For Orioles, a season of mixed signals

The Baltimore Sun

Though it went unsaid by the Orioles' front office, this season was never about wins and losses, or where the team finished in the American League East standings. Year One of club president Andy MacPhail's major rebuilding project was always going to be measured by individual progress and organizational development.

When the Orioles' 11th consecutive losing season came to a merciful end yesterday and another pivotal offseason began, team officials were left to sort through mixed signals.

In a season in which Adam Jones and Matt Wieters established themselves as significant building blocks, Daniel Cabrera's once-promising Orioles future was cast in doubt. The continued emergence of Jeremy Guthrie as a top-of-the-rotation starter was offset by the elbow injury that ended Adam Loewen's pitching career. The development of Jim Johnson as a reliable setup man was countered by the alarming struggles of Radhames Liz and Garrett Olson.

"We're in last place," veteran third baseman Melvin Mora said when asked whether the organization made progress this year. "I'm not saying no. I'm just saying that we're in last place. What does that mean?"

Actually, not that much to Orioles officials, who knew the team's first last-place finish since 1988 was a distinct possibility after the offseason trades of ace Erik Bedard and shortstop Miguel Tejada.

"I was very pleased through about 120 games, but this season has been too long for us," MacPhail said. "We've had too many guys go down and expose the lack of depth that we have, which is something we're going to have to continue to work on. But despite our trials and tribulations, I feel better about our baseball talent now than I did a year ago."

MacPhail will preside over extensive organizational meetings next week in Sarasota, Fla., where there will be no shortage of topics to discuss. The Orioles need long-term solutions at shortstop and first base, and they go into the offseason with Guthrie as the only certainty for next year's rotation. Mora, Brian Roberts, Aubrey Huff and Ramon Hernandez are entering the final year of their contracts.

Two of the top potential free agents on the market - first baseman Mark Teixeira and right-handed starter A.J. Burnett - have local ties and would fill huge needs. However, their price tags will be immense, and not necessarily in line with MacPhail's original blueprint.

MacPhail has met with team owner Peter Angelos, who has encouraged the club president to be aggressive in pursuing talent this offseason. It is expected that the Orioles will be in on the initial bidding for Teixeira and Burnett, but how high they'll be willing to go remains to be seen.

"Peter is encouraging us to look at all different avenues and not restrict ourselves because of finances," MacPhail said.

Asked whether the Orioles could be major players in free agency, MacPhail said: "I wouldn't say major, but I think we have to be open to all avenues of acquiring talent. I wouldn't expect us to be in on every one [of the top free agents], but we might make selective forays in free agency where it solves a need that we don't think we can fill elsewhere."

That would represent a departure from last offseason, when the Orioles were not active in free agency because MacPhail felt the club was far from one player away from being competitive in the rugged AL East.

"To me, it was more important for us to spend that money in the infrastructure of our organization," MacPhail said. "But this year, our needs are so pronounced in certain areas that we're going to have to explore all opportunities and not preclude any of them. We still have to stay with the game plan, which is to build a base, a foundation of talent. But if there are unique opportunities to augment your current group, we have to explore them."

Despite their record and the division gap that seemingly widened this season between them and everybody else - the Orioles were just 22-50 against AL East competition - several players said last week that they don't think the club is that far from being a winner. They point to the fact that they had a .500 record in the second week of July before injuries and poor starting pitching began to take their toll.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people that are saying, 'I told you so,' but it's not like this season was a lost cause," said All-Star closer George Sherrill, who saved 31 games after arriving from the Seattle Mariners in the Bedard trade. "I think we have a pretty solid nucleus. If we can get two starting pitchers, I think we can be really good."

Guthrie was the only Oriole to start and finish the season in the rotation, and even he missed several starts down the stretch because of a balky shoulder. The Orioles gave several opportunities to prospects such as Liz and Olson, and the results weren't good as the team posted a 5.13 ERA and led the AL in walks.

Liz and Olson are far from sure things for next year's rotation, and Cabrera could be nontendered after showing little progress over parts of five big league seasons. The Orioles have several highly touted pitching prospects in the minors, but none of them is expected to start next season in the rotation.

"We don't have time to just keep treading," said pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who will return next season, along with the rest of manager Dave Trembley's coaching staff. "Whether [the young pitchers] falter along the way, they still have to show signs of improvement, signs of confidence. There are a lot of issues we have to discuss. But we need more guys like Guthrie, that not only have the stuff, but have the command."

It is expected that the Orioles' 40-man roster will be overhauled by next season, especially after so many players on it got significant opportunities and did little. Team officials have also become concerned with the number of players who have gotten shut down with injuries the past two seasons long before the season's final out.

MacPhail and Trembley have stopped well short of questioning players' toughness and dedication, but they have acknowledged that the rash of late-season injuries has become an issue. Trembley has said several times that it's important to have more guys capable of making it through the 162-game schedule.

Said first baseman Kevin Millar: "There's always that fine line, is somebody shutting it down or is he really hurt? Only that person knows, but I've always said, you have to brush your teeth and look in the mirror. Only you know. All this stuff doesn't mean anything unless the ones that can address the problem do something about it. I think the front office knows, the manager knows. But all this is just talk unless they do something about it if they feel that Player A or Player B is shutting it down."

MacPhail said he'll look into the issue, adding one more thing to his offseason to-do list.

"It's not a good thing and we're going to have to figure it out," MacPhail said. "I'm going to look at everything. Durability is important, and character is important. One way you display character is playing 100 percent even when things aren't going well."

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