Once again, Orioles fans are in the autumn of their discontent, and it's hard to make a case for anything short of despair as they watch their rebuilding team coming unglued at the end of another losing season.
This is the point when The Plan was supposed to bear a little fruit.
Not much, mind you, but enough to confirm that the O's finally are headed in the right direction and that better days just might be on the other side of the coming offseason.
Sorry, but the peaches look bruised and the tree doesn't look hearty enough to get through another cold winter. That appearance may be deceiving - and it probably is - but when you're selling hope, it certainly doesn't help to look this hopeless.
President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail continues to go doggedly about the business of rebuilding an organization that was in frightful condition when he took over in June 2007. He has restocked the player development system, put new focus on international scouting and created a new front office culture, all of which might pay big dividends in the years ahead.
If only that were a little more apparent as the Orioles come to the end of this transitional season.
In fact, the past few weeks have been so discouraging that fan confidence in The Plan appears to be at an all-time low, and why not?
Instead of the late-season upturn that was supposed to turn all eyes toward a new era of competitive Orioles baseball, the biggest question this September is whether the O's are going to lose 100 games for only the third time in franchise history.
MacPhail has been juggling expectation and reality from the moment he accepted the invitation from owner Peter Angelos to turn around this flailing franchise, but he knew at the start of this season that September would be a critical juncture in the rebuilding plan because it would establish the level of organizational credibility he would take into this pivotal offseason.
He was the one who talked early on about the importance of avoiding another late-season collapse, because of the effect it would have on fan confidence and his ability to upgrade the team in the free-agent market. But that message became mixed when he traded closer George Sherrill at midseason and Aubrey Huff in August, leaving the O's even more vulnerable to a massive September meltdown.
That appears to be taking place, and the club doesn't figure to get more competitive when MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley shut down top pitching prospects Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz in the next week or so. The remaining schedule is brutal, and the Orioles also must weather the loss of injured center fielder Adam Jones.
MacPhail hinted at the possibility of a new reality check in July when he explained the Sherrill deal as a little more "short-term pain," but he has not yet conceded that the transitional period might include another dismal season in 2010.
Though it certainly looks that way from here, it is not inevitable. The Orioles could be much more competitive next year if MacPhail can come up with a clutch run-producer to plug into the cleanup spot and a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 starting pitcher to anchor the young rotation, but that would require some world-class front office dexterity - considering that this winter's crop of free agents isn't exactly tailored to the particular needs of this team.
It's time for MacPhail to bolster his reputation as a master deal-maker and use some of his "inventory" to fill the gaping hole in the middle of the lineup. It's even tougher to acquire front-line pitching - though some big names have changed teams over the past couple of months - so the Orioles might have to gamble on one of the high-quality free agents with an injury history.
Of course, that runs counter to the personal philosophies of both MacPhail and Angelos, but the O's must have some money to play with at this point, and they have to make more progress this winter than they are making this September.
This might not be that magic moment when The Plan reaches the point where a couple of big purchases might boost the Orioles into strong contention in the American League East, but MacPhail needs to show this jaded fan base that he's playing more than a bluff hand.
Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.