O's plan may need tweak

The Baltimore Sun

This isn't exactly the way Andy MacPhail mapped things out. He could have done without the injury that turned Adam Loewen from one of the club's most promising starting pitchers into a long-shot Rick Ankiel wannabe. He never imagined that the rotation would come so unraveled that there was a point last week when the Orioles had to call Brian Burres back up from Triple-A Norfolk to have one pitcher remaining from the Opening Day rotation.

So, you're probably thinking that desperate times call for desperate measures ... that MacPhail is ready to scrap his philosophical opposition to signing big-money free-agent pitchers. And you would be maybe half right.

MacPhail has acknowledged that he might have to deviate from the original schematic, which reflected his long-held preference for developing young pitching and reserving the free-agent budget for more dependable position players, but nobody in the organization is clearing a locker for CC Sabathia or Ben Sheets. This unavoidable shift in priorities will almost certainly still reflect MacPhail's conservative approach to team building.

"The starting pitching is enough of a concern that we're probably going to have to give serious consideration to addressing it with experienced major league guys," MacPhail said yesterday. "We're going to make every effort to do that without affecting what we're trying to do down below, which is to develop as much pitching as we can."

Allow me to translate: The Orioles will go in search of a couple of veteran starting pitchers this winter. They would prefer to get at least one at a reasonable price in the free-agent market - and would even consider signing big-ticket right-hander A.J. Burnett if he opts out of his current contract and really wants to pitch in Baltimore. MacPhail also will be looking for an opportunity to trade for a middle-of-the-rotation guy on a team that wants to shed some payroll.

This isn't brain surgery, of course, and MacPhail's comments on the subject do not represent some kind of concession speech at the end of another disappointing season. This is consistent with his promise earlier this year to adjust the rebuilding program whenever necessary based on the circumstances "on the ground."

"Everybody has to deal with this," he said. "Nobody is immune to injuries. The real good organizations have enough depth to absorb some injuries and not have it hurt them in the standings. We obviously aren't there yet."

The situation should improve by next spring, but MacPhail knows better than to open camp with four empty slots in the rotation. The only certain carry-over is Jeremy Guthrie. Daniel Cabrera might be back, but he has reached a salary arbitration level that might force the club to consider dealing him for a short return or even nontendering him to avoid getting stuck with a $5 million salary. Many of the projected candidates for the other rotation slots have struggled so badly over the past few weeks that it would be foolhardy to gamble that two or three of them will evolve into adequate major league starters in the next four or five months.

"We need to find a way to get a couple of starting pitchers to mix in with our bullpen," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "We're going to have George Sherrill and Chris Ray coming back. I think we're going to have a good team, but it's difficult when you are getting good hitting and you don't have good pitching."

No doubt, the fans would like to see Peter Angelos throw open the vault and give Sabathia whatever he wants, but that's not going to happen for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that the Orioles do not have what it takes - either financially or competitively - to persuade the top pitcher in the free-agent market to choose them over the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers or Angels. Sorry, that's just the way it is.

The reason Burnett is under consideration is that he has made it known he would like to play near his home, which happens to be here in the Baltimore area. He'll still want to get paid, but if he's motivated to pitch here, the Orioles would be foolish not to consider him ... and foolish is one thing MacPhail definitely is not.

It has been a particularly disheartening past couple of weeks, and it's tempting to view the Orioles' second-half downturn as another big step in the wrong direction. MacPhail doesn't like what has happened, but he doesn't look at it that way.

"The last couple weeks notwithstanding," he said, "I'm pretty pleased with all the progress in terms of supplementing the talent base. That started with [Matt] Wieters and [Jake] Arrieta, who were drafted before I got here, and I think we had another good draft. We drafted and signed a guy [Brian Matusz] who we believe and the industry believes was the best pitcher in the draft.

"My fondest hope was that we could win more games than we did last year after slashing payroll and trading a couple of our top veteran players. The offense has exceeded our expectations. That has been a pleasant surprise and should not be overlooked just because our pitching has scuffled. In the end, it's about competing for a division championship. It's not about what happened last week."

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays. INDIANS@ORIOLES

Tonight, 7:05

TV: MASN2

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