O's need direction, but where to turn?

Orioles

August 30, 2005|By Rick Maese

THE NEW GAME left town last night, wearing green and yellow and a smile. It was last seen riding a six-game winning streak to California and maybe later to the postseason.

The Orioles' embarrassing four-game series against the Oakland Athletics illustrates once again what the Orioles aren't. But it also tells us exactly where this team is.

Your hired gun is on the disabled list with a hurt toe. One of your perennial stars is mired in a slump and a controversy. Your high-priced pitcher is who-knows-where, and, frankly, you prefer he stays there.

This is life at the crossroads. This is the time for the Orioles to decide what kind of team they want to become. The four-game set against Oakland - which was punctuated by yesterday's 10-5 loss - reminds us what separates the Orioles from many other teams, not just on the field, but also as an organization.

It's a debate across all of baseball: the statistics and formulas of Moneyball vs. the seasoned instincts of a baseball mind. The New York Times likened the squabble to a theological dispute.

At Camden Yards, it's hardly a dispute at all. Team officials say they prefer the middle, a balancing act between a roto-geek's numbers and grizzled scout's gut. This is a team with an undefined philosophy, and it's finally time to make decisions.

Can you even formulate a philosophy with two general managers?

Can you look ahead to the future with an interim field manager?

Can you plan the next step when you're spending your time cradling veterans who won't be around in a couple of months?

Jim Beattie, half of the Orioles' general managing conglomerate, concedes that teams finishing the regular season with a losing record are generally at a crossroads come October.

But the Orioles have reached that point more than a month earlier than most, which should be viewed as a chance to get ahead of the game.

What did putting Sammy Sosa on the disabled list really mean? The Orioles lost an unproductive hitter who had no place in the lineup anyway. It's an opportunity to let someone else play, a move that will pay dividends next spring.

Between now and then - preferably now - the front office needs to pick a direction, finally choose a strategy for growth.

I'm not saying that you've got to follow the path of Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the Moneyball architect who needs a calculator and a spreadsheet program before he makes a signing. And I'm not saying you stop sending your scouts out to look at a first baseman's upper body and swing mechanics.

But you have to do something. Solidify the farm system. Create a culture that focuses on the pliable draft picks, not the pricey free agents.

Today's game doesn't allow you to sign Sosa because you have an itch. And you have to think twice before throwing dollar signs at a superstar free agent such as Albert Belle. (Think he's worrying about these gas prices?)

The Orioles' starting lineup yesterday featured just two homegrown prospects - Brian Roberts and Erik Bedard.

In the other dugout, the Athletics' lineup featured a long list of forgettable - but productive - names. Some of them were Oakland draft picks, such as Eric Chavez and Dan Johnson. Others, such as Mark Ellis and Bobby Kielty, were acquired from other organizations simply because they posted on-base percentages above .400 in the minors.

Beattie doesn't completely subscribe to the idea of building your team based on numbers. "Even if you have the numbers, you've got to know what to do with them," he said. "That's part of scouting. It's not only the statistics."

Beattie certainly knows the stats, though. He's an Ivy League graduate with a master's degree in business administration. And he knows talent. A lot of the Washington Nationals' current success is because of Beattie's work in Montreal. This is a guy who has drafted Alex Rodriguez, Derek Lowe and Vladimir Guerrero. (We'll forget for a second that Wade Townsend, the Orioles' 2004 first-rounder, never signed here and was redrafted in the spring by Tampa Bay.)

But, for some reason, the Orioles aren't generating stars from within the farm system, which goes against everything the team was founded upon.

Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken - these were all Orioles draft picks. Even Earl Weaver. He won more than 2,200 games within the Orioles organization. He only won 10 outside it.

"You win pennants in the offseason when you build your teams with trades and free agents," Weaver once said.

Today, those words still have some merit. But it's not easy to buy a pennant. Didn't the Orioles have the majors' highest payroll in 1998? The result: four games under .500.

A checkbook is nice to have, but right now it's more important to have a plan. While owners, executives, managers and journalists debate the merits of Moneyball vs. the hunch, it's no longer enough for the Orioles to do a little of this, a little of that.

A midseason skydive, an injury, a slump and a DUI arrest have combined to create this situation, and team officials should approach it as an opportunity for fundamental change.

Contact Rick Maese at rick.maese@baltsun.com.

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