It has been discussed to death on this site and others this off-season: if the Orioles cannot compete with Mark Reynolds (or J.J. Hardy or Derrek Lee), what is the point of obtaining him in the first place? If player X provides the Orioles with two more wins on paper than they had in 2010 but they need twenty more wins simply to achieve fourth place, why get him? Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, was quoted once as saying, "You're either rebuilding for something special, or you're on the verge of something special. To be in between is foolish." That quote is often used by fans of rebuilding teams to provide a basis for the argument against signing or trading for players that may provide a short term boost to the team if those players won’t help contribute to the team’s ultimate return to contention. The goal of a sports team, after all, is to compete at the highest level, and there is ultimately no difference between a 66-win baseball team and an 82-win baseball team because neither is going to the playoffs and therefore both are failures, right?
I don’t think so. I believe that it is important to make short term improvements to the team as long as the those improvements don’t come at the expense of long term success. Sounds reasonable, right? The argument against this is of course that the money used to pay these so-called stop gaps could be poured into the draft or international scouting, and that a marginal increase in wins does nothing but hurt draft position. Nobody argues that Derrek Lee isn’t an improvement over Garrett Atkins at first base, just that it’s pointless to make that upgrade now (and spend millions of dollars in the process) when the proverbial replacement level player is out there and ready to suck for the league minimum.
But it’s not pointless. Yes, the ultimate goal of a sports team is to get to the playoffs, and ideally to be built in a way that provides them with that chance year in and year out. But there is also the responsibility to the fans, the community, and the other players on the team to field the best team that they can in the meantime.
There is more to baseball than the playoffs. It is about family and community. It's about old men drinking coffee in the diner with the Baltimore Sun in front of them, talking about the O's chances this year. It's about fathers taking their daughters to a baseball game and teaching them how to keep score and telling them about the players they watched as a kid (and what fun is it reminiscing about Eddie Murray while being forced to watch Cesar Izturis?). It's about a community that is so different in other ways coming together over love for the same team. Those things are possible even in losing years, but the embarrassment that has been the Baltimore Orioles doesn't foster that kind of environment and as a result, Marylanders (and all non-Marylanders who follow the Orioles) are missing out on a valuable part of life.
You guys know the difference. There is your run-of-the-mill losing done by teams that have up-and-down years, then there is the kind of losing done by the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals. There is fielding a respectable team that doesn’t quite match up with the other teams in the division, and then there is the team that fields an infield of Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton, Cesar Izturis, and Miguel Tejada. Or that rotates Luis Hernandez, Alex Cintron, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, and Juan Castro at shortstop. It’s shameful. It’s brutal. And it’s not fair to anyone.
The Orioles fan base is dying, and yes, it’s because the Orioles are losers. But it's not just the fact that they are losers, it is kind of losers they have become. They have, in recent years, made the Baltimore baseball experience miserable and painful. Even for those of us who pay attention on a daily basis, whose summers revolve around MASN and Camden Yards and who spend our days talking and writing about this team, it sometimes becomes more than a person can take to watch not only the losing, but to feel like you’re stupid to even care about the humiliating product on the field.
Will the improved 2011 Baltimore Orioles be able to keep up with the rest of their division? Let’s be honest, they probably will not. And the question of how Andy MacPhail intends to prepare this team for the future is one that still needs to be asked. But in the meantime, I am looking forward to some nice, regular baseball this season by a team that may not be good enough to win the division, but which doesn't make me want to jump out of a window (or quit paying attention altogether), either.