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Pieces of the puzzle

The Baltimore Sun

With the trades of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard, the Orioles said more definitively than they have in a long time that rebuilding has begun.

But what does that mean in baseball? How will the next few seasons unfold? When can Baltimore fans expect another winner?

Teams that have rebuilt successfully in recent years have done so in different ways.

The Cleveland Indians relied on stars signed as teenagers in Latin America and on a few key trades.

The Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks drafted well in the late 1990s and early 2000s and waited patiently for their homegrown stars to flourish.

The Detroit Tigers took a more aggressive approach, pursuing veteran players via free agency and trades and spending millions on talented amateurs who were considered difficult to sign by other clubs.

But what unified the successful rebuilders was a total commitment to some kind of reform. These clubs did not hang onto mediocre, aging talent, hoping to scratch out 82-80 seasons. Instead, they left the past decisively behind. If that meant losing big for a few years, so be it.

"I just think you can't be stuck in the middle," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "When you move in one direction, you have to move decisively in that direction."

Keith Law, an ESPN analyst and former Toronto Blue Jays executive, said: "I'm finally seeing signs that the Orioles are headed the right way. They're showing that total commitment to rebuilding that they've never had, even though we've seen time and again that it's a strategy that can work."

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who oversaw one drastic rebuilding project a decade ago and is attempting another, articulated the philosophy: "You're either rebuilding for something special, or you're on the verge of something special. To be in between is foolish."

Fellow general managers said that between landing an elite center fielder in Adam Jones and stockpiling young pitchers, Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail accomplished a lot with the Bedard and Tejada trades.

"You have to take risks," Brewers general manager and former Orioles executive Doug Melvin said. "You have to identify top talent at premium positions and go after it. I think you see Andy doing that in Baltimore."

Law said Jones could become a Most Valuable Player candidate and make the Bedard deal Baltimore's equivalent of the trade that brought Grady Sizemore to Cleveland for then-ace Bartolo Colon.

"That's a franchise-changer," he said.

Waiting game?

So how long should the process take? It depends on the method.

The Brewers and Rockies went through long streaks of losing seasons as they waited for excellent drafts to pay off.

The Diamondbacks and Indians were more fortunate. Both had excellent teams in the early part of the decade and managed to get new stars incubating by the time those winners gave out. That meant each franchise had to endure only a few years of 90 losses or more.

The Tigers had been terrible for a decade when they brought general manager Dave Dombrowski in as a savior. Between his boldness and owner Mike Ilitch's open checkbook, the club turned its fortunes around within four years.

Right now, the Orioles' approach looks like a hybrid. They're hoping that players drafted over the past five years - Nick Markakis, Adam Loewen, Billy Rowell, Matt Wieters, etc. - will become an excellent core. But they've aggressively tried to bolster that core by dealing Tejada and Bedard. It remains to be seen whether owner Peter Angelos will authorize a big signing or two once the young players have matured, but he has said he'll spend when the time is right.

Buzz began around the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Rockies several years before they actually won in 2007. It hasn't begun around the Orioles.

Even after several acclaimed drafts, the club lands in the middle of the pack when Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus ranks minor league talent. This offseason, Boston Red Sox consultant Bill James ranked the Orioles 22nd in the league in quality of young major league talent.

The club needs some of its highly drafted players to exceed expectations, as Markakis did. So far, more of them - from Rowell to Brandon Snyder to Brandon Erbe - have hit snags in the minors.

That said, analysts like the drafting trends they're seeing from the Orioles. In 2006, the club wasn't afraid to select a high-risk, high-reward high school hitter in Rowell. In 2007, the Orioles took Wieters, perceived by many to be the best talent in the draft, despite the fact he'd be difficult to sign. They also picked pitcher Jake Arrieta in the fifth round last year and gave him late-first-round money. They'll pick fourth overall in June.

"I think when you look at the clubs that have drafted well, you see that they've really gone for upside and accepted some kind of risk," Law said. "The Orioles are doing a better job of that and they have another high pick to work with this year."

He said the Orioles will have to add top pitchers through the draft or free agency but that the club's window of contention could open in 2011.

That's a fairly common time frame for franchises that have rebuilt successfully in recent years.

Gambling with trades

The Indians endured three losing seasons with Shapiro as GM before emerging as contenders in 2005. When he looked at his roster in 2002, Shapiro saw plenty of frontline talent in Colon, slugger Jim Thome, shortstop Omar Vizquel and others. But all of those players were on the downside of their peaks, and the farm system was relatively barren. So Shapiro figured that at best, his club could strive for records just north of .500.

Instead, he blew it up.

"We decided to sort of preempt rebuilding and speed up the cycle," he said. "We embraced a lot of short-term pain whereas a lot of teams wait until the need to rebuild is obvious."

Shapiro traded Colon, let Thome leave and resisted high-end free agents. He acquired a future star in Sizemore and an underappreciated hitter, Travis Hafner.

It's not uncommon for successful rebuilders to take a big leap based on one or two successful trades. The Padres acquired their No. 2 starter, Chris Young, and their best slugger, Adrian Gonzalez, for injury-prone starter Adam Eaton and reliever Akinori Otsuka.

The Minnesota Twins grabbed young starters Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser and elite closer Joe Nathan for veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

"It's not a necessity, but it accelerates the process so much," Law said of a big trade's impact on rebuilding.

Once Shapiro had acquired pieces to go along with his system's existing talent, he had to maintain confidence in his plan through two more losing seasons.

"The hardest part is to resist the emotion and momentum of a given moment," he said. "You can't doubt your plan, even though you're getting pressure from other places."

He foresaw a window of contention that would open in 2005 but admits he was fortunate that it actually happened. Small- and mid-market clubs need some luck, Shapiro believes, because if two prospects develop quickly and thus begin the track toward free agency while three others take a year or two longer than expected, the franchise can miss its window.

"It's very hard to get all your talent to line up," Shapiro said.

Free-agent flexibility

The Red Sox can spend such problems out of existence. But what if, in the Orioles' case, Markakis is a huge free-agent commodity in five years, just when the rest of the talent is catching up to him?

Cleveland fans endured only a few dreadful seasons. Their neighbors in Detroit suffered a more Orioles-like plight.

The Tigers had suffered eight consecutive losing seasons when Dombrowski took control in 2002. But the worst was yet to come. The club lost 106 games in his first season and 119 - the second most in history - the next. Worse still, the Tigers lacked the talent in their farm system to justify simple patience.

"You would love to be able to do it with your farm system," Dombrowski said. "But we didn't have those kinds of players. We would have run out of time and patience with our fans."

So he took a more aggressive approach, committing $115 million to free agents Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, and trading for veteran shortstop Carlos Guillen. The Tigers remained losers for the next two seasons, but those players were key pieces of the 95-win team that went to the World Series in 2006.

"I've always said that our real turnaround started with the signing of Pudge [Rodriguez]," Dombrowski said. "He was a real, blue-chip free agent who was still in the productive part of his career. If you get that right guy, it sends a signal to others."

Such thinking is a bit unorthodox among baseball's famous rebuilders, many of whom eschew free agents in favor of hoarding young talent.

"You have to remember to get a little bit better," Dombrowski said. "Sometimes, teams get stuck waiting for the home-run move, but every move can't be a home run. Sometimes, it's the small steps you take."

At the same time, the Tigers improved their drafting. Justin Verlander, their 2004 first-round pick, won American League Rookie of the Year in 2006. Their next two first-round selections, both players who scared other clubs for financial reasons, became centerpieces of the trade that brought in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins this offseason.

After that move, another aggressive one by Dombrowski, many analysts see the Tigers as a rival to the Red Sox for American League supremacy.

When the general manager reflects on the Detroit rebuilding project, he sees an amalgam of smart signings and trades, improved drafting and international scouting and good luck.

"You're trying to find talent wherever you can," he said.

He believes in a plan but doesn't believe a club must always hew to it.

"You have to be flexible," Dombrowski said. "You want to have a plan and a time frame, but it's not in ink. It's in pencil."

Draft foundations

The Brewers took a more traditional approach on the way to last year's 83-79 record, the club's first winning mark since 1992.

More than any other franchise in recent years, Milwaukee rebuilt through exceptional drafting. In 2001, the Brewers grabbed shortstop J.J. Hardy; in 2002, slugging first baseman Prince Fielder; in 2003, second baseman Rickie Weeks; in 2004, budding ace Yovani Gallardo; in 2005, slugger Ryan Braun.

Year after year, they converted first- and second-round picks into players who would become young stars. Now, they have a cheap core of talent that will remain under their control for at least four years.

"You have to hit with your top picks," Melvin said.

Several factors allowed the approach to work. Milwaukee's scouting and player development crews remained stable. And the whole organization, from owner Mark Attanasio to manager Ned Yost, committed to the slow-build approach. Melvin didn't have to force Yost to stick with Hardy and Weeks, for example, when they struggled upon arriving.

"He had the patience to deal with that," Melvin said.

The Brewers also sold their rebuilding narrative to fans, who were beaten down by losing.

"We were honest," Melvin said. "We told them we had these young players who were going to come along in two or three years and that in the interim, we would put teams on the field that would play hard."

The club had a chance to increase its payroll by several million one season but Melvin realized that the young stars were still few years off, so he scaled back instead.

"It's tough not to get caught up in free agency, but you have to maintain your flexibility," he said. "When you do sign guys, you don't want to get tied up for three or four years. That's why you see us sign one-year deals with guys like Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota."

After almost a decade of assembling young players, the Brewers believe they're ready to contend through at least 2011. Colorado, another draft-built team, is in a similar boat after breaking a string of six losing seasons.

"It works," the Indians' Shapiro said of loading up on high draft picks. "But it takes a long time, and it's painful."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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