Six months are just a snapshot in the life of a sports franchise, but that's more than enough time to kill the buzz in a city and turn a swagger into a crawl. Consider the Baltimore Orioles, who were brimming with enthusiasm in spring training, but wake up to a harsh reality today. The landscape includes lots of empty seats at Camden Yards, a run differential of minus-126 and a starting rotation with Jo-Jo Reyes and Alfredo Simon smack in the middle.
The 2011 season has been a letdown for baseball fans in Cincinnati, Colorado and both sides of Chicago, but the word "disappointment" can't begin to describe what the remaining diehards in Baltimore must be feeling. As the Red Sox and Yankees take part in yet another high-stakes American League East staredown this week, the Orioles are once again playing out the string in obscurity. They're 27½ games out of first place and on track to surpass 90 losses for the sixth straight year and finish below .500 for the 14th consecutive season.
That's still five years short of Pittsburgh's .500 futility streak. But the Pirates at least enjoyed a brief fling as media darlings this year -- and spent five days in first place in July -- before running into the adult portion of their schedule. The Orioles, in contrast, continue to put the "b" in "beleaguered."
Think back to March in Sarasota, Fla., and it wasn't supposed to be this way. Andy MacPhail, the team's president of baseball operations, impressed the fan base by bringing in Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and other veterans who were past their primes, but signed to short-term deals that wouldn't hinder the long-range plan. Even if Lee and Guerrero put up mediocre numbers, they were expected to provide leadership and stability, and they could always be flipped to contenders in deadline trades.
I get frustrated for these guys, and not with them, because sometimes they don't get the return for what they're putting into it. I keep telling them, 'The baseball gods will let you up off the deck if you keep grinding it. You have to trust the game -- that it will give back to you if just stay true to what you need to do.
”-- Orioles manager Buck Showalter
The Orioles were fresh off a 34-23 finish in 2010, and new manager Buck Showalter appeared to have restored a sense of pride and purpose. Showalter attracted some unwanted attention for taking a few jabs at Theo Epstein and Derek Jeter in a "Men's Journal" magazine interview. But for downtrodden O's fans, it was heartening to see someone in the organization show so much spunk.
The operative phrase was "headed in the right direction."
So what happened? The Orioles were a respectable 30-31 on June 10 when it all unraveled. Injuries took a toll, the pitching fell apart, and they've gone 24-48 since.
Last week brought the painful news that Mike Flanagan, a former Orioles pitcher, coach and executive and beloved figure in Baltimore, had committed suicide. The Orioles spent the weekend wrangling over rainouts and makeup dates with the Yankees, and took two games from New York to extend their win streak to six before losses Sunday and Monday. With a month left in the season, the Orioles are 26th in the majors with an average attendance of 22,054 fans per game. Three of the teams below them -- Oakland, Florida and Tampa Bay -- play in stadiums with all the charm of a Greyhound bus station.
All you need to do is watch Showalter grind his teeth in the dugout every night to know he's taking the losing personally, the same way Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo, Juan Samuel and Dave Trembley did before him. Amid the vicarious suffering, he keeps preaching the importance of playing the game the right way.
"We've got a good bunch here," Showalter said. "I get frustrated for these guys, and not with them, because sometimes they don't get the return for what they're putting into it. I keep telling them, 'The baseball gods will let you up off the deck if you keep grinding it. You have to trust the game -- that it will give back to you if just stay true to what you need to do."'
There have been some positive developments this summer in Baltimore. Adam Jones has brought his "A" game to the park more consistently, and he ranks fifth among major league center fielders with a .478 slugging percentage. Catcher Matt Wieters is making progress offensively, and he's thrown out 39.5 percent of attempted base stealers (30 of 76) and developed into a first-rate receiver and an All-Star.
J.J. Hardy played well enough at shortstop to merit a three-year contract extension. Mark Reynolds has a chance to hit 40 homers, and he's made a smooth transition to first base. Reliever Jim Johnson is having a fine season, and MacPhail made a smart and sensible trade in July when he sent reliever Koji Uehara to Texas for infielder Chris Davis and pitcher Tommy Hunter.
But if the Orioles are going to advance beyond the status of "lost cause," they'll have to answer a few hard questions and come to grips with some significant issues very soon. Namely:
The pitching woes
The roster of talented young pitchers who've struggled in the AL East -- for reasons ranging from injuries to a loss of confidence to the inevitable learning curve -- is longer than Mark Hendrickson's inseam. David Price gave up 17 homers in 128 innings in his first season in the Tampa Bay rotation. Clay Buchholz broke in with a 2-9 record and a 6.75 ERA in Boston. Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Kyle Drabek, Brett Cecil, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are just a few others who've experienced their fair share of ups and downs recently.
The Orioles went through this routine a few years ago with the Erik Bedard-Daniel Cabrera-Adam Loewen contingent. This year they trusted their fate to young starters Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman, and it's made for some ugly numbers.
Baltimore's rotation is 39-62 with a major league-worst 5.19 ERA. Orioles starters have logged the fewest innings (730.2) and the lowest strikeout total (472) in the game and yielded the second-highest batting average against (.286). The O's have been outscored by a whopping 94-43 in the first inning, so they're accustomed to playing from behind.
The AL East is a particularly challenging learning lab, and anyone who thinks young pitchers are going to progress in a straight upward line is guilty of wishful or delusional thinking. For want of a better alternative, the Orioles just have to hand the kids the ball again next spring and hope for better.
"Some of the best development with young pitchers happens in the offseason," Showalter said. "I'm not talking about their workout regimen. It has to do with the development of their head -- their emotional and mental state of mind of pitching up here. The good ones come back and you can see it in their faces the next spring. There's a little hardness about them -- an attitude of, 'I know I can do it up here."'
The veteran catalyst
For several years, the Orioles derived their identity from second baseman Brian Roberts, the scrappy coach's son with the great speed and baseball instincts. Robert covered lots of ground defensively, racked up doubles in abundance and made things go at the top of the order. No one in baseball was better at the art of stealing third base.
Now Roberts is closing in on his 34th birthday. He's appeared in 98 games over the past two seasons, and he's missed most of this season with concussion-related issues. Even though owner Peter Angelos loves him and he's owed $20 million over the next two seasons, the Orioles have to determine if they can count on Roberts as part of the plan moving forward.
The big-ticket outfielder
Nick Markakis plays a fine defensive right field and has been exceedingly durable, but his power numbers began taking a curious dip several years ago. His slugging percentage peaked at .491 in 2008 and has declined every year since -- from .453 to .436 to .400 so far this season. He's a nice player. But nice and complementary weren't quite what the Orioles envisioned when they signed him to a six-year, $66.1 million extension in 2009.
"He's become a streaky hitter, and he seems to have different approaches," said an NL scout. "His bat has slowed down too. You used to not be able to get in his kitchen, but now you can. There are a lot of issues going on there that are not good."
The competitive landscape
Everybody knows the Yankees and Red Sox present an enormous, almost insurmountable obstacle for their AL East rivals. But the big boys aren't Baltimore's only challenge. Over the past 14 months, Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has dumped Vernon Wells' suffocating contract and acquired Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Yunel Escobar through opportunistic trades. The Rays have introduced Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson to the mix, and they recently fortified their system with 12 of the first 89 picks in the draft.
The Orioles? Baseball America ranked their farm system 21st in the majors last winter, and they're constantly reminded that they took Billy Rowell ahead of Tim Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 draft and Matt Hobgood in front of Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor and several other pitching options in 2009. Hope for Baltimore resides in the form of recent No. 1 pick Dylan Bundy and 2010 first-rounder Manny Machado, who is earning raves while playing shortstop in the high-A Carolina League at age 19.
"Manny Machado is one of better young players I've ever seen," said a scout. "He's in that A-Rod class as a young man that really has a chance to be a superstar player."
Where do the Orioles go from here? MacPhail's contract expires at the end of the year, and you'll be hard-pressed finding anyone in baseball who thinks he'll return in 2012. It's less a case of Angelos firing him than MacPhail deciding he's not ready to commit more time to a seemingly endless rebuilding process.
With so much uncertainty in the air, numerous scenarios are making the rounds in Baltimore. They include MacPhail moving upstairs or simply leaving the organization, Showalter replacing MacPhail as general manager and the team hiring a new manager, or a new GM coming in to work alongside Showalter. For the moment, MacPhail isn't sharing his feelings for public consumption.
"I'll give you the same answer I've been giving people since spring training," MacPhail said. "Let's just see where we are at the end of the year and how everybody feels, and we'll go from there."
Everyone agrees that the Orioles need a big middle-of-the-order bat and a front-line veteran starter. But even if Prince Fielder were interested in coming to Baltimore, would the O's really be wise to sink $150 million to $200 million into a single player? They tried the "big fish" approach eight years ago with Miguel Tejada, and that didn't work out so great.
The reality is, it's going to take a lot more than one or two stars to bring competitive baseball to Baltimore. The Orioles are the fifth-best team with the fifth-best farm system in their division, and they have no prayer of making the playoffs for a while, even if baseball decides to add an additional wild card. If that assessment sounds overly harsh well the truth isn't pretty.
"We all want to deliver for the fans, more than anything," Showalter said. "It's what keeps me up at night. They've been with us through thick and thin. There's not a more loyal, supportive fan base in Baltimore, and at some point we will repay their trust."
On another uneventful September night in Baltimore, with the Orioles playing spoiler again and the stands so quiet you can hear the vendors from several sections away, that day seems too far down the road for comfort.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick