Monday, May 05, 2008

The Good News: ESPN Covers the Orioles

The Bad News: ESPN Covers the Orioles

by Matthew Taylor

Will the O's win again before 2012? ESPN's Jonah Keri doesn't think so.

Keri looks at franchises with long streaks of losing seasons, a topic Roar from 34 has addressed before, and doesn't see an end in (near) sight for the Birds. According to the article, the Royals, Pirates, and Rays will top .500 before the O's do. The Nats will arrive on the positive side of the ledger at the same time as Baltimore.

Perhaps Kevin Millar can post Keri's article in the clubhouse for motivation.

Here's the O's analysis from the article:


Length of streak: 10 straight losing seasons
Last winning season: 98-64, 1997
General managers: Pat Gillick (1998), Frank Wren (1999), Syd Thrift (2000-2002), Jim Beattie/Mike Flanagan (2003-05), Flanagan (2006-07), Andy MacPhail (2007-)

Five bad moves
1. Firing Davey Johnson. Yes, he has an ego, and there's a long list of owners and front-office people who've struggled to get along with him. But all he's ever done is win, in New York, in Cincinnati and, yes, in Baltimore. The year before Davey Johnson took over, the Orioles finished two games under .500. The next season, they won 88 games and the wild card, followed by a 98-win season and a division title. The O's cut him loose, and they haven't sniffed .500 since. But sure, Peter Angelos, you go right on losing games and watching your attendance dwindle. At least you showed everyone who's boss.

2. Signing Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract. For all the Orioles' losing, no one could ever blame Angelos for being cheap, and this contract was Exhibit A of the owner's largesse. Belle had one of the best career peaks in baseball history, putting up gigantic numbers. But in giving him such a massive deal after the 1998 season, including a no-trade clause for the first three years, the O's were betting that Belle would stay healthy and hugely productive well into his mid-30s. Instead, Belle played just two more years before a degenerative hip injury forced him to retire.

3. Hiring Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan as GMs. Thrift was years past his prime as a talent evaluator, while Beattie and Flanagan owned lackluster track records and did little to move the team forward during their tenure as co-GMs. Of course in Baltimore, a willingness to say yes to the big boss usually transcends a winning résumé.

4. Trading for Sammy Sosa. In the final, $17 million season of a ginormous contract, Sosa had a .221 batting average, a .295 on-base percentage and .376 slugging. He hit 14 homers and played just 102 games. The trade didn't cost the Orioles any impact prospects. But it was a classic example of the kind of short-sighted, money-wasting moves that have plagued this team for more than a decade.

5. Nearly everything else they did in 2005. The O's jumped out to an early division lead in 2005, holding first place for 62 days. By season's end they'd lost 60 of their final 92 games, squandered $17 million on Sosa and fired yet another manager. The coup de grace came from Rafael Palmeiro, who started the year by testifying in front of Congress that he'd never used steroids, cracked his 3,000th hit on July 15, then got suspended 15 days later for testing positive for steroids.

Lowest moment: Facing the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards on Aug. 22 of last year, the Orioles gave up 30 runs, setting a modern-era record for a single game. The O's actually led 3-0 early in the game before allowing 30 straight runs in the 30-3 loss.

Favorite whipping boys: Peter Angelos. Every player, manager, GM and hot dog vendor who failed to do the job in the past 10 years is an extension of Angelos' reign of error.

Notable quotable: "This is something freaky. You won't see anything like this again for a long, long time." --Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd, after hitting one of Texas' two grand slams in the Rangers' 30-3 annihilation.

Hope for the future? The 15-13 start is nice, but the Orioles probably won't see a winning season for a while. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are great building blocks in the outfield, Luke Scott is an above-average player as the third outfielder, Brian Roberts and George Sherrill should fetch some interesting loot in a trade, and Matt Wieters is a potential franchise player a year away from taking over at catcher. After that, the closet is nearly bare, with a severe lack of pitching the biggest problem.

ETA for next winning season: 2012.

So what can be made of this analysis? It's tough to defend the many moves over the past decade that have contributed to the O's futility. However, Keri paints in broad, generalized strokes when talking about the past, so there's not much to suggest that he's given the team's future any serious thought either.

A few quick examples to defend the broad brush accusation:

-Trading for Sammy Sosa. It's an easy target, a symbolic example that any fan can quickly comprehend, but it's hardly among the five worst moves the O's have made during the decade of futility. Keri leads with the flashy $17 million numbers but fails to mention that the Cubs picked up a significant portion of the tab.

Under terms of the addendum to Sosa's contract that he signed Wednesday, the Cubs will pay $16.15 million of the $25 million Sosa was still owed under his $72 million, four-year agreement, according to details obtained by The Associated Press.

Baltimore is responsible for just $8.85 million of Sosa's $17 million salary this year, with the Cubs paying the rest. Because Sosa is paid on a 12-month basis and already had received $1,307,692 of his salary this year, that amount was credited to what the Cubs owe Baltimore, meaning the Orioles will receive $6,842,308 in cash from Chicago.

Granted, it's tough to defend the Sosa acquisition as anything more than a PR move to put fans in the seats, especially in light of the results. However, Keri far overstates its role in the franchise's misery. And he misstates the facts in the process. The O's hadn't "squandered $17 million on Sosa" as he writes. Again, it's a symbolic example that only scratches the surface of the problem.

As an aside, the move would actually have been defensible had the O's rested within a stone's throw of contention, making it worthwhile to take a flyer on a bargain-priced, aging slugger. Instead, the move reflected a desperate attempt to grab some headlines and fill extra seats while ignoring the underlying problem of player development.

-The Albert Belle signing. It's fine to list the Belle signing in this ignominious top five, even with Albert's monster numbers from the previous season in Chicago (.328, 49 homers, 152 RBI), his anticipated home run totals in hitter-friendly Camden Yards, and the fact that a fluke injury ended his career. But it's the bigger issues that Keri misses: the guaranteed money that stayed on the O's payroll after Belle retired and Peter Angelos' early obsession with the Yankees, whom he was trying to block from signing Belle.

Just as it's not a good relationship strategy to try and block the wealthy, handsome guy at the end of the bar from taking home the attractive girl, it's not good baseball strategy to build a baseball franchise by trying to block your wealthy, historic division rival from acquiring the biggest name players. You've got to compete on your own terms. By trying to compete with the Yankees, Angelos got strong-armed into a deal with too much guaranteed money. Think there's a reason our fair owner is so concerned about player physicals (see, for example: Bedard trade, 2008) these days?

Keri jokes that Peter Angelos is the city's favorite whipping boy ("Every player, manager, GM and hot dog vendor who failed to do the job in the past 10 years is an extension of Angelos' reign of error."), but offers little insight to the owner's role in the slide. Again, it's an overly broad analysis.

-What, no mention of the 1996 season? Keri throws in "Nearly everything they did in 2005" as the final of his "five bad moves." How about some discussion of the 1996 season instead? Consider: Angelos blocks the team's efforts to trade for prospects at the All-Star break, the Birds rally for a Wild Card appearance, and a monster is born. The O's mortgaged their future for two playoff appearances followed by complete misery after the rotisserie method of player acquisition fell through.

In talking about the team over time I've found that most baseball fans don't really know why the O's are bad, other than to offer simple, generalized answers. Should the O's start winning again any time soon, the answers will likely be oversimplified as well. It's called conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom, just like Jonah Keri, falls short of providing good answers.

The bottom line is this: few people outside of Baltimore know what's happened with the Orioles. Even sports writers. And when the team is good again (before 2012), people will quickly have to figure out reasons why. Once again, the answers will lack depth. However, I'm pretty sure those explanations won't include the words "overnight success."

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