Hold your applause

On the Orioles' future

June 30, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

It's fun to be an Orioles fan right now.

I heard so over and over the past week as I talked to Baltimoreans about this year's team. They love the comebacks, the daily effort and George Sherrill's straight-brimmed cap. They believe in Andy MacPhail and applaud his bold moves this past offseason. They might even trust Peter Angelos not to meddle with MacPhail, though they're not completely sold on that one.

The hints of passion sounded lovely in a town that had been forced to shut its heart to baseball during 10 long years of losing. But the dispassionate side of my brain couldn't quite accept everything I heard from newly charmed Orioles fans. They talked about "kids" and the joys of seeing a reborn team on the field.

That's not what I see when I watch the Orioles.

Do they give a good effort every night? Yes. Is the roster, especially on the pitching side, littered with pleasant surprises? Yes. But is this a nascent version of the next contending Orioles? Well, I doubt it.

On most nights, the Orioles start 32-year-old Ramon Hernandez, 31-year-old Aubrey Huff, 36-year-old Melvin Mora and 36-year-old Kevin Millar. If those guys follow normal aging paths, all have played their best baseball.

Luke Scott and Brian Roberts are also lineup stalwarts. They're 30. That's still a prime age, but don't think of Scott as an up-and-comer. He's probably as good as he's going to be right now. Roberts plays a position that's murder on the body.

Of the regular position players, only outfielders Nick Markakis, 24, and Adam Jones, 22, project to be at or near their peaks in three years.

Despite solid drafting in recent seasons, the Orioles don't have position prospects rushing up to replace the thirtysomethings.

Most expect Hernandez to be gone after this season, and with Matt Wieters tearing up the minors, the Orioles seem to have a bright future at catcher. Nolan Reimold, currently stashed at Double-A Bowie, could provide another solid bat in the outfield.

But the Orioles don't have any top-shelf infield prospects. They hoped 2006 top pick Billy Rowell would be a power bat at third or first, but he has battled injuries and has struggled to make contact when healthy.

So if the Orioles are to have a potent offense in three or four years, they will probably have to add several pieces through trade or free agency.

On the pitching side, they have more strong prospects, from power left-hander Chris Tillman at Bowie to Jake Arrieta at Single-A Frederick to this year's No. 1 pick, Brian Matusz. On the major league level, Jeremy Guthrie has established himself as a solid starter and youngsters Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz have shown flashes of excellence. If Adam Loewen can stay healthy, he is also a candidate for the rotation of the future.

There aren't many sure things among the pitchers, but there are enough strong maybes that a fan could imagine the club having a solid, homegrown rotation in the near future.

The bullpen has been superb this year, but relievers tend to help for a few seasons and then move on. Though Jim Johnson or Chris Ray might be major contributors in 2011, it's hard to list the current collection of relievers as a long-term asset.

As I sorted through the roster last week, I sought an outside take from Joe Sheehan, who writes for BaseballProspectus.com, one of my favorite analytical Web sites.

"I think the optimism should be for the long term rather than the short term," he said.

He listed Jones and Markakis as the only sure-thing members of the next contending Orioles, adding that some of the current pitchers will stick around as assets.

"Most of the roster, though, is trade bait," he said. "Nothing more."

That might seem like a harsh assessment of a team that is shocking everyone with its winning ways. But when you're trying to build a club that could challenge the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays (I know it's hard to believe, but they're loaded) year after year, you have to set high standards.

This is not to say fans should look past the pleasures of this year's team. Far from it. Every improbable win is worth enjoying.

Huff's first-half slugging and Millar's ebullient presence are no less fun because those guys are unlikely to be Orioles in three years. The "Why Not" Orioles of 1989 rode superb performances by Bob Milacki, Jeff Ballard, Gregg Olson and Mickey Tettleton. None of those guys contributed a lick to the playoff runs of 1996 or 1997. That doesn't keep 1989 from holding a cherished place in our hearts.

This team is fun to watch and has more intriguing components than it did last year or the year before. We don't need to ask any more of it than that. MacPhail's plan remains in its early stages, and entertaining distractions are welcome.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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