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Friday, March 4, 2011
Orioles going down same road as Astros

By Austin Swafford

Finding the balance between experience and youth can be a tricky line to walk in sports. A winning formula in baseball is often found in those teams that manage to have veteran experience in the right places and youthful energy in others. You don't want to be too old or too young, and experience just for experience's sake is no benefit. The Astros have done a very bad job walking that line and they can serve as a cautionary tale for teams trying to win right now.

There's certainly nothing wrong with trying to win right now if you have the right parts. But I have thought about the lesson that could be learned from the Astros as I have watched the Orioles since the end of last season. They closed 2010 on a good note. They hired Buck Showalter and, with him at the helm, went 34-23 to end the year.

Derrek Lee
The Orioles signed 35-year-old Derrek Lee, among other veterans, during the offseason.
So, naturally, they looked around at their very talented division and said, "No rush. We have a good manager, we're making good progress and we have young talent. We can be patient while that young talent develops." Right?

It'd be nice if that were the case, but instead of doing that, the Orioles got very involved in free agency, went out and got J.J. Hardy, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, Vladimir Guerrero, Justin Duchscherer and Kevin Gregg. Average age: 31.8.

They're not all old and I don't dislike all of the signings, but why the urgency? Why the apparently desperate need to compete now when they probably won't?

Baltimore is in serious risk of getting mired in the same mud as the Astros since their surprising World Series run in 2005. The Astros haven't been bursting at the seams with young talent the last six years, but they spent four seasons taking what young talent they did have and dishing it to other teams to get veterans to try to compete now. They dealt Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh and Willy Taveras to the Rockies for Jason Jennings. They shipped Luke Scott, Troy Patton and three others to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada. At the same time, they signed Carlos Lee as a free agent to the biggest contract in club history and patched together their rotation with guys like Woody Williams, Randy Wolf and Brian Moehler.

This not only cleansed the team of promising young players, but also suppressed the development of other young players, because if you're trying to win now, you can't be patient with a guy who struggles through the first couple of months of a season. Where a rebuilding team might recognize its ability to be patient and wait out the growing pains of a young player, a competing team can't afford to take the losses.

Houston spent four years suppressing the development of young players under the delusion that these poorly constructed teams loaded with not-so-good veterans might actually compete. Much like the Orioles, the Astros would go on good second-half runs that convinced the front office that they were just a piece or two shy of competing. Of course, they never even came close.

Much like the Orioles, the Astros finished 2010 on a good note. They had good second-half records, they have young talent and they both appeared to be heading in the right direction for the first time in a long time.

But the Orioles are in danger of falling into the same trap as the Astros. Let them serve as a cautionary tale that a good month and a half doesn't mean the team is a few overpriced veterans away from going to the World Series. Let them serve as a cautionary tale of what happens to a club when they refuse to develop young talent.

Austin Swafford writes Astros 290, a blog about the Houston Astros. You can follow him on Twitter.