O's don't rock house, but make progress

The Baltimore Sun

I believe it was the ancient philosopher, Mick Jagger, who eloquently preached the value of pragmatism in all things, a lesson that seems quite relevant as the Orioles complete their latest offseason rebuilding effort.

It was proved again this winter that you can't always get what you want - especially after nine straight losing seasons - but if you keep trying, you might just get what you need.

Pardon the archaic rock reference (and no, my children, the Rolling Stones were not the group Paul McCartney was in before Wings), but it came right to mind this week when the Orioles signed free-agent slugger Aubrey Huff to a three-year, $20 million contract.

Most fans wanted the Orioles to make a huge splash with Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee, but as it became apparent that neither of the big-ticket free-agent position players would be coming to Baltimore, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette set about the important business of doing what they could do rather than worrying about what they couldn't.

They acquired a serviceable starting pitcher and four middle relief pitchers, not one of those moves worthy of a giant headline, but all of them necessary to put the team in position to compete more effectively in the American League East.

They added Jay Payton to shore up their outfield defense and signed Huff to add some punch to the middle of the lineup. Neither of those moves was the lead story on SportsCenter either, but all of them have combined to make the Orioles a more respectable team, which probably was Job One from the start.

Don't misunderstand. This is probably still a third-place club on its best day, but each offseason maneuver was part of a coherent attempt to fill all the major cracks in a broken roster.

That's called a plan, and the front office was able to carry it out while still dabbling in the Carlos Lee negotiations and making a late run at pitcher Jason Schmidt. It might not quench the understandable yearnings of a long-suffering fan base, but no one can deny that it's progress.

Let's be real for a minute. It would have been great if the Orioles could have made that one dynamic play that would have soothed the damaged psyche of this erstwhile baseball town, but - as we all suspected from the start - this year's big free agents weren't coming here.

If you accept that premise, the front office did just about everything it realistically could have done to upgrade the team, short of unloading some of the young pitching talent that might eventually be its salvation.

I think the thing that I find most encouraging, however, is that I'm the one saying that, not Duquette or Flanagan.

"I guess that's fair," said Duquette, "but we had higher expectations of ourselves in pursuing those other players. I expect we will eventually sign a player of Soriano's caliber."

Though an incremental approach isn't terribly satisfying after another discouraging season, it does position the club to make another major stride at midseason if a couple of the young pitchers step up. The new bullpen alone should have a positive impact on both the young rotation and the bottom line.

"We blew 18 games last year in which we were tied or winning after six innings," Duquette said. "If we just improved our bullpen so that we only blow seven or eight of those games, we're a lot better.

"Then you look at Payton and Huff and look at where our offense was. We're bringing balance and a new threat to our lineup that we didn't have last year."

Duquette is careful not to get carried away. First things first. He's focused on a .500 season, which he thinks would be an acceptable platform for a push into contention, perhaps sooner than you think.

"Our goal is to be around .500," he said. "Once you are in that area, then you can make a key trade to get you over the hump."

It's that pragmatic approach that had me humming the Stones this week instead of the classic rock anthem I thought I would be singing at this point in the offseason - "Won't Get Fooled Again."


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