postseason in 20 years. Twenty years! We’re talking the days of Trammell to Whitaker to Evans.
Much of the coverage about Detroit this year has focused, rightly, on their pitching, which leads the league in ERA. That’s where the similarities end with the 2005 Orioles. These Tigers, with an impressive quartet of young starters, aren’t a flash in the pan.
So, if they have rebounded so quickly after losing 119 games in 2003 and 90 more each of the two seasons since, why can’t the Orioles manage that, too? Can Mike Flanagan learn something from his general manager counterpart, Dave Dombrowski?
I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I don’t think so.
The Sun’s Peter Schmuck pointed out in a recent column that Dombrowski took a risk before last season when he signed the “chronically injured Magglio Ordonez to a huge contract that – even in the glow of the team's terrific start – still could come back and haunt the franchise.” That’s right. Although the five-year, $75 million deal included an injury clause that would let the Tigers off the hook if Ordonez suffered a repeat of his knee problems in 2005, there’s no such protection for the remaining four years.
But then Schmuck also wrote that “the important thing is, the Tigers were bold and now they are beautiful, though there is still a long, long way to go.”
Huh? What’s bold about giving $75 million to a gimpy slugger? Or giving a combined $39 million to Troy Percival, Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers, who are all over 35? Because that’s what Dombrowski has done the past two off-seasons. That’s not bold. That’s dumb. You can’t spend your way back to respectability. Exhibit A: Albert Belle.
Percival, 36, the former Angels closer, hasn’t pitched this year and only appeared in 26 games last year, recording eight saves. The Orioles thought about signing Jones, 38, but didn’t – thankfully. About Rogers, Ken Rosenthal wrote this: “A scout offered a succinct indictment of Rogers' two-year, $16 million deal, saying, "It's $8 million a year for a 41-year-old guy who throws 84 mph.”
The Tigers have an $82 million payroll this year, $10 million more than the Orioles. That doesn’t mean much, since Flanagan tried to throw Angelos Confederate bucks at the same players Dombrowski signed.
In Dombrowski’s defense, he has a track record for building champions from scratch (see: Marlins, 1997; and Marlins, 2003, two years after he left Florida but had put major pieces in place). He managed to assemble his current starting corps in Detroit with a combination of shrewd trades. He dealt for Jeremy Bonderman in 2002 (giving up Jeff Weaver, his best starter at the time), and Nate Robertson in 2003, then drafted Justin Verlander No. 2 overall two years ago. Mike Maroth, the other starter besides Rodgers, came to Detroit via trade under the reign of Dombrowski’s predecessor, Randy Smith.
Dombrowski also stole shortstop Carlos Guillen from Seattle in 2004 and picked up Shelton in the Rule V draft. And, he gets credit for attracting top scouts. “Dombrowski scored a major coup last month luring scouting director David Chadd away from Boston,” Peter Gammons wrote in November 2004. “Chadd is one of the game's best talent evaluators, and not only is he further empowered in Detroit, he was attracted by the loyalty that most Dombrowski employees feel toward their boss.”
You don’t hear that sort of praise about David Stockstill, the Orioles director of minor league operations, or Joe Jordan, the scouting director. Until recently, the Orioles' farm system was dry, but things are looking up: Baseball America ranked it 13th out of 30 last winter and the 2005 draft, the first headed by Jordan, “looks like it could be a monster,” Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus told The Sun.
For the record, when outfielder Nolan Reimold and pitcher Garrett Olson show up in Camden Yards, the credit goes to Jordan.
So, the point is, the Orioles are going about their business pretty much the same way as the Tigers: scouting out young talent and trying to complement it with a mix of veterans. Only the Orioles aren’t getting favorable results as quickly.
It’s not like winning baseball is a secret formula. “I think we have a quality club,” Dombrowski told the Washington Post last month. “Our starting pitching is very solid, which puts us in a position where we can compete on a daily basis, and we also have a very solid bullpen that allows us to shorten the game. There are just some shortcuts you can't take. Doing this takes time, and you just hope you don't run out of time before people's patience runs out.”
Undoubtedly, Flanagan and his assistant GM, Jim Duquette, would agree.
"In baseball, anything can happen, especially if you get good pitching," Duquette told The Sun before the season started. “The offense for the [world champion] White Sox was one of the worst [in runs scored] in the American League last year. The majority of the teams that get to the playoffs are the teams that pitch and play defense. That's why our focus has been on that direction.”
Right. Sounds good. Until you hear the rest of his quote:
“We do think our starting pitching is our strength."
That’s enough to make you wonder if the guys pulling the strings in the Warehouse really know which end is up.