O's Early Spark Puts 'The Plan' In New Light

April 15, 2009|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Orioles have opened the 2009 season with a shower of base hits that has drenched some of the skepticism that followed the team out of spring training and - any minute now - figures to spawn a new conversation about the franchise's organizational priorities.

It's very early, of course, but the offensive production at the top of the Orioles' lineup is legit. Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are versatile and talented players who would fit very well on a contending team. Aubrey Huff is a real run-producer who won the Silver Slugger Award at designated hitter last year. The O's entered Tuesday night's game against the Texas Rangers ranked fifth in the major leagues in runs and figure to be a top-10 team in that department all season.

The pitching staff, meanwhile, also ranked fifth in runs, giving up two more (45) than the offense had scored (43) during the first seven games of the new season.

What does this tell you?

It tells you the Orioles were fortunate to win five of their first seven games this year, and it tells you they cannot hope to replicate those results for very long unless the pitching improves. Monday night's 10-9 victory over the Rangers was fun to watch and heart-stopping at the end, but it also was the type of game that bad teams play a lot of and generally end up losing more often than they win.

So, what's a conservative president of baseball operations to do? Does Andy MacPhail use Alfredo Simon's sore elbow as a convenient rationale for calling up 2008 Orioles Minor League Pitcher of the Year Brad Bergesen? Does the team rush to further shore up the rotation by accelerating another valuable pitching prospect if Adam Eaton blows up against the Red Sox? Or does MacPhail stick with the original blueprint, which did not anticipate the Orioles being particularly competitive until at least next year?

There's little doubt what the fans would like to see. They're eager for the new era of Orioles baseball to begin, so they are clamoring for the promotion of some of the promising young pitchers who have been making waves in the Orioles' improved player development system. And, to some degree, they might actually get their wish over the next month or two.

Everybody knows the rebuilding effort has not been focused on the 2009 season, but MacPhail has always qualified his projections with the caveat that future decisions will depend on "conditions on the ground." In a telephone interview from Texas on Tuesday, he rejected the notion that the Orioles are locked so strictly into "the plan" that he would not move up a minor league player who is ready to help at the major league level.

"I'm not slavishly devoted to some plan, because things are always evolving," he said. "I don't believe in some regimented timetable if a guy is cutting through his level like a knife through butter."

Does that mean Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are on the way? Not exactly. MacPhail isn't going to rush his top prospects into the major leagues to sustain an early burst of competitiveness. But he's not going to rule out the incremental improvement of the pitching staff from within the organization over the course of the season. That new era is going to start this year, but the infusion of young talent isn't going to arrive in a busload.

"It comes down to several factors," he said. "First, do the coaches and staff feel a guy is ready? Two, what is the level of need at the major league level? And do you get in a circumstance where you feel you are competitive enough that it would make a difference?"

In other words, it's not just a matter of whether a prospect would be able to make a contribution. It's also a matter of whether that contribution is worth the risks inherent in rushing the player. The Orioles aren't likely to call up, say, Arrieta if the front office feels that will turn a 65-win team into a 70-win team, but might if it would turn a 79-win team into an 85-win team.

MacPhail saw what you saw at Camden Yards last week. Fans are hungry for a competitive team, and they responded with real enthusiasm to the season-opening success against two of the best teams in baseball. Obviously, the Orioles are not going to win every series against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox, but they clearly are entering an offensive renaissance and more help will be on the way in a month or two when they call up top position prospect Matt Wieters. It's probably fair to say the team can be as competitive as the pitching staff will allow.

Which leaves MacPhail to decide whether to reconsider the risk-reward equation with some of the young pitchers and balance it against the need to keep the customers satisfied.

"I'm pleased that the energy is renewed, and obviously we don't want to extinguish it," MacPhail said, "but we can't try to sustain it at the expense of the long-term goals."

Maybe that sounds like the same, old rhetoric about sticking to the plan, but there is some room to read between the lines. More change is coming. The only question is whether it will come soon enough for this to be anything more than a transitional year.

Listen to Peter Schmuck every weeknight at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM).

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