MacPhail carefully plotting road back
Orioles front man making tough choices as club reshapes
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Rebuilding. It may not be a dirty word, but it took a long time to be admitted into the acceptable usage portion of the Orioles' vernacular. Baltimore has gone 10 straight seasons without a winning record and has only begun to rationalize a complete restructuring as opposed to a perpetual tweaking of the roster's rough edges.The Orioles have played 153 games under .500 for the last decade, but nearly every winter has brought a new collection of free agents designed to push Baltimore over the edge. That strategy finally changed under the stewardship of Andy MacPhail, a lifelong Orioles fan who was named the team's president of baseball operations last summer. MacPhail didn't just rush in with a wrecking ball, though. He spent time analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the organization before he came to a hard-and-fast conclusion of what he should do next. "I tried to stay fairly objective until the season was over, and right after the season we tried to get an overview of everything," he said recently. "Player development, amateur scouting and pro scouting, our Major League club, our Major League financial commitments going forward. I tried to make a realistic assessment of our division and what it was going to take to win. Then I made a presentation to ownership that didn't necessarily have recommendations at that time. "I just tried to be as accurate, analytical and objective as to where we were, and it wasn't until after we made that presentation that we decided to embark on a plan where we gave up known commodities that could help teams in 2008 in exchange for players we hope and believe will make us better into our long-range future." That plan went into effect quite easily, and the Orioles turned two of their most talented players -- veteran stars Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard -- into 10 players that could potentially help their team for years to come. Second baseman Brian Roberts may also be dealt eventually, and MacPhail made it clear that he never really saw another alternative. "I'm certainly not aware of any other way that we could've done it and realistically thought that we were going to contend. Sometimes you've got to get worse before you can get better," he said. "Everybody knows about the Yankees and Red Sox. But after watching the competition and seeing some of the pitching the Blue Jays have and some of the young position players the Rays have, the conclusion I think you can reach is you're not going to have everything work out just right, win 88 games and get to the postseason in this division. It's going to take more than that." Baltimore has rarely come to that conclusion before, choosing instead to add veterans in an effort to get better. Much of the team's current core -- Aubrey Huff, Jay Payton, Ramon Hernandez and Kevin Millar, among others -- was acquired as free agents and only two of the starting position players (Roberts and Nick Markakis) are products of the farm system. Baltimore has had more recent success with developing pitchers, but there hasn't been enough to sustain a winning team. Frankly, the Orioles knew they had to focus more on their farm system, even if they had to punt on 2008 to do it.
"What's gone on here had to happen, and Andy MacPhail made the totally accurate statement that we were stuck in neutral," said Millar. "With or without Erik Bedard and with or without Miguel Tejada, we were in fourth place. I think the bottom line when you look at this organization is there was no foundation. When we lost a few guys at the big league level, who could we call up? It wasn't a matter of buying into it. You just knew that this was the only way to get better."Not everyone agrees with that philosophy. Melvin Mora, one of the longest-serving members of the team, said that he's seen quite a bit of turnover and nothing to show for it. Mora, who's under contract through the 2009 season and holds a no-trade clause, listed a few names of prominent teammates who have been traded for little or no gain. "You're talking about two guys and calling it rebuilding," he said of the current movement. "Of course it's a big deal when you get rid of a guy like Miguel Tejada or Erik Bedard, but it's also a big deal when you get 10 players for those guys. That could happen to me or to anybody, but it's not like they're rebuilding the whole club and getting rid of everybody. "You know when I called it rebuilding? When Will Clark was here, B.J. Surhoff was here, Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields were here. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were here. Charles Johnson and Harold Baines were here. Then they left and we rebuilt. The only thing is if the team gets good offers. If they do, then it can happen to anybody." MacPhail has said that he doesn't like to put a timeframe on the rebuilding project, but his players are clearly hoping it will happen quickly. The Orioles will get an immediate impact from offseason acquisitions like Luke Scott, George Sherrill and Adam Jones, but there's even more hope for prospects like Troy Patton and Chris Tillman down the road. "When you bring in young guys, you bring in a lot of energy. The veteran guys have to try to help them, but it's a good mix," said Hernandez. "Maybe it will take two or three years. And we're going to lose some games, but we're going to come out and try to beat everybody. Whoever's going to beat us is going to have to come out and play the game right." "It's all about pitching -- young arms and power arms -- and this organization may have been caught short, but what they've done since is phenomenal," added Millar. "When you use a word like rebuilding, you have to be careful because that's almost an excuse to lose. But if you create a winning attitude right now, that's different. We can beat anybody on any night. "Are we going to go through our lumps? Of course we are. But you can create the attitude with the young players and teach them how to go out there, and then you look down the road to when you're right back in the hunt." MacPhail, who has presided over renovation jobs with the Twins and Cubs, terms his tenure with the Orioles as a "labor of love." But make no mistake about it: He's serious about turning around his favorite team from childhood. "I think our chief goal is to try to really make a significant investment in the infrastructure," he said. "Judge us by our actions, not our words. We have a brand new complex opening up in the Dominican Republic. We've created an international scouting department. We're going to roll out a new video system for our players and their instruction. We've invested over $7 million in our amateur draft for the first two picks last year. We haven't made any secrets of our course."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.