by Christopher Heun
With the trading deadline just a few days away, Orioles fans are collectively holding their breath, hoping that the front office can pull off a miracle. It’s become an annual ritual in Baltimore, as routine as humidity in July, and the result is always the same: no deal.
To be fair to general manager Mike Flanagan, he’s holding a losing hand. Sure, it’s easy to pick out what to discard – start with a pair of Lopezes; Rodrigo, with an ERA higher than any 10-year interest rate, and Javy, a man who’s lost his position and his power – but what team would give anything of value in return?
[Allow me to digress: Since hitting 43 homers in 2003, Javy Lopez has managed 46 in two and half seasons. What happened to the guy?]
In pursuit of a deal, Flanagan has two bargaining chips: Miguel Tejada and a bunch of young pitchers. Whether or not he should trade the arms depends on if you think the Birds can be contenders in three years, before Tejada’s contract expires.
If you think the answer to that question is yes, then I’ve got an insurance policy on Albert Belle’s hip to sell you.
No, without some solid, experienced pitchers, the team isn’t going to contend while Miggy is here, and if that’s the case, then what’s the point of having him around? Trade him now, before he demands a move again, forces Flanagan’s hand and makes it harder to get equal value in return. If Miggy can’t stand two losing seasons, it’s ridiculous to think he’ll put up with three more.
The Orioles aren’t one player away from respectability. That’s as true now about Bobby Abreu, last week’s hot rumor, as it was last year with A.J. Burnett. And even more important, what this team needs more than anything is pitching. Tejada is the way to get it.
The Orioles have scored 483 runs this season, ninth in the league, but only 37 less than Detroit, owners of the best record in baseball. That’s about two extra runs a week. The difference between the two teams is pitching: the Orioles have given up 561 runs, second-most in the AL and a whopping 177 more than the Tigers. That works out to nearly 2 more runs allowed per game.
We all know the results. Through 100 games, the Orioles record was 45-55, which projects to 73-89 for a full season. This isn’t a rebuilding team; it only plays like one.
This isn’t a rebuilding team because the payroll on Opening Day was $72.6 million, according to USA Today – a hair more than Toronto and $10 million more than Oakland and Minnesota, teams who aren’t strangers to the postseason. You can’t fault Peter Angelos for not spending money. (You could fault him for not spending it wisely, but that's another story.)
The other reason the Orioles are not a rebuilding team is that three of their best four players – Tejada, Melvin Mora and Ramon Hernandez – are all at least 30 years old and signed to long-term big-money contracts. The exception is Brian Roberts, who’s 28 and looking to cash in on free agency himself.
Compare that to the pitching staff, which is full of kids. Given that Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen and LaTroy Hawkins probably won’t be back next year, it’s possible that Kris Benson and Todd Williams will be the only Orioles pitchers older than 30 in 2007. They could also be the only members of the staff not originally drafted by the Birds. Imagine that.
The 2007 starting rotation will likely be Erik Bedard, Benson, Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn. Young and talented, yes, but also unproven. And maddeningly wild in at least one case.
So let’s get Loewen and Penn into the rotation now and give them a head start on next year. That’s what rebuilding teams do; they don’t waste starts on Rodrigo Lopez and Russ Ortiz. Otherwise, by the time Loewen and Penn mature, Miggy will be pushing a walker. For the Angels.
That’s why I disagree with The Sun’s Roch Kubatko, who doesn’t think the team needs to be ripped apart. He writes in his blog, “Find a left fielder and first baseman, and don't be afraid to spend for them.” Yes, this team is crying for a power hitter, but it needs a proven pitcher even more.
But proven pitchers are hard to get – especially as free agents. And since the Orioles have a poor record of attracting free agent pitchers, they’re going to have to cash in their chips, Tejada or prospects, to improve themselves via trade. Giving up young pitchers for older ones doesn’t make any sense for a rebuilding team. It has to be Tejada.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Miggy. He’s a great player, the best hitting shortstop playing the game today. But trading him will make the team better in the long run. Otherwise, the Birds will continue to muddle through season after season, never quite reaching mediocrity and always holding out hope that a couple free agents will turn things around.
The addiction to free agency is tough to break. Even The Sun’s Peter Schmuck, usually a voice of reason, can’t give it up:
“I still believe that if the Orioles sink into the American League East cellar or fall 15 games under .500 in the next couple of weeks, they must consider moving Tejada ... or commit to a huge increase in payroll that will result from the kind of free-agent spending spree necessary to get them back in contention next season.”You can’t spend your way to the top. Did the 1998-2000 Orioles teach us nothing?
Trade Miggy now.