The same philosophical tug-of-war takes place around a lot of major league franchises. The fans want to win now and so does ownership. The front office also wants to win now, but needs to balance that with a plan to win later.
So goes the conversation in Baltimore, where the Orioles have won more regular-season games than any other American League team over the past four-plus seasons and are annually criticized for failing to develop a deep minor league system.
It's not impossible to do both, of course, but most of the ranking members of the Orioles front office arrived here at the end of the longest string of losing seasons (14) since the old St. Louis Browns headed East more than 60 years ago. There wasn't a lot of patience to be found in what was left of the dwindling Orioles fan base and there was a lot of skepticism when new baseball operations chief Dan Duquette promised – right out of the chute – that the Orioles would have a winning season in 2012.
The Orioles have not had a losing season since, but the price of that has been a fairly steady outflow of minor league prospects and – more recently – tradeable competitive-balance draft picks. Duquette has been trading away chunks of the future to maintain a level of performance that Orioles fans have now begun to take for granted.
For that, he and his player development staff have had to endure the stinging criticism of the Orioles minor league system from outside the organization and even some grumbling from within, especially when a player formerly in the organization ends up having success somewhere else.
We can all agree, for instance, that in a perfect orange-and-black world Jake Arrieta would have won the Cy Young Award and pitched two no-hitters in an Orioles uniform, since this is where he spent his developmental years before being traded with reliever Pedro Strop to the Chicago Cubs for veteran pitcher Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger during the 2013 season.
Arrieta didn't bloom here, and there's plenty of blame to go around for that. But there was no great gnashing of teeth over his departure until his great talent finally revealed itself in the National League, and his self-confidence and maturity blossomed along the way.
There also are the players who don't develop at all, which seems to focus attention on the club's amateur scouting department this time of year and ramps up the pressure to make the most of the June draft.
This is where Duquette seems to recognize that he will never live in a perfect world where he can have his good draft choices and trade them, too. The Orioles enter this week's draft without their original first-round pick (14th overall) because he chose to sign qualifying-offer free-agent Yovani Gallardo three months ago. The Orioles will select 27th with the compensation pick they got when they lost free agent Wei-Yin Chen last winter and have three other picks among the first 91 selections.
If all goes well, the Orioles should bring home four pretty good players on the front end of this draft, but you don't hear Duquette predicting a hot new influx of talent the way he predicted that unlikely winning season in 2012. He'll be the first to point out that history doesn't reflect particularly well on the players taken with the 27th overall pick in the past 15 drafts.
The Orioles will pay lip service to the tremendous importance of the draft even as their actions during the Duquette era have called into question just where they prioritize it. Critics will point to the decision to give up the first two picks in the 2014 draft to sign free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz as proof that Duquette inordinately values the present over the future. And he would probably plead guilty to that and point out that the 2014 Orioles went to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1997.
Clearly, he views tradeable draft choices and coveted minor leaguers as currency in a yearly attempt to reach the playoffs, which might seem short-sighted at those moments when the Orioles have looked to the farm for help and found it lacking.
Perhaps it isn't the best way to guarantee a steady upward flow of minor league talent, but it's hard to argue with Duquette's track record. He watched from afar as the Orioles spent more than a decade near the front of each draft, and at or near the back of the AL East standings.
It comes down to whether you want to win now or win later, and on this point Duquette has logic on his side. You have to win now to have any chance of doing both.
Hard to argue with that.