By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
A Baltimore Orioles prospect graced the cover of Baseball America as the publication's minor league player off the year. Another played in the Olympics for Team USA. Baltimore reaped the benefits of a pair of trades that netted a promising young center fielder and a whole new layer of prospects. The deal, combined with the signing of the highest-rated pitcher in the draft, bolstered an ailing farm system.
Indeed, even with the departure of stars in Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard, the Orioles overachieved most of the season and showed of evidence of a much-needed culture change in the clubhouse. So, even before the season ended on Sunday, Orioles team president Andy MacPhail declared the 2008 season as one of "good progress."
Still, despite the meteoric rise of Matt Wieters, the emergence of right-handed pitcher Jake Arrieta, the addition of promising lefty Brian Matusz, and Adam Jones's encouraging season, Baltimore's precipitous late-season slide underscored the long road remaining for a franchise trying to rediscover its winning tradition.
"You've got to look at it the same way the Egyptians who built those pyramids did," MacPhail said last week. "You can't look at the totality of the job."
The enormity of the Orioles' challenge -- finding a way to compete in a tougher-than-ever American League East-- will be on display again during an offseason that offers the potential for major changes. The franchise just endured its 11th straight losing season, its first full one under MacPhail, who was hired in June 2007.
MacPhail's shopping list includes a new starting shortstop, likely a new first baseman and, most urgently, pitchers. Meanwhile, the team faces decisions on the futures of veterans Brian Roberts and Daniel Cabrera, and on the franchise's promising young star Nick Markakis.
The main mission, however, remains solidifying a pitching staff that crumbled.
"It's a really a game of inventory for me -- as many as you can," MacPhail said of adding pitchers. "You are going to have certain disappointments, you're going to have some pleasant developments. You've just got to work with numbers and try to build up the base as best as you can and add as much inventory as you can and sort of go with the events from there."
As injuries piled up as and the season unfolded, Baltimore resorted to picking through the irregulars bin just to fill out its rotation. The bullpen, restocked last offseason with promising young arms, devolved into an underwhelming mix of prospects, retreads and career minor leaguers.
"I couldn't even remember who was our starting five at the beginning of the year," said Roberts, who may be signed to an extension or traded this offseason.
Perhaps it is best to forget.
The enigmatic Cabrera failed to sustain his strong start, and as a result of his subsequent disappointing season, may not return if the Orioles choose to non-tender him instead of paying him upward of $3 million next year after arbitration. Adam Loewen suffered an elbow injury so damaging that it forced an end to his pitching career. For now, the former first-round pick remains in the organization only as a fledgling minor league outfielder.
Even those who stayed healthy -- such as Radhamés Liz, Garrett Olson and Brian Burres -- failed to keep their ERAs beneath the price of a gallon of super unleaded.
But this offseason -- even more than last -- the Orioles will enjoy some flexibility in the effort to retool the roster.
"I think you have to look at every different way, shape and form that you can, just like we did last year -- trades, free agency, minor league free agents, waiver claims," MacPhail said. "Whatever it is. I think you have to look at the whole gamut."
With only one year left on their contracts, Roberts and Aubrey Huff enter the offseason as more attractive trade commodities, which could help the Orioles land more prospects or fill other holes.
MacPhail said the Orioles will try to compete in the free agent market, even though Baltimore's status as division doormats will hinder the team's effort to land top-tier talent.
Nevertheless, in two instances, the Orioles almost are obligated to make a run.
Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira, a Scott Boras client, grew up just outside of Baltimore. Blue Jays starting pitcher A.J. Burnett makes his offseason home near the city.
"I think we would be remiss if we don't look into what might be unique opportunities in the case of geographic ties to the area," said MacPhail, who did not name names, mindful of league tampering rules. "I think we owe it to our fans to explore that. Again, I don't know how realistic it would be, but I think we'd be remiss in not exploring it."
The Orioles will likely hold talks in an effort to sign Markakis, 24, to a long-term contract. Markakis hit .306 with 20 homers and a career-best .406 on-base percentage. Defensively, the right fielder led the AL with 17 outfield assists.
"I think my teammates and my coaches know that when I'm out there between the lines I play hard no matter what the score," said Markakis, who stopped short of saying he was entitled to an extension. "I go out there and play hard every day."
For some in the clubhouse, Markakis's long-term status has become a de facto barometer of the franchise's commitment to a long-term winning plan.
"I think that has to be done," said Huff, who enjoyed a bounce-back year. "You look around the league, you've got so many young guys getting locked up that haven't done half the things he has done."
The priority is replacing Tejada at shortstop. Manager Dave Trembley said he hopes the Orioles pursue an offensive-minded shortstop after watching a parade of marginal replacements combine for a paltry .218 average with two homers and 44 RBI.
"I think it's relatively easy to identify what we have to do," MacPhail said. "Now, we just have to go out and do it."