The wild final week of pre-waiver trading is over and the Orioles are clearly less-equipped to finish the 2009 season on an upswing than they were before closer George Sherrill headed off to Mannywood.
That doesn't mean they won't be better off down the line, but it raises all sorts of questions about the timetable for Andy MacPhail's rebuilding plan and just what the club might look like when it reports to its new spring training home in Sarasota, Fla., in February.
Like, for instance, are the Orioles really focused on being competitive in 2010 or will it be another transitional season?
Based on MacPhail's comments in several print and television interviews during the past few days, the answers to that two-headed question appear to be yes and yes.
The Sherrill deal brought back two Double-A prospects who still need to develop - third baseman Josh Bell and right-handed pitcher Steve Johnson - and created uncertainty in one of the few areas in which the Orioles have been pretty solid the past couple of years.
Talk about mixed signals. MacPhail made it clear earlier this year that the Orioles need to show recognizable improvement at the end of this season to create some momentum for 2010, which - though he didn't specifically articulate it this way - would show the fans and possible free-agent acquisitions that the franchise truly is turning a competitive corner.
He has not backed away from that, but he acknowledged after the Sherrill trade that he had added a little more "short-term pain" to the equation. What that actually means was left unsaid, but it obviously puts manager Dave Trembley in an even more uncomfortable situation as he plays out the final two months of the season with his future riding on the performance of this last-place team.
For the most part, Orioles fans have been on board with the middle stage of the rebuilding effort. That's the stage where the improved minor league depth begins to surface at the major league level, and it has generated real excitement and anticipation about the attractive young players who continue to arrive in Baltimore this season.
The news that broke Saturday that the club is considering promoting 2008 first-round draft choice Brian Matusz to fill the spot in the rotation left by injured starter Brad Bergesen is just another reason for fans to keep paying attention. But the Sherrill deal still has to be viewed as an indication that the transition period between the player development stage and the competitive stage is going to stretch further into 2010 than a lot of fans would like.
Everybody kind of knew that already, but when you're waiting through your 12th straight losing season and you start to see that faint light at the end of the dugout tunnel, it's actually harder to remain patient. Not easier. And when a Nolan Reimold and a Brad Bergesen pop, and top prospects Matt Wieters, Chris Tillman and - soon - Matusz show their faces in the major league starting lineup and starting rotation, well, a lot of people were kind of hoping the short-term pain was almost over.
So you can't expect everybody to be thrilled when MacPhail pokes his head out of the front office, trades Sherrill and hints at another year of rebuilding. Remember, this organization has been playing out its own version of Groundhog Day since 1998.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not dissing the deal. The Orioles were in a position where a veteran closer probably wasn't the most useful tool in the box, and they have been short on corner infield depth for a long time. Bell is a work in progress, but he's considered a legitimate major league power prospect. He's just not likely to be in the major league lineup in April. Steve Johnson is a nice addition, too, and not only because he's Dave's son.
MacPhail justified the trade on both of those counts in a MASN interview during Friday night's game. He also mentioned the importance of stockpiling prospects in case the right deal comes along for a key veteran, and he maintained that the Orioles are getting closer to being a real player in the free-agent market. But will that be this winter or next?
There's no question MacPhail has turned the team in a much better direction with the productive Bedard and Tejada trades and positive changes in virtually every corner of the organization. I think the vast majority of Orioles fans would agree with that, even as they squirm at the thought of going forward without a proven closer.
They don't doubt that Andy knows best, but they still want to know when.
Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at six on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.