When Hall of Famer Frank Robinson passed away last week, dozens of articles were written about his legendary career and life. This presented an opportunity for Orioles fans, especially younger ones, to absorb stories and tales about Robinson’s Baltimore teams that they may not have heard.
A common theme among those writing Robinson tributes and former Orioles teammates that were interviewed for them was leadership. When Baltimore acquired the outfielder, they were coming off a 1965 season in which they went 94-68, good for third place in the American League; they were a very good club. But in reading the quotes of Orioles from that era, there was one thing that pushed them over the top during their 1966 World Championship season: Frank Robinson’s leadership. Boog Powell said “Frank came over and taught us how to play the game.” Jim Palmer said “He came over and made us all better. Made us all believe.” Others expressed similar sentiments.
Reading these stories made me think about the 2019 version of the Orioles. Who will their leader be? This is of course not to compare the 1965 and 2018 O’s. A triple-crown award winning Frank Robinson could be slotted into the outfield this season and they still wouldn’t sniff a playoff spot. But this is a club with lots of young players who are still growing and finding their way at the major league level. Frank Robinson’s talent wouldn’t push this team over the top, but his leadership would go a long way.
The reality is that after years of having a strong veteran presence in the clubhouse, the Orioles are a team without a leader. We knew this was going to happen after Darren O’Day and Zach Britton were traded in July and when it became clear that Adam Jones was likely not going to return. But it has sunken in now that spring training has started and the only major league free agent signed was Nate Karns.
A lot has been made this week about Trey Mancini inheriting the Sarasota locker in the corner of the clubhouse that once belonged to Jones. “Sacred baseball ground,” as Roch Kubatko calls it. Mancini, in his typical understated way, downplayed this change, saying that “they had to put somebody at the locker.” We know that the club isn’t asking Mancini to be Jones; those are impossible shoes to fill. But this surely wasn’t a random assignment. Turning 27 before Opening Day and possessing two seasons of MLB experience, Mancini has become the de facto elder statesman among the club’s “younger” players. He’s said all the right things about helping the young guys in the same way that Jones helped him, but the leadership role is one that can’t be bestowed upon a player, but rather earned organically.
In a sense, it is almost not fair to Mancini. A life-long first baseman, he still learning how to play left field. It goes without saying that learning a position at the highest level is not easy and takes a lot of work. He will also need to focus on getting his offensive game back to where it was in 2017. His 2018 numbers fell across the board and he registered 1.6 fewer oWAR. On top of all that, he will now be expected to be a mentor and leader, which may not even be something that comes naturally to his personality.
It isn’t as if the O’s don’t have veteran players that could step into a leadership role. Chris Davis, an Orioles since 2011 and owner of the largest contract in franchise history, comes to mind. But the problems with this are obvious. Great on-field success and statistics aren’t a requirement for a player to be a club leader but said leader shouldn’t be coming off one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history. Mark Trumbo is another veteran on the roster and he has said the right things about being a mentor to young players. He came to Baltimore with the reputation of being a great clubhouse guy and that hasn’t exactly changed during his three seasons here. But him being responsible for celebratory pies being abolished definitely rubbed fans the wrong way, who knows if it also bothered teammates. Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner are veteran pitchers who have put together solid careers but are both coming off very disappointing seasons. Any of those players could have assumed Jones’ corner locker in Sarasota, but the O’s chose Mancini.
With all this said, does it matter if the Orioles don’t have a “leader”? Having never spent time in a major league clubhouse, it is impossible for me (or any Camden Chat reader) to know for sure. On one hand, all the testimonials about Frank Robinson show it is important. A respected veteran can impart valuable wisdom on topics such as work ethic, training, picking up on the opponents’ tendencies, handling the grueling major league schedule and travel, and more. The cycle of young players learning from their elders, accumulating service time, and passing on that wisdom has been frequently discussed by players.
On the other hand, the Orioles are in a complete rebuilding situation right now. There are no expectations to win, the players who will comprise the next Baltimore playoff team are young (or not even in the majors yet), and veterans will be traded as soon as the opportunity presents itself to Mike Elias. This young nucleus of players can develop their own identity organically, a process that will certainly include the unofficial appointment of team leaders. The prospect of seeing that happen over the next couple of seasons is something that fans of a rebuilding team can look forward to.
In the present, it will be interesting to see how Trey Mancini handles the leadership role that has been thrust upon him. Him running with it would be great, but not essential. Perhaps the next Adam Jones, if you will, is still in the minors. At the least, this gives us a reason to watch the Orioles in what will be difficult 2019 and 2020 seasons.