Orioles youth-infusion strategy taking shape
Veterans agree with philosophy of management
DETROIT -- The plan appears to be working, although not necessarily as quickly as they'd like. The Orioles are getting younger by the day, taking advantage of the bounty acquired via the First-Year Player Draft and through various trades. And with each promotion from the farm system, the rebuilding process marches closer to completion.
That point became increasingly clear last week, when Baltimore traded George Sherrill to the Dodgers for a package headed by premium infield prospect Josh Bell. That deal addressed one of the few remaining weak spots in the organization, and surprisingly, it was fully endorsed by the established players in the clubhouse.
Nobody would blame a veteran like Aubrey Huff or Brian Roberts if they were impatient with the rebuilding or if they wanted to see the team concentrate on adding more established talent. The opposite is true, though, and players like Huff and Roberts can clearly see the Orioles getting better prospect by prospect and week by week.
"I think that's the only way you're going to win here," said Huff. "I don't think you're going to go out and outspend Boston and New York, because the top free agents are always going to go there. That's the way it's been for my nine years in this division. If you're going to win, you've got to build from within just like they did in Tampa. I've seen it done that way and it's worked that way, and I think that's the only chance you have to compete."
"Trading for a Major League player right now isn't going to help us win the division," added Roberts. "Do we want to be to the point where we're trading for Major League players to help us? Yeah, but I don't think we're there yet. When you look at it that way, you have to realize that you have to be realistic about the situation. You have to make decisions on what will realistically help you in the future and not necessarily today. I think we all know that."
Baltimore has reason for optimism and clarity, especially after adding Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold to the positional core and watching pitching prospects Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz graduate to the Majors. The system, bare as recently as four years ago, is now rated among the best in the game.
The Orioles have more pitchers coming, and they have a youth-filled big league roster that should be set for years to come. Baltimore still has holes in the farm system in the middle infield and at the corner slots, but Andy MacPhail, the team's president of baseball operations, knows he needs to build depth on top of talent.
"We're working towards that end. We're not there yet," said MacPhail. "We've got a lot of work to do. We're doing those things that we said we were going to try to do and we've been fortunate thus far that a lot of our young guys have come through for us -- and in an even quicker timetable than we could probably reasonably expect."
That progress may not be evident in the standings, but it certainly is in the attitudes of Baltimore's older players. Jeremy Guthrie, the Orioles' Opening Day starter in each of the past two seasons, said it's clear that things are moving in the right direction and that the players are patient enough to want to see it through.
"We see the direction that we're going and we see that it's going to work with the caliber of pitching that we've brought in and with the way that they're learning and growing during this transition year," he said. "I think everybody here -- veterans included -- is able to see a good, clear direction set by Mr. MacPhail. And anytime you're working towards a goal together, that fosters a lot of hard work and a lot of confidence that things are going in a positive direction. With some clubs, they don't necessarily have a plan. They're just kind of spinning their wheels and making trades when they have an opportunity to with no end purpose in mind. I don't think that's the case here."
That benefit of the doubt, as pervasive as it is, can be traced to Baltimore's success on the trade front. The Orioles restocked their farm system by trading Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada at the peak of their respective values, a fact that allows the individual players to understand the Sherrill deal at its most basic level.
"In that situation, we've already got a guy that we feel can close in Jim Johnson," said Huff of the Sherrill trade. "And on a team that's in last place in the American League East, do you really need a closer? It's nice to have one, but you can win games with the guys you've got in your bullpen. Right now, you can go out and get something for him because he's proven. If you can get some good prospects to help build the organization, then that's great. It would be different if we were in the Wild Card chase and we lost our closer -- but that's not the case."
"I'm not in the position to evaluate talent," said Roberts. "And that's why I say that we assume the people in charge are making the wise decisions. I think the only thing you can do is look at the two trades we made before for quality Major League players such as Bedard and Miggy. Our return on both has been pretty good, and those are the kind of things that build your faith in an organization. That's the only way we can evaluate it at this point."
The Orioles elected not to trade Mark Hendrickson at the deadline and didn't find much interest in moving potential free agents like Huff, Danys Baez and Melvin Mora. Now, with several contracts set to expire this winter, Baltimore can clearly see the focus of the team moving away from expensive free agents and towards homegrown talent.
Still, the Orioles know they have a lot of work to do to compete in their division. They're cognizant of the talent gap closing but equally aware that they need to prove themselves on the field to take the next step.
"Feeling closer is going to be a product of consistent play over a period of time," said Guthrie. "Right now, in my opinion, it would be tough to say that we're closer -- but I can definitely say that for sure we're going in the right direction. When will get to that destination? You'd assume it's gotta be sooner rather than later, but there's still plenty of work to be done and growth to be had by each individual player and collectively as a team."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.