Seeking new O's path

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles will need a setup man and a closer. They could use a veteran starting pitcher and still lack a powerful bat in the middle of their order. The most accomplished hitter they have, shortstop Miguel Tejada, would rather be traded than change positions, while their best pitcher, Erik Bedard, is entering a critical offseason in determining his future with the club.

And after Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail figures out how to overhaul a roster stocked with seemingly immovable contracts, he'll have to turn his attention to a minor league system that is struggling to provide immediate help and a front office that is filled with uncertainty.

"Besides George Bush, I think Andy MacPhail's got the next-hardest job in America," Orioles reliever Jamie Walker said. "He knows that. He's a smart baseball man. We have to reroute this ship. There are a lot of changes that are probably going to be made."

As soon as the final pitch was thrown in the Orioles' loss yesterday to the New York Yankees, a 10th straight losing season was over and one of the most important offseasons in franchise history had begun. Manager Dave Trembley vowed to no longer take questions on the 2007 campaign, which the Orioles finished with a 69-93 record.

A week from today, team officials will gather in Sarasota, Fla., and officially turn the page. MacPhail, who took the helm of the Orioles' front office June 20, will preside over organizational meetings, which he hopes will end with the floundering franchise having a better plan for moving forward.

"I think that we clearly have multiple issues that we need to address to get ourselves where we need to be on the field at the major league level and as a organization," MacPhail said. "Clearly, where we are now, this is not working. I think it's just logical that you try something new. We have some work to do yet, and we have some time to determine what path we're going to go."

MacPhail, a longtime baseball man, saw pretty much what he needed to see over the final 3 1/2 months of the season. The Orioles' pitching was decimated by injuries, revealing a disturbing lack of depth in the organization. Several of the veteran position players lost focus, an annual rite of passage at Camden Yards as the losses and the frustration start to mount.

"When you've had the kind of season that we have, you have to consider all options," MacPhail said. "I'm obligated, I think, for our fans to consider everything."

Plan developing

In several different interviews over the past couple of days, MacPhail maintained he has yet to decide on a game plan for 2008 and beyond. That will come sometime in the next couple of weeks, after the organizational meetings end.

MacPhail acknowledged a total rebuilding job, which would likely mean the trading or buying out of several veterans, is one option. He said it has become clear, especially in the midst of the Orioles' typical late-season swoon when they lost 28 of their final 39 games, that the team is not close to being a playoff contender.

"I don't think we're one signing away from the postseason," MacPhail said. "I hate to put years on it, because a lot of that is a copout, but it's not like we're right around the corner."

MacPhail said no matter what route the front office chooses, the focus of the organization from this point forward will be on scouting and development, with a focus on pitching. A recent Baseball America study of player development ranked the Orioles 28th among 30 major league teams. MacPhail said that the number is unacceptable, especially in a division with two financial heavyweights in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

"We have to do a good job of identifying talent at every level and then teaching it and instructing it," he said. "We're not going to be able to go toe-to-toe, dollar-for-dollar with New York and Boston, nor do you have to necessarily. We just need to do things very well, and that's the same thing on the field."

Pitching holes

MacPhail rattled off several holes that he'll have to plug this offseason, the biggest one residing in the bullpen. Closer Chris Ray and setup man Danys Baez will likely miss all of next season as a result of ligament-transplant surgery.

MacPhail said there are areas he'd like to address offensively and defensively, but his main priority is not finding a 40-home run bat, but upgrading the Orioles' pitching at all levels.

"If there is one thing that the last two months have brought home, you have no chance in this division if you don't pitch well," he said. "When I first came here, I said that pitching is 85 percent of the game. In this division, it might be 90 percent. When Erik Bedard started, we were 19-9. Good pitching is going to thwart real good teams. It is my belief now that this franchise is really going to have to focus on pitching."

Bedard, who missed the last five weeks of the season with an oblique injury, went 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA this season and finished with 221 strikeouts, the third-highest total in the American League. He has two more seasons left before he's eligible for free agency, but the closer a player gets to that status, the less likely he is to sign an extension.

There is speculation the mercurial Bedard wouldn't sign with the Orioles long-term anyway -- Bedard disputes that, saying he'd at least consider it -- though the club probably won't know for sure until it starts negotiating.

"I'm sure that it's something that we'll talk about over the course of this offseason," MacPhail said. "This guy pitched over a six-week period about as dominating of a stretch as I've ever seen for a pitcher. He's definitely somebody you'd like to have in your organization for years to come."

Bedard remains the Orioles' biggest trade chip, and trading him would perhaps be the quickest and easiest way to land young impact position players, of which there are precious few in the minor league system. Asked whether he'd listen to offers for Bedard, MacPhail said there are no untouchables on the roster, and that obviously includes Tejada, the disgruntled former Most Valuable Player who has stated repeatedly he is frustrated with the Orioles' losing ways.

MacPhail and Tejada met Saturday and discussed a variety of topics, including whether or not the shortstop would switch positions to better the team. Tejada, whose range has decreased at the position, said he'd prefer not to, which could expedite his ticket out of town.

However, MacPhail, a staunch believer that you cannot win without strong defense up the middle, must know Tejada's bat would be hard to replace, especially in an extremely thin free-agent market.

Slugging outfielders Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter are free agents, and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the likely AL MVP, could be, too, if he opts out of his contract. However, competition for them will be steep.

"There are really a small number of players that one would assume would make a meaningful difference, and there will be a lot of activity for them," he said. "We'll look at the economics, the free agents and their ability and get a realistic idea of who might come here."

Watching direction

Second baseman Brian Roberts, the Orioles' lone All-Star, opted to sign only a one-year extension this past offseason, eschewing a longer deal because he wanted to see the direction of the franchise. He said recently he didn't feel worse about the direction of the club because he attributed its late-season struggles to injuries.

"There are things that you're going to have to do," Roberts said. "We're going to have to fill in some places. The team is going to have to make some moves. But it's not that I've folded tent and said, 'There is no way we can win here.' But we all have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'We have to do some things to get better.'"

Still, the most reflection will have to be done by MacPhail, who won two World Series as general manager of the Minnesota Twins and took the Chicago Cubs to the brink of a Series.

Patience is wearing thin among the Orioles' fan base, but he said that can't and won't skew his judgment on offseason moves.

"Believe me, I've come from a place where the fans' patience has been tested," he said. "... What you have to do is you have to formulate the quickest, most sure route that you have to take to get your team back in the postseason. At the end of the day, you're doing the fans a service when you do that."

That process started yesterday at 5:02 p.m., when Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth struck out Freddie Bynum.

"There is a lot of things we need to do," Trembley said. "We need to roll up our sleeves and go to work. We need to get better. We need to stop making promises, and we need to get the job done."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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