The Orioles picked a tough year to change a stubborn narrative, but they just might turn their midseason fire sale into an opportunity to rebrand an organization that has spent much of the past two decades battling negative perceptions of the front office and ownership.
Embattled executive vice president Dan Duquette got five players from the Los Angeles Dodgers for superstar Manny Machado in a deal last week that was generally lauded by scouts and industry analysts. He got three young pitchers for closer Zach Britton on Tuesday night, including top-10 New York Yankees prospect Dillon Tate.
To be fair, it’ll be a couple of years before we’ll know whether the Orioles have scored a treasure trove of young talent, and they’re not finished trying to restock their minor league system by dealing away their most valuable veteran players.
The Orioles have been in this position a couple times before. Back in 2000, they unloaded a large group of popular veterans that included B.J. Surhoff, Harold Baines, Mike Bordick and Will Clark. The Orioles’ baseball operations chief at the time was Syd Thrift, and he was pretty pleased with himself.
"Somebody is going to be up here [at the podium] three years from now and look at how smart we are," he said.
They got 14 players back, and only one of them — Melvin Mora — ended up being a star-quality player for the club, so history has not been kind to Thrift. The Orioles, in the midst of their third straight losing season at the time, would go on to have another 11 straight losing seasons before a successful rebuild propelled them back into regular contention in the American League East.
Andy MacPhail engineered that one, trading shortstop Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros and left-handed pitching ace Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners for a total of 10 players. The Bedard deal ranks as one of the best in Orioles history (and one of the worst in Mariners history), since the Orioles got future cornerstones Adam Jones, Chris Tillman and All-Star closer George Sherrill.
The Tejada deal brought back five players — four who played in the majors for the Orioles, including Luke Scott, who averaged 25 homers in his first three years with the club. But none of them were still here for the Orioles’ turnaround in 2012.
MacPhail restored stability to the front office, but his rebuild didn’t blossom until after Duquette replaced him.
Duquette’s first five seasons featured more regular-season victories by the Orioles than any other American League team. It also featured the first three Orioles playoff appearances of this century, but the sharp reversal of fortune over the past 10 months has revived criticism of the front office and raised questions about who’s actually running the franchise.
The ownership situation has been clarified over the past couple of months and the chain of command in the front office has not been in doubt during the weeks that Duquette has worked to get the best possible return for the Orioles’ pending free agents.
Now, the talk of organizational dysfunction is being replaced with a coherent plan to rebuild the club from the bottom up over the next three years. That’s not going to be music to everyone’s ears, but necessity has dictated a dramatic shift in the way the Orioles will try to position themselves to compete with the big-money teams in the AL East.
Duquette doesn’t like to rebuild. He spent the past six years plugging holes in the major league roster by trading away some of the organization’s top young talent. Now, he’s doing the opposite in the final year of his contract and hoping that he gets the chance to carry through with this long-range project.
So far, so good. Manager Buck Showalter, who also does not know if he’ll be around for the rebuild, spoke highly Wednesday of the return that Duquette got for two elite players who will be bound to their new clubs for only about 10 weeks. He seemed particularly pleased with the three pitchers the O’s got for Britton.
“I’ve got a pretty good feel for it,’’ Showalter said. “It’s exciting. I saw tape on all three of those pitchers today. I watched tape on all three of the guys…It’s a good group.”
Of course, the recent trade machinations are just one part of a bigger picture the organization is trying to paint during this dismal season. Ownership has instituted a number of outreach events and fan-friendly initiatives, including the “Kids Cheer Free” program and Wednesday night’s first “Bark at Oriole Park,” to strengthen the team’s bond with its fan base.
The recent re-hiring of beloved Orioles legend Brooks Robinson as a special advisor to the club and Wednesday’s introduction of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in a similar role also are signs of the team’s desire to reconnect with its history.
That kind of thing will be increasingly important now that the club has committed to a rebuilding effort that could include several challenging seasons ahead.
The Orioles can only hope that somebody is going to look pretty smart three years from now, but we’ll just have to wait and see.