6 Issues On Deck For The Orioles

After Mixed First Half, Second May Show Where O's Are

July 05, 2009|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Orioles have reached the mathematical halfway marker in this transitional 2009 season, and we've learned as much about ourselves as we have about this maddening team.

We've learned that we want to be patient but aren't really equipped for that after 11 straight losing seasons.

We've learned that Andy MacPhail is a stubborn individual, which we like a lot sometimes and sometimes we don't.

We've learned that Dave Trembley is a nice guy who's probably going to finish last again this year, and we want to both blame him and exonerate him at the same time.

In other words, we're all pretty conflicted right now, so it's probably a good time to take a dispassionate look at where the Orioles really are after the first 81 games of a season that is supposed to tell us a lot about where they are going.

Here's a review of what we know as the All-Star break approaches, and things we'll need to keep an eye on in the second half of the season:

The youth movement

Your patience, if you were one of the patient ones, looks like it is starting to pay off. Left fielder Nolan Reimold was just named American League Rookie of the Month for June, and his main competition was across the clubhouse. Reimold has emerged as one of the early favorites for Rookie of the Year, and pitcher Brad Bergesen is right there with him. Matt Wieters is coming along, though by some accounts he was already supposed to be Johnny Bench by now.

The best news, of course, is that this year's infusion of young talent appears to be just the tip of the player development iceberg. If all goes well, maybe the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will collide with it in a year or two and start to sink.

The big dogs

Though Adam Jones and Nick Markakis have struggled at the plate at times during the first half, Orioles fans have no reason to doubt that they will be star-quality players in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. The same goes for Brian Roberts, even if his low-key attitude on the field has some wondering whether he really wants to be here.

It is uncertain what will happen with Aubrey Huff or Melvin Mora, but we'll certainly have a better idea by the July 31 deadline for making trades without players having to pass through waivers.

The front office

MacPhail has been very consistent in his stewardship of the organization's improving talent, holding back some of the top young prospects in the face of a growing clamor to rush them onto the major league roster.

The much-criticized Felix Pie experiment did produce a potential marquee left fielder - it just wasn't Pie. The jury remains out on Rich Hill, but both former Chicago Cubs have served MacPhail's greater purpose, even if that purpose was not always clear to the fan base.

The manager

Trembley was brought in to instill a philosophy grounded on strong fundamentals during the organization's rebuilding process but has come under criticism during the first half for the club's seeming lack of focus, particularly on the bases. Still, it's hard to make the case that the club is underachieving when most of the experts had the Orioles winning fewer than 70 games this year and they entered Saturday night's game on a 73-win pace.

It's no secret that Trembley's future as manager depends heavily on how the Orioles play in the second half, though not necessarily on where they finish in the standings. MacPhail has said that the goal for this year is to end on an upswing instead of with another discouraging late-season collapse.

The owner

Peter Angelos has kept a low profile this year, but he did say during spring training that if the rebuilding effort bears enough fruit this season, his checkbook will be open for a pivotal free agent or trade that might help lead the Orioles into contention next year. Fans have a right to be skeptical about that, especially when you consider that MacPhail may be more conservative than Angelos when it comes to the payroll.

The fans

Surprisingly, the club's fan following has held steady so far, in spite of the nation's economic woes and the prospect of another sub-.500 season. The Orioles are on pace to sell 1.95 million tickets, almost exactly what they did last year. There has been a slight drop in average attendance, but the gross figures line up because the Orioles had only 78 home dates in 2008.

So, what are we to conclude from all this?

Nothing concrete. The rebuilding program appears to be slightly ahead of schedule, and overall fan confidence in MacPhail's long-range plan seems to be growing with the emergence of each new prospect. But those same fans have every right to be skeptical until they see organizational progress where it really counts - in that place broadcaster Joe Angel likes to call "the win column."

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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