Rebuilding under way

The Baltimore Sun

For years, one was not truly allowed to use the word "rebuilding" when speaking about the Orioles.

Baltimore's baseball franchise was retooling. Or restructuring. Or any word that did not suggest that, despite years of losing seasons, the team would have to (once again) blow up the master plan and start all over from scratch.

It's apparently different this year. The consensus is the Orioles finally faced the cold, hard reality of what it will take be competitive again in the American League East. They have begun to shed some of their aging veterans, as evidenced by the decision to release Jay Gibbons despite the fact the team still owes him $11.9 million during the next two years.

They're trying to go with youth, even though it might not be pretty, as evidenced by yesterday's 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. It's a long process, and this is just the beginning.

It seemed appropriate, then, to go right to the rebuilding experts and ask for advice. No one knows rebuilding like the Rays, who have been doing it, essentially, since their inception in 1998. But this year, Tampa Bay is supposed to finally show signs it will be a contender sooner rather than later. So the question was put to a few veteran Rays players: Even though they're a league rival, what advice would you give the Orioles' young players as they set sail on these rough waters?

"Just stay young, and stay confident in yourself," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, a two-time All-Star who in six years with Tampa Bay has never experienced a winning season. "There's going to be a lot of ups and downs. A lot. ... When I came up, it was really difficult to stay positive all the time. But I just kept working hard in the offseason, hoping it would pay off."

Edwin Jackson was just 19 years old when he made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a year younger even than Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was when he was first called up by the Seattle Mariners.

"You just have to understand that struggles come with the game," said Jackson, who was one of the hottest prospects in baseball at one point before struggling so much the Dodgers traded him to the Rays. "If you don't struggle, then you'll never succeed. Because you learn from those struggles. And if you don't learn, you'll keep going in a downward spiral."

Asked whether he can relate to what Jones is going through now, Jackson laughed and nodded his head.

"I was thrown into the fire before I even really understood what was going on," Jackson said. "I didn't even get nervous until like my third start because it took awhile to settle in. You just have to try not to overdo it. Don't listen when people say, 'Oh, he's doing so good' or when they're dogging you when you're doing bad. Stay at a happy medium."

Rays outfielder B.J. Upton, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft, struggled defensively his first few years with the Rays and took a lot of criticism from those who couldn't understand why he couldn't harness his talents. Now, after shifting to the outfield, he's considered one of baseball's best young players.

"You just can't stop working," Upton said. "Because it will only get worse if you stop working and trying to find your way out of it. ... I've talked to [Jones] and some of their young guys, and they seem like they pretty much have a handle on things."

Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields, who got the win yesterday, took his lumps as a 24-year-old in 2006 with the Rays, going 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA. But last year he looked like one of the best young pitchers in baseball, going 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA and striking out 184 in 215 innings.

Even though Shields didn't have his best stuff yesterday, he was able to gut it out and give up just two runs over seven innings. The Orioles would love to see Adam Loewen stay healthy and make similar strides this season.

"For me, you just have to understand that you're learning the game every day," Shields said when asked what his advice would be. "I've talked to guys like Troy Percival who've been playing 12 years, and he's still learning the game. You try to capitalize on everything you learn. I still consider myself a young guy who's still learning."

Rays manager Joe Maddon raved about Jones' potential and said he was particularly impressed with pitcher Matt Albers, who held Tampa Bay hitless in 2 2/3 innings of relief.

"When Jones gets comfortable, the ball is really going to come off his bat," Maddon said. "Albers was very sharp with his fastball and breaking ball. But Jones is going to be a very exciting player."

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