When this offseason began, just about everyone in Birdland was hoping and praying for the Orioles to get the big guy, which is why the signing this week of former NBA forward Mark Hendrickson has been viewed in certain quarters as some kind of cruel joke.
The big guy, of course, was free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira, and big was a figurative term. He was the top position player in the free-agent market, and he's from Severna Park and he would have made a big difference in the way a generation of disengaged Orioles fans view the beleaguered O's franchise.
Hendrickson is a very big guy. He's listed as 6 feet 9 and 230 pounds, which makes him one of the biggest pitchers in major league history. He is not, however, a big acquisition for the Orioles, who signed him for one year and $1.5 million (plus some incentives) to compete for a place on a pitching staff that is still largely without form. He is a sub-.500 career pitcher with a 5.00-plus career ERA, which is not exactly going to make him the most popular guy at FanFest.
So, quite predictably, he is being cast by the team's most disgruntled fans as a symbol of all that is and all that has been wrong with the Orioles for the past 11 years.
That's certainly understandable on one level. The Orioles looked half-hearted in their pursuit of Teixeira and have not made a big play for any other marquee free agent, choosing instead to trade for reserve infielder-outfielder Ryan Freel and sign inexpensive shortstop Cesar Izturis before finalizing the deal with Hendrickson. The sharp contrast between the quality of the players they got and the player who got away is just too convenient an excuse to remain fatalistic about the future of the team.
Not that anyone really needs an excuse at this point. The Orioles will remain a huge disappointment to their fans until they do something dynamic to change that, which is why they needed Teixeira to view himself as the kind of Ripkenesque hero who could come home and save the franchise. The fact that he didn't only deepened the hurt when he signed with the rival New York Yankees.
Against that backdrop, the addition of Hendrickson might look like another slap in the face to the Orioles' faithful, when it really is just another routine roster move that is not significant enough to evoke that kind of negative energy. Hendrickson is a veteran pitcher who will go to spring training with a chance to win a job in the rotation or the bullpen and, if he does, hold a place for one of the young pitchers the Orioles are hoping will be ready to make an impact later this year or in 2010. In that context - and only that context - he is a decent acquisition at a decent price.
If he is a symbol of anything, it is that the Orioles are fairly certain they will not be competitive enough this year to warrant a bigger expenditure on a back-end starter or middle reliever. Despite the apparent willingness to offer Teixeira $20 million per year for seven years, they did not allot $140 million for whatever free agents might be left when the Yankees and Boston Red Sox got done picking over the market.
Orioles president Andy MacPhail continues to pursue the two Japanese pitchers who want to jump to the major leagues this year. I'm guessing he'll also wait in the shadows in case the market softens for some of the second-tier free-agent starters. I'll be surprised if the Orioles get into the bidding for sluggers Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell but wouldn't criticize the team for going off the plan for one power hitter as long as it doesn't wipe out next year's free-agent budget.
The harsh reality of the situation is this: Whether the O's throw their fans that kind of bone or not, the team is not fooling itself, and neither should you. The Orioles are going to be in a developmental stage for at least the next year or two, and there really is nothing that MacPhail could do in the free-agent market that is going to make the Orioles very competitive in 2009.
Of course, there are plenty of disaffected fans who think there is nothing anybody can do to make this franchise a winner under the current ownership. They've suffered enough and they're mad as hell, and you really can't blame them for giving up hope. They are left with only a couple of choices - either start rooting for another team or settle for the modest pleasure of watching Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz try to grow into the nucleus of an attractive ballclub.
Maybe it never happens. Maybe the naysayers and their predictions of infinite doom and gloom will turn out to be right. Just don't blame Mark Hendrickson. He just got here.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Fridays and Saturdays.