Sliding O's positioned to climb higher than Ravens

September 16, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Welcome to life in the parallel universes of Baltimore's professional baseball and football teams.

The Orioles are in something of a tailspin these days, thanks to a pitching staff that can't even get health insurance anymore. They are on their way to their 11th straight losing season, and their fans get more cynical by the day.

The Ravens are an aging team coming off one of the worst seasons in the franchise's short history. But they fill their stadium every week and they've got fans right now who are dreaming of the playoffs after a season-opening victory over a Cincinnati Bengals team that might not be able to cover a three-point spread against Middle Tennessee State.

All this proves, of course, is that perception is everything. The solid debut by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was enough to mask a world of reservations about the long-term viability of this team. He's a bright new face and the Ravens are 1-0 and anything seems possible, until you look behind the curtain and see that the Ravens have done relatively little - beyond drafting Flacco and running back Ray Rice - to dress this team for success beyond this season.

In fact, you could make the case - and I know this is going to seem like heresy - that the Orioles are a lot farther along in their rebuilding effort than the Ravens.

I realize that sounds borderline insane, but the reason that it seems counterintuitive is because of the dramatically different structures of each sport.

NFL teams are able to turn around faster than major league baseball teams because they reside in a forced system of economic parity and are able to draft new talent directly onto their roster, which makes it much easier to climb back up the standings after a dismal season. It takes longer in baseball because of the economic disparity between the small- and large-market teams and the greater length of time it takes to develop drafted players.

So, it might look like the Orioles are on a slow train to oblivion because this first wave of young pitchers has failed to deliver on its promise, but - in relative terms - the Orioles have done much more to build for the future than the Ravens.

Orioles president Andy MacPhail made a couple of hard choices last winter, trading away two established stars for a small busload of new talent. It might appear that the team still has too many veteran players under contract that won't be around for the culmination of the rebuilding project, but there clearly is a long-range plan to replace them.

Catcher Matt Wieters, their top draft pick in 2007, was just named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year and could be in the major league starting lineup next season. Pitcher Brian Matusz, this year's top pick, was considered the best college pitcher in the draft and might be only a year or two away from the major league rotation. The Orioles already have two of the top young outfielders in the game - Nick Markakis and Adam Jones - and several well-regarded pitching prospects who they hope will be ready (and healthy enough) to compete for jobs in 2009 and 2010.

Meanwhile, it's impolite to use the "R" word around the NFL. The ticket prices are too high, for one thing, to tell your fans that you're going to stink for a year or two while you retool the starting offensive and defensive lineups. Losing teams focus on the incremental improvement available in the draft and wait for the salary cap to undercut the teams blocking their road to the playoffs.

The Ravens, however, were forced by Steve McNair's unexpected retirement and Willis McGahee's uncertain status to focus on the offensive skill positions in this year's draft when this was a more logical year to concentrate on backloading their aging defense. Ray Lewis, Trevor Pryce and the current group of veteran cornerbacks played very well last week against the Bengals and look like they still headline one of the NFL's premier defensive units, but just about everyone acknowledges that it is a defense without a particularly long shelf life.

The long list of training camp injuries was just another indication that this Ravens team isn't getting much younger, except behind center - and it's still way too early to legitimately anoint Flacco as a superstar of the future.

Don't misunderstand. The Ravens did what they had to do to be competitive this year, and Ozzie Newsome made some smooth moves, but they remain in a developmental holding pattern in many areas while the Orioles - believe it or not - have made substantial progress broadening their foundation of young talent. It might sound crazy, to paraphrase the immortal Mr. T, but it's true.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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