If you're Orioles president Andy MacPhail, what are you supposed to take from the past three weeks?
The team has fallen off a cliff, dragging any illusions of organizational progress over the edge along with it. The only question now is how long it will take to put all the broken pieces back together again.
MacPhail is, by nature, an upbeat guy, but he's not fooling himself about the significance of the recent collapse. He knows that those who don't learn from failure are doomed to repeat it.
"I think it's important not to ignore it," MacPhail said yesterday. "It's something that has happened to this franchise more than once and something we're going to have to solve."
Therein lies the great paradox. MacPhail knows what to do and probably has a pretty good idea how long it will take to do it, though he isn't willing to spell that out quite yet. Orioles fans only know how long it has been, and may not be willing to wait for the job to get done right.
If you're an Orioles fan, it is your choice to be an idealist or a fatalist. If you're MacPhail, it is your job to be a realist, which may not sit well with the people who have lived through 9 1/2 more losing seasons than you.
"That's a factor," MacPhail said. "It's something you have to consider, but your goal is to get to the postseason. To deliver that to the fans, you have to get there the fastest, most effective, most assured way you can."
This may not be what you want to hear, but I think he was saying there are no shortcuts to long-term success.
MacPhail hasn't been here that long, but he knows the history. Since the beginning of this decade, the Orioles have made a habit of coming unglued - one way or another - during the final six weeks of the season. Only in 2004, Lee Mazzilli's one full year as manager, did they avoid an ignominious late-season retreat.
The worst, of course, was the 4-32 finish in 2002, but the Orioles went 10-27 down the stretch in 2001, 10-24 in 2003, 14-28 in 2005 and 10-20 last year. Each year had a unique set of unhappy circumstances, but there comes a point when you have to connect the dots.
The reason the Orioles have fallen apart so regularly in September is because they don't have the organizational depth to weather midseason injuries and compete with the better-heeled teams in their division.
"I think it's the reality," manager Dave Trembley said. "I know this year, the teams we have been playing are competing for playoff berths. The teams that are doing that are just better equipped. This is a very difficult division. We have to have better personnel. It's that simple."
If only it were that simple. There were a few weeks during the summer when you could look at the Orioles through rose-tinted glasses and see a team that was a couple of free-agent hitters away from being reasonably competitive, but that was before the bullpen disintegrated and the top two starting pitchers went out with nagging injuries.
Now, there are too many areas to address for the upcoming free-agent market to be any more than a small part of the eventual cure for what ails this organization. The current 3-18 slump has exposed a talent gap that reaches from the major league roster deep into the player development system. It's the kind of void that doesn't get filled in one winter ... and maybe not two.
There is going to come a point when MacPhail will have to explain that to the legions of disaffected fans who hoped he was going to gallop in on a white horse and rescue them from this string of lost seasons.
"I think what the fans appreciate is that you've got to be dead-on honest with them," MacPhail said.
I don't know about that.
You want the truth?
You can't handle the truth.
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