I have been reading Jonah Keri's new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, which details the creation, immediate fall, re-branding, and rise of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. It's a strong work (though the default comparisons to the legendary Moneyball don't feel right), and would be a good choice for the sometimes discussed Camden Chat Book Club.
I picked up the book because I was genuinely interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of Andrew Friedman and company, but I was also interested in something Keri had said in an ESPN chat. He said that he thought of the book as a "blueprint for the Blue Jays and the Orioles". And indeed I have found a few anecdotes that I think have meaning for the rebuilding Orioles. One in particular has stuck in my craw for the past few days:
In 2001, the Devil Rays had the third overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft, behind Minnesota (who took Joe Mauer) and the Cubs (who took Mark Prior). The D-Rays scouts wanted to take Mark Teixeira third overall, but Tex was of course advised by Scott Boras in the draft and was going to require all kinds of money to sign a contract. Teixeira later did sign for $9.5 million dollars - a positional player record he still holds today.
The Devil Rays' owner, Vince Naimoli, objected to the price tag and Tampa instead took Dewon Brazelton (whoever that is). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was blowing $9 million a year on pitcher Wilson Alvarez, who was hurt and not playing. The D-Rays blew $8 million a year on Greg Vaughn and $7 million on Vinny Castilla. They had just gotten out from a $6 million commitment to Roberto Hernandez. But the price tag for Mark Teixeira was too high for the Devil Rays.
Is there anything worse, more frustrating for a fan to hear? Is there anything more damning of a front office?
One of the criticisms of the Orioles off season this year has been that their increased spending efforts on the major league roster prohibits them from spending more money on amateur players. A lot of the regulars on this very website have scoffed at that notion, and with good cause. The $8 million that Peter Angelos is paying to Vlad Guerrero was obviously not being taken out of what he plans on paying for the newly drafted Orioles this summer. There is no reason to believe that the budget for the roster and the budget for the draft are directly related in the Orioles set-up.
Still, even if a lower major league payroll would not have opened Vince Naimoli's wallet for Mark Teixeira, the fact remains in stone that Tampa's priorities were on major league spending and specifically not on amateur spending. The difference between saying "We aren't breaking the bank for any draftees" and saying "This is your total budget for all baseball operations, but we're not using it on the draft" is semantics. Either way you still aren't allocating resources towards bringing in amateur talent.
Of course, Andy MacPhail will be the first person to tell you how important spending on the draft is and that the Baltimore Orioles, over the past three years, have spent more on draftees than all but three teams (which unfortunately includes the Boston Red Sox). It would be a huge surprise to see the Orioles spend even a penny less on the 2011 draft than they did in 2010.
Fortunately, the check-the-price-tag thinking of the 2001 D-Rays is not only an antique of the business, but one which the casual fan is becoming aggressively sensitive to as well. Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan is still answering questions about why he took the cheaper Matt Hobgood over the better Tyler Matzek (or several other options) - and that was two years ago.
There is, however, another story to tell about amateur spending that isn't nearly as kind to Andy MacPhail and the Baltimore Orioles. In the summer of 2009, the Orioles were working out a Dominican free agent named Miguel Sano extensively. Sano was considered amongst the international talent evaluation journalists to be one of the strongest Dominican prospects ever, though of course he was only 16 years old and, as John Sickels put it, Sano "might turn into Miguel Cabrera, could fizzle in A-ball, no way to know yet".
Sano, you might already know, signed with the Minnesota Twins that September for 3.15 million dollars. Reportedly, only two other teams even made an offer to the kid, with the Pirates offering $2.6 million and the Orioles bringing up the rear at $2.5 million. The Pirates were frustrated, having not had an opportunity to up their offer, but Jorge Arangure reported that Baltimore was given the chance to match the offer and sign Sano. Andy MacPhail declined.
Sano is now one of the top prospects in all of baseball, akin perhaps to Manny Machado on top 100 lists. Three months after he signed with Minnesota, the Orioles gave Garret Atkins $4.5 million. Like I said, the two things aren't directly related, but the difference between the Orioles saying "We want to spend this money on Atkins, not Sano" and the Orioles saying "We don't want to spend this money on Sano" and then later "We want to sign Atkins" is semantics. They don't have Sano in either case, and they don't show the proper interest in the international market in either case.
More damningly, the Orioles haven't shown any outward signs of having felt burned by their penny-pinching international spending. When pressed on the subject this winter, Andy MacPhail offered excuses about buscóns and the difficulty in scouting Dominican teenagers nowadays. Meanwhile, there is also minimal effort shown in major talent producing countries like Venezuela or in new frontiers like Europe or Brazil. Frankly, it's all just unacceptable.
The thesis to Jonah Keri's book is that in the AL East the Rays need to take every single advantage they can possibly find, no matter how small, because the challenge in front of them is as large as any in all of professional sports. The Orioles are in the same boat, but they have so far insisted on trying to tackle the Yankees and the Red Sox with one hand tied behind their back. And I'm worried that in a few years, we're going to see a lot of stories just like the one about the Devil Rays passing on Mark Teixeira, but with the Orioles passing on the next foreign-born superstar. And there's little more frustrating than just powerlessly waiting for those stories.