Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail sat in the visiting dugout at Fenway Park recently with his arm draped across the top of the bench and one leg resting on top of the other. With the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up and his sunglasses on, MacPhail looked content and relaxed.
It was a far different picture 10 weeks earlier, when MacPhail, sitting in his office overlooking Camden Yards, declared it the most difficult summer of his professional life.
"I feel much better now than I did six, seven weeks ago, and I think the industry does, too," MacPhail said. "Even when we were struggling, when we were at our worst point, I had a lot of people in the game telling me, 'You're OK, you're going to be OK.' It's nice to see that before the end of the season. It's nice to see that manifest itself now."
Still, MacPhail remains bitterly disappointed with the 2010 season, which ends Sunday. In what was supposed to a year when the team emerged from the rebuilding process and started significantly improving on its win total, it will finish with 95 or more losses for the second straight season and for the fourth time during 13 consecutive years of losing.
While MacPhail called the club's strong finish encouraging, he has to evaluate the season as a whole, and the fact remains that for three-quarters of the 2010 campaign, the Orioles had the worst record in baseball.
But at the very least, the team's play after the Aug. 2 hiring of manager Buck Showalter, who guided the Orioles to a 31-22 record entering Friday's doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, helped ease some of the pain and renewed the organization's confidence in the team's young core. It also has taken a little heat off MacPhail as he enters what could be his final offseason with the club.
MacPhail's contract expires after the 2011 season, and he said he has no plans to approach owner Peter Angelos and discuss an extension.
"I don't think it's fair to put him in that position. The deal was the deal, and we'll talk about it, as far as I'm concerned, when it's over," MacPhail said.
"All the offseasons are important. Independent of my contractual situation, they are all major. But it doesn't have any more significance or any less significance to me based on my contract. There is nothing about this job that I really dislike other than the fact that our record isn't where I'd like it to be. I love the city, I love the franchise, I like the players. We've got some challenges. We've tried to address them one at a time and make the franchise better. The ownership has been great. [Angelos] has done everything that he said that he would do. It's just a matter of whether we can put this together."
MacPhail and Showalter are expected to meet with Angelos this week, both to review the 2010 season and to lay the groundwork for all the things that need to be done before the Orioles report to spring training in February.
Showalter, who inherited the coaches of previous managers Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel, will need to hire a staff, something he would like to have accomplished by early November.
The Orioles will have to decide what to do with their seven free agents, a list that includes infielders Cesar Izturis and Ty Wigginton and closer Koji Uehara. Then, they'll turn their attention to trying to find much-needed upgrades on the free-agent and trade markets, a process Showalter will be heavily involved with.
"He'll have a lot of say," MacPhail said. "I always think it's important for a manager to be involved in the player personnel decisions. Why on earth would you want to make a move where your manager isn't supportive of it? I think Buck, by virtue of his past and by the nature of the force of his personality, will probably be more involved than our previous managers, and that's fine by us."
Showalter and MacPhail have already had extensive conversations about offseason plans, and those are expected to become more frequent when the offseason begins.
"We talked about it the first day I interviewed," Showalter said. "He laid it out: 'Here's where we are, here's the decisions that have to be made, here's what's going on.' We had periods where, obviously, the focus has been on the team and the game and presently, how to make things better in the now. But we've talked about it some."
MacPhail said he has been given no indication that spending money will be an issue this offseason, assuming the right player is available. He also said the Orioles would not hesitate to package prospects, including their young pitchers, if they felt "what was coming back would be a meaningful, important part of the franchise."
"There's no way that we would say that we categorically, unequivocally wouldn't consider trading A, B or C," MacPhail said. "The fact is we would. You have to in our situation. We're not ruling anything out. If, at the end of the day, we thought a trade made us better, it made sense for us and it was dealing with an area that we had a surplus where we can absorb that, we would do it, sure."
The Orioles need to add an impact middle-of-the-order bat; Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters struggled under the weight of trying to carry an offense that lacked leadoff man Brian Roberts for much of the season. They need to address both corner infield positions and identify their 2011 shortstop. They need a veteran pitcher to pair with Jeremy Guthrie at the top of the rotation, and they need to settle on their closer.
They also badly need to upgrade the organization's depth so that injuries, such as the ones this year to Roberts, Uehara, Jim Johnson, Michael Gonzalez and Felix Pie, and the inevitable down years, such as the one young outfielder Nolan Reimold had, don't continue to cripple the club.
"When you throw a whole group of young guys in the fire at once, it's hard to put out," Markakis said, adding that the Orioles could use a couple of productive veterans.
Essentially, the team's holes are the same as they were last year and the season before that, which speaks poorly to the job MacPhail and the rest of the front office have done in finding and addressing long-term weaknesses.
"Obviously, you would like to have an addressed roster, but at the same time, just by nature of the length of commitment that we made to those players, we weren't necessarily thinking that they would be long-term solutions," MacPhail said. "We were essentially trying to give our players in the system another year to develop and for us to be able to make better decisions on who is going to be able to contribute and when and who isn't. It was really a function of trying to utilize time to our advantage."
Of the players acquired during or before the 2010 season, the two who probably made the most positive impact were left-handed reliever Will Ohman and outfielder Corey Patterson. Both signed minor league deals.
The experiment with first baseman Garrett Atkins lasted less than three months before he was released with one homer and nine RBIs. The return of third baseman Miguel Tejada produced mixed results before he was traded, while Kevin Millwood, acquired from the Texas Rangers to add a veteran presence in the rotation, pitched well at times but will likely lead the American League in losses.
While the rest of the acquisitions were one-year commitments, Gonzalez signed a two-year, $12 million deal to serve as the team's closer. He blew two of his first three save opportunities and then missed 31/2 months with a shoulder injury, though he has been effective as a setup man since he returned.
"I think I've just been around too long to read more into it than we should have had a better year," MacPhail said. "This year was a mixed bag at best, and we're going to try to do better. We know what we're looking for. We've had [our scouts] see what we need to see. The only thing that [keeps] you from making any broad declarations is you really don't control everything. You can't really say that we are going to do this or do that because there's a possibility that you might not be able to do those things or you might have had another opportunity come available to you that you never could have anticipated."
Long-suffering Oriole fans want MacPhail to act boldly this offseason to build off the momentum from the team's strong finish, which included their first winning August since 1997. But that hasn't been MacPhail's style since taking the helm of the front office in June 2007.
"Bold can't be a code word for stupid, and bold can't be a code word for giving up the future to get through next year," he said. "We certainly will do our homework, and we'll be as aggressive as we can. You definitely want to sustain the positive momentum, and that will be a consideration. But I don't think you can dupe the people or fool the people. If there is progress, they are going to see it. If there is regression, they are going to see that, too."
They saw a little of both this offseason, but too much of the latter.