A couple of days ago, Stacey wrote a very thoughtful piece about the Orioles' winter moves and how there is a quality to playing the best possible baseball even without competing for a playoff berth. Stacey is one of the people I respect the most, and I understood her entirely when she expressed the desire to make Baltimore a better place to watch a baseball game. There comes a point every summer in this endless losing cycle that I lose interest and hope in even the ability to win a single game. I hate that. I hate that I care more than I should, and I, too, want very badly to leave that feeling behind forever.
But...yeah. I disagree with the premise of Stacey's post, and I think it fails to even acknowledge the real issue with the Orioles' offseason.
But don't misunderstand me: I genuinely like the new positional players the Orioles have brought in. The O's had three holes in their infield, and they filled all three with short-term contracts at relatively low cost without blocking any major prospects. They still have all of their draft picks, plenty of roster flexibility for 2012 and beyond, and the guys they've brought in are respectable baseball players. No, Derrek Lee isn't a player you can build around like Adrian Gonzalez, but he's a pretty far cry from Garret Atkins, too. And, hey, this time next year the Orioles might be playing with some extra draft picks.
That's a pleasant thought, but I don't think it means the Orioles will be any more respectable in the standings, in the fans' eyes, or in the eyes of prospective free agents. Which is to say, I don't think this team has what it takes to contend or even to get over .500. Not in the AL East. And I don't buy that there can be even the most modest kind of success when you lose more than you win.
That's just my opinion, of course, based on what the players on the roster have managed to do so far in their careers. I won't put an exact number on it (that's a fool's game), but I really don't think it's crawling out on a ledge to suggest that a team which had an expected record of 63-99 in 2010 is going to need more than three solid but unspectacular players to jump up to 80+ wins in 2011.
Indeed, even with these decent stopgap players (again: none of these guys have proven themselves to be the kind of guys you build a championship caliber roster around, but that doesn't mean they aren't good players) this is still the team of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and the rest of the kids. Lee, Reynolds, and Hardy make the Orioles better, but if we want to talk about getting to "fun to watch" territory, that means we need to see three or four of the "core players" break out.
That gets at what is really bothering me about this (and last) offseason. You might recall a couple of weeks ago that I looked back on the miserable last winter and concluded that I was still behind MacPhail because I like the core players he has assembled and he has done nothing to undermine the "Brian Matusz-era" Orioles. But it raises (not begs) the question: what happens if these guys fail?
That's an unpleasant thought, but it's a question that needs to be asked...because I don't think it's been properly answered in the Warehouse. And unfortunately, to some extent every single player in "the core" (particularly on the positional side) has underwhelmed so far. And over the course of this winter and last, it's become clear that Andy MacPhail's focus is on augmenting the short-term club while we wait around for Adam Jones and Matt Wieters to turn into superstars.
It reminds me of a certain joke on a certain television show:
Step 1: Bring up Wieters, Matusz, Bell, and Arrieta. Trade for Jones and Pie.
Step 3: Championship
So what happens if that core group doesn't reach their potential? The juggernauts of the AL East all have answers for that question on their own rosters. The Yankees will turn to the elite tier of the free agent market. The Rays will utilize as many top 100 draft picks as possible to continuously build an elite farm system. The Red Sox will take a little from column A, a little from column B. Even the Blue Jays are starting to stock up on top draft picks.
The Orioles...? I really have no idea if they even have a backup plan. The Orioles haven't built an organization to run with the Rays, Yankees, or Red Sox. Instead, they've tried to build a winner out of the group of players that have already hit the big leagues, which is a perilously risky gambit.
One of the repeated defenses of these winter acquisitions I've heard (and used myself) is that they do not harm the long-term outlook of the team. But the simple stall-out of building long-term value is itself a harm to the aspirations of the Baltimore Orioles. J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds are fine players and I'm glad to have them. But they aren't the type of asset the Orioles should be acquiring with an eye on the outside hope at reaching mediocrity.