Once upon a time the Baltimore Orioles had the best organization in baseball. Honest, they did. This is not a fairy tale. Their system was so productive they had very good players – players who would become very good major leaguers – backed up in the minors waiting for their turn.
Try these names: Don Baylor, Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich, Al Bumbry, Johnny Oates, Enos Cabell, Rich Dauer. If they existed in today’s Orioles world, they would be rushed to the majors ready or not.
The Orioles can only wish they had such players in their minor league system now. Instead they sign free agents and trade less talented minor leaguers for front-line players other teams find expendable.
Saddled with a 13-year losing streak, second among such streaks only to Pittsburgh’s 18 straight losing seasons, they are desperately trying to compete in baseball’s most unforgiving division.
They experienced a minor miracle last season and hope to build on it this year. After winning 32 of their first 105 games, the Orioles won 34 of their last 57, making one of the greatest turnarounds in recent years.
The difference in the Orioles in those two segments of the season? The manager, Buck Showalter, who replaced Dave Trembley Aug. 2 after the Orioles had compiled a .392 winning percentage under Trembley in two full seasons and parts of two others.
“It was a result of really good timing,” Showalter said, declining to take credit for the remarkable resurgence. “The team that Andy (general manager MacPhail) envisioned on the field got healthy when I got there.
The guys were tired of getting beat up on. The young pitchers started taking advantage of what they had learned.”
That’s an awful lot of coincidences to have occurred concurrently, but if Showalter wants to shun credit, that’s his prerogative.
Showalter has had a unique managerial career. He is, in fact, the only manager who twice had teams win the World Series the year after he left them. The Yankees did it in 1996, the Diamondbacks in 2001.
The Orioles may not be anywhere near that juncture, but their performance under Showalter has definitely raised expectations.
“I hope so,” Showalter said in a telephone interview for this Web site’s 300th column. “More important I hope our players’ expectations of themselves will be higher. That’s not good enough. This isn’t good enough. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard and have a relentless approach to it.
“Don’t worry about what the Red Sox or the Yankees are doing. You’ve got to worry about yourself. The great organizations evaluate themselves honestly. Everyone has weaknesses. Make sure you hold yourself to a higher standard.”
The Orioles would love to get in position where they could fire Showalter, then get to the World Series. It would help to get to .500 first. With that goal in mind, the Orioles made a flurry of moves that altered the look of the team.
In the space of a month, they reconstructed their infield, trading for third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy and signing first baseman Derrek Lee. They replace, respectively, Miguel Tejada, Cesar Izturis and Ty Wigginton, all of whom were free agents.
The Orioles didn’t enter the off-season with the idea of overhauling the infield, but they evaluated the production they got from different positions and found they were below average at third and first. Finding replacements for those positions became the priority.
On Dec. 6 they obtained Reynolds from Arizona for pitchers David Hernandez (8-8, 4.31 e.r.a. in 8 starts, 33 relief appearances) and Kam Mickolio (relieved three times).
The Diamondbacks had grown weary of Reynolds’ record-setting strikeout pace, but the Orioles were prepared to ignore that he struck out more than 200 times each of the past three seasons and led the majors each time, making him the first player to do that.
“The last thing we’re going to do is beat up on Mark Reynolds for his strikeouts,” Showalter said. “His contact to damage ratio is pretty good.”
In his three full major league seasons, Reynolds has averaged a shade under 35 home runs and 95 runs batted in. His contact average is even more impressive.
Among players who had a minimum of 1,500 at-bats the past three seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, Reynolds is tied for third with Ryan Howard for third with a .387 contact average, that is the batting average computed after strikeouts are deducted from a player’s total number of at-bats.
However the figures are computed, Reynolds gives the Orioles a bigger threat and a more productive hitter than they have had in their lineup.
Exactly a month after the Orioles acquired Reynolds, they signed free-agent Lee to play first base. They initially pursued Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez. Martinez signed with Detroit for $50 million and Dunn with the Chicago White Sox for $56 million.
The 35-year-old Lee hit 19 homers and knocked in 80 runs for the Cubs and the Braves last season, but he slugged more than 30 homers in four of the previous seven seasons and drove in 90 or more runs in five of those seasons.
In between those two deals, the Orioles added Hardy from Minnesota, giving the Twins Jim Hoey, an injury-plagued right-handed pitcher. They hope Hardy bounces back from two sub-par seasons.
The Orioles haven’t officially designated Hardy as their everyday shortstop, but the six-year veteran is expected to start ahead of Izturis, who resigned with Baltimore and is expected to be the primary backup infielder.
The infielders, including second baseman Brian Roberts, the Orioles feel, all have good plate discipline and all are average to above average defensively.
The Orioles’ other significant off-season addition has been Kevin Gregg, who will be the closer unless Koji Uehara registers his claim to the role.
The Japanese right-hander was the closer during Showalter’s two-month term, gaining 13 saves in 15 chances with a 2.93 e.r.a. Subtract his Sept. 17 outing against the Yankees (one of his two failed saves), and his e.r.a. would have been 2.00.
With Toronto, Gregg converted 37 saves in 43 chances and had a 3.41 e.r.a. He would seem to have an edge on the job because the Orioles signed him for $10 million over two years, and that would be a lot of money for a team in Baltimore’s payroll position to pay a setup reliever. However, Showalter saw first-hand what Uehara could do.
When Showalter took over last August, one fact was obvious. “You could tell,” he said, “they were kind of intimidated by the American League East. You have to let that go. I wanted them to be aggressive.”
“The Yankees and the Red Sox,” he added, “get to camouflage their mistakes with money. It hasn’t been a level playing field for a long time.”
The Orioles, however, have themselves primarily to blame for their drastic downfall, both on the field and in the stands.
Excluding the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and ‘95, the Orioles filled Camden Yards with more than 3.5 million fans for five seasons from 1992 through 1998. They won the A.L. East title in 1997 and lost the American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians.
Manager Davey Johnson resigned after the ’97 season – on the day he was named A.L. manager of the year – and Pat Gillick, the general manager, resigned after the 1998 season. Both left because of the owner, Peter Angelos, and the Orioles have gone downhill ever since.
The 13-year losing streak began in 1998, and attendance began dropping steadily. Last season’s attendance of 1.7 million was the lowest since 1988.
“There aren’t many people Baltimore takes a back seat to in baseball history,” Showalter said. “The fans are there. They’re just not coming to the park much. It’s going to take time to regain their trust.”
A few winning seasons would help.
PLAYERS WITH GOOD CONTACTS
When it comes to making contact (as opposed to striking out), these players have compiled the 20 best batting averages in the past three seasons (minimum 1,500 at-bats) when they have made contact, according to research by Sal D’Agostino of Elias Sports Bureau:
MANNY AND HIS MONEY
The last time Manny Ramirez made as little as $2 million a year was in 1997, his third full season in the majors. That will be his salary with the Tampa Bay Rays this year. His new one-year contract doesn’t even include bonuses for awards or performance. It’s almost as if the Rays were doing Manny’s agent, Scott Boras, a favor by signing Ramirez.
ESPN.com quoted an anonymous source as saying, “Manny isn’t concerned about the money right now. He just wants the opportunity for plenty of at-bats to show that what happened last year was because of injuries.”
Last year Ramirez, 38, was limited to 90 games and 265 at-bats with the Dodgers and the White Sox. He hit .298 with 9 home runs and 42 r.b.i. The year before he was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for an illegal substance.
But no tears or benefits for Manny, please. In his last contract, which he signed with the Dodgers two years ago, Ramirez had salaries totaling $45 million. Before that, he had an 8-year $160 million contract that he signed with the Red Sox in December 2000.
His 2011 salary is a third less than the average major league salary in 2010.
ABOUT THAT BACK ACNE…
Attention, Mike Piazza fans and other cynics: A report in The New York Times on Saturday about the Barry Bonds perjury case said that prosecutors said that Bonds’ former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, “would testify to seeing physical changes in Bonds that are indicative of steroid use, including acne on his back and shoulders…”
If acne is good enough for Federal prosecutors, it’s good enough for me no matter how much Piazza and his supporters scream and whine at my mention of Piazza and the acne that covered his back until it miraculously disappeared when baseball began testing for steroids in 2003 and 2004.
No one has accused Piazza of perjury, but he better be careful with what he says if he ever has to testify under oath.
ROBINSON A REGULAR AT HIS NY DESK
In my previous column, I wrote that Commissioner Bud Selig was not considering Frank Robinson for the job of executive vice president for baseball operations because Selig wanted the person in that role to be at his desk in New York on a daily basis and that Robinson lived in Los Angeles and wasn’t a desk person anyway.
However, another baseball official sent me an e-mail offering a different view of Robinson.
“Since Frank Robinson came to his present position (in June),” the official wrote of the senior vice president for major league operations, “he has been in the NY office just about every day with very rare exception – usually from 8AM until around 6PM. I would estimate his time away (due to business travel) has amounted to about 5% or 10% of the time.”
In that case, I revert to my original question about Robinson: why hasn’t Selig named him to the vacant position? I’ll ask the commissioner the next time I talk to him.