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Baltimore Orioles: Last place and falling fast

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; D06

BALTIMORE -- On May 26, the Baltimore Orioles celebrated Nolan Reimold Bobblehead night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which meant 15,000 lucky fans that night received a smiling, nodding, plaster likeness of a young, handsome left fielder who, at the time, was hitting .088 for the Class AAA Norfolk Tides.

The unfortunately timed giveaway, scheduled long in advance of Reimold's sudden minor league demotion two weeks beforehand, made the Orioles the butt of jokes around baseball. But as a symbol of the acute failure of the franchise's youth movement, the embarrassing promotion was more sad than funny.

This was to have been the year the Orioles' young core -- position players such as Reimold, center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters; pitchers such as Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, David Hernandez and Brad Bergesen -- blossomed into stars, and in the process boosted the Orioles out of a miserable 12-year losing skid and into a realm where they could at least see a contender taking form.

Instead, as the Orioles prepare to host the Washington Nationals for three games this weekend, the franchise's 2010 season has been a nightmare of near-historic proportions. Despite Thursday's win against the Florida Marlins, Baltimore owns a major-league-worst 20-52 record, which projects to a final mark of 119 losses, one off the modern record set by the 1962 New York Mets.

While the Nationals -- with whom the Orioles share a regional sports network (MASN) and part of a fan base -- are widely viewed now as a franchise on the rise following a series of player-development successes that include the heralded arrival of Stephen Strasburg, the Orioles' failures have been epic and unsparing.

Already, Dave Trembley lost his job as manager three weeks ago. Andy MacPhail, the president of baseball operations, remains under fire for a series of veteran acquisitions (pitcher Kevin Millwood, closer Mike Gonzalez, first baseman Garrett Atkins) that backfired badly. Amazingly, the team is still looking for its first home run this season from the first base position.

"It's an overall confluence of mediocrity," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, the legendary former Orioles pitcher and current television commentator. "You keep thinking it's going to change, but it doesn't."

What makes the losing even more demoralizing is the collective lack of progress made by the team's young core. It's one thing to lose games when a wave of promising rookies is bursting onto the scene -- as occurred in 2009, when the Orioles went 64-98 but saw Wieters, Reimold, Matusz, Tillman, Hernandez, Bergesen and others make their big league debuts and experience varying degrees of success in the majors.

But it's another thing entirely to lose at an historic pace -- and see nearly all of those same players go backward.

"Certainly, it's not your preference," MacPhail said this week. "You wouldn't have been surprised if, of that group, you'd have a guy or two guys go backwards. You would also reasonably expected some to move forward. But we've had more go backwards than forward, which is discouraging."

Some of the individual failures have been staggering. Jones, 24, went from an all-star in 2009 to struggling to keep his batting average over .250 and his on-base percentage over .300. Reimold, 26, went from a rookie-of-the-year hopeful and productive big league corner outfielder in 2009 to a fringe prospect now hitting .208 with a .582 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) in Class AAA.

Wieters, who arrived last year with almost Strasburgian hype and who graced a Sports Illustrated cover this spring, has seen his batting average drop by some 60 points, and his OPS by some 120 points this year.

As for the pitchers, Matusz, a 23-year-old lefty deemed a future No. 1 starter, is 2-8 with an ERA approaching 5. Tillman, 22, was called up from the minors earlier this month but sent back down Tuesday after four mediocre-to-awful starts. Bergesen, 24, and Hernandez, 25, both pitched their way out of the Orioles' rotation this season, but may have found new homes in the bullpen, along with 26-year-old Jason Berken.

"We still feel very bullish on their long-term careers," MacPhail said when asked about the group's collective future. "We're just trying to do everything we can to shorten their struggles."

More and more, the Orioles appear to be a franchise back at square one, instead of one supposedly in the final stages of a rebuilding effort started by MacPhail three summers ago. It is a suggestion that makes MacPhail bristle.

"I'm glad we have those young players here. We're better off having them and letting them struggle, than not having them at all," he said. "We're not at square one. We're getting beat up because we have some problems, but these problems are solvable."

It doesn't help the "square one" perception that the manager's job remains unfilled -- or, rather, is filled on only an interim basis by Juan Samuel.

MacPhail is currently interviewing candidates; ESPN analysts Buck Showalter and Bobby Valentine, and former Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge have all visited the warehouse in recent weeks -- although Valentine has taken himself out of consideration, apparently to accept an offer to manage the Florida Marlins. Ex-Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, a fan favorite and current TV commentator, is also expected to interview in the coming days.

But even MacPhail admits that, given the franchise's current state, the job "is not for everyone" -- as evidenced by Valentine's bailout. But after running through three consecutive first-time managers (Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Trembley), the Orioles appear determined to hire one with experience this time.

Whoever ultimately gets the Orioles' managing job runs the risk of having their name attached to one of the losingest teams in history -- unless the new manager, as has been suggested, might come on board in some sort of advisory role for the rest of 2010, before assuming the job in 2011. It will be the first step in a long process of getting the franchise back to respectability.

"Everyone shares the blame for this -- ownership, management, players, scouts," Palmer said. "There's only one way to get better. You need to find better talent, and you need to coach 'em up."

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