MacPhail moves to the rhythm of the moment

The Baltimore Sun

If you're an Orioles fan - and I know you're out there somewhere - you're probably thinking the same thing I'm thinking right now.

Who kidnapped the conservative, methodical, one-step-at-a-time Orioles president of baseball operations and replaced him with the nonstop Andy MacPhail who is making me wonder whether they ought to implement amphetamine testing for baseball front-office employees?

There have been a couple of times this month when I haven't even finished sizing up one Orioles move before Baltimore Sun baseball beat writer Jeff Zrebiec or Dan Connolly is breaking the news on another (and ESPN is rushing to take credit for it).

Let's review: In a little more than a month, the Orioles have acquired outfielder Ryan Freel and prospects for catcher Ramon Hernandez; signed free-agent shortstop Cesar Izturis; made their first foray into the Asian talent market; traded for high-ceiling outfield prospect Felix Pie; signed free-agent catcher Gregg Zaun; picked up some minor league depth; and - perhaps most important - are about to finalize a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension for cornerstone outfielder Nick Markakis. In just the past 48 hours or so, MacPhail also traded for pitcher David Pauley and signed outfielder Luke Scott ahead of arbitration while dotting the i's on the Markakis and Zaun deals.

Throw out New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who is living on some other economic planet, and the supposedly immovable MacPhail has been one of the most active major league movers and shakers this offseason.

I'm sure many people would like to have seen a Mark Teixeira signing on that list, but let's be realistic. The guy was never coming here, no matter how much everybody wanted to believe he was a local boy who just burned to come home and play for the Orioles. I'm also pretty sure there are many people out there who aren't satisfied with the scope of the player acquisitions, and that's understandable after 11 straight losing seasons, but MacPhail laid out a blueprint for rebuilding the team 18 months ago and appears to be sticking to it.

Of course, that was the old Andy MacPhail - the one who obviously is tied to a chair somewhere while this impostor ramps up the action during the final months before the opening of training camp.

"I don't think there is any difference," MacPhail said yesterday, when I called his cell phone and pressed the guy who answered for his real identity. "I know I'm considered a conservative guy, and I am, but being conservative does not mean that you don't do anything. I think we've done the things that make sense for this organization. There hasn't been a great departure from what we outlined in late June of last year [2007]."

True enough. MacPhail took the podium when he was brought in to head baseball operations and described what he believed it would take to get the franchise back into position to compete in the American League East. He started with a new commitment to player development and a long-term vision focused on broadening the club's overall talent base with trades, enhanced amateur and international scouting and, when appropriate, key free agents.

Whether or not you agree with all the particulars, he has pretty much delivered what he promised. The trades that sent Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners and Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros last year at about this time brought 10 players in return, one of whom emerged as an All-Star (George Sherrill), another who is the five-tool center fielder of the future, a 23-home run left fielder and several pitchers who figure in the team's immediate plans. The burst of offseason activity this winter has not been quite as dynamic, but MacPhail did sign a solid defensive shortstop (Izturis), sorted out the catching situation in advance of the arrival of top prospect Matt Wieters and, among other things, traded for another young outfielder (Pie) who just might be a star of the future.

The starting rotation remains thin, but there still are many free agents out there and there still are more than three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., so I wouldn't rule out at least one more free-agent acquisition before the old Andy MacPhail returns from wherever he has gone.

It's still fair to be skeptical. Orioles fans have earned the right to take a jaundiced view of anything the team does until it gets off the floor, but it's also fair to give MacPhail's plan some time to bloom. Lumping in the past 18 months with the rest of the 11-year losing streak would be about as logical as going back to Week 6 of the NFL schedule and blaming John Harbaugh for the Ravens being a combined 7-14 dating to the beginning of the 2007 season.

Personally, I don't know if the Orioles can get to the mountaintop from here no matter how well MacPhail's machinations work. The hole this team is trying to get out of is pretty deep, and the obstacles to real success - namely the big-spending Yankees and Boston Red Sox - will always be formidable. The Tampa Bay Rays showed what can happen in one shining season, but it remains to be seen whether the balance of power in the division can be altered for more than an occasional brief interval.

What I do know is that nothing else has worked and the MacPhail plan looks like the only possible avenue to any sustained success, so I'm willing to weather the charge that I'm sipping a certain sugary orange beverage and give it a chance.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Fridays and Saturdays.

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