It seems to me that the O's went into the 2008 season to "rebuild" and started that process with the trades of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard. Then the team had some early success and it seems that Andy MacPhail [the Orioles' president of baseball operations] didn't want to throw away the season and was either hesitant to trade other veterans or was asking too much. Either you bite the bullet and rebuild or you try to compete for the playoffs. What are your thoughts?
-- Rob S., Guilford, Conn.

My first thought is that your introductory analysis is correct. The Orioles did in fact call it a rebuilding season, a label they consciously avoided using in several seasons prior to 2008. But I'm not sure I'd go with the rest of your thoughts. MacPhail wasn't really seduced by the team's quick start.

He knew he had to follow through on his rebuilding program, most of which is centered on being patient while the team's best prospects progress through the Minor Leagues. MacPhail may not have wanted to pull the rug out from under his veterans in 2008, but he certainly would've pulled the trigger if he thought he could improve his situation via a trade.

And really, who could he have traded to improve his long-term situation? MacPhail is relentlessly patient and never got the offer he wanted for Brian Roberts, and now there's a chance to extend the second baseman to a long-term contract. The Orioles never really had a chance to deal Jay Payton or Melvin Mora for prospects, so they kept them in the fold.

The same could be said for veterans Aubrey Huff and Ramon Hernandez, both of whom might be available on the trade market this winter. MacPhail also might elect to trade closer George Sherrill if the right situation presents itself. By waiting and avoiding any rash moves at the deadline, MacPhail preserved all of his options for an eventful winter.

And now, the Orioles find themselves at a crossroads. They'd like to sign a few veteran pitchers to help lessen the load on their pitching prospects, but they don't want to break the bank unless those free agents can help them a few years into the future. The way MacPhail shops this winter may well tell you how far away he thinks he is from contention.

Will the Orioles bring back Jay Payton or go younger for a backup outfield spot?
-- Ryan R., Ocean City, Md.

I don't know that the Orioles could bring back Payton under any circumstance. The veteran wants to go somewhere where he can play every day, and barring that, he wants to play for a team that's a little closer to contention. Payton chafed at part-time play last season, and the Orioles struggled to keep him happy and keep Luke Scott in the lineup.

Now, he's a free agent, which means Baltimore will likely lose him without compensation. The Orioles would've entertained trade offers for him last season, but there was never any team that wanted him badly enough to make a deal. That ambivalence may well be registered on the free-agent market when Payton casts about for a starting job.

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At any rate, the Orioles do have several options to fill his slot from within. Baltimore can let Lou Montanez stick as the fourth outfielder, allowing him to prove whether he can hit big league pitching or whether his Double-A Eastern League Triple Crown was a mirage. Otherwise, the Orioles could challenge prospect Nolan Reimold with a big league assignment.

Baltimore also had Minor League veterans Chris Roberson and Tike Redman under contract last season, and former fan favorite Jeff Fiorentino left the organization via a waiver claim and came back by the same process. The Orioles seem set in the outfield, and Payton may well miss the team a little bit more than it winds up missing him.

Who are the Orioles sending of their top prospects to play winter ball? And does this help getting any of them closer to the Majors next year as regular players?
-- Ron C., Baltimore

The Orioles sent a star-studded cast to the Arizona Fall League, a class best represented by Brian Matusz and Matt Wieters, their two first-round choices from the last two seasons. And those two were recently recognized by scouting directors around the league and honored by being named to play in the AFL's Rising Stars Game, which will take place Friday.

Wieters will likely make his big league debut at some point this season -- perhaps as early as Opening Day -- but Matsuz has yet to pitch professionally and may have to take things a little slower. Baltimore also sent Reimold to the AFL, an assignment that may serve as a final primer before gauging how close he is to the big leagues during Spring Training.

Brandon Snyder, another of Baltimore's top prospects, is also playing in the AFL, but he's probably still a season or two away from consideration at the big league level. Snyder has yet to play at Double-A Bowie and will likely be tested there this season, but the AFL is an early way to test his bat against some upper-level pitching prospects.

Blake Davis, perhaps the best shortstop prospect within the organization, is also out in Arizona. Shortstop is a wide open position in Baltimore, and if Davis thrives in Spring Training, he may put himself in position to play next year. Of course, that assumes that the Orioles don't sign or trade for a shortstop, which is a highly speculative position at this point.

Isn't the program Matt Albers is using to strengthen his injured shoulder the same course that didn't work for Troy Patton? Why would it work for Albers?
-- Buzzy B., Fredericksburg, Va.

Because they have different shoulders. Yes, the rehabilitation program didn't work for Patton, which is why he went on to have surgery at the end of Spring Training. But that doesn't mean it won't work for Albers. Several pitchers have elected to go the strengthening route, including former pitching prospect Adam Loewen, who had a labrum tear early in his career.

Loewen avoided the surgeon's knife and pitched with a healthy shoulder until recently, when his elbow gave out under the workload of the regular season twice in two years. It would take a surgeon to determine whether the two injuries are related, but one thing is certain: Albers has consulted multiple doctors who recommended his route before he took it.

And really, he had nothing to lose. If the strengthening program works, he will have successfully avoided an operation that could put his career in jeopardy. And if it doesn't, he can always have the surgery at a later point in time. Nobody knows whether Albers will be fully healthy in Spring Training -- perhaps not even Albers or Baltimore's training staff.

What we do know is that if he had the surgery, he'd be out at least 10-12 months trying to rehabilitate. And even then, it's uncertain whether his shoulder would ever be the same. Elbow operations may be almost routine in today's game, but as noted in last week's mailbag, medical science is still searching for a better way to fix the shoulder.